Fuck Buttons interview: “Obsession with the unknown.”

One half of the ecstatic noise duo talks Olympics, improvisation and their latest, darkest development.

I first properly heard noise duo Fuck Buttons in a small amphitheatre at the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona a few years ago, around the time of their second album 'Tarot Sport', but many people probably first heard them when a few of their songs were chosen as part of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony soundtrack. Surprising as that inclusion may have been, it was far from inexplicable: it turned out that Underworld, appointed musical directors  of the ceremony by Danny Boyle, were already fans, and the duo's capacity for super-massive music has been clear from the start - even if it was never realised on quite that scale before.

Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power create tracks that are hard to define, but you could call them drone - their Facebook page files them under "loose". Generally, their music is a combination of rave and post-rock influences, and points to something much bigger than the two men grafting on the stage or in the studio. That "something" is a mystery to the band themselves and, as Power tells me over the phone, the finished product often comes as a surprise, with any formal structures being added after lengthy jam sessions (as the single fundamental rule that Fuck Buttons abide by is that they must be in the same room together when they work).

Four years after 'Tarot Sport', plus the Olympic nod and the birth of individual projects like Blanck Mass and Dawn Hunger, they're about to release their third album 'Slow Focus' - a typically expansive but much darker record with hypnotic grooves and sinister glitches creeping alongside vast sheets of noise and melody. I spoke with one half of the duo, Ben Power, to ask about this change, and find out exactly what makes a Fuck Buttons track.  

So, how does it feel getting back into the studio with Andrew [Hung]?

Well yeah, it's good. I mean, after we put out 'Tarot Sport' we toured for a good two years or something, and I know it's been four years since the last record actually came out but we've actually been pretty busy that whole time. You know, after we finishing touring 'Tarot Sport' we started to write tracks for 'Slow Focus' and publicly it seems like we've not been active but we've been as busy as we always have really – just that people don't see it when you're writing.  

I guess since you've both had individual projects running in the meantime, it's easy to assume you've been apart since the last album and now you're back.

It's not really been like that at all, I mean, the side project thing is almost irrelevant, it's what we do in our spare time. For a Fuck Buttons track to be a Fuck Buttons track me and Andy have to be in the same room from the get-go. Anything we do in our spare time on our own, like Blanck Mass or Dawn Hunger, becomes our own thing but things are still going on - Fuck Buttons have been busy.  

About having to be in the same room together. Is that just the best way for you to work together or is it even something as simple as helping to separate “Fuck Buttons work” from everything else?

It's not necessarily to do with ownership, if you will, it's nothing to do with that. It's just that with side-projects and stuff it's a rule we've always stuck to. For it to be Fuck Buttons we both have to be present from the inception of the tracks and that's just a rule we've always had. And it also helps with writing too.

Fuck Buttons - Brainfreeze (live at Glastonbury)

Your music is full of energy so I can see why you'd want to emphasise that physical connection, especially seeing you guys perform live.

That's interesting. We write in a live capacity so, obviously, we're both present – nobody comes up with an idea and brings it along to a writing session, we're both there before the first key has been pressed and we start to explore sound. We set up across a table from each other the same way we do live and it's a very hands-on, playful approach to writing. So in that way it translates really honestly to an actual live scenario or whatever because that's are written in a live sense - we're not at the computer. Both aspects are hand-in-hand.  

"It's a very independent, jamming way of writing. We drag things in and takes things out until we come up with a texture that perks our ears up and then we start to build on that foundation." - Fuck Buttons

Are there any rough ideas you base the work around or do you structure everything after?

The latter really because we start off with a blank canvas, that's kind of how we operate. It's a very independent, jamming way of writing. We drag things in and takes things out until we come up with a texture that perks our ears up and then we start to build on that foundation. So we don't even know what that foundation will be. Then the structuring can take anything from a day to a month, you know?

Definitely, your tracks often build up from a single riff or something then grow out from that.

That's the way we've always operated and it's worked for us since the very beginning. Quite often we surprise ourselves just due to the nature of the instrumentation we're working with. I mean we've never picked out a manual, which I think is a nice ideology as well – so we can put our signature on the instrumentation we're using. It almost becomes an extension of you as opposed to something you're using to perform a task.

Your music makes me think of movies too. They're very evocative and atmospheric.

I love that, you know, I'd love to think our tracks and our albums are films that can be personalised for the listener themselves. When we title our tracks we come up with mental imagery for Andy and I but I'd like to think they can be soundtracks to films that haven't been made yet. Create your own narratives around them – I think that's an interesting thing for us. People often describe what tracks have done for them aesthetically and image wise, sometimes it's similar to ours and sometimes it's not but nobody's wrong: we don't want to enforce any imagery with like a lyrical aide or something.

Is there an idea or image that defines the new album for you?

