Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:
I met Kevin Martin in 2002, right before my first London gig. I played Steely and Clevie’s dancehall riddim “The Street Sweeper”—a militant, brilliant instrumental with cut-up guitars that had over a dozen versions voiced by top Jamaican MCs and singers. After my set, he told me that the track was a favorite for him as well. Before we parted ways, he gave me a promo 12-inch of his single as The Bug, “Politicians and Paedophiles,” featuring Daddy Freddy. It stepped inside dancehall reggae—also called ragga or, in the UK, bashment—and reimagined the sound from the inside out. The Bug’s sound world proved that the lyrical fire and propulsive waist wind of dancehall could cohabitate with the bruised sonics that made the 12-inch seem loud even when played quietly. It stayed—fresh—in my record crate for the next few years.
In person, Martin is soft-spoken, articulate, and generous. But when you see him perform you realize that he’s a hardcore motherfucker who has dedicated his life to furthering the possibilities of music: from running the late-‘80s, early-‘90s label Pathological Records to his ever-evolving, perfectionist studio approach, which brings out the best in his collaborators. His dedication to craft gets deconstructed and then rebuilt, dubwise, in the live arena. On a proper sound system, The Bug becomes a monster, reminding us of the sensual possibilities of sound. It’s a heavy party and you can feel it. Gravity meets momentum in The Bug.
Martin’s oeuvre both anticipates and creates musical climate changes, whether in the form of his influential ‘90s-compilation series for Virgin Records (Macro Dub Infection, Isolationism); the saxophone-led noise squalls of his early work; or the spacious, subdued intensity of his latest project, King Midas Sound, a trio featuring intimate vocals from Roger Robinson (often crooning in a ghostly falsetto) and Hitomi.
His paths remind me that freedom in music is closely related to structural violence. It’s not enough to follow others; there are easier ways to earn a living. A life in music is hard. Throwing out the rule books is only gonna help if you then have enough conviction to explore the space you’ve opened. The Bug lives out on a limb, humble and brave, no safety net, no easy fall backs.
Jace Clayton Can you tell me a bit more about the Soul Jazz compilation you’re curating, in the BOMB interview mode?
The Bug Yeah, well, Soul Jazz is Stuart Baker, the guy who runs the label. As soon as I heard that he was putting together a dancehall compilation my ears pricked up, because it was basically dancehall that made me begin The Bug. I was trying to find an original area and I’d become obsessed with dancehall. It’s quite illogical in the scheme of things, since I didn’t know anyone else who was heavily into that scene until I hooked up with DJ Scud. He was about the only person I could talk even vaguely about dancehall with. If you live in London it’s impossible to avoid Jamaican music. I was already smitten with it from hearing Prince Far I tunes or King Tubby tracks before I moved to London. Dub was my entry point to reggae. I think I used to be a bit of a reggae asshole. A stupid white snob who thought that dub was the only cool reggae and certain things were crap just by definition. It took me a while to sync my ears up to ragga and digital dancehall. I came from a radically different textural idea; I was into free jazz and noise rock.
JC When did you move to London, just to get a chronology going?
TB Good question, Jace! It must have been about 20 years ago.
JC So the start of the ‘90s or the late ‘80s. Then the dancehall compilation Street Sweeper Riddim came out around ‘99. What was it that won you over?
TB It was so militant, so intense. It was actually Capleton’s “Final Assassin” that took my head off. I had tried hearing dancehall, but some of the melodies had gotten in the way for me, you know? At that point, I was still learning as a producer. It’s taken me a long time to realize that melody may not be my enemy. It can be a real handy tool. Simultaneously using extremity and beauty, noise and seduction, can probably be more effective than something one dimensional. When I first heard dancehall and ragga it was the melody that put me off. I was on a mission to get rid of it and bring bass lines into ragga (which I felt were woefully lacking), but I loved the rhythm. There was something hypnotic about the rhythmic interplay, so much that was surprising or contradictory. Every new chain of sevens I would hear would shock me because I would never know what to expect next.
Actually, the music that means most to me is the music with the what-the-fuck? factor. Or music that upon first listen I haven’t liked. When I first heard PiL’s Metal Box, I thought it was unlistenable. Same with Ian Curtis’s voice, Nina Simone, and ragga, that cheesy, horrible machine music to which I got hooked. It became my drug. My obsession—as this token white dude—would be going up to ghetto areas like Stonebridge Park or Harlesden in northwest London and buying up fuckin’ loads of sevens. They all sold the Street Sweeper—I know for a fact it was my turning point. It changed my whole perspective about reggae, about dancehall, about production . . .
