INTERVIEW

“For someone to turn around and say, ‘This isn’t music, this isn’t acceptable to my ears’ is just a strange thing to us.”

Photographer Gabriel Green

Just over my right shoulder a Raven ominously keeps watch, dead-eyed and unmoving. I try to avoid the giant teddy bear’s gaze – even if he looks the welcoming sort – manoeuvre myself around the chandeliers and candelabras liberally strewn on the floor, and tentatively set myself down on the treasure chest.

There’s a giant loveheart mounted on the wall, a lovingly crafted miniature dolls house, a paint job to make John Squire green (red, blue, yellow, pink…) with envy and talk of dogs recreating iconic films courtesy of clever direction and coloured dog biscuits. Welcome to the creative bowels of East London.

Nestled in a small studio in Bethnal Green – amidst the copious empty tea cups, biscuits and paint pots – there’s enough knick knacks, odds and ends and discarded toy paraphernalia to make you think you’d stumbled into a Hamley’s chopshop.

Ben Power and Andrew Hung sit atop a white-sheeted throne, adjusting themselves accordingly as photographer Gabriel gets to work. They’re relaxed and talkative, sharing SXSW war stories and politely talking tea “as long as you’re having one.”

On a lazy, balmy Bank Holiday Monday, the spectre of summer and sunshine seems more of a promise than a pipedream, and doesn’t seem too far from Ben and Andy’s minds. Recuperating for a few days before their European tour, the upcoming schedule veers on the relentless: Europe, the UK, the US and then headlong into the festival season.

“We’re actually preparing to go on tour at the moment,” Ben starts “but we like to be busy anyway. Festival-wise we’re playing Primavera again this year, and that’s a great festival. Every year the line up’s always really good and it’s the kind of festival we want to hang around in. Other festivals we’re in and out like a flash.”

“We definitely prefer it concentrated,” Andrew adds. “Once we’re in that mindset, we just want to continue.”

2009 was the year of the Fuck Button. They of the shock-tactics name and sonically monstrous sound, Ben and Andy took the abrasive energy of debut album ‘Street Horrrsing’ and cultivated it into the all-engulfing panorama of ‘Tarot Sport’ that became a universal staple of all that was groundbreaking (and shaking) last year.

Not that it’s always been a love-in for the band. Criticised by some for choosing an expletive-laden band name in a vain attempt to grab the spotlight, it’s not exactly a subtlety you can miss. But then neither is the music they make: it’s created to “push peoples’ buttons”, whichever way they react.

“It was a really confusing thing to happen really,” Ben explains. “We weren’t playing this kind of music out because we thought it would generate that kind of reaction. It’s a strange concept to us because we just make music we really enjoy and we enjoy playing out live, so for someone to turn around and say, ‘This isn’t music, this isn’t acceptable to my ears’ is just a strange thing to us, really. I don’t really understand how someone has the right to say that.”
“It’s not rational but I understand the behaviour,” Andrew giggles.

“I think it was funny after about 5 minutes,” Ben continues. “It’s almost like going into an art gallery and tearing down a piece of art work because it’s something you don’t consider art!”

“The way things are going it feels like people like us,” Andrew laughs “but I don’t expect everyone to like what we do.”

From disparate beginnings, and ends of the music scale, the duo’s musical and visual output divides and conquers to the extent that you can’t help but have an opinion on the band. A surging amalgamation of techno, minimal, static-heavy shoegaze and crunching post-rock, it appeals and appals in equal measure. But, as Andrew points out, the general consensus seems to be a positive one from both sides of the fan/media split.

“I feel like you can either take that stuff on or you don’t, which we aren’t willing to do,” Andrew states “we have each other for that, and that’s quite enough really! You either take on those criticisms but you have to take the negative and the positive. We’re aware of the good things as well as all the detractors.”

“It did surprise us,” Ben adds “and it’s gratifying to know that people outside our little bubble are interested in what we do, which is something we never really expected. There’s a wall between that and what we do creatively. I mean, everyone likes a compliment but between that and the music we make, the only two people who really matter when making music is us, initially.”

Having found a home on the respected, muso-kudos of ATP through a mutual friend, Ben and Andrew are at ease with being on the label. Fans of the festival, initially, ATP’s stellar reputation proved to be a draw the band couldn’t resist, despite their industry virginity.

“We were kinda new to the whole industry reputations. We knew these labels from a consumer point of view but not from how they worked as people. We were attracted to ATP because we were fans of the festival,” Andy says.

