Front Line Assembly founder Bill Leeb cut his musical chops in one of the most influential industrial bands of all time, Skinny Puppy. While Skinny Puppy's known for its dark, gloomy tunes, Front Line Assembly's taken a flashier (but still ambient) tack. If Leeb's old band was Dracula, Front Line Assembly is Blade.
Skinny Puppy's songs addressed death, despair, and drugs, but the darkest themes in the harsh soundscapes of FLA's music are perhaps the rebellion of machines against man and the struggle to assimilate human experience into a virtual world.
"I was always under the belief that with technology, you're damned with it and damned without it," Leeb says. "That's usually the theme of a lot of my lyrical content and music."
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Front Line Assembly is scheduled to perform Tuesday, June 7, at the Nile Theater in Mesa.
But it's not just the machines that Leeb worries about. Front Line Assembly may be icons of industrial music, but Leeb still feels threatened by an increasingly fragmented musical landscape and a cultural shift toward immediate gratification. "That's why not as many people come to any particular one show," Leeb says. "Dubsteppers go to dubstep, trancers go to trance music, and goth kids go to goth night. It's become very segregated."
Leeb, a lean, middle-aged, Austrian-born Canadian whose penchant for shorts and combat boots survived more than 20 years of touring (even if his hairline did not), looks back fondly to a time when his band, and others, from the golden era of North American industrial played to huge, diverse audiences. "It was electronic fans, it was metal fans. They would all come together because everything was just crossing borders," Leeb says. "Now people just find their niche, and that's what they go to."
In the mid-'80s, before the gentrification of electronic music had spun out of control and when he was still just a fan himself, there were far fewer options. Along with being influenced by early electronic bands such as Kraftwerk and Cabaret Voltaire, Leeb cut his teeth on the brutally low-fi rhythms of seminal industrial bands like Einstürzende Neubauten, Test Dept, and SPK.
"I think they're the purest stuff," he says. "There was this huge element of danger when you went and saw these bands because you didn't know if you were going to get hit with flying metal or if someone was going to get hurt."
It was around this time that Leeb began taking steps toward creating his own music instead of merely appreciating the sounds and stage antics of others. Under the mentorship of friends cEvin Key and Nivek Ogre (of Skinny Puppy), Leeb learned all he needed to become a legitimate musician.
Amassing knowledge of samplers, sequencers, synthesizers, and vocal distortion, he contributed musical parts and background voices to several tracks spanning three of Skinny Puppy's earliest releases. "I think the fact that we didn't have any musical training or anybody telling us, 'You can't do this,' or, 'You can't play this chord,' or, 'This machine wasn't designed to do that,' gave us free range," Leeb says. "The words 'experimental electronic music' really come to mind as to how we did that."
Leeb says that musical instruments weren't all he experimented with during the time he spent as a member of Skinny Puppy. He considers his two or three years of drug use an everlasting asset to his creative process, but says it was an experience he doesn't need to repeat.
"It's kind of like once you've been to the moon, you can always draw from that experience of when you were there and what the ambiance and the feeling was like," Leeb says. "It's not like you need to go there every year to recapture that moment. I think getting high was the same way."
Just as his Skinny Puppy bandmates were preparing for long-term lunar colonization (on the dark side, if their music was any indication), Leeb was concluding that the band wasn't capable of allowing him the level of creative input that he needed.
He longed to front his own band and felt his interest in science fiction, urban warfare, and technology could not be communicated with Ogre behind the mic, who perpetually focused on gloomier, more introspective themes like addiction and insanity.
"Sometimes, you break away from a band, and the band has such a strong image that you're always going to be forever compared to those guys," Leeb says. "I knew it was a big risk because the band was already taking off and stuff, but I think it was all for the best."
Flashy and futuristic, the band's music took dance floors by storm and validated Leeb's suspicions that replacing experimentation with pervasive beats and infectious grooves could yield positive results.
While he retained vocals nearly identical to those of his old band, he lightened the atmosphere of the new project by bringing its sound out from the bowels of Hell (Skinny Puppy's stomping grounds) and setting it on the battlefields of a horrible, not-too-distant future.
The idea of technology turned against its creators remained a constant through the years, even in the '90s, as Front Line Assembly relied on heavy-metal guitar riffs to cash in on the popularity of Wax Trax! Records bands like Ministry, KMFDM, and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult.
Beyond FLA's persistent infatuation with cyborg armies and post-apocalyptic landscapes, it's been Leeb's ever-evolving talent for creating clean, rich, and emotionally captivating soundscapes that has set his project apart. Never one to rest on his laurels, the singer is always looking for new techniques and technologies to enhance the band's sound. "A lot of the new electronic music is really pushing the boundaries with sounds and stuff, especially all this dubstepping stuff," Leeb says. "I almost feel like we're playing catch-up."
Although he is excited to see his music evolve and is considering incorporating dubstep (indubstrial?), Leeb is uncertain about what it now means to be successful in his industry. He says the competition for audiences among exponentially multiplying sub-genres of electronic music makes it difficult for artists to rely on touring to compensate for dwindling record sales.
Although he doesn't know whether it's possible, he says he'd like to see things change. "It'd be nice to see the next generation of people put value into the art itself: the music, artwork, and remixes, like it's something collectible again," Leeb says. "Right now, it's not. It's just 10,000 songs on an iPod, and that's it."
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Leeb says the situation is especially grim for North American bands that call themselves industrial, since the genre's popularity has dipped here far more than in Europe. Ultimately, he thinks bands should rely on the strength of their songwriting, not a gimmick or passing fad, to find success.
Though Leeb understands the term "industrial" is a catch-all for anything even remotely derivative of the bands that he grew up on, he prefers to identify himself as a songwriter in the general sense, and is weary of contemporary bands that use that word to define themselves.
"Anything now with two guys and a laptop, a synthesizer and a voice box that distorts their vocals, and a guy that's grunting like Ogre — that's not industrial music," Leeb says.
He relates an anecdote about a monitor catching fire on stage during a prior Phoenix show to put things in perspective. "We never had a real fire on stage before," Leeb says. "It smelled really awful but it looked kind of cool. That was industrial."