Back in the early 90s, before either of them were famous, Fear Factory were sued by Ross Robinson. The future Korn producer had produced what was intended to be the LA band’s debut album, but a contract wrangle resulted in an unwanted lawsuit. “It foreshadowed the entire career of Fear Factory,” says Burton C Bell wryly.
He’s not joking. The man who fronted the industrial metal pioneers on and off for 30 years spent the last decade mired in a series of tortuous and rancorous lawsuits with various former bandmates that resulted in him filing for bankruptcy twice. Finally, in September 2020, Burton announced that he was quitting the band for good, leaving guitarist-turned-antagonist Dino Cazares to do what he wanted with the as-yet-unreleased album the pair recorded in 2017 (Cazares plans to release the album this year, albeit with someone else’s vocals on it).
Given everything he’s been through, Burton is in upbeat mood today. The silver lining to it all is that he’s now able to fully concentrate on Ascension Of The Watchers, the goth-tinged band he formed with former Ministry associate John Bechdel in the early 00s during Fear Factory’s first hiatus. Last year, the Watchers released their second album, the brooding Apocrypha, the belated follow-up to 2008’s Numinosum. Even though it emerged before Burton officially quit Fear Factory, it sounds like the work of a man drawing a line under the past. “It feels liberating to be able to move on from all that,” he says, as he prepares to look back over a life that has been eventful if nothing else.
Why have you reactivated Ascension Of The Watchers now?
In my mind, it never ended. I’ve been working on the music for quite some time, building it with John [Bechdel] and Jayce [Lewis, drummer/programmer/co-producer] and [guitarist] Mark Thwaite. I was working with Fear Factory, cos that was my main income, but I was trying to get this band signed all the time, trying to garner interest from labels and management, but I just had no luck.
Why do you think that was?
I have my suspicions, but I think the fact that the last album wasn’t pushed by the label we were on and didn’t sell because of it was the main reason. Plus I knew I would have to record this album the way I wanted to hear it record so a label could go, ‘Oh, so that’s what it sounds like.’ I’ve been so caught up in legal. issues, but this is a fresh start. I’m in control of my own destiny.
It sounds like some of the songs on Apocrypha are sung to a specific person, or people. Are they?
Absolutely. At least four of the songs are written about someone specific. Ghost Heart is written for my wife, A Wolf Interlude is a song for my son, Honoree is a song for my youngest daughter. Key To The Cosmos is written for my best friend that passed away of a brain tumour a few years ago. It’s the most personal record I’ve ever released. It’s about love and all aspects of it – the absence of it, the newness of it, the death of it, the love that surrounds you whether you see it or not
You’ve always couched what you’re singing about in elaborate concepts. Was it weird putting that stuff out so directly?
I thought felt was more difficult, actually, to put my personal feelings aside for Fear Factory and put everything into a third person. To me, I was doing myself a disservice in that respect. But yeah, I was apprehensive, because it is so different from Fear Factory, but it all comes from the same mind and the same inspiration
The last song on the album is a cover of Terence Trent D’Arby’s 1988 soul-pop hit Sign Your Name. Why pick that song?
It’s just a really good love song. Lyrically and musically I felt I could make it a little bit deeper and a little bit more ominous – almost like a scuzzy funeral dirge.
Where do you see Ascension Of The Watchers fitting in? You’re not a metal band, you’re not an industrial band, you’re not a goth band…
I didn’t want to try and fit into any genre. I wanted to create something new for myself. I’ve been inspired and influenced by so many different kinds of music throughout my life, and my goal was always to create an amalgamation of all of that. Not fitting in any genre is better than being stuck in one style of music.
What made you want to do become a singer in the first place?
I’ve loved music ever since I was a kid. I always wanted to be in a band – I had a taste of it being in church and school choirs. It was just something that stuck with me.
When did you first get up on a stage?
It was in Hollywood and I was with my first band Hate Face. That first show was in the venue where they now film the Jimmy Kimmel show. We were opening for Fieldy from Korn’s old band, LAPD, and I was fucking nervous. I’d been living in Hollywood for six or eight months, going to shows, meeting new friends. A friend who had the same taste in music said, ‘Hey, why don't you try out for my band?’ I’m like, ‘OK’. So I went to meet them, and we started jamming together. I had some lyrical ideas, and that’s when it happened.
How did you end up in Hollywood?
I was born in Houston, but we moved around a lot. I got accepted into art school in Washington DC, but music and nightlife was becoming more important than school, and I dropped out. Six months later, a guy I worked at a record store with was, like, ‘Let’s move to LA!’ That’s what I remember. He’s still one of my best friends, and he swears that I told him I was moving to LA to be a rock star.
