Local costumed band Steam Powered Giraffe just released a somewhat astonishing record that could prove to be their breakthrough. If it's not their Sgt. Pepper, it's at least their Rubber Soul. At the moment, their pop culture reach is so great that they were just mentioned in the new, rebooted Animaniacs, season 1, episode 3, with Pinky pondering what would a Steam Powered Giraffe would eat.
The group was created by identical twins David Michael Bennett (who plays The Spine) and Isabella “Bunny” Bennett (as Rabbit). Bunny, like her character, has over the course of the band's career transitioned from male to female.
“We’re a musical pantomime troupe,” says Bunny. “Most know us as ‘those singing robots.’ We're trained in movement, music, and visual design. It's a meshing of different art forms and from what we've been told, we've created something familiar yet new. It's family-friendly, but children aren't our primary audience. We're a clean act, and our demographic is huge. We're safe enough for your baby or Grandma, but cool enough for your teenager or parents. Four part harmonies and robot popping and locking may seem like a terrible idea, but that's probably why it works so well.”
The group released a debut album in 2009. Other releases include a live album in 2011 and the 2 Cent Show in 2012, as well as several concert CDs and videos. The sound is a blend of electronic, pop, disco, and musical comedy, with songs such as “I’ll Rust with You,” “Wired Wrong,” “Ghost Grinder,” and “Roller Skate King.”
Popular covers include Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up," Rihanna's "Diamonds," and Icona Pop's "I Love It." Their mostly acoustic 2014 version of Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" marks the debut of Rabbit's female incarnation.
The other robots have been played by Erin Burke (aka Upgrade), Jon Sprague (aka The Jon), and Sam Luke (Hatchworth, who started as a human drummer before replacing The Jon). Various non-robots have accompanied them over the years, including Matt Smith (drummer), with Steve Negrete serving as Sound Designer and Michael Philip Reed as Musical Director.
“Every performance is pretty fun,” says Bunny. “The audiences are always having a good time, even if there's some technical mishaps. That's just the nature of the show. Hopefully the audience doesn't see any of the problems we may encounter behind-the-scenes working with venues or tech. However, I will say our best shows are definitely in San Diego. We have our own high-end sound gear, projection work, lighting effects, stuff that we can't always get when we travel out of state. Those elements really make for a memorable experience. And we work with some really sharp local talent.”
The band has performed at large events such as San Diego's Comic-Con International, the San Diego County Fair in Del Mar, the San Diego Zoo, the Wild Animal Park, and Legoland California. Around 2012, live performances began to include two more players, the white skinned and blue-haired Walter Girls, who went from manning the merch table to becoming the robots' caretakers on stage.
Their MK III album was released in 2013. "It took maybe a year into working on this album before we even came up with a name," said Bunny at the time. "We were throwing around some awful suggestions, but our bassist Sam threw out MK III and it stuck. It works great because it references a progressive build of technology, which fits perfectly in a band of singing robots. This was also Sam's first album with us as our new robot Hatchworth, so we wanted him to be front and center on the cover. He also has this sort of glowing chest plate which made for a good place to put our name and album title bursting out of."
"Sound-wise, Sam brings a very modern feel to the new album. Which is great because we're trying to explore different areas of our music. I think our signature is the four part harmonies and timeless tunes- and when that is applied to maybe more modern flavored melodies the result is pretty ear-catching."
In 2014, they produced the soundtrack to the SteamWorld Heist videogame, as well as appearing in the game scenario itself. In 2016, they released an official single for the videogame Battleborn. The band has also published a web comic and a card game based on characters from their fictional history.
There was also a SPG comic book. Says Bunny, “Sam [aka Hatchworth] actually storyboards it all out from our script, and I come in and do the line work. We have another hired colorist to do her thing, and we even use a custom made font for dialog. It's a bit Frankensteined together.”
“I like the idea that Steam Powered Giraffe is much more than a band...there’s all these little alcoves you can explore. Lore, characters, stories — however far the audience is willing to go.”
The Vice Quadrant: A Space Opera, released in 2015, is a 2-disc space opera concept album containing 28 tracks. It was the first full SPG album recorded strictly as a trio.
2017 saw the siblings joined by a new third robot, Bryan Barbarin (the Routine) and his character Zero, with whom both had been in a college improv troupe. That trio had performed in college theater productions, and did a touring children’s show under the direction of Jerry Hager (Kazoo the Mime of Seaport Village fame). Barbarin joined the Bennetts, alongside white skinned and blue-haired Walter Girls ballet dancers/Walter Workers Chelsea and Camille Penyak.
