Benjamin John Power’s Blanck Mass project is an ecosystem; writing happens in near-isolation, whilst the fruits provide a world of expression for artist and audience. As one half of Fuck Buttons, Power rose to notoriety bringing experimental electronic music with organic shapes. With Blanck Mass the artist is forging a growing canon of work that presses forever outwards, developing a better-realized world with each album. Now, with latest release World Eater, Power has further refined his approach, and built on the reputation developed through his self-titled debut and 2015’s critically adored Dumb Flesh. This album is fried gold.
On World Eater, Power submitted to a process larger than any other previous endeavor. He limited his tools in order to push creative impulse, he crafted a narrative from polar influences and he focused on a single point. The results are an album that explores nature, fury, political rage and inter-personal love. Perhaps this is Power’s most ambitious album to date, perhaps this is his most rewarding album so far.
Popbollocks spoke with Benjamin John Power as he was preparing for full album release, writing his live show, and readying himself for a season out on the road, away from home. Talk turned to some of the technical concerns of developing a project of this type, and how riding the subconscious through chaos is the only way to live. We drank tea, we stared out of windows, and we thought about some stuff – some of which is captured here.
Finn: You announced World Eater a few weeks ago now, we’ve just seen a new video for the lead track “Please” and the album has just been made available for streaming in it’s entirety. So you’re currently right in the middle of launch process, with the weight of the writing and recording process behind you, but with the universe opening up all around you. What’s the current emotional state?
Benjamin John Power: It’s actually a pretty good feeling. I feel like a psychological weight is lifting because there’s so much anticipation. Whilst I’m writing I find that I don’t really think this far ahead. It works in chunks, so whilst I’m writing there’s nobody else in the world – there are no other cultural references that fall into my sphere in that time. I make a real, conscious effort to not listen to anything else that’s going on within any forms of culture. Obviously sometimes that’s very difficult to do, but I do try make an effort to not listen to what’s going on at the moment. So, I’m in a bit of a cocoon, a bubble, when I’m writing.
Once you present this body of work into the sphere that you’ve been trying to avoid being part of whilst you’ve been creative; it’s such a switch. Suddenly people know all about it and for a lot of people I guess that’s nerve-wracking, and it is nerve-wracking to a degree, but also it’s relief because I’m not carrying this beast on my back anymore. It’s now for everyone to share, and you have to surrender a little bit. Whatever else happens now is up to the general public.
I do feel like I can exhale now a little bit, and see what people think. Obviously, this process is with a genre of music that is potentially difficult, but also I don’t think my music is really that difficult. I’m also getting into planning for the live show which is going to be different. I have to plan a new narrative, because the narrative of the record – the sum of it’s parts – is set in stone forever. But now there’s a separate narrative evolving, and that’s the the separate live set. I’m working on that now, and it’ nice. There’s not as much pressure in that for me because I write live sets, and it’s enjoyable. I have nothing to complain about! These are all reflections, not complaints! [Laughs]
I’m in a very privileged position in that I get to share what I work on alone, and I’m aware of that. It’s also a very nice day here today. I was in London for the last ten days, and it was not very nice weather. Now I’m home, it’s nice weather, things are starting to happen. So, I feel good! [Laughs]
Finn: What you’re describing is a switch between the writing process involving solitude – and you record in a home studio surrounded by nature – to the delivery process where suddenly a the airlock opens and the atmosphere, and your role, fundamentally change… you’re placed in cities and up on stages…
Benjamin John Power: Absolutely, it’s the climate now. With a single announcement, the pressure gauge is switched and it’s a different playing field now. But in response to the pressure specifically; when I’m touring, all the hard work is in the travel. The bit going on stage is privilege.
Of course, yes on one hand it’s more communal, because people are now experiencing music together that I’ve been experiencing alone in my room for a very long time. But it all depends on the person experiencing it – they may find it very personal. I see people at shows; there’s a pocket of people over here and they’re dancing and involved in something, and then I see a pocket of people over there, and they’re standing with their eyes closed. The playing field is a lot broader when you’re out there with the public.
