At first glance with all the top hats and bustles, steampunk seems more like a refined tribute to Victoriana congeniality, but at AnachroCon, a three-day alternate history convention Feb. 24-26 at the Holiday Inn Select Perimeter, don’t expect to see everyone waltzing. A diverse musical genre has grown up that’s every bit as imaginative and DIY as the books and costumes. And perhaps no band puts the “punk” into steampunk sound than an in-your-face feisty little duo named Frenchy and the Punk who take the stage at 10 p.m. Sat. night.
Samantha Stephenson (Frenchy) and Scott Helland (the Punk) started their musical collaboration as the Gypsy Nomads in 2005, but she being French-born and he having played guitar in several punk bands, the nickname stuck. As for their musical style, one could call it eclectic stirring up and twisting around elements of cabaret, gypsy, Celtic and steampunk. The resultant unique sound has won them fans across the US and Europe, and like gypsy performers of old, they are constantly on the road, touring and performing at some of the biggest steampunk and faerie gatherings, including DragonCon, Steamcon, The Steampunk World’s Fair, Wicked Faire, Sirius Rising, Faerieworlds and FaerieCon.
While driving their van down I-75 towards Atlanta, Samantha was kind enough to answer a few questions about what attendees can expect from their act and in general at AnachroCon. Which means, of course, that this interview was composed literally in motion.
How did you and Scott first team up as a duo?
Yes! We met in 1998 while we were both living in NYC. We started collaborating in 2000 when Scott was doing solo shows. He had left the band he was in back in 1996 and had launched a solo project switching from bass guitar to acoustic guitar. I had been heavily involved in the performance arts since childhood and was focused more on painting and sculpture when we met. I was using his music for art installations, and he used one of my paintings for a CD cover. From 2000 through 2004, I was booking his 70+ shows a year and promoting his music on the radio and other media. From my own previous performance background as a dancer and singer, in 2005, I joined him onstage to play percussion on some of his instrumentals and it all snowballed from there. We released several CDs, one entirely in French and another a mix of French, English and instrumentals, then in 2010 we released HAPPY MADNESS.
You’ve been compared to Siouxsie Sioux and your music could be said to have a punk energy about it that might be surprising to folks who think old-world and gypsy means polka retreads. Is that why you’re Frenchy and the Punk?
We started under the name The Gypsy Nomads but we were also dubbed Frenchy and the Punk early on. We thought about switching the name for a few years as it seemed more fitting and finally committed to it last year. I was born in France and come from French and British parentage. French was my first language although I started school in England. The song “Yes, I’m French” on the HAPPY MADNESS CD is a comical song of my coming to America. I get compared to Siouxsie a lot as I have a similar vocal style; ironically she is also of French and English parents and there is even a slight physical resemblance. Scott started playing in bands when he was 13 years old. He was the bass player of Deep Wound, the seminal Western Massachusetts hardcore punk band that he co-founded with Lou Barlow. The band also included J Mascis. Lou and J later formed Dinosaur Jr. Scott continued in the punk scene with the Outpatients. So his moniker of “the punk” comes from his musical beginnings.
Our music and performance style are high energy so we do get the gypsy punk label quite a bit, but there are so many different influences in our sound. The name really is a reflection of who we are as opposed to a music style. We do what we do, how people define us really boils down to their own interpretation based on their own frame of reference. The pervading consensus seems to be that we are spirited and fun, sonic anti-depressant! We are a visceral, theatrical band, we love to perform and we especially love to inspire people to move.
We’ve always played the music that came naturally to us. Our sound is very eclectic with elements of cabaret, vaudeville, punk, rock, world, french chanson and folk. We also have a segment of our show that is all-drum instrumentals which can be described as a cross between Taiko and Blue Man Group. Scott has played drums since he was a kid, and I was obsessed with the drumming and percussive sound of the samba school when I lived in Brazil for a short time as a child. We did not actively seek out the steampunk scene but rather we were embraced by it. Having lived in Europe as a kid and studied the visual arts – sculpture and painting – I was very drawn to the creative aesthetic and maker’s spirit of the movement. The people that populate the scene are crossovers from other scenes we were already a part of so it was a very organic process. I am the lyricist of the group, and my personal history happens to blend well with the steampunk spirit. We also play faerie festivals which have strong roots in European folklore. Scott’s blending of old world melodies with the more modern live looping technique gels well with the steampunk idea of bringing the old and new together. The guitar looping also gives us a very full rich sound making it hard to believe there are only two people on stage.
Do you have anything special planned for your AnachroCon performance?
We will be sneaking in some of our brand new songs this weekend so we’re very excited about that, and you never know, there are lots of bands playing so there are likely to be some spur of the moment collaborations.
Other than your performance, what are you personally most excited about at AnachroCon?
These events are like reunions, we look forward to seeing the Atlanta crew again. We haven’t seen them since we played DragonCon last fall. Whether it be a convention or a festival, it is always fun to reunite with people that we may not have seen in quite a while. We do this musical life full-time, year round and we travel all over the U.S., as well as Europe, playing shows. The performers and attendees are equally nomadic so you never know who will show up. We’ve played shows with almost everyone on the bill before so it’ll be great to share the stage with them all again. It’s quite the cast of characters!
What about a steampunk convention is most likely to surprise someone who is new to the subculture and has never attended one before?
If someone hasn’t been to a convention like this before they will probably be surprised at the costuming as it can be quite elaborate and make you feel like you are in a different time period. That should not deter anyone from going though, even if they don’t have the steampunk costume, they should check it out. There will be lots of really cool vendors who have great accessories that they can throw on for some last minute steampunk flair! Also, I have heard mentioned from attendees that they are amazed at the wide age range at these events and also the sheer high spirited mood and vibe that seems to pervade. And of course, there’ll be tons of awesome live music, DJ’ing and other performances.
What’s next for Frenchy and the Punk?
We are working on a 2 CD release set for this spring thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign last Fall. We have lots of conventions and festivals coming up in April and May, as well as a European tour in June. All of our dates are on our tour page of [our] website. And we post our goings-on on our Facebook page regularly. Overall, we continue to build the world of Frenchy and the Punk with our music and art. And to your readers, don’t forget that there is nothing quite like seeing live music! There are lots of independent bands out there like us who drive all over tarnation to bring their sounds to you. By attending the shows you not only have an unforgettable experience you also keep independent music alive, and we thank you!
For the full scoop on the rest of what’s going on at AnachroCon, be sure to check out our Ultimate Guide here.