20 years of mechanical metal madness and the Fear Factory still runs strong. Vocalist Burton C. Bell speaks with ReGen about the band’s history culminating in their latest opus, The Industrialist.
An InterView with Burton C. Bell of Fear Factory
By: Ilker Yücel
For two decades, Fear Factory has stood as the ultimate bridge between the gap of the organic and the synthetic, combining the human touch of extreme metal with the cold mechanization of industrial and electronic music. The duo of vocalist Burton C. Bell and guitarist Dino Cazares has–since the release of the 1992 debut, Soul of a New Machine–excelled at producing a sound as brutal as it is emotional, with the steely precision of the industrial machine being given a voice that addresses all of humanity’s most heartfelt concerns. Inspired by the likes of Godflesh, Pitchshifter, and Ministry and later influencing bands like Static-X and Machine Head, Fear Factory has stood apart as an entity unto itself: not quite industrial, not quite metal, but representing a virulent marriage between the two, driven by Cazares’ machine gun riffs and Bell’s melding of death growls and clean melody. With such concept albums as Demanufacture, Obsolete and Digimortal detailing the eventual subjugation of humanity by the very technology it created for its benefit, the band has been the musical equivalent of a prophetic sci-fi nightmare akin to the Terminator, Robocop, and Matrix movies. With this year’s release of The Industrialist, Fear Factory takes its concept to its apex: stripped down to the core duo of Bell and Cazares and with longtime de facto member/producer Rhys Fulber (of Front Line Assembly fame) at the helm, the album presents this violent and decrepit future from the machine’s point of view, detailing a story of an automaton borne of the advances of the technological age attaining sentience and eventually being the source of man’s demise. The vocals and the riffs are as heavy as ever, pleasing fans of the band and the genre while also presenting a distinguishably heavier inclusion of electronics and synthesis, even employing a drum machine for the first time on record. ReGen had the opportunity to speak with founding member Burton C. Bell while on the Noise in the Machine tour to discuss the band’s evolution over the last 20 years, culminating in the concept and music presented on The Industrialist.
Your previous album, Mechanize, was less of a concept record than The Industrialist, as it focused on the same themes you’d explored before, but from the standpoint that all of the science fiction and the warnings of the past had become the reality of today. What sparked the return to a futuristic concept record?
Bell: I just really wanted to do something like that again. It was an element of Fear Factory that the fans really enjoy; I enjoy doing it. It was a challenge to create. When we do things like this, it really adds something more to the band than just being a regular band and it helps us to stand out more. I just wanted to do something more and be more creative and really take it to that other level again.
And this time, the story takes place from the machine’s point of view, is that correct?
Bell: Yeah! Fear Factory has already centered on these concepts of man vs. machine, and this time around, the story is from the machine’s perspective. The Industrialist is our protagonist/antagonist; he is an automaton that has become sentient, and with this new-found knowledge, he has discovered the will to survive and the will to exist. Man, his creator, is seeking out the Industrialist and others of its kind or its model to disassemble it, to disrepair it and to take it apart because it is an older model. The Industrialist and a group of other sentient beings like him are fighting man, fighting the man; not just every man. They’re fighting the man, the creators of this industry, the manufacturing establishment, the whole corporation, and in turn the creator itself.
Do you see that as a step in man’s evolution; our own creations destroying us, and then ultimately becoming us?
Bell: Absolutely! We are our own worst enemy!
Similar to Obsolete, the booklet not only includes text to outline the story behind the lyrics, but also sketches by you. Can you tell us more about the visual component to the album?
Bell: We’re doing storyboards here and there. I’m not a fantastic artist; they’re just sketches, storyboard sketches of each theme. Not every one of them will be used, but they will be shrunk down to thumbnail size, and some of the sketches will be in the booklet. It’s interesting, but I still have all of the originals. They’re more like a little glimpse, acting more like eye candy.
Given the conceptual nature of many of your albums, why has that never extended into your live shows?
Bell: Well, we just can’t afford to. We would love to explore more avenues of visualization, and I’ve always wanted to get into showing images on a screen behind us to move along with us. It’s really always been about the music. You can have smoke and dragons and fiery explosions, but if the music sucks, then what do you have left? We really focus on the music. We haven’t really had the money for fire and shit like that.
Rhys Fulber has been a producer/hidden member of the band for many years, and his influence seems very prevalent in the electronics on The Industrialist, particularly in the use of the drum machine for the first time. In what ways did using a drum machine instead of a live drummer affect the songwriting process?
