Kevin Martin aka The Bug is on the verge of releasing Fire: a new LP of heavy, speaker-shaking dub, dancehall and noise with an impressive cast of MCs and co-conspirators. Martin sits down with our Andy Brown for a chat, to discuss the pandemic, live music, his array of projects and his unyielding passion for music. We hear tales about Techno Animal, an ill-fated headline slot at the Supersonic festival and the time he was effectively banned from playing in Holland. Despite the vaguely apocalyptic nature of the chat, Martin is a really friendly and enthusiastic interviewee throughout. Ever the optimist, you’ll find The Bug smiling and laughing as he drops beats into an increasingly insane world.
LTW: Fire is the first ‘solo’ album under The Bug moniker in 7 years. It’s so exciting to finally hear a new Bug LP. What made you decide to start work on the album and was there an initial spark that started the process?
The Bug: Although it was mixed down during the pandemic hell, it was basically constructed a year or two before the work began. And I already knew I wanted to make an album that was just punk as fuck and just utterly raw. And just raging. Because it’s how I felt. I was looking at the world. You look at Trump behaving like a fucking imbecile in the Whitehouse, leading to an army of nutcases storming the Whitehouse. You look at Boris Johnson; lie, upon lie, upon lie. You look at Brexit. You look at Putin behaving gangster in Russia. You look at China’s dominance economically over the whole planet. It really felt like the world was spinning utterly out of control. And then…lo and behold the pandemic hits. As if things couldn’t get worse politically, socially and culturally along comes the worst dystopian nightmare. [The album] is a reaction to global trauma and psychological terror in one form or another.
That’s really apparent when you listen to it. It feels really of the moment, in the best possible way. I remember when the Run The Jewels album came out last year. It felt like there was a direct connection between what was happening on the TV and the music I was hearing. I feel like the albums that have really hit the spot recently have had an element of that, where they’ve talked about something very upfront.
When I spoke to each of the MCs, I just made it very apparent that I wanted them to write about what made them vexed on a daily basis and the situations we’re in. It’s basically an album of tension and release. Of captivity and explosion. Of course it’s of its time, I think, like you said, any good record should reflect an environment. The environment between your ears or the environment outside. As far as I’m concerned, I just needed to make a record that was going to let off steam because I felt so tense inside. I was basically seeing the world fall apart and when the pandemic hit, I’d moved to a brand new city, in a different country with my family. Just living in terror really. Seeing my livelihood crumble. Every show cancelled. It sounds laughable now because clubs are opening up again to some extent but last year it felt like who knows how many years this is going to go on? That feeling of complete powerlessness in the face of adversity.
For me personally, music’s become secondary to a lot of people’s lives when for me it’s primary and it’s my reason for living outside my family. I don’t think it’s unconnected that music is selling less and has been relegated to background accessory. I knew I wanted this album to be absolutely foreground and in-your-face. Just relentless. I’d also worked on quite a few collaborative albums as The Bug. I’m prone to distraction and detour and I felt like I wanted to re-connect with the intensity and fire, excuse the pun, of my earlier works as The Bug. There was unfinished business to attend to. I’m not a big fan of soapbox albums, I don’t really like it when the obvious is stated too clearly but there’s also times when it just needs someone to say no. Something’s got to change. Something’s got to give.
The first track really captures much about life in the UK (and elsewhere) right now. Roger Robinson talking about robots delivering food and seeing our families through square screens. There’s a line where he says, “hello loneliness, goodbye compassion”. It paints a dark but very relatable picture. How has life been for you during the pandemic? Also, I heard you moved to Brussels at the start of the pandemic. I imagine it wasn’t planned that way?
