Ahead of its release tomorrow, Benjamin John Power tells Jasper Willems about the new Blanck Mass album In Ferneaux, as well as taking up painting and creating film scores.
“I’ve been touring my whole life really. I never really stopped. Some of the tours we did in the back of a van that didn’t have any seats in it, standing up against the amps. Looking back on it now, that’s so dangerous.” Benjamin John Power lights up when reminiscing about his yonder years of skulking watering holes and DIY venues.
“Fuck Buttons started maybe in my first or second year studying in Bristol. I ended up working at a pub called The Junction, which was the anarchist punk pub. That was a good place for me to work. I think one of the first ever Fuck Buttons shows was there. Just working behind the pub in that bar was amazing. Bob, the landlord, was a huge Cabaret Voltaire fan, which then led on to me discovering Chris Watson, who is obviously a huge influence on me now.”
Sprawling stories about his hardcore/punk days in Worcester and his introduction to the Bristol scene make it much easier to understand the primordial ooze from which Blanck Mass, his focal project, has arisen. It’s the potent synthesis of all those past phases, evolved into somewhat of an anomaly. The Benjamin John Power way of doing things involves splicing the DNA of power electronics, black metal, punk rock, techno, ambient and noise into music that seems to break loose from its phantom zone; a spiritual shape-shifting outgrowth of sound that Power carries with him at all times.
At the beginning of Blanck Mass’ fifth full-length, In Ferneaux, Power pretty much picks up where he left off with previous album Animated Violence Mild, his heaviest work yet. Its fiberglass arpeggios, static distortion and obliterating rhythms intensify into a sonic battering ram. This is Blanck Mass at the height of its evolution.
Power’s own adjustment was sudden yet resourceful. “I was very aware that I didn’t want In Ferneaux to become my ‘lockdown record’, but the lockdown did present me with an opportunity to do something I wanted to release for a very long time, essentially,” he says. “My earliest stuff wasn’t so nonlinear, I guess. In Ferneaux is seemingly abstract, with a lack of beats and more focus on particular textures for a period of time. That was actually something I wanted to explore in the earlier Blanck Mass records. Most electronic musicians will say ‘I write music for myself first, and if anyone else likes it afterwards, then that’s an added bonus.’ I’ve said that historically so many times, and I do still agree with that.”
About six minutes into “Phase I”, however, the music dovetails into a candid field recording of clattering objects, sounding like those contraptions made to alert farmers of tornados or hurricanes. It’s pretty easy to draw a parallel with Power’s stop-start bullet train life as a touring musician: dividing In Ferneaux up in two long tracks, “Phase I” and “Phase II”, feels like an instinctual reaction to the nature of an album cut into separate songs.
Now in a more reflective phase of his life, you can sense that big ‘but’ coming. “But I also feel like when you write music with a beat, like techno music or industrial music with some kind of affiliation towards beat-driven stuff, you’re writing for a future in mind to a certain degree. You’re writing for a space that exists. You’re writing for a club. You’re writing for the venue,” he affirms. “Whether I said it or not at the time, I changed my perspective slightly. I feel like I probably was writing with a future in mind at first, whereas In Ferneaux is very much a snapshot of a painful period for me.”
Power was grief-stricken during the crafting process: he lost his father, and, not long after, his mentor Andrew Weatherall, who helped engineer Fuck Buttons’ mind-bending Tarot Sport album. When those foundations crumble, that sense of space crumbles with it, and all you have left is a pile of junk and rubble to deal with.
The personal losses mounted in a time when Power finally reached another creative plateau, making his undomesticated approach to sound a supporting element within the vision of another. “The film score stuff already has a moving image and a story bolstering that. With regards to a sonic template there are no guidelines, it’s completely expressive, from one person. Both aspects are liberating,” Power says. “Something like In Ferneaux, my own personal stuff, I have no one else to answer to. Often that results in something weird or self-indulgent,” he laughs. “Which is absolutely fine.”
