The Albums of 2013 (#3): Factory Floor – Factory Floor (DFA)

Combining industrial noise, stripped techno and disco and driving analogue synth-sounds in their incendiary live performances, this year Factory Floor nailed their first studio album. The band's Nik Void talks tactics

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 06 Dec 2013

To borrow a song title from Factory Floor's self-titled debut album, there are two different ways you can approach being in a live band. You can refine your studio technique, recording and tracking each minute element of your sound, and archiving the material. Or you can throw yourself into the crucible of live performance, embarking on soaring, extended jams which guide your process when you finally return to the studio.

Customarily for a band of such breathtaking scope and ambition, Factory Floor have done both – during the making of Factory Floor, the band lived, worked, performed and recorded together, taking hundreds of hours of recorded performance and then stripping it back into the gleaming, polished walls of noise, techno, disco and post-punk that make up their angular, minimalist debut on DFA Records. In public, they've taken these blueprints as a starting point for wildly energetic improvised performances, devastating crowds at raves, nightclubs, festivals and art galleries with their lean, modern take on industrial music.

"It's about locking in with each other, it's a lot more rhythmic," says Nik Void, singer and guitarist (although these roles shift and mutate, just like their live excursions). "You get the sense that you are taking off in an aeroplane, that's when it really starts to happen. Other times you think, 'Where is this going?'" She laughs modestly. "It's still down to chance what any given show will evolve into, which is nice. We still push it, we're still bringing in new sounds and bits of equipment as we go along, just to keep it fresh, and mess about with it a bit. We've taken the idea of the album to stand as a blueprint for the live show. The tracks are forever evolving. Workout, which is instrumental on the album, has become this driving techno track that we do last, whereas before we would have done A Wooden Box or something like that."

Is that sweet spot, where the three members lock into a new rhythmic plane and focus all of that intensity, getting easier to reach? "Definitely," says Void. "It's been a little bit more difficult, having a structured idea before we go on stage this time round. Before, it was a bit more freeform, and we were coming up with ideas live and then taking that back into the studio, whereas now, it's the other way round. We've said before that the final member of the band is the music, it controls us sometimes. It's all analogue based, and we don't do anything pre-programmed, so it will always be touch and go what's going to happen. The majority of the time it works, because we've been playing together so long – it's become our own language, it's how we speak to each other." Void laughs again, clearly joking when she says: "We don't speak to each other the rest of the time! Not at all, not when we're going to gigs... there is total silence!"

"The final member of the band is the music; it's how we speak to each other" – Nik Void

2013, as well as seeing the band release their debut album, was a banner year for performances too, with Factory Floor collaborating live with artists such as Peter Gordon and Simon Fisher-Turner over a 4-date residency at London's Institute for Contemporary Art. "The ICA gig was a big challenge," admits Void. "That was one of the reasons the album took longer than anticipated, because we were curating four different shows, and inviting other artists in. I think the high-point of the year would be the show with Peter Gordon [at ICA]. We had to leave room for a fourth member. He comes from a very different, academic background, whereas we are learning through our tools, and from instinct – we are a bit more caveman-like in our approach!"

Working with Gordon, who has made compositions for Laurie Anderson and Arthur Russell, made the band "probably the most nervous we've ever been," but their matched interests meant that the gig came together in the end. "There were two very different backgrounds going on there, but it was really nice to unite, and we felt like we had a lot in common," says Void. "We all like disco, we all like the idea of analogue instruments with electronics - which is another reason we work with DFA so well. At the Peter Gordon show, before we went on, we were. But once we got going, there were some moments where we felt like, 'What the hell are we doing?' But there were also moments where it took off." The gig was recorded, and will be released at some point in the future.

Void sat out the collab with Simon Fisher Turner. "I felt like he was filling my space within the band, so I concentrated on visual aspects," she says. "It was really nice to be able to take a step back and do that, and to see the show from the back of the room, watch Gabe and Dom playing with Simon, seeing how they work together. It was quite a dark set – Simon did some improv vocals which were a little bit unexpected, but worked really well."

Importantly for Void, "all of the ICA gigs, and the Tate experience as well, really fed into the album. It was really important that we did all of that, because we were going off in different directions – they were challenges we had to get over, and then we brought thos experiences back into the studio when we were recording the album. We had to take parts of our playing out, like we had done with Peter, to allow space for him. So that show made us more conscious of putting more space into the album." She pauses, picturing a complex musical schematic in her mind's eye: "You can kind of see a map of all the different changes, if you had the recordings in front of you, and the live shows. Which I don't think we'll ever do, because that would be a minefield! But the shows definitely did influence what we were doing in the studio."

Minimalism and repetition are the foundation stones of Factory Floor's sound. Eschewing song structures, chords, complex shifts in timing and melodic progression in favour of locked, building and mutating rhythmic patterns, spectral snatches of vocals and brooding slabs of noise, Void is passionate about their approach, and the dividends it pays to strip everything back. "It's like starting anew," she says. "When you make music, or anything, you start in a comfortable place, you do what you already know. But if you keep pushing that, and going down avenues that you'e not gone down before, and especially if you're recording it. You can then get to a point where you can say 'This is new, this is fresh. We've really pushed ourselves forward here.' Then you can take out the old stuff that's still in it. That's the only way you can push yourself forward, otherwise you just regurgitate what you've done before. We tracked ourselves separately, so we were able to take stuff out, so we ended up just using the bits that mattered. We don't use chords, we don't use a lot of melody, so the subtlety of a particular drum hit can make all the difference to a track – moreso than in a rock track, something with chords or melody. It's like punctuation in a way, all these guitar hits, the amps with feedback spewing out, or Dom's electronic arps getting more acid, this all brings in melodies, although not a prominent melody."

