What Really Grinds my Gears: An Interview with a Steampunk

Steampunk! Commonly known as what happens in the dark alternative community when goths discover brown.

...Or is it?

Today I am talking to Emmerson, a friend of mine who has identified as Steampunk for many years and wouldn't declare himself goth even if you paid him his weight in brass clockwork parts and old-timey train sets.

Such a man! I'd follow him to the end of the Earth I would!


To make it easier to read, my parts will be in normal type, Emmerson's parts will be in bold.

Bold because brass balls... because steampunk. Brass. Steampunk. Get it?


Hello Emmerson, how are you today?

Hahaha I'm going great, thank you.  I lost it when you said "when Goths discover brown", but you're somewhat right.  I don't identify as a Goth, but I do attend Goth events, I know a lot of Goths, and I do enjoy the scene, which is very different to the Steampunk scene.  And how are you, Joe?

Hey Joe... Where you goin' with that pun in your hand?
(Yes, Aytakk is Joe IRL)


I sink into the deepest despair at the thought that so many go ignorant in the ways of the Steampunk. And that's why we're here.

As you can tell by my intro there are people who think they know all there is about Steampunk based on surface observations. Personally my experience with Steampunk involves some anime (Steamboy and Howl's Moving Castle come to mind), the movie Wild Wild West, seeing photos of people dressed up, and events like the annual Adelaide Steampunk Ball/LARP thingy. Plus there's cool stuff like that computer decked out in steampunk aesthetics including old-timey typewriter keyboard stuff. But I could also be wrong.

Akin to "Explain Like I'm Five" on reddit, for the benefit of those of us who have little to no idea about it, what is Steampunk?

Contrary to the popular belief that Steampunk is whatever you want it to be and you shouldn't let anyone tell you what is or isn't Steampunk, the genre can be boiled down to 4 words: Victorian era science fiction.  That's all it is, the word "steam" relates to the Victorian era and the industrial revolution where steam power was at its peak. 

Science fiction authors of the era such as Jules Verne, author of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days, and H. G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, War of The Worlds, and The Invisible Man, provided a lot of the themes and aesthetics for Steampunk.  Examples include sea beasts from 20,000 Leagues, the concept of time travel from Time Machine, etc. 

Contemporary Steampunk author G. D. Falksen penned a brilliant article on what he believes to be the 6 rules of Steampunk, the link can be found at the end of this question.  The rule that stands out for me the most is the second rule: when in doubt, dress Victorian and then add. In my opinion, the self-professed "Steampunks" who buy a 70’s brown suit from an op shop and glue brass cogs on a $2 top hat aren't even close to dressing in Victorian style and therefore, are not real Steampunks. 

I have no problem with the n00bs who are eager to learn so they can better themselves, but the ones who discredit someone who tells them what is or isn't Steampunk are complete posers who know next to nothing about the culture.  Having said that, fashion from the Edwardian era, which was after the Victorian era, can be accepted as Steampunk in my books.  Just for reference, Titanic and Downton Abbey are both set in the Edwardian era. 

6 Rules of Steampunk

Goth seems to have that same "Goth is whatever you want it to be" problem. A thing Goth and Steampunk seem to share as well as the Victorian attire.

You mentioned before how Steampunk and goth scenes are different. How are they different? Would you consider Steampunk big enough to be considered a subculture in its own right? Or is it smaller scale individual lifestyle over groups?

I suppose every internationally recognized scene differs depending on where they are in the world, I know that Goth events in Europe can attract tens of thousands of people whereas in Adelaide, South Australia, a Goth event would average between 30 to 60 people, maybe more.  The Goth scene in my experience is split between kindergoths hanging out at the mall and the 18+ scenes at a handful of venues whenever a Goth night is on.

The Steampunk scene has a very large age demographic and draws a much bigger crowd than the Goth scene.  All of the Steampunks at the events I’ve attended are either middle aged married couples with children, geeky young adults, professional costumers, or Victorian Goths who can't wait until the next Goth event to wear their clothes out in public.  One of the biggest differences I've noticed in both scenes besides the aesthetics is that Goth events tend to start around 9 o'clock at night and go until the bar kicks everyone out at 3 or 5 in the morning, Steampunk events either happen during the day such as the Time Traveller's picnic and the Railway Museum's Steampunk convention, or run from 6pm to 11pm like the Steampunk Pirate Charity Ball.

