The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

Not For Commercial Reasons: An Interview With F*** Buttons
Joe Clay , July 24th, 2013 04:16

Joe Clay talks to Andrew Hung and Ben Power about how their friendship has developed, why cheap synths are useful and Andrew Weatherall's military nomenclature

Fuck Buttons are knackered. When I meet up with Andrew Hung and Benjamin Power at the Strongroom Studios bar in Shoreditch, East London, both are yawning and hiding tired eyes behind sunglasses, the result of a tough weekend performing at festivals in Holland and Ireland where it made more sense to stay up all night and wait for connecting flights in the wee small hours than snatch any sleep.

I meet them in the week before they are due at the Glastonbury Festival to perform in the same time slot as the Rolling Stones. Just over a year ago it would have been safe to say that the synth-drone merchants probably didn't share any fans with Mick & Keef's (near) septuagenarian rock act. But since their euphoric, voiceless mini-symphonies were used in Danny Boyle's Olympics Opening Ceremony, there's a good chance that the scheduling clash might have caused a headache for some. The duo with the "parent-saddening trading name" (© Pete Paphides) were the unlikely beneficiaries of the eclectic musical programming that went into Boyle's Isles of Wonder – just don't ask them whether it resulted in a sales spike or an increase in popularity.

They blatantly couldn't give a toss about sales or popularity. Hung admits to not even bothering to check, and confesses when quizzed about the suitability of their name that they didn't start Fuck Buttons for "commercial reasons".

But at the point where most of the planet was tuned in to the opening ceremony, they were balls-deep in the recording process of their third album, the magnificent Slow Focus, which reinforces their peerless ability to pile one blindingly major chord on top of another until sonic Armageddon is realised. While the last album, Tarot Sport, was produced by Andrew Weatherall, Hung and Power produced this one themselves. The result is a more direct and aggressive record, with a more varied approach to the rhythms that underpin the oscillating drones and laser-like synth-lines that typify their sound. Despite physically flagging, the duo are in good spirits when we meet, almost childishly excited about how the new album will be received outside of the confines of their Space Mountain studio. They may make music that pummels the synapses into a bloody pulp, but in person they are gentle souls – warm, humble, appreciative, thoughtful and talkative.

Fuck Buttons seemed to arrive with a fully-formed sound – that's even more apparent now you're three albums in – and all your albums have built on that distinctive sound. How has the process of writing and recording music changed for you as your career has progressed?

Benjamin Power: I think there are certain threads that link the records together, but our processes are very experimental, very explorative. When we first set out to write a track we never have any preconceptions of what the finished product is going to be. There's a lot of experimenting with whatever gadgetry we happen to have in front of us at the time. Once we've found a texture that interests us both, we build on top of that and structure afterwards. It's a very free way of working.

Andrew Hung: It's hard for us to say what our particular sound is because… I guess to a listener they hear the things that we've decided to show. Whereas there's a lot of music that we've written that has never been heard that also encompasses our experience of the music.

Do you still stick to the rule that you only write in a room together?

BP: Yeah, that's right.

AH: Yeah, so those kinds of processes have accumulated and been refined. So we could talk about it in terms of that. But in terms of our actual aesthetic, I think that's harder to define.

BP: I think there's perhaps a particular a melodic approach that is unique to us, and maybe even when it comes to rhythm… And I guess that's the thread that carries on throughout the records. So even though the sentiment differs, there are certainly aspects that repeat.

Was the working process for Slow Focus the same as on previous records?

AH: Pretty much the same really.

BP: The process has always been the same, but instrumentation changes the whole time.

Do you come along with ideas and then start jamming, or improvising?

BP: We don't even come with any ideas beforehand. We start with a blank canvas. That seems to be the most beneficial process for us.

Do you have a chemistry that means you are able to work instinctively with each other?

AH: Definitely.

BP: Very much so.

AH: After so many years of doing this, there's very little verbal communication that goes on in the writing process. There's talk after we've made a track, because there's excitement and you want to share that excitement. But during it there's very little talking. We're following the music.

