The Skinny Northwest December 2013
The Skinny Northwest is a new entertainment and listings magazine for Manchester and Liverpool.
2. Steve Mason – Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time (Double Six) cross a year of austerity budgets, fracking controversies and seemingly endless state surveillance revelations, the anger and frustration that structures Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time has rarely been far from thoughts or headlines. With his sails filled by a zeitgeist wind of change, Steve Mason’s follow-up to 2010’s Boys Outside saw the ex-Beta Band frontman bare and sharpen his iconoclastic edge, calling out complacency and corruption and encouraging others to do the same – which, in a popular music landscape largely allergic to explicit political engagement, ensured he spent 2013 proudly standing out from the crowd. Whether turning festival stages into politician-bashing soapboxes or using promotional interviews to expound his thesis of social change via open dialogue, Mason tackled head-on a subject all too often viewed askance or bathed in metaphor – in itself, enough to mark Monkey Minds… as one of the year’s key releases. That all this heartfelt polemic came attached to some of the most rousing, refined and inspired music of his career – integrating influences from hip-hop to gospel to dub – didn’t hurt either. Calling to congratulate Mason on his high placing in our albums of the year poll, he takes the opportunity to recapitulate the record’s impetus and message, while reflecting on its reception. When we previously spoke in March, ahead of the album’s release, Mason had noted that political concept albums are “fraught with problems,” remarking that “many have gone down that route before and failed.” He must therefore be pleased, we suggest, at the nimble way in which Monkey Minds… has bucked the trend? “Yeah, absolutely,” he replies, speaking from his tour bus en route to his final live dates of the year. “For me personally, making a record after Boys Outside was quite intimidating because I thought that was one of the best records I’d ever made. And once I realised what I wanted to do – that is, make a political concept album – that became a worry in itself, because people have massive preconceptions about any kind of music and politics connection. So for it to be so well received by people who like what I do, from radio stations like 6 Music and independent record shops and obviously magazines like The Skinny, has been really heart-warming to be honest. And it’s meant that people have been asking me about my politics, so it’s involved a huge amount of dialogue – which was really the intention of the record anyway: to start a conversation about where we are and what we’re facing.” While the album’s overtly political elements are first to sear themselves in the listener’s consciousness, there’s more to Monkey Minds… than dissent and agitation, with the visceral, ire-infused likes of Fire (introduced live as “about being invited to Tony Blair’s house and strapping him to a chair and setting fire to him”) and Fight Them Back (a charged call for action against social oppression) only constituting a slither of its full range of emotional registers. Amid the fomentation lies a softer impulse: optimism, conveyed through moments like From Hate We Hope’s spoken word interlude (“I remember looking at myself and thinking how amazing it is to be human, you know?”) and closer Come To Me’s tentative hopefulness, which ends the album with the words ‘it’ll be alright.’ Such contrasts lend Monkey Minds... its three-dimensionality; it’s not a flat protest placard, but a profoundly human morass of introspection and conflicting passions. “I think the whole thing, from it coming out ’til now, feels very positive,” continues Mason on the subject of the album’s reception. “People have understood it’s not some empty call for a pie in the sky revolution or something like that. They seem to understand that it’s genuine.” To Mason’s mind, conviction is key. “I always make sure I have 100% belief in everything I put out,” he says, identifying the Beta Band’s maligned debut the sole exception. “That’s really, really important of an artist like me, because people expect it. Once artists like me – and I don’t mean just me, there are other artists doing similar things – but once we stop making music, I dread to think what will be left. All you’re going to be left with is people coming out of music colleges and stage schools and all that, and it’s not really art any more, it’s all made by committee. I find most of what I hear now very derivative and full of fake emotion – it just doesn’t feel real to me in any way. So I believe that it’s incredibly important to put every single drop of energy and belief into every record that I put out.” With Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time as evidence, we’re