Mixing slick synthpop reminiscent of Soft Cell at its darkest, swirling violins and Dickensian wardrobes, Unextraordinary Gentlemen are the new wave of neo-Victorian pop. The LA based trio– featuring Malcom Schreek (BloodPenny), Professor Richard Mangrove (ex-Sex with Lurch), and J. Frances Pomerantz (Demonika and the Darklings)– formed on a lark a few short years ago and have since become the go-to band for goth and steampunk-friendly events. In the past year, they've played Gothla and Bats Day Dark Park Festival locally as well as San Francisco's Edwardian Ball and North Carolina's Eccentrik Festival in addition to regular club gigs. This Sunday night, the band will play as part of An Evening of Steampunkery at Echo Curio. Presented by Red Velvet and Sepiachord, the event will feature performances from “Queen of Quirk” Veronique Chevalier, composer/accordionist Seth Bedford, ukulele-heavy folk group Eli August and performance artist April Hava Shenkman.
Monday night, we met up with Schreek and Mangrove at karaoke hot spot Ground Control for a little pre-show conversation.
West Coast Sound: How much did The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen influence what you do?
Professor Richard Mangrove: I guess it influenced us a lot, actually. It wasn't the main focus, like, “Hey, this is a great comic, we're going to make a band out of it.” I guess, the main influence of the comic was directly on me because it got me into Victorian literature and that kind of sowed the seeds that put me in that direction. At the time, when I was thinking of forming a band with him, that's when it gelled together. To be exact, though, the graphic novel, not the movie.
Malcom Schreek: When it started, it was going to be more eclectic, actually more of what I see the steampunk style being as far as our look, because it was going to be more based on Terry Gilliam movies, more of a Terry Gilliam aesthetic, specifically Time Bandits and things like that. It was going to be more rag-tag time travelers, taking elements from past and future, clanking it together and seeing what happens. Then we switched and went with more of a neo-Victorian theme, so some of that stuff went out the window. The description of our music when we talk about it is “1880s meets 1980s.” That's the aesthetic. It's all the synths from the '80s, simple music and mental landscapes, but it's also the hustle and bustle of the industrial revolution.
PRM: Time Bandits actually influenced us more in the beginning than League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I don't want to sabotage this, but we didn't want to be a really good band. We just wanted to be a, pardon my expression, fuck-around band where we play in these weird places and goof off and stuff. It kind of got more serious and the whole Time Bandits thing went out the window, especially since some other band had the name anyway.
MS: Which is why we chose Unextraordinary Gentlemen because it did not roll off the tongue at all. It kept that element that Time Bandits was going to have, making people spell out the entire name when they go to the website.
PRM: It was a bad joke to have this mouthful of a name that's really hard to search. It almost shoots itself in the foot, but we thought it would be really funny in a Monty Python kind of way to have this elaborate name and there's no way to shorten it. We kind of do because we use the monogram to shorten it.
Unextraordinary Gentlemen “Mr. Soot's Black Book” live @ Good Hurt. Video by Penance.
Are you Monty Python fans?
PRM: Yeah, I am, a lot. I'm assuming he is.
MS: The word fan to me implies that you can quote the movies by heart and I know plenty of people who can do that, but I can't. I certainly watched a lot when I was a kid and I still watch it to this day. I enjoy it, but to say that I'm a fan, I feel that people would come up to me and say “Hey!” and start doing sketches and I'm going to be like “Yeah, that was a funny one.”
PRM: I've seen the movies a lot more than I've seen the TV series.
MS: A lot of predominantly British comedy and fantasy and stuff [are influential]. From my point of view, I'm thinking Dr. Who and Red Dwarf, even if that doesn't affect the band too much. It's funny because, in the genre we've found ourselves in a lot, we tend to be considered really dark and the subject matter tends to be, but we don't think of ourselves that way. We still think of ourselves as jokesters, dressing up and having fun.
PRM: A lot of our influences are from England. Looking at it, there are hardly any Americans in there. It's like multi-media inspiration, movies, TVs, books, obviously. We're not just inspired by music itself.
MS: I think it was intended to be multi-media, not in that there are a lot of things going on at the same time, although that would be nice too if we could ever afford that, but just different things. I'm working on fictions that are totally separate from the band, but are based on songs from the band. Some of our songs lend itself really well to musical theater, so I'd like to write little plays. The more that we meet people, the easier it becomes. I'm not that crafty myself.
When you started, were there bands that were catering to a sort of neo-Victorian taste?
PRM: I can only speak in hindsight because at the time I didn't know about it. Now, it's kind of all over the place. We kind of got sucked into the vortex, not that we're trying to separate ourselves from it. It happened at the same time. There's a band called Vernian Process that was going on a couple of years before us, but I didn't know of them at all. Then, another band, like Abney Park, they've been around for a long time, I knew about them back in their “goth” days, but they gradually became the band that they are now. It wasn't a scene, as far as I know.
MS: I heard of Dr. Steel before, but at the time I didn't know that he was an actual performer. I thought he was an internet sensation, a big persona, mockumentary kind of thing. That was part of whatever it's considered now. I like that about steampunk. I hope that it doesn't corner itself too much and stays open to different kinds of bands and different kinds of looks. I hope it doesn't turn into a “you must be this high for this ride” kind of thing.
PRM: Steampunk seems more based on costumes and making things. We have costumes, but we don't really make it. We do the same thing over again in terms of what we look like.
MS: Well, there are people who aren't do-it-yourself too, but, especially the online presence seems to be do-it-yourself, which is great. I wish I could.
PRM: It's not a scene that's built on music, like punk or goth or industrial. It surrounds crafters, so it's not always accepting of “steampunk bands” because for the ones who listen to music, they pick whatever they want. It's not like they glom onto “steampunk bands.”