While it would defy the style's much lengthier history to label Tom Shear as a Synth Pop "pioneer" his influence - and dominance - in the genre over the past decade can't be denied. From the defiant 1999 debut album, Contempt, to his latest impressive offering, Compass, Shear has shown a deliberate sonic evolution while maintaining a course that hasn't merely accomplished keeping the fans from feeling alienated but has also succeeded in winning over plenty of new fans along the way. In fact the first single off Compass, "Spark," sold out relatively quickly and the new album is also doing rather well at a time when CD sales are supposed to be virtually non-existent. The always affable Shear has plenty of knowledge and a sly sense of humor which makes chatting with him a pleasure. We're grateful he took the time out of his hectic schedule to grant us this entertaining and informative interview.
DTC: I've been curious about an aspect of your history. You originated from Pennsylvania and moved to Jersey at a young age followed by a lengthy residency in New Hampshire. Then, on your own, you relocated to Seattle. That's a pretty extreme shift going from the culture of the Northeast all the way to Washington. What prompted that move?
Tom Shear: It's kind of a long story. The girl I was dating at the time really hated Philly and wanted to move somewhere else. The problem is she wanted to move to the South which I was in no way interested in. Seattle was the only place we could agree on. We ended up breaking up before the move but I had friends out here and figured the change might do me some good. And it really did. This area feels so much more like "home" to me than anywhere else I've lived.
DTC: So has locality had an impact on your development as an artist and how you've been influenced? Beyond the familiar places have other areas of the world provided the groundwork for specific songs?
Tom Shear: I'm not sure I can say it had a huge impact on my music, but who knows? As far as other localities...I don't write too much on the road, although I try to. That said, "Let the Wind Erase Me" was written in a hotel room in Sweden and "Chosen" off the bonus disc of the new album was written in Serbia. I wouldn't say either one was necessarily inspired by the locations though. It was more out of being bored and keeping myself occupied before soundcheck.
DTC: Between '88 and '98 you worked diligently to build a name for Assemblage 23 and it wasn't until '99 the deal with Gashed! came along. What motivated your perseverance in those early years and how many times did you consider giving it all up?
Tom Shear: Music making has been something I've enjoyed doing since I was in the 6th or 7th grade so it's always sort of been a part of my life. In those years prior to the Gashed! signing I mostly did it as a hobby but friends and people I played my music for kept encouraging me to get it out there to the public. So I kind of half-assedly - it's a word, look it up! - sent demos out toward the end of the 90's. I might have had more success had I been more aggressive about it but in the end I'm glad things timed out they way they did. Ultimately, I don't think you can 'make it' in the music industry unless you eat, sleep and breathe music all the time whether anyone is paying attention to you or not.
DTC: So then, had things not worked out the way they did what do you think you would be doing now?
Tom Shear: If I'd never been signed, I'm sure I'd still be making music.
DTC: Having been strongly influenced early on by Depeche Mode why do you think it is that darker Synth Pop acts haven't been able to crack as wide a market as DM? There are so many great outfits struggling to build an audience over a period of many years and yet they put out albums which only sell a few hundred copies. Why aren't there a lot more Depeche Mode-type success stories out there for Synth Pop when it seems so comparatively easy for Rockers?
Tom Shear: It all comes down to timing. Depeche Mode appeared on the scene when Synth Pop WAS the big thing. If Depeche Mode had come out, say, last year they'd probably be struggling like the rest of us. I think they've managed their career very well and they've incorporated more elements, including rock elements, that have broadened their appeal beyond 'standard' Synth Pop. But ultimately they had a huge advantage in that they started out very poppy and had several top ten hits that bought them a lot of exposure because what they were doing was new and different. It's now almost 30 years since their first album came out and a lot of the modern Synth Pop stuff sounds like it came from the same time period. Nostalgia is cool and all but it's not going to make you stand out from the crowd of thousands of other bands.
DTC: Do electronic music fans by and large shoot themselves in the foot by not actively promoting the acts they enjoy? Would you say they do these underground styles a disservice by deliberately keeping it all to themselves? With the viral capacity of internet promotion you would think all these "underground" Synth Pop/Industrial/Experimental acts would be gaining a much sturdier foothold in the larger market share and yet it seems as though many "fans'" sole intent is to keep the music underground, ultimately damning the artists to meager sales and many hardships. I've actually repeatedly heard people state that they don't want a lot of others into the music they enjoy, that it would somehow "cheapen" the experience for them. Is that an entirely wrongheaded view in your mind? Is music somehow more "pure" when only a "privileged" few are kept in the know about it? And does that translate into a lack of respect for the artist?
