Stripped To The Bone: Factory Floor Interview
, July 31st, 2013 07:39
Dom Butler, Gabe Gurnsey and Nik Void talk to John Doran about the intense and protracted business of making their first album
What is a good way to start? Let's start by getting naked.
There's no more time to wait. It's time for the weight. An arpeggio starts. Bass thunder rolls in from the sea, across beaches and over cliff tops, it ripples across fields and through the suburbs. As city streets narrow and scrape the sky, the noise is intensified into a beam. The modified Roland SH101 – the bastard runt of the Japanese acid machine sisters followed in tandem by a Gallifreyan modular synth – creates the jugular pulse. On the temporal axis the drums hammer in as a contradiction, played by a human as if he's a machine. They are repetitive and metronomic in tempo and signature yet ever shifting, ever surprising, ever ear-boggling. A battered drum kit, Jomox Xbase drum machine and Roland SPDS sample pad create the tools for deep and effective hypnosis. This is music to dance to. This is music to march to. It is a rhythm that comes rushing up mine shafts, up bore holes, through volcanic vents, up via tectonic cracks, until it pierces the surface tension. Then great ragged chunks of guitar noise fall like flaming rock from the sky. A symbolic Fender Telecaster is brutalised with fists and fraying violin bow, an assault complimented by Roland SP555 sampler. And the voice… what is the voice saying? What is the voice doing? Sleepers awake. Once you know you cannot re-forget.
This is music stripped to the bone. This is functionality raised to an art form. Skin expertly flayed from a living animal reveals glistening bone cage, throbbing organs, aching metres of nerve, pulsing veins and arteries, twitching muscle and taut viscera. The organisation of noise laid bare for anyone who dares look.
Factory Floor demand your participation. They brew up an overflowing cauldron of sound that spills outwards to fill the venue they are in. Witnesses are broiled in noise. When playing in The Tanks, a space below London's Tate Modern, on Saturday August 25, 2012, the mainly teenage audience created a near perfect feedback loop with the band. Howling with ecstatic impulse they began tearing their clothes off, stripping away at barriers to the experience. Had they adamantine claws and chrome teeth they would have ripped their skin away and bitten the fat away as well, puncturing their exposed bone savagely to allow more immediate and deeper access to the sound.
Factory Floor in its current, fully formed incarnation got together in late 2009 when guitarist/vocalist Nik Colk Void joined the dark-hearted, 21st Century rhythm section of drummer Gabe Gurnsey and synth player Dominic Butler.
Within months their astonishing gigs had earned them a rabidly devoted audience. Some of these fans were as much spiritual guides who heralded a new and singular talent arriving as much as anything else. The trio figured that putting a demo in the post marked simply, “Stephen Morris: Macclesfield”, would be a good way to contact the Joy Division/New Order drummer. That it arrived at his house was surprising; his enthusiastic response to what he heard, less so: “I listened to the tracks 'Lying' and 'Wooden Box' and thought they were brilliant… In the tracks I could hear something which reminded me of the spirit of New Order in the early days... They were raw, chaotic, fantastic and different - everything I've ever liked in a band.” Not long afterwards they worked with Chris Carter from Throbbing Gristle, and he was so impressed with them that he ended up joining their ranks for a number of international festival shows in 2011.
Since then they have released a number of EPs and 12”s on labels such as Blast First Petite and Optimo, while all the time their live sound was shifting away from an all-out noise assault – that was delivered at such intense and overpowering volumes that their equipment would occasionally burst into flame – into a much more spacious and confident exploration of techno, minimal, acid and post-industrial rhythms and textures.
Perhaps the most unlikely aspect of the band's rise has been their versatility. They seem equally comfortable playing raves, alternative festivals, art galleries, cinemas, nightclubs and rock shows; on top of that they're as much at home collaborating with members of Throbbing Gristle and New Order (not to mention Richard H Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire, Simon Fisher Turner and Peter Gordon) as they are with contemporary visual artists such as Haroon Mirza and Hannah Sawtell.