For one particular club scene in Nick Rowland’s film Calm With Horses, Power composed “Different Breed”, which simultaneously acted as both a prop of the environment and signifier for the character’s emotions on the screen. It’s the type of intermediate zone Power has found him career in recently. In an era where similar maverick peers like Mica Levi, The Haxan Cloak, Oneohtrix Point Never and Hildur Guðnadóttir are making their mark in modern cinema, Power is finding his footing as well – and has just revealed that his next project is scoring Ted K, a film about the Unabomber.
“The younger generation of people who are just now breaking into film grew up listening to bands like Fuck Buttons, so that probably plays a pretty big part of it!” he chuckles. Though he initially pins it on luck, it might actually be the ripple effect of those years of catharsis on stage and pulling your weight through the grind of touring. Unknowingly, at one of those chaotic house shows, there might have been an acclaimed author or filmmaker getting shitfaced in the crowd.
Much like how Power recalls the good old days in conversation, on In Ferneaux he rummages knee-deep into sounds he recorded in the past as a source of comfort for the present. Some of them didn’t make it in, including a rather comical occasion where he was chased by a flock of howler monkeys in Costa Rica. But others contained an almost totemic value for him: a conversation between two street preachers in San Francisco held within earshot; a bunch of percussionists in a festival type of environment. “I didn’t have any set goal for it,” he admits. “I have been collecting field recordings for a long time. And there was an early stage of this project where I had essentially just chosen my favorite field recordings of the last 10, 15 years.”
On the choice not to cut the record into separate tracks, Power felt that would contradict where his gut feeling had guided him. “Just to give you a studio sense of these kinds of spaces, the album is almost like a diary for myself,” he says. “The concept kind of morphed into something else when I found myself in this position, in a particularly difficult point in my life. I decided to maybe introduce a narrative, tell an internal story, and undergo my grief process at the time, utilising these field recordings and found sounds from a time gone by.”
Even in a position where Power is able to talk about it, he is reluctant to pin any type of overarching concept on In Ferneaux. That wasn’t so much a problem on past albums: having interviewed him for the World Eater rollout, he previously always had a fairly concise premise of what his music fundamentally evokes. Power’s distinct way of manipulating and distorting existing texture, melody and fidelity into something new and fully-formed always had a cathartic element to it, an element of indestructibility, of a becoming. But on In Ferneaux, Power does something decisively different: he often keeps the field recordings intact in their candid state and builds them up into the more layered compositions, transparently showing the listener the various makeshift stages of his music rather than giving them the business right away. Through the process of working through these different recordings and using music as the connective tissue, In Ferneaux is revealing a more vulnerable side of Power to the listener.
Power talks avidly about how he took up painting again during the lockdown, and how that presented a different means of comfort to process his own grief. “When I first started to paint again I was using it as a way of expressing myself. That obviously goes without saying, but it was more a way of training myself to completely let go of a certain idea that I had about something. The way I would paint; I’d start working on something and even if it appeared to be finished, I would completely paint over it, turn the canvas upside down physically. It was kind of a way of letting go of something that I’ve been attached to,” he says. “Using that in a physical sense; this is what I’ve done, this is what I’m used to and that’s what I know. But I completely disregarded that and kept starting all over again. It was more of a way of moving past things you’ve gotten used to, the position that you might have found yourself in at one particular time. I was using it as a way of processing what was going on around me. Obviously, I found that pretty helpful. So I carried on doing it.
“I feel that’s why In Ferneaux was so interesting and so helpful for me on a personal level. The field recordings do represent a very tangible space, way more tangible than – say for example – than this thing,” he says, pointing to one of the many synths stored in his attic. “Which isn’t to say the possibilities aren’t wide with something like that, but there is much more of a connection. It’s very tactile, you know. You can feel like you’re in this place, like in an escapist sort of way. I think the result relates to it in that kind of way. To show these very tactile spaces that we used to visit and their limitations. If you wanna make that metaphor, yeah, I do see In Ferneaux as more of a painting.”
Blanck Mass’ new album In Ferneaux is out tomorrow February 26th on Sacred Bones Records.