My love affair with FEAR FACTORY takes me way back to high school [yes, that was millenia ago…] when Demanufacture revolutionized the mainstream metal scene with their machinistically precise locomotion and anti-“machine” propaganda — and, of course, those sporadic clean vocal interludes that pierced the drilling battery with profound emotionality. These were my teenage idols, and going backwards and discovering their debut Soul of a New Machine also played its part in opening my horizons to more extreme music. Yet, the following decades saw my heroes developing into more “jumpy” directions, and struggling with complications in their rank and file… and I began to lose connection.
Fast forward to 2015, and Fear Factory's suddenly got a reinvigorated line-up with integral members Burton and Dino still leading the pack, the promise of a “Demanufacture” anniversary tour, and a release called Genexus, with material compellingly reminiscent of their later 90's outputs. So, despite some reluctance and cynicism, I figured, fuck the what, let's time travel and see if I can plug back in to this machine!
Judging from the result of this interview, our directions and impressions about music have significantly forked, and the conversation got borderline combative at times – in a respectfully provocative way, of course. Burton tolerated my jestful acrimony and answered with eyebrow-raising candor, making for a deviant and delightful discussion.
After their gig, which was a total shock to the system, [I nearly lost my frikkin' brain when they closed with “Martyr,” and I've got a lump to prove it…], I think it's safe to assume I've plugged back in to their upgraded machine.
INTERVIEW WITH BURTON C. BELL BY LADY ENSLAIN
[Preparing to offer some of our traditional interview drink, Gambina, but thinking twice…] I suppose you don’t drink before gigs?
I sure don’t.
Do you drink at all?
Okay. Like a lot? Do you still party hard?
I don’t party that hard anymore.
What do you say about someone like… Lemmy, then?
I’m not Lemmy.
Yeah, and he’s not 46.
And he’s almost dead.
He’s had a good run though, hasn’t he?
[Handing over a copy of Enslain #5] I brought this little relic along with me, from when I did a phone interview with you back in ’99…
Some of my questions might be little follow-ups to how you felt about things… wow… 16 years ago.
Okay… When I was 30!
Yeah… so, speaking of blasts from the past, you’re starting the European tour today here in Helsinki, and it’s a special Demanufacture 20th anniversary tour. Is tonight the first of the Demanufacture set, or have you already played it elsewhere? In the States a couple weeks ago?
No, but we did it in Brazil already and we did it in Australia.
But now we’re in Finland, and I’m curious; what are the first things that come to mind when you think about Finland?
Vikings? Haha… so you have some nice prejudices about us?
No, I don’t have any prejudices at all. [thinking] You guys are into progressive music; black metal. Fear Factory has always done okay here. So you know, I don’t know.
Do you remember the last time you were here? Was it at Nummirock Festival?
I was here with Devin Townsend.
Oh yeah, also here at Circus. How did that one go?
It was okay, they liked Devin much better.
Well yeah, Finns seem a little crazy about Devin. It’s just one of those things.
How about some Finnish bands that you’ve toured with?
Children of Bodom. Those guys are great.
Have some fun stories about them?
Yeah. That was a few years ago, like 2004. Nice guys. Yeah, we had a good time. It was us, Children of Bodom, and Lamb of God, in the States.
What about other Finnish bands you might be into? Are there any?
Swallow the Sun [who was also playing that night at Circus, and we later caught sight of Burton watching from the audience] is Finnish, aren’t they?
They sure are.
I actually have one of their CDs.
Cool, do you like them?
Yeah, I like them…Let’s see… I can’t remember any other Finnish bands really.
How much do you follow underground music, or metal basically?
I follow some underground music but it depends, it’s all over the place.
Yeah? Do you try to watch some bands when you play at festivals, or the supporting acts that you tour with?
Who are you with on this tour? Today is different, at this Unioni Festival, I guess…
Yeah, well, starting in Portugal, our friends in Once Human will be touring with us. It’s Logan Mader from ex-Machine Head. It’s his new band, they’re really good.
