Faults In The Gridline: Bronze Teeth Interviewed

As Bronze Teeth, L/F/D/M's Richard Smith and Factory Floor's Dominic Butler craft scorchingly abrasive, gnarled beat tracks inspired by rave sound systems and the patterns of nature. With their debut 12" released this week on Diagonal, they speak to Joe Clay about crowbarring open dance music to uncover new things inside

Art school will always play an important role in nurturing creativity and has long been a fertile breeding ground for musicians, constantly producing inventive pop stars, from Bowie and Brian Eno to M.I.A. and Kanye. In an interview with Will Hodgkinson for The Observer in 2009, The Who’s Pete Townshend, who briefly studied at Ealing Art College, recalled being "mentally brutalised" by "some wild thinking that was off the map", while Jarvis Cocker, who attended Central St Martins in 1988, "was taught to think about things in a non-lateral way."

At the back end of the 1990s Dominic Butler, Factory Floor’s intense modular synth wizard, was studying printmaking at art school in Cambridge. For Butler, art school represented a second chance after several lost years in oblivion, raving, DJing and taking too many drugs, sleeping on people’s floors and generally being a bit lost. Butler was suffering from sleep deprivation at art school too, working on his sculptures and installations in the daytime and spending his nights with his beloved Roland MC-303. One day, gloriously spewing out of the communal music system that normally played non-stop Terry Callier, came the blissed-out Detroit techno of Drexciya’s ‘Andreaen Sand Dunes’. The man responsible for this change in musical vibe was Richard Smith, an Essex native several years younger than Butler but from a similar musical background, and with a love of hardcore rave and techno cultivated by the array of mixtapes that were in circulation. It was inevitable that the pair would become friends.

It is clear that their time at art school had a profound effect on the pair (see comedy bananas in promotional photo as the first exhibit, m’lud). For Smith, it "forced me to make decisions instinctively… going down routes that you can’t possibly plan for." Butler’s work at that point was dark and influenced by a "fear of techno", borne from his overindulgence. They were both dabbling in music, but at that point most of their creative urges were being realised through their art. Musical production always seemed like a pipe dream, but over time it began to take prominence over the art. They went their separate ways after graduation, with Butler moving to London in 2000 to do an MA (and going on to join Factory Floor in 2005), but the pair kept in touch. And as Butler started to pour all his energies into music, he in turn encouraged Smith "to focus towards better production, getting a few more hardware bits." Now those years of friendship have come to fruition in a musical union – Bronze Teeth.

The striking thing about Bronze Teeth is an almost complete absence of melody. The focus is on rough, rhythmic minimalism, from sparse drum track ‘Cut Bronze’ to the gnarly modular synths and spitting drum machines of ‘Acetone’ and the fizzing machine funk and low-end frequencies of ‘Glass Tooth’ and ‘Tetra’. The real treats are the two extended work-outs on each EP – there are two 12"s, released on Powell’s exemplary Diagonal imprint – both of which clock in at the 12-minute mark. ‘Tapeworm’, like the parasite it is named after, invades your body with its brutal repetition, vicious distorted synths and congealed rhythms that seem to get stuck under your feet. The second EP’s ‘Albion Pressure’, which you can listen to below, is a brute, with unrelenting arpeggios underpinned by sturdy 4/4 beats and a smattering of cowbell (the only real nod to Factory Floor in evidence on the EPs). Imagine a seriously twisted Plastikman or Joey Beltram on bath salts (the mental street drug that encourages cannibalistic urges, not the fragrant bathing accompaniment). Both work through the power of repetition, barely evolving over their duration, but with subtle changes designed to wreak maximum havoc on the marmalised mind in a club environment.

Listening to the EPs, I was reminded of a quote Butler gave me in an interview for the Quietus last year, where we discussed his love of the sonic assault of the free party sound systems of the early 1990s. Once, while off his head, he had an epiphany. "If you could stick a microphone inside the human body this is what it would sound like," he said. "The pulsing and the blood rushing round, the squelching – it’s so organic sounding". This quote ties in nicely with the press release that accompanies the first 12", O Unilateralis, which describes the Bronze Teeth aesthetic as exploring "the potential for chaotic interaction between metallic programmed rhythms and the fleshy pulses of the human body".

