When Benjamin John Power began touring as a professional musician in the late aughts, he decided to bring a companion with him: a Tascam DR-40.
Traveling the world over with his electronic drone duo—Fuck Buttons, with Andrew Hung—Power came to see just how meaningful having this nifty, hand-held recorder could be. While you might be thinking that he brought it along as a way to capture impromptu musical ideas, what he was actually doing was a little bit more intimate: he was making an audio diary.
See, by taking small moments and sounds and forever documenting them through these recordings, Power was able to hold onto these precious memories that often end up being lost to time. For years now, he’s been collecting these memories in a huge database, with hopes to find a way to use them someday.
Well, that “someday” has finally arrived—on February 26 via Sacred Bones, Power will be releasing In Ferneaux, the fifth studio album from his solo project, Blanck Mass. Grounded by processed samples from Power’s years of field recordings, the record is an impressionistic mosaic of synths and memories, all coalescing into brilliant, musical peaks.
Last week, Power hopped on a Zoom call with American Songwriter to discuss the years of personal turmoil, discovery and growth that went into the making of In Ferneaux. While the record consists mainly of moments from his travels, it wasn’t until the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic that Power began to realize the full scope of the work he was doing. Even beyond the simple joy of a really good musical moment—and In Ferneaux has plenty of those—the record speaks to a deeper idea of what it means to be alive in this world right now. In that regard, the record is a visceral communication of Power’s experience, arguably one of the most tasteful and moving examples of such in electronic music history. Read our conversation below:
American Songwriter: You’ve been collecting field recordings for years now—how did the idea form to take them all and create a record out of them?
Benjamin John Power: It’s my preferred way of making some kind of travel diary. With some of my other albums, there were field recordings implemented as initial single-processes or whatever. But, with this album, it came from a place where I wanted to share or utilize the material I’ve been collecting for such a long time now.
Obviously, I always like there to be a conceptual backbone for these things too. There was an earlier version of In Ferneaux that wasn’t even called ‘In Ferneaux.’ It was just a collection of field recordings—one placed after the other with almost no segue between them. But, when the global situation and my personal situation both changed, a new tangent presented itself. At first, I was almost making a nostalgic travelogue, but then the goal post moved a bit. The approach began to take a different direction because of external and internal forces at play at the time.
So, I wanted to use these field recordings from very physical places to try to tell that story; the story of where I was and where I still am, to a certain degree. I felt that using these echoes from a bygone time provided a whole new perspective. Especially considering that this album was made in lockdown—you can’t get together, you can’t go to these places. That became a particular resonant idea at that time and it’s kinda how the album came to be.
AS: Tell us a bit about the field recording process—how do you approach capturing these “echoes?” What gear do you use to do it?
BJP: I enjoy it a lot and my audio diary from over the years is pretty comprehensive. More often than not, these moments fall to the wayside. Especially now that we’re surrounded by an over-saturation of information, these sounds and things slip through the cracks of experience more than we notice. The world we live in now is so rapid, the exchange of information is so swift and things turn around so quickly that it’s very difficult to take perspective from these environments sometimes. Taking a photo with your phone is one thing—I mean, it’s great, I don’t want to say for one second that photography is wrong—but, for me, these are the parts of experience that do fall by the wayside. It’s my preferred way of taking a ‘picture.’
As for gear, there are a number of things I use. My touring companion, really, for the past 10 or 15 years has been a Tascam DR-40. It goes everywhere with me and it’s what I usually use to make these field recordings. But, there would often be times where I had forgotten the Tascam (left it in the hotel room or something) and then I’ll use my iPhone or whatever I’ve got on me at the time. So, some recordings are better quality than others, but even if I do use an iPhone or something, I also tend to process them to a certain degree. ‘Quality’ is a secondary bonus that I don’t always think is necessary—it’s more about the time and the place than what you use to record it.
AS: So, once you had years of recordings collected, how did you approach making this album? Was it hours of scrolling through folders looking for just the right sound, texture or memory?
BJP: That’s pretty much it. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of folders of these things. I’ll start to rifle through them—it’s explorative, in a way, almost like using synthesizers. When I turn on a synthesizer, I don’t necessarily have a set idea of what sound I’m looking for. Instead, I approach it in an explorative sense. So, I would spend a lot of time just working through these field recordings.
When it comes to these things—even if it’s a blank canvas when I start working on something—I tend to operate on emotion. It’s like how a certain smell will trigger certain nostalgic references and things like that. I worked through this in a very similar way. There were certain field recordings that I felt were particularly resonant and needed to be prominent—they needed a place on the record, no matter what the quality was like or how rich the textures were. So, some things made the cut, some things got taken out after more experimentation because I didn’t feel like they were saying the right thing. Even just the process of going through them all is sad, enjoyable and brings up all sorts of emotions.
AS: One of the most poignant moments on the record comes from a conversation you had with a stranger in San Francisco (which can be heard at the beginning of “Phase II”)—what can you tell us about this encounter? How did he influence the direction of the record?
