INTERVIEW

“‘Hold on’ is probably the most we ever say to each other.”

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On a street corner by a building site just off the Kingsland Road, Dalston, London, Ben Power and Andy Hung are having their photo taken. Seated in the back of an open lorry, the two early-thirties men who comprise Fuck Buttons are chatting about school sports days, how modern skateboarders are mindblowingly technical compared to their ’90s counterparts, and whatever else springs to mind in a pleasingly fluid, light-hearted conversation that suits the balmy summer evening.

For a band whose music frequently prompts fevered comparisons to a violent apocalypse and catastrophic galactic events – indeed, for a duo who decided that the best way to express themselves musically was to name themselves Fuck Buttons and then make a deafeningly confrontational blend of white noise post-rock and electronica using knackered kids’ keyboards – they are a surprisingly mild-mannered pair. Hung’s biggest concern today is that the Wikipedia page for his old school, King’s Worcester, won’t include him in the “famous alumni” section because of a lack of citation; Power, the quieter of the two, appears to know everyone who walks past the lorry, giving each a long-lost-friend bear hug and handshake, seemingly genuinely pleased to see them all.

Hung, with the same infectious chortle that follows most of his sentences, wonders aloud whether Burial has a day-job, since he never gigs. “We’re only able to do this for a living because we play live – we wouldn’t be able to do this full-time just from the recordings,” he explains, while also acknowledging that loose talk like that just fuels the amusing rumour currently circulating that Burial is, in fact, Four Tet. Power, keen to generate some dual-identity rumours of his own, pipes up: “Like us and Daft Punk,” he mock reveals, to the chuckles of his bandmate. “Well, you never see us in the same room together…”

If it turned out, however, that he and Hung do run a sideline as robot-headed disco throwback connoisseurs, it would be among the greatest split personalities since Dr Jekyll poured himself a glass of shapeshifting serum – Fuck Buttons will likely play the Moon before they write something as approachable as ‘Get Lucky’. Equally, it is unimaginable that anyone else, let alone Daft Punk, would make ‘Slow Focus’, Fuck Buttons’ new record.

Indeed, as if to accentuate this distance from their peers, ‘Slow Focus’ actually represents something of a departure even from themselves, with the pounding, fuzzed out techno that characterised Fuck Buttons’ last record, ‘Tarot Sport’, now broadly dismissed. A change of direction, though, was apparently never in doubt, explains Hung, now ensconced in a pub corner with his bandmate, and, along with Power, far more deliberative with his words when the dictaphone is on. “I think if we were repeating the music of ‘Tarot Sport’, we would’ve decided to stop,” he says. “We didn’t deliberately decide to do something different when we began writing this album – but I’d like to think that if we’d started to make any music that approached the aesthetic of ‘Tarot Sport’, we would’ve gone…”

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He pauses, and Power offers the end of the sentence: “We’d have needed to have a drastic rethink.” Hung nods: “We would’ve gone, ‘We’ve got to fuck things up.’”

And fuck things up, broadly, is what they’ve done. Where ‘Tarot Sport’ hurtled through its running time like some sort of possessed Duracell Bunny, all throbbing ultra-bright major-key wonder and a grand, almost god-like sense of scale, ‘Slow Focus’ feels heavier and more industrial, tightly coiled and narrow-eyed.

If ‘Tarot Sport’ was occasionally heavenly, it feels as if ‘Slow Focus’ has its eyes on the underworld. “There’s a sentiment in the new record that we hadn’t really played around with before,” offers Power in an attempt to explain the shift in mood. “It’s a touch less friendly, I think.”  This last suggestion is something of an understatement: the entire record, and particularly its central track, ‘Sentients’, feels like a modernised blast of Bernard Hermann’s classic score to Psycho, filtered through rumbling, stalking-pace kick drums and howling synth washes.

“It’s more jostling, too,” adds Hung, trying to explain the lurching, bumpy feel of the album. “You need more swing on slower BPM stuff. You need more definition. Like, if you have anything over 120, pretty much everything has a groove naturally, and you don’t need to do much to it. But anything below that needs to catch you and throw you again, and catch you and throw you again.”

The idea that Fuck Buttons’ new album is a touch scarier and slower is pretty obvious from first listen, but unfortunately this is about the best insight that ‘Slow Focus’’ authors are willing to impart; Power in particular seems genuinely confused as to why people might want his opinion on his creations. Hung, eager to help, jumps in when his bandmate offers another passively equivocal nod to an observation about ‘Slow Focus’: “The thing is,” he explains, “the general aesthetic of the whole album isn’t intentional. That’s why we can’t talk about it in terms of ‘we wanted it to be like this, or like that’.”

Frustrating as that may be, though, it also makes a kind of sense. After all, Fuck Buttons’ music is so odd that it’s not really the kind of thing one could imagine sitting down and planning before playing, a fact borne out of the way the duo write – always improvised at first pass and always collaborative: “If it’s not Andy and me bashing heads in the first instance then it’s not Fuck Buttons,” Power explains, more effusive again once the topic of the new album is left behind. “That’s part of what makes things exciting – being able to feed off each other. We don’t really discuss things – we’ve been together for almost ten years now making this music and we kind of have our own language, so we don’t need to vocalise things. It’s extensive jamming, it’s very playful and explorative, the way we write, and that allows us to surprise ourselves. There’s no leader or preconceived ideas – anything approaching that probably boils down to who switches their things on first.”

