Talk Show Host: 036: Front Line Assembly

This was an interview I’ve wanted for amodelofcontrol.com for as long as I’ve been doing interviews. I’ve followed, and listened to Bill Leeb’s work in Front Line Assembly (and to a lesser extent in his other projects) for well beyond two decades, and have long been curious about a number of things.

So, prior to their London show a couple of weeks ago, I found myself chatting with Bill on his tour bus, discussing the band’s past, present and future, and it was a fascinating time.

Unusually, then, for the Talk Show Host series, this was a face-to-face interview, and involved a whole lot of transcribing (hence the delay in posting it). The flow is therefore a little different, as I normally work on a set of questions by e-mail, and the responses were edited when transcribing to get the points across in a better way. No detail has been missed, it is simply a case of us writing differently to talking.

Anyway – I would like to offer my grateful thanks to Bill for his time, and accompanying this interview is a corresponding review of that night’s show (which turned out to be a doozy, too).

amodelofcontrol.com: Bill, how’s the tour been?

Bill Leeb: For some reason we seem to be getting more love. I mean, every night people just won’t let us offstage until the second encore and, considering there’s so many festivals and it’s the end of the summer. All the people that are showing up seem to be hardcore Frontline fans, so it’s kind of encouraging and nice to see and we know a lot of the faces. Obviously at Me’ra Luna, with 5000 people in the hall there, and more people turning up, the merchandise was almost all sold – we didn’t know what to expect in the end – we are just the three piece this time too.

I think people just want to see Bill and Rhys, so it’s been really great because we know everybody everywhere and it’s been fun.

amodelofcontrol.com: If I got this correct, this year marks thirty years since the release of your first album [The Initial Command]. So what’s your thoughts on your old stuff now, like the really early stuff, How do you think you’ve evolved compared to that, and what do you think about listening to it now?

Bill Leeb: Well! I think a lot of people, you know, that are 20 years old or 25 years old probably can’t grasp that when we started, and when bands like Skinny Puppy did – there wasn’t any computers like there are now, so everything was done either through a little digital box or you had to play things manually. And samplers were just going to make their debut.

So it was a very, very archaic time and when I listen to all this stuff that became records and…yeah, it was just a guy banging two steel drums trying to keep time to an analog synthesizer (like a pro one). So if you were there, and if you were doing it, you can listen to it and understand why and how. If you’re just listening, as to what’s better, then it’s apples and oranges. We were just trying to figure stuff out too and learning, and we weren’t ever thinking about being career musicians. We just wanted to have some fun and experiment with stuff.

It was also the beginning of punk rock and indie labels. And people were like sort of anti-all the big labels and so it was just a fun time. I’m thinking too we’ve gotten a little slicker with our production.

amodelofcontrol.com: It’s kind of interesting because the last album Echogenetic – it’s what, three years old now? – and made me curious because you jettisoned guitars for the first time in many years. Broadly, it was all electronics and you picked old songs on tour that seemed to match that. Was there a rationale behind that – was this just a desire to go back to what you used to do?

Bill Leeb: I think my plan was “OK let’s just lose the guitars and go back to basics”. But at the same time, let’s incorporate, you know, at the time, “dubstep” and all that new electronic music was debuting as well. I said let’s bring all the elements of new together, it’s what Front Line was.

Front Line Assembly: O2 Academy Islington, London: 24-August 2017

I think we found the perfect match with that album. It took a while, but I think we brought all new together and I think most of the fans – there were a few haters at first – but the majority of people love the record as far as a listening album.

That’s the thing, I find some albums sell more. But you know you ask people when’s the last time you actually listened to that record. I think people play this all the time because it’s very listenable, right?

amodelofcontrol.com: As it happens I actually made it my album of the year that year (LINK).

Bill Leeb: We got a lot of love for that record. It’s kind of daunting now because you know to follow that. I mean even Echoes the remix [album] did really well for us. And I thought it was a great continuation in a way. But yeah, you know, we’re just sort of planning to write a few things. and that one was just that one thing, that every band gets a few albums in our lives.

amodelofcontrol.com: So what is going on at the moment, because I know you mentioned earlier in the year that Airmech 2 was looking likely to be released soon?

