British musician and producer Kevin Martin has built a music career around embracing sounds of red and blue, he says, forged of fire and anger or born from the deepest melancholy.
Something of an electronic Zelig, Martin’s tastes have only been driven by what’s caustic, horrific or otherwise unusual. Coming through the grindcore and industrial scenes in Weymouth, Dorset, U.K., with his band GOD found Martin working with the likes of Justin Broadrick of Godflesh and avant composer John Zorn. He and Broadrick went on to form Techno Animal, fusing their love of industrial sounds with hip-hop, and later the free-jazz-laced project ICE.
But the crustiest of electro kids know Martin simply as The Bug, the moniker under which he unleashes his grimy, dancehall and hip-hop-influenced tracks into an electronic industry that’s fast become a bread loaf culture of safe, homogenized dreck.
When The Bug’s London Zoo arrived in 2008, my undergraduate years were chugging along and I was trying my hardest to avoid any assimilation into Boston’s segregated, milquetoast club culture. London Zoo‘s heavy bass and claustrophobic, tense clashes of sound cast a dirty, beautiful tint over dubstep music, liberated from what would soon become ubiquitous waves of Top 40 cultural appropriation. This was electronic music that didn’t just ask the listener to be present; it demanded it.
It’s with this knowledge of Martin’s work that his collaborations with Dylan Carlson, of legendary drone-metal band Earth, first seem like a novelty or curio.
In contrast to The Bug’s rushed immediacies, Earth’s music is all about space, minimalism and repetition, the slow build of mounting intensity. But as they released some 12-inch records a couple of years ago, the differences in Carlson’s and Martin’s approaches to making music became moot. Earth’s slow-burn soundscapes give The Bug’s beats a warm sonic habitat to take root in, fusing together for climactic moments of catharsis when bass and drone become one.
Last month they released Concrete Desert as The Bug Vs Earth, a project name that both hearkens back to Martin’s love of Jamaican sound clashes and his belief that there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of healthy competition.
“I still feel like I’m a shit producer, and get music envy from other producers,” Martin says in our sprawling, fascinating conversation below. “I’m still living for someone releasing something that shocks me and helps my jaw hit the floor. I still want music to make the brain cells explode between my ears, you know, and still inspire me to push harder and push further. As it is now, as there’s more people making music than ever and it’s even harder to keep a grasp on, I see it as a battle.”
What’s going on?
Eh, not much actually, I’m just working on the last of a radio show for Red Bull Radio. I’ve been doing a seven-part series, and I’m just finishing up the last episode at the moment.
You have a much more vocational work ethic than most younger producers who haven’t been in the game as long. Do these different channels and projects have any vocational effect on your perception of the landscape or industry, and how its changed?
Wow, big question straight away there. You got me on the bad foot, I’m on the ropes with that one!
Wanna put a bookmark in it?
Nah, nah…I think, um…I’m still in love with music. It’s a parallel universe to the one we all have to endure. [Laughs] And I think I’ve always really been smitten by all aspects of making music and being creative, you know?
Cause for me it’s a crucial way to navigate my own mind. Obviously no one can understand the world until you understand yourself. Music [was] a necessity at first because I started with music as therapy, and since then I think what began as an antagonistic revenge on the world that seemed so utterly fucked has become more like a craft to me now.
That’s right, you’ve told that story of growing up in Weymouth surrounded by naval or military dudes who’d come through your town for the base and act entitled as the beginning of your attraction to the “clash” vibe that a lot of your music has, the beginning of that aggression. But you’re suggesting things started out even earlier, then turned into a meditation?
I don’t know if it’s a meditation, a lot of people that still come to my shows would still say the clash is alive and kicking, as far as I’m concerned [laughs]. As any teenager, I would’ve spat on you if you described the process of making music as meditation, but now I understand myself a bit clearer. It sort of is meditational, you know? And it is trying to form other forms of understanding and consciousness of what you do as a musician, and also how you see the world.
Well in that Red Bull interview from a few years ago you mentioned space jazz, you said you wanted to make music as heady as those dudes like Pharaoh Sanders but that you didn’t necessarily have the training or the tools to get there.
That’s very true. The studio was my passport to leaving this planet [laughs]. I could get lost in the studio for days, let alone hours, immerse myself in a sound world in a way that surprises even myself. I think the highs that you can attain through music release the same chemicals that you do if you ingest chemicals, you know, and it’s necessity for me.