JC I was already a fan of dancehall, but when Street Sweeper came out I remember I was in Boston driving a car. They played it on WERS and I was like, I need to get this! To rewind a bit—you said you were deep into dub. It’s a huge question, but what initially attracted you to dub? You mentioned Prince Far I, King Tubby.
TB Well, punk music turned me full-stop on to music and what it could mean outside of it being an accessory to your life. It became a focal point for my life because I came from a pretty torn family background. I couldn’t quite make sense of that. I used to drift through school not understanding why anything should mean anything to me, and somehow punk music meant more than anything to me. I learned more about politics, philosophy, aesthetics, sociology—you name it—through the focal point of punk. I remember when I was about eight or nine years old my friends brought me a copy of a newly released Sex Pistols album. It shocked me to the core. I didn’t really know what the hell it meant at that age. I was buying Discharge records when I was maybe 12, and then at 13 or 14 I got heavily into music through an amazing record store called Handsome Dicks, in Weymouth, the south-coast town where I grew up. The guys working there were really cool and all these punks would be hanging around there. It seemed like everything that I hated about English conservative monoculture was being burned and turned upside down through music. I’d be introduced to Captain Beefheart, The Birthday Party, Joy Division, Throbbing Gristle—a lot of post-punk guys in particular. Post-punk music was tearing up rule books and asking questions of everything, particularly structure in terms of music, art, politics, you know, the law.
It was the DIY ethic that caught me. It was like, Hold on, this doesn’t sound that difficult. It sounds like people are making this music because they need to get shit out of their systems. That’s definitely why I made music. I had very basic tools: a four-track recorder and effects pedals. As soon as I knew anything about dub, it was like, Wow, this is incredible. It was a form of antimusic that heightened the potential psychedelia. I was interested in everything that wasn’t harmony, melody, and conservative musical structure. Dub seemed to tear everything to shreds, burn it up, and rearrange the embers, you know?
JC You told me this anecdote: you were at a dub night in London; it was lit by one lightbulb. That’s how I remember you describing it—
TB Oh, yeah. That was again a very pivotal moment for me. Just after I moved to London I went to see Iration Steppas and The Disciples do a “sound clash” together. I didn’t know what the hell to expect. It was at a warehouse in the East End. Literally, there was a sound system on either side of a quite small room with a lightbulb hanging above each, no stage, the audience trapped in the middle, and this head-shredding volume and over-the-top psychedelia. Every mix that each producer was playing would get more and more out-there. At first you would think, Oh, this is a nice reggae tune, and by the end you’d be thinking, Holy shit, this is electro-acoustic madness! People were looking stoned, shell-shocked, or both by what was hitting them. (laughter) It almost altered my internal DNA and how I appreciated music. Before I moved to London, I’d seen a very early Swans show and had realized just how much I loved physical impact in sound.
JC Funny, every time we’ve played together I’ve always tried to leave the building when you were sound checking. It’s massive volume and you take it so seriously; oftentimes if the sound guy is not up to speed, you’ll let him have it. Can you talk about the importance of getting the sound you want in a live situation?
TB Boy, I guess I’ve got a bad reputation for being a bit finicky and demanding. Once you’ve had the experience of what music can be like, if you are a perfectionist and obsessive (like I realize I’ve become), you don’t want to compromise. I don’t follow the idea of making any type of compromise in my life, and definitely not in my music: music is my life. If you’re happy to shut up and let someone water down what you want, then you really shouldn’t be making music. It’s not important enough to you, you know? I believe in a hard-core mentality. Any art should be a pure reflection of the intention of the person making it, and any degree of compromise along the way is just going to lessen the impact of what that person is trying to do. As far as I’m concerned, the physicality of sound is crucial; it takes you beyond intellectual discourse, to very primal, psychological confrontations. I like what it can do to you: it can be seductive, it can be sexy, it can be aggressive, it can fuck you up, it can flatten you, it can wake you up. Intense musical experiences have changed how I live my life, full stop. To some people this may sound a bit over-the-top. My passion is music, and that is reflected in how I approach the live arena. Now, increasingly, when record sales are shrinking, it’s important to leave a statement, to walk away having done something memorable. Volume in itself isn’t memorable; anyone can turn the volume up to 12 and crush someone with it. That’s not impressive. It’s the constructions within the music that are important.
