Front Line Assembly interview: Bill Leeb talks about “Mechanical Soul”, Noise Unit and more

 

The electro-industrial icons Front Line Assembly have just released one of their most inspiring albums titled Mechanical Soul. After Wake Up The Coma, which featured several guest appearances, this time Bill and Rhys opted for a completely different concept, resulting in an album which is on par with some of their best classics, such as Tactical Neural Implant. We talked to Bill Leeb about the inspiration, motivation, writing and recording process behind this extraordinary creation.

1. Mechanical Soul is a classic electronic FLA record. In our previous interviews you said that you wanted to go back to basics with Echogenetic and Wake Up The Coma sound-wise. Is that something that you consciously chose for this album as well or did things just naturally evolve in that direction?

Bill: The last four albums was Jared, Jeremy, Sasha and me, the four of us were writing these records. The fact that this time it’s just me and Rhys changed the whole complexity, the whole feeling, because it’s totally two different people and the chemistry is different. We’ve done so many different styles within of what we do and we just thought “Let’s just go back”, without consciously thinking… Let’s just do how we started doing what we do and see what happens. And I think, this is the end result. We didn’t think of overproducing it or bringing guitars or trying to use the latest trendy techniques of elctronica. We just, kind of, did what we wanted to do and it was just, like a real exercise also, and keeping our minds and our sanity while this crazy pandemic’s going and this was the end result. Consciously, we think about songwriting, like coming up with choruses and verses… maybe we spent a little more time on that.

2. You obviously worked on the album during the ongoing pandemic and lockdown. To what extent did the pandemic inform the subject of the album and influence the writing? How much did it affect the way you and Rhys usually work?

Bill: Yeah, well, I think for me and Rhys the most important thing was to be together again. You know, after everything that’s happened with the band and Jeremy and all those people, we’re back to the original two guys and we just enjoyed making a record together, ‘cause last year, during the pandemic, we just needed something to keep our minds busy and we thought this was the real positive thing. And I guess after being around for quite a while, I think we just made a record for ourselves. It’s hard to tell anymore what’s gonna be popular and what people are gonna like, so we just do what we do and if you like it, great, and I guess if you don’t, there’s so much music out there that people can pick and choose. There’s free streaming and downloading and all this stuff. It’s such a different climate in the world now, but I think for us, it was just important to be creative and just do what we enjoy doing and so be it. There are a lot of other bands, bands like Front… they don’t make new music any more, they just play their old hits. So, I guess when you’re still making new music, you’re still exposing yourself to criticism and people, but I think that’s half the fun for us. I think it’s an interesting way to make a record during this pandemic anyways.

In Ontario and in Montreal, Quebec, yes, they have all kinds of different lockdowns. We had like a minor one last year in March and April, but it’s very mellow here. Apart from the precaution and stuff, people feel pretty safe here and it’s a pretty low count, we only have like a thousand people dying in a year, whereas in a lot of places, that’s daily, so you can imagine the difference in level of anxiety. And everybody wears a mask here, so it’s pretty mellow here.

I had a lot of strange dreams in the last year and a lot of strange thoughts. I would go for really long walks by myself because you can’t really go to the gym, and I would think about the lyrics and I would actually just sing them as I was walking to keep myself occupied and maybe people walked by me and would think I was crazy. It was just a lot of weird soul-searching. I mean, I’ve always been the guy that’s talked about, like, “How long will we last on this planet?”… maybe a little pessimistic about everything, but some songs on this album are about getting off the planet and finding a new place to live and exist. So I think all these things really contributed to the lyrics and just the whole feel of the album. I started watching the whole series of [the show] Walking Dead. I’ve never seen it before and I really got into it and I thought that there’s a real correlation between what’s going on in the world. Like, whenever I see someone coming towards me with the mask I would think maybe underneath they’re decaying and this would be the new way in the future as well, like the Walking Dead. So, all of this stuff took my imagination on a crazy ride and I think this all contributed to the overall feeling of the album as well as the cover. So, yes, it definitely had an effect on me.

Even though Rhys moved back to Canada a while ago, were you able to see each other during writing and recording, considering the pandemic and COVID measures?

Bill: It’s not so easy to do everything electronic. I get on a ferry, it’s 40 minutes and I’m where he is. His dad actually has a recording studio, so that’s another great thing. So, I go there once a week, we share ideas and we do stuff and he records my vocals and it worked out perfectly. The fact that his dad has a studio is amazing, so that’s how that worked. Sometimes when we were in the studio, we’d actually wear masks. I guess it’s normal now, but that was a new experience for us, ‘cause we just wanted to be respectful of each other.