inclined to agree. [Chris Buckle] thing was a nice interlude for us,” Power recalls, “but we were already in a very separate place and well into the album. We didn’t have any expectations for it and we still don’t. It gets dangerous anticipating it and thinking about its reception because you start to pander to these outside external forces and that can be detrimental.” The pair revelled in putting the album together – the first solely produced by themselves (“it was a step into the unknown which we always try to do, otherwise we’d be living in a very contained world”) – at their own Space Mountain studios which, in another indicator of their keenness to remain mentally pure, contrasted hugely with its bustling Dalston surroundings. “It was an amazing little hub. It was crazy; on the other side of the building’s shutters was Shacklewell Lane, and yet we felt totally secluded from all of that. We’ve never really had a sense towards any kind of geographical location within our sound so we created a world that was in our heads first and is now being visualised in however many different ways in the heads of the people listening to it.” Released in July, some 11 months on from the Olympic exposure of being played to 900 million people worldwide (“something that I’ve not noticed the physical benefit of,” Andrew Hung told us when we spoke to him around its release), Slow Focus managed to broach the UK Top 40 – clocking in at 36 – as well as topping the Record Store Charts; that’s no mean feat for an album that comes from a duo so abrasive and stubbornly individualistic in a time where saturation of choice has perhaps led to a retreat to the safety of the crowd in the upper echelons of the charts. “But I think its success is testament to the kind of times we live in and the speed at which culture can be shared now,” argues Power of their relatively outré music going far beyond where similar acts might’ve in the previous decade. “I think it’s amazing that when we first started out we were just jamming out in each other’s bedrooms for our own entertainment, and that’s not really changed. To get to this point without any external influence coming in to try and shape what we do is a really beautiful feeling.” Power admits that he hasn’t disconnected from the record yet, like other artists so often do. “Andy doesn’t so much; he likes to take a step back and leaves things to breathe for a while. I tend to obsess over little intricacies, so it’s a nice balance between us, but I don’t really stop even after it’s been released. “But then,” he adds, “we wouldn’t be making this music if we couldn’t see ourselves listening to it anyway, would we?” [Simon Jay Catling] Photo: Ann Margaret Campbell A stevemasontheartist.com 1. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus (ATP) Benjamin Power and Andrew Hung’s third record saw them ascend to the very top of Space Mountain xpectation’ is a word that crops up a lot in Benjamin Power’s syntax these days. One half of Fuck Buttons, alongside his close friend Andrew Hung, Power hadn’t, for the bulk of his time creating music, had to think too much about expectation. Yet Slow Focus, the duo’s brilliantly discordant third album, was perhaps the first material in their history that they knew would be picked apart by the eyes of the world, following the critical success of their second album Tarot Sport in 2009 and the arguably even greater exposure they gained when their music was used by Danny Boyle during London’s Olympic opening ceremony in 2012. Variations of an answer of ‘we don’t like to pigeonhole ourselves’ are a dime-a-dozen among artists, often ringing hollow amid the sheer weight of history’s back catalogue that we’re now almost irresistibly exposed to in 2013; but when Power tells us “we never had any preconceptions about how a track was going to sound” you really believe him. For one, amid Slow Focus’s competing layers of hardware dissonance, industrial tropes and – on The Red Wing in particular – breakbeat experimentation lurks an almost alien DNA. It is a record that slips between guises before the listener can even attempt to peg it down; each track is laced with a foreboding menace, yet with an intention that’s never made clear – tracks in effect blank slates for the listener to map their own interpretation on them. “When we were making Slow Focus – like usual – I wasn’t listening to anything else that was going on,” Power explains. “I’d hear all these new names being thrown around on the internet but I’d never listen. Even something like that can subconsciously worm its way into the creation process. I genuinely listen to my own music more than anyone else’s. That’s not egotistical, it’s to try and ensure creative purity.” Fuck Buttons strive more than most to maintain singularity within their work. “The Olympic December 2013 Photo: Daniel Harris ‘E MUSIC www.fuckbuttons.com Feature 15