Fuck Buttons: Interview
“It’s almost as if the music is the soundtrack to films that don’t exist.”

Fuck Buttons have been gone a long while. After the success of their first two albums, Street Horrrsing and Tarot Sport, released in rapid succession in 2008 and 2009, the duo from Bristol, England laid low, playing single gigs for All Tomorrow’s Parties from time to time and tinkering away at one project or another. Last year, they inadvertently resurfaced when Damon Albarn and company selected “Olympians” and “Surf Solar,” off Tarot Sport, to be played as part of the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

But Fuck Buttons have returned, and four years has made a significant difference. On their new album, Slow Focus, they maintain many of the stylistic elements that made them a significant act to watch in the first place: playing with tension and narrative cohesion. However, gone are the bleed-ins and excited overtones, replaced by abrupt and specific structure, as well as a more careful and wary outlook. Tiny Mix Tapes spoke with Benjamin Powers about these new developments. He also discussed the approach of writing a record, working from your own studio, and visual inspirations.


So let’s start with the matter at hand: Slow Focus leaked yesterday. How do you feel?

It’s inevitable. Nowadays, everything leaks, doesn’t it? People are going to hear it, one way or another. It’s hard to keep on top of that kind of thing. It’s probably more of an issue for the labels, because there’s a plan and a timeline when things are happening. They put a lot of thought into those, and when somebody beats it… I dunno, everybody wants to be the person to be able to say “I heard it first.”

In the time between Tarot Sport and now, what changed in terms of your general compositional approach?

Our approach to composition has pretty much been the same since we first started out, which was nearly 10 years ago, which seems pretty crazy to think about, and to say. Andy [Hung] and I always start with a blank canvas when we start to write something, really. That approach and mentality has always worked out quite beneficially, just in the sense that we have no preconceptions on what the finished composition and piece is going to sound like.

We don’t come into the writing session with any ideas that we’ve generated on our own, in our own time. It’s a very explorative fashion in which we work. So that often means we leave ourselves open to surprises, and once we do come across a texture that interests us, we build upwards from there, and then structure it.

I guess it suggests a certain grandeur, when you think about it. Especially when you’re considering fractals and the like. That’s maybe where the appeal came from for previous album artwork. And there’s this hallucinogenic quality that’s obviously quite appealing when considering the nature of the textures used on the previous records.

Speaking of working with Andrew, I recall him tweeting a couple years ago about picking up gear from car boot sales. How much of your equipment takes from those markets?

That was more of a case because when we first started out, we were students, and we try to utilize anything that makes a sound, because it’s obviously unconventional, and we want to use that in an unconventional manner, even. Now, we have some more expensive synths, we have some really cheap synths. It doesn’t really matter. We try not to get too attached to a particular thing, because I think that boxes you in a little bit. It doesn’t leave you much room for scope. Anything goes, and that’s always the general rule.

Going into the album itself, I first want to talk about compositional structure. What I notice a lot about your previous songs is this inherent tension: You build up your songs through adding instruments from time to time, into something that is almost monolithic in structure, and you just let that go like a rubber band midway through a song…

We’re interested in the passage of time that we actually take over certain components. We’re both perfectionists: We throw out quite a lot of sounds, and the ones that we decide to keep are the ones that really interest us. If you leave out something to play a little bit longer, your ears start to adjust to the sounds. You actually start to pick out certain intricacies within those certain components that you might not have been able to pick out if you, say, leave them playing for a shorter amount. That probably has something to do with why our tracks are a little bit longer than your conventional pop song. That’s something that really interests us.

In relation to that, the new album, in and of itself, has far more movement. It definitely still has that tension there, but you have a lot more to say.

Again, it really comes down to the fact that whenever we start writing, we start with a blank canvas. I don’t think there was a particular pole towards any kind of practice. This is what came out once we started to experiment. There’s still a dynamic similarity to Slow Focus and the other records… Maybe the palette of sounds didn’t necessarily need such a dramatic structure. The sounds did that job, in that kind of a sense, to themselves.

So you see all three records as having a similar form to what you have been doing?

