Bill Leeb talks about the Front Line Assembly album “Echogenetic”

For their new release, “Echogenetic,” Front Line Assembly have ditched the guitars in favor of returning to a pure electronic sound. But while the album matches the intensity of classic Front Line Assembly albums such as “Caustic Grip,” it also finds them moving in bold new directions. This time around founder Bill Leeb had four musical collaborators, a self-imposed deadline, and a desire to experiment with new production techniques. In a phone interview, Leeb discussed the process of making the album.

How did the making for Echogenetic compare with previous releases?

“This time there were five of us: Jeremy [Inkel] and his friend Sasha [Keevill] were in one camp, and then Jared [Slingerland] and his right hand guy Craig [Johnsen] were in the other camp. So there were two studios and I was jumping between both. Then we’d get together every two or three weeks and critique everything, go over things. There were a lot of ideas, and we only had so much room on the album. We also set a deadline for ourselves, which we’d never done. It worked out really well. In the past you might work for a year and go ‘you know, we don’t even like this anymore.’ Putting all those elements together [made the album turn out as it did]. Having that many people in two camps reduced the workload. When it was just me and Rhys, or me and Chris, it was just an incredible amount of work to make something fresh and interesting.

“With the last thing we did, ‘AirMech’, because it was for a video game, we were able to create different sounds and ideas. I think that really evolved into this record. We found a place where we wanted to be and go forward with. We’re fans of a lot of new electronic music and wanted to bring in a new sound to Front Line Assembly. I know there are a few haters, but in the scene itself over the past ten years everyone has been kind of making the same record over and over again. So we wanted to bring it all together and do something new. If it didn’t resonate, fine, but as it’s turning out, this is the most successful record since the first few way back in the day. The response that we’ve been getting on Amazon and in the charts has been great. The other thing is that Jared and Jeremy are 28 and 29, so they were telling me that when they were in high school they were listening to the remix thing that me and Rhys did for Fear Factory, and old Front Line, so it’s kind of funny to work with guys who sort of grew up listening to what you did. Bringing that youthful energy into it put a whole new slant on everything.

“I don’t think any of us planned this record, but i think it was definitely a whole new turning point for us.”

To what degree did working with new sounds influence songwriting?

“Everything just changed so much, because in the old days when songs were written it was basslines first and then you’d try to write a song around it. With the new stuff, there’s a process called ducking and chaining, which is the way we were doing it. Other new artists like Purity Ring and Skrillex and all those guys are doing it. It’s focusing more on the actual sound and timing of it–it’s not really a 4-on-the-4, it kind of ducks in between. So when you’re programming, you have to actually tweak the sound as you’re doing it. It gets kind of complicated, but it’s what makes it sound different and interesting. It was kind of a different process, a whole new way of writing. “AirMech” was really the precursor to it, as it was a big learning curve. I think it allowed us to put a whole new spin on our writing of electronic music. Like I said, 97% of the people love it. There’s 3% that were haters at first, but I just think those people won’t hate for long. You listen to it, and it has a new sound. I think that for this scene, things need to evolve. I feel that industrial music got a bad name for a while, being dark and gothic, it became a smaller scene. So it’s time to expand and go into uncharted territory and get younger people interested. I think that Skinny Puppy also have had a lot of success with their new record [by evolving]. Hopefully we can push the scene forward and get some new life into it.”

Will this have an impact on how old material is performed live?

“It’s kind of funny, because we’re about to go to Europe and have pulled up a few of the older songs to rehearse them. You don’t really notice it until you play an old song and then play a new one; you hear all the technology differences. The sound and the layers and the way things are done. You realize that ‘wow, this sounds really old.’ I think it’s different for rock bands, whether you play an old song or a new one, you can interpret it. But in electronic music, the difference becomes really obvious. You don’t want to have to reprogram it to the point that it doesn’t sound like what made it great to begin with. So I think you have to walk that tightrope of what you’re going to play and how you’re going to play it, weaving in some old stuff with new stuff. You can definitely hear the difference, but I don’t like it when bands take old classic songs and try to make them new. That’s just me, I’m a bit of a purist. To me ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ should be the way I’ve always heard it, I don’t want to hear Daft Punk do it. At the same time, you can always put new sounds on those songs and evolve it a bit. That to me is the way we’re sort of going.”

