Tom Shear talks about politics, music piracy, marriage and his first show ever 12 years ago in Indianapolis
Assemblage 23, Mindflux Funeral, DJs Zlaya and Copper Top
Wednesday, Oct. 10, 9 p.m., $12/$15, 21+
Birdy’s Bar & Grill
NUVO: So you have just released a new full-length album, called “Meta,” as Assemblage 23 (the first of such releases after two and a half years since “Storm”). What was the overall process of writing and recording this album compared to your last? And what are some challenges you overcame to produce it?
Shear: Reaction to it’s [“Meta”] been really positive so far. A lot of the fans have said that it’s their favorite one that I’ve done yet, which is always encouraging. For me, the challenge is, in putting any album together, is I feel like I always have to one-up the one that came before. In some ways, it’s difficult, but in other ways, as technology advances, it becomes easier to produce better sounding records. So as time goes on, it does become a little bit easier to make better sounding records than it was before, but the challenge always lies in the strength of the songwriting and that sort of thing. So I always feel like I’m kind of trying, with each new release, to out-do the one that came before it.
NUVO: Which of your songs do fans seem to really be connecting with right now? What about those lyrics touches them?
Shear: One in particular is called “Madman’s Dream,” and it’s about the [Hurricane] Katrina disaster and the fact that it’s pretty much been ignored after it was in the news, immediately after happening. As time goes on, other new news stories take the media’s attention, and the rest of the country outside of the area affected has a tendency to kind of forget that there’s still people without places to live and who haven’t been helped by FEMA. So that one [song] has gotten a very positive reaction. I guess another one would be one of the ballads on the album, which is called “Damaged.” A lot of people seem to be connecting to that one for one reason or another.
NUVO: What do you hope your fans will take from your new album, as in an overall message, thought, feeling or inspiration?
Shear: Generall, I prefer to let people kind of draw their own conclusions from the music. I’ve always viewed music as a collaborate effort between the artist and the listener. The artist’s job, in my view, kind of finishes when the album is finished and released, and that’s where the listener picks up and filters what the artist has done through their own personal experiences. … What the listener takes from the song and what was intended by the artist originally might actually be two very different things, but because those people have been through different experiences, they might be as legitimate to each person. I kind of like to leave it up to the listeners to take from it what they can, and a lot of times, they nail pretty much what I was after. But there’s other times where they might have an interpretation of something that was not at all what I intended, but is a pretty interesting interpretation.
NUVO: Are there any social or cultural issues that you feel strongly about and would like to share with your fans? And if so, do these topics ever bleed into your songwriting?
Shear: I think “Meta” is probably the first album where a lot of the songs have political inspirations. The challenge, of course, is if you’re writing about very specific incidences or political issues that it kind of ties the song to the time when it was written. And it can kind of lose relevance as time goes on and there’s distance between those things. So I think “Madman’s Dream” is kind of explicit about a specific incidence that people can pinpoint, but a lot of the other songs detail things that are being done by our government. I guess if there was something that I wanted people to take away from it [“Meta”], is that as citizens, it’s our duty to pay attention to what our government is doing, because when you do start paying attention, it becomes apparent that they do a lot of shifty things and try to slip them under the radar outside of people’s awareness. And that’s a very dangerous thing. Some of the things they might do may seem very innocuous and may not have an affect on your life personally, but on the other hand, they might — even if it’s not immediate. Further down the line, all of these things have implications that can affect us all. I was never a very politically motivated person myself until [President George W.] Bush took office, and you know, I guess I always viewed all politicians as kind of the same. But then he took office, and I said, “OK, I guess it can get a lot worse than I thought it could.” But it wasn’t until I really started paying attention to what he was doing that most people come home from their jobs, and they don’t want to watch the news. They don’t want to pay attention to what’s going on, and that’s pretty dangerous.
NUVO: How would you say the digital market has grown since you started becoming involved in the music industry in the late 1980s?
Shear: The music industry is almost unrecognizable compared to what it was 10 years ago, and that’s largely due to the digital issue. The difference we’re starting to see now is that now that there are successful digital distribution options like iTunes and Rhapsody, and those sorts of things, people are starting to buy albums that way. The digital market is growing, but not quite to the point where it’s replacing the loss in the sales of physical CDs. In other words, there’s still a lot of piracy going on, but legitimate digital means are helping to curb that a bit. Human nature being what it is, you’re never going to get rid of the people who just steal the music without paying for it, but the digital market is helping to off-set that. Especially here in the U.S., where it’s been going for a few years, I think it’s really helping some … especially the independent labels, who really can’t afford to lose [sales]. … And in Europe right now, they’re only just now starting to get set up with these digital distribution things, and the market over there is in much worse shape than the U.S. market is. So I think that’s kind of a testament to the ability of these legitimate means to help off-set some of the illegitimate downloads and the impact they have.
NUVO: How is your side project, Nerve Filter, coming along? What part of your personality and musical side does that group allow you to express as opposed to Assemblage 23?
Shear: Assemblage 23 has been around for a while, and I think listeners have certain expectations of what an Assemblage 23 album is gonna be like. I’m comfortable working within that framework, but at the same time, there [are] also things I want to try and experiment with that might not be appropriate for an Assemblage 23 album. So Nerve Filter is kind of my means to just mess around with whatever I feel like doing. And because most people hadn’t heard of it, there weren’t any preconceived notions of what it [was] supposed to sound like. It’s really an ability for me to kind of try some different things, especially some things that are maybe a little more edgy and experimental than might really fit in, in a smooth way with the Assemblage 23 material.