How come his dad has a studio, is his dad a musician also?

Bill: Oh, yeah, yeah, his dad was a full time musician and he was with the band with a really well known artist Art Bergmann who was a big part of a, sort of, punk-alternative scene in Vancouver, back in the late 70s and 80s and his dad still does music with people around town. The whole family is quite musical. So, it’s really handy that his dad has a studio.

How do you record vocals? In the studio with Rhys?

Bill: Well, I’m usually really prepared. I sit at home, I play the songs on my headphones, I write everything down and I work on all the parts and then when we show up there, we have a mic room and Rhys sets up the mics and stuff and I get the music stand and the way we go, we start recording. Usually I have all the parts figured out. I like to be really prepared, so we don’t waste any time trying to find things. I enjoy the process at home, I listen to the songs and just kind of get into them and find the right words to fit and flow. It’s just an enjoyable process, so, for me, that’s the way to go!

3. I find it hard to pick a favorite song from Mechanical Soul. But I believe your UK publicist’s favorite is “Komm, Stirbt Mit Mir”, so I decided to ask you about it. For me, that song is the “coldest” sounding song on the album. Can you tell us a bit about the song and the lyrics?

Bill: Ironically enough, I think the pandemic had a bit to do with it, because what they were showing us from the hospitals, a lot of people that were dying with Covid, had to die alone, because they were isolated in IC unit, so their loved ones couldn’t even say goodbye to them, because otherwise they would get infected, right?! And I always think, you know, if come the day when I have to go to the other side, it would be nice to have maybe your favorite person in the world that you love or that you care about to at least hold your hand and tell you goodbye, rather than dying alone in some hospital bed with plastic around and strangers and masks. Or just at any point in life, something happens to you and you’re laying on the ground bleeding to death and there’s no one there to help you and you know you’re gonna die. I just got fascinated with that whole subject, so the lyric “Komm, stirbt mit mir”, “Come, die with me”, it just means to have a companion there to hold you or tell you it’s gonna be ok.

And there’s another thing about the song. Jeremy [Inkel] literally died on the street. I guess he had issues, but he didn’t have his inhaler, and he basically collapsed on the street, in the alley by the theatre and somebody found him, he was already unconscious. By the time the ambulance came and brought him to the hospital, he was pronounced dead. So he technically died on his own. And my stepfather, a year and a half ago, same thing. He lived in a little house beside my mum’s, they lived apart but together down the street. And when my mum found him, he’d basically been laying on the floor for four days. I guess it seems to happen a lot of people die alone, so I had all these things in my mind and that’s what came out in that song. I always thought I was ok with dying, but it would just be nice to have somebody to hold your hand that you loved. I guess it’s a little deep answer, but it’s the truth of that whole idea of the track and the lyrics.

Why did you choose to sing it in German?

Bill: Because it’s my original language, it’s from my birth place. So I just thought, because I’m born and raised in Vienna, and a lot of your youth is the most important part of your life, it’s what makes you later on in life and my relatives and my real father are back there. So it meant even more to do it like that.

4. Unlike Wake Up The Coma which featured several guest artists, this album is just you and Rhys, with Dino Cazeres on guitar on “Stifle” and a reworked song with Jean-Luc’s vocals. Why did you choose to do it on your own this time around?

Bill: I could write a book now from the first album where me and Rhys started the music and then about all the people in the last 30 years that have come in. I’ve always kept the open door policy and all the people from Michael Balch, Chris Peterson to Jeremy, to Jared, to Sasha, to all the guest artists… A lot of people that have contributed and that we’ve worked with have come and gone and I just thought it was just, kind of, ironic that we’ve come off a full circle, and here were me and Rhys again, standing at the door and we’re looking around and going “Well, where is everybody? What’s happened to everybody in life?” And everybody’s doing something different and a lot of them aren’t even doing music anymore. It’s just really surprising to me that me and Rhys are still the same two guys, who, as far as we know, are passionate about music and we still enjoy it and we care about it.

So it was, kind of, a really sweet moment to just go and say, yeah, it’s just us, but that’s just fun again and do what we did from the beginning. And that meant a lot to both of us. I think the both of us have grown up a lot too over the years and I think we appreciate everything more now, than we did. You know, when you’re young you think the world owes you and you’re self-entitled, but you need that attitude. I think, now you get a little wiser and more appreciative and with everything going on in the world it even means more to me just to be able to do something creative and productive and have it out there, no matter how great or not great people think it is, but just for us, for our sake, for our friendship, our years of working together. It was, kind of, a big moment for us. I’m getting pretty deep, right?

