One of the few electronic bands to truly evolve through the years while inspiring a legion of new bands would have to be the brainchild of Tom Shear, Assemblage 23. Through the years his music has churned out emotional honesty that most steer clear from. But that just covers his own project, Tom has been an inspiration to many with his talents as a remixer, mixer, and producer.
I caught up with Tom while preparing for the release of his 7th full length album, ‘Bruise’, so sit back and relax and let me introduce (re-introduce) you to the man behind the machine Tom Shear
Rafi: One song of your’s that always stood out to me is “Disappoint”. From a lyrical stand point it struck a real personal nerve. What was your childhood like? How did making songs such as this help you deal with your past?
Tom Shear: “Disappoint” wasn’t so much about my childhood, it was about my father’s suicide, which happened when I was already an adult. But you are correct in that writing about it helped me work through the aftermath of his death in a way I might not have been able to. I’ve always found writing to be a very cathartic outlet.
Rafi: One aspect of your early days really stood out was your material was mainly instrumental. I have read that it derived from your lack of confidence in your singing capabilities. What helped you get past this? What song marked your first attempt at singing and what did you think the first time you heard the finished product?
Tom Shear: Quite simply, I started singing completely out of necessity. I grew up in rural New Hampshire, and needless to say, there wasn’t exactly an abundance of like-minded musicians in there. I think maybe 5 people in total in my high school even knew who Depeche Mode was. So, it came out of wanting to write full-fledged songs and not knowing anyone else into the same stuff who could sing. I actually don’t recall what the first song was I recorded vocals for. If I recall correctly, I experimented with some short song fragments here and there. That was a long time ago!
Rafi: Now I don’t usually trust sources such as Wikipedia, but I did find it interesting on there it was stated that Assemblage23 was born from you being influenced by a opening DJ when you saw Depeche Mode. What was it about the set that stood out to you? Do you still remember the set the DJ played?
Tom Shear: That is actually true. In 1988, I went to see Depeche Mode on their Music for the Masses tour. They were playing a lot of dark electronic stuff over the PA in between bands. At the time, I was very into synth-pop/80’s stuff as well as punk. So it was kind of a revelation for me to hear a style of music that combined aspects of both. I couldn’t tell you what songs were actually played given that I didn’t know any of the bands at that time, but I’m PRETTY sure there was some Front 242 and Chris and Cosey in there.
Rafi: You just recently shipped out the new album ‘Bruise’, how does this album stand out to you versus those from your past? As far as topics what subjects do you tackle with this album and what songs stick out to you the most?
Tom Shear: I’m really happy with how this album came out. It kind of wanders all over the place style-wise, which I think makes it an interesting listen (hopefully!) I was less conscious about trying to make the music fit a specific style and just let the songs happen naturally. Lyrically, there’s a lot of emotionally-charged material, as well as songs like “Crosstalk” that examines the way the media and government shape public opinion via propaganda and fear.
Rafi: I have personally not been able to stop listening to the new track “Noise in My Head”, aside from a nasty case of insomnia, what is the influence behind this track?
Tom Shear: In some ways, it’s the spiritual counterpart to “Awake”, off of “Failure”. It discusses something I’m sure many of your readers have experienced where your mind goes into overdrive as you’re trying to sleep filling you with worries and anxiety. The point of this song, however, is that for as maddening as it is, it’s part of what makes you a human being and a stronger person.
Rafi: During the time you were making ‘Bruise’ you were also busy producing the debut album for Espermachine. How difficult was it to juggle the two? Did the fact that you were working on both projects at the same time cause one to influence the other?
Tom Shear: I’ve always been a bit of a multi-tasker when it comes to music. I try to be working on 2-3 songs at the same time, so if I get stuck on one, I can move on to one of the others and keep being productive. So producing the Espermachine album certainly added pressure, but ultimately, it didn’t change the way I worked too much. I’m not sure I can say they necessarily influenced one another. James is already quite a good songwriter, so I mainly focused on polishing his songs and making them sound the best I could.
Rafi: Having been in the industry for so long and seeing how it’s landscape has changed through the years, what do you think of where it has gone?
Tom Shear: It’s unfortunate to see how devalued music has become over the past decade or so. While the internet has definitely provided great new ways for people to discover your music and to connect with your fans, it’s a double-edged sword. People don’t want to hear it, but the file-sharing thing really does have an effect. Unfortunately, the major labels that people seem to get the most angry about are insulated enough financially to weather this, while the indie labels and artists are the ones who really feel the pinch. People are going to do what they’re going to do, but hopefully people will buy the music they like. I’m not sure when supporting an artist you like became such a radical concept, but hey, here we are!
Rafi: I have read about some of the punk bands that have influenced you (i.e. The Buzzcocks and The Clash). These days the Punk concept of DIY is being used more than ever before to get things done album wise, how do you feel about this and how do you implement that with A23?
Tom Shear: I think there are very strong parallels between punk music and electronic music. The advent of synthesizers, drum machines, and samplers really made it possible for someone to create a complete album completely on their own if they chose to. This is always the way I’ve worked since the old days and it suits me very well. Not having to compromise or make someone else happy is tremendously rewarding as a musician.
Rafi: Live you have incorporated live drums before, I have to wonder if you have ever had the desire to do an A23 album that was more grounded in organic instruments and sounds. Maybe even touring with a full piece band?
Tom Shear: Maybe a track here and there, such as the acoustic mix of Ground, but I’m pretty sure such a radical shift in style would alienate most of my fan base. But there have always been elements of real instruments in A23 music, especially atmospheric guitar sounds and the like. I think the key is to use it as an accent and not necessarily as the main palette of sound. An all acoustic A23 one-off show would be fun to do sometime, though.
Rafi: Given that you have taken multiple different roles in music from production to remixer to producer, what is your favorite roll and how have these different approaches influenced you as an artist?
Tom Shear: It’s hard to choose a favorite. Songwriting is extremely gratifying to me, especially if it becomes something other people can enjoy. But I also really enjoy the challenges of remixing other people’s work or producing other bands. It sort of takes the creative pressure of song-writing off and lets you focus on different aspects of the process. I guess I couldn’t choose a favorite role. Musicians sort of have to be jacks of all trades these days. Fortunately, I really enjoy that!
Rafi: What are the current plans for touring? Will we see an Assemblage 23 and Espermachine tour soon?
Tom Shear: We will be doing a short European tour in July, with a full US tour (with Espermachine as support) in October/November!
Rafi: To wrap it up what would you like to say to your fans reading this interview?
Tom Shear: Thank you so much for all your support over the year. I never dreamed I’d be able to come as far as I have, and I couldn’t have done it without you!