Two years ago, we talked with Bill Leeb about Front Line Assembly, Delerium and some of his other projects, as well as the electro-industrial music scene. In this extensive interview, Bill shared some of his early memories of Canada, his passion for collecting records, his experience of getting together with other Skinny Puppy members, his music influences, and the success of Echogenetic. After the release of Wake Up The Coma, we felt it was time to talk with Bill again.
1. Hello Bill, nice to have you here. In our previous interview, we talked about your plans for the next album. You said that you were going to do something interesting in a way you hadn’t done before. Wake Up The Coma is a very interesting and diverse release. What are your own thoughts on the album?
Bill: It was such a strange album to put together, because, as we started putting it together, Jeremy died, Jared was also dealing with life and Rhys was back in the picture. To put it all together was a big ordeal and dealing with all that stuff that happened was very emotional. There’s a couple of songs that Jeremy’s on. I guess we had a lot of success with Echoes and Echogenetic, so the album to me is, sort of, half from that era and some of the tracks me and Rhys did are probably kind of in our own era whit more old classic stuff. Me, Jared and Jeremy have worked together for 12 years and did a whole bunch of music and the WarMech thing as well. I guess it was just the end of an era and beginning of the new thing even though Rhys has been around with me for a long time too, and it was kind of one thing closing and maybe another thing opening. There were ideas from both sides and, yeah, it was a strange journey, like a life journey. To me, it’s almost like a summarisation of the last 30 years and all the people and everything involved. If it ended tomorrow I would be ok with this being our last record just because of everything that’s happened and just the way the album is represented, so kind of a real life journey, I would say.
2. You also mentioned that the album would be going back to a more electronic sound with Rhys. What did the whole process of writing and recording look like?
Bill: Yeah, I said “Let’s not use any guitars in this album and just really go back to the way Caustic Grip and all that kind of era was” and everybody thought that was a good idea. So we just brought it back to a sort of an EBM world where we all wanted to be just purest and more electronic and that’s kind of what we did. The album was a real collaboration between me and Rhys and Jared and Sasha. We just went back to our roots with the whole thing and I think people seem to appreciate that too. Most of the lyrics are done by me, and I usually do them after the songs are written, and we had Ian Pickering who did lyrics on a few songs as well and he’s a great lyricist. I went down to LA a few times where we were working, Jared sent some ideas in, like two minute sketches, and we would just tweak on them and then we would send them around again. So it’s the real collaboration and it just gets sent around the world digitally and everybody keeps tweaking on it. None of us are in the same place so that’s why things got sent around. It took quite a while to put this thing on, a couple of years. And then, when we’re happy then I’ll do the lyrics. The lyrics were recorded last year in Vancouver, I did the vocals and then we’re done.
3. There are many guest appearances on the album as well. The first single “Eye on You” was a collaboration with Robert Gorl from DAF. How did that come about? Why did you choose that track for the single?
Bill: I’ve always been a big DAF fan and I always had it in my mind that one day it’d be great to do something with Robert, and then when I met him at Wave Gothic Treffen we had a friendly chat and then I though “You know what, I’m just gonna ask him if he’d want to work on the song” and he said “Okay”! So, he sent us some sequences and then we took it from there and we finished it. As far as the single goes, we thought it had a real dance floor appeal. I think the album has lots of that, but we just went with that one, we thought it had a good vibe. I think there’s at least five or six songs on the album that could have done that as well. That was the goal, just to do something with Robert. We were going to try it again to get him sing on a song but I think he was busy at the time. So we just got him on the one but that was a fun collaboration for me.
4. One of the most inspiring tracks on the album is the title track. We’re not used to hearing such a melodic vocal line, but it came together quite nicely. Is that something you’d like to do more in future?
Bill: Nick has an amazing voice. Rhys produced a couple of Paradise Lost albums. I first heard the rough sketches from Jared and he didn’t want to use it, but I said “No, no, I like this”. So I brought it to LA and I said “I hear something here”, so we finished writing it, the chorus and stuff. The lyrics are actually from Ian Pickering who worked with Sneaker Pimps before. I said to Rhys “Why don’t you ask Nick from Paradise Lost?”, they’re good friends, and he said “Okay” and we sent him the lyrics and he recorded it in a couple of days, and we were all like “Damn, this is a great track and he’s a great singer” and so it was a great collaboration again. It was fun for us to do it that way, that’s kind of how it happened.