5. You reworked the song “Future Fail” from Artificial Soldier which featured Jean-Luc DeMeyer on vocals and it became “Barbarians”. The song went through such a heavy revision that it’s almost unrecognizable. I actually had to listen to the original and I still wasn’t sure that it was the same song. I absolutely love how it turned out. How are you pleased with the new version “Barbarians” compared to “Future Fail”? Why did you decide to revisit the song and make something new out of it?

Bill: Yeah, it’s the same vocals. I loved the lyrics, the lyrics in that song are so powerful. I’ve always been a big Front 242 fan and friend to Jean-Luc and Richard 23, so I was lucky enough to work on a song with Jean-Luc. “Future Fail” came from a few years prior when initially Rhys Fulber sent me a demo. At the time the band was Chris Peterson, Jeremy, Jared and me and so many people wanted to put their ideas on everything, and by the time that song was done, I thought it was really busy. That’s one problem, when you have a lot of guys in a band and everybody wants a part on the same song, it just becomes like a struggle. It’s really frustrating and it ends up being too busy, so that’s what happened with that song. Everybody wanted to be on it, because Jean-Luc was on it. So rather than making it a big of a deal, I tried to go along with everything and Rhys eventually just went “Ok, I’m backing away from this, because this is turning into a big clusterfuck, because everybody wants to put their bit.” So, I just left it alone.

But I always had in the back of my mind that maybe some day I’ll revisit that song and then, on this album, I went to Rhys and I said “You know, I want to redo this song and here’s the drumbeat I want for it and I want it to be slow” and I gave it to Rhys and he reworked it and I loved the chorus. It just sounds so enigmatic, it’s like I can just visualize the skies opening and the hand coming down. So, anyways, I love the track. It’s for sure one of my favorite on the album and I am glad that we did it this way and I’ve never done that before for another song on the album, but I guess there’s the first time for everything and that’s the story behind that. It’s quite a long story, but I think it’s in a happy place now. The other version was good too, but I prefer this one. That’s my personal taste.

6. On Wake Up The Coma, lyrics were written by you and Ian Pickering. Did you write all lyrics this time? Can you tell us a bit more about the lyrical content?

Bill: Yes, all except Jean-Luc, he did his own lyrics. Like I said, most of the lyrics came to me from just spending a lot of solitary time last year. The world was totally locked down and you couldn’t go anywhere and you just spent a lot of time by yourself. I had a lot of time to think and soul-search about life and people and it just, sort of, all came out in this way, like I said in the track “Alone”. Having so much time to spend on your own, I think it changed the world and it changes people. I think it changed everybody, whether you think so or not. There’s one song where I’m singing “Everybody’s gonna need a gun to survive”. I still think I have this weird vision that one day the world’s just gonna be the last frontier where it’s gonna be every man for himself and nobody is gonna be able to blame anybody else, because we all knew we were going for this direction and we didn’t take enough time to care and there’s too many people in this world and who knows when the next pandemic will come. I think this one showed us that no matter how many fancy things we have, we’re not really totally prepared in the world for any major catastrophe, because we’re still dealing with this one. Sure we can fly at the speed of sound and we have electric cars, but what good does that do us for what’s going on.

So, I think it really exposed us to a lot of things and I think about frailty and humanity and all these things. I’ve used a word “Zombie” a few times in lyrics, that’s kind of what we are at times. We’re slaves to technology and the way we’ve created life. You can’t just go somewhere and live on your own, you have to follow all these rules and regulations and laws. It can get really frustrating. So this was a good exercise to get all those thoughts and daemons out of my head and maybe find some more in the future.

7. The album artwork shows a very surreal and apocalyptic scene. How would you describe the connection between the album and the artwork?

Bill: Well, I went to Dave McKean and asked if he could create a surrealistic landscape that just doesn’t look like anything that’s going to really live or survive anymore and have this apocalyptic feel, because that’s kind of the way a lot of the lyrics and the mood of the album are. He came up with one other thing at first and I didn’t think that was the right way and then he gave me the rough idea for this one, which I thought was perfect. I think it really ties everything together. And I think it has, kind of, a realistic feeling of now, how things could or would be. I always like to have themes for records and I think this really ties the whole album together. I’m a bit of a science fiction addict as well, so, I’m not predicting… but I’m predicting… It reminds me of Mars as well, and I think, are the rich people gonna get off the planet and live somewhere else and we’re just gonna be left scraping for food and resort to cannibalism, ‘cause there’s nothing left to eat on this planet. So, I think all this stuff is part of that album cover.