BJP: Well, I met him on a chance encounter. It was when I was at a particularly bad point, personally, during the whole process. I had always had this idea to do something with the field recordings, but I didn’t really consider that perhaps all the bad stuff going on for me was a part of the process. I hadn’t seen it that way before, at least in consideration of this creative, recorded output and what it could become. This encounter really helped me turn a corner.
As you can hear in the recording, the person I’m talking to has a lot of faith—I don’t personally have that, but the message was still the same. While I was making this field recording, he posited the suggestion that I was seeing the misery of what I was going through at the time, but not the blessing of something like In Ferneaux, a utilization of my grief that I can share. I hadn’t really separated the two. He puts it very clearly: ‘Your problem is that you don’t understand the misery on the way to the blessing.’ That was a particularly profound moment for me. It was the moment that really solidified the fact that In Ferneaux was something that needed to happen.
AS: Based on that story, I’m sure that making In Ferneaux must’ve been a fairly insightful, therapeutic experience.
BJP: 100%, for sure. Just being who I am, I’ve been focused on ‘the negative’ for a good number of years now. It’s not particularly healthy! It’s difficult to drag yourself out of that hole. But, even just having this chance encounter with a complete stranger—which I think can be of more benefit than someone you know really well, sometimes—was formative.
Making this record was extremely cathartic and it did help a lot, especially when I started to see the overall ‘whole’ become its own world in front of me. So, yeah, it really helped. And now, sharing it after it’s been made… it’s terrifying. Especially because of how much pain went into this one, on a very personal level. I understand it might not be for everyone—some might consider it a step too far—but, there’s nothing on there that I don’t think has its place and is relevant to the overall context.
AS: Yeah, this record has such a personal, intimate touch to it—I can only imagine how scary that is to share in this way.
BJP: It’s certainly terrifying. I’m sure many artists would agree that putting out any record is one of the most liberating and terrifying things at the same time. At that point, it doesn’t belong solely in your world anymore, it’s for everybody and everybody will have their own specific experience with it. That, in its very nature, is terrifying, but, obviously, it is hugely alleviating. It’s crazy to me—I’ve gotten to speak to a couple people about this record in advance of the release date. To hear that people are getting something out of it when it’s so personal is hugely touching. You really feel that.
AS: Now, something else that’s particularly impactful on this record is the way that you utilize these sounds to build a very musical sense of tension and release over long periods of time. How do you approach that?
BJP: Well, I’d say that I’ve had a lot of practice with narrative throughout all of my releases. Sonically, texturally and historically, they might’ve come from a different place than this one, but narrative has always been a very strong focal point with whatever I do creatively.
Segues, to me, are just as important as the key components of individual tracks. I feel like with In Ferneaux, some of the segues have more finesse than they’ve had before, I was more focused with it. But, it’s not like I took a different approach this time around where I was like ‘Oh, I’ve got a track here, I’ll come back to that at a later date when I’m in a better frame of mind.’ Like, the whole thing of In Ferneaux is being considered—every single texture is being considered. I don’t think I can see them in isolation from their neighbors.
There’s a lot of sketching that went on for this one too. Things were brought in and taken out as the overall landscape changed. But, I felt like there was a lot more room for expression for that reason. It was also a quite good exercise in letting go. I’m a perfectionist—if something feels right to me in its initial instance, then it’s usually going to feel right for me in the end, I just have to find the way to get it there. I don’t give up very easily! I’m quite stubborn in how much of a perfectionist I am. But, with In Ferneaux, my mentality towards that type of thing changed a bit. For that reason, the eventual place I ended up at with this album did push me to let go of certain things. Obviously, that’s not just a big part of the creative process, but it’s a big part of mentally growing.
AS: I think a lot of songwriters from other genres could relate to that—even if, sonically, their music is completely different from yours, that same push and pull of the creative process remains (especially when it comes to allowing yourself to let go of certain things).
BJP: Yeah, there was a huge element of having to let go of things, especially since this record was so personal for me. Yet, because of that, it’s perhaps the most resonant record for me that I’ve made to date. It seems to signify a milestone of sorts or at least some kind of realization.
I’m definitely a big fan of not staying in one particular creative place and trying something different every time. I find it very admirable when an artist can move outside their comfort zone and try something different, but you can still notice that it’s that particular artist. I find that a very admirable quality and a testament to a truly divergent and open artist, someone who can move outside of their comfort sphere and still remain true to themselves.
AS: Earlier you mentioned that this In Ferneaux might not be for everybody—for folks who aren’t very familiar with the type of music you make, how would you recommend they approach listening to this record?
BJP: I would say: just approach it with open ears. If it’s something outside of what you’re necessarily used to, hopefully you can still get something out of it. This can almost be seen as a painting, like an aural canvas. Or maybe you can even think of it as the soundtrack to a movie that hasn’t been made yet.
At the same time, I’ve always been very against trying to tell people how to experience stuff. I don’t want to push my own personal agenda or anything and everyone’s situation is a bit different. If you can be open to new experiences, that’s the best I could hope for, really.