It's been a turbulent few years for Burton C. Bell. With prolonged legalities preventing any activity from Fear Factory, the singer finally exited the group in October 2020 to concentrate fully on Ascension of the Watchers; a project he describes as ‘’soul without the machine’’. Teaming up with John Bechdel (keyboards) and Jayce Lewis (drums, backing vocals, programming), it's his most emotional journey yet. "Every song is deeply personal", he tells us as we sit down to chat. We caught up with Burt to talk his exit from FF, working with Geezer Butler, and the new album. Key to the cosmos; Eamon O'Neill.
Hi Burton, the last time we spoke was at the Gibson Brands Bash in Anaheim, in January; how did you enjoy it?
That was the last outing I actually had with music. I did [David Bowie cover] 'Rebel Rebel'. Working with Richie [Faulkner, Judas Priest guitarist]; what a sweetheart! Oh god, I had a great time, you know, sharing the stage with legends; you'd got the guy from the Eagles, Don Felder, and then of course, Billy Gibbons, that was freaking amazing. Oh god, who else was there? Slash, Cheap Trick; it was fantastic.
Speaking of legends, we've just learned of the sad passing of Eddie Van Halen.
Yeah, that was terrible, sad news. I was actually doing an interview when I heard the news, and I was just shocked. That's definitely a big one in my life. I worked with a guy in 1989, and he was in a Van Halen cover band, and it was incredible. I grew up, and in a lot of my early teenage years, Van Halen was a part of it. Everybody at school was a huge fan of Van Halen, and I became a fan through them. Fantastic music, from 'Fair Warning', 'Women and Children First'... it's amazing.
Moving on to the reason we're talking today, and it must be exciting for you to finally get some new music out, with Ascension of the Watchers' 'Apocrypha'.
Yeah, absolutely It's a huge relief. It's been something that I've been working on for literally ten years. Since the last album ['Iconoclast'] in 2008, I started writing and demoing songs shortly after that. I was taking my time, and I was inspired by big moments, and big events in my life. So it just took time - not for the lack of trying to get it exposed to labels or management, it was just no one was interested. And I realised after a while that if I was going to get an album out, I would have to have a completed package for a label to get them interested in it.
Obviously it comes on the back of Fear Factory's enforced silence, and it must have been a real frustration for you not to have been able to release anything for the last few years.
Yeah, I was totally stifled, and it was beyond my control in that Fear Factory camp, so I decided to work on something that I could control and move forward with. Ascension of the Watchers, I'm very happy I did it, I'm very proud of the album being released. Yeah, not being able to be an artist really took a toll on my nature, really, my heart. It was disheartening; what was happening was absolutely disheartening, and it had been happening for a long time.
Listening to the album, and it's a slight departure from Fear Factory in that there's less aggression, but it retains the melodic side.
I do realise that Ascension of the Watchers is not going to be for every Fear Factory fan, especially the most ardent metal fan, but I think a lot of Fear Factory fans will see a lot of similarities and a lot of familiar sounds within Ascension of the Watchers. Everything I did with Fear Factory came from this mind; the same mind that is creating for Ascension of the Watchers. Ascension of the Watchers, to me, is the most personal, and the most representational piece of work I've ever done, in my entire career. So, Fear Factory fans can actually get an in depth look into the sounds that were created for Fear Factory. So, there are a lot of similarities, and there are a lot of differences as well.
One of your personal favourite Fear Factory songs is 'Resurrection', and the more melodious aspects of that track wouldn't be out of place on this album.
Absolutely, they're the melodies in my head. The way I sing and the way I deliver my words all come from this mind. 'Resurrection', that song, if that came out now, would that be considered metal? Would people think that would fit in with the metal genre that is so popular today? I don't know, but it didn't really fit into metal back then either; it kind of stood on its own.
It's a song that was almost commercial, in places, with that big chorus.
Yeah, it's that uplifting type of melody, kind of melancholic, but uplifting at the same time in its delivery. It's all about the delivery; I believe that if you don't believe in what you are singing, then no one's going to take you seriously. You have to believe what you are saying, and deliver it with your heart, and I think fans can tell the difference.
'Ghost Heart', which has been released as a single, is in a similar vein, really.
Yeah, I love that. I wrote that in 2016, and I was able to demo it with Jayce soon after, so it was still fresh. Yeah, it's probably one of the more upbeat songs. It was describing a moment in my life, and the nature of what I was feeling, and the vibrations that I was feeling, I was able to convey through the song. Every song is deeply personal.
It is an emotionally heavy album, evident in songs like the title track.