BP: We almost have our own mode of communication that doesn't warrant talking.

That's evident when you play live. You seem very connected when you perform.

AH: That's really important to us.

BP: The fact that we're not talking about what we're going to do beforehand means that when we actually discover something it's exciting to us, because we're both discovering it together for the very first time. So it's really nice in that sense, as we get to share each individual stage of creating something, as opposed to one person coming up with something, which doesn't work for us anyway.

Slow Focus is your most aggressive and direct record. It feels less celestial and blissed-out than Street Horrrsing and Tarot Sport. The drum programming is more hip-hop in places, especially on 'Stalker' – that's got a really early '80s 808 sound. There are more grooves; it's a more overtly rhythmic record. The drum break on 'Brainfreeze' sounds like John Bonham. It's quite punk rock.

AH: [Laughs] Yes, there's definitely a rock element with that one.

That's what sets it apart from the other albums for me. Was that organic or was there a conscious decision to focus on the rhythms?

BP: We didn't have any preconceptions. We hadn't set out to do anything but as it progressed and we got further into the writing process, we realised that maybe the rhythm side of things – really focusing in on that – was something that we hadn't really done before. And we always want to try different things and keep ourselves interesting. Once we found these sounds we decided we to embellish them and focus on the rhythms.

Are you gear heads? Are you really into your equipment?

AH: Not really – if I can speak for myself, I really don't care. I care more about what money I spend on it than what I've got.

BP: You've always been like that. I've never really picked up a manual. I'm interested in new pieces of equipment and what potential they have, but potential for me rather than their suggested usage.

AH: For me, what it comes down to is price versus how much use you can get out of it. For instance, my Casio keyboards – those keyboards that I brought from car boot sales for about 50p each – they've had a lot of use. I love car boot sales. I like looking at crap. [Laughs] A lot of the stuff there is from the homes of people who've died. I always find that morbidly fascinating.

BP: I do as well. You find these little artefacts and you've got no idea where they came from or the story behind them. I think that's quite interesting – it's like the next chapter of this thing.

AH: They resonate as well anyway, even if you don't know the story behind them. It's amazing.

But you don't buy What Synthesiser and think, "We must get the latest Korg…"?

AH: No way.

BP: Sometimes people will say to us, "You know what would be really amazing for you guys?"

AH: A didgeridoo.

BP: You joke, but that has happened before.

AH: Yeah, it has.

I read an interview with Boards Of Canada recently and they talked about driving hundreds of miles to buy one ancient synth that they used for about two seconds on one song. But it was really important to them to get that specific sound. Your music is so unique, so I am interested in how obsessive you are with sourcing equipment to deliver the sound you want.

BP: That's interesting. That's quite an admirable thing – if you're in a position where you can pre-empt a sound that you're going to be getting from something. But that's not really how we operate.

You didn't work with a producer this time. Last time, it was Weatherall – I heard an interview with him where he compared working with you to working on a building site or humping furniture all day. He said it was hard graft – mentally and physically draining. He used to go home aching, feeling like he'd done a good days work and achieved something.

AH: I can completely sympathise with that.

BP: He said that to us as well. I think that's why when we were in the studio with him we learnt a very important lesson, about taking a little bit of space away from the project. He would make us go and sit outside for ten minutes or so to clear our heads, get some perspective.

Do you find it intense as well?

AH: The recording of it is, because you're booking space in the studio and you only have that allotted time. When we write, we're writing maybe two or three hours a day. But when we record it's a whole day, like eight hours doing as much as you can in that time. I remember that feeling coming from Weatherall's studio – it did feel like hard graft but satisfying at the same time.

It must have been amazing to work with him. I was really excited when I heard he was producing your record. I don't normally get excited about who's producing what, but the idea of you working with him was hugely appealing to me.

AH: He's an artist isn't he? That's the thing about him.

BP: He's got so many great stories about East London and murderers. And fishing.

