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AU60: Fuck Buttons feature

November 17, 2009

This was for a double-page feature in the mag. Andrew Hung was pleasant enough to talk to, but not the most garrulous of interviewees. I think it shows to an extent in the piece, but I hope it was successful anyway.

Back for another assault on our ears with a towering second album, erstwhile noise duo Fuck Buttons tell AU about working with Andrew Weatherall, ignoring the hate and the love, and why making music is nothing more than child’s play.

The day before we finally pin Fuck Buttons’ Andrew Hung to a phone line, his band’s new album leaked in a big, messy splurge all over the internet. Or at least, that’s what it seemed like, since regular visits to the band’s last.fm page over the preceding weeks had yielded comment after comment from fans frothing at the mouth, thrilled by the video for first single ‘Surf Solar’ and desperately pleading for a leak of the whole album. And then, one Monday in September, BAM! The same page was suddenly full of those selfsame fans falling over themselves to declare that album, Tarot Sport, a masterpiece.

So, given the timing of our interview, it’s tempting to quiz Hung on the fans’ reaction so far. And, as we suspected, he has been keeping an eye on it. However, he insists it’s had zero effect on him and bandmate Benjamin Power. “Yeah, it’s really pleasing to hear,” he allows, “but it’s just been important for us to enjoy this time and to appreciate what we’ve done, so at the moment we’re not really taking in all the criticisms or praise.”

Perhaps, we are forced to wonder, it’s just that Hung and Power don’t care what anyone else thinks. “I can’t really remember anything that’s had any lasting impact on our working practice,” he says. “For one reason, it might not be beneficial for us to take in criticism because I guess the work is more to do with us than other people. For sure, we do listen to everything, but I’m not sure how much impact it’ll have in the long run.”

Hung may be unmoved so far, but it must be said that the fans aren’t far wrong. Though it’s easy in hindsight to downplay the significance and originality of last year’s debut album Street Horrrsing, Tarot Sport feels like a major step forward. Street Horrrsing, though superb, was a difficult beast. Though the band have only rarely indulged in the all-out noise they are often associated with, the debut was noted for its huge waves of fuzz, synths piling on top of one another in a wall of disorienting sound. The lack of any beats on several tracks heightened the effect, and the vocals, screamed by Benjamin Power into a cheap toy karaoke machine for added lo-fi value, sealed the deal. If Street Horrrsing was a great but potentially impenetrable debut, Tarot Sport addresses that balance, coming on like some sort of mutant techno record, and the aforementioned ‘Surf Solar’ is a perfect example of that.

‘Epic’ is a word too often used to describe music, so we do it advisedly, but it’s impossible to avoid here. A twitchy synth is joined by the relentless thump of a kick drum, and eventually by a sweeping synth melody the size of a Midwestern sky. Which is then joined by another, even bigger one. This is huge, dramatic music, with song titles to match – ‘Olympians’ and ‘Flight Of The Feathered Serpent’ (we know, worthy of Yes) are similarly unstoppable, both pushing the 10 minute mark and never shy to throw their weight around. Four-to-the-floor beats dominate, vocals appear to be completely absent, and the sound palette is infinitely more rich and varied than the debut, as repeated listens bring out motifs and sounds that you’d never noticed before. Sure, it’s long (seven tracks in almost an hour) and fearsomely intense, but it’s also – whisper it – tuneful and even danceable.

“I don’t think there were any conscious decisions with regard to the aesthetic of the music,” says Hung, acknowledging the new sound but denying any new approach. “I mean, we were aware of not wanting to produce the same document as Street Horrrsing, but that was our only consciousness this time round.”

With a bit more prodding, though, Hung outlines his own reaction to the record, and why it sounds as it does. He argues – not wholly convincingly, it must be said – that it’s more a case of other sounds and ideas coming to the fore than the distortion and aggression of Street Horrrsing being jettisoned completely.

Fuck Buttons – ‘Surf Solar (edit)’. Video directed by Andrew Hung

“I think there are components of the last record that are present in this one,” he says carefully, “but I don’t think they are given the prominence that they had [on Street Horrrsing]. I think this record is a multi-limbed kind of [production], whereas on the other album there was a lot of space that surrounded the sounds. So I guess other elements are placed with equal prominence to the components from the first record. But they’re still present, I think.”

