Assemblage 23 Interview
Thanks for giving PCN magazine some of your time as you prepare to release your much anticipated new album.
First things first… congratulations on your recent engagement to Mari… life seems to be in the up for you atm.
(I expect my wedding invitation in the post now!!)
Thank you very much! It can’t all be doom and gloom all the time!
For the uninitiated readers can you give a beginners guide to A23? (As detailed as you like)
Assemblage 23 has been kicking around formally since the mid-90’s, although it technically started much earlier than that. At the time, most of the scene music coming out of the United States was guitar-oriented, so it was a bit tough to get a foothold at first, but as the tide shifted to more electronic-oriented stuff, I started getting more attention until I signed with the Canadian label Gashed Records. They put out the first couple of albums and helped me get established with a European label so I could reach that audience as well. From there, I went to Metropolis Records and that’s where things kind of took off for A23. “Failure” was the album that kind of got the most notice, so that’s a good one to start with even though it’s quite old now. “Storm” is another good place to start for anyone unfamiliar with the kind of stuff I do.
I’ve been lucky enough to hear the new album – Mourn – and it’s my pick of 2020 so far. It’s a pretty dark album.
This may be too personal a question to answer but What are the influences behind the package as a whole?
Thanks! Yeah, it’s probably the darkest thing I’ve done since the early days. It came out of a really dark period in my life where I was really struggling with depression. That’s probably not surprising to anyone who has read my lyrics, but this was at a level I’d never experienced before. I was having a tough time just getting by day to day. I hid it pretty well, so I don’t think anyone around me really knew how bad things had gotten. I realized that if I was going to turn things around, I needed to make some rather drastic changes in my life. So the album is about this difficult period in my life, which I am happy to say is behind me now.
What are your hopes for the album?
It’s hard to know what to hope for these days since the music business has changed so much, so I mostly just hope that people like it. Anything else on top of that is just a bonus.
Are you excited to see the reaction to the album and do you still get the same buzz as you did in the beginning?
I can’t really say it’s the same, because there’s something special about the first time you read a positive review of your stuff, but its similar. These days I’m more just amazed that the fans have followed along through all this time. It’s hard to maintain people’s interest for such a long time, so I’m just really thankful people are still interested in what I’m doing.
From a technical point of view what gear was used on the album and what is your typical start to finish process?
For hardware, I used a Moog Sub 37, an Access Virus B, a Roland SE-02, a Behringer Neutron, a Korg Arp Odyssey, a Roland SH-01A, a Roland JU-06, and a Roland JP-08. For software, I used a lot of stuff, but the stuff that got used the most frequently was U-he DIVA, U-he Hive, U-he – Repro 1/5, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, Sonic Academy ANA2, Dmitry Shes Thorn, a bunch of the Arturia stuff, etc. DAWS used were Bitwig Studio and Logic Pro X.
The album was crowdfunded; how did this come about and was it a success?
This was the third crowdfund I’ve done. The first was for my Surveillance side project, the second was for A23’s “Endure”, and the third was for the new album. I’m backed by a good label, so for me, crowd-funding wasn’t a make or break proposition. But what I discovered through doing these before is that the fans like the ability to get special stuff they can’t get elsewhere and enjoy playing a part in the process of the album’s release.
It makes it a bit more personal. So it’s a really good way to build a relationship with fans. In the end, it did about twice what the previous campaign had done, which really shocked me. But that’s the kind of shock I wish I had more of in my life.
The big topic Worldwide is obviously COVID -19. Has this affected you professionally in any way and how do you see it affecting A23 in the immediate future? I’m obviously thinking about live promotion of the album.
Yeah, it’s really strange to be just about to release an album and not have a tour lined up to promote it. We had to cancel a tour in Europe we had planned for April, and now we’re having to cancel some of the make-up dates we were planning for the fall. In a few months, it’ll have been a year since we’ve performed live anywhere. I really miss it.
The members of A23 as a live unit live in different parts of the USA; how does that work in terms of rehearsing?
We never actually rehearse together. We all rehearse individually, and then when we get together to play new songs, it’s the first time we’ve played them together. It sounds like a formula for disaster, but it’s actually worked pretty well. I think it adds a little nervous energy to the set and it’s actually quite exciting over the course of a tour to see the performances develop.
Talking about live appearances; how will Brexit affect you in terms of UK appearances?
