Interview: Kevin Martin (The Bug/King Midas Sound/Zonal)
So as always with me, I tend to fly from one extreme to another and it's like, okay, I've just had my art fix now I just want to get sweaty and horrible and just make something that just is brutal on a dancefloor.
Kevin Martin has released music under a multitude of different projects over the last twenty five years. From The Bug and King Midas Sound to Zonal and beyond, his music has always been forward thinking and always pushing the boundaries of sound. With his new solo album Sirens, his first under his own name, he pushes his music into the most deeply personal areas of his career and the results are sublime and highly emotive. We had a very detailed chat with Kevin about Sirens and a whole host of other topics including the status of the new Bug and Zonal albums, working with Justin Broadrick, Burial, Dylan Carlson, Fennesz, King Midas Sound, the energy of grime and punk, his Pressure nights and his upcoming appearance at Supersonic Festival. It was a pleasure to chat with someone who has as much passion about music and sound as Kevin does and the varied music he has released and is about to be released.
(((o))): You’ve just released Sirens, your debut solo album under your own name. Can you tell us a bit about the album and how the idea of it came about?
Yeah, basically,the whole album was really inspired by a very traumatic time in my life, which was the birth of our first child and the little nightmares we had to go through for a few months living in intensive care unit in the hospital. My son having two life threatening operations, and my wife having to pull through an emergency op upon the delivery table too. So an absolute rollercoaster ride, and at the time, I asked my agent not to take any bookings. But there was one booking I couldn’t get out of, which was an installation piece, I was doing a gallery in Berlin, which was going to be called sirens at the time. Their whole idea was just basically sirens and bass tone through my sound system and to keep it very minimal, and just very intense as as a sensory experience. But during that, the traumas with my son, and that whole period, I was having to write during this hell, really and strangely enough, during between the first operation and the second life threatening operations for my child. We got given the okay after the first one. and they said that was it, he’s going to be fine. They’re confident he could be discharged from the hospital three days later.
Two days after they said that, I had the performance where I performed this piece, everything seemed positive. We were in a really good mood and we literally came home the night of the performance to find the nurse and the doctor in the intensive care unit, who were looking very stressed and saying that when you been gone tonight, he started vomiting again, which was a sign that he wasn’t well, and then they announce the call for the surgeon to come and take a look at him. Then he had another emergency operation. So for me, the piece is intrinsic to that period, a year or so after Finn was born, the CTM festival in Berlin, and when they asked me to perform the piece. And in that interim period, I’d managed to build a piece into something that had a bit more of a flow, and had more of a narrative to it. But then, last year, when Lawrence English, committed to releasing it, as he had come to attend the CTM show, and been blown away by it thankfully, I realised that it wasn’t going to stand up because the performance piece of Sirens is very much like a sound installation. A sensory overload, based on your senses being impaired by humongous amounts of smoke, and your ears and general orientation being basically absolutely disorientated by the amount of bass and volume. And that doesn’t really hold up on a record.
So I had to rethink that at the end of last year basically, I went through a lot of alternate choices in my head, how to approach it. And I finally decided I really wanted to make a film score, really out of the whole experience and also just as much for therapy to get that out of my system. It was quite hardcore to go back and revisit the memories and the emotions of that period of my life and my family’s life. But that’s what I did at the end of last year. And then I basically wrote in the style of a score. I mean, I’ve always been very interested in film scores. And in particular, is a guy called Bernard Herrmann, who composed for all the Hitchcock movies who’s unbelievably gifted as a writer. And I just thought, his main thing was he would use a main theme, and mutate that theme throughout the course of the film with different instrumentation and different twists and turns so that’s what I decided to do with the score for Sirens, which became the album. It’s a sort of long process of how it comes together.
(((o))): Obviously, it’s a very sensitive subject matter to you, did you find it cathartic completing the album? And was it difficult revisiting that period of your life?
Yeah, it was very difficult. But to be honest, it was a catharsis. This has come from seeing my son become a very normal, healthy atomic explosion. I mean, he’s full of energy and life and very healthy. So that’s what helped us forget. This is the icing on the cake, really, and he seems proud of it, I mean he’s only five so he hasn’t really got a clue what it involves or what it’s about, but he knows I’ve written an album for him and his hand is on the cover and he seems very happy about it. So I’m happy.
(((o))): What has the reaction to the album been like so far?
