"The Cowbell Must Be Perfect": An Interview With Factory Floor
"I'd find myself laying in bed after three hours, wide awake with 'du-du-du' going around in my head."
"Repetition is the platform for free thinking," says Gabe Gurnsey, one-third of London's noise-punk-gone-robot-disco trio Factory Floor. They live by this philosophy.
While writing and recording their debut album in an unfurnished warehouse in a rough suburb of North London, time was non-existent for band members Gurnsey, Nik Void, and Dominic Butler. On an average day they would wake up and lock into a jam session that could last through dusk and into the early morning, taking occasional breaks for coffee and cigarettes. They didn't eat much.
During the process they refused to listen to any music other than their own, fearing it would throw them off of the groove. Instead they would play back the tape recordings of their day's work, making sure that the pulse of each and every track never left their minds, looping phrases endlessly like a mantra. For a time, Factory Floor said goodbye to reality and descended into isolation, relinquishing any rational perspective on music.
Factory Floor couldn't have made their record in a proper studio with an engineer clocking their hourly rental fee. By removing the element of time, and wresting full control over their recording environment, the band was able to tediously mould every jam session into a structured song, which is how the album slowly but surely came to be. Perhaps one of their biggest challenges was being able to tell when a track was complete—they once spent an entire week just getting a cowbell to sound perfect.
While Factory Floor was born around 2005, they didn't become truly functional dance producers until just a couple years ago. As an impressively unorganised noise punk band, Factory Floor released a couple of EPs prior to 2010, which was the year Dominic grew tired of the bass guitar and bought himself a Roland SH-101 synthesizer—a classic synth mainly used to produce techno and acid in the mid-80s. Think Luke Vibert, The Prodigy, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and even Boards Of Canada. Their single "Real Love," released by the like-minded legendary Optimo Music label, was Factory Floor's turning point. Their follow up, "Two Different Ways," released by DFA, proved that their sound and dynamic as a band had flourished.
Factory Floor calls DFA home today, as the label's dance-punk roots make this relationship a perfect fit. DFA is constantly bridging the gap between the post-punk avant-garde and the dance floor, serving as a gateway for soon-to-be house heads—and Factory Floor represent exactly that. Raw, anxious arpeggios and a half-human, half-machine style of pumping, stripped down percussion defines both EPs, and are elements which have been meticulously applied to their best work yet in 2013.
When Factory Floor play live, their tidy, eight-minute singles unfold into 20-minute improvisational marathons; their throbbing low-end shakes their tables stacked with gear, and audiences have been known to remove their clothing at some of the more intimate appearances. Their controlled chaos on stage is a game of layering loops, building in whichever direction the audience pushes them. Here the crowd is in control, and totally out of control at the same time.
While the band recently moved out of their warehouse music studio, it is still where they record and rehearse, still living in their own world without any care for contemporary production fads. The band states that they feel no pressure and I'd say the reason for that is clear.
THUMP: So tell me about the earliest form of Factory Floor. How did you meet?
Nik Void: The three of us met in 2009 in East London. Our first show was at a church in Shoreditch. My intention was to be a stand-in, but we hit it off so well musically. Something interesting happened—there was a surge of positive energy made from a sound that sounded so brutal.
It seems that there are two halves of Factory Floor—there's the more basic electronic side, and then there's the highly experimental band version. This combination and balance must be a pretty accurate reflection of your individual tastes, right?
NV: Yes, individually to different degrees. We sit on the fence between electronic, rock, and avant-garde. This can be good and also bad in the sense that it's difficult to place us—but then we see this as a good thing, not to be bracketed. Who knows, we might strike on something transgressive in the future.
With that being said, I figure you all grew up watching full band gigs as well as electronic shows. At what point in your lives did you begin making the connection from rock-based music to dance music in the electronic style?
NV: We've all been to the odd Sonic Youth and Pan Sonic performances. I imagine the Kraftwerk shows here last summer inspired a whole new generation of people starting bands. I've always played guitar but had that niggling feeling that there must be more to playing chords and riffs. I felt I could make more of my instinctive connection with this object I've had a relationship with for over ten years. Textures, sounds, feedback hitting the body with a stick, creating those rhythms—that led me to dance music.
Were there many DJs or electronic artists that you felt like you could connect to in the early days, or was it hard to relate until you actually started making that kind of music?
Dominic Butler: I've always felt connected to electronic music. I guess it was inevitable, growing up in the 80s where so many advances were being made in this world.
Which tracks do you consider to mark the actual beginning of Factory Floor and why? I guess this turning point was when you started to make use of the SH-101 in favour of the bass guitar?
DB: I think Factory Floor became what it is today when Nik joined. The chemistry between the three of us worked really well. Also Gabe and I wanted to bring the more electronic side of Factory Floor to the front of what we were doing. Nik joining gave all of us a new starting point to work this out, and it also galvanised the band. Changing from bass guitar to a Roland SH-101 helped this also.
Would you say that this turning point was a result of boredom in a way? Do you have a constant desire to keep trying different equipment and learning to use them in new ways?
