Tom Shear is the man behind the one-man electro-industrial project known as Assemblage 23. Hailing from the U.S.A., Assemblage 23 took the american and european audiences by storm with its very particular sound characterized by carefuly crafted music that is highly danceable and melodic with well-thought out and meaningful lyrics.
1999 was the year in which Assemblage 23’s first CD, “Contempt”, was released in the U.S.A. shortly followed by an european release in the label Accession Records. This debut album was soon followed by the release of “Failure”, which presented a new voyage into the soundscapes that are so characteristic of Assemblage 23.
C.B. – Officialy, the A23 project began in 1988 when you experienced the “revelation” that drove you from the creation of synthpop and post-punk into the uncharted (for you) area of industrial music and becoming a serious activity around 1992. It took until 1999 for you to be signed into a label (the canadian Gashed!).
Apart from the frustration that that must have entailed, do you think that that ‘waiting period’ might have contributed anything to the creative maturity revealed in your first release (sort of “biding my time until I reveal myself to the world” kind of thing…)?
I think it was more a case of having a large catalog of songs to choose from, so I chose only the tracks I was really really happy with… but some of those songs were several years old by the time the release came out. I am glad it took as long as it did, as I improved and learned a lot in that time.
C.B. – Also, one of the results of such a wait could probably be a pool of experimental material that you’d have used otherwise. Would you consider tapping into that material as a creative resource at some point, wether as inspiration for future creation or reworking it?
Perhaps I’d rework it some day… it’s not uncommon for me to use a chord progression or a synth line from an older, unused track and work it into a new track… I never throw anything away because you never know, one of those may turn out to be the perfect chorus for a song years down the road.
C.B. – Some time after Gashed! You also were signed by Adrian Hates’ (Diary of Dreams) label Accession Records.
Apart from access to european markets, what has your contract with Accession meant?
Having more people to promote the band and help it gain a wider audience… Adrian and all the people at Accession have really worked hard, especially in this past year and it’s really helped spread the word about A23 and get us more exposure.
C.B. – In terms of creative collaboration with other artists, do you think that it opened new doors?
Perhaps in terms of making it easier to get remixes done from other artists, but aside from that, I’m not really interested in collaboration, so it’s not something I think about much.
C.B. – Assemblage 23 is currently part of Accession Records european tour (more like german tour with a couple stops in neighbour countries…) along with Diary of Dreams and fellow americans Cut.Rate.Box.
What are your expectations for this tour?
Right now I am just crossing my fingers that it still happens given the recent events in the U.S [the attack that demolished the Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon –S.B.]. But assuming everything goes to plan, I really don’t know what to expect other than what friends of mine who have toured Europe have told me… Europe sounds much more professional and well-organized than things are over in the States.
C.B. – Are the concerts arranged to be ‘clock-worked’ or are there any possibilities of (relatively spontaneous) live collaboration of Assemblage 23 with any of the other bands?
We had discussed doing something like this, but I don’t think we will have the time to put anything like that together at this point… scheduling the tour and getting the Maxi single and EP done has been tough enough!
C.B. – Even though “Failure” was released relatively recently, one would suppose that work for the next Assemblage 23 album has probably begun by now.
Not really. While I do have some snippets I’ve started on, after I finished Failure, I started on a soundtrack for an independent film, did a ton of remixes for other bands, and got started on the “Disappoint” maxi and the “Addendum” EP, both of which I have just completed. After that, I have a bunch more remixes to complete, and production on the 2nd album for a band called Omnibox. Then comes the tour, so I don’t really plan to start doing the serious writing for the 3rd album until January.
C.B. – Can you give us any idea on what we should expect from this future piece of work?
I am considering the title “Defiance”… as to what direction it will go… it’s hard to say, as I normally don’t know until an album is done what it’s going to sound like… it’s very much a case of letting the songs go wherever they go. I think there might be some more aggressive tracks on this one, however. We’ll all just have to wait and see.
C.B. – Some recording artists work in a way that they create ‘projects’, i.e. there is a certain coherency to the sound of recordings released under the name of that project. ‘Side-projects’ appear when the artist feels the need to work on something different. This way of working may have its reasons in a highly competitive market (i.e. there are some assurances to the public that it is getting what it wants).