Their self-titled album, which comes out next month on DFA, was recorded in the band's North London warehouse space (on a vintage mixing desk originally used by Dave Stewart three decades ago to record all of the Eurythmics' early hits). It is a vivid snapshot of a progressive band, still in ascendance, smashing through yet another ceiling. It opens with 'Turn It Up', their most minimal track to date. They are reduced to the core trio of elements - mass, velocity and momentum – mixed in astonishing detail by Timothy 'Q' Wiles, an LA based producer who has previously worked with VCMG, Erasure and Afrika Bambaataa. It also features a pitched down voice demanding to know: “Where is a good place to start?” The listener should start with the immense volume that the title demands. Good speakers and even better headphones reveal a hidden world of deep listening behind the minimal frame of agitated percussion, dub echo and bass rumble, beneath the austere framework of the track.
'Here Again' is almost their pop song. Gabe Gurnsey calls it their “Ibiza track” and Nik Colk Void claims she was channelling Michael Jackson when she wrote it. It's hard to tell who has tongue planted firmer in cheek. What it does contain is cascading arpeggios, counterbalanced with synth melody lines, plaintive vocals almost demanding to pour from Fabric's sound system and a rhythm that literally won't quit.
The album contains the definitive version of 'Two Different Ways'; the muscular and sleek 'Fall Back'; 'How You Say' is the sound of New York's dance underground (imprinted with the sound of ESG) rebooted for a near future inner city digital versus analogue battle; 'Work Out' is anything but, despite the desultory title, it is in fact sinister street sound electro; and 'Breathe In' is funkified acid disco.
Repeat after me: Factory Floor are disco's steel fist in a velvet glove.
Or repeat after the band: “Repetition is the platform for free thinking.”
No more talk. It's time to start.
Rather than getting bogged down with the pre-history of Factory Floor, I'm going to treat Nik joining as year zero. Nik, when did you first see Factory Floor live?
Nik Void: I saw them in East London playing a show. I really liked their awkwardness on stage. They had a rapport but at the same time it was like they didn't really like playing with each other. Everything that was coming out sounded like it shouldn't work together but it did. I liked the fact they had their heads down and there was no acknowledgement of the people watching them.
I got in touch with them on the internet. I didn't actually meet them for six months. I don't know what that was about! We did some work together by passing files back and forth on the internet even though I was living in East London and they were living in East London! Eventually I went to see them play again and introduced myself. One of the guys was having a bit of difficulty in the band, he wasn't really feeling it, so I just stood in after he left, to give them time to find a new guitarist or vocalist.
We did a few shows and one of those was at Shoreditch Church and we seemed to click. Around that time Dom switched to an SH101 synth, he wasn't playing bass any more. I remember when he was playing bass when I first saw them before I joined, his bass was just feeding back, and I really liked that. The transition to him changing to electronics and me joining seemed to click straight away.
After Nik joined, did it feel that you'd found the path you were about to start going down?
Dom Butler: Yeah. Before Nik joined there were a lot of ideas that I wanted to explore. For starters, bringing a synthesiser down to rehearsals and not a bass guitar. Nik joining drew a line under where we'd been before.
Gabe Gurnsey: When Nik started playing it just all locked in. She has a much more direct approach to playing. She was a lot more spontaneous with music. Nik's quite hands on, DIY, because she's done sculpture and art for years, so her attitude is more spontaneous.
Which was the first song you wrote as Factory Floor?
NV: They already had a sketch of 'Wooden Box', so vocally I think it was 'Lying'. I thought they were still into these prominent song structures, so that was my first attempt at doing that. I quite liked the simplicity of it. I just remember we had one of the keys taped down on the synth and just left it running for hours and hours. And that was like the start of things to come!
GG: 'Lying' came about from me and Nik messing about in the studio. She was playing drums and singing and I was pissing about on guitar. It was quite an interesting way of working, because she then formed the rhythm of that track, which I then copied and elaborated on a bit. Then Dom added the synth line later. It was quite a gentle version at first. Dom brought the more aggressive element to it by adding this really driving synth to it. He'd just got a 303 clone and was trying it out.