“Usually,” adds Hung, “both of us are playing something, and one of us just goes ‘hold on!’”

Ben nods again: “‘Hold on’ is probably the most we ever say to each other.”

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“Hold on” was also probably the startled reaction of a certain kind of music fan at the stroke of 9 o’clock on 27 July last year, when the establishing sequence of the London Olympic Opening Ceremony began: a placecard reading Isles of Wonder, followed by a high-speed voyage down the River Thames, was soundtracked not by Elgar, or even ambient scene-setting sound effects, but by the twinkling sequencers and low-throbbing techno kick of Fuck Buttons’ ‘Surf Solar’, the lead track from ‘Tarot Sport’. Another ‘Tarot Sport’ cut, ‘Olympians’, appeared later in the ceremony, as did ‘Sunriser’, by Power’s side project Blanck Mass. One billion people worldwide were watching, and listening.

For a certain mindset, exposure like that would be the cue to down tools and consider how to make the most of one sixth of all humans hearing your song. But not Fuck Buttons’. “It was a real privilege and honour to be involved, but those were tracks that had already happened for us,” says Power, so matter-of-factly as to imply that any other outlook would be bizarre. “We had new tracks by then. Our concentration was on something else.” At the time, Power and Hung were in the thick of committing ‘Slow Focus’ to tape, having spent the previous 18 months writing it. “And we were aware,” adds Hung, blithely, “that we’d written new tracks that sounded quite a bit different to the ones we’d been asked to contribute, yeah, sure.”

Fuck Buttons appeared on the official Opening Ceremony soundtrack album (under the amusingly Olympic-friendly alias of F-Buttons), but aside from that, kept on keeping on. Their outlook and intent stayed the same, and no particular effort was made to pander to new fans who might’ve heard their music for the first time that night: “It’s a difficult one, isn’t it?” says Hung, when asked if anyone suggested to him that this could be an opportunity to earn more followers. “I mean, we could’ve shouted about it, but it just didn’t happen. We could’ve though!” he concedes, with another of his hearty chuckles.

“But in what way?” interjects Power, clearly peeved at the suggestion that a small independent-label band might relish an opportunity like the one they’d been given. “I don’t get it. It wasn’t that we didn’t want, or didn’t not want anything in particular,” he continues, somewhat opaquely. But ask him what he does want, and things get more difficult. “Christ, this sounds like a pep talk!” he exclaims, pouting uncharacteristically when asked if he’s content with their level of popularity – there does, after all, appear to be a certain self-limiting aspect to the way Fuck Buttons operate, from the name to the sound palette, which doesn’t perhaps chime perfectly with allowing your music to be used in something as mainstream as the Olympics. “The thing is, you only get one fucking chance while you’re here,” Power relents. “I don’t want to be lying on my death bed thinking, ‘I did that for the wrong reasons and I feel like a bit of a dickhead for doing that.’”

Hung, perhaps more conciliatory, chips in. “We just want people to give it a go. Artistically, we care about people hearing it – which is why the Olympics thing was nice – but we don’t care about people liking it. They’re very separate things. If we cared about people liking our music, we’d have picked up a guitar ages ago and started writing songs about how we broke up with someone!”

“It’s amazing that people take to it in the same way that we do,” adds Power, warming to his bandmate’s theme, “but it doesn’t matter if we have five fans or 5,000. I don’t think that’s ever our first intention. I know that’s the age-old thing that people say – ‘we only make music for ourselves,’ – but it does ring true.”

The “we’re just making music for ourselves and if anyone else likes it that’s a bonus” line is so frequently spouted these days by careerist landfill indie bands playing riff-robbing, mega-populist, three-minute guitar pop that it’s become virtually meaningless. By contrast, when a band as outré as Fuck Buttons say it, you’re inclined to believe them; after all, their attitude and approach to music – the instinctive writing process conceived from live performance and jamming rather than studio trickery (“it’s harder to translate a song to a record than it is to the stage, because as soon as we’ve played it, it’s done,” explains Hung) and the emphasis on being true to one’s intentions at the expense of attracting fans – has so much kinship with the DIY indie underground scene, which so often genuinely does only make music for itself.

“I mean, I’m kind of an asshole for only listening to things that I’ve written,” Power continues, “but we’re making the music that we’d want to hear. I’ll come home and put a Fuck Buttons album on, sure, and to other people that looks like an egotistical kind of thing, but I have absolutely no problem with being proud about what I do, whatsoever. We do this because we want to hear this, and nobody else is making it for us to hear.”

Of course, by that logic, Hung and Power will happily hang up their synths if a band that sounds just like Fuck Buttons turns up and starts putting in all the hard graft instead. “We’re working towards that actually,” says Hung with a smile on his face.

Really?

“Yeah,” he grins. “They’re called Daft Punk.”

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