When I started making music it was the opposite of escapism—through industrial culture, before it became a cheesy fad, when people like Throbbing Gristle or SPK or 23 Skidoo or Cabaret Voltaire were all probing areas, which for me at that time, relatively early on in my life, were fascinating and hidden. I think I wanted to immerse myself in the horror of everything, because I was horrified by that which was around me. And it didn’t start with the navy; it started with my parents, with the battleground of home. [Laughs]
You also talked in that interview about hating the shitty metal your mom would play.
You’ve done your research, yeah, yeah, absolutely! I still joke with Dylan Carson about that, because Dylan likes a lot of that stuff. [Laughs] I’ve probably still got a lot of problems with that sort of music, really.
Traditional rock music took me a long time to be able to listen to again, because my mom was such a fan, and I guess, like every teenager, that’s why I wanted Crass or Discharge or Throbbing Gristle, whatever ugly noise, to just go against all that wave of technique over emotion. I think I was always drawn to originality, an emotion, and a necessity to say something new with an instrument or sound. People that would use sound as a way of…emotional painting, or to try and create sounds that were alien.
That goes to explain all the sounds you’ve come through, I guess—it’s not about the technique or the frames of reference so much as the sounds that let you go deeper into that headspace.
Yeah, these are all questions. As you know, I’ve worked as a journalist, too, and often I think I discover through questioning others and being questioned myself that most musicians, you don’t really analyze it as you go. It’s really only in interviews where you start really having your face…
—All marketing. Genre falls by the wayside once you listen to something and you don’t bother to read the copy.
I agree, and what I hate most about music is the industry. It’s a necessity, really, and to compartmentalize music? Music and money don’t go together too well. They’re a necessary evil, we’ve all got to pay our bills so it’s something we’ve got to navigate. But for me, when it comes to reducing music to just a loaf of bread, then I have problems.
What else did you learn from those years on the other side of the conversation, writing for outlets like Jockey Slut and Muzik and Wire? It must have been a bit surreal to be on both sides of the coin, to gain that perspective.
It was, because I know most musicians think of journalists as the enemy. For me, the best journalists, people like Kodwo Eshun, really inspired me as a kid to find a path to music I never would have discovered otherwise.
I think the best writing is the most creative writing. Kodwo in particular, when I read his writing it was like atoms exploding in my brain about music. We were friends for a while when I wrote for The Wire, and I think creative writing about music is creative, as any creative art is—1 to 5 percent’s genius, and the rest isn’t. [Laughs]
You’re doing this new project with Earth, with Dylan, and you talked about sound painting earlier. That seems like the same intention here. It’s not that this dude makes moody post-rock and drone and sludge music so much as that he makes music your music can live in a physical place with.
Yeah, and I’ve gotta say, it really developed in tandem to me working with him in the studio and me reacting to L.A. The album that I was sketching that he recorded onto, a lot of the parts don’t exist anymore, they disintegrated and I erased them to try and recreate something that was more reflective of how I felt, you know?
Really, the album is just a pean to alienation, trying to create a sound world that existed nowhere else, but was reflective of a universal feeling of us all being reduced to nothing in the realms of a city. We’re ants in a city. And for me, L.A. brought a lot of things to the fore of how I feel about America, really, and not feeling comfortable in the land of the free. [Laughs]
You and me both, brother. American electronica is in a younger place because we haven’t been around as long, even the underground movements, as the U.K, and Germany. We’re still at this peak of EDM as pop music ubiquity, but the canvas is a lot bigger in England. Your music reflects such a multicultural conversation, there’s space for other identities to live.
See, that was the thing. My very first visit to the States was when I recorded an album at Bill Laswell’s studio and John Zorn basically produced it. I was sleeping on his floor in the Lower East Side during that process, and I remember him saying, “Don’t go three blocks east because of this, don’t go three blocks south because of this, don’t go three blocks west because of this,” it was sort of horrifying.
Of course I made the mistake of going three blocks south on the first night, which I shouldn’t have. I just felt a real tension of being in the wrong place with the wrong sort of people, you know? And what struck me, really, on that first trip to New York, apart from the unbearable heat because it was in the middle of summer and the unbearable smell therein, was the fact that America didn’t seem integrated in any way. It seemed ghetto-ized.