Lyrically did the dark themes for 'Lying' and 'Wooden Box' set the tone for Factory Floor?
NV: Yeah. I mean, at that point we were quite dark. I don't know if the influence was East London, us getting to know each other. I'd just been through some personal turmoil and was just starting again in London. And Gabe and Dom, as personalities, are quite dark anyway. So we wouldn't want to write a song about love in the traditional way. 'Lying' was about death and 'Wooden Box' was about death, we didn't realise this at the time, but I think we needed to get that out of the way, get the subject out of the way, so that we could write songs that weren't really about the lyrical content but the sound of the vocals. At the beginning I thought Dom and Gabe were going to be singing a lot more, but they decided it wasn't for them, which is a shame.
GG: There was a lot more tension in the band in early days because we were still trying to find who was doing what. There were a lot of transitional periods but that dark element is not so noticeable on this album. There are a lot of surplus tracks left over from writing the album where we would say something like, “we need another 'Wooden Box' style track" - you know, something dirty sounding - but they just didn't work in this context. I think we grew out of all that last year and we just wanted to be more celebratory on stage. We just didn't want to be so moody on this album.
Nik, do you purposefully obscure what you're saying on the new material, making it hard to hear what you're actually saying?
NV: It might be a thing of my personality that I don't want to have the focus on me, and I kind of have this idea that when there are people interested in what I'm doing or creating, then I don't want to take up their time with self-indulgence. The importance of what we do, for us, is people having their own experiences through our music and losing themselves. So the vocals had to take a different form and not be from a self-interested perspective.
This meant that the vocals and the lyrics became very simplified, and they were gauged by what that word or phrase sounded like, and how they worked split up into sounds and sections. I would split them up into bits - which is what I was doing with my guitar, I'd been sampling the feedback, cutting the beginnings and ends off in the recording process, so they would sound more like samples. And I kind of did the same with words to a certain degree. And some of them aren't even words, I have to admit [laughs]. I can't really work out what I'm saying. But a lot of it is simple, and the title of the tracks are very simple, like 'Turn It Up'. It's going back to basics, to instincts.
Is it analogous to rave or house, where you might get the disembodied voice of an R&B singer chopped up, so she's just singing a really simple phrase that acts as an intensifier in the song?
NV: Yeah, totally. It's like regurgitating the start point and putting it through so many processes that it no longer has a personal meaning to you. It's taking it away from you. I record a vocal and it's then used as a tool. It stops being a personal part of yourself and starts being an object.
What about the art collaborations? Factory Floor are as comfortable in a rave environment as you are in an art gallery environment.
NV: That's a good thing about Factory Floor. There are different elements to what we like to get out of live performances, and I like the art side of it, Gabe and Dom do too, but I feel comfortable on the art side of it, and they feel comfortable in the club side of it. Dom's split between the two, perhaps. Before we did the ICA residency I suggested setting up electronically, having the visuals and just letting it run on for as long as we could, and not having any structure to any of the tracks, and it worked. From that the co-ordinator at the ICA asked us to do the residency and then we asked other artists along. I think because we had the involvement of the ICA, that's what made other artists take us a bit more seriously. It wouldn't have been the same if we'd said, 'Let's go and take over a warehouse in East London.'
With Peter Gordon we'd already done a collaboration over the internet for Beachcombing and we'd built up a rapport. We'd stayed in touch via email, and I said, 'how about if I can get the ICA to come over to England, would you be interested appearing on stage?' He was fantastic. He said, "I don't want any money, just my airfare, and I'll come over and perform." We spent three days in the studio and played together solidly, but by the time we got on stage we played something totally different. But having the ICA behind us was a real boost, they were perhaps seeing something in us that we didn't really see ourselves.
Is it important for you to put distance between yourselves and other bands that you may end up on bills with, simply because you have a dark electronic sound?
