Best known for his work as part of Front Line Assembly and Delerium, Rhys Fulber has in recent years put out dark, techno-based music under his own name. His most recent album, Brutal Nature, was heavily shaped by the pandemic leaving him with more time to focus but access to less equipment with which to work. Fulber self-released Brutal Nature and found the overall experience to be much more hands-on than previous albums. The artwork is based upon his photography, with imagery of decaying brutalist architecture overcome by nature that ties into the underlying concepts of the album.
Besides being part of Front Line Assembly, Delerium, and various related projects, Fulber has produced such acts as Fear Factory, Paradise Lost, and Youth Code (whose vocalist Sara Taylor appears on Brutal Nature). He’s also released several albums as Conjure One, a project that has featured vocal collaborations with such artists as Sinéad O’Connor and Poe.
Over Zoom, Fulber discussed his solo career and the making of Brutal Nature.
Could you discuss the making of Brutal Nature? Was it impacted by the pandemic?
Rhys Fulber: Well, I had started putting material together already when I was in LA at my studio, and then all of that stuff happened. I was just locked up out by the Santa Monica mountains with my son. We weren’t supposed to really go anywhere, and so I just went and grabbed some stuff from my studio and set it up. I had a lot of time on my hands. I didn’t have the commute, which eats up a lot of time in Los Angeles. Suddenly, I had a lot of extra time to focus. I started working on just whatever came out, and what came out was different music. It was a little more subdued and more downtempo. I hadn’t figured out exactly what the album was going to be. I just had this material. Then, I decided to move back to British Columbia because I wanted my son to go to school. I knew the situation in BC wasn’t as bad, so we came back. I lived in the same town before, when my son was born. My wife at the time, his mother, was from Los Angeles. I guess she got tired of four hours of daylight and it raining nonstop. So we went back to LA, and then we came full circle with him and me coming back here. My father has a studio that’s basically in the woods near the ocean.
Then I started saying, “I think this is an album.” I wasn’t going to have those downtempo tracks be on my new solo name material. But then I just thought, “You know, why not? You know, why not just do whatever you’re feeling?” Then I started pulling the whole record together up here. There’s a track called “Marginalized,” which I did up here; it was the only track that was actually written up here. But everything else was fine-tuned, adjusted, arranged, and mixed.
I would go down to the … I don’t really want to call it the beach, but it’s the ocean. I guess it’s a beach: it’s just rocky and not that welcoming. I would go down there with a Bluetooth speaker, and I would listen to the tracks that I had. In that environment, I could hear right away, “Okay, this piece isn’t sitting right. This needs this. This arrangement is wrong.” I just went back and forth until I sort of fine-tuned the entire record. Then a little later in the process, I went back to LA. That’s where I recorded Sara Taylor on that track [“Stare at the Sun”]. I sort of had the idea of the Sara collaboration a while ago, but I didn’t have the music ready yet. So I had that music prepped and then recorded it when I was in LA. Initially, that was going to be a separate release. Then I figured, well, I’ll put it on the album, almost like a bonus track. The mood, the atmosphere of the album, and the running order, I sort of had that all kind of figured out already. But I just thought, well, this is still the cool piece. I thought it could be a nice change of pace at the end of the record, so I put that on. So that was sort of how it all went down. When I was in California, at home, I had a way more minimal setup. I only had a few pieces of gear, and I think it’s actually a better way to work sometimes. I remember years ago, there was a period with Front Line Assembly around the Millennium and Hardwired records. We had so much equipment, and it became a distraction. And it’s wasteful to have these incredible instruments that make two beeps on one song.
I found that by having a smaller setup, I really used what I had, and I got a lot out of it. I think it made the music better in a way. It just focuses you in a little more. Also, it’s like the music was worked less with this record. I don’t know how to explain that. The songs just kind of came together. I did some fine-tuning, but it wasn’t like how it normally is where you’re really in there, constantly digging. A lot of it happened very organically, and it just had a different spirit in its construction that, I think, reflects in the final product. Then the atmosphere that I was in became the artwork as well. I’ve always liked taking pictures and messing around with that. But the last year or so, I started getting into it a little more and trying to understand it more to take it a little more seriously.
Could you elaborate further on the cover art?