Like Cinderella, it seems Steampunk falls apart at midnight


How do you think outsiders see Steampunk? Why do you think they get so much wrong?

Why do I think they get so much wrong? Because some people think sticking brass cogs made purely for aesthetic purposes bought from Spotlight on things makes something "Steampunk".  Don't get me wrong, I like gears and cogs and clock work, I really do and I think they are appropriate for Steampunk, but here's the thing: if they don't look like they have a legitimate use then they shouldn't be there.  Let's just take cogs on a top hat as an example, gluing cog shaped things around the band or on the front is not Steampunk and it looks stupid, but if you attach the working guts of a clock to a top hat (assuming the hat wasn't bought for a dollar or two) and make it look like the gears have a reason to be there other than to look pretty, you're doing it right. 

The main reason why outsiders have the wrong idea about Steampunk is because a lot of "Steampunks" also have the wrong idea.

We all know how well the mainstream treats alternative stuff. We've seen Wild Wild West. Funny enough I actually like that movie. How has the mainstream corrupted Steampunk?

Sometimes the mainstream gets it right with alternative stuff.  In the case of films with a Steampunk theme, I thought Wild Wild West was very good.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was another film I really liked despite a lot of people hating the storyline, it's a great example of Steampunk film (based on the comic of the same name) because it combines characters from science and gothic fiction from the Victorian era. 

There are heaps of great examples of Steampunk stuff that the mainstream has put out, but there are also a lot more horrendous examples as well.  At the top of my "shitty Steampunk from the mainstream" list is the music video for Justin Bieber's cover of "Santa Claus is coming to Town".  The machinery in that video is beautiful, but most of the costume pieces are inaccurate and the hip hop dancing is absolutely blasphemous to the Steampunk culture. 


Exhibit A: Bieber taking a big steamy shit on Steampunk


As you hinted before, the mainstream can be hit or miss when it comes to alternative stuff and Steampunk is no exception.  I think the mainstream tends to go with whatever is popular at the time and ends up accidentally ruining it.  Steampunk was very popular from 2010 to 2012 and look what Justin Bieber did to it. 

Some fashion labels have introduced a Steampunk inspired line to their range, one of the few good ones I have seen is the Prada Menswear collection for the autumn and winter of 2012.  That line was modelled by Gary Oldman, Garrett Hedlund, Jamie Bell, and Willem Dafoe, the photos look absolutely spectacular.  I would have bought a few pieces from that line if I had the money.

Captains of industry if ever I saw any


Just look at the way Fifty Shades of Grey bastardized the Fetish and BDSM culture, now every middle aged house wife going through a mid-life crisis can be a self-professed dominatrix who doesn't even know that the body needs to be warmed up before any high contact work can happen.  As well as the local Goth scene and Steampunk scene, I'm also involved in the local Fetish scene and, since Fifty Shades came out I have seen a massive shift in the Fetish scene.



I can only imagine how much damage Fifty Shades of Grey has done. It was bad enough back then with people being uneducated about safe, sane and consensual. I used to be involved in the local fetish/BDSM scene years ago. My greatest experience has to be three hours in the cage at the Sleaze Ball in 2000 with up to three doms wailing on me at one point. Good times!

Many people seem to think anything Victorian has to be goth by default nowadays. Does goth really hold the patent on Victorian aesthetics like people think?

Not exactly, I can't give that question a straight forward answer, but it is definitely answerable.  In the context of History, the Goths were an Eastern Germanic tribe which was responsible for the downfall of the Western Roman Empire and the emergence of Medieval Europe.  In the context of architecture, Gothic architecture is a distinct style with soaring vertical lines, commonly recognized as being popular with Catholic churches and cathedrals.  Gothic architecture wasn't immediately embraced by the Catholics because they considered the style to be too barbaric so for a while, most Catholic churches outside of Germany were built in the Roman style.  In the context of literature, the word "Gothic" describes fictional works which use the themes of love (especially forbidden love), religion, and death among similar themes.  Gothic literature is also referred to as "Gothic horror". 

