Behind Blanck Mass: Benjamin John Power's Fuzzy Exploration into Your Brain
With 'Dumb Flesh,' the Fuck Buttons member finds solace in chaos. We asked him how he got there.
Photo by Alex De Mora
When Benjamin John Power—half of the groundbreaking electronic noise duo Fuck Buttons—unveiled his first release as Blanck Mass in 2011, the differences between his band’s breakthrough 2009 sophomore release Tarot Sport and his solo project were striking. While Tarot Sport arrived as one of the most dynamic and forward-thinking releases of the decade, Blanck Mass was its introverted companion piece, an ambient, beat-free affair that maintained Fuck Buttons’ predilection for pageantry, but expressed in the most patient manner possible.
Fuck Buttons would go on to become an unlikely but fitting choice to help soundtrack the 2012 London Olympics (the frenetic “Surf Solar” was used during the Danny Boyle-helmed Opening Ceremony), and release an atom-smashing third album Slow Focus, but Blanck Mass was never far from Power’s mind. Now with Dumb Flesh, which explores the ways the human body can betray itself, Power has a much toothier animal on his hands this time around. Frequently as weirdly beautiful as its predecessor but far more warped, propulsive and adventurous, Dumb Flesh is a testament to Power’s versatility. We caught up with him over Skype from his new home in Edinburgh, Scotland to talk about the pros and cons of working solo, the role of narrative in electronic music, and the difficulties of using modular synthesizers.
Noisey: So where am I talking to you from?
Benjamin John Power: Currently in my studio. I relocated from London to Edinburgh about six months ago.
I heard you got a new house, right?
Yeah that’s right, I just moved a little bit further out of town into the countryside. So I have a place and I have a bit of a studio set up on the top floor at the moment. It’s going to move down to a bigger room when I have a little more means to be able to soundproof a room, but now I’m up here. I’m already working on the live set so yeah, all good.
Dumb Flesh is in part about flaws in the human body and how genetics can betray us in dangerous ways. What got you thinking about these kind of things?
Well quite a lot of things happened to me during the process of writing the album and producing the album that were very human, and probably from more of a negative space. I lost a close friend. And there was a period of time during the process—like the third time ‘round of producing this record—that I actually found myself unable to walk for a couple of months. You know I had some spinal disc issues that everybody gets [laughs]. We’re not even evolved to be able to walk around on two legs effectively without some kind of damage. And I fell ill of that exact thing. So there were a lot of very real things that happened to me regarding the subject matter that made it all the more relevant and kind of solidified the idea for me.
Both of your Blanck Mass full lengths deal with an aspect of nature in some sense, yet you make music on machines. Why explore ideas about the natural world in this way?
To me, that’s the way I prefer to work. You say I use machines but I think I use them in a very human sense, to the point where I don’t really pick up manuals for anything I use, ever. And a lot of the time I approach the songwriting process almost with a childlike naivety in the sense that I don’t buy these machines or come in contact with these machines with a set intent, like a preempted intent like beforehand. So it means that I am actually exploring these machines and being able to do so through my own kind of signature, like my own kind of... I mean the fact that I’m not using them to fit a specific purpose means that I’m exploring them, and I’m kind of like stamping my own imprint onto these machines. So I see it more of a symbiotic relationship as opposed to “these things are just there to serve a specific purpose.” I mean, I have more a relationship with my machinery, and it’s almost like an extension of myself. And that’s the way I’ve always approached making music with electronic equipment. When the band I do with Andy [Hung], when Fuck Buttons first started, we didn’t really get lumped in with the majority of electronic artists in the UK at the time. A lot of the time, we were being put on with rock bands and punk bands because I think the nature of how I write, there’s always been a very human element to it and I think lends to a little bit more of an organic palette I guess. And people could see that. And it’s harder to pigeonhole because of that, I guess.
Did you use any machines or software that you were unfamiliar with that stick out more on this release?
