Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Benjamin John Power is educating me about his new discoveries in the world of whiskey, of which I profess to be enthusiastic but largely clueless. He's living next to a Scotch distillery in a small village about 13 miles from Edinburgh, where he recently moved after eight years in London. It's a big switch-up in dynamic for him.
"It’s brought about a lot of clarity of mind, and a lot of perspective, so I’m really happy," Power says down the phone, "I was living in Dalston for four years, next to the Shacklewell Arms, so you can imagine what that change to the middle of nowhere is like."
The change is quite a welcome one. Power had been thinking of making the move up ever since he toured the picturesque Scottish capital. “It’s such a beautiful city, it really is,” he says, sounding very content as he interrupts his preparations for the new Blanck Mass live show to speak to me.
Power released Blanck Mass's self-titled debut album in 2011, a solo effort after many years as one half of towering noise group Fuck Buttons. One of its tracks, Sundowner, garnered particular attention after being included in the opening ceremony of London’s 2012 Olympic Games. Fans of that cosmic slow burner might find themselves pleasantly surprised by the material on his latest album ‘Dumb Flesh’. Power describes an affection for his new label, Sacred Bones, and the fact they "celebrate that which sees the beauty in a darker place". It’s a really apt way to describe the experience of listening to the album. The warped, abrasive one-two of Loam and Dead Format sends you onto the wrongfoot as its openers. Adjusting to the record’s slanted perspective takes a while before you can appreciate just how rewarding an adjustment that is.
The production of ‘Dumb Flesh’ was spread across your move from London to Edinburgh. Did that have much of an effect on how it ended up sounding?
Blanck Mass: “I don’t really think that the album as a whole has a sense of geographical location. It’s not like I was particularly hanging around with a new bunch of creatives in Edinburgh that had any kind of influence on the sound. Melodically and structurally, the majority of the tracks were there. But I had to revisit a lot of the parts and re-produce it just to get it where I wanted it to be. And that happened in Edinburgh.
“The writing process and the production process pretty much go hand in hand with any of my outlets, including Fuck Buttons. We write in a live sense, we don’t just sit in front of the computer. We have hardware, which is what we primarily write with, so the live element, the production and the writing, they all go hand-in-hand. That was still the case with this, but I revisited a lot of sounds this time. In doing that, I’ve learnt a lot about production techniques and it’s led me to feel more confident in producing for other people.”
This record has seen you move over to Sacred Bones from Mogwai’s Rock Action. Could you talk about why that came about?
Blanck Mass: “I love Mogwai and I love the label, but with Sacred Bones, Caleb [Braaten, label owner] is a really good friend of mine and he’s very enthusiastic about it. It’s definitely in keeping with what they do as a label: they celebrate that which sees the beauty in a darker place – something that I definitely have an affinity with.”
That seems like a good way to describe the album. There’s a delicacy in it that you only begin to appreciate as you settle into it. Is creating that contrast something that you tried to develop?
Blanck Mass: “I never really have a finished idea in my head when I start to write. It is approached in a – for want of a better term – naive kind of way. I have no idea what the finished outlet is going to be. And with the instrumentation, I don’t necessarily pick up a manual to figure out the correct way to use it. I tend to feel my way around these things, and I think when you do that you’re stamping your own aesthetic upon these machines and you form a relationship with them.”
“I hate to push any kind of visual aesthetic on the listener themselves, because in my ideal world whoever listens to the record could familiarise themselves with it and create their own dialogue with it. So it’s almost a double standard to have a record sleeve, or to name these tracks. But it is ultimately a snapshot of where my head is at the time as well, and it does help things. It’s almost like a necessary evil, but evil is too strong a word.”
"[Dumb Flesh] is definitely in keeping with what [Sacred Bons] do as a label: they celebrate that which sees the beauty in a darker place – something that I definitely have an affinity with.” – Blanck Mass
I’m not sure if I would’ve taken that concept away from the record without those bits of context, but I don’t think that that’s a bad thing necessarily.
