Factory Floor: "We're still totally unsure of what we do; it's still exploratory"

Factory Floor have dragged industrial music kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century with their blend of techno, experimental noise and improvised performance

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 03 Aug 2012
  • Factory Floor (LR is Dominic Butler, Nik Void, Gabriel Gurnsey)

Three-piece Factory Floor are one of the most notable live bands to come out of London in a long time. Their brooding, cathartic, often heavily-improvised sets combine the hypnotic pulse of techno and electro with post-punk aesthetics, experimental vocal cut-ups and the sheer physicality of extreme noise and drone.

The band are often described as 'post-industrial' – vocalist and guitarist Nik Void's collaboration with Chris Carter and Cosey Fanny Tutti of Throbbing Gristle as Carter Tutti Void has given them the seal of approval from their industrial music progenitors, while their track R E A L L O V E was the first fruit borne of a collaboration with producer Stephen Morris, of New Order. Recently signed to New York's DFA Records, they have released the epic, celebratory single Two Different Ways, and are currently working on a full-length album.

The band live and work together in a studio space in North London, an arrangement which enables them to work quite literally as a factory for making music. “It's an old warehouse,” explains Nik Void. “You look up and you can see office tiles, so it used to be an office in the past. The rooms are divided like an art studio, with MDF boards painted white. The studio is soundproofed – there's a live space where we play,” he elaborates. “Right next to my bedroom,” laughs drummer Gabriel Gurnsey. “I'm above it,” continues Nik. “There's an engineering space, and there's also a big space which is a living area, which we can convert when we bring our instruments out, and record. It's got a lot of flexibility, which is what we need.” This close-quarters, gang mentality has its challenges: “It's quite an intense living / working area,” says Gabriel. “We are going into the studio a lot, recording the album at the minute, so the living space is kind of our effects room, our studio...” The space is far from luxurious: “I have to use a ladder to get down from my room,” laughs Nik. “It's kind of DIY!”

Perhaps this DIY, industrial space is the perfect place to create the music of Factory Floor? “It works well for what we need, because we're on it, all the time,” confirms Gabriel. “As a living and working environment, it's good for us – it lends itself to experimentation, and it give us the freedom to do that within this space.” The warehouse's location also has an effect on their music: “Living in London does influence our sound,” says Nik. “Where we are is in North London, and it's not the nicest place in London. It's like The Bronx of London, in a way. We're right next to a clothing manufacturer, it's a very industrial area. All the sounds around us are quite repetetive. It's not like we can go and have a nice coffee or anything. We're basically in our own world in the studio, and it feels right. I'm not saying it's a great place to live, but in a way it is kind of inspiring.”

“It's not far from the centre of London, but it just feels like a million miles away,” says Gabriel. “It's like you're in a different world. Especially our building – in a way it's quite isolated from the area, and the area is quite isolated from London, so it's kind of like a Russian doll kind of thing. We wake up to the sound of the sewing machines next door going on repeat, and that lasts until ten o'clock at night; it's kind of weird.”

The music of Factory Floor is heavily dependent on improvisation, and the band have been embraced by both gig-going audiences and club kids. Third member Dominic Butler has spoken about rave soundsystems, and the live electronic sets he witnessed at free parties and house parties when he was young, being a huge influence. “We've got two sides to Factory Floor,” explains Gabriel. “We've got the normal live setup – we explore a lot of ideas live on stage, so it does connect back to that. Then there's the electronic setup, where there's no drumkit, and it's a similar sound, but I guess it's more directly connected to that in that it's just a basic setup, and we just go in, play, and it's quite a party atmosphere.”

“With the electronic setup, when we play live, if we're going through a big system in a dance club, it works really well,” Nik confirms. For Gabriel, the bigger the sound, the deeper the audience engagement: “We did a festival in France about a month ago. We love big PAs, and it just worked really well for our sound. It immerses people. It also works well in smaller clubs – it just totally immerses the audience in a really quite intense sound.”

The minimal structure inherent in techno, with builds, crescendos and drops, is a big part of what Factory Floor do – what made them move away from the more 'verse-chorus-verse' structure? “When we first started rehearsing together, it was almost like we couldn't lock it down in those sort of ways, but we learned to accept that, and learned that it could go in various different ways when we played live, or in the studio,” says Gabriel. “So, now that we've learned to accept it, it has become intentional, because we've accepted what we're doing. It is what it is.”

