Musician, sculptor, inventor, mad scientist. Tristan Shone, better known as Author & Punisher, has earned these titles and then some by creating an elaborate series of heavy, mechanical instruments and voice-modulating masks, surrounding himself with them, and playing them with every part of his body in use. The result: a sonic portrait of man’s place in a mechanized universe, and the machine’s place in ours, part industrial, part doom, and sometimes flavored with elements of singer-songwriter and pop music. The human element in these cold sounds particularly shines through on his latest release, Melk En Honing, on tour for which, he sat down with us pre-show to talk metal, both physical and aural, while holding a wrench.
So how’s the tour been, and why Muscle and Marrow [openers]?
Tristan: The tour’s been great. I really wanted this one to be a little bit different. I just wanted to delegate and control what was happening at each show, the feeling of it. I think when you tour by yourself you can’t do that. So I really wanted to bring a band that I thought was really heavy but had an element that just wasn’t pure metal. Muscle and Marrow has very restrained, but very sorrowful songs, beautiful, with almost a bit of an electronic vibe to them. They’re from Portland, two-piece, female vocalist, drums.
When Author & Punisher tours, is it just you traveling alone?
Tristan: It’s just me, but I have a guy, his name’s Will Michaelson, Cut-Mod he goes by, he’s basically like a visual artist. He does all the projections and lighting design. That’s his specialty. We do a lot of custom projection mapping and take all of my sounds and kind of run them into his system, so all the lighting’s really controlled by the intensity and the pitch changes and whatnot.
He also knows my set-ups, so if I’m sick or something goes wrong, he can run up and replace something. He understands how it works. It’s hard to find somebody like that. He’s been with me since the first Phil Anselmo tour, which was like two thousand thirteen.
Speaking of Phil, what did he bring to the table on this last album?
Tristan: He brought a lot. I wrote all the songs and then I went, after Housecore fest last year, and recorded with him at his house for about three weeks. I knew that I didn’t wanna have any filler tracks on this album; I wanna keep kind of a singular vision and not stray off and have a couple quiet songs to give a break. I really wanted everything to be powerful. I do have a lot of softer music I play, and that was not an option.
And, then he, the vocals, really forcing me to push my vocals a lot harder – well, I guess I should say be a little bit more clear about them, instead of hiding them in a lot of effects.
Yeah, the human element really comes through all the coldness here. I feel like the last two albums in particular have been very empathic.
Tristan: Yeah. That’s one of the reasons I took Muscle and Marrow with me. I didn’t wanna have – y’know, part of touring is emotionally exhausting and I think having some people along with you that have that side to them, rather than just “drinkin’ beer, smokin’ weed all night long”. That’s not the way my tours are. We do drink a lot, and we have a lot of fun, but we also go to art museums, and talk about books, movies, and stuff. I just wanna make sure that that’s part of my tour. Same with the album, really, that’s who I am. I think the heaviness comes from a different place than just angst-y anger or something.
I’m not sure if you wrote this or not, but on your bandcamp it says there’s a focus on “the eroticism of the interaction with the machine”.
Tristan: Oh, that’s me, yep [chuckles]. I wrote that a long time ago, when I was first coming up with a bio. Maybe I was applying for a grant or something. I wouldn’t say it’s sexual, but there’s definitely something about the way two mechanical elements work together. When you find a machine that has that beauty to it, it’s something very erotic or satisfying, pleasurable about interacting with it.
I’m really obsessed with materials – just today I was at the store – if you buy a screw or a castor wheel that’s made of zinc-coated steel, rather than a stainless steel, you just can tell that zinc-coated steel, it kind of shreds and breaks down really easily. For me it’s all about using quality materials that don’t break down, and even the surface coatings and how one thing glides over another. A good bearing has really good components that you can just feel the way it spins. There’s no bumps, but there’s the perfect amount of resistance. That, to me, is why I make my machines. When you’re making good music and interacting with your instrument, you really want the quality to be there. It’s almost like a Gibson, y’know, like a Les Paul Custom compared to a cheap Ibanez-knockoff. You just know, when the two pieces meet. Yeah, eroticism, that’s what that is.
Do you feel like these machines and these masks have their own sorts of personalities?
Tristan: No, I just think they’re cold. I don’t think so, not at all. People say that sometimes, but I don’t feel anything. To tell you the truth, I think it’s kind of a misinterpretation to think that there’s any kind of robotic or really high-tech thing going on. Really what this is like a return to very low-tech industrial revolution technologies. There are some electronics inside that are maybe advanced, but not that advanced. The actual instrument action that I have with the machine, the thing that slides or moves is very simple stuff. There’s motors in there and potentiometers, but those have been around since the ‘40s and ‘50s. I’m using ball bearings, slides, and knobs. There’s nothing complicated about that. For me it’s getting away from these massive button-knob controllers that do have complicated algorithms doing things that you don’t have any part of. This is all like you’re doing everything. Your direct interaction with the machine is what’s creating the sound so you understand that one-to-one relationship.
So it’s about as digital as a bicycle?
Tristan: Yeah [a “more-or-less” kind of “yeah]. It’s about as digital as a bicycle rather than a sequencing drum-machine that you program in some algorithm or randomizer, that you’re just doing something random and that’s doing all the work. I mean, that’s cool too. I’m amazed with what some of these guys can do. I’m not one of those people.
I read in Wired that the machines mostly interact with Arduino boards. What do you get out of those that other microcontrollers can’t do?
