With his Fuck Buttons partner cutting a rug on his own as Blanck Mass, it’s high time Andrew Hung showed us what he’s made of. And it isn’t what you might think
A queue of school children snakes down a corridor, a writhing line of untucked shirts and scuffed shoes. One by one, they stand in front of their teacher who is sat jabbing single notes on a piano. Each kid replies by singing the same notes back. Middle C. The G above middle C. Something a couple of octaves higher. The piano’s notes fill the hall in the colourless way that only school music lessons do. Some kids are pitch-perfect, sending heavenly cherubim into a harp-plucking frenzy. Some are sweetly tuneless, yet their mothers will still ruffle their hair for a job well done.
After a few attempts, each child is sent back to class and another one is brought forward. Andrew Hung reaches the front of the queue. The teacher stabs a note: middle C. Hung lets out a flat drone. If the noise he produced was an animal, it would have crawled out of his mouth and died. Undeterred, the teacher plays a different note. He lets out the same drone again, identical to the last, and somewhere in heaven a cherub tosses its harp in the nearest bin. A third note. The same flat drone. As Andrew Hung walks away from the audition, his future career in the school choir lies in ruins. He will never sing again. Until now.
“I’ve only started singing in the last year,” says Hung when I ask him about the rawness of his vocals on ‘Realisationship’, his debut solo long-player. If you were to believe the press blurb, it’s a record that forges a “new relationship with the inner infinite”. No, me neither. What the album is definitely about, however, is self-realisation, and a vulnerability that also shows during this interview. Hung has a lot of questions: about himself, about his working methods, and even about the journalist interviewing him. I tell him I’ve been singing in public myself recently.
“How are you finding it?”, he asks. “I’m still figuring out what my strengths and weaknesses are.”
I didn’t expect such well-spoken politeness from a member of Fuck Buttons, whose blistering instrumentals have blown away everyone from journos at The Observer to crowds at All Tomorrow’s Parties. Think Underworld’s ‘Rez’ for a millennial generation – a comparison that was solidified during the London Olympic Games opening ceremony in 2012, when ‘Surf Solar’ and ‘Olympians’ sat alongside a soaring score from Underworld’s Rick Smith. Imagine creating music so immense it was used to soundtrack the Danny Boyle-directed history of the British Isles.
More recently, Benjamin John Power, the “Fuck” to Andrew’s “Buttons”, has blazed a solo trail as the full-fat industrial noise outfit Blanck Mass. We’re talking everything cranked up to 11, with chords so lardy they’ll grease anything that stands in their way. With that all done, it’s now Andrew’s turn to flex his autonomy.
‘Realisationship’ steers clear of the full-fat; it feels more nuanced, more post-rock than hard-as-stone. And instead of heading the songs with a raft of guest vocalists, Hung has stepped up to the mic to face the terror of singing in front of other people. He can certainly hold a tune (which may surprise his old school teacher) and he has a voice that changes throughout the album.
Listen to the melodic whimsy of ‘Say What You Want’, or the rawness of ‘Animal’ with its seething refrain, “You don’t know what I will do to you / I’m an animal, animal”. Hung could have gone to a vocal coach and learned to project from his diaphragm and all that, but his singing seems almost instinctive.
“I just don’t practise. When I realised I had to sing ‘Animal’ angrily, it was a eureka moment; being angry comes naturally to me. Once I knew I had to perform to find the character of the songs,” he says, emphasising the word “perform” with a capital “P”. “It became an eye-opening process.”
It’s impossible to pin Andrew Hung down to the moment he decided to stand in front of a mic, rather than remain mute behind racks of tangled wires. There’s little in his Fuck Buttons history that suggests a move in that direction. However, he has worked with a couple of notable vocalists in recent years, including the totemic new age laser-wrangler, Jean-Michel Jarre. Fuck Buttons collaborated on the track ‘Immortals’ on Jarre’s 2015 ‘Electronica 1: The Time Machine’ collection. The song, with its Ulrich Schnauss-style airiness, was an album highlight even when listed alongside heavyweights such as Pete Townshend, Vince Clarke, Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter.
