Kevin Martin (aka The Bug) is my hero since the 1990s industrial hip-hop project Techno Animal with Justin Broadrick (aka JK Flesh). Martin's legacy for electronica, dancehall, dub, industrial and metal scene has only been growing for the last three decades. Yet the British producer doesn’t seem to slow down. His recent collaboration with the American pioneer of drone metal Dylan Carlson (Earth) resulted in a critically acclaimed full leght album 'Concrete Desert'. I was honoured to catch up with Kevin and talk about the resurrection of Techno Animal at Supersonic festival [Birmingham, 16-18 June], the creation and recording of 'Concrete Desert' [a conceptual album, which references Los Angeles, its structural inequalitities and the turmoil of post-modern post-truth existence], his relationship with the metal scene and more.
'Concrete Desert' is inspired and recorded in LA. It is documented as an alien place drained of hope. How has that story evolved?
Every time I’ve been to LA I haven’t particularly enjoyed it. Two years ago I had some time off in LA. I remember Kode9 joking to me before going there ‘hey, LA has really changed, you’ll love it there.’ I was thinking maybe I was wrong all along. But actually I just don’t get along with the city. It’s not my way of life. I have an ambiguous relationship with touring America anyway. I find it a difficult place to tour… America is a microcosm of all humanity. It is a nation made up of all of us. Ironically, considering Trump is such an ignorant asshole, it is a country made up of immigrants who virtually wiped the actual original Americans. For me it’s an accelerated culture, but instead of there being any sense of integration, it seems a divided country... The trip to LA reinforced how I felt about that city. I felt absolutely alienated from it… Generally, whenever I go to America I end up feeling like Prince Charles because of my accent. I just feel so British [laughing]. It is not that I enjoy that feeling... But I don’t just hate America. Far from it. I still vividly remember my first trip to New York being like the biggest drug high of my life. It was like all my dreams come true. We all grow up with an American dream in us, via mass media, television, music, cinema… I distinctively remember going from JKF to New York like entering my biggest fantasy world ever. Entering New York was like entering an adult Disneyland. I am definitely attracted to New York, it is just something about LA that rubs me up the wrong way. In New York I walk around, in LA nobody walks. If you walk in LA people consider you to be a freak. Hollywood is based in LA. The fantasy of the perfect American dream therefore is based in LA. I just found it a very superficial city.
"Whenever I work with anyone, I write with them in my mind. When I write a rhythm for Flowdan I am thinking of Flowdan’s voice and delivery. When I write a rhythm for Miss Red, I am thinking of what would suit her voice. When I collaborate with someone, it’s a collaboration. It’s not just about me. I like it to be a cross polarization. Why would you collaborate with someone and want it to end up sounding like you?"
Tell us more about the recording of 'Concrete Desert' in LA?
The actual recording in LA lasted just over two days. That was Dylan recording his guitar parts. I’ve already been writing sketches in Brazil and Berlin. I originally discussed an idea of recording another EP with Dylan but suddenly something provoked my imagination, - certainly, thinking about Dylan’s trademark style of playing, which I am a big fan of, how evocative it is of the time, place and atmosphere... Whenever I work with anyone, I write with them in my mind. When I write a rhythm for Flowdan I am thinking of Flowdan’s voice and delivery. When I write a rhythm for Miss Red, I am thinking of what would suit her voice. When I collaborate with someone, it’s a collaboration. It’s not just about me. I like it to be a cross polarization. Why would you collaborate with someone and want it to end up sounding like you? I’ve seen a few reviews of ‘Concrete Desert’ where people were disappointed that ‘Concrete Desert’ was not a ‘Bug’ record or not an ‘Earth’ record. For me that’s bizarre. Why would they want to hear a ‘Bug’ record out of me collaborating with Dylan ?
"I wanted that sense of space and sprawl and distant sound. There is not a lot of sound that is in your face in LA. Everything felt very distant there. lt felt like being in a different planet at times.”
I noticed you follow reviews closely. Have you come across with misinterpretations of ‘Concrete Desert’?
Yeah, of course. Throughout the years you find different analyses on who you are. It’s just a different take. People see you differently, have different perspectives and magnetise to a different part of the recording or get turned off by it… When I talked to Ninja Tune about how I felt ‘Concrete Desert’ was a continuation or a parallel to ‘London Zoo’, it wasn’t that I thought it would sound like ‘London Zoo’. It’s more that it was meant to be evocative of a city. LA isn’t a noisy, chaotic city. It’s not like New York. It’s not as tight ass as London. I wanted that sense of space and sprawl and distant sound. There is not a lot of sound that is in your face in LA. Everything felt very distant there. It felt like being in a different planet at times. I think people, who I’ve seen reviewed this record and haven’t dug it, wanted it to be more imposing and less ambient, which is fair enough. Come to the life show, you’ll get that there!
