Bill Leeb has been in the electronic music scene since 1985, when he started out with fellow Vancouver boys in Skinny Puppy. Following a need to find his own personal voice he set out on his own and produced music under the name Front Line Assembly, creating a massive body of music from 1987 to now. This eventually wasn’t enough to contain his creative juices and his musical catalog now also includes projects like Delerium, Noise Unit, Intermix, Equinox, and various FLA remix credits.
Front Line Assembly’s newest album, Improvised Electronic Device, came out on June 22. Leeb was kind enough to answer my questions and shed some light on some things I’ve always wondered.
interview by Aaron Andrews
How long did you work on your new album, IED?
This album took the longest out of any Front Line album ever. It almost took three years to make it. In the first year we took about six months writing a bunch of the songs then we decided we’d just walk away for a couple months. We’d never done that before, you know see if you still liked the record. Also all four members were inputting equally, where as before it was just me and Rhys or me and Chris. So it’s kind of a whole new way of doing it like a band almost, which was kind of interesting. In the end we got what we wanted to get. I think we’re all happy with the outcome.
Who else was involved in the making of this album?
Me, Chris Peterson, Jeremy Inkel, and Jared Slingerland. Since we’re on the subject, usually we use Greg Reely to mix the albums but this time we used Greg and Ken (Hiwatt) Marshall, who does all the Skinny Puppy stuff. So this is the first time we’ve used two engineers/mixers. We also have another guitarist on some of the tracks, Justin from a band called Three Inches of Blood. We also did a track with Al Jourgensen of Ministry. We really went around and used a whole bunch of people, I guess after making so many records it got to me. It’s fun to get other people involved and see where we can go with this kind of music. Just see if we can find new ways to turn stones over and stuff.
This album, IED, and the last one, Artificial Soldier, were made with more cast members than most of the previous FLA catalog. Was this intentional or did it just fill out that way?
Well, the thing is because we have a revolving door with Front Line, people sort of come and go, I never say never on anything. So on Artificial it was kind of Rhys had minimal participation on four tracks, he hasn’t toured with us in years and years. So these four guys I just mentioned we played over a hundred shows in a couple years and we formed a good unity. So when it came to working on our next album they wanted to be really involved. I found that the only complaint was there were too many people trying to steer the helm. With Rhys in the old days, and Jeremy and Jared are both 25, you know their pretty young, so it became a bit of a cluster… bomb. You know with everyone trying to get their ideas in.
But on this one there’s no Rhys at all and we’re just forging that idea from Artificial Soldier, it just made for a smoother transition and even though there was more input from everybody it still had more of a calming integral feel from everybody in the band.
Jeremy Inkel was the new player for Artificial Soldier, and I assume Jared came along with him. How did you two start collaborating?
Ironically enough Chris Peterson had produced and mixed Jeremy’s other band, LSD. Me and Chris were always working together so it was kind of six degrees of separation. So then just hanging out with Chris I got to meet Jeremy and hear their stuff. He liked Front Line and we started hanging out, then one thing led to another and we were all like, it’s not like you can just meet people and click with them on that level. It was kind of like we were friends, everything was through Chris meeting those guys and it just forged ahead from there.
Was there a theme or starting point for the album that you worked from?
Well, ironically enough, not so much as with other albums. This one here everyone just started doing stuff. I don’t know if it’s just the times we live in or the stuff going on around us. Whether you read the internet or watch the news or whether you just talk to people. It just seems like it ended up being a theme of predominance, world issues. The fact that we traveled and had a lot of firsts, I’ve been to Russia now three times in the last years, we never played there before. We went to the Kremlin, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we have one song that when I saw that it inspired me. So we have all this stuff to draw on, all these firsts. Front Line has always liked iconic symbolism and going to countries like that really inspired me lyrically. Then there’s the track called “Hostage”, the first line “fuel running down my face”. Our modern day consumption of fuel, whatever we need there never seems to be enough. So I guess the whole record took that kind of theme.