Yeah, for me: the whole album has an overall malevolent feel. The title 'Slow Focus' came from the idea when I was listening back it felt to me like your eyes re-adjusting after a very long sleep, even being cryogenetically frozen, and you find yourself in a not so forgiving environment. I think the title comes from re-adjusting to something you're not quite used to and it's a little bit bleaker and more dangerous that you'd like.

"I definitely think there's been a cosmic theme throughout Fuck Buttons. I guess it's some kind of obsession with the unknown." - Fuck Buttons

 I think it has a kind of sci-fi horror feel to it too.

I definitely think there's been a cosmic theme throughout Fuck Buttons. I guess it's some kind of obsession with the unknown. Not necessarily space or whatever but this time round there's a sentiment that we haven't explored before. Even down to the instrumentation we use that's constantly changing to make sure we're doing something different to the last time – we'd hate to think we'll make the same record twice. This time round maybe there's an emotional aesthetic that we haven't explored before. We didn't plan for it to sound that way but once the limbs grow this was a common theme that kept rearing it's head up so we went with it.  

Scale is important to you too isn't it? Your tracks need to be of a certain length to work.

It all comes down to the idea that, recording these tracks or even before when writing, we're very pedantic about the sounds that we use and we're perfectionists in this sense, with the textures we utilise when building these tracks. So, we obviously love all the textures that are included and to give them some life and time to breathe when an element comes in you want it last a little bit longer. Then you can start to pick up the intricacies in these individual components instead of rushing through them and having them all piled on top of each other in a short space of time. You can find things that may not have been noticeable if they were given less time.  

Would you say you're more interested in working around isolated sonic components than larger genre signifiers?

Yeah, we've never started a writing process by saying, like, “Today we want a track with a human beat or whatever”. Especially with genres, that's never interested us. When our first record came out I'd go out to record shops and sometimes they'd be in the Rock and Pop section and sometimes in the Dance or even Metal section, which was an interesting position and I think it's good. With genres you can put a roof over your own head and I don't think that's a good thing.

I wouldn't frame it in terms of genre but I would say you've made some clear changes in style between albums, especially on this one: like The Red Wing really goes. 

Yeah, this is the first time we've really experimented with groove as another texture and dynamic. It's been present before but this is another approach to it. It also stems from the initial blank canvas idea: when you start with toy around with gadgets and instruments. We didn't set out to write a darker record, it's more a case of experimenting and seeing this thing grow in front of you.  

What kind of instruments do you use?

We use both synths and live instruments. The studio at the time was full of crap really: there's live drums, there's synths, there's guitar pedals, there's loops we've created from field recordings and all sorts really.  

 And the basic idea is that you two get together in the studio and just attack it.

We just have at it, yeah. We've kind of adapted this mode of communication. We've been working together so almost ten years now – which seems crazy – and we know what the other person is thinking without having to speak, which is quite interesting. You can tell whether a particular jam is working just by how much effort is being put into the sound I think.

Real blood, sweat and tears stuff?

It pretty much is, yeah. Sometimes they'll last for two hours then we'll listen back to a part within a jam and think “That's interesting, we need to develop that”, and we'll built from there. It's quite interesting to us just because of the way the process takes place. It's a nice thing when you can surprise yourself. If we were to have a solid idea before hand of how we wanted the tracks to be you lose it, and I think it's important.  

So you're looking forward to touring this album as hard as you've toured in the past?

Yeah, that's gonna be happening again very soon.

"Nobody's ever taught me to play anything. I've never read a manual for a synth in the same way as I just picked up the guitar my older brother got on his birthday but never touched again and taught myself. In that way, you're putting your own signature on an instrument." - Fuck Buttons

And are there still things going on with side projects and stuff?

Well things will have to take a back seat to Fuck Buttons for the time being but I've been in band since I was about 14 and I've always been in multiple bands and Andrew's interested in making music in his spare time and painting so I think they'll both continue to happen.

What instruments did you used to play?

I used to play guitar, bass, drums occasionally, piano.

Was it a big shift when you decided to go all in with the electronic side?

Not really because, the way I approach instrumentation I've always been interested in using it in a less conventional sense. Nobody's ever taught me to play anything. I've never read a manual for a synth in the same way as I just picked up the guitar my older brother got on his birthday but never touched again and taught myself. In that way, you're putting your own signature on an instrument and it allows for a more honest and unique sound. It's very easy for someone to teach you something and emulate their style but that's never really interested me.  

Could you say that makes your music more abstract, in a way?

It can do, it really depends on the person. It really can be. I mean, if you've never seen someone play a guitar before who's to say which way you hold it up. There's no right or wrong way I think.

Just like pure sound, pure noise?

Exactly, use it how you want to. I think a lot can be said for that outlook.  

ATP released 'Slow Focus' on 22nd July 2013. Read Dummy's review of it here.

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