I have no idea at this point. I’m not sure anyone does. What I was hearing didn’t sound encouraging, but then COVID happened and kind of hijacked everything. I guess we’ll see. We’ll try hard no matter what obstacles there are because we all really love performing in the UK. And visiting Nando’s.
Having seen your live show in Various UK cities and in Germany it’s clear to see the warmth between you and your fans. Is this something that is important to you? (I didn’t tell you I came to Germany as I didn’t want to be “that guy” who pesters for guest lists )
It’s pretty much the most important thing. The fans are the ones who have made it possible for me to make a living doing what I love for 2 decades now. I actually find it pretty weird when scene bands don’t reach out and try to create a relationship with their fans. They’re missing out on meeting a lot of cool people.
Do you get downtime to listen to other acts and, if so, us there anyone catching your attention?
I have to admit I’ve been slacking a bit on new music during the time I’ve been working on the new album. I think the last thing I picked up that I really enjoyed was the new Street Fever EP. I think Empathy Test makes some really nice stuff, too.
As if you weren’t busy enough, You have a number of side projects and collaborations that you are involved with. I’m thinking Surveillance and your remix/production work in particular. Can you tell us a bit about those?
Surveillance came about because I had a bunch of track ideas that didn’t quite seem to fit A23, so I decided it might be kind of fun to do something darker and sort of dystopian-themed.
Little did I realize a few years after I released it that I’d be living in a dystopia. Haha, I do hope to re-visit the project again soon. Production and remixes are just something that I’ve done on the side to keep busy and keep learning. I like the perspective of working on something I didn’t write gives me. I think it’s important as a musician and producer to always be learning.
One of your side projects involves working with your betrothed. You did a live stream recently as HELIX. How did that work out?
It was a really strange feeling, but it was also a really positive experience. So much of the experience of putting on a performance as a performer is the interaction with the audience, and when you can’t see the audience, it’s really odd. But it was also really nice doing a show in a place that was so comfortable to us and not to have to drive home from the club afterwards! Also, our cat inadvertently became an internet celebrity for 15 minutes.
Your A23 live act involves other musicians on stage with you. Who are they and what do they bring to the A23 party?
On keys is Paul Seegers. He’s been with me from A23’s very first show in 1996. On drums is Mike Jenney and he’s been with me for a good slot of time now, too. When we’re sorting out the live arrangements, I basically give them free reign over what they want to play, so I think it adds a bit of a different edge versus if we just stuck strictly to the way it sounded on the album. If I’m going to have musicians with me on stage, I want them to be adding something to it, and Paul and Mike both do a great job at that. Also, we can peacefully co-exist in a van for weeks on end, which is kind of important for touring. It’s bad form to murder your bandmates.
Back to Mourn if I may… this is undoubtedly a strong album. Why do you think albums as good as this from A23 and others are not picked up by the mainstream music industry; is being part of the contemporary mainstream something that even appeals to you?
I think sometimes we become so immersed in our scene that it seems normal to us and we’re not as conscious of how weird or gloomy it sounds to people used to mainstream music. I think there’s a lot of great music that has been made in this genre, but I don’t really think it’s a good fit for a mainstream audience. I think the fashion and imagery of our scene probably scares a lot of people off, too. Anyway, I don’t know how I would feel about being a part of the mainstream. It seems to me that situation can go either way. It’s made a lot of careers, but it’s probably destroyed even more. I’m pretty happy where I’m at.
The “scene” that A23 operates in is pretty tight knit and, at the moment, appears big enough to sustain itself. Do you feel that there is tough competition for sales or is there enough love to go around?
This is a discussion I’ve had with many people. I think it’s a lot like other scenes but on a smaller scale. While there are hundreds of bands making this kind of music, only a relative handful are going to see a lot of recognition and have long careers. But what our scene lacks in numbers, I think it makes up for in passion. People are really passionate about this kind of music and I think that is what sustains it. Smaller numbers of people but giant amounts of enthusiasm Finally Tom… what does the future hold for Tom, Mari and Mila; where do you see A23 in the near future?
After the kind of the year 2020, who can even say anymore? When it’s safe to tour again, we’ll go out and do some shows. Mari and I are going to work on some more Helix stuff. How it all turns out, no one can say, but I’m feeling a lot more optimistic these days.
Many thanks for spending time with us at PCN