Bill Leeb has been primarily known as the founding member and frontman of Front Line Assembly. Over the years, he has been involved in numerous projects, e.g. he was also one of the early members of Skinny Puppy. However, his greatest commercial success came through his side project Delerium. Front Line Assembly has undoubtedly left a huge mark on the industrial music scene and inspired many bands that followed in its steps. In view of so many great releases that we have enjoyed over the years, today we have a special opportunity, and that is to talk with Bill about some of his projects.
1. You have been a part of the music scene for a long time, since the early days of Skinny Puppy. You were a member, sometimes also a founder, of many bands, some of which are now inactive. The one that interests me the most is, of course, Front Line Assembly, and I would like us to start with that. Some artists like to keep their work far from genre labels, how do you feel about Front Line Assembly being part of the industrial music scene?
Bill Leeb: I’ve always been into industrial music and I think that that was probably one of my main motivations to start Front Line Assembly. It was the electronic part and the industrial part from Liaisons Dangereuses, from Kraftwerk, Test Dept. to Neubauten and SPK. I think it was finding a middle ground between all of that and Cabaret Voltaire and experimenting with it, and that we have sort of grown and evolved with it.
2. In a way, you turned industrial music into dance music. If we listen to certain tracks, “Provision” and “Mindphaser” come to mind, they are perfect dance tracks. Caustic Grip and Tactical Neural Implant are considered to be among the best Front Line Assembly albums. What was the creative idea behind them? You made industrial music into a kind of music that people dance to.
Bill Leeb: Well, I think that, ironically enough, one of the reasons is that obviously we like rhythm and the first time I heard the song “Blue Monday” by New Order, I thought this was really a great thing because radio at that time didn’t really play that kind of music. But underground nightclubs had a strong representation of all the dark, underground, industrial and gothic music. We thought that by making songs that could be played in nightclubs in our certain scene you could possibly get airplay. I don’t think we consciously tried to do it, but it seemed to have sort of worked out that way.
3. I read somewhere that back in the 80s you used to own the largest record collection in town. How did a music fan become a musician?
Bill Leeb: I have always been such a huge music fan. It’s funny, I never really thought about becoming a musician. When I was raised in Austria at the convent, they made us learn instruments. So I began to learn to play the violin, however it didn’t really capture my interest. When I moved to Canada at age 14, I became exposed to all kinds of new music and began collecting all of the 12” imports, like extended mixes, limited editions, colored vinyls, bootleg. I just had an incredible passion and continued to collect and listen to all kinds of music. We had an import store here called Odyssey Imports. I would go there every Wednesday when their shipment would come in and eagerly wait to see what was arriving from the UK and from the rest of Europe. It started as a hobby and then that hobby turned into a creative passion. But I think you need to have your roots and this was a sort of a musical upbringing for me.
4. What was in the mind of the young boy that you used to be when you were moving from Vienna, Austria to Canada? How did you manage to merge your Austrian cultural background with new opportunities that opened up in Canada? Do you think all that experience shaped you into the artist you are today?
Bill Leeb: I think it’s so funny because Vienna is such a traditional, old school worldly place with beautiful baroque culture and music. When I moved to Canada, I didn’t speak a word of English and I stepped into a country which really had no culture like that and it was kind of like the wild west. I had to go to a new Canadian school and learn English and I had totally different challenges as a young person. But the good thing that I found over here was that it was a very new place and they were open to new ideas and didn’t really care so much about the old European history. I think that was really good for a young person because it opened my mind to new ideas.
I was fortunate to be able to move to Canada, reshape my thoughts and have new experiences. I think I have the best of both worlds.
5. Let’s return for a moment to the very beginning and the name that embodies your idea. You said, if I remember correctly, that Front Line Assembly felt like an assemblage of different ideas and people willing to contribute. Can you elaborate on that, tell us how broad the term Front Line Assembly is? Do you still feel the same about that whole idea behind this name?