Yeah, it’s a similar form. But there is a sentiment involved with the new record that hadn’t been explored before, and it is slightly more malevolent and more aggressive in its nature.

It’s funny you mention the aggression, because I feel like the record has more pacing, things aren’t as frantic as the first two records. Was there a general focus?

Yeah. Tarot Sport sounded a lot more excited, whereas this record sounds more anxious.

Would you say that a lot of the things you did with this record had much to do with producing it on your own, rather than with John Cummings or Andrew Weatherall?

I think that the pros of doing that… For this record had more to do with the fact that we had our own studio space. So we didn’t have to work to anybody else’s time. So that may have unconsciously influenced the overall pace that you mentioned. I guess you were saying it was a touch slower. But when you’re not working to someone else’s diary, you can really take your time over these things, and perhaps that has echoed into the actual pace of the record overall.

One other thing I noted is that the interconnectedness of the record is less obvious than it was in the first two albums. I mean, in Tarot Sport and Street Horrrsing, they could be seen as a singular piece, and the tracks were multiple movements. Whereas with this album, each track can be considered completely distinct.

I definitely see that. That was more of a conscious effort this time around, to do something that could still have a very coherent narrative, which I think it does. In fact, I think the narrative is even more coherent than the last two records. But it was an interesting practice for us to try and have the tracks that didn’t necessarily have segues and bleed into each other, but still were coherent, and still told a story. It was more of a challenge for us. It’s quite a bit easier to force a narrative if you do have segues, for that’s a very physical way of connecting something, isn’t it? It’s the most physical way, when you’re considering segues and bleed. But it’s maybe a little bit harder to keep that momentum intact and solid, when there are actual physical breaks. But it’s still quite linear.

We try not to get too attached to a particular thing, because I think that boxes you in a little bit. It doesn’t leave you much room for scope. Anything goes, and that’s always the general rule.

But there is also a lot of different sound influences in this new record as well. I’m hearing a lot of shoegaze, early 80s electronic, and even a bit of hip-hop here or there. Just out of curiosity, what were you listening to at that time that impacted this record?

Another important practice that I certainly exercise when I’m working on a project is that I tend not to listen to much else. That’s not always even as a conscious effort. I just become involved with the project at hand. I’m constantly listening to the track. We don’t necessarily look into outward influences when we’re writing, mainly because of the way we write: It’s very explorative, when considering the instrumentation we used. Some of the types of music you just described we’re big fans of, but they don’t necessarily inform the sound of the record in it’s completed form.

Is there even perhaps a particular film you were feeling during production?

No, but once we finished writing the tracks, we always have a conversation about what kind of visual metaphor might be conjured up by a track or even the album as a whole. In particular, there is a desolate feel to this record. It’s quite anxious and desolate. The landscape is somewhat aggressive. I wouldn’t say there’s a particular film that informed it, but I can certainly think of films that the aesthetic might work with the music alongside afterwards.

Could you name one off the top of your head?

You definitely get a Blade Runner-esque feel.

I wanted to ask about your use of kaleidoscopic art, especially in the music videos and in the cover art for some of your work, including Tarot Sport.

Well, I do the other artwork.

Yeah, there seems to be an affinity towards the use of that. What is the appeal?

The kaleidoscopic nature in that? What is the appeal? I guess it suggests a certain grandeur, when you think about it. Especially when you’re considering fractals and the like. That’s maybe where the appeal came from for previous album artwork. And there’s this hallucinogenic quality that’s obviously quite appealing when considering the nature of the textures used on the previous records. The artwork in the video now is maybe a little bit more direct. It’s suggesting something a little different than the last records. There’s a glitz involved, but there’s also an ambiguity in a descriptive sense with the new artwork, and certainly with the new video.

So you would suggest there’s more general concern along with anxiety?

Maybe an element of concern, metaphorically speaking, not personally for Andy and I in a real world sense. But it’s always difficult for me and Andy to force any kind of imagery upon people, because it’s quite a good position to be in, where people can create their own tale and their own imagery when listening to this music. It’s almost as if the music is the soundtrack to films that don’t exist. But who’s to say? It’s a nice position to be in, where no set piece of imagery is right or wrong. It’s completely open to interpretation.

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