Rhys Fulber: So all the photos and the landscapes on the cover are where the record was pulled together. The architecture was some brutalist architecture I shot in Vancouver because the concept of the record was almost like that juxtaposition where you see decaying remnants, especially mid-1960s, 1970s, concrete, heavy stuff. It sort of started when I still lived in Los Angeles with the Resolve EP; that photograph I took was an abandoned Macy’s in Los Angeles. And I remember that’s sort of what sort of got me thinking that way, because it’s sort of weird when you see these institutions abandoned. It’s not a good sign. I mean, I remember when Radio Shack went under; I was like, ‘what?!’ And then of course [at their closing sale] I went and bought all these adapters, the ones that always disappear in the studio, the headphone adapters, the eighth-inch to quarter-inch stereo. So I bought like ten of them. But I remember thinking ‘this is really weird,’ all like middle-class bastions are vanishing. The abandoned Macy’s was just this big mass that was once like a bustling place; it’s just abandoned. So it sort of started me on that idea. Up here in the Pacific Northwest, in the rainforest, you see structures that are just being overtaken. There used to be a lot more industry up here before, with the heavy logging and all that. A lot of that stuff changed, but you see these remnants of industry, and they get eaten by nature. And that was sort of the concept of the record; the decay and then the triumph because these things are decaying, but it’s really just us. The Earth is okay; the Earth is reclaiming. We’re sort of irrelevant in the equation. Like the “Save the Planet” movement is not necessarily about the planet. It’s about people, because the planet will figure it out. So that sort of was the concept of the record, that juxtaposition. That was what inspired the artwork. And it was really cool to … this is the most involved I’ve been in every aspect of a record. This is a very artistically satisfying project. There’s an artist in Berlin I work with; she did the artwork for my last few records. She’s an amazing artist. So I worked with her pulling it all together, but I had all the material photographed. It was kind of an all-encompassing kind of project, more than a lot of things I’ve done in the past.
You said that you had been working on music prior to the lockdown. To what degree did that material end up on the album versus stuff that you may have composed during it?
Rhys Fulber: “Rogue Minority,” “Central State Institute,” “Pyrrhic Act,” and “Pressure,” those tracks I had already. The more sort of aggressive, up-tempo stuff I’d already kind of been working on. “Pyrrhic Act,” I remember, I was in Berlin at the club called Berghain. I sort of had this idea where I wanted a classical element mixed with this music, and that’s sort of what I tried to do with that “Pyrrhic Act” track. I heard it when I was at the club. I was — I could hear like some sort of more orchestral elements, so that was sort of my attempt at capturing that thought. Then the ambient bit was inspired by this area up here, and that became a bigger — almost like two pieces in one. When I would play it down at the ocean there, the drawn-out ambient parts would suddenly take that track and have it make sense in that environment. I get inspired by a lot of … I spend a lot of time over there [in Germany], and I like a lot of that music. But it’s hard for me to make it in the way it exists because I always want to have something more in it for myself. So I’m taking that influence and then making it my own, I guess.
You mentioned working with a more minimal studio setup for this. Could you talk about what you used and how the tools may have shaped the results?
Rhys Fulber: I have a Waldorf Q+ polysynth. It’s a fancy synth that I bought when it came out years ago. I just took that and then a small Eurorack modular setup, and that’s pretty much what “Chemical,” “Fragility” … it’s mostly just made with that. I just had a couple of things. The Q is such an incredible machine. With a lot of these sort of big-ticket synthesizers, conceivably, you could just use that for everything. Everything else sometimes feels like foley. I mean, the modular is more for the drums and the percussion. That’s mostly what I use it for. I don’t really use it for synth stuff so much, so it’s like having a drum machine opened up with the guts exposed and then one nice keyboard. So that’s how I made a lot of the record.
What made you start releasing music under your own name instead of Conjure One or a new project?
Rhys Fulber: Well, coming up with names all the time, that you like and can live with, is hard. Secondly, I remember when I did Conjure One, a lot of people asked, “Why don’t you just use your name?” But because Conjure One is mostly a collaborative project, most of the songs have vocals, so that’s me collaborating with a songwriter and a vocalist. They’re writing the lyrics and doing the vocal melodies to the music I sent them. There are instrumentals on there and stuff that I do on my own, but the flagship pieces, in general, are collaborative. So it sort of is like a producer project, I guess, you could say. Also, with all the production work, all the various things I was doing, I suddenly wanted to make a little more edgy stuff on my own.
