Last summer, the ever-prolific and ever-changing Front Line Assembly released “IMPROVISED. ELECTRONIC. DEVICE.,” an album that brings heavy use of guitars back into their sound. At first listen, the guitars may bring to mind 1994’s “Millennium,” but the music also has intense, cold electronic edge reminiscent of earlier Front Line Assembly. In the following phone interview, founder Bill Leeb talks about the lengthy process of making the album, his thoughts on the current state of the music industry, songs he hates to play, and more.
How did the process of making this album compare to past releases?
“You know, it’s so bizarre. Every time you start a record you have just kind of no concept of where you’re going, and I think your life around you and everything else sort of comes out through the record. If I had to sort of put a finger on it I’d say this is probably a perfect assimilation of everything and anything Front Line Assembly has ever stood for, from day one to now. The sound has evolved, and I think we’ve taken all the best elements and still focused on songwriting. We took over two years to make this thing. We worked on it for 6 months, then put it away for a while, and I was going to get Rhys involved but he got busy. We ended up going down this road with the guys we did over 100 live shows with over the past three years. It ended up being quite a personal record because we toured a lot, going to places like Russia, and during the last tour went to Vienna where I met my dad. There was a lot of stuff to draw from. It just all sort of came together. Even with the mixing, for the first time in 25 years we stepped outside the Greg Reely domain and brought Ken Marshall in, who does all the Skinny Puppy stuff. He mixed half the record. Having Al Jourgensen on the record … it was this whole-encompassing thing that took on a life of its own. If I had to sort of stop music tomorrow, I would say that this would have been the record I would be more than happy to stop with on Front Line Assembly. To me, it’s a really positive note. I didn’t know it was going to take 25 years to get there! [laughs]”
How did you come to work with Al? It seemed like you were one of very few people in the genre who hadn’t worked with him before.
“We’d done festivals with them [Ministry], and Michel Balch, who used to be in our band, co-wrote that song ‘Jesus Build My Hotrod’ with Al. And Wax Trax! … we were there from the beginning. So there has always been six degrees of separation. It finally came to a head on this because Jeremy, who is in our band, also toured with another band who opened for Revco last year and he got to become good friends with Al. I guess it was just like the perfect storm and the story that wrote itself.
“Jim Nash’s partner passed away this year, meaning the real defining end of Wax Trax! I guess Al was a very good friend of his, so in a way that song was sort of commemorative as well. We dedicated it to the whole Wax Trax! ensemble. We’re all dying off, right?”
Having been involved with so many projects, was there ever a time when you felt that Front Line Assembly was over?
“I really believe in the saying ‘never say never.’ Nothing is really ever over until you want it to really be over. I find that music itself is such an ambiguous target. Just when you think you might have something, all of a sudden things change and you can feel redundant. Or every time you start a song, you just sort of hope that this is the one that is going to redefine music. Doing these different projects, you kind of do something for a while and then lose your excitement for it in some ways, so you dabble in something else. But then a year or two later, I just feel the urge to just kick some ass again.
“So this particular project just becomes important again. It’s kind of like being a [visual] artist. You try to use all the colors on your palette, sometimes you use more of this one than that one. But I think it all helps keep a good round psyche in your head. I think that most artists are like tortured souls, you know. You need all of it, and it all comes in at the right time and can save you on certain days, and other days it can destroy you. It’s part of the whole complex.”
With such a diverse body of work, are there particular things that you’ve gone back and listened to that have surprised you?
“If you put it in that kind of context, I just think that from day one, from Skinny Puppy to now, if you added up all the work that me and both Kevin’s from that band did, and Rhys, it’s quite overwhelming the body of work that we’ve done. Sure, maybe Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson get bigger sales of some albums, but I think that overall in the genre, all the music, all the production work, that has been created around all of us … if you go to all of those people’s websites and know all the things that they have been involved in, we’ve probably been the four most productive guys in the genre for the past 20 years. It’s overwhelming how much work there is that we’ve been involved with in one way or another. Even the song “Silence” in ’03 was the biggest techno song in the world, and went to #1 in five countries. I don’t like to talk or think about things too much, but if one day we all sat down to write a book about of all it, it would probably be quite compelling, you know, what this group of us from Vancouver started.”
Regarding the different musical styles, would you say you have a preference in terms of things like “Silence” vs. less commercial stuff?
“I don’t really know the term ‘commercial music’ – I don’t really know how to make commercial or genre music. You just try to come up with your own ideas, and I think if anything, the singers, like on the Delerium tracks, can make it sound contemporary or mainstream. But as far as our songwriting goes, I’ve always had the rule that if I like it, whatever I’m doing at the time, then that’s what I’m going to work on. I’ve trusted my instincts with that. I think if I actually sat down and contemplated doing something that was going to be mainstream, I’d probably completely fail! [laughs] I think it’s just such a different realm, a world that is actually pretty scary.”
With so many different projects over the years, fans are bound to have a particular that they would like to see revisited (for me it would be the style of the 3rd Intermix album). How do you feel about that?