I can understand why a lot of people think anything Victorian is Gothic by default (not Goth) because Victorian England had a strong culture of mourning.  Not many children survived during that era, the average life expectancy at the time was 40, and following the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria spent the rest of her life in mourning, dressed entirely in black (how very Goth of her). 

I'd say something like "Sad Victoria is sad" but that might be seen as disrespectful. OH SHI....


I think you explained the difference quite well.

Kids like to say goth a lot nowadays. I hear them saying things like "Quit gothin' me, tur-key!" They got to sass it!

Another word that gets thrown around a lot is "gothic" (as you say above). Steampunk is said to have some gothic elements.  What is the difference between goth and gothic?

Goth is a culture closely linked to the Post Punk movement of the 80's while Gothic is heavily inspired by the Victorian era and Gothic literature.

Gothic and Steampunk are both Victorian (assuming you're talking about Victorian Gothic) but the difference is that Gothic tends to be darker and more romanticized, whereas Steampunk is often lighter, more playful, and adventurous.  Gothic has a focus on religion and the supernatural, while Steampunk focuses more on science and technology.

Always great to see someone who doesn't consider themselves goth who knows the subculture better than many who participate in it.

As you know, in the goth subculture, there is an element of tension between the supposed "elitists" (or purists) and the lowly "poseurs". Does Steampunk have an elite? How influential are they?

Thank you, I love attending Goth events and I use the term "Goth" in a broad sense because most of them should be referred to as "Dark Alternative" events instead.  As much as I love Goth artists like Joy Division and other bands regularly played at those events, I don't call myself a Goth because I know for a fact that I'm not one.  I was listening to Dead Can Dance's first album in the car today, which is the closest thing to Goth in their mostly ethnic discography.  They are probably my favourite band, I am deeply in love with their ethnic sound.

I don't know of any other Steampunk elitists in my town, all the ones I know of live in America or Europe, but there really should be more of them here and with a stronger influence.  I'm a bit of an elitist when it comes to Steampunk and I have unintentionally created tension in the past, especially when I confront people who say something completely ignorant like "don't let anyone tell you your outfit isn't Steampunk" to someone wearing sneakers, jeans, a 70's vest, white business shirt, aviator sunglasses, and a $2 top hat with cog-shaped embellishments.  I enjoy a healthy debate and I'm always a good sport regardless of whether I win or lose.  Debates shouldn't be about winning or losing, they should be about both parties educating each other, and God knows a lot of Steampunks could use a good hard educating.



Yeah... they don't like being told they aren't goth do they? I like the term Dark Alternative too as it’s broader. Though I won't deny that I used to use goth as an umbrella term when I didn't know any better. Mea culpa.

Debate is great. Anything worth believing in can stand up to scrutiny. Plus learning stuff is great, as I'm learning stuff here.

It is well known goths wear black to hide pee stains. What’s with Steampunk and all the brown? Is it to hide crapping yourself when your steampunk gadgets short out and force you to soil yourself?

It most certainly is! One time my bionic arm shorted out and a small explosion of sparks shot out of the brass shoulder pad.  Thank goodness I wore my brown pants that day because I literally and figuratively shat myself.

All jokes aside, the brown-washed aesthetic of Steampunk exists as a way of emulating the faded and stained sepia tones of the black and white photographs from the era.  Here's a bit of a newsflash for those who haven't already read G. D. Falksen's 6 rules of Steampunk in the link I posted earlier: there is no right or wrong Steampunk colour!  You don't have to look like a sepia photograph to be a Steampunk because any colour can be appropriately used in a Steampunk setting.  Some might argue against neon colours, but then again, Steampunk is set in a future imagined through Victorian lenses, a fantasy era of advanced technology and that includes the technology to make clothes, so textiles dyed in colours that would have been impossible to naturally produce in the Victorian era are more than appropriate, this includes complicated patterns only made possible with machines.