The music of Bronze Teeth is definitely closer in spirit to this sonic aesthetic than the output of Factory Floor. There’s a feeling that these are the sounds that live in Butler’s head, the noises that score his dreams. The Diagonal 12s are from the "OOOF!" (as the editors of this parish are prone to exclaim) school of techno bangers, with the hefty grunt of Perc at his most primal, while also taking in elements of the lethal acid of Smith’s underrated solo project, L/F/D/M. The Quietus exchanged emails with Butler and Smith ahead of the release of the Diagonal 12"s to gain an insight into the world of Bronze Teeth. The duo have also recorded a brand new mix, which you can listen to via the embed further down the page.

How and where did you meet? What were your first impressions of each other? Did you immediately find common ground, musical or otherwise? At what point did you decide to start making music together?

Richard Smith: We met at art school in Cambridge on a printmaking course. Dom was tinkering about with an MC303 at the time; I had my decks and a Groovebox but hadn’t really done anything other than mucking about recording loops to tape.

Dominic Butler: I was getting no sleep back then, daytimes at college and nights recording with the 303! I remember Richard playing ‘Andreaen Sand Dunes’ [by Drexciya] in the print studio and thinking "Thank fuck, a break from Terry Callier!" Not that I don’t like him, but nine hours a day?!

RS: Totally! There was a lot of jazz-funk and rare groove at college and really it opened me up to a lot of stuff I now love, ‘Rude Movements’ [by Sun Palace] is still a favourite.

DB: I first discovered Fela Kuti and Alice Coltrane then. I started buying those David Mancuso Loft compilations; it has that great version of Loose Joints ‘Is it All Over My Face’.

Jarvis Cocker said that art school encouraged him to "think about things in a non-lateral way". Does this resonate with you? How do you think going to art school has shaped you, both as artists and musicians?

Bronze Teeth: I think art school allows you that chance to explore an idea, to see it fully through, and to work out which medium it would suit. It might not have to be perfectly executed, the idea is key – how can you get that idea across. I think it can also be similar to most things that are taught, you don’t really start to focus and understand it until long after you’ve left. And started to pay off those student loans!

What is the process – do you work on your music together (i.e. in the same room) or do you share ideas over the internet?

Bronze Teeth: A bit of both; a lot of file sharing and some marathon stints set up with the machines recording as much as we can. A Waif’s Rent [the title of the second Diagonal 12"] actually comes from an elaboration on an anagram of one of the most mundane processes in our work process – file sharing.

How do the tracks come together? Does one of you take the lead or is the process totally collaborative?

BT: O unilateralis!

Can you elaborate a bit on what you mean by that? I just googled "O. unilateralis", Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, and it seems to refer to a fungus that fucks up ants. Is there a secondary meaning? Or are you possessed by a tropical fungus that drives you to make music?

BT: I guess we are talking about how patterns and nature just push on regardless. O. unilateralis is a very brutal example of that, but in terms of working on music with somebody else, it seemed quite fitting. That shift of ideas coming from left or right, you get challenged and have to assess whether this certain idea you have is actually any good, whether it’s worth you fighting to include it, or whether, like the ant. It’s time to submit to the inevitable.

Sonically it works on repetition – it’s actually quite trance-like, but in a brutal, minimalist way. Both EPs contain 12-minute tracks, but I could imagine all of them working in an extended form.

BT: Some of the tracks are derived from lengthy improvisations and edited down. It wasn’t necessarily a case of editing and removing the mistakes, it was more about making sure that the tracks maintained the spirit of the original take. ‘Tapeworm’ and ‘Albion Pressure’ were very much borne out of that repetition. It’s important to let the ideas unravel and totally immerse yourself in the moment, and those hypnotic repetitions are what can bring about altered states.

Quick equipment geek out – what weapons are in the Bronze Teeth arsenal?

BT: The modular synth sits at the centre – Make Noise, Tiptop Audio, 4MS, with various drum machines, mono synths and FX pedals, and a trusty Analog Mackie 12 [mixer] with the Aux Sends for dubbing out the sounds.

Is there any significance in the name Bronze Teeth?

