A conversation with Kevin Martin, the man behind The Bug project.
Photo by Bianca Sara Scanderebech
There is a strong feeling of family values and a spider web community around this musician who produces as The Bug since ’97. I went to Berlin to take this interview with a single mindset - don’t ask much about his music. I like Kevin a lot, how he thinks and how he place himself in this musical and social context of everyday life. If you expect to read a lot about his production you are not in the right place. In the following lines you will get acquainted with Kevin Martin, this twisted dub soundscape specialist.
A born and raised Englishman, now is Berlin. How do you feel after such a change. Do you miss the London atmosphere and its surroundings?
I miss elements of it. I miss certain things from London, even though I’ve dissed it. Undoubtedly, but do I miss Britain? I lived in London because I really didn’t like England, of course there’s nicer areas and people, but there’s something about the English mentality, I’ve grown up in a very white South English seaside resort, where everything was extremely conservative. I have friends that I’ve grown up with then who felt like me. But without being there I wouldn’t be what I am today, some very key people I’ve worked with, and two guys that run an amazing record store when I was fourteen to eighteen, really educated me in a big way and gave me access to a lot of incredible music that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
I jokingly say how much I hate England because there’s an empirical arrogance that still holds way with it, and I think British people in general have an island mentality and a separatist view, that they don’t trust foreign people. They don’t want to be a part of Europe for instance (a prophecy before Brexit), as you know and they fear outsiders. I love outsiders, for me I want everything that I’m not, I want experiences to be unique and authentic. The worst imaginable nightmare is to be surrounded by duplicates of me.
The more I travel and discover new cultures, new continents, other world views and live new cultural experiences, the richer I feel. It sounds like an obvious thing to say, but it’s so necessary for people to travel just to realize we actually all feel the same way, in our hearts we have the same needs and it’s ridiculous to put up wars, barriers and borders. That’s what’s so frightening right now across Europe, this swing to the right and a disgusting protectionism. There’s still prejudice, that runs against Jewish people, for example, and I speak as a total opponent of the Israeli State, sorry but the way it was set up, the government and everything, just seems wrong for me. I haven’t boycotted it cause I went to Israel and it was where I met Miss Red, but politically it sucks as a country and how it was set up by America and Britain. It’s just money and in the same time I am sympathetic of how Jewish people throughout history have faced huge amounts of prejudice and been marginalized beyond belief, for fear and jealousy. So I have mixed feelings of contemporary Israeli culture. Nothing is perfect, in Britain, Israel or Germany.
No matter we talk about your music, interviews or your public posts, I can't miss your militant speech. How do you place yourself in all this political space and conversation?
Normally, I just refer to politics as politricks. Obviously I have a massive mistrust of politicians. Governing philosophies are problematic to me, so is the idea of associating music with politics. Yes, music is political cause as soon as you put a statement into the world it has resonance, but like I said, you are speaking to someone who grew up listening to Crass, the Sex Pistols, The Clash (even though I believed John Lydon more that Joe Strummer) so for me, my politics are anti. I can see why The Clash meant so much to a lot of people, but somehow it didn’t gel with me like Public Enemy did, for example. Even though I am not black and I don’t come from New York.
I am a vegetarian and I own it to reading lyrics by anarchy-punk bands when I was very young. That’s a political decision, it was then and I still think it is now. Most politics link to dogma and stance and, for me, a philosophy of living is more important than a political stance. Music helps that, encourage living and a philosophy of life. Can music bring about change? I’ve seen this argument before. I don’t think so. It can start a few fires, cause triggers in the mind. Without music at that young age I wouldn’t have been a vegetarian which I am very proud and happy to be. Music can be an influence.
As I was cycling here today I saw a girl with a pair of sneakers, Vans, just like my wife has too, and boy they both love them, it was clear as day. Why people wear labels like I used to wear punk bands badges, it’s some sort of mystery to me. They surely realize they’re wearing labels of companies that are making a lot of money from them, as bands did from us, their audience. Not a lot but they were making some money from fans. I was thinking about the parallels, no conclusion yet, but politics and music are intertwined because politics is part of people's everyday lives whether they’re aware or not.
Music is everything for me and it’s the only faith I have, it’s my only way to navigate this life that I can make sense, in any shape or form. I used to think I wanted everything to be super real and I just sought matters like one interested highly in industrial culture, the first wave, before it became cartoony. Bands like Throbbing Gristle and SPK they would talk about and promote subject matters previously censored. They would make me look in medical sections of libraries for pictures of autopsies. Why can’t I see this? I want to! I can’t say it made me be a better person but this music opened me up to ask more questions. Politics should be about asking questions instead of what it is about today, shutting doors.