So back to Demanufacture... It’s been twenty years. Does it feel like twenty years or does it feel like just yesterday?
No, it feels twenty years old.
Haha, are you tired of it?
Uh… I don’t want to say I’m tired of it. I know it.
Yeah, everyone knows it.
It’s an album people like to hear and that’s why we’re here to play it.
Hmm, does it feel kinda wrong, to play an album that everyone wants to hear, that you don’t necessarily feel like playing? Wouldn’t you rather be doing support for your new album, Genexus?
I would, yeah. Um… we’re going to be playing two or three songs from the new album tonight, after Demanufacture. So we’ll see. But you know, people are very fond of reminiscing and going backwards and listening to old stuff and it’s a popular thing for bands to be playing one of their popular albums from years ago. So, we’ll do it.
Why would you choose this as the time to do that? Yeah, because it’s twenty years old, but you just released a new album, what, 2 months ago?
It’s a good way to promote the new record, a good reason to get out on tour.
OK, what do you think it was about Demanufacture that made it such a seminal album, that thrust you to where you are now?
I think it really struck a chord with the music industry at that moment. It was something unexpected and different than people had really heard before. There was an energy to it that people liked. It was an anti-establishment, kind of a pseudo-punk rock record and it had very anti-establishment man versus machine thoughts in it. So people liked it and wanted to hear more.
But at the same time, you probably really pissed off or irritated a lot of people with that record, particularly in for example the underground death metal scene, and though you had many of us convinced or converted with Demanufacture, the following records proceeded to take even more steps away from your extreme roots, further alienating fans of Soul of a New Machine era.
Well, if people got pissed off, I don’t know why. From the beginning, we weren’t accepted as a death metal: “you’re not a death metal band,” and it was like, yeah, we’re not. People just didn’t know what to make of us and if people got pissed off… not my problem. But, over the years, the more we played and the more records we put out, we just… you put out what you want to put out. If you’re going to worry about pissing people off, then you don’t need to be in this business.
Over the last decades, your sound could be described as more and more modernized. With Genexus, though, it feels like a return to Demanufacture times. Was this a conscious decision, or do you even agree that it is?
Well, you know, you always experiment. But this album, we looked backwards to see what was the good parts of that Fear Factory. There’s good songs on Demanufacture and good songs on Obsolete. So we looked back just to see what we did with that, and if it’s reminiscent of Demanufacture because the song crafting is equivalent to the level of songs we did on that album. People are happy about it. Genexus is a good record and people like to hear more of it.
So are you going to be doing a tour separately for that album after this one’s over?
I don’t know…
Okay. Doesn’t it sort of feel like this Demanufacture thing is overshadowing the brand new record – which would be a shame, since I think it’s quite a good album… are you going to go straight to writing the next one or do you plan on riding this one out a little more and more properly.
We’ll see what the demand is. If people want to hear more of the album, then we’ll be back. And we’ll be back in the summer time doing festivals, I know that, playing more of the album.
Speaking of Demanufacture, when I fell in love with Fear Factory some 20 years ago, I’d say it was because of the mix of the clinically fierce tunes and the occasional clean vocals, which didn’t really happen in extreme music in those times. Now it’s become quite commonplace, and it’s overly pervasive.
I would agree, yes. A little too much.
How do you feel about that, having been a frontrunner in that trend, and being copycatted?
Well, I’d like to apologize for bringing that to the world. [I smile at this comment!] But in a way, we introduced something to the music industry that was fresh and something that people latched onto and they liked it because it was so different. And as much as I can joke and apologize for bringing it and it being oversaturated, we can also say that it’s a positive thing that you inspired artists to follow after your lead. And in art, if you inspire other artists to create, that’s something the world needs.
So if you look at some of the artists that have been following your lead, well… do you like it? Are there certain qualities that make it better or worse when you hear it?
Well, for me… I notice something when I hear that it’s true and passionate. I can tell when it’s fake. When they’re screaming for no reason, it’s like, well, what are you talking about? When I do my heavy vocals it’s because I’m trying to relay something that’s making us angry. Because it makes me angry, I’m trying to get my point across. I’m not doing it just because… just to scream…
I sing because that’s what my heart feels and you can tell in music what’s real and what’s fake. That’s true for me.
