If you were to meet Tristan Shone, you probably wouldn't think the unassuming San Diegan is the architect behind one of the city's most intense musical projects.
Yet when he steps behind one of his large, noisy drone machines, he transforms from Tristan Shone, mechanical engineer, to industrial doom act Author & Punisher. He's as much mad scientist as musician, performing not with conventional instruments but with complex and severe-looking robotic machines—complete with vocals-distorting masks—that he designed and built himself. And the sounds they make range from atmospheric to simply brutal.
On his first two albums—2010's Drone Machines and 2011's Ursus Americanus—Shone put his creations to use in the service of some thunderous, electronically based doom songs in the vein of legendary industrial metal band Godflesh or New York drone pioneers Khanate. Author & Punisher—who'll play at Soda Bar on Tuesday, Nov. 12—is heavy, harsh stuff. But, for as dark and ominous as Shone goes, he explains over a beer at Bottlecraft in Little Italy, the appearance of the machines helps give the music a sense of fun.
"I like a lot of really deep, heavy droning music," Shone says. "But at the same time, I like humor. I'm a little bit more lighthearted and social. I'm not a dark person who stays in my basement. The machines themselves, the headgear and the masks that I've had, are kind of fun. It's not like I'm putting a goat skull on my head, with blood coming out of it. I wouldn't do that."
On the recent album Women and Children, which won a San Diego Music Award for Best Hard Rock Album, Shone took a different approach, incorporating more live instruments, like piano and drums, and fleshing out more accessible, melodic songs. The album, released in June on Seventh Rule, maintains the feel of his previous releases, but with more hooks and even a few songs, like "In Remorse," that have more conventionally pretty melodies, even if the distortion and noise are still there.
For that album, Shone says, he stepped out of his previous routine.
"The last two albums, Drone Machines and Ursus, were very much project albums," he says. "I built these machines and had a concept for what they would do, the kind of tones and way they should feel. But I also play piano and play a lot of other instruments, and I kind of felt confined by that structure. So I broke it.
"['In Remorse'] was one of those songs where I had it in my head and never played it on my machines," he continues. "I just put the basic stuff down really quickly and brought it back to my laptop and did the rest of it on my couch. And that was weird, because it was kind of against the purist idea I had initially. But it was kind of an accident. And it's my favorite song on the album."
This doesn't mean Shone's phasing out his machines. He's begun work on new, similar instruments for use on future material. These machines will be based on textures and surfaces, rather than weight or inertia, Shone says, and the resulting sounds will be more abrasive than before.
"There's going to be a grinding, out-of-time-signature kind of thing," he says. "On the last album, I heard people say, 'It's getting more listenable.' And I don't really think it's going that way. I just played with those instruments for so long, I just got really comfortable with them, and I kind of was able to play nicer stuff. And I was, like, OK, time to change it up. Now it's going to be a little bit harsher."
Though Author & Punisher has a fascinating visual appeal, Shone isn't interested in upping the theatrical element of his performances—just the kinds of sounds and music he can tap into. However, that doesn't stop anyone from offering opinions on how he should enhance his machines.
"You wouldn't believe the amount of suggestions you get from people, like giant levers and Robocop arms," he says. "I think people wonder why I don't take it to a more ridiculous level. I'm glad I went to art school, because there's something about knowing how to design something so it's not more than what it should be."
In fact, though Shone has shared the stage with artists as far-reaching as Erasure's Vince Clarke and former Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo, he says that art crowds tend to respond best to his music. Perhaps that's because of the avant-garde nature of his punishing soundscapes or the unconventional approach he takes to making them. But, then again, it might just be his reluctance to adopt the stereotypical characteristics of any genre or scene.
"If I show up to a gig and the opening band all has sleeve tattoos and cutoff jean jackets with all the patches on 'em, I know what I'm going to be listening to," Shone says. "And the fact that I make those judgments bums me out. You want it to be that band where you were sitting next to them at the bar and you didn't even realize it.
"'Whoa—that guy made that?!'"