Interview with Bill Leeb
Long before keyboardist for Wilhelm Schroeder, Bill Leeb, joined cEvin Key and Nivek Ogre's band Skinny Puppy, the three of them spent most of their time frightening their neighborhoods in other, less subtle ways. Dressed in black from head to toe, the three would stalk the midafternoon streets of Toronto bombed out of their minds, sunglasses hiding red-rimmed eyes made bleary from too many late nights and too many bad habits.
"We were all huge horror film fans," says the former Wilhelm, now Front Line Assembly's Bill Leeb. "That's kind of how Skinny Puppy got started, in fact. We spent three years getting totally blasted for two or three days straight, from Friday night 'til Sunday night or Monday morning, getting high on drugs and watching movies. We never went to bed. On Sunday mornings, we'd finally leave the house to catch an afternoon matinee of some horror film, then walk around town afterwards just completely out of it. I swear, that's where half of our weirdness and half of our creativity came from, just doing that. I've always been a massive horror and sci-fi fan. The CHUDdier a film was, the better."
In 1986, Leeb left Skinny Puppy to work on his own projects, foremost of which is Front Line Assembly. Other projects—which cover the spectrum of Goth and industrial to sampled chorale music—were Noise Unit, Cyberaktif, Intermix, and Delirium, which featured the vocals of Lilith Fair favorite Sarah McLachlin and a live church choir.
With over twenty albums under his belt in the course of fifteen years, and a seemingly endless supply of ideas for more to come, Bill Leeb may be the hardest-working industrial pioneer to date. I spoke to Mr. Leeb from his apartment in Toronto, Canada, which he shares with his two cats, Gizmo and Saber.
[Holly Day] Why did you decide to go back on tour again so quickly after having a three year break between tours before that?
[Bill Leeb] I don't know. We've always been very unorthodox as a band—we've never signed to a major label, we've never had a manager. We just kind of wake up and decide, that day, what we want to do. Granted, it's not always worked out for us. The last tour we did started the day after our record came out, and I think that kind of hurt us since a lot of people didn't know we had new material to perform. But you know, over the last ten years, we haven't exactly toured a lot. So I don't think we ever have to worry about over-touring or anything. It always depends on timing whether people are going to come out and see us anyway, and we never know when the best time to go out there is, we just do. When we feel like touring, we just do it.
[HD] Your music is pretty electronic-gear intensive. Have you had any trouble translating your recordings to a live show setting?
[BL] I think that we've brought that along, too. We're an electronic band, but over the last four years we've brought all the samples and all the keyboards and strings that we use in the studio on the road with us. All the guitar parts sound the same live, we have a real drummer wearing headphones and using a clicktrack, and I do the vocals, so really, the only thing that's not "live" are the 16th notes. So I'd say we're about 95% live in the studio. When you see us live, it's pretty hard to think it's not all live.
[HD] What do you think the challenge is in standing out from all the other electronic/industrial groups today, when so many people are using the same drum beats, loops and equipment?
[BL] Well, I guess the thing about being different—I think that the end of the day, a good song will still beat anything. A good song means having good vocals, you know—people still want to hear voice in songs, whether you have a drum'n'bass song or whatever, even if it's just a voice sample, I think at the end of the day, voice is the definitive thing that sets one song apart from another. It doesn't matter how good a programmer you are, if you don't have that voice, you're just another club band.
[HD] Do you think the fact that anyone can record and distribute their own CD from home is helping or hurting the musical climate?
[BL] Well, I guess that's a two-tiered thing. I've heard lots of rumors that record stores are going to stop carrying a lot of artists who don't sell a certain number of units, so that's bad for independent artists and the smaller labels. And while variety is the spice of life, I think a lot of great bands don't have the time anymore to develop. The publics' attention span is so short now that if you don't have something on the market instantly, they'll get bored and forget you. Good musicianship takes years to develop, and so do good bands. Major labels grab new bands all the time, and if they don't make a certain number of sales on their first record, they don't get money to record a second. That's why we have the whole "one hit wonder" thing. There's such an excessive amount of music out there, that the changes of a new band getting any recognition at all now, especially an independent artist, are way astronomical. So that's the twofold thing there: maybe, for the consumer, it's great to walk into a store and see ten thousand different bands to pick from, but for the musicians, your changes of having someone pick your record out of those thousands is very small.
[HD] Throughout all the bands you've been in, your music's been pretty consistently dark and gloomy. Are you a gloomy type of guy, or do you consider yourself an optimist?
[BL] I think that living with the fact that we're all going to die one day already puts one mark against being an optimist. I figure like, okay, you've got to work your ass off, try to achieve all these things, whether it is to collect something or be something or whatever it is you aspire to do, and it all leads to having to give it all away at the end when you turn into a decrepit old thing that needs help to brush your teeth and go to the bathroom—if you're looking forward to that, I think you're fucking nuts. People always say you've got to enjoy your life because it's short and you've got to make the best of it, but I tend to think somehow the realist side of that doesn't come through. I feel that it's better to not get your hopes up too high because one day you're going to die, and everything you've done will passed on to the next guy and you've going to be left lying in the dirt. So that always casts a bit of a shadow on my happiness. I guess it's easy to find a lot of faults with life and the world and people, and that you should try to look for the good things, but I guess I just like to think of myself as looking at both sides of the picture, and maybe that's what makes me sounds a bit more of a pessimist than an optimist. It works for me, anyway. I'm still trying to figure out the universe while I'm here.
But that's probably why the music is like that. I think music should have emotion, and grip you. I hate all those love pop songs—I think people like Brittany Spears should be put on an island and never be seen of or heard of again, her and the Backdoor Boys or whatever they're called. Those guys are evil. And I don't care what Brittany Spears thinks about me. I'm not too worried about her coming to get me. All that high school sock hop music and all those movies that come out every summer—you know the ones, where someone's turning 16 or Wow, I Just Had Sex, or whatever—I think there's too much of that going around.
Don't get me wrong—I'm up on life. I find more ironies than I find things to be down about. Actually, I think the biggest irony of it all is that sometimes people criticize us for being too depressing, but I look at this way: I believe in the Yin and the Yang, and the balance of life, and for all the shit that's out there, for all the stuff that's all happy and fake, if you don't have bands like Nine Inch Nails or Marilyn Manson or FLA, there's no down, there's no opposite for people to choose from. If everybody aspired to be the Spice Girls, the world would be fucking retarded. Everybody'd be walking around wearing cowboy boots and hats and make-up and kissing each other for no reason. You need a hot water tap and you need a cold water tap, 'cause it's the warm water that makes everything bearable. It's the same way with music—you need all extremes, or you have nothing. It all balances itself out at the end of the day.
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