After a recent tour, Tristan Shone realized he was in the best shape of his life.
Every day, Shone and a minimal crew would load a trailer-size arsenal of gear into a venue; after the show, they would repeat the process in reverse. But this wasn't ordinary equipment. Working under the name Author & Punisher, the former full-time engineer fabricates customized instruments and controllers—DJ knobs that weigh as much as barbells, microphones that look like medieval torture devices, keyboards and triggers that suggest Transformer exoskeletons—to produce and manipulate his one-man industrial metal. He's even designed and built a custom PA modeled after classic dub sound systems, which he lugs onto stages to give him the volume he needs to feel during a set. So by trek's end, Shone began to look as tough as his instruments.
"I started to enjoy the workout of it," Shone confesses. "I began to see it more as a job than a party."
It's surprising, then, that Shone's new album feels like more fun than anything he's ever made. Produced and released by Pantera's Phil Anselmo, Melk En Honing laces radiant harmonies around deep hooks. Still, the sound around the hooks is massive and mean, like a war waged between militias of machines.
Shone spoke about his process and results just before starting a new workout regimen, or tour.
I do have a gimmick. I don't deny it. It wasn't on purpose, because it was a natural process for me. I was playing with a sequence and trying to press buttons while holding a guitar. I was in art school and was slowly adding sculptural elements that were larger and easier to play and had buttons. It's all about intuitive physical controllers that make sense with the music.
But I am just as frustrated as anyone else with gimmicks. I don't wear costumes onstage, and I am frightened to even say words to people onstage. But I do give bands shit for having gimmicks, and I think that's totally reasonable. I give people shit for being into steampunk, too, and some people say what I do is steampunk. Aesthetics are the least important component of what I do. If anything, I would say it's totally dorky, what I've done. It's an engineering nerdgasm. Sometimes I just step back and say, "Why did this have to be what I've done with my life?" But it's fun.
In my mind, design is the marriage between aesthetics and functionality. You have an industrial designer working with a mechanical engineer, and you have to have a happy medium. When I design something, it's really important to work from the most important element you need, backwards. So for an instrument, you'd design for the sound and then work your way to how you make the sound. You would start to put shells on it, and then you get to the point where you have a case to put the thing in. It's important to do it that way rather than come from a steampunk perspective, where you have a look and you just shove the stuff inside whatever the thing looks like.
I have a lot of people tell me how to design things, and it's such a personal process that I go through to get to where my machines are. When someone makes a slightly different suggestion on a way to make an instrument, there is no way I could do it. I already have this very personal relationship with why I came up with this thing. I spun a gear in a machine workshop, and I liked the way it felt.
One of the reasons I went back to art school after doing engineering is because engineering is extremely intricate and can be anal, to the point where it's not fun. For me, engineering has gotten to the point where it's more of an art form. I am able to make a decision about what key components need to be designed to a certain precision, and what key components can be rough. With new instruments, I am not as concerned with surface finishes as I used to be, but I am going to spend more time on making precision bearings and slides and sensors that work, with good interior electronics.
Because this process is so slow, I have gotten to the point where I know what it's like for Author & Punisher to set up a tour, how you load in on a stage and out in the most stressful situations and how you get to Europe and how you get over channels and ferries and what that means. Understanding that process has completely changed the way I design my instruments.
One of the main things I feel that my setup gives me is power. There are certain times when you are playing in a band that you get lost in the creative struggle. But with the way I have things set up, I am able to constantly change what I play because I can move all my limbs. I can improvise on a song or cut it in half or make it faster. I have total creative control over it, and I can follow my mood and emotions of that day. There are certain times when you feel an element of a song or you grab onto the crowd—maybe the crossover of the frequencies is rumbling in a certain way that feels powerful. To be able to make those turns and adjustments live, like a jazz musician could, feels good. I like that for metal. I don't think heavy metal has enough improvisation. Often heavy music is just so strict and stuck.
I am shocked when I find people are shocked by what I do. I am always surprised by how traditional music fans are in what they listen to and what they expect. It's disappointing that the same Guitar Center setups that people bring on the road with them are what people expect. With the very slightest changes that you can have in one of those setups, people flip out. People haven't seen my setup before, but I don't think it's a good thing that people are shocked; there should be more experimentation in setups.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The power and the glory"