November 11, 2020 Interview – Tom Shear of Assemblage 23
Some bands use their platforms to say virtually nothing, while others allow their music to create a cycle of catharsis. Such is the case for Electro-Industrial’s Assemblage 23, the sonic guise of singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Tom Shear. With over 22 years beneath his belt as an artist, Shear has consistently delivered powerful offerings—including 2002’s Defiance, 2009’s Compass, and 2016’s Endure, to name but a few.
For his ninth LP, the multi-talented musician once again pairs body-moving, genre-expanding electronics with intimate, soul-searching lyrical content. The end result is Mourn, which arrived on September 11th via Metropolis Records. In honor of its release, Shear recently sat down to discuss everything from life-altering epiphanies to toxic masculinity, mental health to the news media.
Cryptic Rock – You have been writing and recording under the guise of Assemblage 23 for 22 years now. What has all of this time taught you about yourself as well as music?
Tom Shear – I think I’ve always had a pretty bad case of imposter syndrome, but the fact that I’ve been doing this as long as I have makes that a hard insecurity to hang onto. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is not to worry about the critics and be true to yourself. I think listeners pick up on the genuineness of that and appreciate it. At least I do as a music listener.
Cryptic Rock – Sincerity is a key element in great music. And you have that, which is why Assemblage 23 has been at the upper echelon of what we’ll lovingly term Electro-Industrial Goth for years, but you have never caged yourself into one specific sound. What is it that inspires you when you sit down to create new music?
Tom Shear – Everything! I think creative people are influenced, whether it’s in a conscious way or not, by everything they experience; kind of like sponges for inspiration. It might be something obvious like a really beautiful song by another artist, or it might be the hum of a broken refrigerator motor that inspires a rhythm or texture in a less obvious way. Inspiration is everywhere, you just have to be open to it.
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely. Sometimes the best inspiration comes from the most random sources. Now, obviously we’re here to discuss Mourn, which arrived on September 11th. Thematically, the album looks at personal issues as well as the world around us, but you’re careful to maintain a thread of hope throughout everything. So, to ask the obvious, why title the LP “Mourn”?
Tom Shear – The album is largely inspired by a pretty dark period in my life. I fell into a really deep depression, and after a lot of soul-searching, I realized there was a lot that was in my control to get out of it. I got divorced, I moved back to the East Coast, and made a lot of other big changes in my life. So, in a sense, the title is meant to be marking the end of an old life—sort of a funeral for it. But the end of anything also signifies the beginning of something new, and that’s where the sense of hope comes into play. Acknowledging a dark past life, and looking to the possibility of starting over with a sense of optimism.
Cryptic Rock – You open the album with “Epiphany,” which feels like a foreshadowing of the soul-searching lyrical content that follows. Was there an actual epiphany that prefaced the writing and recording of the album?
Tom Shear – Yeah, it is for sure a soul-searching record. It was a really tumultuous time in my life with a very real sense of being lost and not knowing what the future would hold. “Epiphany” seemed like a natural opener, because it sort of signifies the moment where it became clear that things had to change in my life. And yes, there was such a moment for me, but I’m not going to get into that here. Sometimes there is just a moment, horrible as it may be, that makes everything clear for you.
Cryptic Rock – But that moment got you here, and that’s what matters most, right? As for the album, the showstopper, in many senses, is “Factory”—a kind of “Boys Don’t Cry” for 2020. What was it that made you want to address toxic masculinity, and does the song appear to have opened up a dialogue, particularly with fans?
Tom Shear – I mean, I think that issue has been on full display in the U.S. since the election in 2016. When terms like “snowflake,” “cuck”, and “incel” have entered the mainstream lexicon, it’s a pretty good indicator that this is an issue that is culturally relevant. I think what we’re seeing are actually the death throes of these types of attitudes. I hope, at least, that we’re moving towards more progressive attitudes towards what it means to be a “man” and that we can address some of the damage certain cultural norms do, not just to men, but to those who love them.
As to whether it opens up a dialogue… I don’t know. I’ve been asked about it in a few interviews, but I can’t say what the discussion among fans has been. I hope it at least makes people think about it. It’s a problem that needs addressing badly, in my opinion.
Cryptic Rock – It is. But the conversation has started, so there’s hope for the future. Similarly, you tackle mental health topics on the LP. It’s interesting how poetically you have managed to capture the feeling of losing ourselves in the maze of our own minds on “Anxiety.” A personally daunting topic, I assume that in order to describe something so flawlessly, you have dealt with anxiety in your life? How has that affected you creatively?
Tom Shear – It wasn’t until I had this really severe bout with depression that I had experienced beyond what people normally experience of anxiety in their day to day lives. As it became clearer and clearer to me that I was going to have to make some monumental shifts in my life, I began to suffer panic attacks for the first time. Thankfully, that was a temporary situation and not something I’ve had to carry forward with me since then, but it was a pretty horrifying thing to experience and seemed like a topic worth addressing.