So that particular sound of ‘Concrete Desert’ was all deliberate...
Yes, 100%. With ‘Boa’ and ‘Cold’ me and Dylan never had any narrative or philosophical ideas, it was just to make music. When we started working in the studio on ‘Concrete Desert’, there was never a discussion of it being an LA record. We were just chatting about music, life and LA and I was telling him how I felt about the city. The irony is that Dylan likes LA. When I came back to Berlin, I rewrote everything and gave the album a narrative structure. I wrote to Dylan saying I wanted this album to evoke LA.
The Bug vs Earth. Photo: Phil Sharp
After playing 'Concrete Desert' live so many times, does the album feel any different to you?
It really makes me want to record a new album with Dylan and we already discussed a couple of ideas for future records. What is fantastic is that Dylan feels as open minded as me. We want to reinterpret the album in the live area. We want to give people an experience that is different live. When we include improvisation, there is the excitement about that you can get it right or fuck it up and that’s fun. Seeing people’s reactions has been fun. In Roadburn I was just some trip hop/electro producer. Dylan was the famous guy. It was very exciting to go there with Dylan as a Trojan horse and cause some chaos. I wanted to play in Roadburn for years. That was a nice feeling!
"There was a time in my life when I actively wanted to empty venues. But that’s a long time ago. Now I see it as a defeat rather than a victory."
You mentioned fuck ups. Has it ever happened?
Yeah, I fucked up many shows. When we played the Ninja Tune anniversary show in LA, half of the audience left during the course of the performance. There was a time in my life when I actively wanted to empty venues. But that’s a long time ago. Now I see it as a defeat rather than a victory. I like getting extreme reactions from people but that night it was just a bit fucked up. Primarily, to be honest it was because it was two and a half hours of intensity. We started with the performance of Sirens, then I did a collaboration with Dylan and ended up doing tracks with Liz Harris. That was too much for people. The show was really hyped in LA and sold out. William Basinski was invited to play before us. It was very chill. We just came and it must have felt zero subtlety and absolute monstrosity. All those things that happened that night, - during Sirens the electrics totally went down. Then room was full of smoke and you couldn’t see shit apart strobes. Me and Dylan haven’t really found a foundation at that time, we were still trying to second-guess each other. That is just one example, I could give you many more examples of shows that were fucked up. And that’s what makes it interesting. For me a show is massively unpredictable. I never know how many people are going to show up, who will give a fuck about what we are doing, if the sound is going to work properly, etc...
"When I go on stage my intended mission is to forget where I am, to get so lost in sound that I don’t even know where I am. Part of the reason why I have the volume so loud on stage is that so I could literally get lost in those frequencies."
How does it feel going on stage for you? What’s your intended state of mind/mission?
My intended mission is to forget where I am, to get so lost in sound that I don’t even know where I am. That is the perfect response for me. Part of the reason why I have the volume so loud on stage is that so I could literally get lost in those frequencies. I don’t feel comfortable on the stage. I am not an entertainer. I want to get lost and swept up by sound.
One of the first shows I’ve seen in London was the sound clash between two reggae sound systems. A couple of guys opposite each other with their own sound systems trying annihilate each other continuously with volume and music. There was no entertainment value. The audience was trapped in the middle of the two opposing systems. For me it was a revelation because I’d been playing in bands. I moved to London to see if there was any path in the music industry and realised that most of it was fake. The industry was pretty crap. A lot of bands you see do the same tricks night after night. What you think is improvised, isn’t. For me what I loved about this reggae sound clash was that there zero entertainment value. There was zero interest in giving a show to the audience. It was all about the power of sound and the power music, the potential to literally give to people a direct innovation through sound.
"My relationship with metal is love-hate. My idea of hell is looking into the audience and everyone is looking like me, it’s like my worst case scenario. I love women coming to shows and expressive themselves as much as guys. It’s a fallacy that women don’t enjoy heavy music. I know they do. Culturally, there is machismo, boy’s club in metal that I don’t like."
What is your relationship with metal?
My relationship with metal is love-hate. I love the sonic intensity of metal, hypnotic, repetitive, drug-simulating riffs. But there is a side of metal that I cannot stand like theatrical presentations, shit vocals or bad guitar solos. Actually, Roadburn was my first metal festival over the years. I went there and all I could see was white dudes dressed in black. It seems strange to me. My idea of hell is looking into the audience and everyone is looking like me, it’s like my worst case scenario. I love women coming to shows and expressing themselves as much as guys. It’s a fallacy that women don’t enjoy heavy music. I know they do. Culturally, there is a machismo, boys' club in metal that I don’t like. Having said all that we got a fantastic response in Roadburn. I was amazed, I thought people would be throwing bottles at us [laughing]… In my experience, I know for a fact about people who had only been into metal and got into dub or hip hop through stuff that me and Justin [Justin Broadrick aka JK Flesh] have done. And vice versa, I went to a show by The Body in Berlin. A guy came up to me and said he listened to grime and black metal. It seems such a peculiar but brilliant mixture! I listen to doom metal, grime, reggae, electronic music, classical, whatever…
"If you really love music, it is crucial that you are open to influence and inspiration. Whilst I am envious of the purity of a lot genres, I am not that pure. I come under some mutant freak."