Would you do it again with a singer like Nick?
Bill: Who knows what the future holds. For now, this is still pretty new, but something to think about for sure.
5. Another unexpected collaboration is the one with Chris Connelly. I read somewhere you became friends during the tour with Revolting Cocks. What drew you to Connelly?
Bill: When we did the Front Line – RevCo tour we became really good friends with Chris and also with Richard 23, Paul Barker, they’re really nice guys, so that was like such a fun and great tour. I think Chris Connelly does an amazing job with Sons Of The Silent Age and I really like that. We had this one song idea and I thought it would be kind of cool to have that kind of vibe on it, so I just approached Chris and said “Can you do something on there that has sort of your David Bowie feel to it?” because I was a huge fan and it wasn’t that long ago that David Bowie passed away. We were taking kind of a risk because a lot of EBM screw-heads might not like that, but we were just making this record for ourselves. I’ve done so much music that I just wanted to make it for myself. So Chris came back with that, he wrote the lyrics and sang and we were like “I love it, it’s a great way to finish the record”. I was quite happy with that as well.
6. We are all intrigued by your cover of Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus”. Apart from the Austrian connection with Falco, what does the song mean to you? Was it in any way a tribute to Falco, or was it just an interesting and inspiring song to play with?
Bill: I think it was a little bit of everything. We had never really done a cover song before and I like Falco, so I thought “My homeland is Austria and his homeland is Austria”. But I thought the only way I would cover that song is with the right guy. Rhys had worked with Jimmy Urine from Mindless Self Indulgence on a few things, and I heard some of the things he did and I thought he would be the right guy for this. We’ve had this idea on the table for years already, and I just didn’t want to let it go. I had approached Jimmy prior and 2 more years went by and it didn’t happen and it’s been at least four or five years since I approached Rhys and said “We should do this” and sure enough, I didn’t let that idea go. And then Jimmy came in one day and just nailed it.
7. I read a few online reviews and comments on social media, and it seems to me people either love it or hate it. How pleased are you with your and Jimmy’s interpretation?
Bill: I just thought he did such a great job and that he did it exactly and maybe even better than the original, I loved it. Of course there’s always gonna be haters and stuff, but for the most part, that track has done us a lot of good and has got a lot of plays, and a lot of people that might not listen to Front Line will actually listen to that song and I just think it’s fun. And to me, sometimes you just gotta have fun, you can’t always be gloom and doom, and my life’s getting shorter too now and I don’t have years to waste on the things that I don’t want to do and have fun with. This was one of those real fun things. And even the video, me and Rhys were joking that a lot of people will probably hate it because it’s not industrial. That’s just what we wanted to do. We had fun with it and if you don’t like it, don’t watch it, but I enjoyed every minute and I would do it again. I thought we did a great job with it.
I was wondering if Jimmy spoke German or if he had to practice a lot.
Bill: Jimmy is just a really a talented guy. I think he had a big part in the movie too, Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s just one of those guys that has the brain like that. He came in to the studio with his samples and stuff and within two hours had the entire track laid down and he doesn’t speak German. We were completely shocked. He’s one of those genius kind of guys. He did a solo album too where he covered Doobie Brothers in his own way and you kinda go “How does this guy do this?”, like Einstein. One of those guys that has that brain, he hears something once and he can do it. Whether you like the song or Falco or not, you have to admit Jimmy did a great job.
I love Falco, I was really sad when he died.
Bill: Right, he died on that island on holidays. I was reading, it was a car accident, he was on vacation…
What year was it? I don’t remember anymore.
Bill: You know what, the craziest thing, the day we released the video was the same day he had died. Do you know that?
Did you do that on purpose?