No, very much not. As the date of the move came closer unfortunately so did the danger signs that the borders were closing. Having really just existed on the fuel of paranoia for a few months leading up to our planned move. I hinted at it to my wife a few times and I think she was trying to block it out. She was feeling hassled by me because I was saying, we might have to rethink our plans here. Four days before the move I turned to my wife and said, we’re going to have to move because if we don’t the border’s going to close and we’re going to be in a shit salad. We’d given notice to our landlord; I’d given notice to my studio…worst case scenario, we were going to be homeless or the people taking over from us would have been homeless. In four days we had to pack our apartment, pack the studio, find a removal company. It was sleepless. The people that were helping us – a couple of really good friends – were laughing about it, saying it felt like a world war evacuation. And, actually, that’s how it felt, bizarrely enough.
The day after we moved all borders were closed. We got here [Brussels] and it was really different to Berlin. Berlin wasn’t really taking Covid seriously at that time but here they were taking it absolutely seriously. There was talk of curfew and marshal law. You try and stay positive; we’ve got two kids. And we were feeling positive as a family. As much as we’ve talked about the horror story of the last year and a half, that’s a horror story for everyone. And a lot of people suffered much worse than I did. And actually it drew us together even more as a family. Real positives in the middle of the madness.
It’s definitely one of those world events that’s really effected everyone. It was a very surreal experience.
It reminded me of when I was a child and the Cold War. America and Russia were the bogeymen and the potential monsters. Well, Russia were the ones portrayed as that. As my father was in the Navy, he was obviously pro-America, anti-Russia. It was all about the 3 minute warning; your life could end very quickly. [The pandemic] was a sense of déjà vu because that feeling really stayed with me. That sense of enjoy life while you can, you never know how long it will last. Make the most of it.
There’s a real sense of dystopian dread running through the LP. Pressure sounds like the end of the world while the Nazamba track – War – feels like an update of the Specials The Man At C and A and its warnings about nuclear war. Are you optimistic about the future?
Always. There was time in my life where I wasn’t, when I was cynical as fuck. But since becoming a father… our young son had two life-threatening operations within the first few months. Ever since then, sharing an intensive care unit with him and my wife, I’ve seen life differently. It’s precious. So for me, since becoming a father I’ve realised my place in life. I’m just part of the cycle of life and therefore I want to value it and value every day to the upmost. I’m also fortunate that when I began making music it was for therapy and to be able to get rid of those negative impulses through music and sound. We’ve all got good and evil in us, good and bad. It’s that internal struggle that’s echoed in the world. And if you can empathise with your friend and your enemy and try and understand motivation, it gives you a better grip on why you’re on this planet. With the album there’s a real sense of release. Catharsis.
The albums you do as The Bug all have that apocalyptic thread going through them, but at the same time they’re perfect party albums because the music’s so abrasive, rhythmic and danceable. It’s not apocalyptic in the sense of miserable.
I hate most miserable music to be honest. One of my pet aversions is when people call my music dark. I don’t make my music to be dark or self-pitying. I’ve got a lust for life. And as much as inside I sometimes feel like that Edvard Munch painting The Scream, in actuality, particularly since becoming a father, I have a reason to fight-the-fight. And a passion to push onwards. I started The Bug because I had a sound system in storage. I wanted to make music that would play to the advantages of a sound system. And I wanted music to move people; physically and mentally. I’m greedy, I want everything from music and music’s given me everything. If I look at Public Enemy and how they combined insanely caustic sonics with the deepest funk grooves, really intense lyrics and hooks, I think it’s genius.
The first time I ever played Bug tracks live was at the end of a Techno Animal show in Switzerland. Justin [Broadrick] and I were on late and we had an early flight so we just said before the show, we may just as well play through. At the end of the Techno Animal set in front of the obligatory moody fuckers I leant over to Justin and said, do you mind me slamming these through the rig? These were the prototype Bug rhythms. Straight away three girls jumped on stage and were dancing around us. Justin and I were just laughing, wow, there’s something going on with this music. It wasn’t that I engineered it for the girls, for the ladies [laughter and a raised eyebrow follow]. I was hooked on dancehall and dancehall at its best is irresistible to the body and dub too. The challenge was to make music that had a multi-faceted impact. I wasn’t interested in making fake Jamaican music…I didn’t want to make po-faced singular noise music. I just wanted intensity through sound. I find a lot of people involved in noise music to be really far up their own arses and really patronising. And cynical. And I’ve got no time for cynics and I hate being patronised. It was about a validation of life.
