Before a recent show at El Corazon opening for Philip H. Anselmo and the Illegals, Seattle PA writer Lee Newman had a chance to sit down with Tristan Shone, the man behind both the music and the machines of Author & Punisher.
Interview by Lee Newman
Seattle Passive Aggressive: First, I definitely need to thank you for coming out and playing. I saw you at the Black Lodge a few months ago and I was really impressed.
Tristan Shone: That was a fun show, a good show of kind of a messy weekend. I had a guy in Portland who never paid me, so I’ve been looking for him ever since. Fuckin’…what are you gonna do.
SPA: They [the Black Lodge] are a great venue. Glad to have caught you there. One of the things I noticed about the show is that this project is obviously all about the gear. It’s tactile; it’s sort of movement-oriented. When you were starting Author & Punisher, at what point did you realize that a guitar or a bunch of drums just wasn’t going to cut it?
T: I think it was basically when I decided to not play with a band. I just made that decision. And so I was kind of experimenting with replacing those elements, playing guitar along with a sequence on a computer through a big sound system, and I didn’t like playing along with the sequence. So I decided that I would try to do some of those things live, so it had the drag of doom metal and drone. So it wasn’t just MIDI click. I was also in art school at the time, so I had ample amounts of time to sit there and mess around with gadgetry, to trigger stuff. So that’s where the idea to build these kinds of machines that would attach to all my limbs came from.
SPA: How do the machines affect the writing process? I can’t imagine it would be similar to sitting down with a guitar and noodling until something sounds decent.
T: You kind of do that! I mean, obviously when I’m building these they take a long time to make. I don’t build them all at once. I get to play with one a little bit before I get the next one. So, you have these songs in your mind you think you’re going to write, like “oh, I’m making it so it sounds like NYEERRR!” But actually, you can’t do that exactly, so whatever you think you’re going to do is not what you actually do. It changes completely. You do noodle! You just sit there and drone out and you drink wine and you just get to the point where you find things that are heavy.
SPA: Because each one is designed to make some specific sound, does that affect the writing process? Do you write for them [the machines] or do you build things to match what you’re hearing in your head already?
T: Actually, other than these new masks that I’ve made and the vocal instruments that I have, their sounds are all software. They’re just interfaces. So that’s the one thing that I kind of know, what the sound is going to be before I build them. I know I want it to sound like a chainsaw cutting through something, mixed with a sine wave, a base tone. That’s the one part I kind of have control over.
SPA: Do they go through multiple prototypes for the best sort of user interface?
T: They go through an initial phase where I have to replace an element of the design, stuff like that. But I don’t have the time to really make a lot of them. They take three to four months to make. I work a full time job.
SPA: I went on your website, and you have a really comprehensive breakdown of each machine, what it does, and what goes into it. I recognized some of them from the Black Lodge show, and some you have tonight are new. Do you decide which ones to take on tour based on what songs you’re going to play?
T: Each album, like the Drone Machines album, that one was very much drone machines mixed with some guitar. I can’t really play those songs live. Plus I’d have to bring those instruments. I brought them to Seattle, at that Josephine place maybe several years ago. But I don’t play with them very much because they’re so big and heavy. They were meant more to be sculptures in a gallery. The new ones are pretty much…it sucks because I can’t play those old songs, but if I tour I’ll basically just tour on that album. You know, like the Melvins will pick, “we’re going to do Lysol this time,” and I think that’s cool. They’re different things, they should be grouped together. It’s not like you’re playing your greatest hits.
SPA: That makes sense because Women & Children feels like a suite, almost. There’s that running single-finger piano melody that goes through a few of the songs, and also I feel like there’s this ongoing lyrical theme of cleansing through punishment. Did you start writing the album with a unified theme in mind, or does it form while you’re writing?