NV: We all appreciate those bands, but that wasn't what we were trying to do. We didn't bring in electronics to sound like a darkwave electronic band. We brought in electronics because Dom wanted to experiment with something new after getting fed up with the bass. And that's how we all are with our instruments. We have equipment and we want to experiment with it, and see how far we can push it. To the extent that I think Gabe's a little bit bored with his drums at the moment, and that's why he's bought loads of drum electronics. And that's why I don't play my guitar in a traditional way, and it's moved on even further with sampling. It's also why we wanted to have this space in Seven Sisters, so we wouldn't have to be part of the London tribe and we could be apart from the scene. Because it was creeping up on us. I wasn't in that scene really, but Gabe and Dom were a little bit. But we were thinking, 'Why would we want to get ourselves into a galvanised scene, let's move on, otherwise we won't be able to do our own thing.'
And as a really noticeable part of your progression – in very broad terms – you started off as a noise act but now you're a dance act.
DB: One of the turning points was bringing an SH101 into the studio. A lot of the bass lines I had been playing on an actual guitar were already very arpeggio driven, and I just couldn't keep it up live to be honest, and add to that guitars going out of tune, it was a nightmare. So when I brought the SH101 down to rehearsals it got little sparks flying in my mind, thinking it could become even more metronomic. So that started to define the sound a bit. When that started to happen, it meant I could revisit a lot of really inspiring sounds that I'd grown up with in dance music. I'd always done dance music myself at home with a drum machine and a synth, but to be able to play it in a space with others, that was really interesting. But I always wanted to keep an element of the noise thing in there, and that part has grown really strong. Nik uses the guitar in a certain way which still keeps the noise element there, and the textures like guitar distortion that I really love.
NV: Well, Dom had switched from bass to synths, and if you look at any modular synth artists you see that their table of tools just grows and grows and grows, and I think he was just getting to grips with what he wanted to get out of it. His synth is really the foundation of the sound where the drums were before. So Gabe and Dom had switched roles, so Gabe has to go in time with Dom, and that gives him more creative space to introduce different percussion instruments, cowbells and so on, where it didn't really have that space before. Because of the way that I look at music, I don't want to play over the top of anyone else, I want to find space in the music. So my part has become minimal, but I want to make sure that what I put in is significant to the track. Obviously Factory Floor tracks don't have any changes, we don't have chords, so it was my job to make that long length of synth and drums into a track. So if I played noise over the top of it as well, it would just be a little bit like, 'where is it going to go now?' It's dancey at the moment, but it could still go somewhere else next year.
GG: I think it was a lot to do with reactions from crowds. All of us started getting a bit sick of noise. I think we're really into the idea of manipulating sound to make people dance. We want people to have more of a good time. People weren't getting lost in the music, they were just watching the band, like watching us is the most important thing. I guess it is the important thing with some bands, but not us. We did a fuckload of gigs last year and just developed the songs. We'd worked out the backbones to the tracks, but when we took them out onto the stage they properly evolved, possibly out of things like nerves, adrenaline and audience feedback, and then we take those ideas back into the studio.
DB: I've been putting a lot of 808s into the sound via modules… clones of the originals… It's nice to play off Gabe's drumming with an 808 sound. The rhythms that I'm making are created on mechanical sequencers. They're thrown on top of a humanistic drummer, with this robotic, rhythmical 808 sound. It's very interesting, and there are a lot of examples of this on the album.
GG: I think it was probably last year. I think we just took the best bits - judged by how the crowd reacted - and the parts that we enjoyed playing as well. Those are the things that stay in our set. There wasn't a definitive point, we just got to learn about what worked best. It was an evolution.
You've played rock festivals, raves, warehouse parties, art galleries… what's this down to, your wish to push your sound in as many different contexts, as possible or the versatility of the group?
GG: I think it's more the weird versatility of Factory Floor that makes it work in different contexts. Obviously we see certain people at a lot of our gigs, but the type of audience have been different at every single thing we've done, and we've always had people getting into it. We've never strategically said that we want to play a rock festival because we want to reach that demographic. We're not doing that at all. It's a lot more organic. I think what we do transcends a lot of audience divides. I like the idea that people can't quite pinpoint what we are. I'm obsessed with longevity, and if you start a band with an open mind as to what the music is and how you present it, then you can achieve longevity by not going for one audience.
