Author & Punisher's Tristan Shone on his metal roots: "I feel like the cleanest cut metal person"
Tristan Shone was a mechanical engineer before he formed Author & Punisher (due this Wednesday, January 15, at Summit Music Hall). His first album, 2005's The Painted Army, hinted at the sound Shone would later hone five years later on Drone Machines in 2010, after having fully integrated various MIDI controller devices that looked like menacing machinery from metalworking class.
The music he creates recalls the visceral quality of Godflesh by using noise not for the sake of noise but as a compositional component, as heard on Author & Punisher's latest album, the critically acclaimed 2013 release Women & Children. We recently spoke with the bright and affable Shone about how rave music influenced his project, how the design side of machines impacts his own devices and how he got connected with Phil Anselmo for this tour.
Westword: You had a kind of corporate engineering job a long time ago but went back to school for art?
Tristan Shone: I got my undergrad Mechanical Engineering degree at RPI, which is a school in Troy, New York. After that I went to work in Boston at a couple of high tech companies. Then I went to art school after four or five years of working.
You did installation art and sculpture?
Yeah, and I messed around with new media.
Do you feel like it was the opposite of what you did at your corporate jobs at that time?
Well, I'd worked with an artist, Chris Csikszentmihalyi, in Boston at MIT and RPI, who was more of a new media and installation artist, and he introduced me to the idea of tech plus art. I'd always been into using robotics in theater in high school. So I understood I wanted to go on that path. There was something that wasn't as creative about tech for the company. Working for him, I did a few projects that took me around to a couple of different countries and shows where I could see what it was like. I realized I could apply that stuff in more fun ways.
What attracted you to doing the type of music you're doing now instead of some other form of music?
I like heavy music. I think once I got to high school out of this small town in New Hampshire I was in, I met a whole bunch of people that knew about bands like Melvins, Fugazi, Neurosis and Helmet. I got into that hardcore scene in the early '90s and death metal -- that really attracted me. I liked the kind of social message that was going along with it, as well. It wasn't about anarchy so much as community. Now I'm a little more apathetic about everything, but that the time it was a more idealistic world that was really fun.
You saw at least a few of those bands, then?
I actually just got to play with Corrections House, which includes Scott Kelly. I had never met him. He is kind of a childhood hero, and I finally got to play with him. We talked about the first show I saw him at. Funny story because they were crazy in '94. Just so gnarly. I was just a middle class kid at a Catholic high school, and those guys were drinking and stoned early, and I felt overly clean. I still feel that way. I feel like the cleanest cut metal person. I think maybe I saw Neurosis for [the Through Silver In Blood tour]. The Lysol Melvins album for sure. That one I remember freshman year driving and listening to. In On the Kill Taker Fugazi.
A lot of people have compared what you do to Trent Reznor's music or Godflesh. "In Remorse," in particular, is reminiscent of other Justin K. Broadrick stuff, like Techno Animal and Jesu.
The first Jesu album absolutely and the JK Flesh stuff. I think it's just from getting into drum and bass in the late '90s and early 2000s. I listened to a lot of electronic music then. I got into a lot of that fun, rave-y drum and bass stuff because of what you can do with bass on a sound system rather than through a guitar amp. That was really eye opening and inspirational.
Guitar amps and things like that are an accident in some ways but actual P.A. sound systems are meant to sound good; they're not meant to sound bad, which is what guitar amps often do. To actually take bass and push it, and if you use it properly, you can actually get heavier and use sub-harmonics in a really clean way. So that's when I sold my Mesa Boogie and started building my own speakers and a proper four-way sound system with sub woofers.
Oh yeah, Todd Novosad from Denver who has this noise project called Novasak, built his own system because a standard sound system couldn't really handle all the frequencies he likes to use.
Oh yeah. Exactly. Touring with these guys, Phil Anselmo & The Illegals, is different because they get to play proper venues. I usually bring my entire system, and it's burnout because there's too many speakers to have. But I do bring a full range system now just to have on a stage with a couple of towers to have enough stage volume. Everyone else gets to have four towers of Marshalls, and I don't have any stage volume, so the people right in the front will get it right in the chest.
When you played in Denver at Glob in 2009, you had a handful of the MIDI controller devices that are central to your act even now. Likely no one had seen anything quite like that since Einstürzende Neubauten was last in town in 2000. Being a mechanical engineer, you've had to work with all kinds of fabrication machinery. Was some of that the inspiration for the devices you've made?
Absolutely. I would say it's 100 percent the inspiration working with that kind of equipment at my day job. My dad worked for a kind of robotics style company. Different electromechanical components. And also working on that in college as my focus was robotics and control systems. Then going on and working and finding different textures and knobs and screws and slides that feel really good, and trying to actually use those things that feel good for devices rather than the cheap plastic knobs that don't feel good at all. When someone puts one knob that's made of wood on a device, it becomes the hot topic on all blogs. "Oh my god, this is best interface that's ever been made!" Well they made the knob out of wood. That's cool. That's better than plastic.