I don’t feel comfortable to write music to formula. I am trying to find a voice in me that is fresh and original. But I like the fact that metalheads are not trendy hipsters. They would stay with metal year after year, explore it and give their favourite artists a chance even if they make a bad album. While a lot people who are into club music are fickle. Drugs are more important than DJ that’s playing that night. So like I said I have a crazy attraction and repulsion for metal.
Since you are doing music in a lot of different styles with a lot of different people, what keeps it consistent for you? If there is anything.
I think about it a lot myself. I like every project to be different but somehow I hope that people hear my voice or my mind-set in all those projects. I am sceptical of people who genre-hop in a really cheese way. Suddenly doing a brand new thing, brand new style that has nothing to do with what they were doing before. Somehow I feel every project I am working on has a trademark feel, atmosphere, weight and aesthetic.
"When my band was touring with Godflesh, it was a pleasure to check them every night. I was blown away. If anything, it made me work harder."
I believe there is a trend of electronic music artists moving away from functionality of the club and rediscovering live music. The same goes for rock and metal artists incorporating more and more electronic elements... Do you agree with me?
I think you are right. Heavy metal has been around since the 70s and surely people want something different. It amazes me how influential Godflesh have been. For me whether it is Faith No More, Metallica, Fear Factory, Ministry, so many people have rightfully paid respect to Godflesh. Justin made some very brave moves within metal. He did it on his terms. He is like a little brother for me. We are very tight as friends. When my band was touring with Godflesh, it was a pleasure to check them every night. I was blown away. If anything, it made me work harder.
"We [Kevin and Justin] both have the same fucked up background and nihilistic view of the world. We both juggle between absolute optimism and complete pessimism."
Snakes vs Rats or Dog is perhaps my favourite track. Did Justin write the lyrics for Dog?
Yes, it was. Justin collaborated with Painkiller many years ago on Execution Ground. The album contained a vocal performance by Justin, which was one of my favourite vocal performances that he ever did. I just directed him to that track and said “hey man, something with that mood or rhythms would be brilliant.” I am pretty sure that he came up with all the lyrics and ideas. But we both have the same fucked up background and nihilistic view of the world. We both juggle between absolute optimism and complete pessimism. It was never an issue that he would come up with the right lyrics. I told him what the album concept was and I loved him to record vocals because I knew Justin grew up on concrete shithole and that had a major effect on him mentally and behaviourally.
"Zonal is an extension of Technoanimal. New rhythms we are writing are sounding heavier, deeper, sweeter and uglier."
What can we expect from Supersonic Zonal?
We are writing material right now. This what I have been doing the last few weeks and so has Justin. It’s not going to be all new material. We want Techno Animal tracks within Zonal tracks. We both hated the name Techno Animal. When we came up with the name, techno hadn’t blown out to the degree it has now. It didn’t have all the cheesy connotations. It was always an abbreviation for technological. It was meant to be the idea of technological animal, like a sci-fi fusion. But it just sounded buggishly stupid to me and felt like having an albatross around your neck. When we talked about doing a new project, we both wanted to dump the name. But rather than it being a completely new project with completely new sound, we felt there was an unfinished business. There was life in Techno Animal with what we wanted to do sonically. Zonal is an extension of Techno Animal. New rhythms we are writing are sounding heavier, deeper, sweeter and uglier. At Supersonic there will be no vocal collaborations. But in the future there will be. Supersonic is one of my favourite festivals. It’s a festival run by real music fans not just businessmen. The audience is absolutely passionate about music they are going to see.
photo: Fabrice Bourgelle
What’s going to happen after Supersonic? Can we expect more shows?
There is definitely going to be more shows. One of them is going to be with a vocalist in festival, which I am not allowed to mention. The rhythms we are writing now are the first steps to next Zonal record. Obviously, Justin has got Jesu and Godflesh. I am working as The Bug right now on the new album for Miss Red. I have another big collaboration. We are both mad busy but passionate about Zonal. We want to make it very intense.
[The vocals for Zonal will be that of Moor Mother, at Unsound festival, Krakow. Nobody believes me, but I knew that!.. For now Mutual Grimness recommends not to miss out on Zonal at Supersonic, Birmingham, June 16-18. Get your tickets here.]