8. You said that the title “Wake Up The Coma” described people who couldn’t be woken, who had minimal brain activity and who were unresponsive in their environment. The expression “Mechanical Soul” is an equally intriguing concept. What does “Mechanical Soul” mean to you?

Bill: I think the entire planet is run by technology and I think that we’re all like robots now, as far as everything we do goes. People walk around looking at their cellphones, not looking at anybody anymore. When you phone some place, there’s no human contact, you get a pre-recorded message and nobody calls you back. People are shopping online. I think the loss of human contact is becoming more and more prevalent. Even when you go to the airport, all you’re dealing with is those machines and computers and we’re just becoming so mechanised with everything in our lives.

It’s the same with music technology. I listen to the radio and most of the music you hear now is just so processed and because there’s no live music right now, everything just sounds so processed, mechanical. I just feel like the human touch is disappearing in everything we do. The big thing [for the] last two years was buying a car that drives itself. You just get in your car and it’ll drive you to where you need to go and I always thought that I don’t feel comfortable getting in the car and the car is gonna drive me, because what if it decides it wants to crash and kill you?! In one of the songs I, kind of, use that content of the lyric… but it’s more like that movie Crash by David Cronenberg. You know those Teslas, they’ve had a couple of them crashed, because the guy’s either fallen asleep and it’s driving itself, or he’s watching a movie… and so, to me, that’s pretty mechanised. When Uber picks you up and it doesn’t have a driver and you get in and it just says “Where are you going”, are you gonna feel comfortable? I’m not.

So there’s all these things in life that I keep thinking about. Well, what’s the rush? Why do we have to make everything so computerised, mechanised?! I mean, is it because people don’t trust other people anymore? It’s a weird society that we’re creating and in the future the more and more that we rely on all this technology, it just means for a bigger catastrophe in the end to come, when one day we lose all the power in the world. We won’t be able to survive, because everything is plugged in, everything is computerized. People won’t even know how to survive. Especially the driverless cars. I’m not getting in a taxi with no driver. It’s just a computer and you tell it “I’m going to the airport”, and this thing starts driving and how do you know it’s gonna take you there? What if this computer fucks up and takes you to the wrong side of town. I don’t know, that’s where we’re going. And another thing, robots! They’re building these sophisticated robots that look like humans and one day maybe you’ll just have a robot as your wife or your husband and it won’t give you any problems, because it’s not gonna argue with you.

I don’t know, I guess that’s were we’re going and there’s no stopping. We’re in this big race for all this mechanical engineering, or whatever you want to call it, so we’ll see. So I thought it was a good title with what’s going on. I think you can draw your own conclusion from it, but I think it definitely has a reality to it with life now, right?

9. Will there be any videos for the album?

Bill: Actually, there is one. I just got it from our Danish guy. It’s for the song called “Alone”, but I actually haven’t seen it yet. It came two hours ago, so after we talk, I’m going to view it, I think it’s apparently done. Maybe in a week or so, I’m sure it’s gonna be out, but I have to see it first, obviously. The guy that’s made it is the same guy who did the video for “Arbeit”. It came out a month ago. It’s a song from the last album, but when he started doing it last January as a follow up for Wake Up The Coma, the pandemic hit, so everything got shot down. It took till a month and a half ago until he finished and delivered it, it’s on Youtube. The same guy who made that, finished the one for “Alone”. His name is Henrik Bjerregaard Clausen.

10. I read somewhere that “Stifle” was actually meant for a computer game (Cyberpunk 2077). Can you tell me something about that? How did the track end up on the album? Did the game version already feature Dino on guitar or did you make that collaboration after deciding to include it on the album?

Bill: Dino came later. Rhys has two songs on that Cyberpunk game video, which is like the biggest game video of the year and he had one more track and I heard it and I went “Oh, I really like this, so let’s work on this and put vocals on it”. So we did that and then it still felt like it was missing something, so I said we should get some guitar on this. He said “Do you want me to call Dino?” I said “Yeah”, ‘cause, you know, Rhys and him are like brothers. So he called him and Dino said “Right away” and did it within a day or two and that’s the nice thing about having good friends and good working relationships. So that’s how that track ended up. Ironically enough, another review from the UK nailed it and said it has a bit of a Nine Inch Nails feel to it and that’s what I felt when I heard it too first time. I went “Rhys, this sounds like a Nine Inch Nails kind of track” and he went “Yeah, I was trying to give it that kind of feeling for the game” and so I said “Yeah, yeah, let’s do it, ‘cause I’m really feeling this track” and then I got inspired to do the lyrics and off we went.