Finn: The first song we heard from the new album was “Please” – which now has an amazing video. When you’re in the solo process of Blanck Mass, and you don’t have a partner to bounce ideas off, how do you make the call on the first representation of the new material?
Benjamin John Power: I felt that “Please” was a good example of change, between the records. Both in its limited palette and it’s emotional content, I felt “Please” was a dramatic shift from tracks that I last put out on Dumb Flesh and the tracks I put out in between.
Personally, for myself, I don’t like to do the same thing over again. As far as I’m concerned, with my own stuff, I like things to constantly change, and for them to be evolving, to entertain myself first. I hate to feel that I’d be in the same position as a lot of legacy acts, where they’ve found their sound and it’s comfortable for them, and it earns them money, and they know it’s a market that they know people will always be interested in – they stay there. That’s never interested me, and I hope it never does interest me, and I feel like “Please” was a good place to go, as it signified that change.
Finn: So, you were confident that you had the right track, but did you ever lean over to your wife or someone and say “is this one that ticks all those boxes?”
Benjamin John Power: I did, but I was pretty confident that that was the track that should come first. Obviously it’s been met with mixed feedback – but the argument for a lot of artists is that they should really go with the biggest, most impactful dynamic. Especially with my type of music – for example, the first track I put out from Dumb Flesh was a real banger – it was heavy, and you can’t miss it. Being ‘too loud and too visceral to miss’ is often the argument from, what I can tell, to make a ‘big’ first impression, but I feel like I had a similar effect with “Please” because it was more of an emotional impact.
There were potentially arguments for me to put out “Rhesus Negative” out first because that sits in a similar dynamic space as that format but I didn’t want to do that! [Laughs]
Finn: So, this album definitely shares DNA with other Blanck Mass albums, but it’s also a new trajectory. It sounds and feels like it belongs in this canon of work, but it’s also plays like a new iteration of the project. So, what was the catalyst for that drastic off-ramping?
Benjamin John Power: That’s just the thing! It is an off-ramp to me as well. I never start writing anything with an idea of how it may end up, because if I do that I feel that I scrap the idea almost instantly. I know, with that approach, that I’m not going to give myself any room for growth or exploration, so I always start the process with a blank canvas.
The first thing I do is explore sounds that I haven’t explored before, and once I’ve found something that’s of interest to me, and that I feel like I can potentially build on, with my process, then I’m content with how these sounds work. That’s when I start to structure; when I’ve started to feel something – and when I’m into that – that’s when emotional content is thrown into the mix.
Finn: That’s what feels evident, because on this album it sounds like you’re almost surprising yourself. Was there a part of this process when you sat there and thought “Well, fucking hell, where did that come from?”
Benjamin John Power: Yes, it happens every single time! I think the best moments happen then, in those moments when I feel excitement to really turn this into something special. Say, for example… and I’m not sure about going down the metaphysical route, because I’m not sure I have the knowledge to discuss this, psychoanalyse why I may have been into this particular form, and willingness to get excited… but obviously my subconscious does dictate a lot of the content, and that is how something happens and how something gets finished. Otherwise, it’s vapid – the process is vapid to me, and that’s how I’d feel about potentially doing a remix!
Finn: So, backing away from the metaphysical for a moment, talk to me about the nuts and bolts of process. My understanding of you, and how you work, is that you work from home and that you’re a bit of a manic worker. So, in that mania – driven by the subconscious – talk to me about discipline and how you separate work from home life.
Benjamin John Power: That’s the thing – the subconscious that I’m talking about, and the emotional content in my process – everything that goes on around me goes into what I’m working on, whether I like it or not. So, for example – when I was writing Dumb Flesh I was living in four different places during the creative process, and as a result I feel like Dumb Flesh is really almost like a mixtape for me! It’s a snapshot, but it’s like a mixtape – I feel like World Eater is better. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people who disregards work that they’ve done in the past because I still really love that album, and I’m happy with what I’ve done. I just feel with World Eater, it’s definitely more focused and it definitely has two sides to it.