I hadn’t done it before, but I actually entered the word of modular within the latter part of writing this record. Which is, you know, it’s the bare bones of electronic music. So I mean you’re seeing a signal path from the very, very first instance from the beginning, from electrical impulses to a finished sound. Which is almost kind of a double standard in the way that I’ve previously worked. Like the voyage of exploration with modular synthesis is primarily—you need to start it from the very building block kind of stage. It’s the basics that you need to wrap your head around, and once you’ve got the idea of that, then you’re not approaching your machinery with such a naivety, as I mentioned before, which can be obviously very fulfilling because you learn a lot more about the tools you use in your trade. But also it does take away an innocence I guess, to a certain degree? But I’m fine with that. The whole thing is a learning process for me. It’s certainly within the past four or five years or something like that that I’ve actually kind of started to focus on production work, and even more recently—my own stuff before that—but even more recently so, stuff for other people as well. So I’ve learned a lot during the process of making this record, and I feel a lot richer for the experience. But I would say, going back to your initial question, sorry [laughs]. I went off on one a little, didn’t I? I would say that the modular stuff is something that hadn’t appeared on anything else I’ve done, actually. Apart from this record.
There are more percussive elements on this album, whereas the debut was essentially beat-free. Why did you decide to move things in that direction?
I didn’t actually decide to move things in that direction, it kind of happened. I had absolutely no idea when I first started to write this record—and it’s also worth pointing out that the album has been through myriad changes to get to the final point.
I heard you went back several times and—
Yeah a bunch of times. There were three occasions where I had a complete overhaul. And that’s not necessarily to say that every song was scrapped, but every song changed dramatically. The kind of semblance of recognition from the finished outcome of a track would probably be something as simple as a melody line. Everything else changed around it, be it dynamic, be it instrumentation, be it, you know, rhythm section as I was just saying. So I had absolutely no idea, I mean I went into it completely blind. I didn’t say, “Right, this record needs to be more beat-heavy, it needs to be more dancefloor orientated.” I had absolutely know idea where it was going to end up. It could have ended up a classical album, as far as I knew. But it just so happens that the type of instrumentation that I was using kind of lent itself towards that world a little bit more I think? And as I was experimenting with it, these were the sounds I gravitated towards whilst exploring the instrumentation I had at my disposal. So I would say that it found its own place really, but there was obviously a system of kind of... almost filtration that it went through being my own taste, to get to the finished point I think.
Is that abnormal for the way you usually work, having to—
That’s the way I’ve always worked, and there’s absolutely no difference making this record than there was making the self-titled first Blanck Mass. The process was exactly the same, just texturally, I think the instrumentation and my relationship with it kind of went into a place that was more... rhythm orientated.
So even though that all kind of appeared organically, something like “Double Cross” could almost work in a club setting. Now that the record is finished, what kind of spaces or contexts do you see these tracks working best in?
It’s hard to say because the live set, it’s going to be... I try not to do that actually, because once you start thinking in that way, you’re limiting your options. And I think it can be quite a dangerous move if want variety in your life, which I do. I feel that the live set itself, the way that I’ve been working on it, that could even differ depending on environment and situation. I don’t really want to just have this be able to only exist in one world.
So you are going to tour this record.
100 percent. That’s what I’m working on right now. I’m kind of focusing on the live set and how that’s all going to work, and I’m at a stage where I’m feeling pretty excited and definitely in a good place with it. But yeah, that’s my intention. I mean the first album, when it first was made, I felt like maybe it was more a studio thing, but Blanck Mass is a live entity now as well. It stands on its own two feet. Quite strongly I hope. So yeah, I wanna make sure it’s given the justice it deserves, I think [laughs].
Is there anything unique we can expect from these shows, or is it still too early to tell?