BT: Kind of… Maybe… We were going to name ourselves Cut Bronze, which was a title to a drum track that we had floating about and was the first track that we worked on together. We were thinking along the lines of materials and processes. After a few odd conversations Cut Bronze then became Bronze Teeth in some kind of weird Timmy Mallet Mallet’s Mallet word association game! Bludgeoned. So in answer to your question… No – ha!

How did the 12"s come to be released on Diagonal?

RS: We had a conversation about labels that we were into and right at the bottom of the list was… Nah, we were both really drawn to the label from their first few releases. For Powell to come straight out with The Ongoing Significance of Steel and Flesh is crazy, it’s so good. It was a proper jolt when I first heard that and it immediately set him apart from the crowd, and that line has followed through the label in the artists that they choose to release.

DB: I think straight away I felt a kinship to the sound and aesthetic.

RS: It then just so happened that we bumped into Oscar (Powell) at one of Dom’s solo gigs and we got chatting about the project and sent him a few tracks. 

What are the albums/tracks/artists that have had the biggest influence on Bronze Teeth?

BT: We’re both into all sorts, but I think definitely that love of early-90s acid techno – Labworks, [Plastikman’s] Sheet One, Unit Moebius, Easygroove, but also an interest in electronic music in general and its lineage, from the early film sounds of Norman McLaren, Bebe and Louis Barron, Delia Derbyshire to Cluster, Esplendor Geometrico, Drexciya etc, to name a random few. But then also Terry Riley, Donald Byrd, Jean-Pierre Massiera etc. I guess for Bronze Teeth, the music that we most draw upon is music that allows you to lose yourself within it, any music that explores rhythm, be that Steve Reich and Rouicha Mohamed or Moondog and ESG. I think with some of the early acid techno, a lot of it sounds of its time, but it’s about trying to capture the essence or spirit, working out what of that sound still appeals, cutting the fat away.

I know Richard missed some of those early raves and got into techno and hardcore through mix tapes. Dom, have you shared your first-hand memories of the early-90s rave scene with Richard? How much do you think the music you make is informed by your experiences out in clubs/raves/forests?

DB: Yeah those early tapes were pretty legendary; there were always techno or dub tapes floating about. It’s amazing how one hour of a DJ’s life can still resonate so strongly, kind of similar to how bootleg tapes were circulated.

RS: Those mix tapes were like gold dust! And as a kid it’s what you held onto; that Dave Angel mix tape would have to last you through and would get played to death. It’s weird recently chatting to Dom discovering that we were listening to that same tape around the same time. I didn’t get to go out raving until the mid-90s and I always kinda felt I’d missed those halcyon days. When Dom was out ‘avin it, I was at home watching Grange Hill with my bowl of Frosties! But in a weird way my untainted idealism of how amazing those raves were remains intact, despite any subsequent knowledge that it’s a different experience when you’re in a club. Listening to that music in that environment affects you in a different way. You’re not aware of and don’t appreciate every nuance of what was played in the same way you do with headphones on at home.

DB: We really scrutinised those tapes. I think the "mix" was sometimes more important than the actual tracks being played. Thank God that’s changed! I think the difference between the tape and the party is interesting, I really fed off the mixes on the tapes but more the sonics at the parties. As you’re getting closer to the party you hear the low throb of the sound system and as you get closer the other frequencies establish themselves. I really like moving around a sound system and experiencing the physical shifts. How it impacts has really informed what we’ve done as Bronze Teeth, designing music for clubs. Our music definitely sounds best on a massive sound system!

Zomby said something similar to Richard – that not going to many of the early raves gave him an idealised/romanticised view of what they were like and he put this into his music, especially Where Were You in ’92? Is this something that you can relate to?

RS: Yeah, I mean I guess it’s the same for anyone – 1980s mod revivalists looking back to the 60s etc. I’m a sucker for nostalgia, but you have to be careful with that. I’m not interested in making pastiches; it’s about capturing that feeling rather than the sounds. I always wonder if I hadn’t heard a track like say, 4-Mega’s ‘Drop This’, when I was younger and was just hearing it fresh now, would I love it as much? How much of it is just me remembering how much I loved it as an eleven year old? If you think of some of those tracks; Tronik House – ‘Straight Outta Hell’, Frequency – ‘Kiss The Sky’, Wax Doctor – ‘A New Direction’. They were so evocative, designed for purpose, very rushy, shifting from idea to idea, and I would listen to my old mixtapes wishing I was old enough to go to Eclipse…

I think those records from that period had such an energy and a naïve charm. If you think between 1991 and 93, the change of ideas was just incredible. It’s interesting as well that, in a lot of cases, as those producers got more of an understanding of music production and "better" at what they did, it kind of stifled that creativity. It’s like that Picasso quote: "It took me four years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child". Anyway, I digress… but yep, I still have those romanticised views, I projected so much on those tracks that they became very three-dimensional in a way that I think I would find hard to do now.