I couldn’t put out anything from Your Dystopia as Conjure One. Everyone gets very attached to things as they are, so I just wanted to try some more hard-edged music on my own because I hadn’t done any of that on my own, maybe ever. It was always with Front Line or metal bands, so I just wanted to do that. Conjure One’s got a lot of songwriting involved, and that’s not easy to do all the time, to constantly have to try and come up with a chord change that you haven’t used before. I just wanted to do something really spontaneous and just natural, I guess: just what comes out, like just sit at my gear and just jam something out. That’s sort of what started it.
Then I played some of what I was doing for a friend, and he said, “You know, with techno labels, this would work.” So I got introduced to Adam at Sonic Groove, and then that’s sort of what started this. Then it was like, okay … I’d always been into techno in the old days. So I pay attention to a lot of forms of electronic music, but it was just a question of understanding the dynamics of that scene a little bit more. If you make records, you make them your own, but you still make them in a way so that someone could play. I started deejaying a little bit. Once you start doing that, you understand what people need, you understand what works, and you know why certain tracks don’t get played.
So I started just becoming aware of that template a little more. All I really did was adjust my jamming with a little bit of that dynamic so that there’s an outlet for it. You need outlets for music. If you do it the way someone like me has done it for a career, you need an outlet for things, or there’s no point in releasing it, or you just make it for yourself. So I want to have it fit somewhere. The industrial whatever scene, I’ve been around it for so long. It’s not exciting for me anymore. People might get offended if you say that, but I like something that is new. New is inspiring. With something you’ve done a lot, you’ve got to work at getting inspired. The way to get inspired is with something new. So I wanted to move into other areas: and that’s what’s exciting, and that’s what’s inspiring. Now I have a place. It’s very freeing. Brutal Nature has some very personal material on it in a way, but it works because I’ve been trying to create this zone for it. I’ve done some more stuff that’s even more minimal and even just literally modular jams that you fine-tune later. I really enjoy that. Then the playing live part of this I really like as well. It’s a lot of improvisation. I don’t really have setlists when I play gigs anymore. I used to prep my stuff a little bit more, and I used Ableton and a computer, but now I got rid of the computer. I have a hardware setup. When I do a lot of gigs, I have a list so that I know where all of the pieces live in the Octatrack, but I don’t know what I’m going to do. That part I really like. My favorite thing about this stuff is also how I can do it live, which is completely something different from the record. I don’t know where it’s going half of the time, and I enjoy that open-endedness. There’s no setlist. I mean, there’s usually a bit of an outline, but sometimes you’re in the middle of it, you go to a track, and you go, “This isn’t the track I wanted. All right, we got to work with this.”
That also came from my playing techno gigs, like at Tresor club in Berlin, which I love playing. The only parameter there is that it’s a club, so keep the beat pounding so that you don’t lose the floor. Then whatever you want, wherever you end up, people will go with you. If they’ve got something keeping them locked in, they will go with you. It’s such a cool, totally different experience than playing in a band like Front Line where you have your songs and your setlist. It’s almost tribal in a way. It’s very exciting. Then that experience shapes these new records I make.
What impact does live performance have on your process of creating new music?
Rhys Fulber: Well, it depends on what kind of track it is. With a more up-tempo track, it definitely shapes how you arrange it and how you build it up. The downtempo tracks are sort of something separate, but it’s just knowing the dynamics of that environment. It sort of helps you make music like that. DJs dominate that scene because they know what works because they’re out there doing it. They know how to build tracks. They know about the dynamics, not having too many things going on. When you’re in that environment, less is more. You don’t need a million things going on because it’s just a different place to absorb music.
Have you performed tracks before recording them? If so, have any in particular been shaped by that experience and the audience feedback?
Rhys Fulber: They weren’t major tracks. There was like one I messed around with live that I put on some compilation. There was one on that Diaspora EP did that I played live before I put it out. So, there’s a few tracks, and then I sort of reworked them. I played one of them live, and I’m like, ‘oh yeah, I’ve got to work on this a little more.’ So, yeah, that’s another thing I like about this, is doing that. When I played in Seattle and Chicago, I played a couple of pieces that aren’t even on this album. They’re on the next one.
Could you talk about “Stare at the Sun”? I know you’ve worked with Sara before, but how did the collaboration come about?
Rhys Fulber: Well, she’s a friend of mine, and we keep tabs on each other. I would see her more when I lived in LA. I really enjoyed that first thing we did together. I knew I wanted to do another piece, and so I kept telling her, ‘I’m going to get a track together. I think we should do another one.’ And I just finally got the track together and sent it to her, and she worked out her stuff, and we went to a studio in LA and spent like two hours with her laying it down, and then I took it up here. It is similar to how we did “Slip It In.” She just came, and I kind of had everything mapped out, and we just bashed it out a little bit. It’s not hard working with her on things like that. I let her do her thing, and then I just kind of arranged it a little bit after the fact.