“I think if you work within a structure of 'verse-chorus-verse' it doesn't give you the freedom to experiment with sound,” says Nik. “In that kind of structure, in a live performance, it's easy enough to think 'Okay, that's where the next bit comes in,' but where we're at right now, it's just a kind of... continual expression, if that makes sense? We all know our instruments really well. I've kind of been developing over the last couple of years, it's not something that we automatically came to the band with. It's all about working out what space allows our sound to come through. It's quite intense, repetitive and rhythmic.”

This spirit of sonic adventure is firmly rooted in the band's warehouse home. “Our development has really grown since having this space,” enthuses Nik. “We've had it for a year and a half, and that's really affected our sound, because we've been able to spend as much time as we like moving our live performance forward.”

Although still heavily reliant on experimentation and improvisation, their sound has been evolving during the creation of the album: “We've been known for improvising on stage, as opposed to having track after track, but there are a few tracks which have structure, because I think that is a challenge in itself,” says Nik “It's almost like we've gone through a journey where we have tracks that don't have any structure, and now we're going back to tracks that have an intricate structure. We're constantly challenging ourselves. Which is great in a way, because the next record, we have no idea what it's going to sound like, where we're going to lead our sound. That's kind of our aim, in what we're doing, rather than getting hit records.”

The physicality often found in the work of noise artists is a component of the Factory Floor sound: “I think the building blocks and dynamics within our sets, the physicality of it, comes from it's organic nature, the intensity,” explains Gabriel. “The elements are kind of divided up into quite organic components. Nik's stuff is quite organic in its own way; my stuff, although it's quite kind of rigid, it's still organic in terms of the way it builds and drops; and then Dom's input is more synthesised. So, although it's all linked up, it's definitely got a kind of organic feel to it.”

“It's taken on a life of its own, and we're aware of this,” says Nik. “We want to become more aware of what we're doing, and exploit it. It's a lot easier to move forward that way. We're still totally unsure of what we do, it's still exploratory. It's been quite hard to pin it down on the album, because it's not a normal thing for a band to do, and we're finding it quite hard to be honest. We're always moving on to the next thing once we've recorded something; we're always already on to the next thing, in our heads.”

This reliance on improvisation also means that their music often exists only in the present tense. “When we come away from doing a really good show, we always kind of come away thinking: 'Shit, we're never going to get that back again,'” says Gabriel. “Unless we record everything, that show is just a moment in time. Then it disappears. With the album and the live stuff, it's almost two different things. We're sitting in the studio working on stuff, and it's there, it's captured. But live, we've got loads of stuff, loads of sets which are completely different, covering the last two or three years. You've obviously got good memories of the sets, but you kind of think 'where's the substance of it?', in a way. You can't grab hold of it.”

How does it feel for the band to be in a position to collaborate with some of their musical heroes? “It's an amazing thing, in that the feedback we get is amazing,” says Gabriel. “We feel quite lucky having an association with them. We feel very lucky getting feedback from Chris Carter and Cosey on certain elements of our album. And working with Stephen Morris on that track [R E A L L O V E, released on Optimo Records]... it's amazing really. I mean, obviously their bands are big influences. Just their way of working, their approach, is important – they are a massive part of what we do. They're kind of almost mentors, in a way.”

They plan on more of these collaborations in the future, and many of their planned live shows incorporate elements of visual and video art. “We had a residency last year at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, so in September we've got Peter Gordon of the Love of Life Orchestra flying over from New York, and we're going to do a live set with him for an hour, and that's going to be recorded,” says Nik. “We like the idea of capturing moments, and working with other musicians who can improvise, or who have a more experimental approach, if we feel like they can work with us.”

Is Nik ever intimidated by working with such well-established names? “It's quite a scary thing, and that's part of the thrill of it all,” she says. “Everything we did was semi-improvised when we first started, but now the electronic stuff is completely improvised, and I prefer to work that way. That's the reason I was able to do that collaboration with Chris and Cosey, because they felt that my approach was similar. We've become so familiar with our own setup, and confident with that; but that's only grown in the last couple of years to the point where we can ask other musicians to join in with us. I think it's important to collaborate – it keeps you thinking. I think it's also important to collaborate with people you've been inspired by in the past – it confirms to you that you're on the right path. I mean, it definitely confirmed to me that I'm doing something right, playing the guitar the way I do, when Chris and Cosey asked me to join them. I think that was a big thumbs up for me.”

In the beginning, the band talked in interviews about their desire to make their songs into narratives, but things have changed since Nik joined. “To be honest, that's a period in time I couldn't give two shits about,” Gabriel says frankly. “Nik's approach is completely different – her input is treated in the same way we treat the other instruments; it's treated as an instrument. It's a lot more abstract."

