Kevin Martin has been prolifically producing, performing and releasing music for around three decades. He’s most well known as The Bug, having released the breakthrough album London Zoo in 2008 and Angels & Devils in 2014. He has helmed many record labels, produced for many artists and deafened one or two audience members in the process. Always looking forward with his music, Martin is one of the most uncompromising artists active today.
For the last few years Martin has been refining his latest work, the very affecting Sirens, which is being released on Lawrence English’s Room40 label. Sirens is a perfect example of an artist using creativity to process a traumatic experience, in this case the difficult birth of his son.
Over the course of a 90 minute Skype conversation, Martin very generously spoke of the genesis of Sirens and the process behind the work, as well as delving into other Bug-related topics, including the forthcoming new Bug album, working with Justin Broadrick, King Midas Sound, Pressure, Acid Ragga and dozens of other tangents.
Cyclic Defrost: Sirens still sounds like you. It’s like if you strip a Bug record all of the beats and whatnot, it still has the same textural elements that Sirens has. So I’m just wondering, how do you go about creating such a thing? Does technology influence and inspire you? What’s the process for writing like for you?
Kevin Martin: That’s a really good question actually. I guess any producer involved in electronic music has to battle to achieve an individual identity. Well, in fact, not everyone does. I choose to have that battle of how to find a voice via machinery. Obviously if you’re a singer you have a voice via your voice, but I chose to stop vocals and concentrate on my love of studio magic, and for me that’s been the ongoing challenge. How to develop my tone or voice musically through my chosen aesthetic and path. And I take it as a great compliment what you’ve just said. I’m very thankful that you say that I have an imprint and a footprint on the records I make. I’ve said before in interviews, the artists I like the most are the ones I can recognize in very short space of time as the music comes on. I think the challenge is how to develop that and how to stay connected to your own output but not repeat it, so that every successive record feels like a weaker version of your previous record. It’s an interesting quandary. What I generally have done and continue to do, and it’s probably a big industry no-no, is to keep swerving from project to project and mood to mood. When London Zoo peaked my instant reaction was ohhh, hold on, this is feeling a bit out of control and I’m being swept up along dubstep’s river. Fuck this, I’m going to make a King Midas Sound record. So to stay sane and balanced and to actually stay interested and motivated and fresh, it’s that whole mutate to survive and just continue to fulfill my imagination through music.
Cyclic Defrost: I think you’ve managed that. Can you talk briefly about The Bug vs Sleng Teng record that you put out on the Elektron label?
Kevin Martin: Yeah, that was just through becoming friends with Elektron regarding their gear and finding out that they were fans of stuff I had done. They had just set up a label, and they made the offer, they popped the question. They were approaching certain artists to do music for the label that uses and incorporates their equipment. That’s why it was made. And like everything, if I’m asked or invited to do something, I’ll generally try to do it.
There’s so much music being released now, there’s an ocean of music dropping every year and it’s increasing. So for me, whenever I’m working on anything, I just have to justify why it should exist, what it can do that no one else is doing and try and give it my stamp. That’s what that single was really, it was combining my obsession with Sleng Teng and digital dancehall with my ridiculous craving for new music technology, and to see how I could come up with a new vision of what Sleng Teng could be if it was catapulted into the future, demented in four different ways. I don’t even know if it all stands up as an EP. Like most people that make their own music, you don’t really listen to your own music that often. So I haven’t listened to it so much, but if I ever do I’m pleasantly surprised by how I tried to be brave and take on the influence of an incredible riddim by Prince Jammy. He’s a hero to me too. It was a good project to do. I enjoyed the challenge and, and I liked working with Elektron on it because I think what they try is really interesting as a company.
Cyclic Defrost: That puts me in mind of the Acid Ragga stuff you’ve been putting out.
Kevin Martin: Acid Ragga is just my label, my pet label. It’s like an obsession really. I remember when I was on Rephlex and I was meeting all the Rephlex artists. Aphex [Twin – Richard James] is doing my lighting, which consisted of him under the table that I’m performing on, operating strobes to basically try and blind people with this ecstatic face, laughing his head off. I remember playing a lot of parties because when I got signed to Rephlex, I didn’t know anything about Rephlex, I really only knew Aphex. I’d never been that interested IDM at that point. I was into hip hop, dub, post rock as it’s called now. Just noise music. So for me it was just like, who are these freaks who are into electro?
I remember getting into a conversation with Ed DMX who was on Rephlex, telling him that I’ve got this crazy idea to combine acid sounds with dancehall. I said I wanted to buy a fucking 303, if I can find a cheap one, and I want to try and make dancehall that has the sci-fi thing, but even more dystopian. And he was like, yeah, you should do it. It took me a lot of years to do it, and somehow I didn’t crack it, and I still don’t feel I have, funnily enough. My very personal pet obsession with dancehall is absolutely undiminished, and I feel it’s almost like trying to achieve a holy grail – how can I find this new vocab for dancehall? I like the fact it’s an ongoing obsession and it’s a personal quest. I find a lot of Jamaican music in recent years very bland, the same with hip hop as well. The music that really inspired me and still continues to do so has lost it’s cutting edge and the fast forward future shock elements that I love, but that just gives me more fuel to my fire. If it’s not going to be done, I’ll try and do it. So that’s a drag. It’s an ongoing thing. Trust me, the stuff I’m doing in the future is very much linked to that. I’m working on new Bug stuff properly now. My next focus is going in heavy on Bug stuff.
Cyclic Defrost: Before we get onto that, can you tell me about Pressure, your club night and record label?
