Growing up as a Kerrang kid in the ’90s, one of my favourite metal bands of the era was Fear Factory whose seminal Demanufacture album bucked the trend of traditional metal music by combining both crushing melodic heaviness with industrial synths. Backed up by Raymond Herrera’s innovative approach towards machine-like precision drumming as well as Dino Cazares’s crushingly heavy guitar riffs, the band’s sound would be completed by Burton C Bell’s extremely varied approach towards singing as well as Christian Olde Wolbers under-rated songwriting contribution for which ‘Pisschrist’ would crown itself as being my favourite track on the whole album. A landmark album without equal upon its release in 1995, Demanufacture explored the conceptual relationship between man and machine and incorporated samples from James Cameron’s seminal Terminator 2 movie in order to give a chilling rendition of the future. And even though Demanufacture was released twenty years ago, with many citing it as being Fear Factory’s best work, the recent album Genexus proves that the band still has plenty of ideas up its sleeve. With Fear Factory having recently completed a European tour to commemorate Demanufacture‘s 20th anniversary, I spoke to frontman Burton C Bell and got to ask him as to how Fear Factory has managed to stay relevant in order to emerge as one of metal’s true greats.
Although Demanufacture is critically regarded as being Fear Factory’s best album, what would you regard as being your personal favorite and why?
I wouldn’t really say that there’s really any particular best album. I would say that Demanufacture certainly is the album that put us on the map. To say that any one of our records is our best album is like choosing who your favorite child is, because each album represents a different chapter in my life, and I love every aspect of that time period… hard, difficult, fun, whatever it was. I appreciate it and respect what happened. But I respect the fact that people really graft on to Demanufacture for the fact that it really set a tone for the future of music and for Fear Factory mostly, because that’s what really put us on the map. That’s the one that really set the sound for our future.
Well, Demanufacture basically ended up typecasting Fear Factory as being a cyber-metal band, and I remember the Kerrang cover which had you on it wearing a metal faceplate. Now, the themes that Demanufacture explored – the relationship between man and machine – really came to the fore with that album, and that’s been a theme and sound that’s been pretty consistent going forward. Why do you think Fear Factory hasn’t really changed its sound? I don’t mean this in a bad way, because the sound’s been really consistent, and every band has its own signature sound. But why do you think Fear Factory hasn’t fallen by the wayside like some other bands have? For example, Nirvana came along and they killed so many of the ’80s metal bands. But Fear Factory is still going strong today, and you just headlined the London O2 Forum after 20 years…
The thing about Fear Factory is that we have always wanted to make sure that we retained our nature. Soul of a New Machine was our first album and we were basically grinding our teeth. We were trying to find our roots and growing our roots at the same time, but Demanufacture was where we really found our sound. Once that happened… once you’ve established your sound, that’s who you are. And if you alienate your audience, you won’t have an audience. But the sound we created with Demanufacture was the sound that we wanted to create from the very beginning, and we finally learned how to do it. So it really defined us. If you’ve heard a Fear Factory song, and later on you hear a new song that you’ve never heard, you’d go “wow, that sounds like Fear Factory”, because we defined our sound. That’s what any band really wants to do. It’s like, “Wow! That sounds like Fear Factory”. Well it is Fear Factory. Or another band will say “Well, you sound like Fear Factory’. The thing is, we’ve discovered our own sound, and we stuck with it because that is how you retain and stay relevant. And to stay relevant in an industry that’s constantly changing is very important. Luckily, metal fans are very loyal and they keep coming back, and we’re very fortunate. We’ve experimented before. There was the album Transgression which was not really the Fear Factory sound. It’s still Fear Factory experimenting with stuff, but when we did that, we alienated our audience because they heard the music and they’re like, “That doesn’t sound like Fear Factory”. It was weird. And so we had to kind of come back from that.
That was a bit like Machine Head when they kind of tried to explore rapping with the Red Album.
Absolutely! The Burning Red.
Yes, that’s it.
Exactly. When you go too far, then you’re like, “All right, you’ve lost your fan base”. It was like, “Oh, I don’t know who that band is”. And then that’s too much time in between your next record. So in an industry, especially a time period where attention spans are so short, you need to really stay relevant and really retain your sound. Not re-do yourself, or not replicate yourself, but you need to keep adding new elements and keep building yourself up, and not try to rewrite the same record. You want to keep that same energy but move forward, experiment with new elements, but basically keep your identity.