Bill Leeb: It’s nice. It’s finished and to me it sounds like Airmech meets Echogenetic. I think it’s really great and it has all the same programming, all the same hierarchy, the same sort of mindset. It’s more fuller sounding than the first album. They decided to wait to launch it because they’re splitting their video games into two branches and stuff, but I think it’s going to come out late in the fall. So if you like the first one you’ll really like this.

amodelofcontrol.com: I actually really surprised a lot of us when we first heard Airmech because it kind of sounded like Front Line…but didn’t? In some respects, it took me a while to get into it, but then I kind of realised, actually you know what…this is great. And so presumably there’s a follow up to Echogenetic in the works, but that’ll be later on?

Bill Leeb: Yes. Got to get on. It’s been three years, I don’t think we’ve ever taken this long between albums. But you know, we’ve done so much music I think it will be OK, it’s not like we’re just starting out!

amodelofcontrol.com: As you mentioned earlier, Rhys has rejoined the band in recent years. How did that come about, because obviously you guys worked apart for some years?

Bill Leeb: I think we were working apart for like almost 12 years. I mean ironically enough when we did that the Gothic vs Klassik and Jared couldn’t get away because of his job. And I thought “we need somebody else”. And just out of the blue, I said “I’m going to just call Rhys for the hell of it”. And he said “I’ll do it”. Really? OK.

And here we are, life is strange, FLA has always been this big revolving door, and I never burn bridges and if somebody needs to do other things in life, we shake hands and they do it.

I’ve felt that’s the best way to do things, and that’s probably why this band has lasted for 30 years. And if somebody drops out for a while, because of personal reasons or family, that’s all good you know.

We’ve got a couple of pretty interesting things that I can disclose. For the next album, we’re going to bring elements from the last one and look at some of the new things that we want to bring in and try, make it fun again. For some people they’ll say “what’s this?” but I think we’ve kind of already surpassed ourselves. I don’t think we have to prove ourselves at all.

You know we wanted to make do music for a living, and we’re doing that. So we’re happy now.

amodelofcontrol.com: I was at Cold Waves when you played there a couple of years ago on certainly with Rhys in the band…there’s a different, fuller sound. I was watching it with Sean from Cyanotic up in the balcony, and we couldn’t nail exactly what was different – something felt different, the sound felt bigger Maybe it was because there were more people on stage but there was just something about it, and we were like “This is what we came for”.

Bill Leeb: I think our band is like a living organism, it grows, it changes, it falls apart. It has great moments, but I think we’re sort of in a good spot.

Front Line Assembly: O2 Academy Islington, London: 24-August 2017

amodelofcontrol.com: So I mentioned some of the younger bands already. Jeremy is not here this time round? You seem to gained a new lease of life in the mid-2000s. Around that time there was this new breed of old-school industrial bands starting to come through from Chicago and elsewhere – and they were all claiming FLA was an influence, more than many other bands had in recent times. Did you feel that gave you an added impetus to do something more, because it felt like you changed your style around that time and moved on.

Bill Leeb: I think the biggest contribution for that fact it was like you know Jared and Jeremy are both like 33 years old. When I when I brought them in they were like 21.

To me soccer is my best analogy. In a great soccer team, you need young players, you need veterans. It’s a team thing, you need everybody to become a championship winning team. I thought those guys came from a whole new era of music and influences, I think bringing old and new together gave us this whole thing of Echogenetic, and the energy – you can’t replace that feeling.

amodelofcontrol.com: The fan base of Front Line is always been an interesting one. You’ve always, from the early days of the internet, had Mindphaser [long the fan forum, now a semi-official site] as a kind of a big thing – and the fans certainly, in our scene, seem extraordinarily dedicated compared to many other bands. Do you find that you get feedback from them, do you pay attention to what they say?