Kevin Martin: It’s just about what I would hope a club night would be, what I’ve liked about club nights and what I love about sound. It combines my absolute love of soundsystems in terms of reggae culture, what I love about dub and what I love about a club experience. Pressure is my way of really extending and amplifying the intensity of the best club experiences. Also Pressure made sense in Berlin because there’s nothing really like it here. You’re battling against the tyranny of four/four. There’s a lot of reasons why I love trying to make Pressure happen, but also it’s periodically frustrating because you realise it’s fucking hard. It’s very difficult to maintain and increase the audience and to get people to appreciate what it is you’re trying to do for valid reasons.
It’s become relatively easy to release music and much easier to make music, and it means that there’s a sea of it out there and it’s how you filter out all the shit. You have to filter out your own shit too. It’s important not think that everything you touch is made of gold. It’s not. I want to keep developing a Bug world and I want to try to continue to shape my own voice, not at the mercy of being part of a genre. And that makes life even more difficult, without a doubt. The industry generally operates around one dimensional entities and wants to create one dimensional entities. Labels want you to do one thing again and again, and an audience largely wants you to do the one thing again and again. And quite often audiences can be quite intransigent about you trying to come out with something that they’re not expecting. I can be like that too with artists I love, sometimes artists will do a left turn and you’re like, shit, why did they bother? Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, it just depends.
Cyclic Defrost: That nicely leads into what you were saying before about this new Bug stuff that you’re working on. Talk to me about that.
Kevin Martin: I don’t really want to actually. It’s being made and even Ninja Tune haven’t heard my plans for what I’m working on. So all I’ve realised is that due to working on Sirens, on King Midas Sound, on Miss Red’s album and on the label that I’ve neglected The Bug as an entity. I’ve got unfinished business that needs attended to with The Bug.
After Angels & Devils, and releasing the Bad single with Flowdan and Box/Iceman with Riko Dan and D Double E, I was thinking maybe it’s valid to just release singles, because there’s so much music out there. Maybe the singles could speak for themselves, if I just make sure the singles are top drawer and direct. Singles are the currency of club music. Again, you battle against the industry because whether it be labels or distributors, singles aren’t taken seriously. Also, on a really basic practical level, to get shows you have to release albums. Even though albums sell less, particularly now that streaming is finally being taken seriously by the industry itself, which I have very mixed feelings about. And in order for me to actually survive, I have to think about how I am going to get bookings, because record sales don’t pay your rent. So it’s like, how am I going to keep myself on my path, but also bring new people to that path? How can you keep fresh and hopefully keep bringing more people to the table as opposed to less and less. They’re the challenges we all face as musicians.
I mean I’m very blessed with Bug, I play to young audiences. Justin [Broadrick] was telling me that Godflesh audience as a generally in their thirties. I like the fact that as The Bug, I still connect to young people because that’s where the vitality and energy is and that’s what’s crucial. I want and hope that someone that comes to a Bug show will be inspired to go and do their own shit and come up with stuff equally fucked up.
Cyclic Defrost: You and Justin have collaborated quite a bit over the last few years. What’s it like being in a band with him after all these years?
Kevin Martin: We have a Zonal album that’s going to drop. It’s finished and mastered. We’re just working on the artwork and I can’t tell you what label yet, but they want to announce it properly, so I’ll bite my tongue a bit. Justin’s my soul brother. I see him as my little brother, but actually, he taught me so much. Without Justin, I wouldn’t be doing what I do today. He listened to me when other people didn’t, he showed faith in me when most wouldn’t. I was the gob shite at the back of the studio when he was twiddling all the knobs. I’d bring all the samples to studio and that he would do the hard work of putting them all together. We just hit it off. We met doing God and Godflesh shows. I’m sure you know, but I gave Godflesh their first show in London, their first show ever. I was just blown away by their first album. That had a telephone number for them on the back, which in those days that was common. Yeah. So I call them up and said, hey man, I love your album. I’ve got this club night in Brixton and do you want to come and play? It was a shitty venue with a vocal PA and they still blew the roof off. There was only 50 people or something there, if that. Like I said, Justin inspired me. I think as an artist unquestionably he is incredible, and we just get on like a house on fire.
We come from similar backgrounds, although very different areas where we grew up. We just seem to think along very similar lines. I think we only ever had cross words once ever. It was in a studio where we recording Under the Skin album with Ice. I hadn’t liked the guitar part he was putting down and I was asking him if he’d change it and for some reason he was a bit pissed. I asked him and he said, the reason I like it is I like Hawkwind and you don’t. And that was it. And that’s the only time that’s stuck in my mind all these years. Generally we seem to have the same obsession with sound and need to make music, it’s unquestionable for both of us.
Cyclic Defrost: Finally, any plans to bring Sirens to Australia?
Kevin Martin: Lawrence is saying that he really wants me to come over next year. There’s been a couple of things that have almost happened, King Midas were invited to play but it hasn’t quite worked out. I’ve been invited to play in India for the last three or four years in a row and it fell through every fucking time. I’d like to come back to Australia. I had a really good time in Australia and the people I met were really fantastic, I just remember playing some great, great shows. So yes, Lawrence seems very enthusiastic about trying to get Sirens to Australia, which I guess if anyone’s going to get me to do it, it deserves to be Lawrence because he’s been so incredible in his enthusiasm and his support with the record. You know, he’s been absolutely amazing in terms of positivity. He’s a great person to deal with. So I’ve loved dealing with him on this record.
This wraps up our Bug coverage for the moment. Again, many thanks go to Kevin Martin for his time and music.
Kevin Richard Martin’s is out now on Room40. Check the Bandcamp link here to grab the digital or black vinyl edition.