Assemblage 23 - I've never been fond of the 'future pop' moniker
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When Tom Shear aka Assemblage 23 released it's very first album entitled "Contempt" in 2000 it directly became reference in electronic-pop music. Assemblage 23 was one of these 'new' sytnh-pop bands with a refreshing, danceable and melodious sound. Together with VNV Nation and Neuroticfish, Assemblage 23 became one of the incontestable leading bands of the so-called 'future pop' style. The "Failure"-album released in 2001 only increased the popularity of this American project while the "Defiance"-full length just confirmed this artist's talent. The "Storm" album was one more successful opus while the last album "Meta" released in 2007 opened new horizons for Assemblage 23. Today the future pop style seems to have lost a lot of believers and the bands lost of their popularity. Assemblage 23 is however alive and has released 2 volumes of "Early, Rare, And Unreleased"-series. Both albums bring us back to the early years of Assemblage 23 and real nice additions to the discography of T. Shear. A totally new album is planned for 2009, but Tom he prefers to keep it as a surprise! We'd an interesting talk about the past, the present while trying to get a glimpse of the future. Tom Shear is definitely one of the kindest artists of this scene with a great respect and gratitude for his fans and that's why I really like to dedicate this interview for his fans! (By Stéphane Froidcoeur)
SL: Hello Tom, how is Assemblage 23 doing right now?
TS: Very well, thanks!
SL: It seems like your fans incited you to release the "Early, Rare, And Unreleased"-albums, but was it the only reason?
TS: It was definitely the main reason to motivate me to actually get the project off the ground. I'm not one to really revisit the past too much, but I got so many emails over the years from fans trying to track down these old compilations some of the early stuff was on that I thought it would be worthwhile.
SL: How did it feel to hear and re-record all these old songs again?
TS: It pretty much ran the gamut from total embarrassment to pride that I was as young as I was when I wrote some of the tracks. It was fun overall, but it was a lot of work tracking down all the old sequences and sound data, transferring them over to the computer, and re-recording everything.
SL: How did you finally made the selection of the songs and are there some songs left (maybe for a third volume)?
TS: Years and years ago, before my four-track finally died, I had transferred some stuff over to DAT and a few years after that, I transferred those tracks to my computer. So it was mainly just a process of going through, seeing which songs I still had the sequences and sounds for, and which ones embarrassed me the least! I don't have any plans for a third volume. Too many of the remaining songs are just totally missing in action. Or really crappy.
SL: I guess Depeche Mode has been always of a big influence in the early days of Assemblage 23, but what makes this band that special and are there some aspects of their production you tries to bring in your music?
TS: I think every electronic band, whether they care for Depeche Mode or not, owes them a debt of gratitude given how many barriers they broke down. For me personally, they were one of the first electronic bands I got into, and honestly, they're one of the few bands I liked that long ago that I still like today. I think Alan Wilder's work with the band is some of the most incredible stuff ever done electronically. His sound design was just jaw-dropping.
SL: Assemblage 23 went into history as being one of the incontestable leading bands of the so-called 'future pop'-style. What does it evoke to you and were you aware belonging to this style of music?
TS: I don't worry too much about how people want to categorize me. I've never been fond of the 'future pop' moniker, but if it helps people find music they like, so be it. Unfortunately, I think it can sometimes turn people off before they've had the chance to listen to it as well, though, so it's a double-edged sword.
SL: It all looks like future pop was just a kind of hype! Speaking for the European scene it got a huge success and suddenly it seemed to be over! How did you experience this evolution and do you think it was just a hype?
TS: Isn't every genre essentially hype? I don't think it's really any different from any of the sub-styles in this scene. Every couple of years something different is the next big thing, and it, in turn, gets replaced a couple years later. The music business has always been a fickle creature and always will be.
SL: I guess the "Meta"-album wasn't that successful in Europe while it was just released when future pop was over its top! Do you think it's just a coincidence and how do you look back on this album right now?