NV: I think we all like to keep things new and interesting and not revisit or formulate things too much; it's part of our creative practise. Whether it's using new equipment or old equipment we had that hadn't been used in the band before, it's more about exploration and all the random creativity that comes of it.
As far as using vintage gear in exciting progressive ways, who are a few other producers that you admire for their exploration and finesse?
NV: Chris Blackwell, Alex Sadkin, Gene Hunt, Ron Hardy, Tom Rowland, Pharrell, Brian Eno, Martin Hannett, Tina Weymouth & Chis Frantz, David Cunningham, Nick Sansano, Giorgio Moroder—we could go on. All these people we could never afford [laughs].
You guys play a variety of settings ranging from large festivals to intimate raves. Your sound is obviously fit for both, but do you have a preference?
NV: We don't generally have a preference. Whatever the venue, we work with it. Sometimes it's fun to make the performance more site-specific. At Tate Tanks, for example, we faced our tables inwards so that the audience could walk around us in this massive round concrete bunker, with the speakers arranged so it immersed the audience with sound rather than facing them with sound. These are often spontaneous choices that we make a few minutes beforehand.
Since you perform best by simply playing as you go, do you ever find it difficult to actually sit down and transform your recordings into short tracks for records? How exactly do you transform how you work on stage into record format?
NV: It's not easy, and not something I can sum up in a couple of lines. I guess what we learned is less is more. Anything we were unsure of, even if it was a snippet of sound that lasts for half a second—we'd eradicate it. We became brutal in our edits and personal choices when listening back to three-hour-long sessions… you have to.
I can imagine it's very easy to lose all perspective on your creation when turning an hour-long session into a 7-minute track. To a certain extent, does the loss of perspective play a valued role in your music?
NV: There were a few conscious steps we made to try not to lose perspective. We would do a session—do a rough edit whilst still fresh—then revisit it a couple of months later. Also we each worked on different tracks at the same time: Gabe would be in the studio during the day working on drums, and I would be in at night working on samples for a different track. This way we often called each other in for a second pair of ears for quality control if that makes sense. Then the final stage was handing in the raw album and files to mix.
From what I've seen and heard just through the Internet is that the live show is more like an evolving landscape of sounds that dives through many phases, while the currently released singles, such as "Two Different Ways," are more focused in a classic sense of arrangement.
NV: Yes, a lot of 2012 and 2013 live shows were laying down foundations for studio practise. The second phase of Factory Floor is taking tracks from the album and developing them further to abstract versions of the record.
So you're almost going backwards—starting complex and working toward simplicity. I guess that's the usual creative process for refining something. But with this new LP did you find yourselves having to force simplicity?
NV: No, we enjoyed the process of making the tracks more simple and shaping them into something more accessible. Its something we learnt as we went along, so therefore it was satisfying; a concept to focus on rather than putting down something we had become comfortable with live.
Nik, your lyrics are usually obscured and chopped. Is this intentional to ensure that the audience's attention is set on the vibe you're creating rather than your personal lives?
NV: Yes, they're very generalised. They can apply and relate to anyone, anything. Being interested in dismantling what I know, to move forward into different territories is also important. I was more focused on processing and manipulation to reduce the vocals into a sense of vibe and rhyme, plus I wanted to add a sense of playfulness and feel-good factor to release the tension of the record.
The recording process of the album lasted over the course of a couple years. Were you concerned with intentionally making each track flow like a story or were you not thinking that far ahead?
NV: We set out to record as much as we could, and then edit sections from hours of improvisation and focus these into tracks. We then looked at all the material we had at the halfway point and chose the tracks we felt were working and worked well together as a whole and completed them.
You recorded this album in an isolated warehouse in North London. Was there ever point where you felt like you were literally going crazy?
NV: At first, no. But after three months or so it began to close in on us. It's hard to shut off after a session of intense volume and repetition. I'd find myself laying in bed after three hours still wide awake with du-du-du going around in my head. So I guess you could say we had our few gnarly days.
Now that the album is complete and you are all aware of your individual roles in the band, has the production process become easier or clearer today?
NV: We were aware of our individual roles before recording for the album. This is one of many reasons why we chose to take our time and experiment with smaller releases first. I guess evaluating how the record has transpired live will be our next step. As before we worked the other way round, our semi-improvisational shows gave us ideas for the record, and now the record gives us a blueprint for live. Our short stint of shows in Europe are bringing out extended versions of the album tracks—they're morphing into something more menacing and rhythmical. Party vibes! It's good!
Looking toward the future in terms of releases and shows, what else do you have coming up? How about a USA tour? we'd love to see you!
NV: We do have two US short tours scheduled for next year; one in February, and the other in April. Dates will be announced once it's all confirmed.
Tell us the five best records to listen to while driving at night:
Carter Tutti Void / Transverse
Arthur Russell / First Thought, Best Thought
Grace Jones / Night Clubbing
Daniel Avery / Drone Logic
Fuck Buttons / Slow Focus
Cooper Saver wants more cowbell -@coopersaver