|Fuck Buttons: Noise techno Olympians
It's noise, but not as we know it. RA's Lee Smith talks to British duo Fuck Buttons about toys, techno and the tutelage of their producer Andrew Weatherall...
It's a paradoxical kind of day in Brighton. The British seaside town likes to pride itself on its counter-cultural history and progressive political values. And on what would otherwise be a peaceful, pristine, late summer Sunday afternoon, about 1500 people are marching along the seafront, protesting the government's proposed spending cuts. Police helicopters circle the air, buzzing like armoured wasps amid the crowing gulls, and the serene sea view is marred by a mass of aggressive scuffles, heavy-handed security and unfocused mob mentality.
The contrasting scenes make for a fitting context in which to meet Fuck Buttons, whose knack for imbuing gnarly, heavily overdriven drones with a kind of celestial melodic prettiness neatly parallels the quiescent undercurrent of violence unfolding upon the plaintive vista before us. Would they have been out there with their chanting comrades, sticking it to the man, if they weren't busy today? "I doubt it," says Andrew Hung, nibbling from a rider that appears to be comprised solely of potato snacks and sodas. "Not for any reason other than that we probably would just have been too lazy."
Lazy isn't a word that comes to mind when describing Fuck Buttons' work rate, which in less than a year has seen them deliver a highly anticipated sophomore album, Tarot Sport, as well as completing a mammoth world tour—which they're now about to embark on all over again. Affable and well-spoken, Hung and partner Benjamin Power first crossed paths growing up in the genteel cathedral town of Worcester, but it wasn't until they found themselves studying art in Bristol that they connected on a musical level: "Andy had made a short film, and he needed a soundtrack," recalls Power. "We bumped into each other at a show and discussed the idea of doing it together—and Fuck Buttons grew from there."
At the time, the combination seemed unlikely. Hung was dabbling in homemade electronica, inspired by his discovery of labels like Warp and Leaf. Power, meanwhile, was already a veteran of various punk and hardcore bands, where he honed the drum skills that are an essential component of the Fuck Buttons sound. "It confused people at first," admits Hung. "The sort of bands Ben had played in before and the sort of music I was making didn't really marry up. There were a lot of confused reactions." Revelling in the passionately divided responses their initial forays received, the duo continued on an obtuse path, crossing the lines between playful electronica and sludge-like guitar noise in ways that often seemed to alienate fans from both camps. Not that they particularly cared.
"[When we started out] a lot of our shows seemed inappropriate," Hung acknowledges, "but those shows always tend to be quite fun. There was one time we were playing in our hometown of Worcester and the woman who ran the venue came in and turned off the electricity and shouted, 'This isn't music!' Anything can happen; we wouldn't be surprised any more. We've seen it all."
A more positive response to Fuck Buttons' debut long-player, Street Horrrsing, came from one Andrew Weatherall, whose remix of their single "Sweet Love for Planet Earth" prompted them to enlist his services as producer for the follow-up. The resulting album is a markedly more electronic-sounding affair, albeit one that still bears the crunching riffs and thunderous dynamism that have become hallmarks of the Fuck Buttons sound. How did they find the experience of working with the guv'nor himself?
"He had this baseball bat that he'd smack us round the head with if we gave him any backchat," quips Andrew. "But no, he's extremely sensitive to the vision of the music. That's what drew us to him. His level of articulation and consideration was really brilliant, I thought. Inspiring, in fact."
"We learned an important lesson from him," offers Ben. "The lesson of space, both in the music and away from it. You can stand there slogging away for hours and hours and you won't be able to stop. The time of reflection away from the songs is just as important as recording and mixing."
The inclusion of Weatherall on the album credits certainly won't harm the band's burgeoning popularity, and may also open them up to Weatherall's legions of acolytes from more techno-orientated backgrounds. Indeed, they could be the most techno "noise" band of recent times—or, of course, the noisiest "techno" band of recent times. Surprisingly, perhaps, their awareness of the genre was virtually non-existent until very recently.
"I first heard techno when Four Tet was DJing," Andrew explains. "I was like, 'This is really good, what is it?' And he said 'It's minimal techno', so I was like 'Right, this is something I need to find out about.' The majority of minimal techno I don't like, but when it's good… it seems to be this four-four beat, but anything could go on top of that. It was like a platform for exploration. With what we do, although we don't necessarily use a four-four beat, we're interested in a platform for exploration. That's what Fuck Buttons is."