Tom Shear: Hmm. I don't know that the 'keeping it to myself' attitude is all that widespread although there is some element of that, particularly among younger fans. Maybe I'm just lucky but A23 has built a lot of its fan base through word of mouth. At lots of shows we'll meet, say, a metalhead whose friend dragged him along to the show and he's blown away by hearing this kind of music for the first time. I think the style is mainly underground these days because the quality has declined significantly. You don't hear much effort being put into sound programming or songwriting like you used to. Instead you get 3 dozen bands all using the same Vanguard presets, doing a crappy job of recording and mixing it and having their friend who doesn't know what he's doing master it for free. A lot of people emphasize how great the internet is for promoting yourself but I think it's actually made things much worse. Now anyone with a cracked copy of Cubase can get their music online and suddenly the waters are muddied by all the horrible, amateurish stuff you have to wade through to find the good stuff. The whole value of the internet promotion thing assumes that the average consumer is going to spend hours wading through crap just to find something good and that simply isn't true. That's not to say that these beginner bands won't turn into something great...EVERYONE sucks at first! But I think it's better for a band to develop and go through those early growing pains out of the spotlight.
DTC: Why did you do the Nerve Filter side project instead of diversifying Assemblage 23's approach? Is strict adherence to a specific sound so important? You typically include one or two tracks per album that differ wildly from the rest of the material anyway and each of your albums has slightly evolved in style and method. Why are you so intent on staying the course in such a rigid fashion?
Tom Shear: Had I released the Nerve Filter album as an Assemblage 23 release my career would be over right now. I'm all for bands evolving and expanding their influences but I think anyone in the music industry would agree that it's damn near impossible to have a successful career if people don't have at least some idea of what to expect when they buy your album. I'm really proud of the Nerve Filter album. Critics gave it really good reviews and it's probably one of my favorite things I've done but no one bought it. It completely flopped. So I think it's important to keep vastly different styles relegated to their own projects. Experimentation has always been an aspect of A23 just not in the same way as in Nerve Filter.
DTC: Well, is there any aggression and experimentation left in you? "Helicopter Girl" is a little different than what we've come to expect but are there specific songs on the new album that you believe will challenge how people view Assemblage 23? Is there any sort of Nerve Filteresque creativity rattling around inside your head at all these days?
Tom Shear: As far as if there are any plans for more Nerve Filter-esque material in the future...probably not. I don't listen to as much IDM these days. I'm still open to doing remixes in the Nerve Filter style but there just doesn't seem to be enough interest in the project to continue releasing albums.
DTC: While the more "Pop" oriented acts have been suffering from lagging sales upstart labels such as Tympanik Audio are building a strong worldwide following by breaking all the rules and presenting artists that defy convention and experiment with the boundaries of electronic music. How do you view IDM, breakcore, glitch and all the complex microgenres which have infiltrated the underground over the past decade? Even going back to acts like Aphex Twin or Autechre in the Nineties...are you a fan of any of these more experimental artists?
Tom Shear: I'd fundamentally disagree that the experimental labels are thriving over the more 'poppy' stuff. Look at what the top sellers are on most websites and it's mostly familiar names. I think a lot of the more experimental labels do well by releasing a large number of releases that might not sell a lot individually, versus putting out a smaller number of releases that sell a ton. The more experimental labels also have the advantage of marketing towards a niche audience which is really important. That said, I think all that stuff is really cool. I wish experimentation was more popular than it is but I can also understand that some people don't want to be challenged when they listen to music. It's the same reason more people listen to pop or rock music than something more cerebral like classical or jazz. But for those of us who like to hear something new and innovative, this is all great stuff.
DTC: I wasn't suggesting the experimental artists were in any way edging out the Pop-oriented acts though in my own bizarro world that's how I'd wish it to be, I guess. So which new artists have blown you away?
Tome Shear: Some of the more experimental acts I really enjoy are Boxcutter, Milanese, Bola, Boards of Canada, etc. I really like some of the new bands that combine experimental elements with more accessible music such as Mode Selektor. Oh, and of course I have to mention Burikusu!!! whose debut I released on 23db Records.
DTC: Considering how popular the whole Harsh EBM thing has grown since Suicide Commando gained popularity how is it you never piled on a wicked amount of distortion to your music and vocals in an effort to latch on to the "next big thing." (laughs)
Tom Shear: Haha...well, I did do a 'hard' mix of "Let the Wind Erase Me" for the single that was done in that style kind of as a joke but honestly, do we really need another sound alike band? I just think so much of the harsh EBM stuff is so devoid of creativity. What happened to hard music that pushed the envelope like Skinny Puppy back in the day? Even Front Line Assembly who used to get a lot of flack in the old days is so much more innovative and interesting than much of what's being done now. Now you just get a distorted 909 kick, a couple trance presets and someone growling indecipherably through a distortion pedal. Sure, it was cool the first time someone did it but there are so few people bringing anything new to the table. One Suicide Commando is enough!