Cryptic Rock – Addressing it definitely helps to clear the stigma attached to anxiety, so thank you for doing so. In fact, there’s a very loose mental health theme throughout many of the songs. Throughout 2019-2020, this has been prevalent in many genres of music. What do you think it is about our modern times that we are seeing a downward slope in the overall mental health of many nations, especially America?
Tom Shear – I think it’s a complex issue with a lot of different facets, but I believe social media plays a pretty substantial role in it. The information we see in our social media is catered to us in order to more closely target advertising to us. The goal of social media is not to inform you, it’s to sell ads. So the information you are seeing is targeted to you. While it may seem the person on the opposite end of the political spectrum must be crazy to believe what they believe, a lot of it comes down to what information they have, and, more importantly, haven’t received.
A couple weeks ago we had the first presidential debates between Trump and Biden. Trump’s performance largely lost him support. I saw an interview with someone who voted for Trump in 2016, but who was changing their vote after seeing Trump’s behavior in the debates. They indicated that they only watched Fox News and had never seen Trump behave that way before.
Meanwhile, that’s pretty much who Trump has always been. It’s just that this targeted media (news media as well as social media) didn’t show them the “bad” stuff because it would risk losing viewers who support Trump. We need some serious regulation to change this picture, but with the amounts of money being made based on this system, I’m not optimistic we’ll get it. We need a return to when news was actually news, and not opinion pieces disguised as news.
Cryptic Rock – That is very true. However, there are also a lot of people that choose to be blissfully ignorant. With the world at your fingertips, there’s no excuse for not doing your research before you through your support to a candidate. But that’s a whole other debate, so let me stick to the conversation at hand here. Although you explore some bleak and depressing territory on Mourn, there’s a beacon of hope blooming throughout, as well. Was it important to maintain a positivity among all of the heavy subject matter?
Tom Shear – For sure. I think it’s as much an album about finding hope and guidance, and whatever you need to enact positive change, as it is about the depressing stuff. Ironically, for such a dark album, I think it’s pretty hopeful.
Cryptic Rock – It really is, which makes it real. All of this said, did the writing and recording process provide you with the catharsis you needed?
Tom Shear – Absolutely. My life has changed for the better in so many ways. It was good to sort of exorcise the demons of that period in my life, and know that I got through it and don’t have to experience any of it again. I’m very thankful to have a creative outlet I can purge this stuff with.
Cryptic Rock – Do you have a favorite lyric on the collection?
Tom Shear – “I acted like a fool / for all the world to see / when the answer all along / was right in front of me” from “Confession” is probably the one I’d choose to represent the theme of the album in a lyric. Sometimes it’s easy after you’ve gone through something to see that the solution was really simple.
Cryptic Rock – So very true and an excellent lyric. Have you been doing anything special to keep engaged with your fans throughout this strange year?
Tom Shear – Mari and I did a live performance as Helix for the online version of the Terminus Festival. My keyboard player Paul did a DJ set for the Panoptikon folks in Texas. I’ve done some interviews via Zoom and am currently fulfilling one of the perks from my crowdfunding campaign where fans selected a personal Skype conversation with me. I’ve done those in the past, but it seems doubly appropriate now given how restricted a lot of us are in seeing our friends and family. Seeing a friendly face and hearing another voice really lifts the spirits.
Cryptic Rock – It really does and it’s wonderful of you to do that. Now, taking a moment to look back at your entire oeuvre of material, do you have an older song that you feel particularly encapsulates what you are doing with Assemblage 23, or, more simply, just that you still love performing all these years later?
Tom Shear – I think the song that has had the biggest impact in my career was “Disappoint,” which I wrote about trying to find sense in the suicide of my father. Anyone who has been unfortunate enough to lose someone special to them to suicide will attest that it’s a very lonely feeling. You feel as if no one can truly understand what it feels like. What I found out as a result of that song, however, is just how common it is. There is a tendency to stigmatize or feel shame about suicide for most people, and I think the end result is, it’s not something that gets discussed nearly enough. But every time we play that song at a show, I meet at least one person who has experienced that sort of loss. It made me realize just how widespread a problem it is. I hope that things like “Disappoint” will help people feel less alone and less ashamed to talk about it, because it’s a conversation we really need to be having as a society. So it feels good to perform if it makes even one person in the audience feel less alone in what they’re going through.
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely. Okay, so last question. At Cryptic Rock we cover music as well as films, particularly Horror and Sci-Fi. Assuming that you are a fan of Sci-Fi, are you also a fan of Horror? If so, what are some of your favorite Horror and/or Sci-Fi films?
Tom Shear — The original Jacob’s Ladder (1990) is probably my favorite “good” Horror movie. I make that distinction because I really have a soft spot for “bad” movies—Chopping Mall (1986) is a favorite—or anything done in earnest that has sort of camp value to it. The Horror genre is full of stuff like that. I also really love when Sci-fi and Horror sort of cross over. Not many have done it well, but movies like the Alien series or Event Horizon (1997) are really great, in my opinion.