What was LA like when you got there?
I got there in the summer of ’89, and the whole glam metal thing was still big, but it was slowly deteriorating. That was never my thing. I never liked Warrant. I was into harder-edged stuff like [art-rock and industrial labels] Blast First, Amphetamine Reptile, Wax Trax!, Sub Pop. I was into all this music coming out of Seattle, which was pre-Nirvana, but I was also going to these underground industrial clubs.
Where did you meet Dino Cazares?
The guitar player and drummer from Hate Face lived in this big house in the middle of Hollywood, with like, 11 other people. I had a room downstairs, and I was home off work one day when I suddenly hear all this guitar blasting from upstairs. I was, like, ‘What the fuck?’ And there’s Dino playing guitar in his room.
What did you bond over?
Music. Specifically Godflesh’s first album. Dino was in the death metal/grindcore scene, I was in the industrial/noise rock scene. Godflesh was the thing we both liked. I said, ‘If you like this, you should check out Justin’s [Broadrick, Godflesh mainman] other band Head Of David.’ And he went, ‘Well, if you like that, have you heard Carcass or Bolt Thrower?’ Death metal and grindcore was alien to me.
You formed Fear Factory together. Was the sound in place from the start?
Actually, Dino started playing in my band Hate Face first. Then he said, ‘Let’s write some songs together, we’ll do it under a new band name.’ We called ourselves Ulceration. The first song we wrote ended up becoming Big God, from the first Fear Factory album [1992’s Soul Of A New Machine]. But it took a while to find our sound.
You actually recorded an album, Concrete, with a pre-fame Ross Robinson in 1991, but it never came out. What happened?
Dino and Ross had been friends for a while. Ross was starting his own label, and he wanted Fear Factory to be the first band on it. So we recorded 16 songs in a week, we were hauling ass, then all of a sudden Ross handed us these contracts. A friend of Dino’s who later became our manager goes, ‘I wouldn’t sign these.’ So Ross goes, ‘You can’t have the album if you don’t sign the contract.’ Ross sued us, which foreshadowed the entire career of Fear Factory [Laughs].
Ross went on to produce Korn. Was there any jealousy on your part: ‘That should have been us…’?
Maybe envy and a little bit of anger at the way things worked out. I liked working with Ross, he was an eclectic kind of person, but he took the music that he recorded with another band and goes, ‘Listen to this, you guys could sound like this.’ And of course, that band became Korn. I did think, ‘What if we had signed Ross' contract?’
Things exploded with Fear Factory’s second album, Demanufacture. Why did people connect with it?
It was definitely a new sound, totally different from anything else on the scene. It had the combination of heavy guitars and industrial and electronic elements. And my voice was part of it – no one was mixing that kind of clean singing and the heavy vocal delivery at the same time. For a long time, people thought it was two different singers.
How did its success change things for you?
Demanufacture defined my career. That’s how I see it. People didn’t know what to make of Soul Of A New Machine – was it death metal or industrial or thrash? – plus the singing threw people off. And then we did the remix album, Fear Is The Mindkiller, and that threw everybody off even more.
But Demanufacture was the album that made Fear Factory Fear Factory. It was our defining moment. It gave us a sound, and it almost created a new genre. I think many people tried to copy it but never succeeded.
Well, you know, Linkin Park did a watered-down version of Demanufacture.
What did you think when you heard Hybrid Theory?
I wasn’t a fan. I respect what they did, but to me it sounded like Demanufacture for kids.
Fear Factory split in 2002. It was never clear why. What really happened?
Well, honestly, I just couldn’t work with Dino any more. I'd had enough. People change – I’d changed, and he had changed as well. He just became someone I couldn't work with any more. So I told him, ‘I’m never gonna work with you again, so good luck.’
What was he doing that was rubbing you up the wrong way? And maybe vice versa?
Well, there’s a lot of personal things going on. I don’t want to go accusing people of anything, cos I’m not a psychologist, but the person he was becoming, I was just not liking. He was not being a nice person.
You reformed the band without him a couple of years later. Was that an easy decision?
No, it wasn’t. Raymond [Herrera, drummer] and Christian [Olde Wolbers, bassist] had to really convince me. They had a plan, but they had to really convince that everything was gonna work out. They said, ‘Well, he’s not going to be in the band any more, we got some new music, so what do you think?’ I was, like, ‘Well, I don't know.’ I was not easily convinced.
