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: How did Sirens evolve from an installation to an album?
Kevin Martin: I remember I had sketches of what I’d recorded when I’d suddenly decided I wanted to make an album of Sirens. And I thought, well, you know what, it’s not going to work as a listening experience to do what I do live because live is very much about the visceral impact of sound. And there wasn’t that many components to it, and live when I’m using samples of fog horns and blasting them out of huge rigs, it’s extreme and big, and you just can’t reproduce that on an album. And also it’s quite repetitive live, where just volume is the main variant. Whereas I knew that for the record, that can become a one trick pony, that can become tired partway through an album. So then I had to decide what I would want from an album and I started sketching a few ideas and then I sent the sketches to Ninja Tune because I’m contracted to them. They rejected them and said that they want The Bug to release stuff that is club, and what I’m known for. Fair enough. I wasn’t surprised. So then I started sending out to a few people who I admired as labels who I thought might be interested in where I thought the record might go. And Lawrence [English – Room40] immediately bit. I’d forgotten that Lawrence had been there at the performance at the CTM. He’d said it had been incredible and he’d be honoured to release the album version of it. I went back to the sketches and thought, well, there’s still something missing. And what was missing was to give it a narrative flow. Almost to make a movie of the mind of what had happened as an experience. And then what I thought about was the composer I’d probably rate highest of all the works with movie scores is Bernard Herman who worked with Hitchcock throughout his career. And I just kept listening to Herman scores and thinking, well, the key to them is how he’s reworking a melody in different formats and combinations with the orchestration. And that’s what I tried to do with Sirens, which was basically use a key melody, which was the sort of nursery rhyme motif, and rework and mutate it and have it going through its path of haunting terror to in the end ultimate beauty. And, and that’s basically what, what Sirens became as an album.
Cyclic Defrost: That’s actually quite funny because my next question was literally “Sirens feels like a soundtrack score to me. It’s very narrative driven when composing the pieces. Did you treat it like scoring for cinema?”
Kevin Martin: So as you’ll know, because you know my recorded history that has always interested me anyway. The first Bug album was Tapping the Conversation, which was me trying to make a score for a film that the score was available, which weirdly enough has become available last year.
Cyclic Defrost: That’s the Gene Hackman film, right? The Conversation.
Kevin Martin: Yeah, the Coppola movie, with amazing sound designed by Walter Murch. And also with the Techno Animal Re-Entry, disc two of Re-Entry was us making scores for films that didn’t exist. So it’s always been in my mind to get involved with film scores. Do you know an Australian composer called Paul Schütze? He was a very good friend of mine who was on Virgin Records when I was on Virgin. He lives in London and has done for many years now, but when he was in Australia he was doing a lot of film score work in Australia to quite high level I think. And I used to talk to him a lot about, around the time of Re-Entry, about doing film scores and saying how Justin and I were really interested and he’d always try and put me off.
And actually I’d say most people I know who have got involved in the film world have mostly got pretty negative stories about it. Clint Mansell has become a friend in recent years, and he’s been telling me that he’s more or less had it with the film industry because you just have to deal with a lot of people that don’t think creatively. He’s had things like scores turned down, and it sounds like it may not be the world for me, but there’s always a nagging interest just because I love the format.
Cyclic Defrost: You just need to wait for the right piece to come to you.
Kevin Martin: Well, yeah, that’s the hope. I mean, there’s been some, there’s definitely been quite a few offers along the way, but none of them felt right. You know? But in recent years, two shining examples of scores that are mind blowing are Under the Skin by Mica Levi and Colin Stetson’s Hereditary score, as indications that modern contemporary electronic artists are being given creative control to some seemingly big degree and being allowed to make astonishing work. That’s uncompromising and that’s all dream criteria for me.
Cyclic Defrost: Your interest in more ambient and narrative film score sounds is evident in the last King Midas album, which was a lot more minimal and abstract than previous stuff. Also the Concrete Desert record that you made with Dylan Carlson was getting into that territory as well. So I was just wondering if that was something that you were trying to push a little bit more.
Kevin Martin: I’m aware, when you’ve been making music for as many years as me, you also have to start planning ahead, particularly now that the family’s here. Am I gonna be in a position particularly working in club orientated music where people give a shit. Dance music and club music is very trend oriented, and it’s whatever the latest trend that rolls through is. And people always want the new thing, which is good because it means there is a vitality the turnaround of music. But it also means that you’re really at the whim of what people desire. I love playing clubs, trust me. I still love playing Bug shows, and I’ve playing a lot of shows with Miss Red recently. Her energy’s amazing as well. And as long as I keep having the ideas, I still want to be making club music. The irony is that there’s very little club music I like for various reasons, but when it’s right, it’s right. I got the appetite for it, which began with Techno Animal weirdly enough, although we didn’t have an audience then…
Cyclic Defrost: Well I bought your records back then…
Kevin Martin: Trust me, you would have been in the minority, and from then to basically unearthing Bug, being born as Bug and suddenly being thrust into club zones as battle arenas, I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed the gladiatorial hustle. And whilst I have the ideas, I still find it stimulating to get people to move on my terms and with the impact that I desire, then that’s cool. So I’m happy to do that. But at the same time I’ve also got an eye for things I’d already been interested in, but maybe didn’t have the skills and the time to do to the degree I can now. Because really the big change in my musical career is that when I started, music was just absolute therapy. I was happy to clear rooms and terrorize with sound. I needed to get out of my system because I had issues. And as it’s gone on I see it very much as a craft. Of course it’s still therapy, but also I see it very much as a craft now and realizing that I’m a specialist in a certain craft that’s uncommercial and a challenge to be able to even get shows and release records. Particularly at the moment when people don’t value depth of sound as much. The Middlemass mediocrity, I churn on about it all the time, is just getting out of control. There’s a dumbing down of what music should be and how people consume. And I think increasingly it’s becoming secondary to people’s lives when I want it to be primary, because music changed me for life.
