Brooklyn-based band The Lisps definitely bring a unique element to New York’s indie rock scene. Quirky performances and eclectic sounds, influenced by folk and bluegrass, lend playful charm to lyrics-driven songs that are cerebral and wistful by turns. Their first full-length album, Country Doctor Museum, was released in 2008, following a debut EP titled The Vain, the Modest and the Dead. And, as far as we know, they’re the first indie rock band to write and produce an original, steampunk musical fusing science fiction, experimental music, and the Civil War.
FUTURITY follows the wartime experience of aspiring science fiction writer and lowly Union solider Julian Munro. While surrounded by destruction, Julian strikes up a correspondence with real-life metaphysician Ada Lovelace, history’s first female computer programmer. Together, the idealistic pair imagine a utopian future defined by an omnipotent machine that will end war once and for all.
Sammy Tunis and César Alvarez of The Lisps play the roles of Ada Lovelace and Julian Munro, backed by Lisps’ drummer Eric Farber. The play was written by Alvarez, and staged with the help of theatrical collaborators, as well as financial contributions from their fans, raised via Kickstarter.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve exchanged several e-mails with The Lisps. In the interview that follows, we touch on topics such as self-help songs, The Difference Engine, string theory, and, of course, The Singularity.
Desirina Boskovich: Broad question: what was the genesis for FUTURITY? What inspired your interest in Civil War history? Can you talk about the writing process for the musical?
César Alvarez: The idea for a concept album about a civil war soldier who was a science fiction writer literally just popped into my head while I was driving through Virginia in the fall of 2007. I held onto the idea for a while and then started working on it for my master’s thesis performance at Bard the following spring. The idea quickly turned into a musical. …[As] I started writing in this completely new form, I had no idea what I was doing. The early drafts of FUTURITY are bizarre lists and haiku-like texts. It has come a long way. The writing process has really been defined by the productions. If you count my thesis presentation at Bard, we’ve performed FUTURITY with four different casts in five different places. Each time we put the piece up the show is transformed, songs are added, characters developed, major plot points are changed, etc.
DB: When you first began working on the project, did you conceive it as a “steampunk” piece, or is that a term that came along as the project evolved?
CA: Definitely not. It is an aesthetic that we’ve used to our advantage but we didn’t want to define ourselves that way because it seemed limiting. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel The Difference Engine is something I read during my research period which was hugely influential, and I’m pretty sure it was that book that introduced me to the historical figure of Ada Lovelace. Also, Julian’s world is very rustic and messy, not the brass-encrusted fantasy of steampunk. So in Julian’s fantasy world, we like that his machine is made from rusty and dilapidated parts because that’s what his experience is.
DB: What were your aesthetic influences for the set design?
CA: The wonderful artist, and my soon-to-be wife, Emily Orling, did the set design. She is a visual artist and not a set designer and so she brought an atypical approach, I think. Her concept for the design was to use found and re-purposed objects as the raw material for the world. So there was very little in the way of set pieces, and scenery. Everything was a real object folded into an imaginary context. A lot of the drum set/Steam Brain was built by Eric Farber, our drummer. Pretty much everything that he used as percussion was something he found on E-Bay or in junk stores and then mounted to be part of his instrument. … Part of what we were doing was to create a science-fictional work out of things that a civil war soldier might see around him… Ada’s world was made from those kinds of materials, and even the natural landscape started to become mechanized and industrialized, but in an 1860’s sort of way. We also relish some choice anachronisms, and in no aspect of FUTURITY are we overly pious about any time period or historical narrative.
DB: One thing I loved about FUTURITY was the sensitive and sophisticated portrayal of Ada Lovelace, especially since the role of the female inventor is often overlooked in history and under-explored in science fiction. What inspired your interest in Lovelace, and how did you research her character?