“They have a very good understanding of what they want to get out of the experience. They like the juxtaposition of a really strange environment with good music, so in the UK it’s a Butlins but over in New York, it’s like a traditional, Jewish holiday home. I think it’s a festival that appeals to people who care about their music and that shows in the curators they choose.”
“Andy actually put a show on,” adds Ben “and a friend of ours came to see us, and he was really interested in what we did. He was actually a close friend of [ATP Founder] Barry Hogan’s and suggested to Barry to come to a show, and he really liked it, and we decided to work with each other from there.”
In the last few years where the majors have struggled with the onslaught of downloads and recession, it’s fallen to feted, independent labels to take the time, and spend the money, investing in the bands they love. From Wichita to Rock Action; Warp to ATP, a common theme has always been freedom for the bands to push their own direction and it’s no different for Fuck Buttons.
“With some of those labels that you mentioned, with ATP there’s no kind of outward creative. We can basically do what we want. We don’t have anyone telling us what direction we should be moving in or what our artwork can or can’t be,” Ben enthuses.

“It’s very important that we do everything in house. We’re in a really great position to be in control of our visual aesthetic because I studied illustration, Andy studied fine art video making, so I do all the artwork for the records and Andy does all the videos. It’s nice we’re in control of the whole complex package as opposed to the position a lot of other bands are in.”

“It’s all from us,” Andrew finishes.

In the same way bands like Yeasayer take ownership for their artistic and musical output, and in a time where bands and artists continue to blur the traditional divide, Andrew and Ben are reluctant to put the onus on their art as a primary concern.

“They’re not mutually exclusive,” Ben says “but the first thing, the first initial thing that’s important is that Andy I are making music we enjoy and we’d like to listen to in our spare time. Everything else, the artwork and the videos, track titles, tend to happen afterwards due to whatever mental imagery a song conjures up.

“And that’s secondary really. We don’t have any kind of ideas of what mental imagery we want to conjure up in the writing process. It’s just a case of exploring the sounds with the equipment we have in front of us… It’s only after we’ve written the song and sit down and talk about the feelings the songs evoke that’s mainly where imagery and song titles come from afterwards. There are never really any pre-integrated ideas.”

Combing the celestial with the violently combustible, their music is a volatile exploration of discovery and experimentation. Optimism sidles alongside ambition; beauty battles a sense of the impending, but throughout, somewhat gloriously, there’s a struggle for perfection and progression few bands capture with as much apocalyptic aplomb. It’s a sound born of the band’s evidently close dynamic.

“It’s roleless,” Andrew states. “It’s exploratory by nature and it’s something we want to sustain by not having a formula.”

At times a brutal mix of styles and genres, there’s a cross over element few bands would dare broach for fear of failure. Guided by an unwavering, exploratory approach to making their music, they’re understandably keen to distance themselves, as many bands are, from branding themselves as anything. After all, how do you consistently classify the spontaneous?

“A journalist probably would,” Ben smiles. “We don’t like to put any stamp… we do find it quite hard to describe our own music because we don’t necessarily hear or see it the way other people do…”

“The only verbal dissection we engage with our music is the evocation of imagery it gives us,” Andrew picks up. “Apart from that we don’t talk about the aesthetic for instance…”
“…or genres or sub genres a track might slip into,” closes Ben.

Despite the cross over, there’s no obvious, easy access to Fuck Buttons. Potentially too noisy for conventional minimalists; too diluted for hardened tech-heads; too dancey for the post-rock purists; and too overtly, needlessly controversial for those blinded by the aesthetics, they’re a band who reward with every revisit. In line with the layered depth of Four Tet, Caribou and Aphex Twin, the hooks are there, and once they’re in, they sink deep.

“I think that’s a really big compliment you’ve paid us, actually,” Andrew beams. “We strive to surprise ourselves and keep ourselves happy so I guess that’s possibly why the music doesn’t have any obvious trails.”
“At the time we recorded ‘Street Horrrsing’,” Ben begins “the sets we played were always evolving and morphing into something different. At the time of bringing out ‘Street Horrrsing’, that was the set we preferred to the play the most at that point. So it’s exactly how it is, really, it was just a snapshot of the time.”
When there’s a constant pressure for evolution, or even revolution with concurrent albums, their crystallised, Polaroid approach is serving them well. Having sat on much of the material for their debut for five years and having created the basis of strong live set, ‘Tarot Sport’ gave the band a free license to expand with access to more equipment, and thus the opportunity to rigorously experiment. For a band buoyed – and driven by – progression, and constantly looking to diversify, it’s difficult to see how they would approach it any other way.