But I’d started Ascension Of The Watchers, but getting people interested in them was difficult, because labels would listen to the demo and go, ‘Well this doesn’t sound like Fear Factory.’ Well no shit, that’s why it’s called a different name…
So did you rejoin Fear Factory without Dino for the greater good of Ascension Of The Watchers?
For me, yes. To me to get anything out there, I felt like I’d have to do another Fear Factory record. I had a family on the way too, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll make this happen’, but I saw it as an opportunity to get the Watchers out there. That was where my heart was.
There was another twist in the late 00s when Christian and Raymond left, and Dino rejoined. Was that down to money?
It was. Sad to say. And when you do it for money, look what happened.
Did you actually rekindle your friendship?
You know, we did. A few years apart, I thought we’d learned something and changed. At first it was working well, but the hints of the old Dino were still there, and as time went by they just got more and more.
You made three records, Mechanize, The Industrialist and Genexus, before things started going wrong again. What happened this time?
And there’s this fourth one that’s supposed to come out as well. Everything started to go wrong during the recording of Genexus. Things started going awry. We got into a physical altercation during the recording, because he said something he shouldn’t have and I had to check him.
If that wasn’t enough, there was an ongoing legal situation with Raymond and Christian that began in the early 2010s. That couldn’t have helped.
No. We’ve been dealing with lawsuits since 2009 from those guys. That had such a tenacious lawyer.
At any point, did the four of you ever think to sit down in the room and go, ‘We're grown men, what the hell are we doing?’
The four of us never got into a room. It was me, Christian and Raymond had some form of mediation – it was supposed to be the four of us, but Dino didn’t show up. I was there trying to hold my ground by myself.
But it’s all that personal stuff and business stuff that really led to the end for me – after 30 years of it, I was, like, ‘Enough is enough.' It never seemed to end.
You announced in September 2020 that you’d left Fear Factory. What was the tipping point for you?
I’d been thinking about it for a long time – four years, since the last record. Recording that new album, I was, trying to record and dealing with lawsuits and bankruptcies… it was all out of control.
I personally filed bankruptcy nine years ago. But after that, the last round of lawsuits made me go bankrupt again. It definitely broke me, financially.
Was it easy to walk away from it all?
Working with someone you don’t trust anymore and to be in a business where everyone's coming after you… it wasn’t worth it. I was, like, ‘Fuck this, you can have it, take it all.’
What was the last conversation you had with Dino about?
I don't know if I can tell you that. It was on a phone call three years ago, maybe. he said some things to me that I was, like, ‘That’s fucked up… that not only fucks you up personally but you’re fucking with the business at the same time.’ He’s said he’s reached out to me to call, but if you want to call me – don’t text me to call you. Fuck that.
If Dino or Raymond or Christian walked into the room right now, what would you say to those guys?
I'd just get up and leave.
So you’ll never rekindle those old friendships?
I’ve got no reason to. Not every friendship is meant to last. There’s an Ascension Of The Watchers song called Residual Presence, it’s about how nothing lasts forever.
But those albums are part of my legacy. And Fear Factory fans, god bless them, when they go, ‘There’s no more Fear Factory’, I’m, like, ‘What are you talking about? There’s 10 fucking albums to listen to! And you only listen to two of ’em!’ [Laughs]
You’ve made it clear that Ascension Of The Watchers is your sole focus these days. What are the plans? Is it going to be another 12 years before the next album?
No, definitely not. We want to have another one in two years. We want to get some touring, when we eventually we can tour again – the live show is where I want people to hear this music. It’s the live shows that have influenced the sound of this new album, so I see that’s how people need to hear it. So for me, I’ll continue doing the Watchers, and I have other plans for different musical ideas.
Such as what?
I’m considering doing a, quote, ‘solo’ tour, unquote, where I play music from every band I’ve been associated with, from Fear Factory to GZR to City Of Fire to the Watchers to Ministry. I have more literary ideas in the works. I’m working on a story to tie in with this new album. I do have another story, the follow up to The Industrialist graphic novel I did – I have that one in the works. I got a couple of photography exhibits that I want to do. For me, my main goal is just to stay creative and get everything out that I want to do, cos I'm 51 years old and I want to do it.
Has all the negative stuff surrounding Fear Factory ruined it for you?
The business and the personal aspects? No. I'm able to see that Fear Factory created some great music. [Laughs] We have created some questionable music too, but 90 per cent of the music we created has been pretty good, and a lot of people have been influenced by it. It’s made an indelible mark, and I’m proud of it.
Ascension Of The Watchers’ Apocrypha is out now