Are you relieved to have the album out of the way?
NV: Really relieved. It's been a tough two years. It was a big commitment to take on the space and live and record together.
When did you start the album?
NV: We started it four months after 'R E A L L O V E', which was our most difficult time. That was the transition point, when we were changing from being a noisy, arty, dark-sounding band coming to this relatively light dance band. 'R E A L L O V E' was that bit in between. We recorded it with Stephen Morris, but it took six months after that, back and forth and file sharing to get that finished. But it was a learning process, and we wanted to get that thing out of the way. I'm not sure if he influenced that, but you do hear New Order in your head when you go and visit him. Early New Order through when they went to New York in the early 80s is a significant change, and you take that lightness of approach. It must have been summer 2010.
You have a song called 'Two Different Ways', but Factory Floor could easily be called Three Different Ways. To what extent do the different personalities in the band act as a creative dynamo?
DB: [Ironically] 'Two Different Ways' is actually where we're all really pulling together on an idea. There are other songs on the album where we're more detached. The idea that we all have a strong idea of what we're doing, and trying to fit them into a space - it shows that there is a dynamic in the band, and there's not just one person leading. We're all really passionate about what we do and our sound. It's not like any of us are underneath, and there's one lead guitarist or whatever. We're all pushing our sound to the max on most songs.
NV: [laughs] I've thought about this quite a lot. Maybe Factory Floor were where they were when I first joined because having three guys battle it out doing tracks, it was so obvious that they weren't listening to each other that much, or even that respectful of each other. And when I first joined it was almost like it was slightly, 'Oh my God, there's a girl in the band! We have to be a bit more gentle and a bit more respectful.' Actually, it wasn't like that really, there were massive arguments, and sometimes I'd feel like I'd come out of boot camp when we'd finished a rehearsal. [laughs] The personalities work well because I tend to be a pushover and Gabe and Dom aren't pushovers. So that's made me stronger, but then they're better at listening to each other now. The egos aren't there so much as they were before. I think it's really important to not have egos when you're trying to create music that's going to go forward somewhere. As well, away from making the music, there's the art and the making videos. We all seem to have been through this boot camp now, and we're all on the same wavelength.
GG: I think a lot of the tensions tend to be two against one, this revolving triangle which shifts. If there were four people there'd be an obvious divide. In the early days that tension really drove it and informed the aggression that a lot of earlier gigs had. I guess it was a lot more punky than it is now. I wouldn't change it from what it is. We all have a similar approach to music but all have differing ideas of where it should go, but then we all have to come together to make it work.
It needs to be stated very clearly that this is the absolute opposite of a Deep Purple – everything louder than everything else – maximal, ego-driven rock record. In fact it's the absolute opposite, it's completely minimal and very spacious. Do you feel it was worth that struggle and length of time to be where you are now?
NV: Yeah, absolutely. No pain, no gain. [laughs] There were some hard times, but it was worth it because we knew something good was going to come out of it in the end. And it reaffirmed we were doing something right when we actually played together. The dynamic changed when we went into the studio, because we were finding our feet. You have to have a slight leader in a studio. It got to the point where I'd have to say to Gabe and Dom, 'Look, can you leave me tonight so I can work on my vocals, I'm conscious that you're sitting there and I need to work on this on my own.' And that takes a lot of confidence to do that, and that was one of the struggles to do that, to get the point where we could leave each other to do our bits. And that developed over the [first] year. That was probably the most important thing that happened in the two years that we were doing the record.
GG: Yeah. It's taken two years of gigging to find out what it is that we do in the band individually, and it's taken all of these stepping stone records to get to the point where we can do this album. It's a demonstration of what we can do.
In a weird sort of way the album does remind me of watching the band live, because it does demand that you listen very loud. There are certain sorts of music that you need to listen to loud. Black metal, minimal techno… it's the same with Factory Floor.