No I mean you know, I am going to be bringing a modular set-up with me, which I’ve never done before which is... it was a quite intimidating thought but now I’m actually really enjoying the fact that it’s going to be coming along with me. And there’s going to be a visual element as well, which is being worked on right now. Yeah, it should more high energy than the largely ambient sets that I’ve been doing live up until this point. But as I said, it’s going to be a mix of all sorts of things, really. I don’t want to just stay in one place. And I think narrative is something that’s very important to me, and has been very important to every project I’ve worked on, really. The whole is as important than… you know it is the sum of its parts. I feel the narrative aspect with whatever I do is hugely important, and that will obviously be translated into the live set as well.
Well especially as an electronic act, do you ever worry that people won’t get the message or concept you’re trying to get across, or does that not matter as much to you?
I’ve always thought that the music that I make is... it can be used in the sense that a soundtrack would be used. But like because there’s no—I mean obviously this is perhaps contradictory to say, or again maybe a double standard, but I like to think that somebody could paint their own picture to this music. I mean this is why the music I’ve made for the past ten years is largely instrumental. I really like the thought that somebody can take what I’ve made, and that adheres to a specific aesthetic that I have in my head, and they can paint their own picture to it, they can create their whole own aesthetic that is personal to them. And then they have a very personal relationship with the music. It’s kind of the opposite of what you said, it doesn’t worry me at all. In fact I would prefer it that way. But then again, you know, the fact that there is an aesthetic that I’ve imposed upon this record is more of a kind of... it’s a snapshot of where I’m at, and where I was at when creating this record, but I would 100 percent suggest disregarding it when it’s just you listening to the record. You use it as you will. I mean I’m not going to dictate what you should be thinking when you’re listening to my music. If it has its own personal relevance for the listener, then I personally couldn’t be happier.
What do you personally get out of Blanck Mass that you don’t get from Fuck Buttons?
It’s a hard one to answer because I’m making music all the time, and there are only so many hours a day that Andy and I can be in the same room as each other. For a Fuck Buttons track to be a Fuck Buttons [track], we both need to be there from the moment that it’s first born. And that’s just a rule we’ve always had, and I think it’s very important to distinguish the fact that neither of us bring ideas to a Fuck Buttons rehearsal or writing session. We’re empty-headed until we’re in the room together. Fuck Buttons’ music isn’t about what skills Andy has on his own being brought into the room and what skills I have being brought into the room, it’s more about the relationship of how we communicate when we’re in a room. It’s about us as individuals coming together, whereas Blanck Mass is me completely on my own. To answer your question, I’d say that there are pros and cons to working on your own and with somebody else. I mean the cons of working on my own as Blanck Mass is that Andy and I have a very good way of working together. We’ve been doing it for the past ten years, and we don’t even really need to talk to each other when we’re writing, we can just feed off how the other one might be playing something. We don’t even really need to talk, we just have like this sense that it’s either going somewhere or it’s not, and we need to move onto something else. Whereas with Blanck Mass it’s completely me in isolation, which can be difficult, but it can also be hugely liberating. They’re both very important to me, but I guess what you’re getting with Blanck Mass is you’re getting 100 percent me, and that’s the only distinction I can really say. I can’t really say whether one practice is better than the other, because they’re two very different beasts, you know?
The album cover for Dumb Flesh is pretty striking, what was the genesis of that image?
I mean obviously it’s heavily related to the title. That was my good friend Alex De Mora, I worked on that with him, in collaboration with him. He took the cover shot for the last Fuck Buttons album [Slow Focus] as well. He’s a very good friend of mine, very talented photographer. And it just came through a bunch of conversations about the concept of the album, and obviously the title. We wanted some sort of form of organic human mass [laughs]. Perhaps not human mass. I think there are recognizable human parts in there, but it’s also very alien. What can I say? I think it works very well. I think it sums up the idea behind the album for me.
So what are you working on next, solo or otherwise? Aside from the tour, of course.
I’ve been working on production for some other artists, collaboratively and for them exclusively, that I’m sure you’ll hear about very soon. There’s also some film work, some alternative soundtrack work that I’ve been working on as well. I’m constantly keeping myself busy, plus I’ve just moved to a new house and I’m trying to get set up here as well. But I have to be doing something every day. I’m not one of these people who can operate without working on something.
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