Bill Leeb: It’s kind of crazy and ironic because I always thought I wanted it to be a sort of an industrial kind of name and when you think of assembly plants where they made cars, where they used robots or they used people down the line, I thought that had a very industrial sound. When we started this band, I felt that we were at the beginning of a new movement of music. So it was between the two where this name ended up and it was ironic enough too, that sort of meeting of the minds. All through the last 30 years, whether I was working with Rhys or Chris or Michael Balch or newer members, Jared and Jeremy, it seems to stand. I have something like an open door policy. When people wanted to work with me on something, I would be cool with it, and then, if they had personal things come or wanted to start their own project, I was cool with that too. It was never like “Oh, why are you leaving? You can’t come back.” To me, it kept this whole project going and interesting. So the history, the anthology of what the name spells out just seems to becoming true now, and that’s a good thing. We just sort of all evolve in our own time, in our own spirit and that’s keeping this project going and keeping it creative and interesting.
6. How do you feel about Front Line Assembly work so far? In your opinion, what are the Front Line Assembly albums that best define your work?
Bill Leeb: I think we’ve evolved through different periods as a band. Caustic Grip and Tactical are considered to be classic albums in their era for just pure raw electronic energy. And Millennium was significant at the time when metal and industrial music seemed to cross borders, like the Ministry era and such. That whole world was starting and Rhys was a metal producer, having done the Fear Factory albums, Machine Head and others. At the time, we were on Roadrunner records and that opened a whole new ten year chapter for us. Hard Wired was sort of a bridge between the first two records and Millennium. Those albums were part of our evolvement, so I think those albums stand. Then out of the most recent ones, Echogenetic blends the best of the traditional electronic energy with newer techniques and sounds.
7. Echogenetic feels a lot different for more than one reason. To begin with, you ditched the guitars and managed to create the feeling of power with electronics only. What made you move in that direction or, more precisely, go back to the basics of Front Line Assembly?
Bill Leeb: Well, you just sort of asked the question and answered it. I used to try to find a theme with every album so that we could focus and then work from that. With Echogenetic I just said to all the guys… OK, look, let’s put all the guitars away, let’s just sort of go back to the basics of how Front Line Assembly began, which was very electronic. But Jared and Jeremy are both 31 years old and they’re quite influenced by new music as well, and some people even say that there was a little influence from dub step. I think we sort of pooled our resources from all of our influences and came up with the album that included a pretty wide space of electronic music from past to current. I think that record, for some reason, got so much great press from all the writers. It was quite inspiring to see that after being around for so long we could still generate that kind of interest with young people.
8. Echogenetic feels a lot more personal regarding lyrics in which you reflect on life and mortality. We got used to something a bit different on your previous albums, to say the least. Any comments on that?
Bill Leeb: It’s a bit ironic when you’re young and wild and crazy, you think you can change the world and make a difference just by creating and having your youthful energy. Revolting against the system and things like that is what I was writing about with the first few albums. And I think now, as time goes on and you get a little older, you become a little more reflective on life and you see that things aren’t always the way they seem to be. There’s always different paths and things aren’t always so black and white. I find there are different ways you can fight battles and wars without having to scream so loud. And also reality weighs in when you become realistic and think “Well, I have 20 or 30 years left on the planet, so how do you want to spend this time and what does it mean to you?” This opens up a whole new chapter of lyrical content when I’m writing. I think Echogenetic was probably just the beginning of that.
9. You mentioned “haters” when you spoke about Echogenetic. I find that particular album to be one of the most brilliant albums Front Line Assembly has ever produced. It’s hard for me to believe that there are haters, do they really exist? And if so, do you really care?
Bill Leeb: Haters?
I mean, like the percentage of people who have not liked it. Let’s put it like that.
Bill Leeb: It’s a kind of a two tier thing. I think there are always going to be people that like your record and there are always going to be people that don’t like your record. I think a lot of times on the Internet nowadays I find it can be a problem because some people will just go on there and they become ambiguous on the Internet. They say it and then they disappear. And those are just people that are not driven enough to do something themselves and put themselves out there. When you’re an artist you have to open yourself up and put it out there and people sometimes will judge you for what you do so you have to have thick skin. But I don’t spend too much time on it, focusing on that. Life’s too short. I wanna just stay busy and be creative.
Bill Leeb: Well, like I said, for the last four records Jared Slingerland and Jeremy Inkel have been a big part of the writing process, and of course, touring. Rhys just produced the last Youth Code album and that’s raw punk energy that’s kind of inspired us, so we may want to do something really electronic and really underground sounding and not as commercially slick. I think people will be interested to see what we do next, since this will be another chapter for Front Line Assembly.