Bill Leeb: Yeah, it’s a lot of people on Facebook nowadays, I try to respond to everybody even if it’s just a thumbs up or a smiley face. I read them, and yeah, people are passionate about the scene – they like Front 242, Nitzer Ebb, and Skinny Puppy, they led and influenced a lot of people and so I think they’re passionate about it. It’s a scene within itself and people are protective about it, so it’s cool, you know.

amodelofcontrol.com: You had that reunion with the guys from Skinny Puppy on stage, for the first time in ages. A couple of years ago?

Bill Leeb: Yeah that was historical, the Eye vs Spy tour. I think we did sixteen shows and every show was pretty much sold out. We were playing 1500 to 2000 seater venues across America.

To have those two camps that might have been “rivals” for a long time – even though I was at the beginning part of Puppy, of course, that this was a reclamation of sorts, coming together and putting all the weapons and swords down and so many people showed up, We were so surprised. And then in Vancouver me and ohGr shared the stage. You know we did Assimilate together, and people went crazy for it. That made the whole 30 years of struggle and all the weirdness and all the bullshit, and everything…it made it all worthwhile. We all came back together because in the beginning me, Cevin and ohGr, I think this was our whole idea of what we wanted to be in music. We all took different paths, but this brought us all back together even if it was just for six minutes. It was special.

amodelofcontrol.com: A number of bands came out of that scene in the 80s, and bizarrely most of them have remained together in some form. So you’ve got 242, Puppy, there’s you, there’s KMFDM (to a point!). All of you have stayed true to what you do – but you’ve all adapted in some way or form to the modern age and it’s interesting that many bands have in come since and fallen by the wayside. You guys have stuck with it, and people have stuck with you.

Bill Leeb: Yeah, that just comes back to that it has a lot to do with why you get into what you’re doing. Do you want to become a pop star, or a rock star? Those roads are so perilous, and getting a manager and starting out. We never had any intention like that, for us it was a pure artform. We loved Neubauten, we couldn’t care less if two people showed or five. We love the artform, we loved synthesizers, and we thought we’re just going to do this, no matter what.

That’s what we’re still doing. Too many rock bands get together to cut an album, get a manager, try to get a radio song. It doesn’t work. The band goes broke. They split up and they never go back to music. That’s more than eight out of ten times.

amodelofcontrol.com: What was your route into this kind of music originally? Was there one particular point where a lightbulb came on?

Bill Leeb: I’ve always been interested in music, but when we first met we were all big music fans – but for me, the whole punk era, when the Sex Pistols came along, and Joy Division, then Throbbing Gristle and Kraftwerk, that’s really what triggers me, and I’m like “I want to be part of this”. And there was SPK and all these guys, that was my trigger point.

I like rock bands and stuff, but I never thought “I love Led Zeppelin”. But I never thought I wanted to start with a sound like Zeppelin because I know what it takes. With this [industrial] I thought there was a possibility because it was such an open forum still. Like I said when computers and samplers weren’t around, you could just make noise and be creative and find your own way with it. It wasn’t that you didn’t have to be a virtuoso guitar player right? So I think that’s when it all started for us. For me anyway.

amodelofcontrol.com: So what inspires you in terms of songcraft? Obviously your songs often have a theme to them, but there’s always been a noticeable…nod into politics but in a non-specific way. Do you feel like what’s happened recently, political developments in North America and elsewhere?

Bill Leeb: I always like finding themes and stuff…but Roger Waters is banging on Trump and all that stuff, and that’s cool, but I’d rather just present the picture. I’d rather be the guy looking down at the globe and creating the atmosphere, and pointing out what’s going on out there, and letting you make up your own mind. I don’t want to be the guy that tells you “you’re wrong, and I’m right” and “you shouldn’t be listening, this guy’s bad…” I would rather just point things out, so that the music is still interesting, and I like grooves and ideas, and I don’t want to make it all that you’re so downtrodden every time Front Line comes on and goes “Trump is an idiot”…

So it’s walking a fine line. And yet your perspective, and thoughts of life, without being too preachy.

amodelofcontrol.com: Going back to your music. Do you have any particular releases that might resonate with you more, anything that you’re really proud of?