Is there a relationship between goth and steampunk? BFFs, kissing cousins, secret lovers, deadly rivals, passively glaring at each other across the room, strangers passing in the night, piss buddies at a Victorian urinal, something else?

Well, one of the biggest Gothic jewellery brands, Alchemy, also make Steampunk jewellery, so maybe.  Some works of Victorian fiction can be described as both Gothic and Steampunk, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, but that's Gothic and Steampunk, not Goth and Steampunk. 

As for Goth and Steampunk, I don't really see any relationship between the two cultures.  I don't see a relationship unless you count a relationship as me hanging out at a Goth club as the token Steampunk without any hostility from the Goths, because most of them love me anyway.  I hope that answers your question

Oh look - Victorian urinals! Woohoo!!!


Aha! So its piss buddies at the Goth club urinal. I stand corrected!

Apart from goth, what other aesthetics/subcultures do people confuse with Steampunk? Is Seapunk any relation? Captain Nemo-core? I'm kidding - I made Captain Nemo-core up. Though seapunk unfortunately does exist.

Dieselpunk gets confused with Steampunk A LOT!!!  Dieselpunk, for those who don't know, has the same basic concept as Steampunk, they are both genres of science fiction about alternate pasts instead of future predictions (that description was taken from Just Glue Some Gears on it and Call it Steampunk on YouTube) however, Steampunk refers to the industrial revolution in Victorian Britain where steam powered technology was at its peak, while Dieselpunk refers to the era after Victorian and Edwardian England: the era that spans the first and second world war, the age of diesel technology. 

As for Seapunk, which sounds similar to Steampunk, it's a cross between early techno/rave music and 90's RnB with a splash of various sea noises (punny description taken from How to Make Seapunk by Frank JavCee on YouTube).  Seapunk looks nothing like Steampunk: one is 1800's England fused with steam powered mechanics while the other is ocean and new age themed slow rave.

WTF is this Steampunk bullshit?!?


You must be psychic. Or you have a working Steampunk brainwave reader. How did you know I was going to ask you about that very video?

Your thoughts on this amusing satirical song. How close is it to the mark?

I had no idea you were going to ask me about it, but I'm glad you did.  I think it is spot on, Reginald Pikedevant raises a lot of good points about the culture, the main point being that a LOT of idiots think gluing cogs and gears on shit makes it Steampunk.  As he said in the video and as I have said before in this interview, gears are appropriate to introduce if they look like they have a legitimate use.  I also recommend the other songs he has written like the educational "Shibboleth" and the double entendre filled "Sir Reginald's Marvellous Organ".

Hehe he he hehehe. Organ.


Awww. There go my dreams of world domination through brass gadgetry controlling the minds of the masses.

Speaking of steampunk music... is Steampunk a genre as such? As far as I can tell it's bands of other genres who simply adopt some steampunk aesthetics and lyrical content. The only band I can think of that comes close is Abney Park and even then they are easily classified as Darkwave.

I'm going to say yes, but it's rare for 2 Steampunk bands to sound alike.  One of my friends who DJs at heaps of alternative events around Adelaide asked me to help him out with his DJ set at last year's Steampunk Pirate Charity Ball.  I gave him a lot of Steampunk music as well as music that isn't considered Steampunk, but music that I thought would be appropriate anyway.  The strictly Steampunk stuff I gave him included Reginald Pikedevant (who did "Just Glue Some Gears On It"), Spiky, Steam Powered Giraffe, and others.  Other non-Steampunk artists I gave him included the dark cabaret band The Dresden Dolls, Postmodern Jukebox which do vintage covers of contemporary pop songs that I think would suit a Dieselpunk night very well, the pirate metal band Alestorm, Emilie Autumn who fuses Rococo era music with industrial, and some classical ballroom pieces among other weird and wonderful music.  The musical highlight of the night for me was when he played Emilie Autumn's cover of Bohemian Rhapsody, it was beautiful seeing groups of drunk Steampunk pirates sing along to a version of Bohemian Rhapsody sung by an opera singer backed by a harpsichord and violins.