Bill: No, we didn’t know and that was even more of the shock, because when we released it then somebody commented. And even one of those magazines said “Front Line Assembly released Falco video on his death day” so I Googled it and sure enough, isn’t that crazy? That’s crazy, right? In real life you could not plan that because usually when you have the album release dates and video it always get postponed and pushed, so for us just to release it on that day was kind of insane. We released the video exactly February the 6th this year and that was February the 6th, 1998 when Falco died on that island on a holiday. Isn’t that crazy? He had a rental car that was hit by a bus while he was on vacation in Dominican Republic. It wasn’t his fault, the bus hit him. But isn’t this crazy that this year February the 6th was his death date and we released our video on the same day and we had no clue. It just made the whole thing very haunting and a lot of people thought we did it on purpose and I didn’t even go out there and said “Yeah, yeah, yeah” or “No, no”. I just left it as it was. So that to me was a good cause and good reason and that even made it more special to me.
8. You also have an accompanying video for “Rock Me Amadeus”. It’s kind of an 80s vibe video in which Jimmy appears as Max Headroom. Whose idea was that, and why Max Headroom?
Bill: It was the video director’s. Let’s face it, that’s an 80s song and we thought “What are we gonna do and how we’re gonna do this without making it cheesy?” and Jimmy is actually living in New Zealand right now and we couldn’t afford to fly him up here, so he said he had a good idea and so he shot himself down there and sent it to us here and then our video director just took it and ran with it and that’s what we had and I thought he did a great job. Our video director’s name was Jason. He also directed that Skinny Puppy video from Weapon, the one with the little robot. It was the only official video that was released from their last album, and when I saw that I really liked it and I asked Dave from Metropolis who did that video. He also did a couple of Combichrist videos and he’s a really nice guy. It was not that easy to find the concept, because we didn’t want to do what Falco did and the song is kind of fun and poppy, so when he came up with this concept from Max Headroom we thought it was perfect, like, let’s just do it like a total throwback. It is what it is, I think it will stand the test of time. It’s better to have the people love or hate it than just be like “Well, it’s just okay”. The people who like it really love it and the people that want death and destruction, they’re not gonna get it with that.
9. Is there another track or artist you’d like to cover?
Bill: I was just kidding about… well, I was and I wasn’t, but I thought I wanted to do that song by Trio „Da Da Da”. I thought that would be fun to do. I wouldn’t want to do serous songs. With that one we would need to be much more creative because there’s not a lot there. With Falco, it’s a big pop song with the choruses and bridges and there’s a lot to work with, but with that song we would have to come up with our own creativity. Who knows what the future will bring.
10. You’ve been number two on DAC for three weeks now. Did you think the album would be such a success?
Bill: I think the music scene has changed so much, the whole world. People don’t really buy music; it’s all streaming, only a few people collect vinyl, so I think our expectations, or mine, were really low. There’s so many bands, there’s so much going on and we’ve been around for quite a while so, I just thought it’s not gonna be that big, it’s not gonna be that big a deal, there’s so much for everybody out there. There’s hundreds of releases every day, so I didn’t have big expectations. It was nice to see that we’ve got a good reaction and I thought even Amadeus had something to do with this, love it or hate it. So after 30 years I guess it’s nice to see that we still get a bit of response.
11. We’ve seen you twice in London since your last interview with us. Can we expect a gig here in 2019? Has anything been confirmed so far?
Bill: We haven’t really thought about it too much. We’ll have to figure things out and see how it all plays out.
12. Last time, we saw you together with Die Krupps. How fun was the tour?
Bill: They’re nice human beings, yeah. The RevCo tour was also one of the best ever and one with Die Krupps last year was one of the best ever too because most of the shows were sold out, there was never a night that there was less than 400-500 people there, so that was a great tour, everybody came out. We don’t really want to tour unless you get a good package, because when you do these kind of tours and you get lots of people out, you don’t just want to go out and have half as many people. I think now, all those bands in Europe, all they do is play festivals because at festivals there’s always a lot of people. So even if you don’t draw well yourself, you’re gonna just be the part of the whole thing. But single tours just don’t do nearly as well any more. There are 300 festivals every year in Europe and half of the bands, that’s all they do. They go out every weekend and they play a festival and they go home on Monday. Touring as a solo act is much more difficult now. I would only want to go out if we have a good package. Die Krupps too was great, like I said, when you’re playing to full house every night it’s a good energy for all the bands, so there’s no issues, everybody’s having a good time, so that was a great tour.
13. You said Eye vs. Spy was the highlight of your career. Do you think there will be another opportunity for something like that?