AH: He uses military euphemisms. So if it's the weekend he'll be like, "Are you out on manoeuvres tonight?"

So did you not work with a producer this time because you didn't want to put anyone else through the discomfort?

BP: No, even with the first two records, the structures of the tracks were in a very complete state in a production sense – all the components were there. But then we didn't have the technological awareness when it comes to recording software, but we had a little bit more this time. And we were working out of our own space, to our own diary.

What's the meaning behind the album title and the song titles? Is there a theme or a concept behind the record?

BP: The way it usually works is this: once we've finished a track, or it's close to being finished [it means] there are enough textures there to evoke some kind of mental imagery for us. We still like to keep that side of it ambiguous, because it's nice for people to make up their own minds about what story a track tells for them when they're listening to it. But we do sit down and we do have conversations about it. It's actually a bit of a tradition that we have, that we get excited about what we've made and talk about what sort of imagery might be conjured up by this track.

AH: It's not like, "This one's called, Five Hours in a Room with Weatherall."

The cover image is striking – it's very bling. Would you like to keep the meaning behind that ambiguous as well?

BP: I think it relates to what I was talking about before, about the instruments. These things have a story behind them, but you might not know what that story is and I think there's something quite profound in that. It's a similar thing with the artwork – on a base level there are comparisons to be drawn with the music. It's quite, um, I think maybe glitzy is the wrong word…

AH: Sensual.

BP: That's a probably quite a good way of describing it. But there are these undertones of unknowing, in a sense, which I think directly relates to the sound and the narrative of the record.

It's four years since Tarot Sport. Do you feel that there's any pressure or expectation for the new record?

AH: Right now, there's no pressure. There's just curiosity…

BP: And excitement. I think we try and work in a way that we don't let stress or pressure influence our process.

AH: It's easy to sniff that out when you're in a partnership. When you're on your own you don't necessarily identify your own emotions. But when it's the other person you can see it written on their face. So if there is an anxiety it can come across very quickly. But that didn't happen at all. I don't there were any negative emotions at all with this record. It was a very positive experience. There have been days when maybe we don't feel like it, for personal reasons.

How long did the recording and writing process take?

BP: We toured Tarot Sport for two and a half years. So when we got back from that we had a break for a month and then we started to write. But it was at our own pace. It probably took about 18 months.

I'm sure you're sick of talking about your music being used in the Olympics, but I'm going to ask you about it anyway! When I was a kid I was really into hip-hop and it was underground at first, but suddenly it started popping up on Top Of The Pops – Run DMC and Doug E Fresh – and I'd get this massive rush of excitement that this thing that I was into that was poorly represented was suddenly being accepted. I felt a bit like that when I heard your music being used on the Olympics opening ceremony – here was a little bit of the underground subverting this massively mainstream event. Billions of people were watching…

AH: I imagine that feeling that you're talking about is sharing. You're able to identify with everyone watching that now.

BP: Did it make you feel validated?

Maybe, but I should be too old for that. I'm obviously not! How did you feel?

BP: It was only about two weeks before the actual Opening Ceremony that we had an idea in what kind of capacity it was going to be used. It was surprising for us. We had to sign disclaimers so we couldn't really share much with anybody. Well, maybe quietly we could say, "Hey Mum…"

I know a lot of musicians who have said that it's hard for them to define themselves as successful in a context that their parents can relate to. But when something like that happens…

AH: That's right. For parents, yeah.

BP: Of course. From a parental perspective who aren't necessarily as involved as you are in what happens musically nowadays in a contemporary sense. They wouldn't really have much of an idea. But then when something like that happens they think, well they must be doing something right.

Has there been a noticeable benefit for you – in terms of record sales?

BP: It's hard to say.

AH: We didn't check. I presume there would have been a spike, but we didn't check. They could have gone down. [chuckles]

From a global perspective, your music has travelled really well. You already play all over the world. But there was a huge worldwide audience for the Olympics, so it must have helped to expand your reach.