Beats weren’t completely absent on the first album. The formidable ‘Okay, Let’s Talk About Magic’ was driven by a strangely lurching snare tattoo, while the closing duo of ‘Bright Tomorrow’ and ‘Colours Move’ started to hint at what Fuck Buttons might do next. But, to the outsider, the most obvious bridge between the two records came with another man’s production – Andrew Weatherall’s remix of Street Horrrsing opener ‘Sweet Love for Planet Earth’. It was the first time a steady techno pulse had been anywhere near a Fuck Buttons track, and it suited it rather well, marrying a utilitarian beat to the original track’s shape-shifting momentum. It also went off in the clubs – when David Holmes played it at Belfast’s Radio K club one night last summer, the place went ballistic. So when news emerged of Weatherall’s involvement in Tarot Sport, the portents were good.

Hung says of Weatherall that the remix “highlighted his ability” and prompted the Bristol pair to approach him about working together, but the veteran’s vast back catalogue as a producer of other acts (including Primal Scream’s era-defining Screamadelica) and his own projects Sabres of Paradise and Two Lone Swordsmen – not to mention a legendary reputation as a DJ of everything from techno to rockabilly – should have been enough to recommend him.

“The sound was going to be a little bit more complex,” says Hung, “so we knew Weatherall would have a good idea how to embellish those textures, and also he was extremely sensitive to keeping intact the vision which we thought he would understand, and he did. It was just a really satisfying experience working with him.”

Hung insists, however, that Weatherall’s role was as much as a sounding board and ideas man than the kind of producer who would leave his stamp all over the record. “He certainly contributed a lot of ideas and it was great to work with him in that respect. There were three people in the room articulating with each other, and with that came the possibility of not needing as much space and time to discern what was good or not, because we could bounce ideas off each other. It made for an exhausting experience because we could work at tremendous speed, but at the same time it was extremely satisfying as well.

“He didn’t radically change the music – the vision was kept intact, like I said before – but it’s like what he said – if there’s a person in the studio, then they’re going to affect the dynamic of the working relationship, and he was a really good person to be in that environment. So he definitely left his mark on the work, but I couldn’t give you specifics.”

Although Hung is serious and thoughtful in conversation, it’s obvious to anyone even vaguely familiar with Fuck Buttons that they are a playful band. The name is the first clue – combining the shock of the expletive with such a prosaic word, conjuring some surreal and confusing images. Is ‘fuck’ a verb – do they hate buttons? Are the buttons pornographic? Is it just supposed to be a weird juxtaposition, or a childish statement? Then there’s the artwork for both albums, lovingly crafted by Hung himself – psychedelic and completely original. And, of course the music and the means of making it – the band are well known for their kleptomaniacal approach to amassing musical machines, including children’s toys. And it seems that that’s no accident. Hung confirms that playfulness is “a very important component” in how he and Power make music, and he goes further.

“Recently, I’ve noticed it’s how children play with their toys,” he says. “They have all these toys spread around them, and I remember when I was a child it was the most comfortable time, having all this stuff around you so you could just choose what you wanted to play with, whenever you wanted to. I think that’s what we do, to put it in really simplistic terms. I’ll sit on the floor and Ben sits on the couch because he uses his feet for the pedals, and we surround ourselves with everything we’ve accumulated recently, and just play around with things. We’ve got our ears on the sounds we’re individually making and also the other person’s. And eventually, with our ears open, we’ll be able to find something.”

It’s a completely anti-intellectual, non-analytical approach to making music, whereby Hung and Power rely solely on their ears and instincts. That, rather than any kind of deep and meaningful manifesto, is the “vision” that Hung alludes to. “I think it’s really important for us to be satisfied with the work in a non-conscious way before and during the working process,” he says. “It’s really important that we don’t intellectualise anything or labour over anything, so that’s something that we place great importance on.”

To deal with things on a primal level?

“Absolutely, that’s it.”

Loud, urgent and impossible to ignore, primal is exactly the kind of response that Tarot Sport demands.

TAROT SPORT IS OUT NOW ON ATP RECORDS.

WWW.MYSPACE.COM/FUCKBUTTONS

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