I feel like Dumb Flesh has all types of everything to it, there’s a lot of emotional and dynamic ideas in there, but World Eater is more focused – coming from two polar opposites to meet at a particular place. There’s a lot of anger, and there’s a lot of love. I don’t know whether that’s because I’m living in my own little bubble trying to focus not too much on anything cultural as far as art is concerned, but obviously, globally there are things that seep into this creative process – because the conversations that I have about global events with my wife which make me very angry. And then, on the other hand, I do live with the woman I love!
Finn: Considering all those things; the harmonious home life and the political anger and disappointment, how do you know – in a subconscious-driven project – “Right – this objective is met, I will now start polishing this sequence of tunes”
Benjamin John Power: Well, it’s interesting. I actually produce as I’m going along, because I’m in the position to do so. Once I hit this ‘eureka moment’ which is when the physical meets in the middle with the emotional and I feel excited and driven to finish a track I generally try and produce the track as much as I can at that point. That’s the beauty of having my workspace where I live, because I can spend hours on it, as opposed to having a collection of demos that I have to go and find a better sound of in someone else’s studio.
Because I’m producing as I go along I’ve already cured the problem that people who work in bands have, when they have one person living at the other end of the country and another with three kids. I don’t have those issues, so I can produce as I’m going along. However, that does present the issue of sequencing, but you’re going to have that problem anyway!
Finn: [Laughs] That’s actually my next question… how do you set about sequencing?
Benjamin John Power: [Laughs] That’s an interesting one too, because there’s a lot of intuition that goes into that. Every single thing I’ve ever done – as much as the concept or the subject that I’m suggesting matter to me; the titles, or the artwork… everyone should disregard that! It’s everyone’s once it’s shared.
But as far as he sequencing and narrative are concerned; I studied Illustration, and narrative was a very important part of that. That’s what differentiates Illustration and Fine Art, really – a strong sense of narrative between pieces in Illustration, and that’s always stuck with me. Obviously, I’m a big fan of music for film, and a lot of the time I see these albums in their entirety as stories being told – so there are dynamic shifts, and there are segways.
It’s very hard to give specifics, but a lot of thought goes into it, and sequencing really does take as much time for me, almost, to building the individual tracks. I feel like it’s all about narrative for me, really.
Finn: As a side note, as we’re thinking about production duties – if someone asked you to sit in producer’s chair and oversee an album, it sounds like a challenge you’d want to explore… but there are mixed feelings?
Benjamin John Power: It’s a really funny thing being an electronic musician at the moment, because everyone sees themselves as a producer first and a musician second. It’s funny because actually it speaks volumes about what the current climes are as far as electronic music goes. And that’s totally fine, I don’t give a shit what the next person does, and more often than not it sounds good, but I see myself as a songwriter really, because I still like to write songs, even if they are strange passages of field recordings and stuff – because I do feel like a songwriter.
With all that in mind, it would have to be something that I’m interested in for all the right reasons, BUT I’m definitely willing to do it because, what I do, I feel lucky every day to do this and I want to do all of it… I want to try every single aspect of it. I want to soundtrack more, I want to produce more, I want want to write a hip hop album at some point. I would, of course, do it… I’m having conversations with people right now even, about it… so yes, I’d totally do it… but it has to be right.
I’ve just noticed… I’ve seen things on the internet where people are referring to me as a producer and I feel like “That’s really nice that you think that” but I’ve produced a couple of my friends bands that you’ve never heard of – but it’s strange how that’s the norm now, for an electronic musician – you have to be a ‘producer’ [Laughs] Everyone’s a ‘producer’ [Laughs]
Finn: Let’s talk about chaos – a theme of this album. I saw you years ago – playing bass for a local band. At the end of the show the sound system went to shit, the band walked off stage but you stayed there alone – playing for five minutes in a feedback loop. How do you replicate that chaos, which you clearly love, inside the closed system of an electronic box – which can only have chaos introduced to it?
