Inside the Mind of Blanck Mass

Blanck Mass interview with Northern Transmissions. Benjamin John Power, chatted with Mimi Kenny about his soundtrack Ted K and more
Benjamin Power AKA: Blanck Mass

That Blanck Mass was asked to score a film is hardly a surprise. Both in his heavily industrial solo material and as a member of acclaimed electronic duo Fuck Buttons (currently on hiatus), the artist, born Benjamin John Power, has specialized in annihilating his listeners with sounds that could backdrop (or dominate) any number of frenetic stories. “Those things are quite bombastic, and bombast is something that I’m not afraid of,” he replies when asked about being hypothetically asked to score a Marvel movie.

That Power was asked to score Ted K, a film about Ted Kaczynski, the domestic terrorist also known as “The Unabomber” is a bit more surprising. Kaczynski, a man who wrote a 35,000-word manifesto on how he saw technological advances as having degraded society, is having his psyche dramatized by a man who specializes in music that’s decidedly un-analog. “The irony is not lost on me,” Power says about being asked to score this particular film.

But regardless of what tools he’s using, Power understands how to create mood through sound, and put you into a headspace, even one as discomfiting as this. While his Ted K score (out digitally on March 18 and on vinyl on June 10 via Sacred Bones) is, at times, sonically overwhelming, the prevailing mood is somber. Through charred drones and decaying synth melodies and occasional vocal passages, Power creates a one-man apocalypse about someone attempting exactly that, circa 1995. I spoke with Power about scoring Ted K and other matters of music and film scoring.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

Northern Transmissions: How did you get involved with this project?

Blanck Mass: I was approached by Melissa Auf der Maur, who is [director Tony Stone’s] partner. They had seen Calm with Horses, which I had done. I also played Basilica Festival, which is Melissa and Tony’s festival in Basilica. So, we met then and kept in touch about various things. They asked me, and it was right at the beginning of lockdown. So, I wasn’t touring, and I’ve always wanted to get into film scoring. So, I took it on, and it was interesting. Tony was in British Columbia at the time, and I’m here in Edinburgh. So, a lot of the sessions and feedback and such, I was working essentially night shifts on this. When Tony would get up, it was nighttime, and to react to feedback and stuff, I would be often working through the night. It was interesting, and I think that had some kind of impact on the score itself. And the fact that I started to score this during a lockdown. The subject matter of the film speaks a lot to isolation.

NT: What do you think is the driving point of the film and how did you use your music to emphasize that?

BM: The one thing that struck me when I watched the first cut was the delusion of Ted Kaczynski. When I was watching through the film, Ted feels like some kind of warrior, some kind of modern-day warrior, with the enemy being modern technology and the progress of modern technology. So, I think that kind of really drew parallels to me for some of my favorite movies and scores, that of Sergio Leone and the old spaghetti westerns. I felt that was the kind of mental space that I tried to occupy. The main theme, you could almost argue, is from Ted Kaczynski’s perspective. It’s how he might feel towards a situation. And I think you see a lot of that throughout the film anyway. I mean, it’s a character study, in essence. You don’t ever hear the word “Unabomber” mentioned until about 15 minutes from the end of the film.

And then, obviously, there’s a huge element of descent: descent of his psyche and his outlook. I feel that was very interesting to try and inhabit, for want of a better term, obviously. He’s a murderer, and then some [laughs]. It’s a space that was alien. But I feel like you have to try and inhabit a space, or at least, the way somebody else views the world when scoring something like this, be it bad or good.

NT: Did you do some deep-dive research into Kaczynski for this?

BM: My deep-dive research really was the subject matter that Tony had presented. I haven’t read the manifesto. A lot of people I know have, which I potentially should have done. But I think, without leaning into anything political with regards to the subject matter, my job was to score Ted Kaczynski on his way to becoming the Unabomber. So, I took that at face value to a certain degree. And, obviously, since being involved with the project and whilst being involved with the project, became a lot more aware of what happened.

NT: Do you think there’s any real way to understand somebody like Kaczynski, or is it just some people are like this and we can’t really rationalize it?

BM: Rationalize his actions? I’m sure there are plenty of people who do rationalize his actions, but I’m not one of those people. I’m aware that there is a political movement towards Kaczynski, not just his ideas of technology, which isn’t something that has any bearing on me. I think if you take yourself out of society, from what I can tell, there’s a huge potential for an increased solipsism of sorts. And I feel like maybe that had something to do with his descent, to a degree. I mean, he hated society.

NT: Did you have any blueprinting in mind, or did it just develop?

BM: Every kind of scene is saying something very different and is like another kind of side to Ted’s mind. For example, when Ted is running around the woods in a bearskin tunic and stuff like that, this is supposed to be articulated as my interpretation of what he may be thinking, what music he may have in his head at the time. This is what I was trying to get at there, and you can see that cue is world’s apart from the “sawmill revenge” cue, which is world’s apart from the “Becky manifestation” cue as well. Tony didn’t give me any kind of set criteria as to what kind of instrumentation he wanted. I was able to approach it the same way that I’ve approached every project I’ve ever worked on, which is primarily exploration, whatever means I have at my disposal at the time. I do work with synthesizers, primarily. I’m sure there’ll be a time when I will want to write for orchestra. And sure, there are orchestral sounds on this record, but they’re all synthesized.

