METALSUCKS INTERVIEWS BURTON C. BELL OF ASCENSION OF THE WATCHERS (EX-FEAR FACTORY)
A few weeks ago I was offered the opportunity to sit down and talk with Ascension of Watchers and ex-Fear Factory frontman Burton C. Bell, a chance I jumped at right away. Bell was quite the gentleman, sitting through a long interview and answering my questions about the new Ascension of the Watchers album Numinosum (read my review here), his past career with Fear Factory, working with Al Jourgensen of Ministry, and a whole lot of other topics. The full chat transcript, after the jump.*
So you have a new record out, Numinosum. In the most abstract way, can you talk about the new record a bit?
Abstract? Purple. (laughs). Well it’s definitely a whole completely different direction for me. It’s a different direction from what people are accustomed to from me. For me it’s the type of music that I’ve always been into, that I’ve enjoyed, that’s more a part of me. The music that people know me from is obviously Fear Factory, and other music that I’ve assisted on vocals with, but to me this is truly the music that I like. When I was in Fear Factory and people would ask me what kind of music I’d been listening to, I’d always been naming non-metal bands. Once in a while there’d be a metal band that’d be cool… like the hard rock bands, or the stoner metal bands, and that kind of stuff. Sleep I liked a lot. Godflesh, that was more industrial. I was more of a post-punk kind of guy. I liked Nick Cave around the first Fear Factory record, Nick Cave for inspiration. So to me, I’m primarily expressing the music that I like to listen to, so this is my opportunity. I have a guitar and I’m learning how to play it (laughs), know what I mean? But this record has been a journey… and it’s turned into a spiritual journey. It’s a true expression of my heart and soul.
That industrial and post-punk stuff like you were into, did you feel like you sort of had to repress that in the way you approached Fear Factory, and now this is sort of a way for you to let it all out?
I wouldn’t say repressed, I just didn’t have the opportunity. I never wrote music for Fear Factory. I was the lyricist and vocalist, and whatever counter-melody I offered was through my voice. But I never wrote music, so I wouldn’t say it was repressed, more like suppressed. This is finally my chance. People have been wondering how I come up with those vocal ideas for Fear Factory and they’re really gonna wonder where this comes from. But they’re just the type of melodies that are in my head, the type of music that formed me, from soundtracks to country music to classical to ambient. You know, it’s all based in atmosphere, it’s all based in emotion, it’s all based in mood. That’s really important for me. I’m really about atmosphere. I must control atmosphere.
Well the dream I had in 2000 was part of a journey that started roughly back then. I knew that Fear Factory was not gonna last forever. It was a natural fact – bands stop. And I think more bands stop these days than continue. But the dream was part of the journey. I had a need that I had to fill in my heart to really put out music that was true to my personality, ‘cause I didn’t really feel like I was expressing myself. And I was kind of getting frustrated that people assumed that I was all about metal… and say all you want, but that’s not me. Don’t like it, sorry, some of it’s alright. But I think that’s one of the things that made Fear Factory interesting was the difference in music that we all listened to. The fact that I wasn’t that type of person. I came from a different background, then Dino and I got together. Dino was a metal guy, I was an industrial plus punk guy, we came together and we created something different. It wasn’t two metalheads getting together, it was the coming together of two very different things. So, to me this is where my progression has developed. In the early days of Fear Factory I got to express some ideas and some anger that I was experiencing, but I’m not that angry kid anymore. I’m a 39 year-old man with a family, and I feel I’ve refined myself. As well we all should be refined. If you don’t learn anything, if you don’t evolve through life, you’re not really living, I feel. So this music really started in my heart a while ago, but when I finally got a guitar, and I started playing it and I started really coming up with parts and becoming comfortable with it.
It was in 2002 after the initial split of Fear Factory… I said you know what, I’m gonna go on my journey. I left LA and I traveled out to Pennsylvania, met with John [Bechdel], and basically stayed in his studio. I was already friends with John cause he had worked with Fear Factory already, so he let me stay at his house, he and his family were very warm. They have a lot of property, about 15 acres in the woods. It was a great place to be for someone who wants to get away and isolate themselves. In some ways the woods were a cloister for me, a sanctuary, and that’s where the music really flowered. Working with John, he helped me work out the ideas, and we came up with the arrangements together… and built it up from there. And that’s when it really felt like, when we started writing music and it was coming about, that yeah, this is where my heart is. And that’s when it really developed.