The independent culture of the post-punk period had something that stayed with me, the challenge to question everything, believe nothing, see the world with a greatest sense of paranoia possible. But I don’t know what I’ll do when my son will be challenging everything that I say, as I did with my parents.
It’s a difficult thing to balance music and politics, in a very upfront way I actually like Rage Against the Machine. I can like really banal political statements too: the obvious “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!” I can go with that shit but do I want to do that? In a way I liked that London Zoo has a strong political statement, concept and flow. Normally when I work with MC’s I try to guide them to certain subject matters, like with Angry I said to Tippa: look I just want you to spit whatever pisses you off on a day to day basis. That’s how he came up with it and I’m happy. I like to guide a record, I see both London Zoo and Angels & Devils like movies with strong narratives. In America, for example, the schism to Angels & Devils wasn’t well received like it was in Europe. A lot of people were saying Bug is this Poison Dart and Skeng! The music I make is never just that. Going back to the Pressure album there was always two sides of me cause I am always drawn to extremes. Where there’s extremes there’s life and in opposites there’s all the friction and collision which I enjoy. In music, people want to see you as a cutting figure, they want to reduce you to a one dimension beast. It’s easier for an editor, as they have to sell it to an audience. But it’s the same flat story.
For two years now, you became a parent. How did this influenced your life as a producer and a touring musician?
Once you have a child it changes you. In ways never expected. I spent most of my life running away from being a dad. Now that I am one it’s like a revelation. Everything is about timing, I finally found the one suited for me and that I was suited for. We gelled, and I was ready to be a dad. Just that alone makes a difference, I am sure there’s a lot of people that are terrified of that life step. My father was an asshole and I was worried of being a dad because of that. My view on family was very negative and that made me hesitant of becoming a dad for so long. Now I love it.
By becoming a dad I am not suddenly radically mature, but in some elements of my life, I have to be a bit mature. This is a challenge of course. You learn to focus in a stronger way when you’re in the studio. Time is precious, I want to spend a lot of time making records but also with my son and my wife. By having a child your creative faculties do not dry up, there’s more inspiration, more on your plate. It forced me to be more disciplined in the studio. I spent four years making London Zoo, three years making Waiting For You, overlapped, not in parallel, I was bitterly unhappy in that period. Ever since I moved to Berlin I made nearly three albums, Angels and Devils, Edition 1 and a large part of the Miss Red mixtape. I think I’ve done a lot of strong work in a shorter time in Berlin than while in London.
I want to be an active dad, it breaks my heart when I have to leave through the door, that’s just a necessary evil of being a touring musician. But ultimately, since Finley came into the world, every minute I work in the Berlin Zoo studio is holy to me, sacred. In the building there’s a lot of other artists many painters, sculptors, but I never socialize, I just go into my room and lock off, almost like a monastic relationship, no internet because I get easily distracted. Having a child has helped me work better.
Some time ago you told me you are a very lucky man because of the music. It's been some time since that conversation. Are you on the same vibe?
Everything that I’ve done musically, I feel I’m very fortunate to pay my rent through music. It’s a major victory for me, as I never had a real job in my life. To still be able to do what I love and love what I do is very unusual, as most people aren’t in such a fortunate position. They are either in a job, extremely unhappy, or can’t find a path that makes them feel any sense of worth or purpose. Trust me, as you probably know, through the Facebook posts and interviews, the music industry is shark infested waters, in a lot of ways it is pain on a regular basis. Life has a duality about it and trying to find the balance, finding your own way through the chaos, I think I am very lucky, and I knew it of a young age. I never made music thinking I can get girls or money, I just started making music by screaming into a microphone and being very happy to empty rooms. For me it is therapy, I needed to get a lot of emotion out very quickly, and music is the best way to do that.
As I mentioned in the past, there were some very key musical moments that made sense to me when my surrounding environment didn’t. On a biological level, my father and grandfather were musically trained and I studied saxophone. Then played in God. Then I stopped and started producing with my friends and peers such as Justin Broadrick, John Zorn, Alec Empire, DJ Vadim, The Rootsman, Soundmurderer, Roger Robinson, Kiki Hitomi, PupaJim etc
Last year was full of projects for you. How did you handle all of them? Was it too much?
Last year has been a difficult year for a few different reasons. In the chaos from the beginning of the year, really stupidly, instead of being focused I tried to work on four different projects at the same time, and they all suffered. I wasn’t happy with anything I was producing. In the daytime I was working on something then in the evening another, the next day some third project, all such a big mistake cause I get messy when I loose focus. Anything that can contribute to more chaos is just a domino effect, I’m just going to collapse psychologically.
When I work simultaneously on projects some suffer and take longer. I just wasn’t fast, I was procrastinating too much and being my own worst enemy and critic. Roger Robinson (band mate in King Midas Sound) talks about this a lot, self-criticism can be a very cynical thing, an exercise of self hate. I have to be careful with that as I have that tendency anyway.
