Flesh and Bone: Fuck Buttons' Benjamin John Power returns as Blanck Mass
The bucolic daydream of Blanck Mass’ eponymous debut has slipped into an exhilarating kind of nightmare with follow-up Dumb Flesh. Benjamin John Power takes time out to talk about isolation, contradiction and his new life in Bonnie Scotland.
Benjamin John Power is "super happy." The man who comprises one half of cosmic electronic crusaders Fuck Buttons and operates under his own amorphous Blanck Mass guise has just relocated to the East Lothian countryside. Power is opining about the beautiful scenery, settling down here with his wife, even the educational standard of the local schools. At the same time, he is ostensibly talking to us about the decrepit nature of the human body, the flaws in our genetic make-up that will ultimately usurp us, and how we’re all just "walking lumps of sentient flesh."
Such contradictions pepper our conversation regarding Power’s forthcoming album Dumb Flesh. Stylistically, this is worlds away from the ambient calm of his initial solo release outing as Blanck Mass in 2010 and subsequent White Math EP. An artistic volte-face up there with the best of them; the woozy, ethereal and often lush orchestration of his debut has largely evaporated, leaving propulsive, grimy shards of dystopian sci-fi-inflected anti-anthems in its wake.
"I think I’d need some kind of psychoanalysis to try and figure out exactly why this album became what it is," says Power of the radical overhaul. Such unintentional elusiveness continues as he attempts to make sense of which, if any, external influences might have helped shape the project's current direction. "It sounds clichéd but I really wasn’t paying attention to pop culture whatsoever while I was making Dumb Flesh," he states. "I feel like I’m really behind and I don’t know what’s going on outside of my own world. Obviously things will creep into your psyche without you even realising it, but it would be very, very hard for me to pinpoint them."
"I don’t like to think that the machine plays the player" – Benjamin John Power
In a way, it’s a dynamic example of the themes at the album's heart. "It’s about the human form and the inefficiencies that we deal with as human beings and, ultimately, the decay we become at the end of that," Power sums up somewhat gloomily. "A lot happened to me during the recording of this album – there was a realisation about the body and how we’re really not as perfect as we might perceive ourselves to be when we’re somewhat younger."
However, this is not just a personal lament about the process of ageing, but a wider set of issues facing our species that have been fermenting in Power’s mind. "Obviously ageing is encompassed by the overall themes, but I think it’s about the fact that things are gradually getting worse," he elaborates. "I’m not here to tell anybody how to look after themselves – I stick to a vegan diet but then I smoke as well, which some might see as a contradiction of sorts. Unfortunately a characteristic trait of human beings is that we are creatures of habit and we are prone to addiction. Maybe these are all evolved traits that we’ve inherited."
Articulating these thoughts with what is essentially an instrumental album, Power has concocted a startling mix of monolithic white noise, hard-edged electronica and unrecognisable, looped vocal snippets. In that, Dumb Flesh is a record that never fails to surprise and yet, despite its subject matter, manages to balance its darker edges with a more hopeful atmosphere as it progresses. Power may talk despairingly of the human condition, but his music seems to say otherwise.
"This album is a soundtrack to everybody’s individual script," Power concedes when asked about listener ownership. "For the people who have invested in my music so far, it’s something of an insult to tell them what they should be thinking about when they’re listening to it. What right do I have to do that? Then again, that might seem like a double standard given that there is a very strong narrative to Dumb Flesh. Even with naming tracks you’re pushing someone towards an aesthetic, but it’s a necessary evil for the ease of organisation, which, again, is something very human."
With his myriad of contradictions building up, it’s easier to understand where the music that Power makes comes from. It seems prudent to wonder whether this frustration with the corporeal, organic world is why he works within the broad genre of electronica. "I think so, but I’ve always tried to impose my own sensibilities upon these machines," he says on the tools of his trade. "I don’t like to think that the machine plays the player – which I hear happening a lot. I didn’t have the first idea about the equipment I was using when I first started and even now when I get a new piece of kit, I don’t read the manual. It’s maybe a lack of patience, another human trait that I have, and maybe it’s a bit naïve but it’s an honest approach to writing, which I think gives the outcome a lot more character."
If Power’s character is what he injects his music with, then as Blanck Mass he’s certainly showing us different sides of it. In keeping with his stated "individual script" we’ll think of his eponymous debut as a meditative, nostalgic paean, whereas White Math was a more hedonistic affair. In that sense, Dumb Flesh falls somewhere in between; more concerned with body than mind perhaps, yet still contemplative but wider ranging in its outlook.