And the dream was great, I’ll always remember that dream. And at that time when I had it in 2000, when we were writing Digimortal, the dream was… a very powerful dream. At the time I was going through some crazy shit, some mental shit, so I was seeing a therapist. She was a union analyst. She wasn’t like a regular counselor. Well she was a counselor, she was a union analyst specializing in dream therapy. She asked me to start writing down my dreams, so that’s when I really started writing down my dreams. I had this one dream while I was seeing her, and I wrote it down, and I explained to her this dream, and it was such a powerful dream, really intense. And I explained it to her and she listened to it, and was thinking about it, and she described the dream to me as a Numinosum, which is when you experience something of a spiritual nature that you experience outside of yourself. Not your conscious but your subconscious experience. People think outside yourself is, you know, outside, but no. Subconscious also is a term for outside. So it was really powerful and I just remembered it this whole time. So I started really writing down my dreams a lot. I really feel that my dreams are trying to relate a message to me, trying to tell me something. My subconscious is trying to tell me something, that I need to follow my heart, and it’s trying to show me a path and I’ve learned to trust that. It’s a gut feeling in a way, but your heart really speaks to you through your dreams and your soul speaks to you through your dreams, and it’s trying to tell you something.
So you recorded at John’s, and how did you come to hook up with Al Jourgensen from Ministry and his record label [13th Planet] and get the machinery turning to actually get the record out to the public.
Well, John and I recorded a 5 song demo Iconoclast and we shopped that around for a long time. We recorded that inn 2002, 2003, and shopped it around for a while to various labels and no one was interested. And we started getting frustrated and changing the sound or whatever, and I was like, you know what, I’m gonna release it myself, so I sold it through the Internet on my own website. So I mastered it properly, made artwork for it, put it in vinyl, put it on CD, pdf, video, so it was a real independent, truly independent release. So we released it and basically just let it go, and during that time because of contractual obligations I had to go back to Fear Factory and finish out the contract. So we locked it in the hole for a couple of years, knowing the whole time that the Watchers was in my heart… let it nurture itself for a while and spread the word of what I’m gonna do, prepare my future.
During that time John started working with Ministry. Paul Raven was working with Ministry, and Paul tossed John’s name to Al, and Al was like “I got Tommy now and I got Paul, and I can get John!” Well that’s Prong right there! “All I need now is Ted Parsons!” (laughs). So he started working with John and John was touring again, and when Ministry played New York I went to the show, it was at Irving Plaza that year, was it two years ago? And I went to the show and met Al finally, and talked to him, and it was cool, I got to meet him. And that was about it. And after that tour, John was home and we were talking, John’s like “they’re starting to record their last record,” and I was like “the last record?” and he’s like “Al’s gonna quit, he’s doing his last record.” And I went “Really… I gotta be a part of that!” so I called up Al, John gave me his phone number and I called him up and said “hey, I’d love to contribute to this record if you would have me. I work cheap.” (laughs). And he flew me down. I knew Raven already, so Raven was cool, and Raven hyped me up too. Between John and Raven I got down there and got to participate on The Last Sucker record and it was awesome.
But during the time I was down there I just started talking to him and learned about 13th Planet Records. And the more we talked about it the more intrigued I was. I loved the concept. In fact we talked about what I liked about some record labels of the past, like 4AD and Mute, how they really created a real artist community that you really don’t see much anymore. Mute is still around, and 4AD’s still around, maybe, I think so. But they really created a musical, artistic revolution. Mute really more so created a revolution, and the base of artists that came out of Mute were a lot of my favorite bands. And when we started talking, he said that he wanted 13th planet to be more of an artist community than WaxTrax was. I like it. And the fact that Al Jourgensen, it’s his new entity, and he was part of WaxTrax, he created that empire — now that’s no more and he wants to do something else, that would be cool to be a part of. And the fact that it was Minisitry and Prong and Revolting Cocks and now False Icons, John’s other band. All different types of bands. And now with Ascension of the Watchers it’s not labeling itself as strictly an industrial label, he’s really expanding the element of his label to a different sound, and really creating an artist community, and that’s what I really like about it.
