Front Line Assembly is part of what is arguably the greatest electronic industrial music tour in years. Alongside Skinny Puppy, Haujobb and Youth Code, FLA will take the stage this Friday, December 12, at the Ogden Theatre. All together, the lineup represents major stars of experimental electronic music from their respective eras. Bill Leeb, the sole continuous member of Front Line Assembly, was also one of the early members of Skinny Puppy before leaving in 1986 to found his own project. Between Delirium and Front Line Assembly, Leeb has been an influential figure and mentor to up-and-coming artists, so it's perfect that FLA got to step in when VNV Nation had to drop out of the tour.
Though Front Line Assembly has been an influential band since the '80s for its particular contribution to the development of EBM and electronic industrial music, its own influences are not unlike the sort of inspirations one might hear from the members of opening act, Youth Code. Leeb credits an early exposure to German experimental electronic groups like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream as well as the first wave of British punk with Sex Pistols and the Clash and early post-punk acts Magazine, the Cure Fad Gadget and Joy Division. But it was what punk and post-punk spawned in terms of the infrastructure of music that really opened the doors for people like Leeb in the late '70s and early '80s.
"With Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, all of a sudden you had independent record labels. Anybody could make their own label, and you could make your own cassettes. That was a big open door for everybody. That punk sensibility of, 'Hey, you don't need a big label; you can make your own albums and put it out yourself and tour. You don't need anybody else to do it for you.' I just loved that whole concept, and I think that's what got us all motivated."
In FLA's home town of Vancouver, British Columbia, the record label Nettwerk was founded in 1984; along with Wax Trax Records in Chicago, Nettwerk really helped to popularize industrial and experimental electronic music. Its flagship acts were Leeb's former band Skinny Puppy, a young Sarah McLachlan and yhe Grapes of Wrath. Before Nettwerk came into being, though, Leeb and his friend Kevin Crompton, aka cEvin Key of Skinny Puppy, found Clem magazine and lists of independent artists throughout Europe.
"Guys in their basements with their machines," adds Leeb. "We would write to them and send them an IRC, and they would send us a cassette. That's how we discovered the Legendary Pink Dots and all these individuals putting the music out without any press or anything."
These correspondences connected like-minded and adventurous music fans with one another before the advent of anything like the Internet, as did magazines like Sounds and Dave Henderson's "Wild Planet" column, the place where Skinny Puppy received its first press in Europe following the release of its classic debut, Remission, in 1985.
"I remember that first line," recalls Leeb. "'From the land of Gordon Lightfoot and Anne Murray storms Skinny Puppy. How dare they? Who are these guys? Who do they think they are sounding like that, electronic and hard?'"
Leeb and his friends -- including Kevin "Ogre" Ogilvie and Gary Smith of Images in Vogue, the band in which Crompton performed -- would discuss this new music endlessly and debate, as young men will, which band was better than others. And it was through these friendships that Leeb, like just about anyone making music today in any organic and underground way, got to try his hand at making his own music.
"I remember after Images in Vogue rehearsals, me and Kevin would sneak up there and use their gear and start writing some of the Puppy songs," reveals Leeb. "We figured, hey, you know, he's in the band, there's no harm. So we would go up there late at night and make do with that. Images gave us that accessibility, and then we would rent some keyboards and sit them on floors, and then it was a matter of experimenting and going forth."
Front Line Assembly has gone through several lineup changes since its 1986 inception, and long-running member Rhys Fulbar has come back into the fold after playing the European leg of the tour as well as the first several of the North American dates, with plans to rejoin the tour on the West Coast. According to Leeb, the tour has had a rejuvenating effect on everyone.
"It's one of the best things I've ever been a part of," enthuses Leeb. "The history between us, and when one band changes over to the other and we're hanging out during the day, it's like 25 years ago again. The amount of people that have been coming out and the positive energy? This one is going to hurt when it winds down. You couldn't plan it any better, the way it happened with VNV Nation dropping out and us stepping in and scrambling. Initially this was an idea I had pitched to those guys, so here we are, and I think everyone is having the time of their lives. To me, I could end it all on this and go, 'Wow, this made sense.' It's going to be really hard to emulate that again and bring that excitement back in that way. "
"I think this is sort of the perfect thing of having the old industrial heavyweights, and I think we know we were Youth Code at one time," continues Leeb. "We were in Chicago 25 years ago in the van in the middle of winter with no money and a makeshift couch in the back, playing in the Metro upstairs in the small room, not the big room. And it was so cold in January that the walls were almost frozen, and we were naive enough to think someday we could leave an impression."
Leeb could be a self-congratulating elder statesman of industrial and music in general, but his nature is more generous and honest than that.
"Youth Code is young and from a new era" points out Leeb. "They sound different from us in their own way and have a Pitchfork crowd. So it's kind of like maybe we're slowly passing the torch to the next generation, and it's good to see that people are inspired by what we did, but they're putting their own spin on it and they have their own look and it's a different era, so I think to put that all together is great. They start it off and then it's almost like a history lesson, but in a great way."
"Youth Code said they were really influenced by early Front Line and Puppy," adds Leeb. "I think it's indie punk and electronica. But young people now roll with it differently. I don't know if you can really analyze it. It's like looking back at your parents. They're never going to get what you did. So I think that this is another new era of people that are going to come along and make it their own and put a new spin on it."
"Of course, they don't have the roots that come from a lot of music that we did," concludes Leeb. "That makes it more genuine, too, because I think they just sort of take their own rawness, their own angst and their own energy, and it might come across as punk, but I just think it's from their era and their mindset of who they are. When you're filling 1,500 seats every night, I think that inspires people. Youth Code has its own fans and its own world, and I think it's given this whole thing some life."
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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.