Overwhelmingly positive so far. It’s a very personal record. I didn’t make it with any professional ambition or certainly not financial ambition. I just wanted to make an album that told a very genuine story really, and related to our life, and also just part of the ongoing craftsmanship of making music. It was crazy, I remember Justin Broadrick, who I worked with for years, he’s like a brother to me really. But he had been there when we did the CTM performance as well. He was playing just after me and when I sent him the album, I had no idea what he’ll make of this and he got it straight away saying that this is unbelievable. It’s so embarrassing to say this, but he actually said it sounded like Ligeti mixed by King Tubby! Jesus Christ, I wish! You know what I mean?! It was lovely that he said that, because in a way, using the studio as a time travel machine and as a method of disorientation is exactly what I’ve loved about dub, and it’s why I’ve been hooked on dub for so many years. But at the same time my interests in composition and narrative through music have grown steadily, so he’s not a million miles off the mark. In an ideal world, that would be my aim to sound like in either ballpark. Lawrence himself, who signed the album, without having heard anything before it, agreed to it. As I said, he’s very proud to put it out. And my wife loves it. So that’s the people that matter really. Anything else is a bonus.
(((o))): Will you be doing any more live performances of it?
It’s really difficult because it involves a lot of very special lighting and sound system. A lot of promoters are a bit wary of that. It has to be done right. It’s very intense and I want it to be a very intense experience to reflect what happened. It should go from a whisper to an avalanche of sound and it should be very physical as well as very cerebral. Trying touch on that type of performance at the moment is a tough call because in so many ways I think music has become becoming increasingly mediocre. All the music that’s popular is becoming mediocre. I think there’s amazing music out there but the stuff that seems the most popular isn’t as extreme as a piece like Sirens is.
Most promoters just want to make easy money and fast money and they want something that’s cheap and easy to run on an evening. As opposed to having to bring in extra lights and an extra soundsystem. Maybe there’s volume limits, or lighting limits in venues. It has to be someone like CTM for instance, who were committed to the idea of promoting something that’s very unusual. Even with CTM, it was put on at Berghain and I said that I wanted to bring my soundsystem in and connect it to their in house monster soundsystem that’s in Berghain already. I remember I had to go in and meet them and meet CTM and basically swear that I wasn’t trying to kill people sonically which was never the case. I just advised them legally how they could get around potential hurdles, because it was extreme and intense as fuck, sonically and philosophically.
(((o))): Have you got any plans for a new Bug album at all?
I’m heavily working on new Bug material right now actually to be honest. The last records I’ve been concentrating on have been very un-Bug like really, the King Midas Sound album, and the Sirens record. So as always with me, I tend to fly from one extreme to another and it’s like, okay, I’ve just had my art fix now I just want to get sweaty and horrible and just make something that just is brutal on a dancefloor.
(((o))): Is the Zonal album going to be coming out soon?
It’s in the can. We’ve mastered it, the artworks being done as we talk. We’re certainly hoping it’ll come out this year.
(((o))): I caught the Zonal performance at Supersonic a couple of years ago and it was like meditating on bassweight as Digital Mystikz would say.
Yeah, I think so. We didn’t want it to sound absolutely disconnected from Techno Animal. We wanted it to feel like an extension of that, but just slower and heavier. Less experimental. We wanted it to be a continuation but to feel different and does something new.
(((o))): Is that why you changed the name of the project?
Well, there’s lots of reasons. We always used to hate the name Techno Animal to be honest. Myself particularly because when we came up with the name it was just an abbreviation of the concept of a “technological animal”. Techno was just growing at that time, it was that long ago that it sounds farcical to say that now, but it was that long ago that this beast of techno arose and the connotations I felt were just damaging. With those associations, people might expect something to do with techno which Techno Animal never was at all obviously. When we got signed and before we released Brotherhood Of The Bomb, we told Matador that we wanted to drop the name, but they said if we dropped the name that they would drop the contract and not allow us to make the album. We were given no choice really, the album had to come out under that name. So to me the name was an albatross and Zonal was a great way to ditch the albatross.
(((o))): You’ve got a long history with Justin Broadrick and you mentioned your friendship. How did your musical relationship start in the first place?
I gave Godflesh their first ever show because I bought the first album the week it came out. At that time, it wasn’t unusual, particularly in punk regions, to have a contact number on an album sleeve. They’d left the phone number on their sleeve which turned out to be a phone that was in the flat that they shared in the hallway. I just called them up and said, Look, I’m running this club night in a pub back room, right behind Brixton police station on a shit PA that I owned, in incongruous surroundings. How do you fancy coming down and you can have all the money that comes in on the door? They were cool to do it and they played to about 40 people. My band God supported them and we just got like a house on fire Justin and I. We toured with them and at that time I asked him to produce the early God recordings.