Do you think that it might be somewhat restrictive as it may limit your creative freedom?
Not really… There needs to be some sort of focus to a bands work, but within that focus, there is a wide range to be played with… a lot of bands just don’t choose to play with that range, but it’s definitely there. But at the same time, I think you have to have some level of consistency to your work so that a listener will know what to expect…
C.B. – Do you have any ready-made ideas on how you want Assemblage 23 to develop as a musical project or it’s really left to inspiration?
I really just see where the project goes and let it follow it’s own natural course. I think it’s creative death to say, “My next album will be _______” and then force yourself to make the songs fit into that mold. I think just letting things happen naturally is the best choice.
C.B. – You have mentioned side-projects to Assemblage 23 and you also mentioned that even those would be solo projects as well.
Why not release them as Assemblage 23 as well?
It’s too confusing for people. Nerve Filter sounds absolutely nothing like A23… and while it is fair to assume that fans of one might also be fans of the other, they are in entirely different styles, and therefore a lot of people who like one band may very well hate the other. You don’t want to alienate your fanbase that way, so having different names for the different types of music is a good way of helping them sort through what they like and what they don’t.
C.B. – Another of your facets as an artist is that you are a remixer with quite an extensive remix discography and you actualy offer a “remixer-for-hire” service presenting your remix discography as a ‘curriculum vitae’ of sorts. This would seem to some as mayhaps a ‘mercenary attitude’ and to others as a rather pragmatic way of dealing your art (after all, let’s face it, art is art business and you’re not working for charity).
How did the idea for this “remixer-for-hire” come about and how does it work?
It’s fairly common in the mainstream and alternative dance markets… there are entire companies that make their living providing exclusive DJ only remixes, or subscription service, Razormaid being one of the most prominent. Basically, if someone wants a remix, they can e-mail me, we’ll discuss the details, and if it’s agreeable to both parties, we go from there.
C.B. – Will you take any serious and quality remix proposal no matter the original music style? If so, what particular music style do you think would prove to be the more challenging?
Actually I would LOVE to do more remixes outside the electro/EBM market… I like trying stuff in different styles and love a challenge. I don’t particularly find STYLES to make a remix difficult, it’s more how much I like the song in it’s original form. It’s harder for me to remix a song I really like than one I am not so nuts about, believe it or not.
C.B. – Remixing can be and, unfortunately, frequently is a complete rip-off, as bands will add a couple new sounds, alter pitch a little and basicaly have the same song and call it a remix. It can also be a way of creating musical pieces, original in themselves, and with the definite mark of the remixer, despite their beginning as ‘ready-made’ objects.
In creative terms, what is your approach to remixing? Do you attempt to stay close to the original material or view it as nothing more than raw material from which to build a Tom Shear creation?
When I remix, it is rare for me to use anything from the original track aside from the vocals and maybe one or two of the signature sounds, etc. My philosophy is a remix should be taking the original track, and filtering it through another band’s creative process. So I like to take those basic elements and either rearrange them, or put them in a different context than the original… taking the original idea and doing something with it the original artist perhaps never would’ve thought of… Plus, it’s just really fun to make people dance!
C.B. – This just off my mind… if you got the necessary audio material would you be willing to tackle remixing classical music? What would you do with something like, for example, Haendel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks”?
That would be tough… it would depend on if it was expected to be a dance remix or not… I think it is tough to take classical music and set it to dance music without it sounding really cheesey… plus, it almost seems disrespectful to the original pieces. If it could be any type of remix, however, I’d probably do it in a more Nerve Filter style cut the piece up, twist the samples round a bit a see what comes out the other side.
C.B. – Nowadays, many musicians, especialy from the electro scene work from home studios.
Do you work in this manner? What’s your studio like nowadays?
Yeah, I have a studio in my apartment consisting of a few synths, a sampler, and a Mac.
C.B. – Do you think that this manner of work can have some influence in the spontaneity of creation as it eases restrictions on recording schedules, etc?
It has both ups and downs… it allows you to spend more time experimenting, switching things around, trying different sounds, etc. But that can also end up being a drawback because you simply end up spending all your time messing around with stuff rather than finishing it and moving on to the next thing. So you need to know your limits and when to say, “Okay this is finished.”
