Fuel's Rocket Man: A Conversation with Carl Bell
Since co-founding Fuel in the early '90s, Carl Bell has worn several hats: lead guitarist, chief songwriter and co-producer among them. But just prior to the band's signing with Sony's 550 label, he seriously considered trading them all in for a teacher's cap. "I was in college and thinking that I should work on some kind of plan B," says Bell. "The band had been plugging away for years and I wasn't sure if anything was going to happen. It seemed like a good idea to start moving in another direction before it was too late."
But while Bell was studying his ABC's, his fate was being determined by a simple math equation: 10,000 album sales + 1 hit single = 1 major label record contract. Porcelain, the 1996 EP that Fuel released independently, sold over 10,000 copies in the band's home state of Pennsylvania. When the disc's single, "Shimmer," became one of the most requested songs on three local radio stations, the labels came calling. Before long, Fuel was touring the world with bands like Creed and Aerosmith as the re-worked "Shimmer" blasted up the charts. When all was said and done, the band had a major label debut entitled Sunburn which sold over a million copies.
Now two years later, the road-tightened quartet has served up their second, Something Like Human. Co-produced by Bell and Ben Grosse (Filter, Vertical Horizon) the disc manages to one-up its predecessor with a more ambitious reach and heavier guitar sound. "Everything today is so regimented," says Bell. "I always turn to '70s rock for inspiration because those bands were much more distinctive. We tried to bring some of that back with this record, and we're pretty pleased with the results." He's not the only one: since its September release, the album has already scored a No. 1 hit single, "Hemorrhage," while selling more than a half million copies.
Guitar.com: How do you think Something Like Human differs from the debut?
Carl: I think the first one was a learning curve. We had a lot of people with platinum records on their wall telling us what they thought, and we gave their opinions a little more weight than we should have. We knew what we wanted going into this record, and we decided that we'd take the reins from here on in. This one's a lot closer to the band's vision of what we want to sound like.
Guitar.com: To whom are you referring when you say "people with platinum records on their wall,"label executives?
Carl: Everyone — record company personnel, producers, mixers, etc. It was inexperience on our part that let other people sway our opinions.
Guitar.com: Give us an example of what you're talking about.
Carl: Well, take "Shimmer" for instance. We had great success with that song, but it was much harder-sounding in its demo form than the way it came out on the record. To me, it's a prime example of some of the things that were wrong with that album. This record is a little heavier and a lot more interesting. I'm a big fan of artists like Daniel Lanois, where there's always something going on in the background that makes the songs interesting. From a production standpoint, I think the first record was a little vanilla [laughs] and kind of generic.
Guitar.com: How did the label react to your decision to take the reins this time?
Carl: From the work I did on the demos, I think they realized I could be trusted to do my thing. When I demo a song, it comes out very close to how the album version will sound. I record on a Roland 1680, which is a small little workstation, but it's a monster machine. You can do a lot of stuff with that.
Guitar.com: Did you feel pressure to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump?
Carl: I felt pressure in trying to write a record that people like, but you have to write what you feel. We realize that radio is our lifeblood and that you gotta have hits, but I don't let that dictate the way I write.
Guitar.com: Is there a way for someone to tell that they're listening to Carl Bell on guitar?
Carl: Wow, I never thought about that. I think very few people have a signature sound, and those that do are the great players. But I don't know if I have anything like that. This is only our second record, so I think I'm still trying to find that while concentrating on songwriting. I consider myself more of a songwriter than a guitar player.
Guitar.com: Was there a particular performer who inspired you to pick up and play?
Carl: When I was just a kid, I joined one of those mail-order record clubs and bought the first four Van Halen records, and that was it. I thought, "Ohmygod — I want to play like that." Unfortunately, I still can't figure out what he's doing on half that stuff [laughs].
Guitar.com: Do you remember your first guitar?
Carl: Oh yeah. When I was thirteen, I found an old Sears acoustic that my brother had put in the closet. I dusted it off one day and never put it down. After that I got a Sears Silvertone, and then a Les Paul knockoff. I didn't get my first real guitar, an Ibanez, until I was fifteen.
Guitar.com: What did your parents say when you told them you wanted to play music for a living?
Carl: I don't think it was in their realm of possibility, or in mine for that matter. I grew up in Kenton, which is a tiny, tiny little town in Tennessee. The people who live there work either in a factory or on a tractor. It's what you'd call a two-stoplight town — and I'm not talking about a red light, I'm talking flashing light. It's the kind of place where you dream smaller because you don't know what's possible. But through a lot of hard work and a weird course of events, we were able to make this happen. I remember Jeff [Abercrombie, Fuel's bassist and co-founder] and me riding our bikes to each other's houses when we were kids. We'd strap our guitars to our backs and race home to learn a new Zeppelin song. [long pause]
There was one night during the Aerosmith tour, where I looked over to the side of stage and there was Steven Tyler, Joe Perry and the rest of the band watching us from the wings. It was so surreal. I looked over at Jeff and was like, "Man, we've come a long, long way."