T: I didn’t really plan on doing that album. I would say the Ursus album, coming from Drone Machines, which was my art school album…I spent a year on Drone Machines. I could just have ample time to rewrite and tweak and record, but I didn’t like that I couldn’t play all that stuff live. So Ursus was very much just “these four instruments, I can play the entire album.” It’s almost like a live-recorded album. So on Women & Children, I went back to the idea of, well, I like to play piano. I wrote some songs for a gallery show where these masks I made were doing the rhythm section and my wife was playing piano. The piano is my original instrument, so I rewrote those songs in a more industrial way. But I don’t play those tracks live. They’re a different thing altogether. The theme that goes through it, those were the first songs I broke out from there. It’s a lot more melodic.
SPA: I had noticed that Ursus Americanus was more punchy, I’d say a lot more upbeat, whereas Women & Children has more of a somber tone to it. When I first heard that piano refrain that runs through it, I thought immediately, “that’s a Trent Reznor riff.” That just sounds like something he would write! I also hear a lot of Godflesh in this album, but who do you count as your influences for this stuff?
T: I don’t know! I think it has a little bit of a dance-industrial feel, but no house beats or anything. I think I was just trying to branch out into different instruments. Next album, I’ll probably avoid that stuff. Like, I won’t add sequences like the ones that I trigger now. I never listened to Nine Inch Nails that much – I wouldn’t call myself a fan, but I completely respect what they do. That stuff is visceral. I would say, maybe more of the early drum and bass music where they had some piano lines, and then the beat would come in.
SPA: About this tour, obviously it’s kind of a funny lineup. You’re on tour with Phil Anselmo, who’s doing this sludgy, groovy slam sort of thing with this band. You’ve also got Hymns, and they do sort of traditional black metal from the little I’ve heard of them. How did all this come together? It’s so eclectic.
T: I toured with Phil back in August, with Warbeast who are kind of like a thrash band. It’s basically Phil who carries the whole thing. I think he views it as trying to cover these different genres to make it a complete show. So even though it’s not the bands that are the most similar to me, it’s great for me because I get to play to people who probably want to hate it. Hopefully some of them come away not hating it. I think I was heckled at the first show because I kind of came out light and more experimental, and I realized that with this crowd I had to come out and just pummel.
SPA: Yeah, this crowd wants the slams and the big breakdowns…
T: Yeah, so on the first three songs, I come out, and then I go to the more Women & Children chill songs. But it’s been great. They’re so supportive, and this project of Phil’s is so heavy live. It’s not really what it sounds like on the album. He’s a huge Portal fan. Portal’s awesome, and Phil’s opening song is a Portal track. So it’s probably not what you’re expecting.
SPA: I looked up a few live videos of Phil’s current project and I keep finding ones where he’s wearing your shirts. I’m guessing you two have probably talked music while you’ve been on these tours. Obviously you’re playing in two very different projects. Where do your views align?
T: He and I have almost the exact same idea, at least from what I can tell so far, of what heavy is. I can tell he maybe doesn’t like some of the, not dancier, but melodic songs. But I can see when I’m playing those parts, he comes up to the side of the stage and he’s headbanging. He just knows the viscerally of when you hold things too long, and you create the anxiety, and then hit it hard. That’s why I like my instruments, because I can grab onto the emotional part of the crowd. And that’s kind of what he’s doing at the front of the stage, he’s kind of always grabbing it by the horns.
SPA: Have you guys been playing behind the barrier the whole tour?
SPA: What is that like? At this venue [El Corazon] I’ve never seen that.
T: His fans are intense. So maybe it’s to prevent them from throwing things at me [laughs]. Someone threw a beer at one of my speakers, which is fine, but it’s kind of…it happens. It makes me stronger. I’m a pretty chill person so it makes my skin tougher.
SPA: Interesting you should say that, because I’ve always thought that the way the machines are arrayed around you, it almost looks like armor. It’s cool juxtaposed against the more vulnerable themes of the lyrics.
T: It’s not meant to be that way. I feel like people always suggest, “oh, you should make an arm attachment…”
SPA: Like an Iron Man suit…
T: Right! And I’m just like no, that’s not the idea! Maybe it looks tech, but I just work in tech, and I made interfaces that I think feel nice. I try not to make it too theatrical or steampunky.
SPA: Because then it becomes a gimmick instead of a tool.
T: I don’t want to wear a costume or face paint or anything. But hey, maybe I will someday.
**Photo and interview by Lee Newman