Benjamin John Power: You have to embrace chaos to a certain degree! [Laughs] That’s pretty much going to sum up my musical career, “Embracing chaos!” But, actually, I don’t really like to read manuals, I never really have. I feel like if you’re reading manuals and you’re playing something in the way that it’s intended to be played then it’s almost like someone else is playing it for you; someone else is touching the knobs though you. So I never really read manuals, unless there’s a very particular thing that I need to know. But during the creative process I don’t read any of that, and more often than not I don’t know how the fuck these thing work – so there’s a very human chaos, and that’s where the exciting stuff happens.
Finn: You mentioned your studying of Illustration – the visual elements of Fuck Buttons and now Blanck Mass have always been hyper-real, and offered very clear and bold statements. So, why always such a sharp focus?
Benjamin John Power: The music itself… I do encourage people to throw away any identity that I might have given a particular piece of music, so they can use it in their own way. I had an interview with one of the fellas from Village Voice yesterday, and he was talking about the first track off the most recent Fuck Buttons record and he explained this elaborate storyline to me, the word ‘dystopian’ got used a lot [Laughs] and I was really impressed.
He had this incredibly elaborate concept for this particular track which is way off what I would have said – so I do thoroughly encourage people to disregard my imposed imagery, but I also do have very strong imagery in tow, myself, once something is complete.
I feel like this is a snapshot for me, and as far as the visual elements are considered it’s very polished in it’s aesthetic, so maybe that’s why everything is so bold. I’m presenting this thing to you as ‘this is how i feel’ but at the same time ‘you can do what you want – fucking throw it away – see it however you want to’.
Finn: So on World Eater – whose is the dog?
Benjamin John Power: It’s actually a friend of mine, Carly’s friend’s dog. She’s a photographer, and I said “This is the imagery I want. I want a canine’s teeth. I want it to look quite brutal, I want it to have a sinister feel, and I want it to look a little bit like the dog is smiling an evil smile.” I think the dog’s called “Oggy”
Finn: I know you feel fortunate to live in a job that you love doing, but with that alternating pressure – the boredom of airports, and the sitting in the backs of trucks – to the responsibility of putting on a good show so people get their money’s worth, whilst also meeting your own creative measure to perform this music… how do you stay sane through all the quiet and the chaos of life?
Benny John Power: Perspective. I think life isn’t supposed to be easy. If life was easy it would be boring. The travel and stuff… it does really take it out of you, but that’s the WORK, that’s what I’m getting paid the fees for… obviously that’s not what promoters feel – they’re paying for the product, which is the show. And the people who come to the shows, they’re great. But the work for me is the travel. Everyone has to work… but actually being able to play, and share all this, that’s not work, that’s something I love doing anyway.
Finn: So, that comes to the final question: What compels you through all this?
Benjamin John Power: I don’t even know! It’s just ingrained within me, I’ve always wanted to share what I create, even to my detriment sometimes [Laughs]
I was just having this conversation – this is off the record now… Actually, no fuck it – you can tell people this… I was having a conversation with a friend, Russell Haswell, last time I saw him, and it was a really interesting conversation. He was saying that when he died he wanted to have his entire catalog pulled out, deleted. Once he’s gone, he doesn’t want any of his art to remain. He wants it all to be a snapshot that lives with him. I guess he doesn’t like the idea of legacy acts, and things like that. I found it really interesting, and he actually gave quite an incredible speech to me in the pub about it all, and at the end of it I was thinking ‘That’s quite possibly one of the most powerful things I’ve ever heard’
And then, there’s me on the other hand. I’m thinking “Well, after I die I wanted to leave a fucking mess behind!” [Laughs] I mean – obviously not in an environmental sense, but in this creative sense I likened it to “I want to smear shit all over this wall” [Laughs] “I want to piss ALL up that wall!” [Laughs] “I want to make a RIGHT mess; to make sure everyone knows I was here!” I guess that’s one of the reasons why art exists, really – and why artists are artists; because they want people to know that they were here after they’re fucking gone.
HURRY – LISTEN – BLANCK MASS
image credit: harrison reid