But Steampunks love Dresden Dolls!



Goth has so many youtubers who focus on shallow fashion aspects. What do Steampunk youtubers generally focus on? Is it the same?

I'll be honest, Reginald Pikedevant is the only Steampunk YouTuber I really follow and only 1 of his 6 videos focuses on the image of Steampunk.  I tend to read more articles on Steampunk and those articles tend to focus on the fashion.  I read a great one recently which was about things to look for and avoid when shopping for Steampunk clothes in an op shop.  I think it should be expected that Steampunk videos and articles have more of a focus on fashion because Steampunk has such a strong emphasis on its visual aesthetic.

Steampunk youtubers... Y U NO???


The tumultuous relationship between Steampunk and Etsy. Discuss...

Urgh, I was dreading an Etsy question.  Etsy does have some awesome stuff, but it's a breeding ground for people who "just glue some gears on it and call it Steampunk".  The base of a Steampunk outfit is Victorian fashion to which steam powered machinery and devices may be added, these things are most often DIY either constructed by, commissioned by, or made to be later purchased by a Steampunk.  Due to the DIY, crafty appeal of Steampunk, there is an abundance of craftspeople making and selling things on Etsy.  By searching "Steampunk" on Etsy, you can find things as amazing as gas tank backpacks with bionic arm pieces and things as eye-rolling and groan-inducing as brass key necklaces with cogs glued all over the key handle.

Pastel goth/hipster goth plagues tumblr. What plagues tumblr for Steampunk that gets it horribly wrong and/or misappropriates the name?

I'm really not sure because I don't have a tumblr account, but someone who says anything other than what I have described above is Steampunk is definitely misappropriating the name.  I just looked up "steampunk hipster" on Google images and this photo was the only thing that remotely fit what I was looking for, every other photo was either of Hipsters or Steampunks, this one was the only combination of the two. 

Hahaha he looks like Rick Astley!
Steam Hipster is never gonna give you up.


I actually really like the way his mustache and hair is styled, it's very appropriate for the era.  I can see him wearing a black Victorian suit with tails and a gold brocade vest.

Finally, is Steampunk plagued by vampire wannabees the same way goth often is?

Steampunk isn't "plagued" by them, but I am acquainted with someone who fits that description perfectly.  He is only a few years younger than me, I have never seen him without a vest, and he really thinks he is a vampire.  Just when you thought that was bad enough, he has a $2 top hat with plastic orange cogs glued on the front, he wears jeans and sneakers with his vests which isn't bad if you're NOT trying to be Steampunk, and he wears all of that stuff daily.  I'm a Steampunk elitist and I don't even wear my Victorian clothes or Steampunk stuff every day, I'd be lucky to count all the times I wear them in a year on more than one hand!  As for the other vampire wannabees in Steampunk, when I went to the Steampunk convention at the railway museum last year, some of my Victorian Gothic friends went and they looked very vampiric, but I wouldn't call them vampire wannabees at all.

Thank you for your time. It’s been very informative and a lot of fun.

Thank you very much for inviting me to do this interview, Joe, it has been an absolute pleasure.

Shut up, just shut up! I've heard that damn line a million times already!
This is why I'm known as Aytakk online...


Emmerson is also an artist. His Facebook page is here

-Aytakk has been active in the goth scene since the mid 90s both online and in real life. He firmly believes in the old line "if you don't get the joke, you are the joke". As well as this he produces music for a couple of music projects: Corpulence On The Catwalk (goth/darkwave/coldwave) and Hypnophile (aggrotech/power noise). He is also a club DJ and nemesis of DJ Jelly.



Aytakk has been active in the goth scene since the mid 90s both online and in real life. He firmly believes in the old line "if you don't get the joke, you are the joke". As well as this he produces music for a couple of music projects: Corpulence On The Catwalk (goth/darkwave/coldwave) and Hypnophile (aggrotech/power noise). He is also a club DJ and nemesis of DJ Jelly.