JC I’ve seen you perform as The Bug with different MCs in various places but I haven’t seen King Midas Sound live. I’m curious about that, because the record Waiting for You 2009 has these delicate falsettos running throughout. I’m wondering what you guys do to bring that spirit to the live arena.
TB It’s been a steep learning curve with King Midas Sound. We went from having a surprisingly well-received album to trying to figure out how we’re going to do this live. Roger [Robinson] and I made a very personal album. We hadn’t thought about it as a career move. Nothing I ever do is thought through like that; it’s all chance and thinking on my feet and with my heart, really. We certainly never thought we’d be playing Waiting for You live. So then when there were opportunities spoken of, Roger was very keen; I was becoming frustrated a bit with reception to The Bug and how people were seeing me.
I felt I was being pigeonholed as a freak dealing in distorted dancehall, and not as having a full artistic/emotional range. The music industry in general seems obsessed with making one-dimensional caricatures out of musicians. In any case, we were trying to decide how we’d do this live. I went back to how I used to begin with The Bug, and how I worked with Techno Animal—I’d break everything down into its component parts and then dub everything out, to the max. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. We weren’t getting much out of the first few shows. By nature of the construction of the songs, the relatively deep, melancholy sound would be reduced to being background material to idle chatter, our input becoming an accessory to a night out, which is the opposite of what I love in music: its emotional or artistic content leaving you devastated. So we continued screwing around, trying to find out a more interesting approach for King Midas. [Kiki] Hitomi has been a very large part of that; she is even more critical than Roger and me put together. She’s been kicking our asses left, right, and center. (laughter) I overcompensated by building walls of sound that were reducing the vocals to nothingness. I’ve had to learn the balance. In the last two or three months, we’re finally nailing what it is we want through very open discussions. Roger is a very verbal guy. He and I will chat 24/7; it’s an ongoing analysis. I ended up basically writing new material with the live show in mind—it’s very different than the album; sonically, it’s much more intense. What I did was steal a leaf from the Pixies book—I was never a huge Pixies fan, but I saw them live a few times when they first came to the UK. They had this quiet-and-loud formula that impressed me; the drops and the dynamics were quite basic. This is what we’ve been working at with King Midas now. Funny enough, a review mentioned that live we sounded like My Bloody Valentine in dub.
TB We were like, Wow, that’s a fucking great comparison! I’d love to hear something like that. So we’ve actually followed the course of that review a bit and have been bringing in live synths, and Roger is playing live guitar. In places it’s a humongous wall of sound, and the next minute it’s so fragile and delicate. It’s just trying to get that balance right.
JC Something that’s coming out over the course of this interview is the constant searching, refining, and pushing that is part of your process. So what’s in the pipeline right now in terms of your production?
TB Well, it’s going to be a remix album for sure. I love remixes as much as I love dub production—they keep music open-ended. Again, post-punk music was great because it questioned finality, structure. Dub is astonishing because you can reinterpret a song so many times . . . It can be as open-ended as your imagination. And, of course, remixes came from dub, as far as I’m concerned. I love hearing other producers take what I do and revoice it, although personally I find it incredibly frustrating to do a remix. For some weird reason, it takes me longer to do remixes than to work on my own material. So we’re working toward the next album, but I’ve got duties that I want to do with The Bug now. I want to swing back and forth between the two. The remix album is also a way of keeping the name around while I work on Bug material, before we get stuck in the next King Midas album. It also gives us time with King Midas, to carry on developing where we’re going live. I think the live show is really shaping where the next record is going in terms of mood and style. That, and the fact that I was asked by the Greensleeves label to do a remix of Dawn Penn’s top-ten, lovers’ tear-jerking reggae classic “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No).”
JC Oh, man.
TB Amazing, I know. I wrote two remixes as King Midas and then decided to keep them both. I’m probably not going to do this Dawn Penn remix. What I might keep doing is writing sketches to her voice and then stealing the music for our projects. That song strikes such a chord when I write to it that it seems to fit us very well for King Midas. We’ve been joking that maybe the whole next album is going to be supposed remixes of Dawn Penn, but then we leave her out and keep Roger and Hitomi on top.
JC That’s hilarious. I have a question about the identities of your projects. The lead single in the new Bug EP, the track “Catch a Fire,” with Hitomi singing, to my ears sounds like a King Midas production. Do you distinguish the two?
