An Interview with Vagabond Opera

Vagabond Opera is a band based out of Portland with a wonderful Steamy twist. They have a huge tour along the west coast planned for the spring of 2011 that is absolutely not to be missed. Unfamiliar with Vagabond Opera? You won’t be after tonight!

Can each of you introduce yourselves and tell me a bit about your musical background?

Eric: I grew up wandering the aisles of The Wooden Shoe Books and Records (an anarchist collective bookstore that my parents helped found) listening to every record I could get my hands on, then went on to formal training in piano and opera.
I studied and performed opera in Philadelphia, New York and Paris and founded the Jewish Theater Project in New Mexico with Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, where I helped produce Neshama, a Jewish arts festival. I was the musical director for the show, writing several short musical pieces, one of the plays, and one full-length composition as well. Prior to that, in the summer of 2000, I toured Canada where he, along with Mark Chavez and Shenoah Allen, performed Sabotage, a comedic tour-de-force that our trio wrote, to audiences in Albuquerque, New York City, Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and Edmonton, garnering major critical acclaim. I composed and performed the music for Sabotage.
In the last several years I studied the Arabic and Turkish repertoire receiving instruction from Souhail Kaspar (as well as performing onstage with the master percussionist) Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Elias and George Lammam and Souren Baronian which in turn led me to co-create The Flying Bokhara Orlestrah and to found Hazz Hazz Hulu.

Skip: I’m the cellist and recently occasional mandolinist with Vagabond Opera. I’ve been with the band since 2003, and am a trained classical cellist as well as having spent the last 24 years becoming one of the foremost improvisational cellists in jazz, rock, and multiple forms of music. I’ve recorded with hundreds of individuals and groups, notably, Pink Martini, MWard, The Portland Cello Project, and numerous others. I studied formally with the principal cellists of the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York Philharmonic and attended The University of the Arts as well as Michigan State and Portland State Universities. I continue to be an on call sub with The Oregon Symphony and Portland Opera since 2001, though my schedule seldom allows that these days.

Mark: I’m Vagabond Opera’s drummer. I grew up in Portland, Oregon playing drums, violin and piano in elementary and high school. After high school I attend U of Oregon for a semester then went on to Berklee College of Music in Boston. There I studied a lot of jazz and began my professional career playing in jazz/improvising groups, cover bands, theaters, African and Brazilian bands, etc. After several years there I moved to New York City where I lived for two years. There I pretty much focused exclusively on improvised music. After that stint I returned to Portland and eventually met Eric in the early years of VO.

Ashia : I’m Vagabond Opera’s Soprano Warbler, Cello 2, and Anti-Diva . My first experiences with music were falling asleep to ABBA and Vivaldi as a baby and being greatly entertained as my father did jumping jacks to Black Sabbath…. oh and he had a mustache.
It wasn’t long afterwards that I began tinkling keyboard keys, humming melodies, and going to cello lessons. It was the cello that I loved the most and I studied classical music and techniques. With the base of this training and adding some vocal studies, I began experimenting with song writing and composition with the cello. I brought these, along with a couple of concertos, to college and continued thus far. Within a few years, I was lifted away to a life with Cirque du Soleil and within this ample opportunity in the golden gilded cage I began to filter in theatrics as part of my songs

Xander: I don’t play music, really. Not within the band, on any note. What I do is supply a theatrical element to the group, as the music itself is very theatrical. A lot of it is rooted in Vaudeville or silent movies. Or Tom Waistian physical mechanics. Or playful mockery of burner/hippie culture. You know. Those types of things.

Eric Stern

How was the Vagabond Opera created?
Eric: I created Vagabond Opera in 2002. I was disillusioned with the classical opera world, and so I created a new context for opera: Performance on a more intimate scale incorporating not only opera but elements of Weimar Cabaret, Arabic and Balkan forms, and the original music that springs from the ensemble’s fertile creative work.

Ashia Grzesik

What influence does classical opera have on your composition and performance?
Eric: Opera to me is a storytelling form with the voice as the central component, mostly the trained voice. As this was my training it certainly influences the Vagabond Animal, especially when it comes to languages, and also using some of the “classical” forms in our composition. Spectacle is important too and our sense that this is a performance and that our job is to engage and not just stare at our shoes.

Ashia: Ah! The Western music adventure! My compositions definitely fall in the traditions of Western harmony and composition, which Opera is a part of (that is if you were mainly talking about Western Opera and not Chinese Opera… but maybe you were too?). Its not necessarily opera alone, in itself that inspires my compositions, but song forms and song compositional techniques in general. Text coloring, which is colorfully adding sounds and styles that support the text and text’s meaning is one of my favorite things to do. For instance, I wrote a song where the voice of the bird is accompanied by fluttering sounds in the cello and singing in a higher, warble like vocal tone. In performance- I love to add dramatic expression in my performances, especially in solo vocal songs. Without the cello in my arms, I have space to move about and theatrically add to songs. Building upon a story, such as adding burlesque, dancing, and playing with the audience brings another dimension on stage (such as, I hope, the Gewunderswerk of Wagner… so far we haven’t gotten the full picture of that, yet).