Bill: You know what, I guess, never say never, it’s a possibility. I think we’re all in good terms. It’s probably depending more on Skinny Puppy, if they’re ever gonna do a new album, and what and how and if… but you know, the door’s open so who knows, we’ll see what happens.
14. In the meantime, you recorded a single with John Fryer for his Black Needle Noise project. If I’m not mistaken, it was the first time you sang for a project other than yours. Can you tell me more about the experience?
Bill: John Fryer is such a lovely man. Actually, when he was in LA he needed a studio and I actually hooked him and Rhys up, so I helped out with that and we all had an instant connection because I was a fan of all the music he had done, and he’s just a really great all around guy and talented individual. We all just got to know each other hanging out in Rhys’s studio and then he asked me and I thought this isn’t like an everyday thing and it’s John and I said “Yeah, this thing I want to make it happen”. I’ve had lots of opportunities from smaller EBM bands but I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. But John Fryer to me is like royalty and he’s a cool guy so I definitely wanted to participate in his project.
15. Would you do it again if you felt that the project or the song was right for you?
Bill: I would, it’s just gotta be interesting. I think there’s no point doing something that sounds like what we do ‘cause what’s the point. Sure, I always have an open mind to everything. I think collaborating has been a big part of my life with Front Line and Delerium and with Rhys and his Conjure One. It’s kept life interesting and it’s kept the careers going so hopefully there’ll be a few more surprises yet.
16. The album was released on Jeremy Inkel’s birthday. I assume the release date was intentional, as your way of saying thank you. His work is present on the album as well. How do you feel a year after his passing?
Bill: It’s still kind of surreal. Two weeks before his passing we were talking and he sent me a few demos online and I still have that. He was 33, and when I started working with him he was 21. We ended up going to Russia together three times, travelled the world, Wave Gothic the first time ever and M’era Luna the first time ever for all of us, so there was a lot of firsts. You feel like the person is not there physically, but spiritually Jeremy is still there and so is his music. It’s just kind of surreal, but it makes you think about your own life and how you have to look at things and appreciate things and put everything into context and it’s a real eye opener when somebody close to you… and I miss Jeremy because there was a lot of times when I would just go over and we hung out and jammed and talked about music and movies. We could talk for hours, he was like a friend as well so it’s a hard hole to fill and it’s strange and it was so sudden. You just have to find a place for where to exist in your head to make it sort of that it’s ok now and you just keep going forward; definitely a life experience that you carry with you forever. It makes you appreciate life even more. I’m sure everybody has their own way and that’s what I think and feel about that. His name comes up all the time and he’s always on my mind. It’s kinda ironic, you don’t ever forget about people close to you that you worked with, ‘cause working together musically is a very personal thing. So when you get that relationship with somebody it’s just a relationship of sorts, you exchange ideas and stuff that are personal. He’s gone, but not really. He’s always in my mind, so that’s my answer.
17. Will you perform the collaborative songs from Wake Up The Coma at the upcoming shows?
Bill: That’s a whole other issue I was thinking about. I said to Rhys “We’re gonna have to fly Jimmy in to do Amadeus”, because I don’t sound like he does and I guess my version would be totally different. That would be a big challenge! Whenever we are somewhere, we would have to maybe have the guy in that city to come in as a guest artist and do that song, but probably as far as just on the regular basis, I don’t think I would try and sing those songs. It probably wouldn’t do them justice. That’s a whole other issue, I don’t want to think about that today, haha.
18. As a non-native English speaker, I really have to ask a question about the album title. What does “Wake Up the Coma” really mean?
Bill: Ironically enough, the title is from that song, right. Ian Pickering wrote the lyrics so that’s his title we actually used. He didn’t mean to title the album, but we thought that that was the best title. I guess the lyrics are sort of a telltale meaning behind it. Ian is British and he’s very educated and he has a double outlook on life, it is kind of a nihilistic outlook on life, I guess.
What does it mean to you?
Bill: It’s about people that literally can’t be woken but show signs of awareness, nihilistic, unresponsive in their environment. It’s like the word coma, that’s somebody who’s in the state of unconsciousness and has minimal brain activity. It’s like wake up from your dull-drum life and react and get your brain going, show signs of awareness, rather than being so unresponsive to the environment!
promo pics by Bobby Talamine