TB I wish I knew. The Infected EP had a Bug remix of King Midas Sound. I just thought it was a cute idea of me remixing myself, under a different guise. The way King Midas has progressed—it has become so heavy and loud—some people are obviously going to say, Ah well, it’s just The Bug again. That was the way it developed, because live it’s so difficult to control the conditions and many variables of the environment, particularly when you’re not that popular. You know, if King Midas Sound were in the position of Burial, if we could play huge venues with amazing sound systems and the audience knew all of our songs, then maybe we could pull back a lot more.
In terms of differences, I’m not sure, Jace. The Bug is Kevin, Kevin is The Bug. It’s like David Cronenberg’s The Fly. It’d be stupid of me to say there’s going to be no Bug in King Midas. Of course it’s me. King Midas is and has become a group. With Bug I’m answerable to no one; King Midas is very democratic. There’s a lot of dialogue, and disagreements as well. The second show we played in London was a massive Hyperdub party. People seemed to love it, but after the show there was a huge argument among the three of us about why we felt it was shit.
JC You’re too hard on yourself, man!
TB We are three very strong characters and it’s very combustible and mercurial, in a good way. I remember reading reports of The Birthday Party having physical fights with each other, literally. And a few years ago I saw Roll Deep having fights with one another on stage. You don’t have to resort to blows, but at least fighting shows that you care or are passionate. It’s not someone looking bored behind a laptop.
JC This leads me to a different topic. You’ve maintained a presence throughout the late ‘80s into the ‘90s, and here we are in the second decade of the 21st century. Despite your hard-core stance, you’re working with the music industry, which tends toward conservatism and the easy answer. What are some of the tensions you have encountered and gotten past while consistently putting out your music the way you want, sometimes, amazingly, even on major labels?
TB It’s a big question. It’s been a tortuous time. I ended up learning that humanity’s motivations are the same on a macro or micro scale. I’ve sometimes felt that major record labels were more honest than independent labels. Bottom line is, the industry is intrinsically difficult to navigate. It is business. If you love something, to see it reduced to a commodity is painful. You just try to magnetize yourself toward people who understand your wavelength and are interested in helping you along the way. I’m going through a time where I’m hating this industry so much, I wish I had my own label. That’s not to say that Ninja Tune is shit; they’re not. They did a great job on London Zoo. And with Hyperdub, Steve is a personal friend of mine, so let’s not begin dissing Hyperdub either. But the fact of the matter is that you have to work within a business framework, and deal with the huge monolithic shifts in how music is consumed, purchased (or not), and just eaten at this point. You have to think on your feet. You’re aware of this; you’ve been through similar trajectories.
JC Yeah. You mentioned that up until recently dancehall was one of the most alive and future-oriented music genres around, and I agree. Yet for me that stopped when the seven-inch industry collapsed, more or less, five years ago, when all the stores I used to frequent in New York City were slowly closing down.
TB I would’ve agreed with you 101 percent up until about six months ago. I assumed that people in Jamaica weren’t interested anymore, that dancehall was just dying as a trend. Yet in the last six months I discovered at least four or five sites where you can get every new rhythm from Jamaica, more than when I was buying sevens.
JC Oh, wow.
TB And I’ll get you the links, for sure. But the problem for me isn’t the numbers, it’s the creativity. Even though I’m regularly checking these sites for new rhythms, I’m finding less that shocks me. It could be that I’m over acquainted with the form, though I hope not, because I’ll always be checking. Like I said earlier, when I got into Street Sweeper everything seemed new. Maybe by now I’m more aware of the formulas within dancehall. Certainly the popularity of the vocoder has grated on me. I loved Jamaican voices because people have a very individualistic approach to lyrics or voice, but the vocoder and pitch tuner have homogenized vocals. I have nothing against them as a tool, but I have a grudge when they start making MCs sound the same.
JC So what about London? We have talked about the importance of London to your sound. Its ambiance, the different types of musical activity, the people. Is dub-step still huge? Is pirate radio still happening?
TB I wish I could tell you, Jace. In the last couple of years I’ve been touring nonstop again, and if I’m not touring, I’m in the studio. London’s effect on me is as much about the cultural interplay as about the music. It’s probably the most integrated city I’ve ever been to. There’s something about the collisions of London that are special. So many amazing musical events have happened here, whether it’s dub-step, jungle, punk music, whatever.
JC You said elsewhere that when you first started playing Bug tracks live, you noticed the reaction of women who’d get up and start shaking to your songs. Can you talk a bit about the direction your sound is going in, and how that relates to issues of gender in terms of audiences?