11. What kind of feedback have you received for Mechanical Soul so far?

Bill: So far, that’s been great. Every review so far that I’ve read, all keep saying “Highly recommended”. So, so far, it’s been great. I haven’t read anything bad yet. Not that I care, but I think it seems, like you said, this could be one of our classic Front Line albums. Some great magazines gave us a huge thumbs up, so that’s really positive.

I remember that people were divided in their opinion on Wake Up The Coma; some loved it and some almost hated the Falco cover.

Bill: Speaking about “Amadeus”, the reason I wanted to do it was because I’m from Austria and he’s from Austria. And I’ve never done a cover song. I was born in Vienna, so to me, on a personal level, it meant a lot to be able to do the song, because I feel we have a real kinship, we’re both from the same place. So, the people that maybe didn’t think nice about it, I thought they didn’t understand why I did it. Forget about whether you think it’s good or not, to me it was mostly about the concept and I want people to know that.

Are there any chart positions for Mechanical Soul yet? I haven’t checked.

Bill: Me neither. It’s pretty early, it only came out like five days ago.

12. Do you think about playing live as soon as you’re able to, or you don’t want to think about it just yet?

Bill: Well, our live agent has booked some dates. But, we’ll see, right?! Hopefully, with the vaccine, the world will become a more happy place, especially in the UK as well. Hopefully by the summer, things would be better. It won’t be perfect, but as long as they’re better.

13. When we spoke in 2016 I asked about Noise Unit and you said that you were too busy with other things, but luckily that’s changed. When can we expect to hear new Noise Unit?

Bill: This is probably the best Noise Unit that we’ve ever done and it’s the first time that we’ve used Dave McKean for the cover and I think we have 11 songs and we have two guest artists on it. One is really well known guest vocalist, which I don’t want to divulge, but technically the record is done as of next week, so our work’s done. We don’t want it to come out too soon after Mechanical Soul, probably like late spring or something. I’m sure we’ll release a single, but yeah, we’re really happy with it too, because this pandemic has given us nothing but time, so we’ve managed to create a whole Noise Unit album, but a really good one. So, yes, that’s exciting too.

So, when did you change your mind about working on a new Noise Unit album?

Bill: I think sometimes my mind is like the wind and the weather. I think a lot of had to do with Jeremy, Jared and the whole group of people we worked with and when that all changed and Rhys came back into the picture and moved back here, everything just changed. And we’re like brothers! We went back to what we both started doing and what we felt good about doing and it was a lot easier for just me and Rhys to work together. It just became so simple again and it became fun again doing it this way, because it’s just way easier and that’s why we created it again. So, that was the big change, you know.

14. Except the announcement for the Noise Unit album, is there anything else in the pipeline? What’s going on with Delerium at the moment?

Bill: We’ll probably do a new Delerium album this year as well, [it’s been] almost 3-4 years since Mythologie. And I don’t think there’s gonna be any touring yet, so we’re gonna have time. We’re just gonna keep rolling with our creativity. It comes in waves. I think creativity with artists just comes in waves like the ocean. It comes in, it goes out, it comes in, it goes out. So when it’s happening, you need to make sure you’re doing something with it, otherwise those moments go away again. We’re kind of on a big wave now.

Do you ever feel like doing nothing?

Bill: No, not right now. I feel like we’re in this hyper creative sensitivity mode, everything’s flowing. That’s when you need to keep it going. We’ve even been talking with cEvin about doing a Cyberaktif record. So, I think now we’re in full production mode, and it feels good.

Do you have another label for the Noise Unit record?

Bill: It’s going to be Artoffact. Jacek is a super nice guy, he’s pretty excited about it and some of the people we’ve got involved. I think he takes a lot of care in his releases. This is our first major release with him, so yeah, I’m excited.

15. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Bill: We’re living in strange times and I think a lot of people are spending a lot of time at home alone and isolated so it’s a good time to find music. It’s really a great tool, to sit at home and turn off your TV and just listen to music, ‘cause I think it gives you a better perspective on life and things to do and that’s kind of what we’re doing, so I just hope everybody enjoys the record and stay tuned for Noise Unit!

promo pics by Bobby Talamine

concert pics by Marija Buljeta

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