I had to make the decision: I am not doing anything but finishing Concrete Desert a Bug vs Earth album I’ve recorded in Los Angeles with Dylan Carson. It is a natural step for me after the Fennesz - King Midas Sound clash. I view it as Techno Animal meets Tapping the Conversation. It is heavily influenced by the dissonance of John Cale and the Velvet Underground debut but also the dystopian writings of J. G Ballard.
Being involved in the music scene for a long time and working with so many artist you developed a nice spider web around you. Tell us a little bit about these artist and your collaborations.
Flowdan is a hardworking guy. He’s got a good record out. I have no production on it, because he wanted to be done with grime producers. We had collaborated on his solo EP, I did the instrumental for People Power.
Some insights on the Killa P release of Leng: Skeng exists because of Killa P. He was the one that felt it’s potential and made Flowdan finish it with me in the studio in one night. Somehow he feels that he never got the credit as most websites credited only Flowdan who was and is my MC. So he released Leng, but I think it would have been cooler if we made something fresh. He’s a great MC, Killa P doing his thing, I gave him permission to release this new version but I think that moving forward would have been better.
I made a mistake with At War With Time, the Spaceape collaboration. It should have been on the album, the last track. But it’s too late now. If there’s going to be a reissue I am sure it would fit perfectly in there after Dirty. I just remembered, it was actually Ninja’s idea. The album was finished and mastered and they said: What can you do for us, what ideas have you got to promote it? Some other material you can work with? I didn’t have any, but I wrote that poem with the voice of Saul Williams or Spaceape in mind. It was meant to reflect my mind and the emotional state I was in and to make an overture for the album. It was my way of trying to sum it up, it was like my summary of the Angels and Devils album in a poem. Even though it was written when the album was finished, it came out at the beginning of the campaign. Now that Stephen Gordon is dead, we did it justice by releasing it on vinyl alongside the Specials Ghost Town cover he did with Kode9.
Sharon Stern aka Miss Red, who lives here now, in Berlin, is like my little sister. She was born and raised in Haifa, Israel, and she toasted and rapped there, but now I am guiding and advising her in the musical career she chose. There’s so much potential and I think she deserves a lot of attention.
When I worked with Gonjasufi on Save Me, I got goose bumps on my skin literally. Jesus, his voice is just incredible. But I heard he disliked the final mix as I left his breaths in there. What I did was a technique of extreme compression where you hear every single breath. And he felt it was unprofessional. I felt it just added to the tension. Anyways he’s a maestro, an absolute master.
It's been awhile since you started war reports. How did you came up with this idea?
I started the war reports, live reviews from shows, because I was getting so frustrated dealing with unprofessional promoters. Taking money off audiences but not providing the proper sound system that can enrich the experiences and checking the music at it’s highest quality. It can ultimately detract from what I am trying to do. I mean, I make a big deal about sound systems and the environments because it costs a lot to get into shows now, music doesn’t sell to any degree, unless you make pop music, so therefore you’re selling an experience and when somebody fucks with that, potentially stopping me getting future shows, it will also put audiences off. Personally I think it’s tragic that music doesn’t sell, because I loved records as a kid and I still worship vinyl as a full product. Digital downloads just add to a feeling of disposability, to an increased sense that music isn’t important anymore in peoples lives.
I used to hate being on the stage, still have this ambivalent attitude towards it. When I started the band God, I was comfortable in empty rooms, I wanted to confront audiences with an ugly noise and really primitive, primal emotions. I used to have the mike stander above my head and scream into it, so I wouldn’t have to look at the audience. It was really a case of: if you like it whatever, and if you leave, cool. I am still proud of some of the shows and records we did then. Working as a producer and musician is just an ongoing process about the craft. I finish a record, but I don’t really believe perfection is possible. I am usually talking to Mark Pritchard, for example, and he feels the same as I do: when we listen to other people records they sound perfect, amazing, we just wish we can make such albums.
But sure there’s also the passion for making music, if you find what you love to do like that, you don’t want to let go to it. I am sure Mick Jagger is guilty of just that. You can’t need the money anymore surely. For me music is a really magical area.
Could you pick your best Bug song?
I can’t say if one could sum it up. The Bug still feels like a long journey and its still going on. I don’t like getting backward, only going forward. The double Bug single with Riko Dan and D Double E, I think is heavy as fuck.
And about not repeating myself again: Where are beats on the latest King Midas Sound meets Fennesz record Edition 1? Is there a point in doing another project that sounds like The Bug? This is why Concrete Desert is pure BugEarth “dirt” for people like you to enjoy.
The Bug meets Earth
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