DTC: As long as you brought up the record label, what knowledge has maintaining 23db Records provided you as far as your career in music is concerned? What has the experience taught you over the years that has helped you with your overall approach?
Tom Shear: I already knew that it has become a lot more difficult to break new bands but running the label really drove that point home. It's not enough to simply make good music anymore. You really have to be active and constantly keeping your name in circulation. It's a full time job. I think it's pretty much impossible to get a band off the ground in a meaningful way unless they tour regularly, too. None of my artists tour and I think that has limited their audiences. So it certainly has driven home the point that it's important for A23 to keep touring.
DTC: Given all the acts you've overseen/produced have there been any that have taught you valuable lessons or given you bold ideas that have affected your own sound? When did the master become the student?
Tom Shear: I think it's helped me to learn to loosen up a bit and not worry so much about doing things in the 'proper' way from a production standpoint. It's easy to get caught up in the dos and don'ts but at the end of the day, if something sounds good, it sounds good regardless of how you achieved it.
DTC: How long do you think you can you keep this career in music going? Is Assemblage 23 built to last or will that particular name fall away in favor of other projects and directions?
Tom Shear: Who knows? The music industry is a fickle one and A23 has already beat the odds just by being around for ten years. I'll keep doing it for as long as it feels right and hope that there will be an audience there to appreciate it. I've been incredibly fortunate just to have the success I have.
DTC: So...have you ever had any hair? I'm trying to picture you around 1986 with a mullet.
Tom Shear: Haha...no mullets for me. I didn't start shaving my head until after college, but even before then I usually wore a hat or something as my hair tends to have a mind of its own. But I showed it. I showed it REAL good.
DTC: (laughs) There's been a lot of discussion in recent years over the seeming lack of decent live performances in electronic music. You've always maintained a fairly stoic presence onstage with little movement or theatrics and even less peripheral goings-on during a show. What, in your mind, makes for a great live experience? Particularly when it comes to music that is less organic and more programmed can it be frustrating to try to translate the prerecorded aspects to a live, faux-improvised, setting?
Tom Shear: Hmm, maybe you caught us on an off night or something but I'd say there's quite a bit of movement in our performances these days. Obviously there is a limit to what you can do when you're trying to carry a tune but I think we've come a long way since our early days. Plus, we actually play our instruments which, sadly, is pretty rare. For me personally when I go to see a band I want to feel a connection to the performers and the music. I don't give a shit about costumes and make-up and other stuff that just distracts from the music itself. I want to feel the energy and enthusiasm coming from the band and see that feedback loop you get when a band is excited to play and this riles the audience up, which in turn riles up the band more...
DTC: You seem to avoid collaborations at a time when they're all the rage. Why is that?
Tom Shear: I'm just very stubborn and don't like to compromise my ideas. Collaboration NEEDS compromise in order to work.
DTC: Then, given your reluctance to collaborate, what does it feel like when someone else reinterprets your work by way of a remix?
Tom Shear: Remixes are always cool because you get to hear your ideas in a totally different context than you're used to. That can be a good or a bad thing but overall I've really been blown away by a lot of the remixes people have done for me over the years.
DTC: Matt Fanale - admirable peer or mosquito-like irritant?
Can't it be both?
DTC: I suppose it can...well played. Is there any new gear with which you've been working while creating Compass? Are you fairly loyal to old standbys or are you always seeking out new equipment and technology? What hardware/software do you swear by?
Tom Shear: After Meta I picked up some old analog synths (a modified Roland SH-101 and a Sequential Pro One) which I used a lot on Compass. At the same time I'm using a lot more software than I have in the past. One package I've been digging a lot lately is FXPansion's DCAM Synth Squad. It's made up of several softsynths emulating analog hardware and it does it in a much more convincing way than most anything else I've tried. I didn't have it in time to use on Compass but I can see it getting a lot of use in the future for sure.
DTC: Do you have any idea in what direction Assemblage will be heading next? With a new album out of the way and some touring ahead are you solely focused on matters at hand or are you always writing and looking ahead to what comes next?
Tom Shear: No, I never really have a total idea of where I'm headed. So much can happen and you can be exposed to so many different, new influences in between albums that it's tough to predict exactly where you're going to end up.
See also: Review: Compass