Sci-Fi Lore Turned Reality: An Interview with Rhys Fulber of Front Line Assembly
Nearly thirty years to the day, Front Line Assembly released the 12″ single for their song “Virus” on Wax Trax! Records. The track—with a thick bass line, synth strings that attack during the chorus, and Bill Leeb’s distorted vocals—is classic FLA in its sci-fi apocalyptic themes. Little did they, or anyone for that matter, know that this past year would be just like the dystopian nightmares that industrial artists once utilized as lyrical and atmospheric fodder.
The new FLA album, Mechanical Soul, still derives those concepts from science fiction—except it’s become our reality, a non-fictional depiction of our lives. Out today on Metropolis Records, the album is a collaborative effort between Leeb and Rhys Fulber, the long-time member of FLA and the co-writer of “Virus” (alongside many other seminal releases such as 1990’s Caustic Grip and 1992’s Tactical Neural Implant). Other than utilizing guest vocals from Jean-Luc De Meyer of Front 242 and guitar by Dino Cazares of Fear Factory, the album is Fulber’s music with Leeb’s unmistakable vocals. Fulber, who recently relocated back to Canada from Los Angeles, reflects on how Mechanical Soul was pieced together from Cyberpunk 2077 castoffs and elements from his dark, techno-based solo albums that have been released on aufnahme + wiedergabe and Sonic Groove. Read our conversation about the new album, the pandemic (and its repercussions), and video games with Fulber below:
What are you working on these days?
I’m finishing up the Noise Unit record with Bill.
Oh, that’s exciting!
Yeah, I have done so much music since March. That’s all I’ve been doing the whole time. I have a lot of stuff for FLA with Bill, and then we have the Noise Unit stuff as well, which is a lot of songs from a similar session, but they have a little bit of a different feel to them. And we kind of pick and choose what goes where.
How do you differentiate between that?
You just know—it’s hard to explain. I think it’s a little blurrier now because Noise Unit initially was just Bill and Marc [Verhaeghen] from the Klinik. It was an obvious other project and things get a little more of their own identity. But Bill just asked me if I wanted to put something together and I had so much material already. That’s how the new Front Line [album] came together. I have so much material that I just catalog. I’m always working on stuff and sometimes I just put stuff to the side and then come back to it like a year or two later. And you’re like, “Well, this is not a bad idea, we can develop this.” And that’s kind of what the Front Line record is: all kinds of different things I had that I sent to Bill. He picked the ones he liked, and then I developed them more and then he put some vocals on them. With the pandemic, we couldn’t be in the same room that much. So I would just send Bill music and he would say, “I like this one, I like that one, maybe add another part on this one.” And that’s how we recorded it.
Bill also conceptualizes, he’ll say, “Hey, you know what, maybe we need another kind of song A bit like this. And then I’ll put something together. The song, “Unknown,” was like that. [He said], “We need a song that’s a little more of an older style.” So I put that together. And then he was like, “Okay, maybe add another chord in the chorus.”
Most of the album was made remotely, then?
He actually came to the studio with me and did vocals. I did the vocals with him on [“Unknown”]. The rest of [the vocals were done] with Greg [Reely] who did our old records. But the new Front Line record is different from [the others]—it’s really just me and him. There’s not really a lot of people involved in it. Dino [Cazares] and Jean-Luc [De Meyer] are in there. But it’s just like the record where, you know, Greg only mixed one song I did all the other mixes. We didn’t have other people contributing that much other than Dino putting some guitar on and then Jean-Luc, whose song is actually an old song we reworked from Artificial Soldier.
And then you just chose to have Jean-Luc do the vocals over it?
No, it’s the same vocal. Bill said, “You know, that song we did with Jean-Luc back in the day? I think we should try a different approach.” Because I don’t think Bill was happy with how the song came out. And he just thought the song wasn’t really highlighting Jean-Luc’s vocals. Bill thought we had to come up with a different take. He’s like, “Let’s do something, you know, slower and more epic.” And he sent me a drum loop. And I put it together.
You just worked from a drum loop and rebuilt the song basically.
Off that vocal, yeah. I’m trying to remember what the song was called—”Future Fail.” It was a cool process, because Bill would be coming up with these concepts: “Hey, why don’t we take this and do that?” And so on. And the song that Dino is playing on? I think that might have been Bill’s suggestion as well. And actually, that track was a reject from Cyberpunk 2077.
Yeah, they turned it down. I did a bunch of music for that game, and they only took two tracks. And, honestly, the ones they rejected, I thought were the better tracks.
Have you played the game yet?
I don’t play games.
I don’t either. But it’s still cool.
I’m not a video game person at all, it’s sort of like the generation after me. I just never got into it, you know? I’ve had people send me clips. I kind of wish I knew a little more about the game when I was doing the music because I did the music like two years ago. Also, one of the songs on my last solo record, Ostalgia, was also for Cyberpunk. It was called “Fission.” I thought that was a slam dunk for the game. I was like, “Oh, this is perfect.” They passed on it and I was like, “Really?” I got a lot out of working on Cyberpunk, to be honest, even though they only took two tracks. The other tracks all turned into other things—most of the Ostalgia album was spun off of working on Cyberpunk.