Mark Burdon

What does Steampunk mean to you as a band and individually?

Eric: It’s perfect for a band like us. Think about it: We are already reimagining an art form that had its high point in the Victorian Era, it is as if we are simultaneously living and re-creating one of that era’s preeminent art forms.  For me personally it is an appealing aesthetic. But I do think of it as living aesthetic and one that changes through time and that we can help create.  It’s an intelligent aesthetic too…my own inspiration with it comes from literature like H.G. Wells, the Golden Compass, etc.

Xander: Individually is interesting to me. I was really into it before I really knew it existed. I’ve always had a fascination with zeppelins, gears, steam power, trains, and that whole age of amazing innovation and booming industrial technology. I’ve also always had a lot for that style of dress. So when I found out there was an entire sub-culture dedicated to that, I thought “Huzzah!”

As far as Vagabond Opera is concerned, I always thought this type of music was what most Steampunk music was going to sound like – late 1800s, early 1900s jazz, gypsy and cabaret/vaudeville feeling hybrid with high energy interwoven with tear inducing beautiful operatic melodies and waltzes and all that. Which is pretty much Vagabond Opera. And then some. But when I started to listen to what was considered Steampunk music I got pretty dismayed that so much of it was electronic based. So a few bands really stood out, like Rosin Coven and newer music by Dionysos specifically their album La mécanique du cœur, and to a lesser extent Monsters in Love, and of course Vagabond Opera. I kind of feel like this band, like myself, accidently found this scene that seemed made for us to take our small part
in.

Ashia: We love the Victorian turn of the century aesthetic and feel our love for ‘oriental’ sounds (aka Balkan, Gypsy, Middle Eastern) are shared with the adventurous composers of the Romantic Industrial times. I find much of the clockwork and gear inspired costumery whimsical and have grown a great affection to it. The clocks rarely, if ever, actually click and tock in time, and the gears never move. Its as though Steampunk is a place where time has stopped and yet another dream like state perpetuates and evolves in a space of explorers, zeppelins, genies, and lovely corseted concubines.

Skip: The idea of old made new, of taking the past to the future. I feel that my approach to the cello fit very nicely into the ascetic of moving my pre-industrial age instrument into the 21st century.

Mark: To me it is an aesthetic. I love design and engineering and still marvel at the beauty of the machines of the early industrial revolution. The designers and metal workers of that era were really phenomenal artists. Many of steam punk artists whose work I’ve seen are exceptionally talented. Though it wasn’t intentional, I’m thrilled to be in a band that somehow fits into a movement that incorporates some of these elements that I love.

Skip Vonkuske

What is the Steampunk scene like in Portland?
Ashia: Some of it is centered around live shows, like much of night life is in Portland. Our own shows are quite the collection and representation of dapper gentlemen and trussed ladies. There are also organized events that are often somehow themed appropriately with costume and dress, such as balls and croquet at the cemetery, as well as a festival in July.

Xander: It’s pretty small so far. It’s growing, a new store just opened up in town which advertises Steampunk wares (though I haven’t gone yet). There are also a few venues which I think pretty well decked out for the scene, as accidental as they also may be (like the Boiler Room, the Secret Society or the Industrial Café and Saloon). There are several Steampunk groups in town, too, which have monthly meetings or more.

Eric: I seldom leave my house as my Time Machine is in my study.

Xander Gerrymander

Steampunk art is often expressed through a maker ethic. How DIY is the Vagabond Opera?
Eric: Very. I may be the band leader but we are an ensemble and we compose together, meet, live, love, eat together. Most of the design ideas come from us or fans who I consider to be in our Vagabond family.

Skip: I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a more DIY band. When it began, I didn’t have a clue how to describe it to people. I’d never been exposed to so many different types of music in one band. I’d never heard a band like it. It was probably the first band I’d ever played in without a guitarist, and with accordion as the primary chord instrument, it forced me to become a secondary chord player. Besides occasional written parts, most of our songs were presented in the form of chord charts, and it was always up to the individual instrumentalist to create their parts from that. As we’ve grown together musically, the various composers of the band have begun writing more specific parts for tailored to the individual players and their instruments.

Mark: Very. What we “DO” of course is create and perform music. Our process tends to focus on what we like and feel is best. It’s that continuous series of tweaks and revisions as well as a strong work ethic that has really contributed to what I feel is magical experience for us and hopefully our fans. That’s really what art is about to me.