Then there’s a song called “Afterlife”. I’ve been trying to get together with my long lost father who lived in Austria for, like, 20 years. We were separated when I was young. So our last show was in Vienna and finally after five years of letters we got to meet and hang for three days. It was the last time we played with Front Line and ironically enough it was in that particular country. So we came back and he passed away within two months, it was kind of bitter sweet. We didn’t even get to know each other much better. So that song grew from that.
The whole album has kind of taken on a life of its own. It seemed like wherever we looked there was something for us to get into. We didn’t have to make up any stories or create anything that wasn’t already in front of us.
It’s interesting to hear all those points and inspirations and I’m sorry to hear about your father.
Thanks. It was a bizarre time, all this stuff and people and life. The world is a pretty interesting place now, I think in the old days, we didn’t dwell, but we were into this whole cyber movement. Technology was at the forefront, changing life and the way we were all going to exist but now that’s just part of our lifestyle. I guess we’re now back to saving the planet and humanity and life and everything else. There’s definitely a lot of resources to draw from.
To follow up with that a little, I feel like industrial music in the 80s and 90s was very focused on the cyber aspect. What are your thoughts on where it is now and where it’s going to with themes and imagery?
Well, I think I’ve spoken about this before, in general the whole music culture, with downloading music is basically free and I don’t know if we’ll ever go back to it being what it used to be. It’s pretty much a disposable product unfortunately. There’s a lot of labels disappearing and artists struggling, it’s really up to the artist to make a go of it. On top of it I think the whole Wax Trax era of industrial music in the 80s and early 90s was really on the forefront. It’s fallen way behind the indie rock scene, post-punk scene which is college radio. I think for a lot of artists they’re in survival mode and if you really believe in what you do you sort of proceed. A lot of these people who play festivals in Europe, they have daytime jobs. There’s very few artists who can do this for a living in our scene or I’m sure even the indie rock scene. So challenging times, I don’t think anyone knows how the next ten years will be. Even if they develop a program to stop piracy, I think now it needs to be the mindset of the new generation of people. How much importance does music play in their life? How do they want to treat it and respect it?
I think like with anything in history we never go back. So I’m sure there will be new things we haven’t thought of that will present new challenges, good and bad.
Your time with Skinny Puppy is pretty well known, what did you learn from that period at the beginning of your career?
We’re going to play some festivals and shows in Europe next month with them.
When I met Kevin and Cevin, especially Cevin when he was in Images in Vogue, I was a huge music fan. When I met Cevin, Images in Vogue were focused on the whole electronic, modern romantic music; like Duran Duran, Japan, Spandau Ballet. So they had this incredible gear because of Gary Smith, and Cevin really taught me what a synthesizer was and how to tune it. All three of us developed a friendship. We were all influenced by the Wild Planet bands, there used to be an article every week in the British press with all these sort underground subversive kind of bands. We all liked horror movies. We’d get together and jam at night with all these keyboards and stuff. I don’t think any of us had any idea that 20 years later we’d still be doing it and that we’d inspire a lot of artists and bands. It’s just kind of a hobby and fun, it’s really where all of this started. With Puppy the first EP, Remission, it just took off on its own on college radio stations. I guess people really wanted to hear something new and different and apart from most things already being done, that really hadn’t been explored to that extreme. Hence Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Rammstein took it to one more level up as far as arenas and so forth. So yeah, I think that’s the basis of where it started.
It’s very cool all of you are still making albums and selling out shows.
Like I said, none of us could have planned it or foreseen it. We might not be the biggest thing on the planet but once me and Cevin and Rhys Fulber put down all the things we’ve ever been involved in or ever done, it’s a pretty big body of work. Not just our stuff but other stuff that’s been worked on and so forth. I guess we feel pretty privileged, Rhys always said he never wanted to get a daytime job, you know? We were all well versed in all kinds of music, it helped me do other things so I didn’t get stuck in one particular area.
You have a number of various projects with different collaborators and different sounds; how do you decide what project you’ll be creating music for?