NT: I noticed you have that really rapturous element to it, where I’m listening to it and I’m thinking, “This would also sound really cool if it was a full string section.”

BM: It’s kind of my dream for that to happen. With Fuck Buttons, with Blanck Mass, I’ve always imagined these pieces of music in my head, full orchestra. But I have never been in a financial position or a logistical arrangement to be able to actualize that. So, there are parallels, and it’s something I can see myself working on in the future.

NT: You mentioned Morricone, but are there any contemporary composers whose work you really admire for film scores?

BM: I like it all. I have a lot of friends who are doing a similar thing and especially have been doing so since lockdown. I just saw a new thing that my friend Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe has announced. Mica Levi, I think, is fantastic. There’s a lot of stuff: Clint Mansell, Geoff Barrow, Mogwai guys. Oneohtrix Point Never does a great job. I haven’t seen The North Water yet, but I’m sure Tim Hecker absolutely smashed it on that.

A lot of the stuff I have done up until now with scores is very different to a lot of my contemporaries. But it feels like a little bit of a golden age for us weirdo electronic composers. I had this conversation with somebody yesterday: It feels like directors now grew up listening to Fuck Buttons and stuff. When I’m asked, “How come you haven’t done it before?” And I think the simplest answer to it is, directors, when I was young, had their composers, and now, there’s new directors coming up who listen to our stuff.

NT: And it seems like a really good way to bring noisier, more ambient music to a wider audience because I think people can generally better understand the appeal of it when it’s juxtaposed with imagery or when a character’s mood shifts. I think it really shows how much momentum and emotion is in this music.

BM: Yeah, absolutely. My last Blanck Mass studio album, In Ferneaux, I feel like that turned a lot of heads to a degree, because for the last three or so records, it’s been a lot of industrial beats and things like that. And it is very dance floor-orientated. Narrative has always been a very strong component for me when writing anything. But In Ferneaux, specifically, it’s me sharing an internal narrative, from my perspective. The minute music you find on something like In Ferneaux is placed with a narrative that is presented to you, in a cinematic sense, then, of course, people will pay more attention even if it’s just by default to the fact that it’s accompanying the image.

I’ve been in my own head with nobody else to really answer to for a good seven or so years. The collaborative aspect, having that again, creatively, is something that I’ve really enjoyed happening again. It’s great to be able to feed off of somebody else’s energy, in that sense.

NT: Did you have to make any compromises with the final result?

BM: I think you do have to compromise, to a degree. But I think that the word “compromise” – I don’t know why I feel like that has a negative connotation. I think historically it feels like maybe it does, doesn’t it?

I’ve been lucky in the sense that, when I first started out doing this, there are certain kind of tropes that you feel are necessary. But the minute I would find myself guilty of maybe slipping into that because it feels like the conventional and the correct thing to do, I’d be lucky in the fact that the directors that I’ve worked with up until this point usually will come back and say, “No, thank you. But we asked you to do this because you’re Blanck Mass.” [laughs]. I mean, of course, there is an element of compromise.

I would say it’s more an element of collaboration than compromise. I mentioned Fuck Buttons again. That was an element of compromise. If I had just been writing Fuck Buttons music, it would’ve just sounded like Blanck Mass. If the formula works, that’s where magic happens.

NT: Are you generally more mindful of music in films now? Do you pay closer attention to scores than you did before?

BM: I always paid attention to a certain degree. But now, I find it difficult to watch a film at home once now, because I’m listening to what the music is doing more than I’m listening to the dialogue. And I have to rewind a lot now. If I’m really feeling the cue, I’ll rewind it, like, five times. It’s my job now, so I start looking at every aspect of a score, even underscore, which I generally wouldn’t have noticed before.

NT: Something really impressive is how you combine moods together. There’s the tension to the album, and there’s also this melancholy throughout. Were you going for those feelings, specifically?

BM: The overriding factor for me is isolation. I feel like there’s a grandeur and a sadness within isolation that can be found. That was a consideration. When I’m speaking to a director about these things, so many adjectives are thrown around. I have pages and pages and pages of adjectives that’s just for one cue that might last a minute. It’s great trying to find that sweet spot. All these things are very considered, but I do feel like there’s a melancholy involved in it.

NT: Do you have any interest in filmmaking yourself?

BM: At some point, maybe, but right now, I’m enjoying the collaborative aspect so much. I didn’t study film, and I feel like it’s complicated; it’s highly complicated. You always gotta think, “One day, maybe I would like to do that.” I’d like to try everything once, really.

Pre-order Ted K by Blanck Mass HERE