Tell Me About It: Blanck Mass on new album ‘Dumb Flesh’

Fuck Buttons member and solo noise musician Benjamin John Power met David Zammitt to do all the talking

Ben Power, aka Blanck Mass, aka 50% of Fuck Buttons, sits at his desk surrounded by wires, keys and dials. He’s preparing to move out of the temporary Edinburgh apartment himself and his wife have only just begun to call home since relocating north of the border and I get the impression that he’ll be happy to finally be settled. In the background the latter seems to be either unpacking from London or packing for the next stop. An alarm goes off and Ben grows concerned that his agave-glazed parsnips might be burning (“It sounds so unglamorous. They’re amazing though!”) but he’s happy to talk all the same. Somewhere lurks Darwin the cat, the de facto third member of Fuck Buttons. “Well, there’s a fourth member now as Andy’s got a whippet named Polly.” Worcester’s answer to The Beatles, in a way.

Amid the chaos of his temporary lodgings, he’s trying to figure out what the live set for his upcoming gigs is going to look like. It’s no mean feat. While he welcomes the challenge, he knows that translating his latest work to a live setting will be a difficult task; since his solo project’s self-titled debut arrived in 2011, Power’s sound has taken a gargantuan leap forward. Far from the ambience of that first Blanck Mass offering, his new LP, ‘Dumb Flesh’, picks up where the more texturally complex ‘White Math/Polymorph’ EP left off and his armoury of hardware has grown in line with the scale of his soundscapes. There are beats, for a start, and it’s as dance floor-friendly as you’re likely to hear from himself or other Fuck Button Andy Hung, but he’s approaching it with enthusiasm and as he shows me his latest purchase he takes on the tone of a proud father. “Have you seen an OP-1? They’re pretty interesting. It can be used as a synth or a midi controller or a sampler keyboard. It’s pretty impressive.”

A labour of love – with a smattering of frustration – ‘Dumb Flesh’ was fully re-recorded three times before Power signed off on the definitive version, but as he talks about the process he concentrates on what he has gained in terms of experience rather than dwelling on any time lost. It takes the shortcomings of the human body as its theme and with titles like ‘Dead Format’, ‘Atrophies’ and ‘Detritus,’ it won’t come as a surprise that the album brims with crunching electronic brutality. And speaking of crunching electronic brutality, Power hints that there will be more music from himself and his mate Hung at some point in the future, but we’ll just have to wait for more news on that.

“I’m making the live show bigger”

As this album is less textural and there’s a little bit more dynamic to it I am going to be bringing more stuff with me, which I think is pretty interesting. I’m feeling confident and I think it’s going to translate pretty nicely. I’m looking forward to playing the new stuff live for the first time. A couple of tracks have been in the set for a while in various forms of completion but I’m looking forward to playing some of the bigger ones. And I don’t want to give away too much but there’s a visual element, which I’m going to need to practise beforehand. We shall see.

When I supported Jon Hopkins last year, I think he was after more of an ambient thing as I was warming up, so it was primarily first album stuff; a textural, scape-y thing. There were a couple of moments from the new album and there are a couple of moments that I’ve been out playing live but none of the more dance floor-friendly stuff. Not for that show anyway.

“The new record is a lot more dance floor friendly”

Overall it’s a bit more varied. There’s more of a dynamic journey to this one, whereas the first one was largely ambient. There were no real percussive sounds on there whereas there are more on ‘Dumb Flesh’. The process of making this one actually doesn’t differ at all from the first album. It’s very similar to how I work in Fuck Buttons as well; it begins with experimenting until I come across a sound or a technique I maybe hadn’t thought about before and then it’s built up from that point onwards.

“I re-produced the album three times”

A lot of stuff happened. There are some tracks on there that have been through all kinds of mangling. Certain tracks that I thought were finished, then, with reflection, I realised that I didn’t want them to be that speed so then the speed was halved and then I tried to play on top of that. It all becomes a bit of a mess up until it doesn’t anymore, if that makes sense.