Their 10th Anniversary Concert on January 27, 2018 featured every member from the band's history, including all five former members: robots The Jon, Upgrade and Hatchworth, and humans Michael Philip Reed and Matthew Smith. It was later released as a live concert film on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital video.
In early 2020, it was announced that Michael Philip Reed , who'd been with the group off and on, had left the band due to reports of inappropriate behavior with fans. Reed was also edited out of the group's newest music videos, with public explanations and apologies from the band posted online with the revised versions.
"This is in response to issues brought to the band about Mike from victims, Mike hasn't been in the band since the end of February 2020," said the group in a statement. "The band only found out about Mike's behavior on Tuesday June 30th after some people contacted band members privately directly through social media and the band's email. The evidence is far from unfounded. It's all damning and there is no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The evidence is overwhelming and there was no way we could turn a blind eye to what these people came forward with, nor would we ever had we known sooner...the band was led to believe by Mike that he was just 'a nice guy with no ill intent' anytime we called him out on being overly friendly with fans, and how that could be taken by people. Little did we know that was just surface level behavior, and it ran deeper than that...we do not have a statement from Mike, he has denied everything when we contacted him early last week. The private evidence we have is as clear as day for us."
Their concert technical director Steve Negrete left the band around the same time, releasing a statement that said in part "The fact of the matter is that I have hooked up with fans during past Steam Powered Giraffe shows. As a result of my actions, I have left emotional scars in my wake...I am making the decision to resign from my position of employment with the band. I will not be working with Steam Powered Giraffe again."
Regarding the YouTube re-edits, the band's statement said "We are not going to invite arguments over the severity of the actions of either member cut from this video. They both crossed a line in their own ways that the band would never condone now or in the past. The band agreed that re-editing these newer music video was something we wanted to do."
The band's just-released sixth studio album is 1896, its title referencing the supposed year of their characters’ robotic creation by Colonel P. A. Walter I. The first single “Hot On the Trail” came with a theatrical mimed video on YouTube, while “Bad Days on the Horizon” is an unexpectedly sincere cowboy crooner ("The Spine" often breaks into cowpoke mode). The single “Olly & the Equinox Band” features a Saturday morning cartoon-style alter-ego version of the group.
Steam Powered Giraffe: Hot on the Trail (acoustic)
A jaw-dropping video was produced for their acoustic rendition of “Hot On the Trail.” Already one of the strongest gospel-tinged tunes they've ever recorded, the acoustic arrangement showcases David Michael Bennett's vocal chops right from the plaintive opening line, commanding attention and demanding an instant replay as soon as the final note fades, it's that good. I'm not even sure THEY know just how good it is - it's the kind of evergreen that could both make and define this band, possibly introducing and endearing them to the same supportive audience that favors likeminded theatrical rockers such as Gogol Bordello, Lana Del Rey, Queen, and Evanescence.
There's essentially a whole separate album of acoustic 1896 arrangements, all of them individualized so the strength of the songwriting paired with the shimmering vocal harmonies isn't so much unplugging as it is upgrading. Crosby, Stills, and Nash would change the oil in Neil Young's pickup truck for a year to sparkle this brightly at the mic again.
Steam Powered Giraffe basically started out as performance artists who almost accidentally evolved into a real band ala Oingo Boingo, the Monkees, and Spinal Tap. As unlikely as that transformation has been, they're currently at their songwriting and performing peak. With few public concert options open, they've been posting their elaborate new videos online, as well as sharing footage of themselves rehearsing with no costumes or makeup.
Seeing the robots truly "unplugged" makes it even more clear that the trio really is ready for prime time. It may even be time to go Kiss Unmasked, and maybe put out an album and some video sans the robot gear. Some people will never be able to take a band seriously that insists on melding their act with an old episode of the Shields and Yarnell variety show.
It's not like their already established fan base (which is huge enough to earn their videos millions of views) would drop them if they put away the robotics. Change is part and parcel of SPG fandom - Bunny/Rabbit shared her gender transition from Chris to Isabella online with fans, and with anyone else who might be interested, through every step of the process. If their fans can roll with changes like that, they're not gonna bail over a costume change.
Steam Powered Giraffe is simply too good a band to keep hiding behind masks that could dissuade people from taking the time to discover what lies beneath.
After all, they could always adopt another makeup maneuver from the Kiss playbook, and wait to don the costumes again when the demand is great enough for a big full-costume "reunion" tour.