It was just emotions that inspired those moments. Everything is based around the concept of love; the idea of it, the loss of it, the rejuvenation of it, the newness of it, the oldness of it, the lack of it; it all comes from that, so it's deeply personal. So, each song represents a moment in my time. When I would sit down and start creating on the guitar or piano, at the same time I would be writing down in my journal what I was feeling, words, or phrases or a lyric, and I kept doing that over time. So these are all put together, finally, to create the actual piece.
One of the more surprising tracks on the album is your cover of Terence Trent D'Arby's 'Sign Your Name'.
You know, I I've been actually thinking about that cover for a long time, probably from when The Watchers first started. I always loved the song, and I knew I could do, like, my own version of it. To me, that is the most important. If you're going to cover a song, I just don't want to cover it; I want to reinterpret it and make it my own. I did that with 'Sounds of Silence' off [2008 release] 'Numinosum', where I slowed it down and just created my own vibe with it. I wanted to do the same thing with 'Sign your Name'; take a very popular song, add a very different feeling, and take it and make it my own. It actually took time to come up with that, but for m, it came out great, and it came out better than I expected.
You've had some great cover versions over the years with Fear Factory, including songs by U2 and Gary Numan.
Yeah, we did a Killing Joke song, we did a Nirvana song, we did a Pitchshifter song, Agnostic Front, but when it comes to doing it more my style, 'Sounds of Silence' and 'Sign Your Name' are the way I would do covers. I reinterpret them to make my own.
Elsewhere, one of the tracks that I really enjoyed is the instrumental; 'Stormcrow'.
Thanks! I wrote that when I was feeling a particular way, and Id written a lot of words for it, but when it came to the edit, when it finally came to actually recording it, I never wanted lyrics; I never wanted to do vocals on it. I just felt, from the very get go, it was an instrumental, and that's the way I wanted to keep it. 'Stormcrow's going to be a great way to start a show.
Going back a little, and G//Z/R's 'Plastic Planet is getting a rerelease this month, and I wanted to ask you how you got involved in working with Geezer Butler?
I knew that they were reissuing it under a different name ['Geezer Butler', rather than 'G//Z/R']. So, rewind, 1995, and Fear Factory had just recorded and mixed 'Demanufacture', and I was about to go to the UK to do a lot of press for Roadrunner. You had to do it months in advance, because that how print was. But before I went, Geezer Butler's manager, his wife, was in touch with my manager then, and Gloria [Butler] asked if he knew of any singers that would be interested in auditioning for Geezer's record. So, my manager sent over the promo of 'Demanufacture' to Geezer so he could hear it, and immediately, he wanted me to audition.
What happened next?
I was sent a tape of three or four tracks, of songs that would eventually become part of the 'Plastic Planet' album, and I was supposed to listen to it and come up with ideas. So when I was in the UK, I would travel to Birmingham and audition in Geezer's studio. So, I had a day off during press, so Geezer put me on a train up to Birmingham from London, he picked me up, I went to his house, met his big assed black dog named 'Baldrick'. He had a very nice home outside of Birmingham. We talked for a little bit, and then, ok, it was time to audition. So he took me up to his studio which was an attic, and it was like a Black Sabbath museum, and my heart was just like eek! I was looking at everything, trying to hold my jaw up!
That must have been quite a trip, as a fan of Black Sabbath.
I saw the 'Sabotage' platinum record on the wall, and I said; "god damnit, that was the first record I loved by Black Sabbath, it's my favourite record by Black Sabbath!", and he looked at me like I was crazy, and he was like; [does Geezer's accent] "Really?! That record?!" Yeah!
So how did your audition work?
He showed me how to use the recording system, so I spent like, two or three hours up there by myself just putting down the ideas I had. I mostly worked on the one that ended up becoming 'Giving Up the Ghost'. I got my ideas down, he came up and goes; "are you done?", and I go; "I guess!" We went out to eat some Indian food, and then he put me back on a train. And when I got back to London, he called my hotel room and said I got the part.
What do you remember about the recording of 'Plastic Planet'?
About a month later, I flew to Massachusetts, met Geezer Butler, met Perdo Howse [guitarist], and met Deen Castronovo [drummer] at the studio. It was a barn that was converted into a studio, and I spent a month there, in a barn with Geezer, and Paul Northfield, the producer, just coming up with parts for the vocals and recording the vocals. When I got there, I said; "you don't want me to write the lyrics?", and he goes; "no, Ive got lyrics". So he hands me 10 sheets of paper, typed, and I go; "okay, 10 songs, cool", and I go; "where do they go to?", and he goes; "you figure that out!" So I had to figure out which lyrics would fit best with each song, and figure out the ideas from there. Paul Northfield was a huge, huge help in that!