NV: Yeah. And I think it's a really good album to listen to if you're not consciously focusing on it. I was driving to London yesterday and I had it on. I listened to it five times! And it was fantastic to drive to. You can do your day-to-day thing to it because it's got that space that allows you to do that, oddly enough. The best way is to listen to it loud, because otherwise you'll miss those subtleties… those subtle but significant changes… they're really minute, and if you miss that one change, you might think you'd be listening to the same ARP all the way through.
You used a guy called Q to mix the album...
GG: We recorded the songs in our own studio because of the amount of time we spend working on stuff. We recorded the basics in our Seven Sisters studio. With each one we'd work out a backbone for the track, but then each one would be improvised. And we tend to build on the foundation of the live take. We don't record songs practised like we used to with 'Lying'. I guess that's why it took us so long. The reason why it sounds so consistent is because of Q, the mixer who has worked with VCMG and Erasure before. We've never met him, never spoken to him on the phone, never spoken to him on Skype, he'd never heard us before, he's never seen us live. We sent him 'Fall Back' as a test and when he sent it back I was like, 'Fuck me – that's how I imagine us sounding live.' It was inspiring to hear what someone else could do with our music.
You have very progressive ideas about how sound should fill space live, and how the volume and noise should almost be tactile live. How did you go about recreating any of these ideas for the album or did you even bother trying?
DB: It was a bit of a nightmare really, because when you're in a live situation you're feeding off so many different things, the audience, the space, your nerves, even the journey there; it all leads into the performance. But going into a studio and trying to do that, it's hard, and we all struggled with it. But we just plugged in and just played, and kept on playing and recording, and edited the tape down to points which would make us go, “Ah, that works!” There might be an envelope of 15 minutes that would be working, so you trim that section out, and that's when you can add or subtract, in more of a producerly kind of way. But it was really hard to walk that line, to keep the balance of playing live and producing it. And it doesn't always work, there are tracks on the album where it became really obvious that it wasn't going to work that way. So they ended up being more like a dance production, done in the studio, editing and building tracks out of blocks of sound. But some were live.
Dom, every time you switch on your synthesiser, what is the common theme of what you're trying to achieve?
DB: I see it like I'm trying to upset the rhythm and I'm trying to create shapes that are asymmetrical. It's weird with a synthesiser, because it feels like you're always working on a grid. So I'm always trying to fit in shapes that shouldn't fit onto that grid. The synths have something about them that I can ruin. If you use synths properly you fit them to those grids but I use them to rebel. You are supposed to follow rules when you use synthesisers, but this allows you to rebel. And when you rebel, that's when creative things happen.
So what about 'Here Again'… your 'pop song'… do you usually have to resist any pop impulses or obscure them a bit?
NV: It's not resisting pop at all. I can appreciate pop as a grown up from listening to the radio. I wouldn't know how to write a pop song, but I do think it's in your blood from when you grow up with it. So it was an attempt to try and write a pop song [to the extent] that it's actually got a chorus. But that is my vocal performance that I cringe when I hear it. I listen to it and think, 'What am I doing?' It's totally out of my comfort zone.
GG: I like the fact that it's quite poppy. Nik and I both like the idea that it's pop influenced. I think Dom's less into the idea. There are some elements in 'Here Again' that I liken to Michael Jackson, but really we can't write pop songs. No matter how hard we tried, there would be our ability letting us down, if that makes sense. But I like the idea of keeping on pushing in that direction. Even if we wanted to write a pop song, we couldn't. It's purposeful the way it undulates and shifts. There are elements that drop in maybe once, and they're like hooks that almost are, but aren't. They're there to make the listener think, 'Where's that bit gone, why hasn't it come back?'
I should say for the record at this point that it doesn't sound like Britney Spears. It's perhaps not what most people think of as a pop record.
NV: No! Not at all. It's the closest we get on the album to a traditional song structure, and at the end it kind of explodes into this big chorus. [laughs]
Gabe, what do you think the band's philosophy is?
GG: Repetition is the platform for free thinking.
Factory Floor's debut album is out on September 9 via DFA