Interview: Burton C Bell of Fear Factory

Burton and our own James Costin
Burton and our own James Costin

As the UK leg of the band’s Demanufacture celebratory tour drew close to the end, we had a chance to talk to Burton in Glasgow. We were planning a video interview, but sadly the lighting just didn’t work out and – despite much effort from James in post – it just wasn’t going to look particularly good! Here’s the transcription instead, covering a fair bit of the band’s history as well as the current tour. As ever, thanks to Burton himself, Fear Factory’s hard-working tour manager John Branon and the ever-lovely Claire at Nuclear Blast.

The last time I spoke to you directly was on the original Demanufacture tour in Bradford…

That was, what, 95… 96? At Rios? That’s closed now, isn’t it?

Yes, then moved then moved again. I think it’s back open somewhere else now. You, though, are still going on this anniversary tour.

Yeah, a hell of an anniversary celebration of Demanufacture.

Twenty years since not just your big album came out, but a big album.

It’s the album that put Fear Factory on the map.

You’ve been through a lot in that time. Label departures, you’ve broken up, reformed, line-up changes… but you always seem to bounce back. How?

We just have to keep on writing music and staying on tour. What Fear Factory has gone through is no different than what a lot of bands have gone through. For some reason you seem to get a lot more news about it with us! We do it for survival – this is what we love doing.

Going right back to the beginning, is there any truth that U2 had something to do with you getting into the band?

As Dino says, he heard me singing songs in the shower. We were living together and there were two showers – one upstairs and one downstairs. I was in the downstairs one and he was walking past to the kitchen and he says he heard me singing a U2 song. He’d heard me doing vocals for my other band at the time and it was a more aggressive style – not like Fear Factory. And he was like “wow – this guy can actually sing!”.

Another bit of trivia I’d like to clear up – were you actually in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video?

You can see me in it, yes – I was there! My room-mates and I went to the Roxy show the night before the filming and they threw out fliers asking people to go to the shoot and everyone who turned up was in the video. I’d met the band before – I ran into them in Bakersfield once at a truck stop, and talked to them in line at the Burger King – but only to talk to. They didn’t know my name or whatever.

Your first actual album with Fear Factory was Concrete, but there were a lot of issues surrounding that recording. Roadrunner finally released it in 2002 without the band’s approval, is that right?

Without my approval, without the band’s approval. That actual recording was going to be our first record and it was done by Ross Robinson. He wanted to get into producing so he started his own company. He and Dino were friends and he likes what we were doing, so he wanted Fear Factory to launch his label. We were in the studio for one week – Blackie Lawless’s studio actually – and it came out great. Then he handed us these contracts and we got our friend to look at them, she handed them to a lawyer and he told us “don’t sign this.” So he got to keep the masters and we got to keep our little DAT tape. We used that DAT tape to get signed to Roadrunner. After the band disassembled for a while, Ross went behind the band’s back and sold the master to Roadrunner for only $10,000. And, yeah, I’m still pissed off about that.

You re-used a lot of the material from Concrete on later albums, didn’t you?

We had to re-record them for Soul of a New Machine.

Thinking back to the two albums, are you happy that Soul of a New Machine ended up being your debut or would you have preferred it to have been Concrete?

I’m very happy that Soul was the first release. It was a better recording, we’d played the songs more and we used… Actually we didn’t even call it Concrete at the time, it didn’t even have a title back then. Roadrunner called it Concrete. We used it as our demo to improve the songs.

Did Dino cover bass and guitar on Soul?

Yes. And the same on Demanufacture. Andrew Shives appeared after we’d done the recording. We wanted to get the album artwork together and decided we wanted a 4-piece so we could tour with a bass player. Andrew turned up just in time for the photo shoot. Our manager hooked us up with him. He’d not played anything of our stuff before that tour. Then we kicked him out of the band just after the tour as we simply didn’t get along with him! That was the 1993 tour. Then we got the Sepultura tour – Chaos A.D. – in 1994. We started auditioning bass players and Biohazard actually put us in touch with Christian Olde Wolbers. He joined a couple of weeks before that tour. He made it work!

Demanufacture, though – how do you feel it’s stood up over these twenty years? Is it just an album full of fan favourites or do you yourself actually think it’s stood up well compared to your other material over the years?

I think it’s still a relevant record, sonically and conceptually. If people put it on today having not heard it before, they think it’s a contemporary album. It’s a strong album. We spent a lot of time on it, there’s a lot of heart and passion in it. |We really cut our teeth on that album.

Are you surprised by its longevity?

Yeah! I’m surprised by Fear Factory’s longevity actually!

You’re a band who pretty much defined a genre, even taking into account your own influences such as Ministry. The industrial metal sound of Fear Factory is unique. You put on a FF album and you can’t mistake it for anyone else. What led to the change in sound between Soul and Demanufacture?

Well, that’s exactly it. At that time that album really was the “soul of a new machine”. The album cover really gets the essence of the band at that point. It’s the birth of this machine. It’s a really primal moment. It’s not congealed or fully formed as yet. It’s like this entity of the machine that’s separate but inside it. Demanufacture was recorded while we were still learning how to write and become producers on our own. It wasn’t until we really began touring on the music, and after Soul of a New Machine we’d been touring for two years solid, that we began writing songs and finding our sound. We were kids. We were learning as we were going along. The growing period between those two albums is what created Demanufacture‘s sound.

Over these 25 years, do you have any major defining memories?

I remember in… 1998 we were touring on Obsolete and we’d sold out the Roseland in New York City.  It’s not there any more, but it was a big venue – 3000 or so. [Wikipedia says 3200 – Mosh] It was incredible. I walked out on stage and everyone was going crazy. That moment got me. It was so overwhelming. I had to turn around and regain my composure for a second – I almost lost it.

What’s the wildest thing you’ve seen on the road?

I’ve seen a lot of wild stuff, man! The first thing that just came to my mind was the second Dynamo we played in 1995. Type O Negative was playing right at sunset and I’d dropped acid about an hour before. As Type O started playing, I was peaking and climbed up the stage scaffolding right to the top, above their stage in the lights and watched them. Type O Negative. As the sun was setting. Tripping my balls off. And then they started playing “Summer Breeze”. The sunset was beautiful, the song was perfect. It was rad!

What is the best country you’ve played or the best audience you’ve played to?

New York is always an awesome audience. For some reason it was the first US city to welcome us with open arms.

How are your audiences in the US? A lot of bands find that they’re having more success in getting people to gigs across Europe than on “home territory”.

It’s hard to get people out in the United States to come to shows. I don’t know why. I bigger cities they come out, but it’s simply more lucrative to tour in Europe, the UK and Ireland because more people come out.

If you were to meet a new band today, just starting out as you were 25 years ago, what advice would you give them?

Fuck, don’t do it! Seriously, don’t do it! The music industry is in such a sad stage of affairs, I can’t even imagine being a baby band right now. Starting out with the number of bands who are out there now… it’s completely saturated. But if you do want to do it… be prepared to struggle your ass off. Go all the way. Be young. Starve. Be in a van. But be sure you love it.

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February 15, 2016 11:22 AM

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