I was in awe of their sound. I thought their sound was just stunning. It was like everything I wanted to hear, they stole the Stooges idea of only needing two songs, a fast one and a slow one. They took riffs and that from metal but got rid of all the shit I didn’t like and they just reduced it to do this real wall of sound with the lead coming literally from a drum machine. Actually, the sheer volume of the drum machine was what was carrying them a lot of the time as well. Which was unusual at that time and just lyrically and aesthetically how they presented their shit. I’m generally not a fan of metal vocalists, but Justin’s vocals are incredible I think. Very soulful and like I said, Godflesh for me just got rid of the shit I didn’t like, the bad theatre that surrounds a lot of metal. He came from a broken family background like me and I think we both had the same obsession with needing music as therapy as opposed to thinking we’re going to get rich off it or just doing it for the sake of doing it or to pick up girls from it. It was just a mutual music as catharsis, that really pulled us together?
(((o))): With your earlier bands like God, would you ever revisit any of that stuff? Or is it buried in the past?
I think it’s really in the past for me. I think God generally was crucial for me to develop as a person and musically and I think the recordings are okay. I’m not embarrassed by them. Maybe the first ever thing we ever released but apart from that, I think the stuff’s okay. Anyone that knows me and knows what I work on, and how I work, very quickly realised that I’d rather step forwards than step backwards.
(((o))): With stepping forward, you’ve just worked with Moor Mother on a Zonal track? How was it working with her? And how did you come to work with her in the first place?
That’s a good question. I heard her first release and was blown away and saw her first video. I’m a big fan of poetry and spoken word being combined with experimental music generally. I just loved her energy and her early work sounded like hip hop meets Throbbing Gristle and that’s a win win for me. I’m trying to remember how I reached out to her. I just remember sending stuff to Justin who hadn’t heard of her at that time, and he was equally blown away by what he heard and saying that we should try and link with her. We approached her and luckily she knew of The Bug. She knew my music and she knew of Justin too and we sent demos of the stuff we were working on. Then we did shows with her and the shows were phenomenal to be honest with you. All three of us were just mutually blown away by how well it gelled and just how great she is as a performer. I mean, she’s tiny in real life but when she’s on stage she feels like she’s like 18 foot tall and 18 foot wide, and just exudes and breathes fire.
I remember playing Roadburn and wondering how it would go considering there were no guitars and no drums on stage and we just laid waste to the place and luckily, the reaction was incredible from the crowd. I think she’s punk to her core. It was punk music that changed me and Justin and I know I saw an interview with Camae and she said punk is what changed her to the whole DIY ethic. They question everything about your philosophy and just the craving to be original and an individual and find your voice through music. So it’s almost like they were meant to work together in a weird sort of way. We get on like a house on fire.
(((o))): You’ve worked constantly with Flowdan both on record and live. How did you start working together in the first place?
I was going to a lot of grime shows because I liked the energy. I thought the beats were super fresh and the energy was absolutely punk. The first ever Roll Deep show in Europe, I happened to be on the same bill. It was The Bug and Roll Deep in Amsterdam and around that time, it was just as FWD began in Plastic People and quite often what would happen would be you’d get the genesis of the dubstep scene DJing at FWD and to be honest, it was cool. But what really took my head off was suddenly you’d get Wiley or God’s Gift or Riko Dan or Flowdan piling down there and just grabbing the mic on top of what people like Kode 9, Mala or Loefah were playing. That’s when things got really mad and really good at the same time.
I had got a link to Roll Deep’s manager of the time and I’d said I wanted to approach Riko Dan, because Riko was always the one that just took the roof off and reached 11, you know, with his intensity. Also, he was just so ragga and dancehall in approach and I really wanted to work with him. Their manager arranged a meeting with me and Riko. The manager also said, have you ever thought about Flowdan? And I said Yeah, Flowdans cool man, he’s good but it’s Riko I want to work with. The meeting happened in Plastic People and to be honest, Riko just treated me like an arsehole. I think he took one look at me and I didn’t like his attitude. But Flowdan, who I also met the same evening, was so professional and on point. So I thought fuck it, and we went with Flowdan instead. I invited him into a radio session with Mary Anne Hobbs who asked me to put it together which is I think was on Valentine’s Day actually. I brought in 12 vocalists for that, and Flowdan was one of them. I asked him to come and do more shows and subsequent recordings. He’s been cool throughout our relationship working with him. It was brave of him to link with me, because on the surface level what I was doing wasn’t anything to do with a formula of grime but he subsequently said to me, and in print, that he thought me and my music was grime through and through. So we’ve, we’ve grown to accept each other’s eccentricities, and I think respect each other.