C.B. – Hearing the Assemblage 23 sound, one can’t help but feel strong influences from some of Europe’s biggest names in the electro-scene, especialy Covenant, while at the same keeping a distinct ‘personality’ and a definite american ‘feel’.
Who would you cite as being your most recent musical influences?
Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Swans… Michael Gira has one of my favorite male voices anywhere…. I’ve been listening to a lot of soundtrack and film score type stuff to get some inspiration when I was working on my own soundtrack… hip hop stuff (more the production and programming than anything) has also been a great source of inspiration for me over the past year or so.
C.B. – How would you compare the difference in styles styles between american and european electro-industrial? Do you think that those differences are getting more and more blurred nowadays?
Yeah, I really do. The difference between American and European bands used to be quite obvious, but I think both have kind of grown together a bit in the past years. The biggest difference I find in a lot of European bands are the sounds… certain synth sounds just sound ‘German’ to me for some reason… silly, I know, but I usually like the sound choices I hear in European stuff more than I do in a lot of the American stuff.
C.B. – Assemblage 23, along with Flesh Field, and Cut.Rate.Box are probably the best known examples of american electro-industrial in Europe. What other american electro-industrial bands do you see as being the most likely to “invade Europe” in the near future?
Lost Signal, whose album I produced and did some programming on early this year definitely has that potential, I think. LS’s stuff is very dancefloor friendly and melodic, so it would fit in very well with a lot of the current crop.
C.B. – An analysis of Assemblage 23 lyrics is unavoidable if one is really interested in your work. Unlike what happens in many other bands, your lyrics do not appear to be mere ‘fill-up material’, they seem to be actualy thought out and carefully crafted.
C.B. – What are your views on the process of writing lyrics? Do you create the lyrics for the music, build the music around the lyrics or they both evolve in unisson?
It’s always different. Sometimes a simply phrase will evolve into a verse and then spring into a full fledged song, music and all, other times the music will be done and I will write the lyrics to fit it, and other times I write them independently and see if any of the lyrics match with any of the finished music.
C.B. – Where do you seek inspiration for your lyrics? The world, personal experiences?
My lyrics are generally personal, although I also like the imagery to evoke a scene or a mood as well… sort of creating a ‘film’ with the words.
C.B. – Would you say that you have any literary influences that might have affected your lyrics somehow?
I read a lot of poetry. I’m not well-versed enough in it to be able to name specific poets I like more than others, but I am learning a lot and reading a lot of amazing writers.
C.B. – Not inquiring into the ‘deeper meaning’ of your lyrics, but quite a few of them seem to be very personal, some quite obviously so. Especialy in the latest album “Failure”.
Would you say that your creation of music might be somehow cathartic for yourself?
Oh, absoutley… being able to work things out in a song is sometimes the only thing that keeps me from losing it and picking people off with a sniper rifle off a bell tower somewhere… hehe
C.B. – How do you feel about the fact that your creative work may also have a catharsys effect in the listener? That it actualy has some meaning and isn’t simply dancefloor material?
That was an incredible side-effect of writing ‘Disappoint’ that I didn’t expect. I wrote the song for myself and my family around the time we were still all trying to make sense of my father’s suicide. So it was purely me trying to work out the million and one things going on in my head at that time, I honestly didn’t think it might mean something to someone else. But the amount of mail I have recieved from people who had a parent or loved one commit suicide telling me how much the song meant to them personally has been overwhelming. It’s nice to know something that helped me work through a situation could help someone else too.
C.B. – As with any ‘underground scene’ there is always a danger of mercantilist exploitation as the scene expands, with a possible consequence being a loss of quality of the creative material that is produced.
Where do you see the american electro-industrial scene going as far as this is concerned?
I don’t know that there are a lot of instances in this style of music of bands specifically writing in one way or the other simply because one may be more commercially viable. From talking with most of the artists I met in the scene, most of the people are just making the kind of music they like to listen to or dance to. I am sure there are some opportunists out there doing otherwise, but I don’t think you would see it in this scene as much as you would in the mainstream.
C.B. – Any final words or final requests? ;-)
Thanks to all the fans and people who have supported me over the years!
— interview by Miguel de Sousa (October 2001)