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Machines in Paradise: An Interview with Author & Punisher’s Tristan Shone

Last week’s announcement of Author & Punisher‘s spring tour of North America (in support of Weedeater) included a Vancouver date, which came as a pleasant surprise – we’ve been absolutely spoiled for Tristan Shone’s machine doom performances (most recently September 2015 and previously December 2014) and, while we were aware of the upcoming European tour beginning on Saturday in France, fans of the industrial-concrete project can never get enough; this news was like a second Christmas.

Seeing that we have loyal readers on both sides of the Atlantic, now is the time to share our most recent chat with Shone from his last Vancouver stop at the Astoria in September…

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Author and Punisher

“I’m out there and I’m just like, what the fuck? There’s dolphins jumping around me as I’m surfing and I just don’t get it.” This is the first thing that comes to mind from our conversation in September: Tristan Shone beset by a stream of East Hastings panhandlers asking for change and cigarettes on the sidewalk outside the Astoria, while he describes the “paradise” of living in San Diego and the impetus behind “The Barge”, a song on Author & Punisher’s most recent album Melk en Honing.

He says part of the inspiration came from a Thai film depicting jungles, ghosts and an uncle (quite possibly Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat, which translates as, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), but also from the bunker mentality of some of his city’s residents. “I always go to these kind of magical, tropical parks and hang out, not Balboa Park but all these canyon places. I think they’re really beautiful but at the same time you have these people that live in this area that are absolutely, ridiculously obsessed with – we live in paradise, where I live – but at the same time they kind of create this, it’s like fear-mongering. It’s a Republican city (San Diego) – very conservative, harbouring of weapons – and I have these conversations sometimes with people: ‘Oh no, don’t you understand that the government is two steps away from bringing tanks down the street?!’, and I look outside and we just live in paradise and it dawns on me that people create these fantasies of what’s not happening and they’re not living their lives. I get scared about that. (The song)’s a little bit of a dystopian fantasy idea of what happens when people are bored – and it’s kind of sad considering how many countries are actually in dire need of help, and we’re kind of destroying ourselves – anyway, it’s kind of this abstract idea of San Diego as this warground and “The Barge” is this song about getting invaded on the coastline.”

He says the title of the most recent album is Dutch for “milk and honey” and reference to one of his first tours to the Netherlands: having travelled by train with his heavy custom instruments in tow, “melk and honing is just the bodily fluids and the hard work that you put in; it was an ode to that.” Relating the experience to Glasgow-based artist Russell MacEwan led to the creation of several distinctive allegorical character portraits, including “Melk”and “Honing”, which feature on the album cover and merch. The misshapen, partially obscured faces seem to float in empty space, trapped in a surreal nightmare; considering the reactionary behaviours exhibited by some citizens of Western European countries inundated by the flow of refugees, MacEwan’s stark shadow-figures seem to have anticipated this wave of xenophobic paranoia through their dark reflections of Self and Other.

"Pie Eater" t-shirt design, art by Russell MacEwan

“Pie Eater” t-shirt design, art by Russell MacEwan

One observes that Shone’s work generally appears more intellectually and emotionally complex than much of contemporary heavy music. He avers, “I don’t have a lot of angst, and I don’t like angsty metal music because I think it ends up being – it cheapens it. I mean, I could grunt all my songs; in a lot of ways when I’m singing live the words don’t matter to me.” Where previous albums were less focused on lyrics, the guidance and support from Phil Anselmo (Down, Superjoint Ritual) and his Housecore Records label brings new clarity and purpose for lyrics and vocals. “I’m not afraid of lyrics or afraid of speaking my mind, but I knew I was working with Phil and he warned me long ago that we were going to sit down with these lyrics and go through them…and we did, we sat down with a 12-pack and we went through the entire, with the album, scratch tracks – the entire album – and rewrote, came up with different words if it sounded too cliche or something. He’d ask me, ‘So what are you getting at here?’, and he wasn’t judgmental, the more abstract it was the better for him.”

Determining the optimal circumstances and context for one’s creative work is its own form of paradise for any artist, and clearly Shone’s distinctive vision for Author & Punisher has this destination in mind. From his criteria for tourmates and collaborators to his conceptual choices for music videos (“Void, Null, Alive” revolved around a cast of touring demon puppets), one detects a persistent sense of calm levity. Of Portland duo Muscle & Marrow’s selection for the opening slot on the last North American tour, he says, “One of the main reasons, other than them being awesome, that I brought this band along is because they’re just good people, they’re smart and bright and we like the same movies and books, and I’m sick of – I’ve travelled with dude bands in vans that are kind of just grumpy and we don’t have anything to talk about – and that makes a big difference to me. It’s not just, ‘Oh they draw forty people, let’s bring ’em along.’” While remixes have been few and far between, Shone says he eschews gimmicky promotional efforts and prefers to simply wait for the right collaborative project to come along, “because my interests are really in electronic music. I love a lot of metal but I don’t want any shredders onstage with me and I don’t think I need a guitar player to play along with what I do. I think a vocalist would be really cool [Muscle & Marrow vocalist Kira Clark subsequently performed guest vocals onstage with Author & Punisher during the last tour – Ed.], or maybe somebody who’s got some really neat synth stuff that I don’t know about, some cool modular stuff that might make some sounds that would complement.”

The challenge to combine work and art is a familiar one for most creatives that often requires something of a double life, working in unrelated fields to survive with a modicum of time and energy for creative projects. Shone has tried his hand at teaching and at co-running a business (making custom speakers – similar to the ones he built for his own live rig), but one wonders if there was ever a time he questioned whether to make a choice between engineering and art. “I don’t have any choice, I mean this is the way it has to be. I don’t have another profession I can do for money and [Author & Punisher] is starting to pay for itself. I make a little bit of money so when I come back [from touring] I can pay my rent. Hopefully that continues so I could leave my job – because I would – I would do this full-time in a second, you know?”

Author & Punisher commences its next live assault on Europe this weekend, followed by the North American tour with Weedeater in March.