Getting back to how you were working in two ‘camps,’ what was the collaborative process like between them?

“It was pretty much like a forum. Each side would come up with ideas for tracks and they would literally get handed over to each other and everybody would add new elements to each others’ work. The lyrics would always come last, at the very end. It was really a full-on collaboration on everybody’s part. I had no idea that it could work out like this, but it definitely did. I could see it working again in the immediate future in the same way. I guess everybody is kind of on the same page; for me it was such a luxury. In the old days, with just me and one other person writing the whole record, there wasn’t anybody to get feedback from. But when you have that many people involved, you do manage to pull the best out of it. This is all a new experience for me, and it might not work for everybody. I’m sure a lot of bands are happy with two people. But I think for me, being on the other side for so long, this is truly a big luxury.”

Was it an intention from the start not to use guitars on this album?

“I usually try to have a theme for records, but that was really my only conscious effort this time – not to use any guitars and just go back to what influenced me when I started Front Line. In some ways, it’s harder to make it an aggressive electronic album without guitars. Because whenever you add a metal guitar into a song, it instantly gives it that big, tough sound. So to take that element out and try to replace it with just electronics, and making it aggressive and dark and atmospheric, seemed like a lot more work. But I think that the end result is more interesting. Because ever since the Wax Trax! days, I think that [electronics with guitar sound] has been beat to death. I don’t think it resonates with people as much, that whole crossover thing. So I thought that for us, it was way more interesting to go back. Now that I hear it and see what’s going on, I feel it was just the best thing we could have done.”

Looking back, do you feel that any past releases represent the ‘definitive’ Front Line Assembly album?

“Well I think that “Tactical Neural Implant” and “Caustic Grip,” and then “Millenium” and this record are the four that define who we are. I think that for every artist, if you’re around long enough and have a bit of success, hopefully there are four or five albums that you can rest your laurels on and say ‘this made a statement’ or ‘this made a difference.’ Those are easily the four best Front Line records.

“I told the guys, that now that they’ve done this album, they’re going to be compared to it for years to come. It’s sort of a catch 22. That’s just how people are, they judge you by the last thing you do, but if you do something really good, then they will always kind of compare you to that. People used to compare us–every record–to ‘Tactical’ and ‘Caustic.’ It’s taken this long for a new one where people actually go ‘wow, this is great’ and feel it has an impact and that feeling. I don’t think you can plan it, there’s no rhyme and reason.

“It’s like a great painting; sometimes an artist wakes up and just paints something great and then spends ten years trying to recreate it but can never get there again. That’s what makes being an artist that special thing, every once in awhile you’re allowed to capture that moment. But it’s fleeting. I think that’s what keeps us going; the hope that the next song or painting you do will be the one that defines you and you’ll always be remembered for. Looking for that perfect song, which is probably not ever attainable.”

It seems like you have fewer side projects going on now than you did earlier in your career. What is the reason for that?

“It’s probably a bit of everything. I think that first and foremost is that the music industry took such a big hit. A lot of the smaller indie labels have disappeared. And people are complaining that there is too much music out there now. I think that now if you’re going to release something and have any success, you have to make sure it’s really good and really interesting. Otherwise you’re just putting another thing out there that nobody is going to care about, even though it took you a long time to create. It’s better for us to do less, but make it better and more special. In the old days the music was simpler, and when there wasn’t youTube and even the internet for that matter, you could put out a lot of things and [with the side projects] half the people wouldn’t hear it anyways because they won’t have access to buy a piece of vinyl or cassette. I think that the world has changed, and with the success of Front Line Assembly and Delerium, I guess I’m more cognizant of whatever I put out to make sure that it’s going to be something of high quality.”

At the time of this interview (7/30/2013), Front Line Assembly were preparing for a series of eleven European performances. Next up for them is a project that will feature different artists that they like re-interpreting the songs from “Echogenetic.” They then hope to embark on a North American tour.