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:Interview: Tom Shear of Assemblage 23

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tom shear & fernando

:Interview: Tom Shear of Assemblage 23
Conducted June 27, 2015 at The Toad Tavern during the Colorado Industrial Arts Fest, Littleton, CO
Interview by Fernando Altonaga

After the Colorado Industrial Arts Fest wound up, Fernando Altonaga got to sit down with Tom Shear of Assemblage 23 for a conversation in the Toad Tavern’s green room.

Fernando: This is Fernando from COMA Music Magazine sitting with Tom Shear from Assemblage 23. He just performed a badass show here at the Colorado Industrial Arts Festival. So Tom, this was such a sick show. I was sweating my ass off.

Tom: You weren’t the only one. [Laughing]

Fernando: I’ve got goosebumps on my arm.

Tom: Excellent.

Fernando: So how do you like it here in Colorado?

Tom: It’s beautiful. We’ve always gotten a good reception here. This may be the first time that we’re leaving Denver and there wasn’t a snowstorm. The last time that we were here the snowstorm was in May, so we’ve had a history of bad weather here.

Fernando: I bet you didn’t expect it in May, in the springtime. Here in Colorado we keep our snow boots next to our flip-flops because you could get frostbite and sunburnt in the same day. Let’s talk about influences. I’ve heard hints of Nitzer Ebb, Depeche Mode, and great EDM bands in your music, but you go much deeper than that. What about the old-school punk and post punk?

Tom: Yeah. Before I discovered electronic music I was really into punk, especially the hardcore scene. The hardcore scene like Circle Jerks, but also original school punk like The Clash, the Buzzcocks, all that kind of stuff. It kind of appealed to my sense of teenage angst at the time. Then I’ve always been fascinated by synthesizers. My first memory is when I was six years old. I was at my cousin’s house and we were jumping on the trampoline in the back yard.

Fernando: Gary Numan?

Tom: [Smiling] Casey Kasem’s Top 40 was on and that was the week that Gary Numan’s Cars came out and we were jumping on the trampoline and I just stopped hypnotized by that sound. It wasn’t until 1988 when I saw Depeche Mode on the Music for the Masses tour….

Fernando: Oh my god, talk about an album.

Tom: And what a tour too. I think that was their peak.

Fernando: What was that, junior high? High school?

Tom: I was a freshman in high school. They had a DJ in between who was spinning old-school Wax Trax which I’d never heard before and to me it was this perfect combination of the aggression and angst that punk had but with the electronic style that appealed to me from bands like Fad Gadget, Human League, and all of the classic ’80s synth bands.

Fernando: The ’80s just had some of the best music out of all the eras.

Tom: It’s not for everybody. I think it was one of the strongest periods of pop music in this country and Europe also certainly, but what I think that was special about it was not only that there was a lot of high quality music coming out at the time, but that it was desperately weird. I mean, can you imagine a band like Devo having a Top 10 hit now? That would never happen, but back then it happened. I think we’ve gotten to the point where we try to sub-categorize everything and back then was just music. Maybe it’s new wave, maybe its synthpop, but people didn’t draw those divisions as much back then. It was a much healthier environment for people creating it.

Fernando: Devo’s like the Kraftwerk of this whole electronic pop culture. We went to the Mark Mothersbaugh exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver.

Tom: Did you get to meet him?

Fernando: No. He did do a small performance, but we were at Gothfest.

Tom: I think that I’d be too intimidated to meet him. There are certain people that as much as I admire them, I don’t want to meet them because a) I’m worried that they’ll turn out to be a huge asshole but also that…these people have had huge careers for 30 or 40 years. What am I going to say to them that they haven’t heard a million times before?

Fernando: That’s true man, but you never know. People are just people.

Tom: That’s true. It’s just me being silly.

Fernando: There are probably kids out there that you’ve influenced. I mean, you’ve almost influenced a generation of fans. So I know you’re a fan of classic analog synths. If you were trapped on a desert island with an outlet, what would you bring?

Tom: Probably the Sequential Circuits Pro One. It’s really snappy. It’s so great for punchy bass lines. Of course the Minimoog is great for that too, but the Pro One has a different flavor to it that’s just a little less ubiquitous. Just a little more special to me.

Fernando: Something else I wanted to talk about. You mentioned DJs earlier. You’re a DJ yourself sometimes.

Tom: I just started doing that. On the last tour I did a couple of dates and it’s a lot of fun.

Fernando: I saw some of your set lists. You’ve got Die Antwoord on there.

Tom: Oh yeah. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a bunch of goths dancing to Missy Elliot. [Laughing]

Fernando: You also do remixes for other bands and you have a side project called Surveillance. Let’s talk about that.

Tom: When I’m working on music I basically keep folders on my hard drive and I divide them into what project they might fit. I found that I’d collected a lot of songs that had more of an EBM feel to them than Assemblage 23 and I thought maybe I should try making a project like this because I enjoy making that kind of music too. I decided to record a song and float it like a balloon to see if anybody’d bite and did a crowdfunding campaign where we reached something like 600% of our original goal.

Fernando: That’s got to be encouraging.

Tom: It was a great way to know that there’s going to be some interest for this project because there’s never a guarantee. So after the Assemblage 23 album I’m going to do another Surveillance album.

Fernando: I hear you’re working on video game music as well.

Tom: Yes. A longtime friend of mine in Seattle, back in the early 2000s, he and I started a small company and started testing the waters doing some video game music. We went into it kind of unprepared and it wasn’t terribly successful. We made back all the money that we invested so we didn’t lose anything. Cut forward about 10 years and he’s working for Amazon and sold all of his stock and created a start-up. He approached me and asked if I’d be interested in doing some music for this game. That’s an area I’d like to get into because frankly that’s the only place where anyone’s making money in the music industry.

Fernando: May I ask the name of the game?

Tom: The company that’s making the game is called SyncBuilderRun and the name of the game is V.Next. It’s set in a dystopian Seattle in the future. Kind of a cyberpunk game. It has kind of retro 8-bit graphics, 2D platform elements; there’re puzzle elements. Monday or Tuesday we’re starting the Kickstarter to get the final push for this so we can hire the remaining coders that we need to finish the game. That should be out by the end of the year hopefully.

Fernando: PC platform?

Tom: PC and Mac. I’m not sure what the plans are beyond that. I’m really, really hopeful that this is going to be successful.

Fernando: Well, I’d like to sum this up by saying this was one of the most enjoyable shows I’ve seen so far this year. You had the crowd moving, people were clapping….

Tom: This was a fun show.

Fernando: Thank you very much, man.

Tom: My pleasure.

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