11. Gary Levermore told me to ask you about your first trip to Hackney. Was he referring to your first London show in 1989?
Bill Leeb: When we came to the UK for the first time, we were virtually unknown. We were like these little kids and Hackney was the ultimate industrial sort of place and even taxi wouldn’t take you there. It was a pretty run down and strange place. We pulled up to this house and there were three floors with people living there and one bath tub for 15 people and you had to put in money and wait for it to heat up. It was really punk rock, very raw. Camden Garden and the whole punk scene and London was such a different place. But for us it was like a paradise, because while Canada had the punk rock scene, it was nowhere near what it was in the UK. So to walk into that was pretty spellbinding and amazing, the dirt and the grunge, but it grew on you and we loved it. And the first time we walked into a cool club in London and heard our song “Iceolate” and people were digging it, we were just “WOW!”. We were overwhelmed by the whole thing so it was a life changing experience for us and we will always have very fond memories of it. And of course, meeting Gary and everybody, such an amazing group of people. We are all lifelong friends and we actually just all got together not that long ago in Europe.
12. Today you fill shows and festivals. You play a lot in Europe and America. What do you like about playing in Europe and about Europe in general? Can you compare shows in America and Europe? What is your experience?
Bill Leeb: I find awesome the fact that I was born and raised in Europe and have a lot of that culture in me and I always like to go back to Europe… the food, the people and I like to speak German so I reconnect with people in that way. In Germany at the big festivals like M’era Luna and Amphi, people are really passionate, they dress up. These are big events and they happen every summer. It is a lifestyle, like a culture within a culture, and to me that is very special. I find America is different. I don’t think their roots are in goth and that old country tradition. They come from a different sort of background, but they can also be pretty wild and rowdy. Without a doubt, big festivals over in Europe are pretty amazing and a lot of fun every year.
13. I saw you twice this year, at E-tropolis and The Garage in London. I must say I enjoyed the London show more. I feel festivals sometimes kill part of the intimacy between the band and the audience. You have a lot of experience with both regular concerts and festivals, how do you feel about it?
How about your Amphi 2016 performance, in this context? There were a lot of people who told me that, unfortunately, they hadn’t been able to enter the Theater stage for your show.
Bill Leeb: That’s really crazy. I heard about that and I guess they wouldn’t let anybody in because it was so full in there, so it’s kind of unfortunate. I mean, it’s great that so many people wanted to see us, but I heard about that and we just thought “Well, they didn’t want to put us on the main stage.”
How about your Infest show in 2006 over here in Bradford, UK?
Bill Leeb: When we played at Infest, it was sold out and it was a great show. The organizer asks Sabine, our booking agent, every year if we can play but I think the problem is that Infest is not that big for a festival and we can’t just go and do one show. We have to make it a part of a tour or a series of festivals, otherwise it just doesn’t work. But, believe it or not, next year we might actually. We were talking about doing it because we plan on doing M’era Luna and a couple of other shows. I think they’re all around that same time spot so next year we might actually be there.
When you play the festival, it depends on whether you have a good time slot because people come for the whole festival and after they’ve seen seven bands in a row, they are tired. If you do a single show, then everybody is there for that show. The focus is on you and you can really get into with your audience. These are the two main differences. Unless you have a good slot, it not so great to be at a festival. At the same time, if you are at the festival, most of the time you’re guaranteed a big crowd. A lot of the bands that you see playing at some festivals can’t even do a show in America because they’d have maybe 20 people attending. They need to have those festivals for those kind of bands so they can get exposure and new fans. So it’s a catch 22. The great thing about festivals can be like Wave Gothic. We were the headliner on the first night and we had 10,000 people see us in that room. You know, if you can play for 10,000 people in one hour that’s like doing 10 individual live shows. I mean both festivals and individual shows have their good points and bad points. But I agree with you, I sort of like to see a show at a venue since it’s definitely more intimate.
14. Do you have any particular criteria when choosing songs for the setlists of your live shows? What do you think is the key to a successful show?