TB Yeah, it was a shock when I dropped the first Bug tunes live at the end of a Techno Animal show. Straight away four or five girls jumped up on stage in front of our mixer desk and started dancing their asses off to these tunes. We had come from a fairly confrontational background, Justin [Broadrick] with Napalm Death and me with God and Techno Animal. We’d like to stretch people and ourselves to see what we would find; it was never a sadistic thing. I can’t say that I made Bug music to appeal to women, but it was interesting to realize it did. When I started making Bug tracks, my version of dancehall, I’d buy ragga in pretty hard-core ghetto areas, but it would’ve been stupid to go wandering into a ragga club on my own. I was making music that I couldn’t find anywhere else. If anything, a constant through my musical career is that I’ve tried to make music that I hear in my head and wish existed. I have no audience in mind. So when I saw the girls dancing at a Techno Animal show, it was a revelation. Then the more Bug shows I played, the more apparent it became that there is something about a bashment rhythm that lends itself to the synchronization with women’s hips. It was just chance, but it was a great thing because I was really getting jaded with Techno Animal’s audiences: a room full of white guys dressed in black and looking moody. The more shows I played with Bug in hugely varying contexts, the more I realized there was a potentially wide appeal. My own mind wanders freely, so why should I keep myself in a musical jail? My days of wanting to piss people off and being antagonistic for the sake of it are over, in terms of 100-percent-battle mode. I want give and take, but, obviously, I do still love intensity, so it’s not like anything’s mellowed out.
JC What about your production in the studio? You’ve worked with a huge amount of MCs and vocalists, from Cutty Ranks—the legendary Jamaican MC who was probably king of dancehall’s mic spitters before the MTV generation—to people who are unknown, who then become . . . What happened with Warrior Queen, for instance, who is off doing her own thing now but credits you for her popularity. Is there a typical approach when you sit down and start making a track or decide to bring in a vocalist?
TB There is nothing typical across anything I do. It’s probably a goal of mine; I don’t want to become jaded through knowing how something will work. I generally write to singers. Virtually every track in London Zoo was written with a vocalist in mind. Nothing’s left to chance. I wrote a rhythm with Flowdan in mind; one for Warrior Queen—an extraordinary female MC who cut her vocal teeth with the best producers in Jamaica in the ‘80s under the name Wendy Culture, before relocating to the UK. I’ve worked with incredibly talented people and not all of it has been great fun, but I still enjoy the collaborative process. I’m a sucker for voices. There’s an inherent emotional core to a voice that gets me every time. With dub-step, I felt that voices weren’t valued and were just reduced to samples—I just couldn’t fathom it. For sure I love instrumental music, too—jazz, sound-track music, experimental music—but, ultimately, I’ve realized that I love songs. I never thought I would catch myself saying that. It’s a confession.
JC That’s great.
TB I still want to find vocalists who make the hairs on your arms stand on edge when you hear them, who have the intensity and originality of someone like Ian Curtis, John Lydon, or Nick Cave. For me, Roger’s voice was very special with King Midas. I was encouraging him to approach the microphone in a very different way. When he realized he was falsetto and singing high, he discovered something amazing that shocked him and me. Same with Hitomi, I’d always wanted to work with a female vocalist who had a huge emotional range. I was fortunate to find her, and then it was even more fortunate that the three of us agreed to work in the same context.
I’ve never really enjoyed paying someone for a tune, you know, the rent-a-rapper thing—it can be a bit empty and fake. Much as there are people I’d love to do a tune with, I find myself getting much more out of a consistent relationship with an artist and a singer in particular.
Actually, you know, I was really inspired by seeing the Buena Vista Social Club film. I’d like to do an album with veteran MCs. Like, try and meet up again with Cutty, trying to do something with Burro [Banton], Ninjaman, maybe Sister Nancy. Get the girlfriend of Jeff [Waye, who runs Ninja Tune North America] to film the studio sessions and see what happens. Working with Cutty before was a pain in the ass; he was trying to pick a fight with the engineer and was rude to me—appropriately his day job was as a butcher! (laughter) But it would’ve looked great had we documented the sessions. The production would be half Jamaican and half British. We have Daddy Freddy, Tippa Irie, Tippa Levi, Tenor Fly over here, and we could get a similar generation of MCs in Jamaica.
JC From a historical standpoint it’d be great to get guys like Ninjaman and Burro Banton in this new wave, because they’re off the map.
TB Yeah, I’ll go back to building militant, bashy rhythms to make real uncompromising music with those guys and see what happens. It could be fun.