There’s definitely a big difference between experiencing acts like The Bug and JK Flesh (Justin Broadrick) live and other loud, extreme music. In both instances I danced. And I’m not the first person to do this usually, at all. Whereas when I saw Sunn0)) I just stood stock-still, sweated and let it wash over me. There was an extra layer of catharsis and joy in your set. For someone that’s incredibly self-conscious about dancing, it felt like there wasn’t even an option. It pulls you into the moment. It’s like the physical aspect that you get from a Swans gig.
Swans had a big impact on me at a very young age and undoubtedly influenced my approach to the live experience. I remember him [Michael Gira] in an interview once dissing Brits who want to dance. Which always struck me as quite funny. Essentially everything he’s trying to do with Swans is about transcendence and I feel that’s what dance music does too. I’m not a fucking hippie and I was probably an anti-raver. I used to love the fact that Jeff Mills would come on at 5am and decimate crowds with the most brutal techno imaginable. And like you, I wasn’t born to dance. But the shows that mean the most to me are when you literally forget yourself and lose yourself in sound. It sounds like sheer escapism and maybe there is a large element of that in what I do. But if you’d asked me when I was making records as God [early industrial project] and mentioned escapism, I would have probably spat at you because everything I wanted at that time was about being immersed in the horror and intensity of experience. The perfect Bug shows are both those things.
I remember reading reviews by a great writer called Dele Fadele who passed away a few years ago. He’d be writing about early On-U Sound Shows. And a guy that became a very good friend called Dave Watts from Fun-Da-Mental telling me those shows were amazing. There’d be a queue going in and a queue running out the door of people just horrified by the volume and the madness. And that attracted me greatly. A large part of what I try to do with The Bug is recreate those On-U Sound shows that I never saw or heard. It was probably at the same time that I saw Swans. When I first moved to London I saw a sound-clash between two dub sound systems and it was just the most intense, incredible experience that never left me.
I don’t think escapism is doing the music a disservice.
I agree, people are shocked by how loud I’m blasting the music on stage. And a large part of that is because I want to get lost in sound, forget where I am and see where it takes me. I remember a God show at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. I really didn’t like the festival, so when I played the year after as God, I asked the sound man to push the volume to a level where people can’t even think, let alone talk. He did that so well that he ended up getting attacked by members of the audience. Someone tried to drag me off stage. Virtually the whole crowd left by the second song. It resulted in me being banned from playing shows, effectively, in Holland for years.
The reason I’m mentioning this is not bravado, I just remember this sea of volume. It takes you to a zone in your brain that you can’t get to any other way. I’ve realised a lot of the music I make is to find paths to those altered states of consciousness. Escapism isn’t really the right word, it’s more like transportation. Taking you somewhere. I remember going to see Ja Shaka and it was like apocalyptic sound. My larynx was being pushed to the back of my neck, my inner ear was flapping, my eyeballs were rolling. It was actually frightening as fuck but deeply memorable.
There are two responses when you tell people about gigs like that. Those that think ‘that sounds awful’ and those that are naturally curious.
Ultimately, it’s about an experience, a physical experience. In the same way someone might not like diving to the bottom of the ocean, paragliding or going on a roller-coaster.
I can’t stand rollercoasters but will quite happily go to an incredibly loud show.
I remember taking an ex-girlfriend to see Sunn0))) and at the end of the show she said to me, what the fuck did you bring me to that for? Boring agony. A week later she said, that show really stayed with me and I want to see them again. And it’s that psycological and physical impact that’s priceless. The enemy of life is boredom as well as oppression and anything that can give you fire in your belly and give you passion in your mind…let your brain cells explode…is a good thing.
