It’s been nearly four and a half years since I last managed to interview Professor Elemental. He’d been working the character for just over five years at that point and was already a firm favourite thanks to his ground breaking album The Indifference Engine. After headlining Whitby Steampunk Weekend at the first event in February 2017, he returned for the third event in February 2018 which coincides with his ten year anniversary tour.
I managed to sneak him away to a couch in the foyer of the Pavillion for a few minutes to fire some questions at him. First though I wanted to know what it was like to be back in Whitby after headlining the first event.
“Aww, Whitby, honestly… I’m just delighted to be back here. First of all, it’s just the fact that it’s so very eccentric and strange in its own right and that it takes me nine hours to get here. So when I get here I’m just so happy to be off the train. And also, particularly with this event, I was chatting to the promoter and he really puts the effort into making sure that it not only promotes steampunk, but that all the money goes back into the community. And that is a really lovely thing, so..”
A nine hour train journey will arguably be a drop in the ocean compared to the sheer volume of mileage he’ll be covering for his tenth anniversary tour. The prof must have seen some things through those years. As a relative newbie (Only been on the scene for just over four and a half years), I wanted to know how he felt now that ten years had passed.
*laughs* “Ten long… So many years…”
SJ: “Arduous years”
“It just feels like so many more years than ten. It feels as though it’s been about fifty years.”
SJ: “Fifty wonderful years…”
*laughing* Fifty WONDERFUL years, that’s what I meant.
SJ: “It’s like a Golden Wedding anniversary.”
“I’m just filled with gratitude that I’m somehow able to still make a living and that the people still want to hear me shout about tea and trousers in my own silly way, I’m just delighted about that.”
So we know why the Professor feels as though he’s a time traveller; because for every year we experience, he experiences five. But I wanted to know how he felt that the UK steampunk scene had changed over the last
half century ten years.
“Hmmm, good question… In some ways I’m quite happy that it hasn’t changed. I talked about it on stage before, but the fact that it hasn’t gone mainstream or become really fashionable I think is a wonderful thing. Because it’s maintained it’s integrity. New events pop up and other events fall by the wayside, but generally it still attracts the nicest people and particularly people on the fringes who you wouldn’t normally put together in a normal situation. I think that’s lovely, so in a funny way it hasn’t really changed and that is the best thing about it; it’s still full of lovely people.”
The interview was conducted after the end of the night event where Prof had headlined. It was late, people were tired – Prof had himself only arrived in Whitby a few hours earlier. Which is a clear indication of the passion and energy he holds for his job. I realised that a question that tested his brain would be a tricky one, but I had to ask what he thought his favourite moment in the last ten years had been.
“It’s not the best time to test my brain! *laughs* Well, there’s lots actually, there’s lots and I won’t ramble on about them.. I think the first time I did a show in America and feeling that this might not be a hobby anymore. That it might be something I can do for a living.”
And to anybody reading as well, if you do any kind of weird hobby or you make strange music or jewellery or whatever – and I’m testament to that, because my act is ridiculous – if I can make a living out of this, you can definitely make a living out of whatever it is you do, so just stick with it. That’s the key.”
Given the Professor’s tendency to be extremely generous with his fans, I was curious to find out if he has anything else planned to commemorate his ten year anniversary. Maybe a special edition album?
“Yeah I’m going to try and remaster the Indifference Engine. I think that will be a nice thing to do because we knocked that out as a little… I remember Moog (Gravett) who directs all my music videos, he said “You should do a whole album” and at the time I was like “A whole album? Come on, I’m not a one trick pony. That’s never going to work, the people would get very bored of that. What people want to hear is me doing middle class battle raps in my normal voice.” Which was wrong. So I’m definitely going to do a remastered album. And I’ve also got a new album called the School of Whimsy coming out and that’s all Tom Caruana (the chap responsible for the Professor’s vintage melodies) and I’m very excited about that.”
A remastered album and one with completely new material? That sounds interesting.
“I was going to call it the Academy of Whimsy, but people like Toby Young run academies and I don’t want to be associated with Tory bastards, so I thought I’d turn it into a school – a state school.”
On the subject of middle classes, I was interested to know why the professor constructs his music the way he does. Mr B uses a lot of vintage rap music. Parodying NWAs Straight Outta Compton for his track about Cricket “Straight Out Of Surrey”, for example. But Prof doesn’t.
“No, he’s kind of old school. I’m in the future!” *laughs*
But a lot of other rappers do the same thing. They sample older tracks and use them as a base for their track.
“Yeah and that’s a part of hip hop. It’s always been about sampling stuff that’s come before.”
The Professor tends to sample early 20th century music which certainly gives a more nostalgic feel to his records.
“Absolutely and the nice thing about working with Tom Caruana is that he doesn’t choose the most obvious samples – whether it’s from hip hop or vintage stuff. I go round his house when he makes the beats and he’s got lots of old children’s records and Public Information films and things like that. That’s what makes it original and it makes it easy for me to be original because all the music is coming from him. Just so the readers know, none of the brilliant music that I make is by me *laughs*. It’s all by a guy called Tom Caruana and I just shout over his songs. So please check his website teasearecords.net. He puts out loads of music on there to listen to.”
To give an example of how Tom Caruana comes up with the samples for the tracks they work on together, the Prof explained about the backing track for popular diss song Fighting Trousers. I was always under the impression that it was a unique melody for the record.
“No, that’s actually from Raymond Scott. It’s called Twilight in Turkey and then Tom took it and slowed it down. I’ve always been a bit worried about using other people’s samples. Raymond Scott was this amazing producer from years back. His estate got in touch and said “We realise you’ve used our song. Just don’t make too much money and we’re cool with it,” and I thought that was very nice.”
The Professor has many successful albums, but it was arguably Apequest that defined him as the musical genius we regard him as. Despite featuring on the website genius.com for Fighting Trousers. Every track connects to the previous one in a large story arc that actually began in a previous album. Did Geoffrey really disappear at the end of album four? How long had Apequest been in development? How long before it came out from the initial idea? The Professor is frustratingly ambiguous.
“Yeah, it was like two years later” *laughs*
Thankfully he then elaborated.
“Yeah, that was the main theme, but because I wanted to get lots of other people involved like getting some of my hip hop friends involved and some steampunks, that took a long while to tie in all of those pieces. Because that’s what steampunk is all about; the collaboration.”
And after Apequest was released and it was all over, do albums with a set story arc work better?
“I think it’s like a midlife crisis, isn’t it? “I shall now make a concept album!” That’s what happens when you’ve done too much stuff! But yeah the next thing I do in the future is another concept and because I’m a big comics nerd, I want to do a big superhero theme thing that eventually ends up like some kind of enormous Grant Morrison or Jack Kirby cosmic explosion. And then I’ll die and I’ll never do anything else ever again” *laughs*.
Once I’ve done that, that’s the end.”
You can also visit his website for lots of lovely information and to buy albums and merchandise and such like.