With Dom now living in the country and Richard in Dalston, how do you think those contrasting environments – rural and urban – have fed into Bronze Teeth?

BT: With the making of the music, both rural and urban environs were key. It wasn’t a conscious intention to make music that drew from both, but we’re definitely interested in the organic aspect of letting the machines run their course, interacting and elaborating on blemishes and allowing accidents to sometimes inform our decision making. The primitive characteristics of an oscillator can have the same purity of tone as found in nature; the plugging in of a patch lead/the clap of thunder, but also the process of setting up the machines and connecting them all together to synchronise – it becomes like a small table-top city.

It’s easy to associate electronic music with the control and structure of urban living and some aspects of the tracks are obviously informed by club culture, but in equal measures they draw upon patterns, if that be the more organic rhythms that occur in nature or on the grid-like structures of a city. Having said that, you find both organic patterns and grid-like structure in both! But the brutality of some of the tracks, rather than being formed from some kind of industrial surroundings, was often drawn from nature. Not so much fluffy bunnies in springtime, but the reality of nature, which is that it’s something far more ruthless and persistent. In hindsight, I think that’s when we fell into the pretentious use of Latin. Oops!

Dom – what are the key differences, aside from personnel, between Factory Floor and Bronze Teeth? How do you decide what ideas are going into BT as opposed to FF?

DB: I think my approach to creating music is always the same. Both have an interest in experimentation, which is pretty important to me. I guess the writing and production with Bronze Teeth is more focused towards club music, maybe?

If you could collaborate with another artist or band who would it be and why?

BT: It would be great to link up and collaborate with artists working in a different field, perhaps sound design or soundtracks rather than our club-focused stuff, but within dance music the right remix would appeal more than collaboration.

Are there any plans for you to play live? If so, what will the set-up be?

BT: Definitely, we’d love to do some live stuff. It will be a mixture of improvisation, sonic assault and utter panic. As for set up it would be similar to how we record.

DB: Also we have more live work coming up with [the artist] Hannah Sawtell towards the end of this year.

So what are your plans for the future?

BT: We’re currently finishing off a remix and working on new material of a similar and dissimilar nature, delving deeper into the line between sound and music. It’d also be great to do an album with Diagonal at some point this year.

When I interviewed Forest Swords last year, he talked about the restrictions that making an album placed on the creative process. The physical format encloses and creates barriers because artists are making music purely for release. But there’s so much scope for music to be used in lots of different ways, it doesn’t just have to be about making an album. Is this what you’re getting at? If so, what other directions could you see yourselves taking your music if you did move away from the traditional model of write, record, release?

BT: With performance it is all about finding ways to engage instinctively with the gear in the creative process. This always seems to bring about better results; focusing more on sound and rhythm and attaining a physical response.

If we are talking about putting records out then I think we will always want to put out a banging 12", but the idea is to explore different genres under different pseudonyms – we have a load of material that’s perhaps more "tracky", which we’ll be releasing under the name Green Gums. It also really appeals to explore the idea of what people get as an LP. So alongside the finished, edited, mixed and mastered article, we’d include the recordings in their rawest, unadulterated state, as a document of where we are at that point in time, incorporating recordings of sounds that have influenced us, like a sketchbook…

I think the use of recorded sound as a way to document is very powerful, things that occur in the everyday and seem familiar and even mundane can soon become more interesting with time. This could be pushed further. Often when creating "tracks" or "music" there are certain boundaries and expectations of entertainment. Sound is a broader term, and doesn’t carry with it those limitations. It can encompass anything in the way that pure art is untethered by the satisfactions of image making.

Bronze Teeth’s O Unilateralis is out this week on Diagonal, with a second EP to follow later on in July.

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