Tristan: I use Arduino and I’m starting to branch out a little bit to get into some of these other micro-controllers like raspberry pie, there’s a lot of new boards that are allowing you to even create your own digital sampler with basically the innards of a small laptop or a Mac mini. So you can basically make your own software controller inside of your instrument. So you turn your instrument on, plug your power cable in, that’s where I wanna get. I don’t wanna have this other computer. I want each thing to switch, have maybe four options, and then I don’t have to think about it.
But, getting back to the Arduino, it is a good start to that. They allow me to basically take all of my sensors, and buttons, and knobs, move‘em, slide ‘em, push, and translate that into USB or midi data. That’s just really simple commands that I program. There’s some complicated shit there to make it, if you wanna get detailed, class-compliant USB, that you don’t have to have weird little processes running on your computer to translate different types of – taking serial data and making it into something midi-readable. That was a difficult task. So that was something that you have to reprogram. There’s a chip on there other than the Arduino board. There’s some tricks there that people at Stanford, at the music department, have worked on.
I used to dork out a lot on what was inside what I built. I would spend so much time and be so anal about the way the code worked because I wanted it to fall certain standards. I would obsess about it to the point where I wouldn’t – final product was really what mattered, when I’m on stage, so I focus less. I really just try to get what I want achieved rather than focus too much on the tech, ‘cause, for example, there are better microcontrollers out there, OSC commands, which is like another – it’s supposed to be better than midi; it’s much faster. Midi apparently is really slow, But the thing is, everything I play is really slow, y’know? I play really slow music; I don’t need a super-fast controller. Things like that, trying to keep it as simple as possible, ‘cause the final part matters.
I read that, in addition to engineering, you were sculpting for a while.
Tristan: Sculpting, yeah, I was in a visual arts program and UCSD, like the grad program. My focus was sculpture and tech, but, to tell you the truth, it was basically a conceptual art program. Sculpture, for me, was just machining, milling, and lathe, and 3-D fabrication design. I’ve never worked with a ball of clay or anything like that, just 3-D solid works, and, to tell you the truth, I never went through like a sculpture program, per se, so I was never trained in that. I can’t draw very well; like, I can’t draw you, very well at all [chuckles]. So I’m definitely cad, solid works, machine design.
Do you have any non-musical machine endeavors in your life?
Tristan: I don’t have time. I have some ideas and I’ve built some stuff, but I really feel like they’re kind of – if I can’t interact with them, they’re not as satisfying. Yeah, like kind of clever, sculptural, kinetic sculpture ideas, but, for me, I found that connection and I wanna keep pushing it.
I had one where – you know, you find yourself playing music and you find yourself in these positions, like, your poses of power, and I kind of wanted to make inverses of these poses of power that you get yourself into music or whatever you do. So kind of the inverse of what your body would be. So you go up to up and put yourself into that position. But it’s a very personal thing, and I just don’t have time to go explore that to the extent it needs to be explored. I barely have time to fix my van when I’m home, and then design new instruments, which is my goal right now.
Speaking of, are they any new gadgets on Melk En Honing?
Tristan: Well, I have the masks. I do some gallery shows too where they’re not even really amplified, and that’s more what those masks are for. So we recorded them on the album, but they’re really hard to mic up. I’ve brought ‘em on tour before, but I’ve just found them to be more cumbersome. Through the month of December, when I go to Europe, I’m trying to bring them with me, but I just haven’t had the time to get them worked into the set, because they’re not part of my core, y’know, my rhythm, my synths and my oscillators, they’re not part of that. They’re more noise chatter.
But, yeah, next summer, I’ve got a whole slew of new things designed, so I’m excited to get workin’ on it.
On “Future Man”, what is “the load we’re hauling”?
Tristan: I think this song is one of those country music tracks where the lyrics are really broad and can just mean something very lame – and I say lame just ‘cause it’s like a love song where the words are really cheesy. I think it’s just a typical kind of sad time in the world right now and our age – I don’t wanna have kids because I don’t want them to grow up in a certain atmosphere, so I think that’s what it is. We’re dealing with the problems of previous generations that we’re gonna have to carry around, and that could be environmental problems that our dads who worked in factories created through disasters and spilling and stuff, maybe it’s wars and the fact that we have to go to other countries and not be liked by other countries because we did terrible things. Yeah, that’s kind of it. Simple, dark, sad things.
Does improvisation play any role in your live set?
Tristan: Yeah, for sure. I would say less and less as I’ve gotten better at playing these instruments because I’m just learning to play them better and I can sort of repeat what I do, but before it was like sometimes the pitches were a little hard to reach – and you’ll hear it tonight, like, sometimes I’m off-pitch on this and then my vocals are trying to find it too. I’ll change the songs up a little bit for sure. I only have one sequence that I think I’ll run tonight, like one keyboard part, and I don’t need to use it, I just kind of like to use it so I can have two things at once. I only have so many hands.
Lastly, do you live in a city and do you think that matters in industrial music?
Tristan: I mean, I live in San Diego, which is probably – when I come here [Philadelphia] and I drive around here, I mean, this is a city. San Diego is very much suburbs, y’know. Everybody lives in their own house. Barely anyone lives in apartment buildings. Everybody kind of has their little ranch house, their little garden. I have a warehouse space in an industrial part of town that I use, but I live in paradise. I surf almost every day. I grew up in New Hampshire on a farm. That was also beautiful. I don’t think it’s necessary at all.
I don’t like angst-y industrial music. I think it’s cheesy, especially when I think things should always be expressed with an abstract more creative way than just saying them directly.