“It’s a natural thing,” Andrew follows on. “We don’t have roles, we don’t have instrumentation that stays the same, and as people we’re evolving, so I don’t see how it could stay the same and be the same old shit…”

“Again, I think ‘Tarot Sport’ is another snapshot because we’re not interested in staying in one particular place. We like to keep on the move. ‘Tarot Sport’ was a snapshot and the next one will be a snapshot,” he says.
“And I think it’s the beauty of working in a pair,” Andrew continues. “The ideas can bounce off really quickly, whereas I speak to people who work by themselves and it takes a lot of time because they can only work ideas themselves. With Ben and I we can write songs and ideas come out all the time because we’re constantly reflecting each other’s. It’s always been an interesting process.”
“We’d have to put a lot more thought into not progressing than we would otherwise…” Ben finishes.

Fuck Button’s sound is one born of the band’s close dynamic and reactive way of working. You get the sense that although both Andrew and Ben have assigned roles, they aren’t defined at any point, and that for all the surging current a Fuck Buttons track generates, it comes down to the intimate, intrinsic power of two people who draw inspiration from discussion about their work.
“It’s roleless,” Andrew states. “It’s exploratory by nature and it’s something we want to sustain by not having a formula.”

And it’s an ever-changing ethos that extends beyond the band. Having worked with Mogwai’s John Cummings on their debut, the band found a kindred spirit in legendary dance producer Andrew Weatherall to work on their second full length. This change in itself represented a new challenge as the band continued to push their own development. From working with a producer who knew exactly what he wanted – fewer ideas were thrown around in the recording sessions as a result – the band felt that they’d got the formula right: the production method for each album was perfect. So on the basis of a one track remix, Fuck Buttons and Weatherall became mutual fans and the layered power of ‘Tarot Sport’ was born.
“That’s exactly how it happened,” confirms Ben. “He did a remix for ‘Sweet Love Planet Earth’ and on the basis of that, you just heard the attention to detail he paid, and all the individual components in the track and he brought out sounds we might not have realised were there and made them much more apparent. He just displayed a great understanding of what we did.”

The result was an album rife with white, glorious noise and Fuck Buttons fastidiously building melody, layering harmony, and giving their music a pulsing, writhing, biological heartbeat. It carried a pressure and an impending sense of the unknown with flashes of optimism and anxiety.

“Did you think there was anxiety all the way through?” Andrew asks. “I don’t think there was anxiety, really, there was a frustration but not an anxiety.”
“I didn’t really get that either,” adds Ben “but there’s definitely a sense of striving.”

Despite failed attempts at descriptive eloquence, ‘Tarot Sport’ still plays out as though you’ve stumbled into a black hole. It’s a vast, relentless album; swallowing everything within its gravitational pull, railroading with panoramic promise but ultimately heading towards implosion. With Andrew Weatherall at the production helm, his clinical, key-hole production proves to be the ideal foil for Fuck Buttons’ explosive, roaming intent. It’s an album that rightly straddled the 2009 hall of fame.
It was an album that made a mockery of the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’ but when you’re working to capture snippets of Fuck Buttons’ existence, the expectation to deliver isn’t anything more than a personal challenge. So with ‘Street Horrrsing’ representing the band’s beginnings, and ‘Tarot Sport’ carrying the weight of a band striving for something, by their own admittance, the next Fuck Buttons snapshot promises to be snatched.

“We’ve started thinking about writing new material but we haven’t solidified a plan for record number three yet,” Ben starts “it’s going to be a case of whenever. There are a few tours and a few festivals so it will be a case of grabbing some moments. It’s not going to be a case of writing every day for the next year.”
“I feel really ready to go on tour,” Andrew enthuses. “It’d be nice to get out the house. I like the way there’s blocks of time between writing and that’s going to help with the progress. I’m looking forward to the process.”

A band without definition, perhaps, but certainly not one without direction. Where progression is a creative reflex and stagnation takes a conscious effort, you’d be forgiven for expecting a definitive end product; a staple to pin down every vibrant still of the Fuck Buttons narrative. They might claim to shirk anything linear and bury all trace and trail but a pattern’s developed and it’s arguably the simplest of them all. Whisper it, though, because in Fuck Buttons’ pioneering world of discovery you feel few things are “better”, they’re just different.
“We always want to be different,” Andy states. “That’s really the only relationship we have between the albums. That’s the only constant.”

By Reef Younis

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Originally published in issue 16 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. April 2010

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