Ashia: I love working on my own costumes. I’ve made my own head pieces and coordinate my outfits with clothing I’ve adorned myself and clothing hand made by friends in the community. I believe in supporting, fostering, and creating relationships with those who have a greater talent at the stitch than I do and so does the band!

Xander: Most of the mechanics of the band are in house. Mark is the money man. He’s our accountant and taxman and one of the band managers. He also makes beautiful woodwork. Robin does amazing amounts of booking and PR for the band, in addition to being the other manager, and he’s our saxophonist, song-writer and singer. I also do some of the PR, organization of the street team, online social networking and presence and a lot of the merch work, especially on tour. Eric is our artistic director and frontman of the group. Ashia does almost all of her own costume work, makes hair pieces, modifies her clothes and the like. Most of the other band members clothing have been created by our friends. Jason also makes electric pick-ups for jazz guitars and sells them online. And I think most of us make our own food. I know I make my own bed. And sometimes I make out.

Are there any upcoming performances in the near future?
Xander: We have a huge upcoming spring tour in 2011, starting in late March and going through most of April. It’ll be across Washington, Oregon, California and one show in Nevada too. We’re hoping to hit up parts of Canada, the Mid-West and the east coast later in the year, with a huge hopeful to the South for the first time. I hope it’s in the summer.

What is your favorite tale of Vagabond misadventure?
Xander: Two that strike out are in Manhattan last summer; it was the very end of the tour. Jason had gotten lost in the New York City subways, left his phone in the van, and we were needing to get back to Philly for our flight early the next day. So we were on the streets finishing up one of our two bottles of wine outside the venue. But when we got to bottle two, the venue told us they had already locked up their corkscrew (???) and couldn’t get it out for us. So we were sad. And with a full bottle of wine that we couldn’t open. So then this Frenchman who was hanging out with us told us not to worry. He grabbed the bottle of wine, took his shoe off, put the base of the bottle into his shoe and started slamming the shoe, holding the toe of it and the neck of the bottle, against the side of a concrete wall. Most of us stood back, but he said don’t worry, this is how we youths open bottles of wine in France when we don’t have a corkscrew. After about a minute, the crazy guy did it. The pressure build-up and force slowly wedged the cork out of the bottle and he managed to pull it out. So we all got to keep drinking on the streets of Manhattan at 1am until our bass player finally managed to emerge from the depths of the subway system. That video is on our YouTube site now, too:

I once had a girl in Washington DC at the Palace of Wonders (an awesome divey cabaret bar) ask if she could buy a discounted CD (as she only had $10 or something) if she took a small hammer and hammered a knitting needle up her nose. It was kind of amazing. She was a total showman and got really dramatic about it and got it all the way up there. Its people like that who make me happy to be on the road.

Ashia: Probably making out with a really sweet, curly mustachiod man in the back of the van and finding myself waking up next to him two years later. Oops.

Mark: The lines between adventure and misadventure are so blurry that I need to think about that! Of course that blur could be from the scotch I’m drinking…

Anything else you’d like to add?

Xander: Being in a band is kind of crazy. I always had this mythical image in my head that I’d be able to see towns and visit neat things. But it’s mostly just driving around looking at things you want to go see and then being inside a venue for 6 hours and then packing up and going somewhere else. We were in Philadelphia and the only thing I wanted to do (aside from consuming as many cheese steaks as possible) was the touch Independence Hall to absorb all the essences from the founding fathers into my finger tips (with the belief that if I absorbed enough Benjamin Franklin, I’d be able to shoot lighting out of the fingertips if I had a key or something). But the best we got was a drive-by.

The best thing, though, is that we get to meet all kinds of amazing people, sample the finer foods and beers of the greater United States (and world) and do shows with a wide array of fantastic performers. Sometimes we get to even stay in hotel rooms. But that’s kind of boring. I prefer to stay with random people to get a peek into their lives.

Mark: I want to meet some metal artists who can show me how to make some of the cool stuff I see people wearing and selling at shows!

Skip: Vagabond Opera is a band of varied individuals who care for one another and each of us do our best in our own way to support each other’s creative endeavors. I see a similar closeness of
creative support in the Portland community of artists and musicians, be it the steam punks, circus types, indie rockers, and jazz artists. It’s vibrant and grass roots all around. Lovely time to be alive in addition to Vagabond, I have a busy solo career and invite you to check out these sites:
skipvonkuske.com, groovywallpaper.net, portlandcelloproject.com, willwestmusic.com, and youtube.com/cellotronik

Ashia: LLLAAAAAA!!!!!

To learn more about Vagabond Opera, please visit their website and join their mailing list.  Make sure to check their upcoming tour schedule as well to see when they’ll be in your part of the country!

5 comments on “An Interview with Vagabond Opera

  1. Larry says:

    Great interview! Very cool band.

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