The first time a concertgoer witnesses San Diego musician Tristan Shone loading his gear onto a stage is an awe-inspiring moment. When Shone performs live under the moniker Author & Punisher, he is not accompanied by a standard guitars-and-drums setup. Instead, his abrasive industrial metal is generated by bulky, steampunk-esque machines — some weighing as much as 350 pounds — designed and built by Shone himself.
In addition to his musical endeavors, Shone is a mechanical engineer by trade, with a specialization in robotics and automation. He has been juggling his day job along with music since the early 2000s, but Author & Punisher was birthed from Shone’s 2005 enrollment in UC San Diego’s visual arts MFA program.
Shone played guitar and sang vocals in several New England hardcore bands throughout the early 2000s, but Author & Punisher started as a one-man project where Shone would write beats and sequences on a laptop and simply play his guitar along with them. Concurrently, Shone had been studying sculpture at UCSD, and was growing frustrated with creating art that did not have any purpose beyond sitting in a museum.
“It seemed a waste to chip away at sculptures to just have it sit in a room for years after,” says Shone during a recent phone conversation. “For me, art should be very interactive and tactile.”
Shone channeled that frustration into inspiration, building a sculpture that generated sound when manipulated with a specific turning motion. That initial sculpture paved the way for the monstrous instruments that Shone has built in the years since.
When performing and recording, Shone almost disappears inside his apparatuses, all of which are fabricated from steel. He puts forth his harsh musical din by utilizing his entire upper body to manipulate multiple controllers and devices. The manner in which he operates his gear, as well as its sheer bulk, calls to mind the Jaeger mechanical war machines in the film Pacific Rim.
During our conversation, Shone goes into great detail on the practical motivations behind some of his machines. One controller is a sliding arm that, when manually crashed back and forth, creates the drum sounds found in his music. Buttons contained within the handle of the arm control the pitch.
“I start with the motion that I want to achieve and I work it out from there,” Shone says. “If I want something that slides, I build a simple sliding device that has to have ball bearings. I have to have an encoder that reads the position and buttons in the handle, and all of that has wires that need to be fed back to a micro-controller that’s inside the device. Some think it all looks too artificially big, but everything that’s on there has a purpose and it’s very much taken from the robotic and optics industry that I work in.”
Shone admits that he doesn't design his machines purely from a utilitarian perspective. He also desires the heavy feel that comes with building his instruments from raw steel.
“I want to feel weight and I want rotational inertia,” Shone says. “If you build them with plastic or something you buy at Guitar Center, you don’t get that. I always liked the Les Paul custom guitar because it was the heaviest guitar you could get. When you grab it and put it on your shoulder and you play a heavy chord on it, it feels appropriate.”
Shone began using all of these new machines in earnest on his 2010 Author & Punisher record, Drone Machines. The album featured songs that were more noise-oriented, but as he became more familiar with what he could accomplish musically with his new creations, his songwriting progressed.
The latest Author & Punisher album, Melk En Honing, was released this past July. Co-produced by Philip H. Anselmo (Pantera, Down), the music is still very caustic. But buried deep within the corrosion are well-crafted songs that summon up memories of the harsher moments of early Nine Inch Nails.
As Author & Punisher's notoriety has grown, Shone has scaled back his engineering work to part-time. The work he does, however, remains very important. At the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at UC San Diego, Shone works on electron microscopes that are used to study cell biology in efforts to learn more about neurological diseases and cancer.
He describes his latest project: “What I’m working on is a process that takes chunks of cell material, 1 millimeter by 1 millimeter … you can put it into a chamber where there’s a diamond knife that will take a slice of and take a picture of it, and you keep slicing it smaller and smaller. If you have a chunk of brain and you are researching cancer, you can within one day have a whole 3D model of what that looks like and see how all of the neurons connect together.”
Shone will be touring as Author & Punisher from now through the end of November, but will be taking a three-week break in the middle of that run to return to San Diego to work on the 3D cell modeling project. When you're trying to help cure cancer, sometimes even music has to take a backseat.
Author & Punisher performs Thursday, Sept. 17 at Complex in Glendale. More info and tickets available at complexla.com.