“Finally, I was at peace with it”

There are things that I would still probably change, but then again, try and find me a musician who doesn’t want to change something about every single of their releases – unfortunately that’s a human complex so I think you have to wave goodbye at some point. And the beauty of it is that things, I anticipate, will change quite a bit when I take them out on the road. Live is always a very good test for these things. I didn’t really have an opportunity to do it that way around this time.

“A lot of stuff happened to me while I was writing this record”

A heck of a lot of stuff. I got married, I relocated, I had very close friends pass away. So I think all of these things are going to have some sort of impact on the finished result, even if you like to think that they don’t. It’s also nice to be able to come back and look at the tracks on the album with a fresh set of eyes when something big happens. It’s definitely beneficial and it probably has shaped the sound as well. It was actually a really, really funny period. It was eventful, that’s for sure.

“The album’s theme is the human body’s frailty”

It’s something that has played on my mind for quite some time. There was actually one point during the process where I was living in London, in Hatch End – and I’m certainly not the first person to complain about back pains – but I was unable to walk for a good couple of weeks and that really solidified the idea for me; the hopeless form. I think it was triggered by ten years of doing this (hunches over his desk) over a table! It’s the kind of thing that you shrug off when somebody tells you and think, ‘Oh, well you and everyone else.’ It shone a bit of light on the subject matter, for me.

“I can’t actually reveal who’s on the front cover, no”

But one thing that I will say is that it’s not me. That’s what you wanted to know, isn’t it? Well, it’s an unnamed subject!

“You don’t need lessons”

It [making ‘Dumb Flesh’] didn’t become stressful. I can’t complain, and I wouldn’t change my position for the world, but there were some times where it did become a little frustrating. The album is harder hitting than the first one. The ambient stuff I can kind of do all day long, but there were some sounds on the new record that I had never really worked with in a production sense before, so it was a massive learning curve, actually. There were a couple of times where I was frustrated that I couldn’t actualise the thing in the workspace that I had going on in my head. But it’s just down to perseverance. If you know what you want to achieve early on then you have enough time to find that place. Plus I don’t have to work to a deadline so I could really get inside it. But I’m glad that it got re-made so many times because I learnt a lot about myself and about studio techniques that I had no idea about before. And it’s all self-taught. I’ve always said that if somebody’s learning the guitar or something, you always find that the more interesting people tend to not go for lessons and just figure it out for themselves. The same goes for synthesisers; don’t read the manual and you’ll come to your own place.

“I think I approach remixes differently to a lot of people”

I enjoy it. I prefer to see them as a collaborative thing. So I’ll be using stems from the original and I’ll try to work them into my aesthetic, not the other way around, which is the way a lot of people work. So what I end up with is essentially a brand new song with components from the original so it feels more like a collaboration than your average remix. And I can tell within the first ten seconds of listening to a track whether or not I’m going to be able to remix it. I know my practice better than anyone else and I know I’ll be trying to get blood from a stone if I work with some tracks. And it’s also a matter of time – I don’t want to do it half-arsed. And ultimately it needs to be something that I would enjoy listening to myself, otherwise it doesn’t feel right to share it.

“It’s a lot easier to go vegan than you would think”

And it’s a lot easier than the supermarkets would have you believe. It’s actually quite a nice thing being a vegan on tour. Obviously if you’re in Spain or something it’s a little bit more difficult because it’s something that’s not really understood, but the day before I’ll just Google ‘vegan restaurant in such and such an area’ and it means I get to explore the cities instead of being stuck backstage eating hummus. That’s the staple, isn’t it?

“Moving to Sacred Bones was not anything to do with Rock Action”

I love those guys and they’re very good friends of mine. I just think that Sacred Bones was maybe a better home for it this time around. Obviously I hope I can work with Mogwai again on something, one day. But I’m very good friends with Caleb [Braaten, Sacred Bones founder] and I couldn’t be happier with the way things have gone so far. It feels like a good team to be part of.

“Fuck Buttons will be back, I just don’t know when”

We’ll have to wait and see. The thing about Andy and I is that we’re best friends and we still love to make music together. We wanted to focus on our own things this year, because I think it’s a healthy thing to do. We’ll be back, don’t worry about that.