Oh, wow. Okay.
When they rejected a couple tracks, I took some ideas I had if you listen to the tracks I did for Cyberpunk, they are right in the same zone as what Ostalgia is. And then the one track that I had that was a little more different was the “Stifle” song [on Mechanical Soul], which I kind of had just pushed off to the side. And then I sent it to Bill and he really liked that, so we developed that into Front Line. Cyberpunk inspired a lot of music, actually.
Seems fitting, honestly.
I didn’t know anything about the game—nothing. They just told me the kind of style they wanted. It was really hard to know what they were looking for sometimes. I’ve worked on movie stuff before and you just really never know what people are thinking or hearing. I was like, “Okay, well, I thought they were cool pieces.” I hung on to them, and they’ve all found homes. That’s great.
So how much of Mechanical Soul’s process was done during quarantine? Did you have most of the album done?
“Glass and Leather” was done pre-lockdown and was supposed to be for my solo stuff. I had this EBM track and Bill was in LA and I said, “Hey, throw a vocal down on this thing I have.” He came by my studio and threw down a vocal. That’s the only non-quarantine track on the record. Then it became like, “Well, maybe this has to be a Front Line song.” Because I was originally going to put it out as a Sonic Groove label 12 inch or something. Then it just became Front Line and we hung on to it. But the rest of the record was all done after the lockdown started when I was still in LA. I just brought some gear home because I wasn’t going into the studio and just worked on what became that album.
Do you think that the themes heavily reflect the pandemic?
Yeah, definitely “Unknown” and “Purge”. “Glass and Leather,” which was done pre-pandemic, was sort of meant to be a JG Ballard Crash type thing. But I would definitely say most of the record all ties into that. Because the problem with albums is as you’re writing them, things are going on, but by the time they come out, things could have changed. But in this case, no.
But definitely, this is totally a pandemic record—no way around it. I mean, for starters, when we worked on the other records, Bill and I would be in the same room, and we’d work on tracks together. This time, I would just send Bill music and he would give me his thoughts. We did get together [to record] “Unknown”—he came up to the studio. I’m outside Vancouver and you have to take a ferry to get here but I’m not too far if you take the ferry ride, I’m not that far from Bill. And Bill’s pretty prepared. He has everything written and ready to go and knows what he’s doing. So we can bang them out pretty good.
The album art is pretty apocalyptic. And the album title Mechanic Soul is too, actually.
I like the title. We go back and forth when we’re working on titles. Bill sends me a bunch of words and I send him a bunch of words. I think this was Bill’s title, though. And the artwork is just Dave McKean. We don’t really even say much to Dave McKean. We him interpret what he thinks. But for the Wake Up the Coma cover. I told Dave a concept for the cover. I said, “What about something like this?” But for the new cover, I think he initially did something that was a little more graphic. And we [told him that] we need something more apocalyptic, and then he came back [with the final result]. He’s such a great artist—we want to see what he comes up with because it’s always good. We don’t really have to give Dave that much direction.
Speaking of apocalyptic, the FLA track “Virus” came out 30 years ago. It seems like you knew what was going to happen.
Well, I don’t know about that. This is all stuff that’s been in sci-fi lore—stuff that’s always on the edge of possibility. I don’t think any of this is a surprise. I think what’s more surprising is how people handle it. The situation itself is that these things happen and over time, it’s more about how it’s been handled and how people react to it. That’s more of a surprise to me. I just think the way our society is going is that everything is amplified and magnified. It’s an overload of everything. I think that’s more where the story is, you know?
Right. You’d also had a tour planned what, what’s going to happen with that?
I don’t know. No idea what’s gonna happen with the tour. A lot of promoters obviously aren’t thrilled—it’s kind of killing their thing. Someone asked me, “Oh, you’re supposed to play some shows in March?” I don’t know. People keep rescheduling stuff, but I can tell you we have zero plans right now.
Yeah, so close. It doesn’t seem plausible.
The last we heard, the Ministry tour was moved to July, but I think that’s ambitious. I don’t think we’re gonna see any shows until the fall, probably at the soonest. And even that I don’t know about, to be honest. We’re so lucky—we’re just making music and doing our thing, The life I live right now is not too different from how I’ve always done things. I spent a lot of time in a studio and went for walks and stuff like that. That’s pretty much what I do now. So, it hasn’t changed my world that much. If I look at it in a cynical way, it would be nice, obviously, to do more things. But when I think of some of the albums I’ve made in the past, we’d spend so much time just going to the studio, sleeping and that’s it. I’m lucky I’m pretty much doing that right now. I’ve come up with so much music, I have other projects. I have a whole Conjure 1 album ready to go which is a different kind of music. And we’re finishing up the Noise Unit record, and Bill and I have some other stuff we’re going to work on. I’m just keeping busy. We didn’t crank out a lot of music over the last few years, I think we used to make more records years ago than we do now. I’m sure we’re gonna play shows eventually. I don’t really think about it—I just keep doing what I’m doing now.
Yeah, a nice routine.
Yeah. You kind of have to have a routine. If you don’t have a routine, you go nuts. A routine is a real really good thing to have.
You can pick up Mechanical Soul via Front Line Assembly’s Bandcamp.
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