Do you think it takes away at all from the sincerity when you have these angry screaming/growling parts and it switches into this formulaic, clean chorus?
Depends on the song. Depends on how it’s presented. You know, it depends on the flow of the song.
Does it ever feel too methodical, as if you have to build it this way because this is the way a Fear Factory song must be structured in order to please the fans?
Sometimes. But a lot of times I do it just because it’s what we feel. It’s just like, this is what we are. We don’t do it all the time, it’s not on every song.
How has your lyrical universe expanded since Soul of a New Machine? The machine is still alive, “wreaking havoc” in your lyrics. How are the chronicles of the machine these days?
It’s all about observation about what’s going on in our world. It seems like there’s always the same thing and I just have to decide what I wish to write about and how it affects us. I can turn it into a story and we’ve written a lot. It’s hard to find topics, we’ve written a lot of songs. But we’ve managed to continueand try and get past the fray and write new stuff.
So what are some topics in current events that really have your attention?
Well, we were talking about today that’s kind of based in the Genexus theory where the Genexus generation will be prejudiced against. I was hearing a story about Houston, how the LGBT community…
[Exposing my ignorance of initialisms…] sorry, the what community?
The lesbian, gay, transgender community… had lost their equal rights. So it’s like, wow okay. People are still being prejudiced against and suppressed. What’s going to happen to transhuman people? People worry about transgender people, what’s going to happen when we reach transhumanism? People are really going to lose their shit.
Do you really see that happening in reality though?
Yeah, it’s happening now.
[Indicating my iPhone from which I’m reading off questions] This thing in your hand.
In a few years it’s going to be part of your brain.
But it’s not happening now…
It is happening now.
Bionics are happening.
Bionics are happening, people can have implants. Transhumanism’s happening.
So, despite your lyrical take on it all, aren’t you kind of excited to see what’s going to happen and not just fearful of it?
I’m not fearful of it, it’s interesting I’ll say that. It’s interesting to see what’s happening because it’s happening all over the place.
So, what do you think it is that keeps Fear Factory still relevant after twenty-five years?
Because we are still working. We manage to continue to put out records every three years. If you keep your name out there, and like you said, continue to piss people off with the albums we produce… then you get noticed. You stay relevant by continuing to write music and evolve with your sound. Just write good songs.
What do you feel like you’re doing that is fresh? Are you taking any influences from any other more recent movements?
I don’t know if we’re doing anything fresh. We’re just more or less improving upon ourselves by doing what we need to do and how we can survive.
How have you seen your fan base grow with you?
Hahaha, are they? Do you have a fan base of old farts?
Well, we have twenty-five years of fans! You know. Fans bringing their children to shows now. A lot of our fans are loyal, so they’ve been with us for twenty-five years. It’s always a mix, you know, there’s always new faces and young people out there. I see people in the audience that are less than twenty-five years and people that are my age or older.
Let’s talk a bit about programmed drums. How much have you actually utilized those?
Only on The Industrialist. But, we always record them properly, then the sounds that are made are triggered to make better sounds, then it’s always lined up properly to make sure it’s on time.
Isn’t that just becoming more a part of the machine?
It’s always been that way though, every band does it.
I wouldn’t say every band does it.
Well, I’ve been around for twenty-five years and recording albums for twenty-five years. Even Metallica does it. They trigger their sounds, they cut the tapes to make more precision, better rhythm. Every band does it.
OK, perhaps we’re talking different scenes here; thinking more about underground metal, where recording analog seems to be a new trend, or recording in one room at one time is a desired recording technique to try to sound more “real,” saying “every band does it” doesn’t really work for me.
Well, that’s why they’re still underground!
Haha, you think? I’m sure that’s not all there is to it.
If you want to get serious about your recording, you have to get serious about people wanting to hear. If you want it to sound like one big mush, then go to the bar and record it. That’s real.