Bill Leeb: Well, on one hand, like Rhys always says, “people want to hear hits” and I agree. They want to hear your big songs. I think you need to play your big songs, but at the same time, when bands are out, they are usually also trying to promote their new material. I think you have to be careful not to just play your new material that nobody is familiar with. You have to find a happy medium – play your big songs, play a few new ones – where you’re representing all of your music in a good way. That’s what we try to do for our shows.
Bill Leeb: To me that was probably, even Kevin and cEvin said it, maybe one of the best tours ever in North America for our genre of music. It seemed to be the perfect storm. I had always thought “We should do like the super industrial like goth tour.” Well, Skinny Puppy had scheduled a tour with VNV Nation and they started promoting it and they VNV backed out almost at the last minutes. We were able to jump in and it seemed to create quite a big buzz and some great energy. There was also Youth Code, who are very cool. This was one of their first tours and they were an opening band as was Haujobb. When I see Youth Code, Haujobb, Front Line and Skinny Puppy together, I don’t think it’s very often that you’re gonna get a tour like that. Basically every show was sold out. We were doing big theaters and the energy was incredible. Backstage all of us were hanging out together every night, and I was rekindling all of my friendships with Skinny Puppy since I’ve known those guys for 30 years. At the Vancouver show, Ogre and I went on stage together and did a song in front of a sold out crowd. To me, if I had to have ended my career with that tour, it would have been fine. It really was that special. I think I’ll never stop talking or have great memories about that tour, even ten years from now. It was one of those things that you could not have planned and that there would probably never be anything like it again. I can only live on that memory, the inspiration and the greatness of it. I am thankful that something like that can come along every once in a while and actually happen. When you can get one great thing like that, it makes all the struggles and all the not so great times worth it.
16. How do you feel about creativity in general? Do you ever question your art after it has been already released? Have you ever felt displeased or thought: “I could have done this better?”
Bill Leeb: The funny thing that I think about any type of art is that it doesn’t matter whether you write a book, paint a picture, write a song or whatever it is you do, the objectivity of your creativity is what drives you. Music can be such a strange thing because if you get an idea in your head and you don’t somehow put it down, like record a sound or write it down in some format, it’s gone and usually it’s gone forever. If you are painting, you paint a picture, you have it in front of you, there it is, there’s your idea. But music to me is such a fleeting moment and maybe that is also what makes it so special to me. Every time we start a new song, somewhere in the back of your mind you always think “well is this is going to be the song that… is this going to be the best song that you have ever made or the one that you like the most and that would somehow resonate with people”. Delerium’s “Silence” ended up been voted the number one trance song of all times, but we really had no idea when we did it. I thought that we liked the song. Now when we do a Delerium album, we think “wow, is this gonna be the next Silence or something?”. I think it drives us, but whenever we do a song and we’re finished with it, we still always think “well, maybe we should have changed this, maybe we could have done that better”. But in the end you just have to walk away and let the song be what it is. Let it have its own life and just move on to the next thing. It’s crazy being an artist because sometimes you are the loneliest person on the planet or when things are great, they’re great. When they suck, they suck. Maybe therein lies the beauty in the frustration of it all and that’s the driving force.
17. What are your thoughts about the present state of the scene with so many emerging names and projects? There is so much work available online. Why do you think Front Line Assembly has remained successful and popular for so long?
Bill Leeb: On one hand we came out of an era when there were no computers and no Internet… when people were buying music. We just come out of a totally different generation and a lot of our fans also are still from that generation and they don’t have a problem with buying a product. For young people today, this is the whole new beast – the free downloading, the Internet world, they don’t have patience to even listen to an album any more and there’s too much of everything out there. I think that is why more bands struggle now too, because there is so much more music, so many more distractions. People are doing all of these pledge drives because there are so few record labels now. It’s a world where survival now has a whole different meaning in the sense of whether you want to stay in the business and where and how you want to go with it. So I think maybe we are lucky that we have history behind us. We have come through 2 or 3 generations and have evolved in that way. I think if you are starting out now it is definitely tougher and the chances of making a career out of it is a whole different concept. Some people get huge, but on the average most people have jobs now and they have to treat music as a hobby and not as a profession. There is just not enough people buying music. I’ve seen both sides of the world from way back to now. So, I’m happy I am where I am.