“I’m still living for someone releasing something that shocks me and helps my jaw hit the floor. I still want music to make the brain cells explode between my ears.”
I’m not saying London is perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and racism in London is rife as it is all across Europe, but in London I ended up in a band with someone from Trinidad and Japan, you know? I worked with African musicians in GOD, and it was natural. It wasn’t forced, it wasn’t an exercise in anthropology. It was that my neighbors were African, Jamaican, Turkish, Pakistani, and I respected them, I wanted to know more.
It was that simple, and that strikes me even more today, particularly because so many nations are trying to shut the gates. My worst nightmare would be to be surrounded by everyone like me. I want to be surrounded in a room by people from as many cultures as possible, because you only have one life, you know? I wanna experience as much as possible in that lifetime and hear about as much different shit as possible. I wanna know there’s more than just my shitty past, you know? [Laughs]
The segregation in America goes all the way back from the Reconstruction era after the Civil War to the prison industry, but I’ve always prided music as the place where those barriers dissolve.
Look, the irony is, I’m really attracted to music that’s pure, music that’s born of fire. For me, free jazz in New York, reggae in Jamaica, punk music in the U.K., grime in London, whatever. These musics are really pure in form, and I’m drawn to that, but I think I always know I’m outside of that.
Growing up in a white, coastal town in the south of England that was predominantly very racist, there’s always that feeling that I’m on the outside looking in, but also the feeling that I don’t really fit in anywhere. I’m a classic only child who lives in my own world, you know?
And I relate to the hardcore minority in every genre, particularly music in red and blue, music of fire and anger and music of the deepest melancholy. I’m drawn and compelled to get lost in genres that examine extreme emotional states, I suppose. The nullifying boredom of the middle mass of existence just tires me, you know? It tires everyone. It reduces you into a Facebook zombie and someone who’s just passing time. I’d rather try and look towards artists that are interested in a magnification of extremity, really.
The more you live, the more you need those extremes to remind yourself you don’t live in the middle.
As people get older, they generally lose faith in their dreams, just literally feel that they’re gone, or they become overtly cynical. And I’m neither. I’m still like a child, and I still value being able to work in a dream genre that was my dream since I was a kid, and often my only root of understanding or attack against everything I hated. I feel blessed, you know? I’m still absolutely smitten by what I do, and when I go into the studio, which is my ritual that I choose to really get absolutely immersed in, hours go in seconds. And that’s a crazy thing.
Seeing so many genres and sounds co-opted by monied interests and cottage industries, you said you never wanted to be “Jafakin.” How do you keep yourself on the pure path, in that child’s mind?
I’m still hungry for newness, and I still like competition in a good way. I still feel like I’m a shit producer, and get music envy from other producers. I’m still living for someone releasing something that shocks me and helps my jaw hit the floor. I still want music to make the brain cells explode between my ears, you know, and still inspire me to push harder and push further. As it is now, as there’s more people making music than ever and its even harder to keep a grasp on, I see it as a battle.
I see life as a battle, and I see my opponents as chess opponents, really. In terms of musical allies, I see many, but ultimately I think I’m in my own world. It goes back to when I was in Techno Animal and GOD—whenever we’d make something that sounded like someone else we’d ditch it and start again. The idea was always to try and locate a sound that no one else was doing, and that was the point. Rather than so many people who want to copy their favorite shit, we wanted to avoid that favorite shit.
Even your first release as The Bug, that Coppola soundtrack re-imagining, unwittingly predicted a trend wherein the soundtrack became a genre unto itself.
Yeah, and with Techno Animal, too, Disc 2 of Re-Entry, we tried to create a whole album of imaginary soundtracks, you know? That seemed to suddenly become a fad as well, and actually, the thing about Concrete Desert for me as well, that whole thing about the States…I can still remember driving into New York and actually not feeling alien, but feeling weirdly familiar, because I knew it all from TV! Or going to Hollywood and being in the center of Hollyweird.
For me, America is a microcosm of the globe. That’s what’s so crazy to me about some asshole like Trump trying to promote some white, monocultural singularity. Because actually, America is really a skewed version of the world.
The thing that hit me in L.A. is, this is the center of fantasy, but the reality is I saw very little cultural integration and was seeing vast amounts of homeless people, completely fucked, with seriously rich people just driving past them not giving a shit. It’s that weird dichotomy between the beauty and the ugliness that’s in all our fantasies.