CA: I first heard about Ada in The Difference Engine, and I was at the time really searching for how Sammy’s character was going to fit into the piece. Since this was supposed to be a musical for our band I needed both Sammy and I to have pivotal characters. Ada became the perfect link into the history of computing and such a great mentor/idol/muse for Julian. Their worlds couldn’t be more different and their relationship was so improbable that it was exciting territory. In earlier versions, Ada was imagined totally by Julian, but we found that her role had much more power if we made her real and invested in Julian.
DB: César, in a letter to your fans about FUTURITY, you wrote: “I like to think of music as a form of Utopianism. For me, Music is science fiction.” Could you expand upon that?
CA: I like to think about string theory, wherein the entirety of the universe is made up of infinitesimal vibrating strings. Music is the perfect metaphor for the way the universe is built. Musicians create physical organization through pure vibration. Music is also one of the earliest forms of organization. Someone banging a rock in rhythm is a very early form of civilization. Music is the “civilization” of air through the organizing properties of rhythm and harmonics. So I hold music to be one of the most important ways that humanity envisions alternative forms of organization, which, in essence, is also what science fiction does.
DB: Regarding the themes of FUTURITY, you also wrote that “a feverish drive towards innovation is what keeps us alive and what can aid in our self-destruction.” Is this what fuels your interest in The Singularity? (Follow the link to read the lyrics and hear the song.)
CA: I’m so interested in technological singularity because it seems very relevant. Future shock used to be something shared among generations. At this point, every few years you need to adjust your technological tools and mindset to understand what is happening around you. I think the discussion about tech singularity helps me understand what technology means in the context of society and it gives a frame of reference. I don’t really subscribe to any Kurzweilian orthodoxy but I do think that the discussion is really fruitful.
DB: You describe your band as “the public/performative version of all the relationships you’re struggling with.” Besides the angst and rewards of 21st-century relationships, what other themes do you explore in your songs?
Sammy Tunis: Lately the themes of our songs haves touched less on personal relationships and more on science, space, time, The Singularity, and mathematics. The songs in the musical obviously follow somewhat of a narrative having to do with the relationship between scientific innovation and imagination, technological hubris and war, artificial intelligence, fantasy, etc, but there are also some pure love songs in there, too, and a lot of folk ballads. The songs on our forthcoming album really run the gamut as far as themes. …There are a few songs I like to obnoxiously call Self-Help songs: “you should do this and that”, a song called “Try” about trying new things, and a song called “Psychological Health.” Cesar’s about to get married, so a lot of the songs were written when he was falling in love with and living with his girlfriend and fall more in the domestic/love realm…
DB: SF-themed music boasts a venerable tradition, from David Bowie and Sonic Youth to the Flaming Lips and Deltron 3030, etc, etc. What are your favorite “sci-fi songs,” other than your own, obviously?
CA: My favorite sci-fi song is “Two-Slit Experiment” by Jess Segal. I was also hugely influenced by The Flaming Lips album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, though you might not hear it in my music. I grew up almost exclusively listening to jazz and then came really late (in college) to most rock/pop music. I’ve probably read more sci-fi than listened to it.
DB: Besides The Difference Engine, what science fiction books and stories have been influential for you? Or maybe just fun to read?
CA: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was really important for FUTURITY, because it dealt with so many of the same issues and was in a pre-computer time frame. Other books I love: Neuromancer, Parable of the Talents, The Forever War, Accelerando, 2001, The Final Question. Also, I have to give credit to Betty A. Toole, who was the first to transcribe Ada’s correspondence in her book The Enchantress of Numbers. Though that is all science fact, we relied heavily on her research for FUTURITY.
The Lisps are currently working on the next incarnation of FUTURITY, along with a FUTURITY concept album for full production in 2011, and their third album, tentatively titled Are We at the Movies? is slated for release this fall. Meanwhile, Alvarez is working on his next musical: M-Brane: A Splendid Dimension, a story about string theory and two untrained astronauts on a four-year space journey.
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