18. How do you feel about the technology when it comes to making music? In a way, some things are much easier to do today, but are we down to “anyone can do it”?
Bill Leeb: Again a good question. I find there are so many distractions now, like with the computer now you have what’s called a virtual synth. In the old days you had to go out and buy an old synthesizer and you brought it home and you turn it on and tune it and then hopefully it works. You had to figure out how to play it. So now you go on your computer and you go MS-20 and you click on it and you have this virtual synth in front of you and it’s perfectly in tune. It might not sound quite the same, but it’s close and you just fiddle with it until you get it to do what you want. I think that in some ways the ideas, the humanness of it gets lost. When you see old Neubauten videos, when they’re standing there with their shopping carts and the metals and the barrels of fire, and a chainsaw. Blixa is screaming and they had this crazy energy. That’s what excited me. Now it’s two guys and a laptop and they wear a funny mask and some make up. One guy looks like he’s checking his e-mail and the other one is yelling in the mic and I’m thinking “well, this isn’t music, this is just like a laptop and a microphone and some guy with the clown make up” I am thinking I wanna hear a drummer, I want to hear a guy playing keyboards, I want some interaction. I like to see musicians, no matter what kind of music it is.
Sorry to interrupt, but I just have to mention that my brother is a professional drummer.
Bill Leeb:… so then you know the art, the creativity and the practice and the skill it takes. To me, when I go to see a show, I like to see that.
19. What do you think about crowdfunding campaigns that artists nowadays use to release their albums? What do you think releasing an album in that way offers compared to signing to a record label?
Bill Leeb: Rhys has a great term for that. He calls it “shaking the cup.” I think things are so different now and there aren’t many new record labels any more. Unfortunately I think that for a lot of artists now, crowdfunding is their only way to possibly get enough money to fund a low budget record or tour. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it, I think it’s just a sign of the times. I was talking to someone the other day and said if Metropolis Records ever closed their doors, there is no other label in America that would do this sort of music. The bands would be on their own. It’s something that’s probably going to be here to stay. Some people say there is too much of it, but it’s different for every band and every situation.
Bill Leeb: I’m all over the place. I like the new Massive Attack, it’s really cool. I even like artists like Banks or Grimes or… I don’t mind listening to Ministry. I like the new Youth Code album. I have a pretty wide range of attention. Every morning when I get up I have a classical radio station on and they Beethoven and all of the classical artists. I like some classic rock, I’m really just a big musicology kind of a fan and I can listen to a lot of genres of music and I don’t wanna listen to just one thing. The whole day just kind of goes in that feeling. In the old days it was just SPK, Kraftwerk, Liaisons, Test Dept., DAF, and I still love all that music to. Bands like Front 242 and the Legendary Pink Dots, all that is really great and I still like it. I am a big crazy music fan, that’s all.
21. I also read your words about Numan’s Splinter album, which is really high on my top list as well. I was privileged to be on two shows of his last tour; on one of them he included some Splinter material, as well as a completely new and unreleased song from his upcoming album, “Bed of Thorns”. Judging from that one, his current direction is dark and atmospheric. Can you compare the energy of the Echogenetic with the sound we can hear on the Splinter album?
Bill Leeb: To me, Gary Numan is an iconic artist. I think his last two albums are both really good. I mean, what can I say, from the early days “Are Friends’ Electric?” was an anthem for me. I think with his Splinter album he is an artist that continues to reinvent himself. He went into that Echogenetic world like we did and recreated himself with his music. He has so many big hits and he is a special artist. I have always been a big Gary Numan fan.
22. You collaborated with a lot of known musicians for Delerium, too many to mention. How have those collaborations come about?