TS: True, it sold less in Europe than the previous album, but I think you could chalk that up as much to piracy as to disinterest in the genre. We've already lost some labels, tons of record stores have gone out of business, many print magazines are going to the web since labels can't afford to buy as many ads, etc. In the States, the labels jumped on the digital bandwagon fairly early on and digital sales have gone way up. It hasn't quite replaced the losses due to piracy, but it is helping a lot. The European market was a bit slower to get into the digital market, and I think that hurt them. It took a few years for the digital market in the U.S. to get going, so I am hoping the same will be true in Europe, but the piracy problem seems much more severe there, so it's hard to say. You also have to remember that during the time the album came out, the US dollar was really devalued against the Euro, so a lot of European fans bought albums from retailers in the US because it was cheaper than buying them at home. Regardless, I was still happy with how it sold!
SL: I personally experienced "Meta" as being your hardest release in history while it was quite diversified as well! What was it all about?
TS: I guess I was just looking to stretch out and try some different things. You obviously want to be consistent so as to please your fans, but as an artist you also want to try some new things. It's all about keeping a balance between those two.
SL: Speaking about 'harder' releases, the song "Psychotic" from "Early, Rare, And Unreleased - Volume Two" is for sure the most unexpected and hardest song you ever composed! Was it just for fun and what does it say about a kind of hidden side of Tom Shear?
TS: At the time I was listening to a lot of Ministry, Lard, Skin Chamber, and other industrial metal sort of stuff and I just wanted to try doing a track like that. I don't think it came out very well, and I kind of lost my interest in the metal end of things, so it just kind of sticks out as a freak track.
SL: Would you ever imagine composing an entire album in the vein of "Psychotic"?
TS: Maybe when I was younger and full of inarticulate anger, but I prefer to express myself differently these days.
SL: You commented the "Untitled"-song as having been composed in the period you discovered Zoth Ommog! Tell us a bit more about this experience and were there some bands you especially liked?
TS: There's not much to say, really. It was quite hard to find Zoth Ommog releases in the U.S. until the late 90's when it started getting licensed over here, but I was a big fan of Leaether Strip and XMTP. I liked a lot of Talla's really old projects too. He must have had a million of them!
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SL: Talking about Zoth Ommog I personally consider Sevren Ni Arb from X Marks the Pedwalk as one of the most talented musicians and producers from his decade! What do you think about his work and sound production?
TS: Yeah, I think he was far ahead of his time stylistically. Not so much with the older stuff, but their last two albums especially were so far ahead of what others were doing at the time in that I wasn't really aware of any other bands in this scene incorporating techno and trance influences to their stuff.
SL: Songs like "Relationshit" and "From Darkness Comes Light" were more into pure EBM bass lines. How do you remember these songs and period?
TS: It reflects a lot of what I was into at the time, I think. My favorite bands at the time were Front Line Assembly and Nitzer Ebb, so I suppose it's natural that their influence would come across.
SL: I'm sure you must have some musical ideas in mind you would like to experience and work out! What is it all about?
TS: Oh course I would love to do tons more music in different styles, but it's hard to find the time, honestly, and I doubt any of it would find fans within our little scene.
SL: It seems that your fans always have been very important to you! Tell us a bit more about this particular relationship and what are the experiences with fans directly coming into mind?
TS: I think any musician that doesn't value their fans is pretty foolish! My fans have made it possible for me to make a living doing what I love the most. It's because of them that I've been able to visit dozens of countries I never thought I'd get to see. I mean, who wouldn't be thankful for that? Of course, there is a flip side to that too, and you occasionally run into people who take things a bit too far, stalkers, etc., but those are definitely in the minority.
SL: You mentioned in the booklet of "Early, Rare, And Unreleased" that you sometimes wanted to throw in the towel! Did you here remember some particular moments and experiences?
TS: There's lot of different stuff that can make you have doubts, I think. Playing a show for an audience that totally hates you, or having a show where everything that can go wrong technically, does. Or when you put your heart and soul and months of hard work into an album only to have some critic who doesn't like you totally shit all over what you do. It's part of the business to be sure, but at the same time it can make you feel like, "fuck it, why do I even bother?" And then you remember the fans and it makes you forget all the bad stuff.
SL: Did you experience such a feeling after the less successful "Meta"-album?