“I guess the tracks Lying and A Wooden Box are the two that really get closest to being a narrative,” says Nik. “Two Different Ways is even more abstract; but bringing in a little bit of more of a pop element, making it more accessible. There are probably only two or three of our tracks that have a straight vocal. I'm not personally inspired by any specific writers as such, I'm more inspired by the kind of words which work with the sound of the track that we're developing. I'll mumble, I'll use delay pedals, mumbling over the top of the track, and then a word will spring out, and I'll develop it from there. So I really take things as they come. It's all about keeping an open mind, and being very honest, seeing what comes out, and if I'm confident in it, I'll push it forwards, manipulate it.”

Two Different Ways does have a more 'pop' feel to it than their earlier work – is this an indication of things to come? “Yeah, I think it is an indication of where we're headed,” Gabriel confirms. “That's not to say that we'll necessarily follow it with more of the same, but it is a track that you can dance to, it's kind of celebratory in a way, it's just got a really nice feel to it. It's not really heavy, dark music. I think there's a lot of stuff on the album that's going to be along those lines.”

Their first album-length work will be released on DFA Records early next year. “It's been a long process, says Gabriel. “We don't view it as our debut album – it's another body of work which Factory Floor have done. It's like with all these collaborations that we've done – each one of them is a project, and in my head, they're quite separate.”

Visual art and videos are of huge importance to the band. “We're all interested in art, and all of come from an art background, so it's quite important for us,” says Gabriel. “Along with the live show, we now have a guy doing live visuals, who actually sequences images and video, synced up to our equipment. He's called Dan Tombs. He did the visuals in the background for the Two Different Ways video and he's currently doing a vision mix for the remix EP we're doing with DFA." 

The band's rhythmic foundation, with their cascading, constantly layering and building song structures, are very dependent on the musicianship and adaptability of Gabriel as a drummer. “I think in many ways, Gabe is Factory Floor,” laughs Nik, but she's quite serious. Gabriel's approach illuminates the importance of the synergy that exists between the band's members, and perhaps shows why they have strayed so far from the traditional rock band format: “I was in one guitar-based band when I was about seventeen, and it didn't really work out,” Gabriel recalls. “I remember when I was young, my brother was really into dance music, and I remember trying to copy some of the tracks he was playing. I would play drums along to them. I find it a lot easier drumming to, not a click-track, but Dom's synth... accenting it with what Nik does on the guitar and vocals. Those two elements are really important. I think what gives me the freedom is that foundation. To me, a solid foundation equals freedom of experimentation. It's quite difficult on stage – it requires a lot of energy just to keep up with the tempo of certain tracks. But it's a buzz when it gets really fast, and when it gets intense; which it can do, because things just lock in really tightly.”

How did the band get involved with DFA, and why are they such a good fit with the label's more upbeat, disco-influenced artists? “It was actually through a friend of ours; he sent them the track Two Different Ways,” says Gabriel. “The track had been kind of floating around, and I gave it to someone who had worked with DFA before. And then Jonathan [Galkin, label manager] at DFA was like, 'Okay, we've got to do this – we've got to get this out as a single.' So we did that, and it was quite an organic thing with them. We did the single, and there was no talk of an album at the time, and then it kind of grew... We went over to the States to play a few shows, Jonathan came down and really enjoyed it. It fits; I mean, we're a lot darker than some of the bands he's got on the label currently, but it's still got the essence of that danceability.”

“It's to do with DFA being based in New York, too,” adds Nik. “It's a very DIY culture. They do have some input into what we send them – they give us feedback, but it's in a very gentle way, it's not like: 'You need to change this and this.' We've all bought DFA records in the past, and it just feels like the right fit. They've got a good attitude.”

The band have worked with JD Twitch of Optimo before. Do they have a particular fondness for Scotland as a place to play? “Glasgow has a similar feel to New York,” says Nik. “The audience just got into it straight away, and there aren't a lot of areas in Britain that do that," elaborates Gabriel. "We get that a lot in Brussels, in Glasgow, in Philadelphia, in certain parts of France. People just let go.” Nik agrees: “It's very cool. In terms of our relationship with Twitch and Optimo, they have an interest in bands like Liquid Liquid, Peter Gordon... We'll be putting a single out with Peter Gordon on Optimo's label in September or October, so we're still tied in with them.” It is a relationship the band hope to sustain: “Twitch is great, he's got such amazing taste in music, and he just puts interesting stuff out,” says Gabriel. “He's a great guy, and we absolutely hope to continue to work with him in the future.”