BP: It might have opened us up to a wider audience. Even down to the fact that sports fans that have no interest in music, and would not have been interested in listening to our music previously had now been exposed to it. But we didn't really notice. We were so deep into the recording process for Slow Focus when it happened. So once it happened, while being a really nice moment – we both feel really privileged and humble to have been part of it – but we were straight back into something else.

I think it's interesting that considering that Fuck Buttons as a name can be quite prohibitive in terms of your music getting mainstream recognition – DJs can't really say it on the radio, it has be starred out in some newspapers for example. It's a bit of a hurdle sometimes, I guess.

BP: Sure, it's something else to think about. But there are ways around it. People can call it what they want.

Post the Olympics, was your manager fielding calls from America from record execs saying, "We gotta sign The Fuck Buttons"?

BP: Sometime I think he tells us what he thinks he needs to tell us, but… you know, respectfully. But we're friends with all the ATP guys. We feel like part of the family. We feel very secure. They give us full creative control. They don't bully us into doing things, they just let us work in the way we want to work and that's a very lucky position for a band to be in.

AH: That's all we need.

When you came up with the name, did it cross your mind that it could be problematic further down the line?

AH: No, we didn't enter into this for commercial reasons. But the issue with the name now is a commercial issue.

If you had been called something different it's hard to say how things would have played out.

AH: Like Daft Buttons? [laughs]

Perhaps the name is partly responsible for the attention you've got. It didn't stop your music being used in the Olympics.

BP: It's probably been beneficial and a hurdle in equal measure.

AH: That's true. I think we'll probably be the only band with a swear word in their name to get on the Olympics. We are approaching a stage where a band with a sweary name hasn't trodden yet.

BP: I hope people are more focused on the music now than anything else.

How has your relationship as friends…

BP: As lovers. [laughs]

You obviously spend a lot of time together, you have to tour. You've know each other for a long time. How has your relationship evolved?

BP: We understand each other very well. We understand that as human beings we all need space from time to time and we're very respectful of that. It's definitely brought us closer together. We are very good friends. He's my best friend.

It must be amazing to be doing something like this with your best friend.

BP: It's healthy. I can be irrational, Andy's very rational. The working relationship is very healthy. It's good. I don't think we've ever shouted at each other, which is strange. When you hear about bands who have fist fights.

AH: That's mental.

BP: It's so alien. It's like, didn't you have a chat about it beforehand, before you started throwing punches?

AH: I find shouting a strange thing anyway.

BP: I can't remember the last time I shouted. Somebody has to have done something pretty bad for one of us to raise our voices.

But the music you make can be extreme. It's very noisy. Maybe that's how you express anger.

BP: Perhaps that's the vent. I'm not sure.

AH: The emotions that you explore and indulge in with music have… I was going to say they have no relation to real life, but they probably are detrimental to your real life. For instance, depressing music or aggressive music… I love music like that. But would I be like that in real life?

BP: We are definitely interested in ideas outside of a very human sphere, which is… I think we like to step outside of our box a bit.

Andy, you made the video for 'The Red Wing'. Is that something you want to do more of?

AH: That video gave me the bug, actually. I made it using footage that I wanted to use. The other things I've done were made using footage I collected. But this one I made from the start to the finish. I made films back at uni, but since starting Fuck Buttons it's been a secondary concern.

I also heard that you're [Andy] not too keen on playing live?

AH: The live experience is amazing, but there are lots of emotions flying around all the time. It's different every time.

BP: I think it's more the sense that when you're doing something live, the ability to… the damage limitation is somewhat diminished. It's a bit of an unknown. But I enjoy that aspect. Things can go wrong. We're not just letting machines do the work – they become extensions of ourselves. We put a human stamp on it.

You do elevate it beyond people operating some computer equipment. There is a performance element to what you do.

BP: We see ourselves very much as a live band. We write in a live sense – we have the same set up as when we're playing live. We're not just sat in front of a laptop.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.