“I don’t feel any sort of real pressure. At the time, that particular thing to me was relevant and I was really interested in it, so it was something I wanted to put myself behind. But now music has changed, times have changed, and I just don’t think that type of thing would be relevant again. It’s just got to come to you, and I hope I have a few more ideas in my head for other things. And actually now more than ever, the fact that the whole music industry pretty much collapsed …. 65% or more people are stealing, downloading free music … it’s kind of pointless to do those projects because your sales will be so small. The amount of time you put into it, would be totally redundant unless you were really going to follow it up. And also, labels back in those days would give you twenty grand to do something because you’re Bill Leeb or you’re Kevin Crompton [Key] and you’d sell X amount. But now, it’s a struggle just to get money for your proven projects that you’ve sold hundreds of thousands of. All that has changed. I guess there’s the other thing where you can just make your own Myspace page for people to come by and download for free to see if they like it, and do some cheesy video for youTube. But it’s hard to sustain yourself like that so you’re going to need to have a full time job to have that kind of approach. It’s a different time now, completely different.”
Having written songs about technological and cyperpunk themes over the years, what are your thoughts on the current online world?
“Whether people are Twittering or texting, whatever the hell they’re doing … I don’t think the final chapter has been written on all of this. Where it all ends up, I don’t know. On the one hand you could say ‘well the old days were better in some aspects’ but I guess more people, more demand, as we all keep evolving to want more and need more and be more interactive. Like, speed dating is really popular. You’ve got five minutes with thirty people and you’re supposed to figure out if you’re compatible, whereas people used to take the time to date. I think that music and everything is the same way … when someone comes online, they want to buy one song, put it on their iPod. They have 2,000 other songs on there so they don’t have the time or patience to listen to your entire album. They just want the one track. I guess some artists are just putting three to five songs out there because they know kids with ADD don’t have the attention span to listen to an entire album. That is a by-product, too. It just changes everything. I don’t know, is that good or is it bad? Everyone is in a big rush, right?”
Do you think this has shifted the emphasis to live shows, as a means of exposing audiences to your new music as well as making money?
“It’s just a big myth. People say, ‘Well now if you want to be a band you have to tour.’ Most of the bands I know who are touring, in vans or small buses, are not making any money. They’re just breaking even, but I guess there is this hope that it’s going to happen with them. But most of the bands in Europe who play all the festivals, they all have jobs. Everybody has a job. They take two weeks off for their holiday and they’ll tour. Or they’ll pack up their van for the weekend and go play some big festival, get a few thousand euros for their slot, and go back home. That’s how 90% of the bands exist in Europe. So it’s a total myth. Jeremy is out with 16 Volt and Chem Lab right now, he’s making $15 a day on the per diems and they are kicking in towards the bus. So they’re technically losing money. So again, they’ll be happy at the end of the tour if they can pay all of the bills and the bus and break even. To me, that’s not really a money-making thing, and the amount of CDs they’re going to sell by doing this tour, it’s not really worth it. But if you’re really into it and you want to do it, then you’ve got to do it. It’s a major struggle. There’s that 5% of bands at the top who can actually make some money, but for the rest I think it’s a struggle. But most people don’t feel sorry for musicians, because this industry has been so glorified by people who have had such wild and crazy habits and are so rich and famous. So when people say, ‘Well, these guys are broke’ everyone just says, ‘Well, get a job!’ It is what it is, right?”
What made you title the album “Improvised. Electronic. Device”?
“The title to me, I came up with it and at first it would just be for one of the songs. And then I changed it from ‘explosive’ to ‘electronic.’ I thought it was a perfect phrase when you see what’s going on around the world, and that terminology IED. We’re kind of like that in the electronic world – we use our instruments in that aspect – to make things that are challenging and on the edge. I don’t think I could have coined a better phrase. Front Line Assembly has always been like that as well, the whole sort of war theme – on the edge, on the front line. So I just thought it was a perfect title for what we were doing.”
Would you ever make an album like this again, with four members contributing?
“I don’t know, nothing ever stays the way it is, everything seems to change and be different. Like I said, it really took a lot for us to do this record. For me, it was the hardest one we ever put together. I don’t know if I could do anything record that takes two years, it just took too much energy. And everybody in the band is doing other things to get by in life and survive. It’s a totally different vibe now. Who knows who is even going to be around a year or two from now? The future seems to be very uncertain to me in all aspects to what we’re doing.”
Are you involved with any other projects right now?
“We’ve been putting together a new Delerium album with Jeremy and we have a lot of tracks. But they are way more sort of underground-sounding, more ethereal but tweaky, and I would say even less commercial. I know Nettwerk wanted a new Delerium album for next spring, and I was maybe going to do a few tracks with Rhys as well, but I keep thinking I want to maybe do a Delerium album that is a little less commercial. It might be interesting for a change. I just feel in that kind of mood these days. So that is the other thing I am focusing on.”
What are your touring plans with Front Line Assembly?
“Well, we’re supposed to go to Europe for three and a half weeks starting July 15  to do a bunch of the big festivals, then I think they want us to do a three to four week tour in America, and then in October an entire month in Europe, going to all these places like Greece and Bulgaria and Germany and Czech Republic, that type of thing. That’s what the plan is right now.”
Will you be focusing on the new album?
Personally, I just want to play the new stuff. I don’t really like any of the old stuff anymore. I don’t know if that’s me, but it’s how I feel. I know what other bands go through and when they start playing all their new stuff and people say, ‘They didn’t play the hits!’ We don’t have any hits, though [laughs]!”
Are there any old songs you REALLY don’t like to play anymore?
I don’t want to play ‘Mindphaser’ anymore. But like I said, I don’t really like the old stuff anymore so we might just piss everyone off and just play the new album [laughs].”