Cyclic Defrost: Well even on Angels & Devils you have quite a few tracks on there that are challenging in that way.
Kevin Martin: Well, in Europe weirdly enough it was received really well critically, but I noticed in America they couldn’t handle the schism of it. They couldn’t handle the fact that was high contrast. They just wanted it to be one big angry records, 10 variations of angry.
Cyclic Defrost: I feel like that album is sequenced perfectly, how it starts off quite gently with Grouper and Copeland, and then you get into that real ferocity. Because it’s got that dynamic…
Kevin Martin: To my ears, if you have the contrast like that, the intensity feels even more intense. But unfortunately, critically it got a hard time in the States I noticed. And you realise records like London Zoo can become an albatross. We all have our favorite records by artists. I know Justin [Broadrick] is always bemoaning the fact that he can’t seem to get people to stop talking about Streetcleaner, if that’s the last record that he has made of any worth. He loves the album. But the fact of the matter is it’s the album that everyone wants to talk about, and they don’t give a shit about anything that was released subsequently. I could could have ended up in that position, where London Zoo was seen as my peak as The Bug. I’m determined not to let that happen.I feel that Angels & Devils is as good a record as London Zoo without a doubt. But what London Zoo had was two tracks that became phenomenon, which was Poison Dart and Skeng. That was very much a case of London Zoo was in the right time in the right place, purely by chance.
Cyclic Defrost: Thank you for persevering and putting out Angels & Devils. Because as much as I love London Zoo, I’ve listened to Angels & Devils a hell of a lot more. It has that listenability that just takes you over in a way that most kind of club oriented records don’t.
Kevin Martin: Yeah, I mean that’s the thing. When I think of an album, well I’ve got plans that are going to contradict everything that I’m saying. When I was thinking of Angels & Devils, I knew I wanted it to have a narrative feel. Not like a movie or anything, I just knew I wanted contrasts. The same way London Zoo has contrasts. The irony is when people think of London Zoo, they just think of those big club tracks when actually there’s a lot of tracks that aren’t even like that on there. I’m also a fan of tunnel vision records where every track sounds like a variation of the same theme, like Discharge or Cop by Swans, where basically it’s just immersed in a tunnel. But I decided that with Angels & Devils and London Zoo they should have more contrast.
Cyclic Defrost: A lot of Jamaican reggae and dub is in that tunnel too. It’s that one thing and it just keeps going, and that’s also what’s good about it cause it doesn’t relent.
Kevin Martin: There are three alternatives when it comes to albums as far as I’m concerned. One is you go tunnel vision variations on the one thing for the complete album. The next, as The Stooges do, is you have a fast song then one a slow song, which Godflesh did on their first album. And the last one is to have a rounded high contrast journey. I guess it’s a cliche, but those I see as the three options of how to put an album together.
Cyclic Defrost: So tell me about the process of creating those sounds.
Kevin Martin: I’ll be honest though, and this isn’t me being evasive. Quite often I can’t even remember how I put shit together. That’s almost on purpose. I try and vary what I do and how I do it quite a lot. And because it’s basically a spaceship that I work in, in terms of just the amount of lights and knobs that I quite like the fact I can’t remember. It makes it feel more like each thing has been done as it is. If anything, what I tend to do with each project is there’s probably one piece of gear that acts as a gelling agent. With Sirens it was an old Russian synthesizer which helped bring things together.
Cyclic Defrost: Do you work mostly with modular?
Kevin Martin: I don’t actually work mostly with modular, that’s a misconception. I do have a modular set up, which I really like, but I certainly don’t work with it mostly. Like I said, there’s absolutely no rule of how I work to be honest. I would definitely say that it’s just random. I generally have an idea with every project I do, and it’s become more and more important for me that I have a picture in my mind of what this record is going to sound like before embarking on it as opposed to just experiment. And for the sake of experimentation with modular gear, I find that it’s very easy to get lost into a very big rat rabbit hole of experimentation and come out with nothing, just fucking around. I’m in the business of making music and songs and arrangements. I love working with modular gear and still continue to do so, but it’s certainly not the focal point of everything.
I need to have a plan because I’m generally so messy in the head and I’m very prone to tangents. I just wouldn’t ever get shit done. I’ve got, say this has helped me being a parent. And being in Berlin, I’ve worked faster and it’s not to the detriment of the output. In London I wasn’t very happy in life really. I was taking a long time. I think London Zoo took four years, Angels & Devils took three years. And since I moved to Berlin, I’m happier as a person. And maybe not that people would guess that from, the tone of the outcome. I found my partner for life and I’ve built a family nest. There’s never enough minutes in any day. So by being limited with time, because I want to be a good dad, I don’t want to be a ghost dad, I know that every minute I make music counts. So actually what I find myself doing is thinking about music more than I ever did in advance of going into the studio as opposed to just fucking around or over cooking things, going in again and again on tracks that lose their vitality, you know?