But if you want a proper recording, do it properly.
Next topic. So, I used to live in the States. Having now lived in Finland for the last 8 years, I’ve barely followed what’s going on in U.S. politics… and now… what the fuck is up with this Donald Trump thing?
He’s just one of many that’s going to fall over to the wayside. I follow politics but I’m not a politician. I watch what’s going on in America. I observe; it’s just a circus. It gets worse every campaign. It’s the same on both sides; there’s never a candidate that really represents me or people that I know. But I pay attention because that’s what I do.
Well, outside of the political back and forth between parties…
America’s fucked up.
Yeah, well what are the biggest issues going on in America right now that get under your skin?
The gun issue, intolerance towards others, and the idea that religious liberty gives you the right to be prejudiced against others. It’s completely backwards in the United States. It’s completely backwards and it’s super annoying.
What would you like to see changed? How would you see that change happening?
The only way it’s going to change is if America hits rock bottom. Just like Rome had an empire and that ended, same thing is going to happen to America.
Moving on to the musical climate, what gets under your skin there? Where are we now versus where we were twenty, twenty-five years ago?
It’s the same shit, popular music is always going to be stupid. Like pop music, hip-hop, whatever you hear on the radio is just annoying.
But the stuff you have to face as a working band… the recording industry, touring?
Oh that’s completely changed. The recording industry is getting worse and worse because no one wants to pay for music anymore. Everyone feels that they’re entitled to it for free. They don’t realize when they pirate and get music for free, they’re taking away from the record label. But if the record label doesn’t get anything, I don’t get anything.
What have you been doing to overcome that? What do you do to stay afloat amidst this change?
Touring. You have to tour, and bands put out records just to tour these days. Even that gets harder because the music industry is so saturated with bands because everyone’s in a band now because it’s so easy to record. Promoters don’t want to pay for bands because they’ll get this other band for this much money. It gets harder and harder. I have three kids, but I just tell them, don’t be a musician.
Hmm… are they playing anything at all?
Well, they’ve been learning piano and violin. It’s something they should learn. But don’t be a professional musician because by the time they’ll be old enough to do it, I don’t know how anyone will exist anymore!
Is it so necessary to exist off of music? Isn’t okay to have a day job and still have a dream?
So why not let your kids have that opportunity?
They can, I’m just suggesting they don’t. I’m just warning them that it’s a hard life and it’s getting harder and harder.
Do you have a fallback plan?
No? Okay. So if this doesn’t work out, you have nothing?
Well, I’ll figure something out. As my part, I try to educate and inform people about the state of the music industry and that they need to support their favorite artists. If they don’t, that artist will not survive and they cannot continue. If people stop buying music entirely, no one’s going to create music. I mean, you have a day job right?
You do this because you enjoy it.
Sometimes I’m not sure why, but yeah, I guess that’s why.
There are writers that are having a hard time surviving as well. Even writers are having a hard time existing because there are so many writers and bloggers on the internet that it’s hard to stay afloat, and because there’s so many, people are having to work cheap. If you work cheap, you can’t survive. If I have to get a day job, I’m not going to be coming around anymore.
So what would you suggest to bands that are starting out now, other than “don’t do it”?
Don’t do it. Just don’t do it. It’s a hard life and because it’s so saturated, it just makes it even harder. My kids are going to be in a world where everyone’s in a band and no one will want to pay for anything.
We’re already in that world, aren’t we?
It’s going to be even more so.
Isn’t there going to be some point where this will flip and it will restructure itself?
I don’t know. Something has to happen. People are trying to figure out copyright laws so musicians get paid properly, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So if it flips around, I don’t know.
But you’re still doing fine?
We’re surviving, but it’s difficult to do it. We’re getting by, but the cost of living is higher, no one’s buying albums, and it’s getting harder to tour because it’s more expensive. So my suggestion is if you have something better to do than be in a band, do it.
Interviewer: Lady Enslain; Photos: Elsa Marques & Lady Enslain; Special Thanxies: Jackie Miller & Timo Ahlström