Tommy and I did “Die in a Crash” together on The Last Sucker. He wasn’t even gonna use that song. It was the first song he recorded on his new board, just as an experiment. He played it and he went, “What do you think of this?” and he played it for me and I’m like, “It’s dope, you don’t wanna use it?” “You like it?” “Yeah, I like it!” he played it for Tommy and Tommy’s like, “We should use that!” So he got me and Tommy together and Tommy and I spent a couple of hours listening to it and coming up with ideas and came up with that song. It was a lot of fun. And I also did “End of Days” on that record which is all me, and that was a lot of fun to finish out the last Ministry record with the last song and go out with a bang.
That must’ve been really cool for you as a fan.
Exactly. As a fan it was one of the coolest experiences I ever had. A dream come true, I got to work with one of my heroes and be on that record. Mark another one off! So during that time he was like, “I want you to be on the cover record. I want you to do a Rolling Stones song.” I’m wondering what rolling stones song he would do, and then he told me “Under My Thumb” and I’m like, “Really, I never really liked that song.” He’s like, “Really, I love that song, girls love that song. My wife likes that song. Read the lyrics and you’ll really understand why.” I’d never really listened to the lyrics just because I wasn’t that down to try, so I got the lyrics and I listened to what he was saying, Mick Jagger. And I was like, “Oh, ok! I get it! Male pride in the ‘60s! That’s great!” So we went and had fun with that song and it was great. We had a lot of fun.
You’re going on tour with Ministry and I’m sure that must be really thrilling for you too as a fan. In what capacity… so are you just gonna come out for one song?
Good lord! He wants me to do all the covers, and then… I’m sure I’ll be out there for whatever, but right now he just wants me to focus on the cover songs like “Under My Thumb,” “Roadhouse Blues, “Just Got Paid,” “Wonderful World”… but I’m sure I’ll be out there for a couple more. But man the fans, I remember the first time I caught Ministry was the Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste tour, and I caught them at The Palladium in LA, and MAN it was an amazing show! This was before Fear Factory. Watching them on stage I was excited by everyone on stage and thinking, “Man it looks like they’re having a great time, one day I’d love to be up there.” Here I am, another dream come true.
Absolutely. Working on a tour for Fall through the States and Europe and wherever else it can go. I’m only doing the American tour for Ministry. John’s doing America and Europe. So I gotta wait till John’s back, cause I don’t wanna tour without John – he’s 50% of the band. So we’ll just wait for Fall.
Are you satisfied with the reactions the record’s been getting? I’m sure there are some Fear Factory fans who go, “What the fuck is this?” Does that kind of stuff bother you or is it just like whatever, they don’t get it, too bad, this is for whoever does get it.
Well, I really think that…. [unintelligible]…. There are Fear Factory fans that think that. But there is an audience for this. As I have evolved, so has a lot of the Fear Factory audience. We’re evolving and growing, as people, together. There are a lot of people, fans of Fear Factory, who that’s all they wanna hear – they wanna hear Demanufacture over and over and over again. But the positivity outweighs the negativity. I’m happy that we have a record released, and that it feels like a family.
Last question… on the promo tour you guys did, you did your CD release show at the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, Alex Grey’s gallery. Is there a relationship between you two guys or did it just come about randomly?
I’ve met Eli, who knows him, who does a lot of events with Alex Grey, at Chapel of Sacred Mirrors and some other stuff that he does. I met him and Alex Grey at a different event at the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors. I had a different band, [unintelligible], we played there… it was Alex’s birthday. So I got to know them at that time. I really have a great respect for his artwork, lovely artwork, he’s a genius painter… and he has a beautiful space. I was like, “This would be a good place to do a show and promote this.” It’s something I’ve always wanted to do… rather than just play a concert, more of like an event. Have it at a place that really is an art gallery, you know, and that’s one concept I really want to work on for the touring, cause I wanna play different types of things, different types of venues like an art gallery or maybe sanctuaries of some type. Really make it an event, make it feel special so people come out and are like, “Wow, this is a really different event,” rather just… a bar. And of course we’ll play normal clubs and venues, but we wanna hit some certain places. But anyway, we played there [unintelligible] and I think we have a good relationship. They had a great time, Alex loved the show, Eli loved it, so they called me up. I think they went to Peru right after that and they called me up from Peru to thank me and say, “Really, we had a great time!” So now I have a relationship with those guys.
Any final words?
Um, please check out the record. If you wanna hear something that’s really different and something fresh, this is for you.
*Bell was a bit of a quiet talker and as such I had a very difficult time transcribing this interview, especially the last two questions. I did my best and sincerely hope that I got it all right.