How do you do that when so many bands become stale? They run out of ideas. They essentially go through the motions. How do you ensure that you’re able to still keep on growing, keep on coming up with new ideas, not necessarily getting boxed-in due to commercial pressures or due to expectations of fans, but still staying true to yourself?
It’s actually really difficult. For you to do that, it takes time. You’ve really got to sit back and not rush the album. You have to let it really coalesce inside of you and you have to… you know, Dino [Cazares] and I will sit down together and discuss, “Where do we want to go with this? Where’s the concept going? Where’s the sound going? What do we want to experiment with”? It takes maturity and experience to understand this. But it is difficult, and we’ve failed a couple of times. Digimortal was a classic example of bending down to what the label wanted and what the management wanted. After the Obsolete record, our sound was big and huge and it was quite unique. At that moment, so many new but younger bands were coming out – bands like Papa Roach and Linkin Park for instance. The label and the management, seeing the success of that, they wanted Fear Factory to be that. The odd thing was that those bands, Papa Roach and Linkin Park, were watered down versions of Fear Factory. So what the label and management wanted was Fear Factory to be “watered down Fear Factory”, which was never going to work, and that’s what Digimortal ended up being. Great songs but the production became really tame. If you ask a band who’s only been around for maybe 5 or 6 years, 10 years maybe, it would never have this experience. But a band who’s been around for 25 years… like Fear Factory and Slayer and Black Sabbath and stuff like that, we’ve been there. We’ve experienced this. You know what works. You know what doesn’t work. And it’s through trial and error that we’ve learned this. We know how to retain our sound. So to go back to your question, “How do you do this”? You technically have to research yourself… introspection. You go and say, “Okay, what made these songs great? What made these albums so popular with the fans that it connected with them”? You have to go back and introspect and look inside. It’s this rhythm. There’s these melodies. It’s this and this. Then you have to go to the drawing board and create something new.
What you’ve essentially done, you’ve essentially talked about the punk rock genre. Do hear me out on this… Punk rock, if you were to look at say, bands like Sex Pistols, they weren’t clean cut. But obviously they didn’t get anywhere near the kind of success of say, Offspring or Green Day…
No. Different time period though…
That is true. But then you look at bands like AFI who were a hardcore band, and now they’ve become almost a pop band where they’ve had to forsake their hardcore credentials in order to get that mainstream success. Do you think… after talking about what you said about how you previously ended up alienating your fan base, but that watered down “pop metal” bands such as Linkin Park or Papa Roach got way more success than you did. Dino Cazares talked about this at your London O2 Forum show where he said that pretty much every single vocalist in the nu-metal genre owes their existence and success to you, and whilst it’s nice to be regarded as being a pioneer, do you sometimes feel cheated and that maybe you were robbed?
You know, I can’t think that way. That just causes too much stress. I look at it at a different way where Fear Factory is a band that inspired a bunch of other artists to create their own music, to go forward and create. To me, that is such a positive aspect of life where you’re able to inspire another artist. To me, that’s the best thing you can do. That’s success on its own. They can attribute Fear Factory to be a part of their sound, fine. Their success, that’s great. But those bands who were popular, where are they now? Fear Factory has been relevant for 25 years. Our agent said “You’re becoming an iconic band. You can do whatever the f— you want”. But can Papa Roach do that, or can Linkin Park do that? Are they iconic? No. They were popular. But when it comes to genres though, punk rock… the time periods were so different. First, the Sex Pistols… John Lydon [aka: Johnny Rotten], he was the one that changed everything because their manager Malcolm McLaren had no idea what was going to happen. Malcolm McLaren was trying to create a pop band, but he didn’t expect John Lydon’s attitude, and John Lydon was truly punk rock. Malcolm McLaren was just trying to capitalize on fashion, but John Lydon pretty much saw the light and was like, “F— you! This is bullshit. You’re trying to capitalize on this stuff. I’m trying to do this for real”. That was when punk rock was viscous. He was truly legit. After that, punk rock lost its ferocity. There was no more of that.
Okay, last question… Given the fact that you guys have been going for 25 years, what’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned as a band and as a frontman?
Being in a band is fun, and when you start a band it’s fun. It’s great. You’re in a band with your brothers and your friends. You’re creating music. You’re having a great time. But as soon as you make your first dollar, you need to realize it’s not fun anymore. It can be fun, but it’s a business, and you need to be smart about it. You need to be smart about your future. Do not give anything away for free.