Conservation Of Momentum: An Interview With Blanck Mass

As Blanck Mass, Fuck Buttons' Benjamin John Power evokes sprawling images of an Earth reclaimed by nature. He speaks to Charlie Fox about soundtracking the Olympic Opening Ceremony and Werner Herzog

Wait… what is that? A tranquillised, triumphal pulse that slowly turns into an enormous roar. You were scared to name it at first, but soon you knew: that was Blanck Mass’ ‘Sundowner’, dressed in gold by the London Symphony Orchestra for the Olympics Opening Ceremony. There have been stranger sounds reverberating around London in the last two weeks (the wounded walrus bellowing of any hammer-throw participant is one of the most frightening noises produced by a human, and the double sensory trauma of The Exorcist theme set against those floating half-jellyfish, half-angel creatures on bikes suggested the most sinister version of Heaven ever), but none of them came from a world more eerily set apart than that single track by Benjamin John Power.

As half of Fuck Buttons and operating solo as Blanck Mass, Power has dedicated himself to exploring abrasive, engulfing and immense sound worlds, far beyond London’s corporate pleasure-domes. Other tracks on that gorgeous first album felt like transmissions from the same eerie territory mapped by Brian Eno’s On Land, only thirty years later its landscapes and beaches had turned toxic and luminous, monsters lurking in the warm, all-enveloping mist. Fuck Buttons seemed to come from even further off, out of a psychotic vision of the jungle, full of jittery textures and the shrieking of demonic birds. It turns out Power is seriously into the work of that dedicated explorer of those hearts of darkness, Werner Herzog. 

When we speak on the phone, he’s just collected copies of his new 12” ‘White Math/Polymorph’. ‘They’re looking nice’, he says proudly. ‘Nice’ is his typically modest way of putting it. For somebody who makes such otherworldly sound, Power is very straightforward and affable, an impression that’s probably aided by his soft Bristolian accent. Uninterested in supplying complex explanations or conceptual frameworks for his activities, he likes to stress the excitement in the unexpected and experimental. Just like his music, he wishes to be constantly moving forward.

On ‘White Math/Polymorph’ the pace of that pulse has quickened, but the blood is still full of glitter: everything is sprawling and luscious and intensely propulsive, like a rush towards the centre of a kaleidoscope. They’re fantastic reminders that the dancefloor can still be a space for hallucination and flight.

‘Sundowner’ being used in the Olympic Opening Ceremony must have been pretty surreal…

Benjamin John Power: That was great. I was quite surprised myself when I got asked. It was actually Rick [Smith] from Underworld who was in charge of all the music at the opening ceremony and I guess he was just a fan, and once he announced it was going to be played along with the London Symphony Orchestra, I jumped at the chance – it sounded like a lot of fun.

Like a lot of your work, these two new tracks are lengthy, expansive pieces. They seem to live and grow. What excites you about working on such a grand scale?

BJP: It’s not necessarily that I set out to write these long tracks, but the dynamic and interplay between components is something that I definitely find very interesting. I’m not averse to shorter tracks if you can say enough within that space of time, but I definitely feel with the [Blanck Mass] album and the EP, some of the textures I was using really lend themselves to a prolonged listen. You would start to notice things you never would’ve noticed before once they’ve played out for a little bit longer. [The tracks] take on their own form. It comes from a lot of playing around with whatever I have in front of me, and quite a lot of the time I don’t actually know how to use it properly – the whole process is experimental. I never have an idea how the finished track is going to sound. I let all the components dictate what happens. The track speaks for itself. They write themselves, you could maybe say. 

Both ‘White Math’ and ‘Polymorph’ have this solid, unstoppable sense of motion and rhythm. They feel like your most explicit attempts at dance music.

BJP: I don’t sit down thinking, ‘I’m going to write a dance track now’, especially, but the equipment that I’m using is always changing. I like to try and experiment with new gadgets whenever I can, just to broaden the [sound] palette. It just so happens that the one piece of kit I used to write ‘White Math’ and ‘Polymorph’ almost exclusively, contained these really nice, programmable drum sounds so I guess that’s where that came from. You know, it was a new way of working for me and [brightly]… I think they sound good!

And another good thing is they’re coming out on Daniel Lopatin and Joel Ford’s Software label. How did that come about? 

BJP: Dan’s an old friend. We’ve played shows together in the past. As soon as he and Joel started Software we talked about doing a release one day, and I played these two tracks to him and he seemed to really fall in love with them straight away, so it just made sense [for them to put it out]. I’ve actually just this second come back with the records. They’re looking nice. That’s one of the best feelings when you get your artefact handed back to you and you’re like, ‘Wow, ok…’

Along with your own releases, you put out mixes pretty regularly. How do they inform your approach to your work?

BJP: The practise for me is kind of the same as it would be for one of my own records. I like there to be a strong sense of a narrative there, but at the same time I don’t like to forcibly insist any kind of mental imagery – at least when it comes to my own stuff. When it comes to other people’s tracks, I want to keep it interesting. I like the subject matter to be ambiguous but I always want there to be narrative in anything I do, it’s a really important thing for me. I guess because I listen to a lot of soundtracks…

And soundtracks are fascinating things…

BJP: They really are, and it’s an incredible practise. I’ve not done a soundtrack from start to finish, but arguably my records are soundtracks for films that haven’t been made yet and images going on in my head. It’s something I’d like to do in the future. I think it would be a totally new practise for me and it would be quite hard because the way that I structure these things now… it’s a blank canvas when it comes to [the possible] storyline, so it would be interesting to work with somebody else’s artistic vision and try to enhance that with the music I make.

Who would you soundtrack, ideally?

BJP: I’d make some music for Werner Herzog in a flash. If there was a chance that maybe he knew who I was, then maybe I’d get to make some music for him, so fingers crossed for that one! Maybe he’ll read this interview and I’ll get the phone call, we’ll see. Soundtracking’s really seeped into my psyche and the way I work. 2001 was one of the first films I ever saw and the soundtrack really blew me away. [Ennio] Morricone as well, I’m a big fan of Morricone.

[A clumsy attempt is made to liken the trajectory of certain Blanck Mass tracks to the flight through the Star Gate into oblivion at the end of 2001]

BJP: Yeah, I definitely see that, sure. There’s never a goal in mind, but motion and momentum is very important, not just in work but in anything you do. [Decisively] Momentum is very important to me. It’s impulse, as opposed to something with a finished goal. That’s what I operate on, that’s my main impetus, really, when I start to do anything. It’s the only way I know how to work, really. I can’t not be busy.

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