Bill Leeb: For the most part, I think I’ve always given as much as I could, at least at that particular time. Obviously some of the Delerium releases were pretty big for me and Rhys. Karma changed our life. Silence became a voted as the number one Trance song in the world, that became the most remixed song in Trance. We’ve had some pretty big moments – even Echogenetic did a lot for us. But Silence is to me that, if you’re lucky, you get a song like that once in your life. And to have it be that big, it was Tiesto’s biggest song [he remixed it and made his name from it]. It’s sold millions of copies and that’s a biggie for us.

amodelofcontrol.com: Is there anything on the flipside of that? Anything that you think “I could’ve done better” or that in retrospect you’re maybe not so happy with?

Bill Leeb: I think everything you do, you think you after “well, maybe this could be changed…”, but if you live like that, you’re not going to survive as an artist. You’ve just got to know that when you’re doing it, that you’re doing as much as you can with what you do, and what God’s given you, through your ability to sing, put it out there, and be honest about it.

I don’t have any regrets.

amodelofcontrol.com: I was talking online to Paul from Controlled Bleeding recently (TSH: 035). He took a different view on this. He actually liked to go back for reissues and remasters, and re-recorded songs because he felt that time had passed and he had a new idea. I thought that was a really interesting way of looking at your past, and finding a different way that he might never have come across before. But it sounds like a lot of work!

Bill Leeb: I’m not too stuck on it in that way. Like I said, I think we do what we do it at the time and it captures an emotion and a time. Then I just move on, and I don’t dwell on the past.

amodelofcontrol.com: Finally, in terms of the future and for younger bands that are coming into this – because there are still a lot of younger bands. What kind of advice would you offer, things that you need to think about, if you’re coming in as a band now?

Bill Leeb: Well.

I think first of all it really depends what genre you’re diving into. The one thing for sure, if you’re into electronics, I say do your own thing. DJs have now become artists. So when Deadmau5 goes out and plays, he plays his own music – he’s not really a DJ any more. You can call him that, but he’s playing his own music, so he’s his own artist and whether it’s Aphex Twin…you don’t need to have a band anymore. You could sit at home and create your own electronic music and do your own vocals, or you can go out and be a DJ and play gigs.

Me and Rhys kept saying that’s what we should have done when Silence blew up. It was a top three hit in Britain, it was a hit in Scotland (went to number one twice!), in Australia it went to number one, it was a hit in Holland. If we were DJs then we could cash in on that, we could really make a difference. But our whole culture wasn’t totally established.

amodelofcontrol.com: Did it have any impact on the parent band? Like,”you know the guys behind delirium also have this other band?”. Was there any appreciable effect at the time because I have fun telling dance music friends I know aren’t into industrial “you know Delerium? I prefer their other band.”

Bill Leeb: They don’t know anything about me, which is kind of great. I like having…church/state separation, how good is that? I don’t know. I think now for young bands, I think first of all, you’ve got to really want to do what you want to do. Second of all now you’ve got to be good live. You’ve got to be able to go out and play live shows, and be good at it, and not expect to get rich from it. You have to do almost everything yourself. You can’t rely on labels anymore. It’s such a different climate now, it’s better because anybody can do it and go out and promote yourself on YouTube and Facebook. You don’t need a label deal, you just got to find something that people want to do, and be good at it.

You’ve almost got to rely on word of mouth now, in many cases, because the amount of stuff that’s out there, we stress, we struggle to find everything. Sometimes it will take someone to go “check this out” and suddenly you find something really good.

Or it might be, “you know I’ll pass, but keep them coming” because sometimes it just depends what you like. And also a lot of musicians pick up a guitar, and just play and play ’til they’re great, and then you can make a living and a career out of that too, just because you’re damn good, right? There’s just so many variances. But there’s no more like “get a big deal with the band”. You don’t get a million dollars, spend your money, buy a house, play a few shows. Now it’s pretty small. You got to really want to think, and enjoy the process of doing, and playing, and promoting, and making your own low-budget videos. It’s a totally different climate right now. Anybody can do it.

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