It’s a warm summer’s day at the San Diego Zoo. People stroll, perhaps not as gracefully as the pink flamingos that greet visitors at the entrance, but not much faster than them either. To the north of the entrance is an ensemble offering a musical extravaganza with a real kink-in-time theme. A quartet plays 1950s surf music, while a front man in the garb and matching accent of a nineteenth century upperclass British explorer/academic – picture a mix of Phileas Fogg, Doctor Doolittle, and David Livingston – conducts a children’s hula-hoop contest.
After the hulas and a few “elementary, Dear Watsons,” a dancer takes to the Joan Embry’s Front Street Stage and wows the crowd with his dance mash up called Dancing Through the Decades, which features everything from the Chicken Dance to “I Like Big Butts and I Cannot Lie.”
Next to the Joan Embry stage is the steampunk mime and music troupe that has been making quite a splash in southern California and the rest of the country: Steam Powered Giraffe. For those of you who have been living in Paraguay or otherwise been out of the loop for the last 25 years, steampunk is a genre of art, dress, and expression that combines Victorian and nineteenth century industrialism with elements of science fiction, futurism, and mid-twentieth century noir.
Dressed in all black with red accents and extraordinary makeup, Steam Powered Giraffe portray themselves as robots. As they sing and play their guitars and mandolins, the effect is what you might expect had CP30 become a circus clown. With a hint of the original disco backbeat that drove the Bee Gees’ hit of the seventies, the trio of performers kicks off their first musical set of the afternoon with the song “Tragedy,” their silky smooth harmonies softening the driving sound of the Bee Gees’ original take on the tune. The trio of robots (or bots as they are sometimes called) is backed by a drummer and a multi-instrumentalist who jumps from keyboards to guitar to banjo.
The most animated of the trio is Rabbit, whose black top hat is accented by a set of steampunk goggles. Performed by Christopher (Bunny) Bennett, Rabbit’s arms swing about mechanically. He also tosses out topical one-liners.
Playing the bass and the guitar is the Spine, the alter ego of David Michael Bennett (and identical twin brother of Bunny Bennett). A baritone, the Spine speaks as though he has just won the Wink Martindale award for sounding most like a 1950s disk jockey. Although Rabbit exhibits a more mechanical nature, the Spine looks more like a robot. His face is silvered and seems like he could be a cousin to the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. He sports a sharp black fedora, as well as a black vest and red tie.
Decked out in black top hat and red suspenders the Jon (please, no bathroom jokes here) completes the trio of human bots. He plays guitar and mandolin and is performed by Jonathan Michael Sprague
The band has made frequent appearances in and around San Diego, performing at Queen Bee’s, the Del Mar Fair, Legoland, the Temecula Music Festival, and the Oceanside Music Festival. They have also appeared at steampunk-themed events, such as the World Steam Expo in Dearborn, Michigan and Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium, which is held in Long Beach.
The genesis of the troupe goes back to a theatre mime class at Grossmont College taught by Jerry Hagar, who had performed mime at Seaport Village for over 25 years as the character Kazoo. Hagar was known for eschewing the standard repertoire of mime – leaning on the imaginary mantelpiece, walking into the wind, and the ever famous (or infamous) being caught in the continually shrinking box – and encouraging his students to do the same.
Chris Bennett remembers, “I just happened to see his [Hagar’s] very last show. I’d been taking theatre classes and I got really involved in mime through this class. I got my brother to take the class as well. All of us, David, Jon, and I, took the class several times. I took the class four times!”
The steampunk theme of the ensemble developed gradually. “It started with my character and the goggles,” says Chris. “We just went with it and it just sort of evolved. We also draw on a lot of popular culture, everything from art deco to other popular arts. But we also make sure there is a consistency in what we do, too.”
In early 2008 the band tested the waters and honed their act buskering in Balboa Park. From the start they performed in costume. “Back then things were pretty raw,” says Chris. “We didn’t have a budget for the costumes back then, and if you see some old photographs of us at that time, it shows.” Though the Steam Powered Giraffe’s roots are in theatre and mime, the young performers don’t want their theatrics to overshadow their music. “We spend thousands of hours on our music and working out the harmonies. We want the music to be able to stand on its own,” says Chris.
As the self-created legend of Steam Powered Giraffe has it, all three bots were created in the apotheosis of the Victorian era and the Belle Epoch, 1896, by the scientist Peter A. Walter as exhibits for a scientific convention. All the stories feature outlandish tales of the development of their power sources, engineering, reengineering, and a few of their adventures through the twentieth century.
Christopher is the artist of the troupe. Taking to art at an early age, among his first artistic endeavors were making comic books. Much of his current artwork reflects the steampunk theme of the band, as well as other influences, such as Edward Gory and Salvador Dali. Along with his brother, he caught the drama bug in high school. Sprague has had the acting bug for most of his life as well. He is a veteran of an improv group and plays guitar, bass, mandolin, piano, cello, kalimba, and mouth harp. David is the computer savvy member of the band, having studied and worked in IT.
Rounding out the sound for the band are two musicians who do not perform mime or in costume. Playing keyboards, banjo, bass, and just about anything else is Michael Reed, who comes from a family of musicians. His mother had been performing music from the age of 14, and his father was a concert accordionist. Reed has been playing piano since the age of eight. He met Sprague in high school, and it was Sprague who encouraged Reed to take up the guitar.
Reed has set about learning just about any instrument he could lay his hands on, from ukulele and harmonica to mandolin and percussion, which has earned him the nickname among the ranks of Steam Powered Giraffe as the One Man Band. Before joining Steam Powered Giraffe he toured with a rock band and has shared the stage with Willie Nelson and the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
Reed says, “For us, our performances are the best opportunity to be positive and let go of negativity. For example, one of the songs that I sing is called ‘Make Believe’ and is all about letting go of society’s norms and freeing yourself up to sharing love.” Reed notes that they have an audience of all ages, but children see them as some sort of superheroes. “They’re the ones who we hope can get our message.”
The band needs that positivity as well. For the second year they are performing the summer schedule at the zoo, a grueling 73 days straight without a break. Reed says of the schedule, “We just enjoy ourselves. We all try to loosen up for the shows and try to relax. For myself, I also work at changing things around to try something new every day.”
Sam Luke plays the drums for the band. A multi-instrumentalist, he shares with other members of the band an interest in theatre and art. The member of the band that you’re unlikely to see but is nonetheless essential to the production is Steve Negrette, the band’s sound engineer. While majoring in theatre at UCSD he signed up to tune the sound board for a stage production of The Labyrinth of Desire, which prompted him to take more and more sound production classes. He has worked at the La Jolla Playhouse and is currently the sound shop foreman for UCSD’S theatre and dance department.
After their summer performances at the zoo (through August 25/performance times at 4:40pm, 5:40pm, 6:40pm, 7:40pm) wind up, Steam Powered Giraffe will start a tour of the western United States, with performances in Dallas, Tucson, and Colorado.