Bill Leeb: The funny thing with Delerium, for the very early records, was that I just wanted to do something ambient because Front Line Assembly was always such a hard hitting project. I always liked to listen to Jean Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream and that type of music at home by myself late at night. I started that project based on those ambient feelings and I also liked some of the world-flavoured music, so I put them together. When we signed with Nettwerk Records Semantic Spaces, we started with the singers. Nettwerk was a big label and they had a lot of female singers on their roster. Someone suggested that we should get Kristy Thirsk to sing on our song and she did. It turned into a hit and it opened up a whole new world for us. I think as far as collaborations go, Nettwerk was very integral since they had so many singers. For many years Nettwerk were one of the best known labels in the world. They had so many contacts and Mark Jowett always had singers that he could approach for us. Even stars like Sarah McLachlan became approachable and that made our lives a bit easier, very enjoyable and creative, and for a long time it was a really great ride. Because of that history and reputation and, we are fortunate to continue that same success and pattern. It can be seen this year as we now have Delerium’s new album Mythologie with JES, Mimi Page, Jael and everyone else. I have to give Nettwerk a lot of credit for opening that door for us. That’s how it all evolved, by chance when Mark said “you know, you should try a female singer” and we did. That first thing that Kristy did was “Flowers Become Screens” and it became a radio hit and changed our lives.
Bill Leeb: To keep it short and simple, we are getting a lot of love. It’s like everybody that comes back to us, they don’t just like it, but they really love it. We are very happy with that. I think people actually really enjoy listening to it as an album, as an experience. You know when you do something, you never know how it’s going to be received. It took two years to complete the album and it was one of our longest processes. This is an album that I actually like listening to it myself with all of the new singers. Like I said, people use the word love a lot, and I like that.
24. I have heard some interesting “Ritual” remixes. Can you tell us something more about that and can we hope for a video?
Bill Leeb: We wanted to make a video for it and we had a limited budget and time. We did approach a few people and things just couldn’t work out because of time constraints. When you do video with a smaller budget, it’s difficult to find the right person for the right job at the right time, so we ran out of time to make the video for that song because we didn’t want to delay the release of the album. Basically, we will try to get a video done for the next single and the next set of remixes. Let’s keep our fingers crossed, we are working on that right now.
I’ve also heard a couple of Ritual remixes, can you tell us something more about the remixes, who the remixers are?
Bill Leeb: Alex Klingle, he is from Vancouver and he did one of the remixes. Matt Lange also did one and I really loved the Matt Lange remix as well. I think it’s really a killer mix. Matt works with Deadmau5 and other artists in that vein. We’re getting a lot of love on that. Daniel Myer did a very unusual avant-garde remix.
I haven’t heard his.
Bill Leeb: Daniel Myer goes under Architect. I posted it on my Facebook page, so if you go on there you can hear it. It is on YouTube as well. And then there’s also Joey Blush remix. He did sort of a real Berlin, almost industrial underground version of it as well. I don’t think that’s online yet, but I know it is on ITunes. We don’t have any trance mixers or anything similar, but you got to keep things different and shake them up. I am sure the next song will have some different type of remixers again.
Bill Leeb: The first two tours we did were very challenging. I think the first tour went off really great, but back then, we had 3 tour buses, three singers and five musicians and it was very expensive. But at that time, people were buying music. Now, things are so different. It would definitely be more challenging to bring it on that scale.
We are talking to our agent, the same gentleman who booked us for the Eye Vs Spy Tour, about doing some exclusive shows in America. Perhaps more intimate sit down theatre type of shows, in smaller places and making it an exclusive thing, but we are waiting to see how much love we have for on the album. So far, so good. Maybe next April we will do ten or twelve shows in America. That is what we’re looking into right now if everything goes smooth. But you know how life is, right? You just never know.
26. Anything new with Noise Unit?
Bill Leeb: Ah, no, no… like I said, it has been crazy enough and it has been over three years since Echogenetic.
But we did the music for AirMech and we’re finishing the new currently. It is part two for the game that is called WarMech. It’s pretty much the same concept with all new songs. We have 12 songs that are being finished. I know a lot of people enjoyed AirMech, so that’s kind of new Noise Unit for us.
27. You released Echoes as a remix album in 2014 and it was also well received. What are the next Front Line Assembly’s steps?
Bill Leeb: Echoes was sort of my brainchild. I just wanted people to be creative and put their own spin to it and that actually worked out quite well for us. For a new FLA album, I think that we might like to perhaps do a more raw electro Front Line Assembly album that sounds really underground. If I am going do something, it has to be unique and interesting and be done in a way that I haven’t done it yet. Otherwise, to me there’s no point. I would rather do something from the artistic point of view than worry about if it’s going to be a big seller or not. But yes, the next thing is starting the new Front Line album. One more!