"Blanck Mass is me one-hundred percent down the line," Power assures us of the tonal variety the project encompasses. "With Fuck Buttons, you’re getting 100 percent of the combination of Andy and myself – I don’t like to see it as 50 percent Andy and 50 percent me, it’s 100 percent of our relationship. The difficulty with working on your own is that you get so wrapped up in your own little world that it’s very difficult to have a clear perspective. But on the flipside, you’ve got no one else to answer to, so you can do whatever the fuck you like."
Even a cursory listen to Dumb Flesh makes it abundantly clear that Power is beholden to no one, being so off-kilter and unlike much else you’ll likely hear this year. However, Power’s assertion that he cut the album as a solitary figure is a tiny bit misleading. "Well, my two sounding boards that I had, just as people to speak to, were Kevin Martin [aka The Bug] and Andrew Weatherall," he confides. "With Andrew, he has this sixth sense for how I structure my writing process. He’ll know how I built up a certain track which gives him a great position to advise me on things. One really important lesson I learned from him was that you need to give yourself a little bit of space now and again. You really need perspective to be able to operate solo."
Having also learned certain production techniques from Weatherall’s work on Fuck Buttons' second album Tarot Sport, both Power and bandmate Andrew Hung stepped behind the mixing desk for 2013’s formidable follow-up Slow Focus. With that experience in hand, it was logical for Power to continue in this vein with Dumb Flesh. "There’s three different versions of the album," he says of his grinding to create the definitive take. "I think I’ve grown so much as a producer within that time, listening back to the earlier versions now. It’s not something tangible that I can put my finger on that makes them inferior though, it’s just when you operate on feeling, it’s sometimes hard to figure out what the problem is."
Power admits that with so much going on in isolation, and with his attention given to every conceivable detail of writing and production, he could have ended up tinkering with Dumb Flesh forevermore. Thankfully he managed to draw the line under the rendition we now have, bound for release on Brooklyn's unimpeachable Sacred Bones label, home to the likes of Moon Duo, David Lynch and latterly legendary director and composer, John Carpenter. "Obviously I’m a huge fan of John’s and have been for a long time," admits Power. "It feels great to be sharing a label with him. It’s a real mixed bag on Sacred Bones but I think there’s definitely an underlying thread between all of their artists which is celebrating beauty within darkness. That interests me a lot and so it seems like a really great home for my music."
As we speak though, Power has already moved on from the record itself as attention turns to taking Blanck Mass back out on to the live circuit, including a headlining slot on The Skinny's alternative stage at Electric Fields in Drumlanrig, Dumfries this August (where he'll be in the fitting company of Vessels and underground post-rock super ensemble Outblinker, whose debut Power is gearing up to produce in summer). "You’ve kind of made my day actually," admits Power when we confirm his place atop our bill. "Hopefully Dumb Flesh will make the live set a little bit more fiery. There’s going to be a lot more rhythm involved than there was before, with a strong aesthetic that I hope is going to be replicated in a visual sense somehow. Overall, it’s definitely going to be in a heavier place."
Beyond that, Power reveals that he’ll be back working with his old cohort Andrew Hung "very soon" as he continues a neat pivot swing between projects. "When we’re working on our own solo stuff it kind of almost feels like going away and doing your homework in a strange way," he says. "I know that doesn’t particularly glamorise things at all, but I think it’s quite interesting because when we both come back to the table we bring a lot more technological nous with us."
With the progression of each Fuck Buttons album, we can believe this to be the case. But for now, as Blanck Mass, Power seems to be following a similar, if still markedly distinct trajectory. It’s a path that’s as uncharted as it is enveloping, as progressive as it is somehow oddly familiar. Conflicted with all the paradoxes of life just like the rest of us, Power's music both commiserates and celebrates the bigger picture as he keeps busy in the moment within his own little canvas. "I love Scotland," he proclaims passionately as we wrap up the formalities and return to everyday life. "I fell in love with the countryside the last time Fuck Buttons played in Edinburgh. It kind of sealed the deal. I just knew this was where I needed to live."
Dumb Flesh is released on 11 May via Sacred Bones. Blanck Mass plays Tramlines, Sheffield on 24-26 Jul; Electric Fields, Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfriesshire, on 29 Aug and Liverpool Psych Fest on 25-26 Sephttp://blanckmass.bandcamp.com