There’s a lot of mutual respect between me and Flowdan. I think he’s an incredible MC and an incredible live performer and just is blooming more and more continuously with each release of his own. To see him step up with his Spentshell label and just do it so well, I’m really happy for him. I remember saying to him early on that you just need to be ‘Flowdan’ and do what you do uncompromisingly. Just forget pop and go for the craft. He’s done that, and he’s done it really well. It has been enjoyable working with him, even though he can be super difficult and super picky.
(((o))): Was it all ok when you worked with Riko Dan on the Iceman track?
Oh yeah! It was just at the time and he didn’t know me. Any insular scenes, don’t accept outsiders and I was an outsider. So you treat me as such and I think once he had heard and seen the damage I was doing in clubs, and he’d heard from other people that I was okay, I was cool as a person. Then, we bumped into each other at shows and we’d shoot the shit. I then invited him to play and jump on stage at some shows and he suited it. Then Iceman and I made him work hard. I got him to re-record vocals till it was absolutely there. I actually love Iceman, I’m very proud of that track. I think Riko sounds lethal on that. I’m glad it finally worked out.
(((o))): Is there a wish list of MCs that you’d love to work with? I’d love to hear Trim, for example, over one of your beats.
Trim was reaching out to me online, saying that he wanted to work with me and I was reaching back said I want to work with you, because I think he’s fucking brilliant. He is amazing and always has been, so fresh but he suddenly wanted and was asking for a lot of money for me to work with him. Despite the fact he was reaching out for me to work with him and I can’t afford that. I haven’t got that sort of cash so it didn’t happen, which is a pity. Generally I’m always on the lookout to work with MCs and keen to find new voices. Not just MCs, singers too because I realised I wasn’t born with the tone of Al Green, Horace Andy, or Ian Curtis. I wasn’t born with the the timing or lyrics of Rakim, Chuck D, Trim, or Dizzee Rascal unfortunately. So I decided to stop singing and concentrate on what I felt were my strengths. What I became increasingly obsessed was with the studio.
I’ve been very fortunate to work with people who are incredible. Working with Liz Harris one side, and having worked with Roots Manuva, and with Death Grips on the other side. It’s a joy! When I recorded Gonjasufi in my studio, I literally had goosebumps hearing him sing because he was just so extraordinary. So there’s always people I would reach out to. But it’s just trying to bypass the industry often and just approach people on a personal one to one basis that generally gets the best results. I remember with Death Grips, for instance, I managed to get an email address for them and just send them a paragraph. I can’t remember if I even put a link to a tune. They just got back to me with the lyrics of Skeng and said we’re down, so they already knew it. In a way, my calling card is my discography and people know that. I don’t compromise sonically. And I’m trying to do something genuine and original and they’re generally the type of vocalists and singers that I want to work with.
Someone like P Money. We talked about working on something and that still hasn’t happened. I’d hope one day to work with him. Maybe Footsie. I’m working and haven’t been writing beats at 140 and haven’t been doing Bug tracks in the last couple of years really. I haven’t really approached many people but this guy Logan is coming to my range and I think he’s really good. I’ve also heard that Slowthai was in the papers saying that seeing me and Flowdan live at Boomtown a few years ago totally changed his approach to music and he seems to have been inspired by seeing us. The idea of doing something with him would be wicked. And that’s just in terms of grime people.
There’s so many people I’d love to work with, my wish list goes on. It’s the same with hip hop and reggae, there’s always a massive wish list. Sometimes though, you have to step back and realise just to work with people for the sake of working can have really mixed results. Quite often, if you just pay for a rapper or vocal, it can just end up stiff and stale. So it’s just trying to engineer things and make approaches to people in a genuine way and not just doing it as an industry slap back.
(((o))): There has to be some sort of connection there.
Yeah, exactly. You can hear so many albums where the collaborations just feel artificial and contrived. I’d like a collaboration to keep developing over time. It’s a tragedy for me that I haven’t been able to work more with Roots Manuva, for instance. I loved working with him. I’m a huge admirer of his writing, his ability, his tone, and flow. I’d always rather keep working with people rather than just doing one offs. I just started working with an incredible Japanese vocalist called Hatice Noit who records for a label called Erased Tapes. That was a really off the wall intro that led to that happening. We got on so well when we did a BBC Radio session together that we decided to keep recording. She came to Berlin and recorded over here. Her voice is extraordinary! I always know there’s going to be more people to find and work with in the future. It’s never a question. I love vocals and vocalists generally, so it’s a joy to be able to work with people.
(((o))): Keep an eye out for Part II of this interview coming very soon.