You do something other than merely putting a contact mic on these devices, right?
I'm not gonna lie; these are MIDI controllers. I've made haptic interfaces that have resistance. My microphones are now a little bit more on the acoustic side. I recently made these masks that have motors and things that kind of open and close your air gap, and I modulate the sound in that way. Those are very much acoustic. I'm not really an analog kind of guy. I've never geeked out on analog pedals or synths or anything like that. I love the flexibility of the computer. I can build one of these devices with a really good controller and make it sound like anything I want.
You mentioned earlier getting into drum and bass and rave music in the '90s and another comparison sometimes made with your music, that seems odd on first blush, is comparing it to dubstep. Do you find that valid?
A lot of metal and indie people hate dubstep for a lot of reasons that I feel are unjustified. I really like a lot of it but a lot of it is just as bad as the worst new metalcore shit you've ever heard. But there is a lot of good stuff. I think now it's getting to the point where some of those beats don't do anything for me. But the really early dubstep, from 2004 or 2005, up to 2008, dubstep was really raw and dry. No one that's complaining about it now ever knew any of that stuff.
Who were some of your favorite artists that came out of that era?
Benga and Skream and the guys in the U.K. More recently, I've liked James Blake, who came from kind of a dubstep background.
Another aesthetic that is often brought up in describing your music is science fiction. Is there any particular science fiction that inspired you?
One thing I have noticed about science fiction writing is that a lot of it is kind of cynical about the future. I think that's justified, but at the same time, I think my influences came more from the sci-fi movies I watched as a child like Aliens and Blade Runner and things like that. There's nothing ironic or cynical about the things that I do. I do things totally out of a desire to geek out on the tech, so there's nothing like, "Oh, the robots are going to take over and we need to be worried about that."
Earlier you mentioned you had been into metal and heavy music, and perhaps still are. Your music with Author & Punisher has been embraced by that world more so than in other realms of music. Did you find that interesting? Did you feel that was pretty natural considering how different what you do is from metal on the surface level, anyway?
I'm happy to be there. That's definitely where I came from. I think in Europe, it's a little different. I get a little more play on this in the breakcore, hardcore electronic festivals and things like that. Whereas here, that scene isn't as prevalent other than San Francisco and places like that. So yeah, I'm totally embraced by the metal community. It's fun. I do get heckled a little bit at some of the Phil shows, which is totally fine with me. I don't mind being heckled.
You never address it directly with the audience, presumably.
No, no. I don't say anything while I'm on stage. It really doesn't bother me.
How did you get hooked up with Phil?
From what I'd heard, those guys were on tour with Down in Europe. And in a hotel room, I think Phil found it on his own on YouTube, and he showed the stage manager, and they talked about it. It just so happens around that same time I was touring in Europe, and his stage manager came to my show and came up to me and approached the promoter and said he was with Phil Anselmo and that was interested in what I was doing. I emailed him back, and two days later, I had an email from Phil. I pretty much said yes right away.
People who only see what you're doing may not necessarily think about how your music is comprised of songs rather than a sound experiment. Has this project been about songs from the beginning?
I started doing straight up songs from the beginning. I think the first album is called The Painted Army with three or four minute songs. Once I got out of that and started building these machines and getting noise a little more, I don't think I had ever listened to Neubauten at all or stuff like Throbbing Gristle.
I came more from dance music and drone-y metal. I would say I just approached it from a different way and started making drones through my relationship with the actual instruments that I made. After just building two things, I liked the heavy bass tones and I made drone machines that moved slow, and I nurtured the relationship between what I was doing and what they are able to do. The drone stuff the Melvins did? Those tones are always in my head as a baseline.
When you were starting out you used a bass and a laptop?
Yeah, exactly. I was playing that along with a sequence and trying to make it more live by having foot pedals to start it and stop it. And I built my own speakers, so I had this giant wall of speakers behind me. Similar to what Joe Preston does with Thrones. At the same time, I was just introduced to what he did. It was cool because I was able to talk to him about it and go see him play. That was the exact moment when I was playing out and I wanted to be in control of all those changes and the downbeat live.
Do you use the bass anymore?
I used it on the Drone Machines album because it's half guitar and half machines. But I did use a lot of piano on the most recent album, and I'll do a lot of MIDI keyboards with different synths. I'm constantly doing that. There's tons of synth everywhere. The Ursus Americanus album is pure machines and the Women & Children album is half machines and half piano -- a kind of mish mash of whatever I had in the studio.
When you perform that stuff live do you use a piano on stage or an electronic piano?
I don't play those songs. I think I showed up to one venue, and they had a piano, and I debated about whether to do that song, but it was a bad idea.
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