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Interview: Assemblage 23’s Tom Shear

A juggernaut in the world of EBM and Futurepop.

Kevin Ashley

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If you are a fan of industrial music, you will most likely be familiar with Assemblage 23. The Seattle outfit are spoken about with the same reverence as VNV Nation, another juggernaut in the EBM and Futurepop world.

As a huge fan of the band’s work, I was thrilled to have the chance to speak with lead singer Tom Shear recently. 

I asked Shear a series of questions, starting with the a few that most bands probably get: What are some of the Assemblage 23’s influences? How did the band come up with their name?  What were the circumstances of the band’s formation? And, does Shear subscribes to the genre tags used to describe Assemblage’s sound?

“Early Human League, Gary Numan, Fad Gadget, Depeche Mode, Front 242, Nitzer Ebb” Shear began, addressing influences first. 

On Assemblage 23’s name, he says, “I wish I had a more interesting answer to this, but honestly, around the early 90’s when I formally adopted the Assemblage 23 moniker, there were a lot of bands with numbers in their names and I thought it had kind of a cool, anonymous, dystopian feel to it. It wasn’t until years after that people brought the whole lore around the number 23 to my attention.”

Shear pondered the genre tags that are so prevalent in music before responding, “I’ve never really made a conscious decision to make music that fits neatly into a genre, I just make the music I want to hear. I think genres can be useful for getting a ballpark idea of what a band might sound like before you hear them, but I also think sometimes it can cause people to pre-judge or not give a chance to something outside their comfort zone.”

That final sentence is a poignant one, as it rings very true for many fans. 

When asked if Assemblage 23 had any trouble finding distribution or getting shows — as EBM is originally a European genre and more niche in America — Shear says, “Very much so.  I had been sending demos out for ten years or so without any real interest. At the time, the style that was en vogue in the US was the metal guitar stuff and not so much the purely electronic stuff, so it was a bit of an uphill battle. Once things turned around, though, stuff happened pretty quickly and things improved a lot for A23.”

When asked to choose a favorite album or song from Assemblage 23’s material, Shear passed, saying, “I think this is a question I can’t really answer. It’s sort of like asking a mother to name her favorite child. She loves them all for different reasons”

I think genres can be useful for getting a ballpark idea of what a band might sound like before you hear them, but I also think sometimes it can cause people to pre-judge or not give a chance to something outside their comfort zone.”

Tom Shear. (Promo photo by Bob Libby)

Asked which of his tracks carried the most personal inspiration, Shear replied “Probably ‘Disappoint,’ regarding my father’s suicide. As difficult a song as that was to write, it was really cathartic and let me deal with some of the emotions I was trying to process.”

I also asked which track had the most random inspiration, which brought out a wild story:

“There’s a b-side I did called ‘Helicopter Girl’ that was a sort of electro-house instrumental track. The inspiration came from a trip to Spain where I was playing some A23 shows with Daniel Myer from Haujobb playing keys for me. We just had dinner and the promoter was taking us back to our hotel. The route back took us by the soccer stadium in Barcelona. Apparently, the city has an agreement with the prostitutes that they can gather in this area to peddle their wares on evenings when there are no soccer games — I guess to keep out of neighborhoods where kids might be exposed to them or something. Anyway, I was really stricken by how gorgeous some of these women were, but as we drove on, the prostitutes got progressively less attractive and much sketchier looking. The epic end to this was coming around a corner and there was a prostitute with huge tits and a giant donkey dick that they were swinging around like an airplane propeller. None of us were quite prepared for that, but she became known among us as Helicopter Girl and now you can never hear that song without thinking about that story. You’re welcome.”

We wrapped up the conversation on a light note, with a few questions regarding Tom’s life outside of Assemblage 23 and some of his favorite bands.

“I really like to cook for people. I’m not a chef by any means, but I find cooking very relaxing and I think feeding someone is one of the kindest things you can do. And it’s really cool and easy to learn how to cook the stuff you like to eat. Sure, there’s some advanced stuff that’s more difficult, but 90% of what you might want to have for dinner is pretty damn easy to make yourself if you just take the time to learn.”

Shear gave some of his favorite bands a smattering of compliments: “These days I am really blown away by IAMX. I had always liked their music, but after seeing them live, it gave me a whole new appreciation for how great they are. Chris is an amazing song-writer and has a real talent for expressing some really raw things in a beautiful way. I think that’s one of the greatest talents an artist can have — to represent something ugly in a beautiful way. Wulfband is another band in a completely different vein I’ve really been enjoying. Great, punky energy mixed with old school EBM. Sleaford Mods are another band I’ve been enjoying a lot recently. I love the simplicity of their sound and I think the lyrics make it some of the most punk stuff to come out since the 70’s.”

If you obsess over singers and bands, and are one of those people who make a playlist for every occasion, join CMN’s Music Journalism Course and get real-time experience, intense feedback on your writing, exposure to music industry insiders, and a great place to display build your portfolio. Get all the details on the Music Journalism Course here.

Kevin is a graduate from Central Washington University, where he was awarded a Bachelors degree in Professional and Creative Writing. He currently lives in Silverdale, Washington, where he explores new food and drink, goes to concerts, and works on personal projects.

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