“Jarre’s an interesting bugger,” says Hung with a smile in his voice. “I’m not sure if this is derogatory, but he’s really French! He’s so cool. Is that a French trend? I dunno. I was in awe of him.”
Hung was also responsible for co-producing Beth Orton’s electronic resurgence on her 2016 album, ‘Kidsticks’. This saw the folk trip hopper shoving her acoustic guitar back in the cupboard and embracing loops. In a way, it recalled her 1990s dalliances with the likes of William Orbit and The Chemical Brothers. The critics loved it.
“Beth is so clever,” he says. “You can feel the weight of her experience. I feel like I’m building up my tool shed and she gave me a lot of tools to use. We were writing that record for two years and we didn’t really know what we were doing. The naivety is part and parcel of that. I still want to approach every project like a child. I just want it to be exciting, otherwise there’s no real point to it.”
Childishness is a trope Hung is used to. Fuck Buttons staked their reputation on abusing Casiotone home keyboards and Fisher Price karaoke sets to make some deliciously noisy sounds. A brief solo experiment in 2015 gave us the ‘Rave Cave’ EPs, which were built from rewired Nintendo Game Boy consoles. Yet, as playful as his processes seem, there is so much more to Andrew Hung.
We get to talking about collaboration, and whether going it alone has removed a safety net for him. It’s useful being accountable to someone else, so when you’ve only got yourself to answer to, then what? Funnily enough, this is a thought that has been bothering him.
“I couldn’t sleep last night, because I need to start organising my output,” he says. “I need a structure to know how much I can experiment and how much I can fail, otherwise it just becomes chaotic. Working with other people is easier because you find a natural boundary. It’s like when you speak to someone for the first time; you’re not going to start talking to them about their sex life straight away. There are certain boundaries. When you’re on your own, it is more difficult. As a child we had toys that we’d have to put away at the end of the day. That’s what I want to incorporate into my routine; having a way to tidy up, which is boring but necessary.”
Hung says he gets involved with stuff because it feels good, and he’s trying hard not to stop and think about it all too much. If that means suddenly finding himself taking lead vocal duties, then so be it. Naivety as process perhaps. Indeed, this is probably why, when we spoke, he was rediscovering the first two albums by The Cranberries. “There’s a simplicity to those guys that’s really enjoyable to listen to,” he says. He’s slightly embarrassed at this and is quick to point out that he’s been listening to Robert Wyatt too.
With an increasingly busy schedule and one project after another, it’s inevitable something will slip. He’s meant to be working with Emmy The Great, but “we haven’t seen each other for a year probably, but we’re both enthusiastic about working together still”. And with their respective sidelines underway, we shouldn’t expect new Fuck Buttons material any time soon.
“We’ve got our sights on a new album,” says Hung, “but the logistics are creating a barrier. I don’t know when that’s going to happen, to be honest with you.”
A question remains. Was he really that bad at singing when he was a kid? Was there a reason he let his teacher suffer those flat notes?
“I’d just arrived at school so I wanted to be friends with people,” admits Hung. “This kid behind me said, ‘Don’t do the choir’. So I said ‘Alright’. I sabotaged my audition for the school choir. That was the only time I did any sort of singing. I’m not sure I really consider myself a singer now though. I’m generally quite down on myself; I don’t really consider myself a musician either, even though I obviously am.”
With a tour approaching, he’s been forced to practise daily to toughen up his vocal chords. The good news is, with a live band around him, his new-found independence will see him become collaborative again.
“I’ve got my best friends in my band,” he explains. “They’re so good at riffing off each other. Milly [Blue], who I’ve known since I was 15, plays bass and synths. When she turned up with only two days to practise, she said, ‘Totally, it’ll be fine’. In retrospect, I’m not sure if she was just doing that to reassure herself.”
Throughout the interview, Hung has been intelligently reserved. He’s careful to formulate his replies, and quick to deflect with counter questions. However, when we talk about his band, he gushes. He’s clearly excited, like a kid who’s just arrived home from school, wonky-tied and scuff-shoed, giddily raving about his day.
“I was thinking about the live band this morning,” he says. “I want them to be around all the time. I want them to be my family. When you’ve got four people around you who want to bring the best out of each other, it is incredible. It does feel like school again.”
‘Realisationship’ is out on Lex.