By now, the sense of Factory Floor as a hermetic, sealed unit, akin to an experimental music production line, is starting to become clear. The band have plenty of followers on Soundcloud, but they don't follow any artists themselves – do they deliberately try and stay away from other modern electronic music? “No, I mean, we obviously listen to stuff at home, we listen to new music,” says Gabriel, “but to be honest, it's never even occurred to me that you could follow people on Soundcloud. I know you can do it on like, Facebook and stuff, and Twitter, but no, it just never really occurred to me. It's nice to keep a certain distance though.”

Their tastes in music are best expressed by their work, perhaps. “With the remix EP we're putting out on DFA, one side is remixed by Perc Trax and the other side is remixed by Richard H. Kirk, so that's a reflection of the kind of new music that we like,” says Nik. She also has plans for more collaborations and solo work in the future: “I did that single, which was really an attempt to bring my soulful side into the music,” she says. The single, Gold E, was an art object as well, with a playable sleeve designed by Void herself. “There's another thing we've been doing called Solid Sound, which we've been saving up and working on as well. So there might be some more work based around that, and I'm supporting Sigur Ros for a couple of shows in August and September. But Factory Floor is my number one focus. Chris, Cosey and I might do something next year... I'm not sure. I mean, Gabe, you're off with Stephen Morris soon aren't you?”

“I'm doing some work on a track with Stephen,” Gabriel confirms. “He's touring now, so it might take a while to get it sorted out.” Gabriel doesn't see these solo projects and collaborations as sperate from Factory Floor: “All these projects are just elements which feed back into Factory Floor and then back out again, they're all influences that come in, and we just experiment with them in the place where we work,” he insists. “It's the same with the remixes we do, as well – there are no boundaries to it. We wouldn't be the same if we just restricted ourselves to Factory Floor – it wouldn't make sense. We haven't got that way of thinking. We just like pushing things in different directions, both as individuals and as Factory Floor. Plus, I get a twenty percent cut of whatever Nik earns.” The pair laugh heartily.

Gabriel and Stephen Morris bonded over a love of vintage tanks. What's his favourite tank, and what is it about them which appeals so much? “The Tiger (a German WW2-era tank) is my favourite one. I've actually got a model of it next door,” he says. “When I was a kid growing up, I used to do the Airfix stuff, and so did Stephen. There's a documentary coming out soon, and when we met Stephen, we went up to his house, and basically got all of his tanks out of the garage... we were driving around the Macclesfield countryside in these tanks, and it was amazing! He's got these huge tanks in his garage which he used to have as Airfix models. This was part of the documentary as well – there's this kind of connection, visually, with drum machines and tanks. Like, vintage drum machines – collecting them, and the aesthetic that they have, it's a lot like tanks and military vehicles.”

Can he explain what it is that connects them? “It's a weird thing,” he says, slightly uncomfortable. “I was trying to chat to [Stephen Morris] about it, and he was like: 'Yeah there is something, but what is it?' I was like, 'Yeah it's definitely there...' Eventually he was just like... 'Let's leave it.'" Gabriel laughs. "It's an aesthetic thing – they're so basic. It's the simplicity, the way the drum machines are coloured, the way the beat counters look... it's just quite similar to Airfix models... and actual tanks. It's a bit of a strange one!”

Factory Floor's heavily experimental music – sometimes heavy and brutal, sometimes euphoric and uplifting – sets the bar very high for any artist or band attempting to meld electronic music with live, organic performance. Their creative interactions with other musicians, visual artists, gallery spaces, warehouse parties and music festivals speak of a band concerned not just with process, image, or reductive attempts to define genres or scenes, but with art as a totality. They give off the aura not just of a truly classic band, but of a movement unto themselves; something important, vital and completely unique.

From their warehouse in North London to the clubs and concert-halls of New York City and beyond, they seem destined to storm dance floors and conquer hearts and minds. Like the labels and movements who share their name – Warhol's Factory, Factory Records – they locate their art in rigorous, replicable experimental process. In a world of microgenres, faddish trends and disposable fashion, they offer something solid, independent and real. “We're not really in any scene, and we don't really care about that kind of thing,” says Gabriel. “We just do what we do. We exist purely as a band and the music we create.” 

Factory Floor play Sneaky Pete's, Edinburgh on 25 Aug. Two Different Ways 12” is out now on DFA. http://soundcloud.com/factory-floor