TS: Geez, you're making it sound like the album totally tanked, and it really didn't! I was quite pleased by how it did over all and we did more touring around the world for it than we have for any of our albums. Hell, we played at Mera Luna for the biggest crowd we've ever played for! Would I have liked it to sell more? Of course, but that's always the case!
SL: I noticed on your site that a new Assemblage 23 album has been announced for 2009! Can you confirm the news and what might we expect from the new songs?
TS: Yes, that's the plan. I don't really want to reveal too much at this point, but I think the fans will be pleased and they can expect a few surprises.
SL: Will you go on releasing your work on your own label 23DB and what can you tell us about your label experiences for so far?
TS: Assemblage 23's new material will continue to be released on Accession and Metropolis. I just did the rarities stuff on my own because I knew it would have a narrower appeal and from a business standpoint, it made more sense to put it out myself, especially since the material pre-dated my relationships with those labels. I won't rule out putting some other side project stuff out through 23db, but again, it's mainly a factor of time.
SL: A lot of labels are complaining about the musical - and international economic crisis! How do you face this world-wide problem and what do you expect from the future?
TS: At the moment, 23db is transitioning over to being a digital-only label. Our digital sales are ten times higher now than they were when I started the label a few years ago, and CD sales are slipping. So the second Assemblage 23 rarities CD and the next Lost Signal album will be our last physical releases, and both of those are/will be limited edition CDs. As the digital market grows, I think this is the best idea for the label. I personally am a fan of CDs and would prefer to do that, but you have to follow what the market is telling you, and right now it's saying digital is the way forward.
SL: It all sounds quiet surreal when you imagine to have released your first songs on good-old tapes while everything is now digital-like! How would you analyse this evolution?
TS: It really is pretty mind-blowing. It's easy to get caught up in the technology and lose track of how far we've come, but even just ten years ago recording on your computer was a fairly new thing for most people. Now, you can take your laptop on a plane loaded up with soft synths and have the equivalent of a $500,000 studio with you in your carry-on luggage!
SL: Back to your label 23DB! What kind of bands are you looking for and do you have some kind of label philosophy?
TS: I just put out stuff I like. The lack of stylistic focus might hurt the label identity in a way, but my tastes are all over the map, and I think the label should reflect that to an extent. I really don't go out and actively seek bands. Burikusu are really the only band I've put out that weren't friends of mine before. So it's mainly a case of music I like made by people I know aren't going to be a pain in the ass to deal with. haha
SL: Burikusu has been for sure a quite surprising signing and release! What do you like in their sound and how this album doing?
TS: I think Burikusu are an extremely rare kind of band in that they really push the envelope experimentally, but they also have a good ear for accessible melodies and structures. Usually bands are good at one and not the other, but I think they have the perfect balance of the two. The album is doing okay, but it's a bit weird for some people, and honestly, I don't think our scene is necessarily the most open-minded when it comes to accepting different forms of music. We'll keep pushing them and getting the word out. It's taken awhile, but people are slowly seeming to become aware of them more.
SL: Tom, I can easily imagine the success of Assemblage 23 changed your life, but maybe not the man behind the band. What is it all about?
TS: I don't know. I try not to let it change me, but I suppose to an extent, you can't help it. But as a music fan, I've seen so many bands I liked get some degree of success and just turn into complete ego-maniacal assholes, especially towards their fans. That always turned me off as a fan, and it's something I always tried to remember as a musician. At the end of the day, there's nothing special about me, I'm just a guy who has a cool job. And if I ever forget that, my band mates, friends, and family are always there to kick my ass back in line! Haha
SL: To conclude, is there anything like a dream you would like to realize with Assemblage 23?
TS: Honestly, it would feel greedy to wish for more. I never thought I'd come anywhere near the degree of success I've been lucky enough to have. But I guess if I had to name one thing, it's that I hope we get to play some shows in Asia one day even though there really isn't a scene there to speak of.
Band: www.assemblage23.com / www.myspace.com/officialassemblage23
Label: www.myspace.com/23dbrecords / www.myspace.com/23dbrecords / www.assemblage23.com/23db.html
Tom's Music Tech Blog: www.waveformless.blogspot.com
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