Ironically I think the whole, I used to call it a side project, but Delerium is the biggest thing I ever worked on. Electronic music, as much as I’ve always liked the hard driven sounds, I’ve always loved the Brian Eno ambiance and experimental side when I’ve sat at home. When I started doing that there was no such thing as chill out music that hadn’t been covered yet. It was more Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno and experimenting with big walls of analogue synthesizers. Just to take a break from Front Line I’d, with my own time at home, and clear the other side of my brain. Suddenly that thing takes a life of its own and we’re on Nettwerk and Sarah McLachlan graces our song “Silence”, a number one hit worldwide. Me and Rhys are both shaking our heads, I guess you never know.
So like Rhys started his own project Conjure One, Chris has a project Decree. Rhys also has a few things like Fear Factory and Josh Grobin. Noise Unit, Intermix, the great thing about electronic music is two guys can pretty much do anything, you don’t need a band. If you want to change direction just change the sounds and the beats or whatever. With all the projects and Delerium its given me a real freedom to just be an artist I don’t have to worry if Front Line’s going to be popular or not. I don’t think I have any particular favorite, I think music is such a fleeting moment and you think the next track is going to be perfect and of course that never happens. It’s probably what keeps me going the most. It’s kind of now you see it now you don’t.
What’s some other projects? Fauxliage, that’s kind of a chill out thing. I hope there’s going to be some things that motivate me down the road. I think I listed a lot of them there anyway.
Is there a direction you haven’t explored musically that you’d like to?
Honestly the one thing is, we’ve had a lot of placements and stuff, I’d love to one day just dedicate a year to doing just a cool film. Doing something orchestrated and enigmatic a film score of some kind that to me would be more of a real challenge. I hope it still happens in my lifetime, it really peeks my interest.
I hope you get your chance. Danny Elfman kind of fell into scoring films and has done pretty well for himself.
I think for us more on the level of Graeme Revelle, who did The Crow. He’s done 40 big films as well. He came out of the same school as Puppy from a project called SPK. I think it’s even more competitive now. It’s the way Hollywood and everything is now, the budget is smaller and there’s more people looking for work. It’s a real challenge these days. You never know right?
You’ve put a variety of guest vocalists in both Delerium and FLA (with Al Jourgensen on IED). Is there someone you really want to collaborate with in the future?
Mazzy Star I really like. I never really think too much like that. I’d really love to do a track with Alison Goldfrapp, she hasn’t done any collaborations and I don’t know if she ever will. I’d love the singer from Portishead, Beth Gibbons, I think she’s really great. They’re eclectic artists, they don’t just show because you want them, there has to be a reason.
Do you feel like guest contributors (vocal and musical) make you think differently about music?
Yeah. You’re always learning. With vocalists you give them the music and then they came up stuff and do things you never expected, and I go wow. To me that’s the exciting part, when you give a track to someone and they have their own lyrics and melody. It’s more exciting than anything on my own.
Dave McKean does the artwork for your covers, what draws you to his work?
I always kind of say Dave is like the silent member of Front Line. From when he did Millennium to now I just can’t think of anyone who’d represent our art better. I just give him the titles and the music and every time he does something for us I absolutely love it. I love his comic books and the film he made. I think he gets it. When I look around his stuff is, to coin the phrase, artwork.
We met him and he came to our show in London, we just have a good friendship. He’s just that guy. You can go around crazy looking for art and never be happy. But I’m happy and I’m not going to change the flow.
Are you excited that IED was written with a full band and now you have the opportunity to do a FLA tour with a full band?
Yeah I think everyone on stage will feel a closer kinship than playing songs from the past that they have nothing to do with. That will obviously create cool vibes and make everybody happy. I know it’s important for people to feel a big kinship with the tracks and I know from experience that you play something you had a big part to do with, it just give you more incentive to be out there, be crazy and go all the way.
I think nowadays you just be thankful that you can go out there and people will take the time to see you. Just the way things are there’s so many things people could do or have to deal with.
Thank you for your time, I really appreciate it.
Nice talking with you.