Bell: We’d been planning to do this for a long time. After we did Mechanize, we were discussing with Gene Hoglan what we wanted to do, and we thought, ‘Let’s just make this easy.’ He doesn’t know how to program drums, so we thought we’d just use programmed drums and see how it works out. This was something that we had been discussing for a while because for us, the live drum aspect of our music gets lost once you start editing in ProTools everything that they’ve played and touched. We’d take all the sounds out and replace them, so what’s the point of having a live drummer? So it was always programmed anyway. Gene has his other bands, so that just helped us to really move along with that. Before we went into the studio, I’d discussed with Dino and Rhys…I said, ‘Hey, I would really like to reintroduce that industrial element back into Fear Factory, because for me, that crossover is one of my favorite parts of the band.’ The fact that it was just me, Dino and Rhys writing this record resulted in a tight unit. We were really able to work together cohesively; all on the same page, all with the same picture, focused. We just got it done. It was really a creative spark involved, and to work in that capacity finally seemed to work really well for us.
Is The Industrialist in any way a branch off from past albums in the same way that Demanufacture was part of Obsolete’s history, and that album being part of Digimortal’s history?
Bell: No, not really. It was much more its own story and a whole new chapter for me as a writer. Once we decided on the title of the record, it really seemed to form the theory and the concept, and it really just influenced the making of the record in a lot of ways from the sound to the concept. Everything just seemed to form in the moment on its own.
What are your thoughts on Fear Factory’s influence on the way metal bands are using technology and how that’s affected the way people perceive your music?
Bell: I think that technology is fantastic. When you’re a recording engineer, the more tools you have and the more you know how to use them, the more exciting things you are able to create. You have access to these different sounds and different wavelengths and you can tap into the whole theory of music. The thing, is if you don’t know how to use it, you’re just going to sound subpar. There are a lot of bands that use technology, but it’s not about the tools; it’s about the people working the tools, and if you know how to work the tools, that’s where the magic is. Everybody can have a chisel, but not everybody can make the statue of David. Meshuggah is a really good example; they’re a band that I really admire for how they do that.
You were involved on Ministry’s The Last Sucker and the C.U.LaTour, which was being touted at the time as the end of Ministry. Now that the band has returned with Relapse, what are your thoughts on that?
Bell: I’m not surprised. Al is a talented man, and I consider him a hero. The guy’s got it in his blood. He’s a working pilot and you can’t stop that. It’s inside him and I’m happy that it’s happened. I’m not surprised and I’m glad that he’s back in working health and he’s ready to fucking kill!
Tell us about your other bands and how you are able to distinguish what you do in one project versus another.
Bell: Well, with City of Fire, the record is done and it’s ready for distribution. It was a hard year for City of Fire last year, but I expect to see more next year. We had to regroup and make a new plan. Whichever band I’m writing for is always about the atmosphere and the train of thinking. I am in a mode with Fear Factory; I know what I have to do, so I switch to that mode. I write a bunch of stuff, but I weed out what is good for Fear Factory. It’s the same thing for City of Fire, which is a very poetic and lyrically visual, maybe avant-garde in some ways, so I don’t have any limits with that. I just get into that mode.
Ascension of the Watchers is my labor of love; it’s truly an emotional release. Everything that goes into the Watchers is extremely personal, and I just feel like I expose myself completely. It’s really three different venues for me.
You’ve worked with John Bechdel in Ascension of the Watchers, and he had performed keyboards live for Fear Factory, although the band is now using backing tracks for this tour?
Bell: Yes, we don’t have a keyboardist; man lost the war against the machines on that one. John and I still work together in the Watchers, still writing music, and what’s going to happen with that is that it’s such a labor of love that we will be releasing it completely independently.
Working in three different projects and having been working for 20 years now, what motivates you and keeps you going?
Bell: Survival. Really, it’s survival. I do it because I’m able. I work at what I love to do, and that’s writing and music. I’ve always felt like an artistic being ever since I was a child. I have this opportunity to survive on my artistic talent, so I work hard at it. This is how I survive. I work hard at being an artist. I’m not rich or wealthy. I live very modestly because I am a working artist.
You’d said at the Baltimore show on this tour, ‘It’s not the size of the audience; it’s the size of the heart.’
Bell: That’s right. It’s true! Everybody there was so happy to see every band. When I went offstage, everybody who was there was super excited and way into it. That made me happy.
There has there not been a remix album since Remanufacture in ’96. What can you tell us about additional songs not featured on The Industrialist?
Bell: There is a special edition that features the full story, which is a little more than the regular edition. There is a remix on the special edition, and we covered a Pitchshifter song. Japan will have a couple of other tracks that some of the other territories may have, because we like to switch it up, and in Europe, there will be another special edition that will be like a box set version of the record: like a Trojan mask, similar to the cover. We have a video coming out by director Scott Hanson, and I’m really excited about this one because it will not be a band performance; the band will not be in the video. It will be like a full concept film for ‘New Messiah.’
So what’s next for Fear Factory?
Bell: We’ll be touring for a little bit in the States, so if you missed us, we’ll be back and playing more songs from the new album. So come check us out!
What’s a typical routine like for the band on tour?
Bell: Wake up and get your day started…it’s kind of simple, really. I wait until sound check, and then I go and eat, and then…well, it’s kind of a normal routine on the road. It’s nothing spectacular. I think if people could see what ‘living the dream’ really was, they would be disappointed. ‘This is the dream?’ Yup.