Were you completely focused on this album, or were you involved with other projects at the time?
Rhys Fulber: When I’m mixing and pulling together a record, it’s all I’m doing. With the writing process, you jump around sometimes. The writing can be spread out over different periods of time. Like, ‘Rogue Minority’ is a few years old. It was something I had. And ‘Marginalized’ was actually a completely different piece of music that was sort of some middling techno track with an ambient middle breakdown. And it was sort of like, ‘Nah, this track is okay, but it’s not really going anywhere.’ So, I took all the bits and put it into this Elektron Octatrack machine, and it just transformed into something totally fresh and exciting.
But the end run, like the last month or so, I totally focused on just this. The end stretch is always completely dedicated to whatever record it is. I do other stuff for other people, so things will come up and it’s like, ‘yeah, I can do that.’ But always with the final stretch, there’s nothing else. You can’t be distracted when you’re doing that.
You talked about using more minimal equipment this time, and how with some later Front Line Assembly albums there was too much equipment. I’m curious how the evolution of technology has affected your creative and working process?
Rhys Fulber: Well, with technology, I think it got to the point where I feel like it’s sort of flattened out, and that’s why people started going into analog equipment again. But I mean, you can make a pretty good record on Ableton Live with your laptop, and only the sounds that come with the platform. So we’re in a place where people just want to use this other stuff. It does sound better. It has more character. It’s more fun to do things. I do things differently outside of the computer.
So, it’s just that I think the technology flattened out to where people wanted that extra inspiration, that extra bit of excitement that you get that way. And then that whole market has taken off to the point where it’s just so much equipment now. It’s just neverending. And I don’t really buy as much equipment anymore. I’ll get the odd module, but in general, I don’t pay as much attention to it as I used to because it’s like there are no major strides. In the last ten years, I’d say it’s all been pretty much on the same level. So it’s more just about tactile things that are a little more satisfying, rather than if you’re just staring at a screen all the time.
The technology thing, compared to when we made Front Line … when I was in Front Line, we never used Pro Tools. That came after I was out, and I didn’t even use Pro Tools with Fear Factory until the Digimortal record, which was in 2000. So for a lot of those records, we were doing it very traditionally with tape machines, and stuff like that. So I don’t think I miss that. It’s a very expensive, bulky way to work. I like the compact and portable way of how we do stuff now. So I guess that’s the main thing. I can take stuff at home and adjust it, and then bring it into the studio. And that’s the main thing regarding the technology, I like that portability.
You don’t have to just do it when you’re in a room that costs a lot of money per day. There are arguments that those imperfections make the record, but I don’t know. With “Brutal Nature” I got dialed right in to just how I wanted it. And so that portability and being able to move around where you’re working is probably the part of technology now that I like the most. And that’s the part I could never give up and go back on, that element. But I think we’re flattened out pretty much. I don’t see any major changes with stuff, maybe like certain algorithms for pitch changing and tempo changing. I don’t know what could be much better, you know? I mean, a human ear can only hear so well.
Looking back at your early work, such as Front Line Assembly, are there ways that the limitations of the time shaped your sound?
Rhys Fulber: We were super limited. I actually have the Front Line Assembly sampler sitting over here, the S1000, I don’t even know how much time is in that thing. Maybe like three, or four seconds of sound. It’s totally limiting. But the music is a product of that limitation. Like that sound, that 1990 kind of pounding sound is a product of limitation. I fired up the S1000 a little while ago, and it was that sound. That music is all a product of that equipment and that limitation. But that was the best we had at the time. That was the best we could do. So, that’s why I don’t like going backward with music that much, because so much music is about a time and a place with people.
I’ve had a lot of people asking me about the Will project. Why don’t you make some more Will? And I’m like, I can’t, because it’s a product of the limitation, the fact that it’s going through this old Soundcraft console and everything is distorted, making it sound like that. I couldn’t do that without … you just can’t do it. And also, there’s an unsophistication and a naivety to that music that I can’t recapture. I was like, you know what, maybe 18 or 19 when I was doing a lot of that music. You can’t go back. And also, like Will exists in different forms in the music I do solo. It’s in there. Those elements are in there. They’re just in a different context. So the limitations made the records. I talked to Dean from Portion Control, and he said exactly the same thing, he goes ‘we were influenced by our equipment. We had like three little things, you know, the TR606, that was our sound because that’s all we had.’ Now the possibilities are so… I won’t say they’re infinite, but it’s pretty broad. So that’s why I prefer to just keep approaching everything differently, moving forward, because you can’t recreate something; you just can’t do it, honestly.