NUVO: What remixes are you currently working on, and what other bands’ albums are you releasing next on your label, 23DB Records?
Shear: Well, right now, it’s kind of difficult, because the label is basically just me running everything, and obviously, we’re out on tour right now. So things are kind of at a stand-still right now. We are working on possibly doing a re-release of one of our artists’ earlier releases, but I don’t want to go into any specifics, just in case it doesn’t pan out. And I’m also talking to a couple artists who are not currently on the label about possibly doing releases for them as well. And I also know that Lost Signal, who is probably the most popular artist on our label, is working on new material as we speak. I don’t think we really have a projected release date for that yet ...
NUVO: Have you been able to relax at all since getting married two years ago and releasing the new album?
Shear: Well, for me, my experience has been, since I started doing this as my only job, that keeping as busy as possible is really a good thing. As long as you have a couple plates spinning, you know you’re still in business and you’re not going to have to start looking into getting a day job again. So I’ve kind of adapted to the fact of always working on something, and it doesn’t stress me out in the way that it might have if I was working for someone else. To me, it’s the payoff of getting to work for myself, doing something that I really love. I probably work twice as hard as I did when I had a day job, but it’s something I enjoy, so I guess I really don’t notice it as much, because it’s fun to do.
NUVO: How is married life treating you, by the way? Have you found yourself making time especially for your relationship and your music, or how do the two integrate? And, on a second note, is your wife involved in music at all?
Shear: I think it works out pretty well. Yesterday was my wife [Megan “Fritter” Shear] and my second year anniversary, and being on the road was really not the way I had hoped to celebrate that. Later this year, I’m playing some shows in Australia, and I’m gonna bring my wife along with me, so we’re kind of looking at that as being our time to celebrate our anniversary. My wife happens to be a musician as well, so she has a very good understanding of the necessity of touring and all these sorts of things, so I think that goes a long way to making our relationship work.
NUVO: What musical group is she in?
Shear: She’s not currently working on music stuff. She occasionally plays drums for SD6, who’s one of the bands on my label, and she was also a member of backandtotheleft, who I originally released and then Metropolis picked up, but that group has also since disbanded.
NUVO: Since producing Seattle’s SD6 four years ago, have you two made any other cameos in the lead singer’s comic books?
Shear: No, Brandon Jerwa, [he’s] the guy that does all the comic writing. He’s a great guy and he’s got a lot of friends. He meets a lot of people, so he’s been getting a number of his friends as characters through various comic books. But just having been there once was quite a surreal experience, but it was pretty cool.
NUVO: Are you still calling Seattle home? What is it about the city that makes it so appealing to musicians?
Shear: Yeah. Seattle is one of those places that the first time I visited it, I just felt something click, like “This is where I’m supposed to be.” My wife and I both love the area, and I can’t ever see myself moving from the area. It’s just got everything that I’m looking for in a place to live. … Summer’s the right time to visit.
NUVO: So your new track, “Binary,” reached No. 21 on the “Billboard” Singles Chart in April 2007. Do you feel like you are reaching a wider audience with your new album, or is the mainstream just finally starting to take note? How do you feel about all that?
Shear: Yes, I mean, we’ve been on tour for a couple weeks now, and in general, the shows have been much more widely attended than previous ones. We’re selling a lot more merchandise and meeting a lot of people who just discovered us, which is a really encouraging thing. Of course, it’s great to go out and see all the familiar faces you always see when you’re out on tour, but part of touring is you want to build your audience. So I do feel that we are reaching a wider audience. I recently did a remix for Blaqk Audio, which is an AFI side project. That was released on a major label, and that’s really done a lot to bring some people from outside the industrial scene in as fans. On MySpace, I’ve been getting a lot of friend requests from AFI fans who discovered us through that remix. So I guess that’s kind of what musicians have to do, especially in an underground scene, where there’s not mainstream radio or MTV exposure. You know, you have to find other creative ways of reaching out to people who haven’t heard of you yet.
NUVO: So what are some items you might put on your holiday wish list this year?
Shear: One thing that I’m definitely gonna look into once we get back from tour when I start on the new album is a product by a company called Focusrite, and it’s called a Liquid Mix. And basically, it is a little box that emulates compressors and EQ — two of the more important bits of studio equipment. It basically has digital models of tons of very famous and very expensive models of EQ and compression. ... It makes much better sounding, more professional and warmer mixes. That’s always something I’m seeking out is to make the next album sound that much better. So, that’s one thing in particular that I definitely have my eye on.
NUVO: Lastly, what other projects are you currently working on, and what goals, both personally and musically, do you have for 2008?
Shear: Well, while we’ve been out on the road, I have been working on some new Nerve Filter material. The last one, to be honest, really didn’t sell very well. So, I’m not sure if it’s something that we’re gonna release as a physical CD or maybe just digitally. And I’m always kind of working on ideas for the next A23 stuff but I really feel much more comfortable working on that stuff when I’m at home in the studio. It’s just a much more comfortable and natural way for me to work than sitting cramped up in a hotel with a laptop. A lot of people can do it, and a lot of people do amazing work like that, but for me personally, I just find it very uncomfortable and a strange way to work.
NUVO: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Shear: I hope that everybody in the area who can make it will come out to our Indianapolis show. It actually will be almost 12 years since we played our first show ever, which happened to be in Indianapolis, so it’s kind of a sentimental show for us as well.