Fuck Buttons and techno also share a mutual fascination for repetition, in the immersive, endless loops that reveal more of their hidden secrets the longer they're allowed to continue. And while well-established drone metal bands like Sunn O))) and their predecessors Earth have been investigating the possibilities of incessantly repeating motifs and structures for decades, the thumping pulses and overtly synthesised sounds that characterise much of Fuck Buttons' output make the link between noise and techno more apparent than perhaps any band to date.
"I think the longer you leave something going for, the more you can actually take from it," says Ben. "You start noticing sounds you didn't even realise were there in the first place. I think that's something to be embraced. We're all for that."
"Repetition has that quality where you can produce a hypnotic state," Andrew concurs. "The provocation of imagery is something we really get into when we're creating a track. A lot of that comes from trying to find a loop that pleases us."
Coming from an art-school background, it's no surprise to hear that imagery plays an important role in the Fuck Buttons modus operandi. I suggest that album highlight "Olympians" reminds me of the (Vangelis-penned) theme tune to '80s British TV drama series Chariots of Fire, but with a large burning robot taking the place of the amateur athletes featured in the show's title sequence. They both laugh and seem pleased.
"I like that," says Ben. "There's definitely a similar feel. When we first wrote that track, Andy turned to me and just went 'God, this makes me feel like we're at the Olympics.'"
"And 'Space Mountain' feels like a painterly meadow," announces Andrew, with just the faintest note of self-mockery. "Erm, a stellar painterly meadow."
Similarly, the Fuck Buttons live experience goes to great lengths to provide a visual spectacle, as we witness first hand when they take to the stage later in the evening. Banks of sequencers, wires and synths sit among numerous re-wired kids toys, with each beat, note and effect pounded out manually ("Laptops on stage are like wearing shorts on stage," Ben tells me later. "It makes sense practically, but it's just wrong"). From time to time, Ben performs dramatic, arms aloft rhythms on a single kettle drum, while Andrew pulls out a Gameboy to play the central bleepy phrase in "Rough Steez."
"Maybe when I'm 80 years old
I'll look back and be like,
'God, what were we thinking'."
The pair throw themselves around the stage, clearly immersed in the pounding pulses and extreme dance floor dynamics, but interestingly, only a small portion of the packed crowd do the same. For someone more used to club and dance festival crowds, it's a strange experience to hear such deafening, rhythmic music being played to a largely stationary group of people. But there's nonetheless a profound sense of collective experience, a feeling that we've all savaged our ear canals for an entirely worthwhile cause. You don't need to dance at a Fuck Buttons gig to come away feeling that you've had a full-on physical experience.
As the crew pack up to rush back to their London base, I chat further with the pair. I promise to send Andrew—who's shown an endearing enthusiasm for the subject throughout the day—a list of recommended old school Cologne techno tracks, and laugh with Ben at a ridiculously attired DJ, replete with fake afro and "wacky" tie, who's setting up his gear for the following cornball student club night. I give in and ask the question I'd done my best to avoid all day, on account of the fact that they are surely asked it in every interview they do. But ultimately, I can't resist. How's the, um, attention-grabbing name working out for them, now that they're starting to become more widely recognised? Ben laughs wearily, and I make an apology, which he courteously dismisses.
"When we first started to make music together, we got hold of whatever signal processors we could lay our hands on. Because we were students, they were often cheap things, kids' toys and so on. We'd find 'em at car boot sales. We were making quite harsh abrasive music at the time, so I guess it's a juxtaposition of the harsh sound—the "fuck" bit—then the "buttons" representing the signal processors that we use all the time."
So if some huge label offered them untold cash and exposure, but only on the condition that they changed their name to something more radio-friendly, would they do it? "I'd like to think it's something we wouldn't do. People can work their way around it. People call us 'F Buttons' on the radio or whatever. It doesn't leave much to the imagination."
Do they foresee a time when they'll refine the rough edges a little, turn the distortion down, and generally do the "mature band" thing, in the style of, say, bands like Earth? "Who knows?" ponders Ben. "We do really enjoy the enveloping nature of loud music, but you know, who knows. We're not sure what we're ever gonna do next. That's what brings about the surprises…. Maybe when I'm 80 years old I'll look back and be like, 'God, what were we thinking'. But at the moment—no."