Blanck Mass: “I think it’s good that you can take away what you want from it. I mean, once you’ve opened up the sleeve and put the record on, the music should do the talking and you should then be able to engage in it whichever way you please. I don’t want to dictate to you what you should be thinking about when you listen to this, that’s why I operate primarily in the instrumental world. I think it’s good for you to be able to make up your own mind about things.
“You can take as much as you like from that or you can completely disregard it. That’s where my head is at, for the concept. I never thought I’d make a concept album!”
You spoke about the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey being an influence on the music you were making on your first album. The move to exploring the body seems like a much more focused perspective compared to those grand ideas of space exploration.
Blanck Mass: “What’s more grand than the idea of someone’s internals? On a personal level, that’s almost as huge as wondering what’s out there in the universe. It’s a lot more of an insular record; it’s more about how somebody operates within rather than how they operate in the greater whole, I think. And I think that those two kinds of ideas definitely have a relationship, albeit one takes up a little less space.
“A lot of stuff happened to me over the course of producing this record. I lost close friends, I had an injury which left me unable to walk and there are still residual effects now from that. There is a very real, human element going on with me.”
Some artists have been annoyed by their music being described as “soundtracks to films that don’t exist”, but it seems like it’s something you embrace.
Blanck Mass: “That doesn’t upset me at all, as that’s a world I want to get a lot more into. I have been working on a little bit of stuff like that recently, and I think the thing that appeals is that I do very much think of my albums to date in that way. So I think that to actually have some moving image is going to be a new challenge for me.
“I remember I read a bad review of the first album, and it said something like, ‘And to top it all off, this music sounds like it was made to soundtrack a nature documentary.’ And it was used in a derogatory way, and I was like, ‘Well, that sounds fucking great!’”
“I remember I read a bad review of the first album, and it said something like, ‘And to top it all off, this music sounds like it was made to soundtrack a nature documentary.’ And it was used in a derogatory way, and I was like, ‘Well, that sounds fucking great!’” – Blanck Mass
How has the prep for live show been going?
Blanck Mass: “It’s going good, I’m going to be bringing a bit of a modular set up with me this time round. So I’m wrapping my brain around that, but that’s a lot of fun.”
I have a friend with a theory that modular synths aren’t actually productive, as you get so sucked into playing around with noises that you never record anything.
Blanck Mass: “It’s funny you should say that, as I feel that obviously with existing synths like the V Electron stuff, Juno, and all of those kind of synths, you have all these presets which are built for you. You may not, when you pick them up, have an idea of how that preset was created, but with the modular stuff, you’re starting from the very basics. So you could be spending hours just trying to create this one sound that you could use at the flick of a switch on an already pre-existing synth.
“So while there is an argument that productivity can dwindle somewhat, for me it’s been a really interesting learning curve. I feel like I have a much greater understanding of synthesis in general. It does take quite a while, but when the penny drops you can maybe revisit all your other synths and have a much better understanding and get sounds out of them that you couldn’t before.”
Where you’ve moved from the ambient style of your debut, I wondered if you were planning to deliver the live show with the intention of making people dance.
Blanck Mass: “I don’t particularly have any expectations as to how people are going to react. I never have. It’s quite dangerous, I think, because you can’t second guess. But I’m enjoying it, I feel pretty confident about how it’s sounding and I’ve got a bit of room to play around if it does feel right from night to night. I can chop and change things, which is nice.”
I feel like having a hardware-based setup lends itself to that a bit more as well.
Blanck Mass: “The modular thing is quite good for that, as you can weird it up as much as you like. It’s something that’s always appealed to me. From when I first started to do Fuck Buttons as well, we were always using hardware. We were more often than not – this being around 10 years ago or so – playing more rock shows than electronic music shows. Obviously electronic music has picked up in the last four or five years, but when we first started out we played a lot of rock shows and I quite liked that and I still do. It’s nice to not only occupy one world.”
Sacred Bones released 'Dumb Flesh' on May 11th 2015 (buy).