There's a superb parallel with 'War Pigs' and rhyming "gathered in their masses" with "witches at black masses", and 'Drive Boy Shooting's "piece not peace" lyric.
Yeah, I'm particularly proud of that one, but they all sounded great. I still love 'Giving up the Ghost'; I think that's a great song, and the song that was actually written while we were there. There was lyrics that weren't being used, and Pedro was writing this piece, and I go; "well, there's these lyrics that aren't being used for anything, let's write something together". So Pedro and I came up with the idea for 'Cycle of Sixty' while we were there, and that's one of the songs that I particularly love off that record. For it me, it was the most different thing I'd done in my career, and I had a great time doing it.
Aside from the artistic satisfaction of working on the album, what was it like for you working with Geezer Butler? Where you a fanboy or...
Yes! It was that the entire time. Obviously I was a fan of Black Sabbath already, and to be working with... It's fucking Geezer Butler, you know what I mean? And Pedro was a great guitar player and a fucking hysterical man, and touring with Deen Castronova at the same time? The guy's insane too; you know, Deen recorded those drums in two days, and it was done! Yeah, the whole time, I was like, hearing stories about Ozzy or Tony, or even Ian Gillan, or stories about Dio; I was like, losing my mind! I was a kid listening to these guys, and I can't believe I'm getting like a first-hand account.
You must have heard some amazing stories.
Geezer did like to embellish the truth a bit, because I was rather gullible, and it was rather obvious, so he would just say things to me that... "I can't believe THAT!" But the whole time, I was just honoured, just to be there.
How were the live shows that G//Z/R did, for you?
We did a showcase show headlining at the Limelight in New York, and Peter Steel [Type O Negative] was at that show. Backstage, I still have a picture of Peter Steel holding Geezer Butler in his arms like a baby! That was the show that we did that kicked off the tour that we did where we opened up for Korn and Life of Agony. It was interesting, you know, and that was a great tour. It was the only tour that we did on 'Plastic Planet'.
Were you disappointed not to be involved with the second album, 'Black Science'?
Yeah, I was disappointed that I wasn't used again, but they wanted someone that had more of an open schedule, I guess. 'Demanufacture' did very well right after that, and I was touring that and G//Z/R, so I was busy. But yeah, I'm not really sure why I wasn't on the second record. But regardless, I am very proud of the work that we did on 'Plastic Planet', and I'm just honoured to have the opportunity.
The last time I spoke with Dino Cazares, he exclusively revealed that Fear Factory were planning 'Obsolete' anniversary shows. Are you disappointed that that didn't happen?
Yeah, I am. Everything just panned out really badly. There was things that happened that just kept us from doing that, so yeah, I'm very sad that that never happened, because that would have been really cool.
Looking back, what was it like to achieve so much success, and be on the front of so many magazines in the 1990s?
You know, it was definitely a whirlwind. It was very exciting. I admit it was cool. It felt cool. You know, to get that recognition, not just from the fans, but from artists that I respected as well, and I still have every copy of every magazine that I was on the cover of! I don't know what I'm going to do with them, but I'm going to save them for something!
Looking back at your long career with Fear Factory, what do you think are the days you're going to remember most?
I remember all of them. They have high days, definitely that left an impact on my memory, and my personality and my heart. I'll never forget them; remember the good times! There was a lot of high times. There was as equally enough of low times, but you know, that's life; peaks and valleys.
Back to Ascension of the Watchers, and with the new album getting a release, it must be extremely frustrating to not be able to tour behind it right now.
Yeah, it's disheartening. No one expected this, and it's sad that people in power believe that music and musicians are non-essential, especially, when the music industry employs millions of people around the word; from musicians to venues. Music is an essential part of life; in the sense that it's very therapeutic. It helps people get through times; rough times, good times. It's the essence that creates memories. The fact that we are being denied that opportunity is disheartening. We all realise, now that it's been out of our lives for a few months, how big of a part of our lives it was, and it definitely created this chasm in our lives that we all miss, so, so very much.
Have you any tentative plans for live shows?
We are booking a tour right now, but obviously it's not going to be until August or September of next year, but we are booking a tour, and we are planning a streaming event. Unfortunately, streaming events, that's all we can have. By no means is streaming a substitute for live music, but if that's all we can take, that's all we can take. The tour isn't booked yet, but it's being planned.
Would you be looking at European dates?
I think going to Europe and the UK is the first place we want to go to. I think our fanbase is a lot more there than in the States. Come see us!
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Ascension Of The Watchers ' 'Apocrypha' is out now.