The sound on their debut album is even more refined and minimal than on their early EPs - as Void says, the band were "able to take a lot of noise out. I come from a noise direction, and the early recordings have a lot of feedback and noise, the humming of our gear. Being able to strip that back - I was singing through effects pedals and all these sorts of things, so being able to take that out, and just concentrate on sections which I liked and which worked, being able to re-do that – obviously, you can't do that live. So in a way, it's quite a cleansing experience – it allows you to move forward. It's a bit like reinventing yourself."

The final stage of the recording process saw the band turn to legendary and reclusive producer Q for a final mixdown, having been impressed by his work on the Vince Clarke / Martin Gore collaboration, VCMG. "We didn't consciously decide at the beginning that we were going to hand it to someone else to mix," says Void. "But then we heard the VCMG album, and we thought it sounded great – Q obviously knows electronics. We thought it would come back a bit more 'fat' sounding – but then when it came back, he had pulled it into this 3-dimensional shape, which was what it needed. He also brought a bit more of the live element back – he brought atmosphere into it."

The band, by this point, were perhaps a little too close to their own work. Q provided some much-needed perspective. "We had listened to it so much, and that whole process of taking away... we had probably taken away a bit too much. We had listened to it and were worried it didn't have the atmosphere it did live. There's such a different ear involved in mixing down a record, and being an engineer – so by the end, it was almost like by giving it to him, we could forget about it, and he took it away without us hovering over him saying, 'Turn this bit up...' He just did his own take on it, and luckily it really worked. When we got it back, it just blew our minds. It was like he had pulled out not just the stuff we really liked, but the stuff we had forgotten about. And he had never seen us live, so we were shocked that he understood exactly where we were coming from."

The band also cemented their fruitful relationship with DFA. "What they do is they kind of leave you to it, and if you want something, you can go and email Jonathan [Galkin, DFA boss and cofounder], and he will take care of what your worries are," Void explains. "He's not like a record label, he's more like a mentor, someone you can talk to about your problems. It was good to have that. With bigger record labels, I don't think you get that – although I don't know, as I've never really been on one. With them I think you'd get more of a businesslike, yes or no answer, whereas Jonathan was interested in listening to the tracks all the way through the recording process."

The band held back several tracks until Galkin visited them in the studio: "It was a case of having an extra pair of ears that we could trust," says Void. "He's got great taste in music. So we would play him a 15 minute track and he would say, 'You need to cut it at 7 minutes.' It felt like a good relationship to have. With the promotion side of it, it's all very low key, and it kind of runs itself – which we like. They don't want to pay for extra or false advertising. It's not about that – it's about putting good stuff out there and seeing what happens, which is exciting." For Void, it's a case of working with one of her favourite labels: "I've always loved DFA, it's always been one of the labels I've bought records from, even ten years back," she says. "It's a great thing to have our music come out on their label."

When The Skinny first spoke to Factory Floor in the summer of 2012, it was from the London warehouse where they ate, slept and recorded their album – there was a sense of it being a tightly-knit family as much as a band. Now, only Gabe Gurnsey remains in the warehouse, with Void and Dominic Butler having moved away. "It just felt like, for me personally, it was time to move on once the record was finished," says Void. "I felt like I was ready to move away from it and set my sights on the next chapter. Gabe stayed on, but unfortunately, it's being demolished in January. I think we might have some big parties in there before it gets torn down."

Now, each band member has their own studio space to work from, as they begin the process of writing the follow-up to Factory Floor. "We all have our own bases for production where we live – so we work from home," says Void. "That's really important to us, to be able to work spontaneously. For tracking the next record, we're working on all these ideas already, progressing from what we've done on the first album, and I think what we are going to do is take it into a studio this time, track it live again, like we did the first time, but perhaps be a bit more disciplined about it. We'll invite other people in – maybe a producer, an engineer."

Void even has a far-out idea for taking inspiration from the next recording location: "In an ideal world, we'd like to go to Africa or something," she says. "Somewhere completely different, that might inspire us from a percussion point of view! We'll see what happens. The next thing is an EP, bridging over to the next album, and showing what we've learned from taking this album on the road." Void herself is working on several collaborations, having just donated vocals to a track by visionary techno producer Perc, and beginning the process of working on a new record with Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, as Carter Tutti Void. Gabe Gurnsey, meanwhile, has a possible collaboration with Daniel Avery in the offing. "We'll be doing stuff on our own, but we're keen to not collaborate with other people, as a unit, at the moment," says Void.

Factory Floor, having established their identity and nailed their process, are ready to be themselves. "We feel a little bit more confident now – we know our fans, we know what we do." What they do is make some of the best live-created experimental dance music in the world. Catch them in their natural element – playing live – over the next month or two, and you'll see what all the fuss is about. 

Factory Floor play Liverpool Kazimier on 5 Dec, Glasgow Stereo on 6 Dec and Manchester Gorilla on 7 Dec