Assemblage 23 has been one of the most prominent forces in the electro-industrial scene for over a decade and a half, surviving trends and inspiring succeeding acts to follow suit. Mastermind Tom Shear has carved a special niche for himself in our neck of the woods, employing a vast and dense interpretation of synthpop across emotionally gripping lyrical themes that are all drawn directly from his personal life. While many acts have come before and after him in the scene with their own brand of the futurepop genre, Shear’s classics albums like Failure and Defiance remain significant touchstones of the scene, reaching an audience far beyond club goers and into music fans from many walks of life.
The band’s latest album, Bruise, follows the Assemblage 23 template with new expansions of synth patterns and new lyrical ideas, such as the summation of the human experience (“Otherness”) and even a bit of social commentary (“Crosstalk”). We were lucky to catch Tom Shear on a break during his busy schedule, which included a show in our homestead at the Venue Scottsdale for the final Horns & Halos Ball. See what he has to say about the past, present, and future of Assemblage 23 and his various other projects. – Zander Buel
1. It has been over two years since the release of your last studio album, Bruise. What new influences and ideas have you picked up during this time?
Well, since the last album, I recorded an album for my new project Surveillance, which drew a lot of influences from older EBM. In the process of making that album, I studied a lot of more old school studio techniques, which was a lot of fun. How that will influence the next A23 remains to be seen, but I find I learn something new just about every time I work on a track.
2. Do the lyrics on Bruise reflect major snapshots of your life, or are they collections of thoughts that accumulated over a long time?
You could almost say the albums are like a diary of that particular time period in my life. So a lot of it is indeed reflective of my life at the time I was working on the album. But there are also the other bits that accumulate over a long time. I’m a strong believer in never throwing away anything, even if you think it’s complete crap at the time. Many lyrics, or even music parts come from old stuff I had written down, but couldn’t find a use for it. Writing a song is a bit like assembling a puzzle. Some take longer to solve than others.
3. Do your compositions have a particular genesis? More specifically, does the musical element lead to the step of writing lyrics of vice-versa?
More often than not, the music comes first. This is simply because I really don’t enjoy writing lyrics very much. But many time the lyrics start developing before I am completely done with the music of a song, so sometimes it happens simultaneously.
4. What, to you personally, is the primary difference between Assemblage 23 and your side-project Surveillance?
As I mentioned before, Surveillance is less synth pop and more EBM than A23. There are still some very “A23” sounding elements on the album, but I think the longer the two projects exist, the more they’ll drift apart in their similarities.
5. You recently collaborated with Gnome & Spybey on a track called “Achim,” which you describe as ambient. Can you tell us how this collaboration came about and what it was like to help create something that is such a radical departure from Assemblage 23?
Gnome has been a friend of mine for awhile. We met when he was a booker for a club we play all the time in Texas. He just emailed me out of the blue and I jumped on the opportunity to do something different. It was a lot of fun to work on.
6. Are there any sounds you’d like to explore in future collaborations with other artists that deviate from the Assemblage 23 palette?
I’d like to do something solely with analog equipment some time. Maybe even something really old school in the vein of Tangerine Dream, Klaus Shulze, and the whole “Berlin school” thing.
7. To my ears, you are one of the most enduring acts of post-millennial EBM/industrial, if not the most. Do you still find inspiration in any music from the “scene” you helped pioneer?
I’ll be honest, I don’t listen to much “scene” music these days outside of the stuff I work on. Mainly because when you make a certain kind of music for 8 hours a day, at the end of that day, you want to listen to something different. But anything Daniel Myer puts out, I will happily listen to. One of the most creative people I know.
8. What are your feelings about the role of Assemblage 23 in the shaping of the dark alternative underground at the turn of the century?
I never really think about that, honestly. I just want to make music and hopefully people will dig it. I’ve had a pretty good ride so far, so I am optimistic about the future, but it’s not my part to decide whatever “role” A23 plays in the scene.
9. As an icon of our little neck of the underground woods, do you have any predictions about where the scene is headed in the next few years?
It’s interesting to see there is sort of a “not EBM” EBM scene developing with artists like Gessafellstein and Youth Code clearly making music inspired by bands like DAF and Nitzer Ebb, but they’ve sort of done so outside the scene itself. I’m interested to see how the EBM scene reacts to that.
10. What can we expect from the next Assemblage 23 album?
I don’t know the answer to that. I’m working hard on it, but oftentimes, the “sound” of an album doesn’t reveal itself until later in the process. I just sort of let things take their own path and see where I end up.