Andrew Hung on Fuck Buttons' future and Beth Orton

The Skinny interrupts Andrew Hung's holiday in Hong Kong to find out what makes the prolific Fuck Buttons man tick.

Feature by Finbarr Bermingham | 09 May 2016
  • Fuck Buttons

In a city that consists only of crowds, the one gathered to see Andrew Hung play his first solo gig in Hong Kong can be considered modest. Nonetheless, the occasion is one of personal significance for the artist, best known as one half of Fuck Buttons. Hung is of Hong Kong descent and visits the city almost annually. He’s got his folks in tow and has been spending the time bulking up on dim sum and street food. “Usually, I just come here to holiday and get fat,” he confesses over a beer a few days later.

This time, though, he was coerced into performing and – shorn of his partner Ben Power (Fuck Buttons, Blanck Mass) – had slight jitters, wondering how to turn the music he’d coaxed from a Gameboy onto two fine EPs last year into a live performance. “I was Googling: ‘what’s the difference between playing live and DJing?’” But he needn’t have worried. The set, enlivened by a kaleidoscopic and occasionally disturbing visual show by Scotsman Mike Middleton, was a lot of fun. The 8-bit stylings are fleshed out by moments of chipper dub. It’s a world away from the beautiful noise he creates on the day job, to which 'fun' is not normally an adjective freely prescribed.

Andrew Hung on Ben Power: "He's fuck and I'm buttons"

It’s his solo work, Hung says, which has finally given him the answer to an interview question journalists never tire of asking. “I guess looking at my work and comparing it to Ben’s, it shows that he’s probably ‘fuck’ and I’m ‘buttons,’” he volunteers, unprompted. At the bar at the Social Room – a tiny venue hidden away on an obscure floor number amid the myriad skyrises that make up Hong Kong island – he is approached by a girl claiming to have had “an epiphany” during his set. This seems to be music to Hung’s ears, as he delves in for further information. Throughout conversations he reveals that for him, music is all about emotional attachment. The epiphany? Both parties politely declined to reveal.

 A few days later, we’re sat in Club 71 nursing glasses of Tsingtao. The bar, a favourite for artists and their clingers-on, was named for an annual protest march held on 1 July in Hong Kong in support of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and demanding democracy, universal suffrage and other basic human rights. In the square outside the door, it’s said that revolutionaries plotted to overthrow the Qing Dynasty a century ago. On this balmy Wednesday in Asia, the results of America’s Super Tuesday are rolling in and it looks increasingly likely that Donald Trump will secure the Republican nomination. It seems appropriate to talk politics.

Hung, in a porkpie hat and a t-shirt emblazoned with tigers, thinks the prospect is equal parts terrifying and fascinating. “He’s gonna do it, isn’t he? He’s gonna become the next president. I don’t know how to feel about it,” he says, but part of him thinks that it’s a process America and the world must go through: a cleanser, perhaps, of the ‘political class’ and a sign that we’ve reached rock bottom. He compares Trump to Nigel Farage and Rupert Murdoch, all the while questioning the very concept of democracy. “These politicians don’t actually have the power, do they?” he postulates, suggesting that the aforementioned Trump and Murdoch have been pulling the strings for so long, they may as well do it from the White House.

Working on Beth Orton's Kidsticks

US politics aside, today is of significance for Hung, too. Earlier this afternoon, Beth Orton’s new single dropped, a precursor to an album he’s spent months producing with her in Los Angeles. Like many a teenager of the late 90s, Hung fell in love with Orton’s first two records, and when he got the call to work with her on Kidsticks, he jumped at the chance.

“We just wrote it together,” he explains. “I didn’t do any lyrics, but musically we worked on loops. I loved that on her early stuff and this is a return to that electronic sound,” he says, clearly excited. Orton is notoriously shy, but Hung says that as the pair worked together more, he was able to tap into what she really wanted to get from this record. Moon, the single, is superb – a real evolution for Orton, but one which is also impossible not to compare to the salad days of Central Reservation. His real talent, he says, is drawing out emotional intelligence: capturing a feeling through sounds. 

Many artists wheel out such vagaries, only to leave the recipient tittering at the thought. This reporter once held back sniggers as George Lewis Jr of Twin Shadow lambasted those who ignored the lyrics on hit single Five Seconds, preferring instead to wax about the eightiesness of the sound (extract: “Five seconds in your heart / Straight to your heart / I can't get to your heart / She said, five seconds in your heart / Straight to your heart / I can't get to your heart”, and so on).

But as the beer flows and the conversation continues, it’s clear that Hung is not bullshitting. The labels cast on Fuck Buttons (noise, post-rock, experimental, drone) don’t ever seem to capture the fact that their work is entirely visceral. Revisiting Street Horrrsing eight years after its release, the goosebumps appear on cue: it sounds positively primal (Bright Tomorrow and the segue into Colours Move, in particular). His conversation, too, is perceptive and inquisitive. By the time we part, it’s unclear who has interviewed whom. It’s an intangible concept, though, emotional intelligence, and one which Hung admits he has struggled with in the past.

“I used to be really self-conscious about that question,” he says when asked what he brings to Fuck Buttons. “I can play any instrument for 30 seconds, over and over. Give me a keyboard, a guitar, an accordion, but 30 seconds is my limit.” His perceived lack of musical precocity, he says, looks all the more withering when he’s sat next to Ben – a multi-instrumentalist of some repute. “Over the last few years I’ve become more confident in what I bring to the studio though.”

(Continues below)

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Case in point: late last year Jim Hosking approached Hung to produce the soundtrack for his new movie Greasy Strangler – a bizarre, twisted and highly entertaining film. After initially offering him free reign over the project, Hung pushed him for some parameters. “I asked him how he wanted it to sound. What sorts of feelings he wanted to convey.” He got his answers, and bunkered down in his new home in rural Norfolk to devote himself entirely to the project. “It was the most intensely I’ve ever worked on something,” he says. But it worked: he captured exactly what Hosking had been looking for. The film went on to be named one of the finest at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and most recently brought down the house at SxSW in Austin.

Fuck Buttons' future plans

He’s been a busy man, Hung. Fuck Buttons were commissioned to write a track for Jean Michel Jarre’s Electronica 1: The Time Machine project last year, appearing alongside the likes of Moby, M83, John Carpenter and Pete Townshend. The overall compilation is patchy, but there are a few gems on there, of which Immortals is one. “We just got the call saying that he wanted to work with us and to be honest, you don’t really turn down Jean-Michel Jarre,” Hung says. Jarre sent the band a load of “noodling” on a synth via Dropbox and dared them to do their worst. The process continued, Postal Service style, until they landed on something they liked.

Over the next few months, Fuck Buttons will reconvene to start work on album number four. The band’s dynamic couldn’t be any more different than the work done with JMJ. Nothing is pre-planned, nor ever has been. “We just go into a studio and jam, like we always have,” says Hung, excited once more at the prospect. He seems, in fact, quite excited about most things and it’s refreshing to speak with someone who loves what they do so much. Perhaps it’s because he’s on holiday.

As for the immediate future, in two days he’ll fly to Singapore for the second part of his solo Asian mini-tour. “I’m half thinking of just playing a set of Fuck Buttons songs, not mixed, one after another. I tried it once and it went down a storm,” he says. And why not? After all, they are fucking excellent. 

Andrew Hung's Rave Cave EPs are out now. His collaboration with Beth Orton, Kidsticks, is released on 27 May