So that leads me to ask about “Digital Tension.” What motivated you to re-do that Front Line track on your solo “Diaspora” EP?
Rhys Fulber: It was my friend Philipp, who has the label that released it, aufnahmeund + wiedergabe. Philipp hosts parties and DJs and has his label in Berlin. We’re out at a club and he’s like, “Rhys, would you would like to make a new version of ‘Digital Tension.'” And I’m like “sure, ok.” So Philipp asked me if I could make one and I made him one. There are people over there that still play a lot of our old stuff, mixed in with their sets, and he’s one of those people. And I guess, because as what I was saying to you about DJing, when you DJ stuff and you’re mixing, the old records are harder to mix because they’re not mastered as hot. They’re not as perfectly tight, so you want to DJ them, but they’re hard to mix in with new records.
You remember Razormaid ? That’s why that stuff was successful because when you pull up a Razormaid track, you get those big waveforms, it’s loud, it’s hyped up, and you can mix it in with club tracks really easily. So it’s sort of the same concept. It’s like, he wants to play that track, but playing the old one …and a lot of the old tracks, because we used tape, they’re not perfectly in time, the way records are now. So they’re just harder to mix. So that’s basically the story behind it. It was just like me hanging out in Berlin at a club, at six in the morning, and he asked me if I could make a new version of it. ‘Yeah, sure, okay.’
Do you have anything else coming up that you’d like to mention?
Rhys Fulber: Bill and I are still working on a Delerium album, that has been worked on in bits and pieces over the last couple of years; we’re still trying to get that together. I’m doing Fear Factory remixes and keyboards for the metal band Machine Head and programming on the new Devin Townsend record. I only did one song for Devin, but it’s a new record he’s working on right now. And there’s always some more production stuff coming. There’s always stuff. I made so much of my own music in the last year … I have a whole other album that’s coming after ‘Brutal Nature’ as well. So I might need to let that breathe for a bit, even though I have more stuff and I can always compose more. Even though I always feel like doing more of it. There’s always something, you know, I’m lucky that I have always got stuff to do.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Rhys Fulber: The other thing about this new record is that it’s the first album I’ve self-released. I put it out myself, because as you start analyzing what the current independent business is, you’re going, ‘what’s the difference if I just release this myself?’ And so far, so good. I mostly run it through Bandcamp, and you get a distributor to hit all the digital stuff. And I mean, it’s more work for sure, but the music industry is weird now. I basically call the independent music scene like a bake sale. You know, you like set up a folding table, bring your wares. That middle part of the music industry has gone. So it’s only the very top, which is more or less unchanged, Adele, hip hop, whatever, that’s kind of the same, the way it functions, but the middle and lower end is completely small scale. It’s punk rock, you know, it’s like selling cassettes out of a van.
Has self-releasing posed any challenges?
Rhys Fulber: Well, no, because when I released on techno labels, I started going, ‘well, what’s the difference if I just do this myself?’ I mean, there’s no big industry involved. The funny thing is I told Sonic Groove to make CDs when I first was at the label, and he thought I was totally crazy talking about CDs. And I said ‘trust me, make CDs. You’re forgetting about my audiences; they’re not kids, they want to see these CDs.’ We sold them all! I get the CDs manufactured pretty easily and quickly. The vinyl is problematic because of the supply chain issues. The vinyl is always way behind schedule, and it’s really frustrating. But that’s what I found; even though the industry’s gotten smaller, people want high-end small-batch stuff; they want expensive boxed something. So you’re not mass producing sort of those cheap jewel-cased CDs. It’s almost like the book industry or something. You’re making like bound nicer coffee table items that people that like the music want to have. I like it. I mean, we’re trying to make interesting packages and that’s why I think people like it. So I’m getting used to it. It was a little weird for someone from the old music industry to adjust to this, but you just kind of go with it. You’re like, ‘okay, I guess we’re doing this now.’ And it ties back into that post-apocalyptic ‘Children of Men’ world I always have my music exist in. There’s not going to be mass production. It’s going to be curated and handed out.
For more info and to purchase music, visit rhysfulber.bandcamp.com.