The track How Bout Dat introduces Northampton-based grime MC, FFSYTHO (which Martin tells me stands for, For Fucks Sake Why Though) and is one of my current favourites on the album. How did you come to work with her?
I was just totally impressed by her, I discovered her online. And I’d heard tunes that she’d jumped on and I just loved her fire, her hunger and her complete war-on-bullshit lyrically. It was important to me that it wasn’t just a sausage-fest of a record too. I think she’s incredibly talented and I was just really pleased that she agreed to be on the record.
When I first heard London Zoo (2008 album by The Bug) it was the equivalent of someone lending me a stack of records and saying listen to this! It introduced me to so much.
FFSYTHO is the only person that I hadn’t worked with prior to the album. I was determined that it would be The Bug family. MCs that I’d been working with or had a connection to and aren’t jumping the record to use me or Ninja Tune as a stepping stone. That they’re on the record because they’re feeling it. That was a crucial choice on my part. Out of all The Bug albums that I’ve done I feel like this is the closest to the live experience.
One of my other favourite tunes on Fire is the Moor Mother track, Vexed. I know you worked with her on a Zonal album before this. I was wondering how you came to work with her and if you were aware of her prior to collaborating?
I was aware of her from early on. I’m a complete addict for searching out new music. I’m always trying to turn people on to good shit and I want that too. Luckily, I found one of her earliest tracks and was blown away. Loved her anger, fire, passion, lust for life. I sent it to Justin and suggested we invite her to work with Zonal. And when we asked Camae [Camae Ayewa aka Moor Mother] she seemed very positive about being involved. Money wasn’t part of the conversation, all we talked about was music. And when we toured with Zonal and did some shows with Camae, the shows were absolutely incredible. They were up there with the best Techno Animal shows, if not better. Camae is like a soul sister to us now. We did a few Bug shows which were extremely memorable. There was a Bristol show…the audience were ready to lose their heads and minds and did…it was awesome.
We then played Supersonic the day after and unfortunately on my way to the stage I smashed my head open on the ceiling. I still performed with a bleeding head. The irony was, I was told there were people saying I was being a prima donna and making people wait. But I was having my head bandaged up. And then the gear went faulty. It was the headlining slot at Supersonic…I was bleeding from the head, my gear wasn’t working properly. I was having to lean on one synth with one arm and an effects unit and another synth with the other just to create a wall of noise while I was shouting to the guy at the side to come and lend me a computer because mine was fucked. At the same time shouting to her [Moor Mother] to improvise. And she improvised brilliantly. I’ve got huge respect for her. I’m honoured to work with her.
Flowdan – as always – has some incredible contributions. Pressure and Bomb sit comfortably alongside Fat Mac and Skeng. The line in Bomb “send them back to where they came from” got me thinking about Nigel Farage’s horrendous tweet about lifeboats (the Royal National Lifeboat Institution) being used like “a taxi service for illegal immigration”. Do you discuss the lyrics with the MCs and how important to you is it that The Bug’s music relates a powerful message?
On this album there was no interaction about lyrics. Actually with Roger [Roger Robinson] I begged him to allow me to record The Missing, the last track on the album. He wasn’t planning on recording that for anyone. I remember saying to him about The Fourth Day, the first track, I really want you to mirror in poetry how it’s felt to live through a pandemic and the repercussions and he went and wrote that incredible poem. When I first approached the MC’s, I was coercing, nudging and chatting about them making it as intense as possible. They know how my head works; they know the records I’ve made.
Flowdan is an incredible lyricist and just doesn’t get the kudos for it. He comes up with incredible narratives. Humour at his darkest. Brutality at its most vivid. For me he’s like Nick Cave, I don’t see a difference. I asked Logan to change the original chorus to Fuck Off. I suggested the chorus of “fuck off” and he loved it. So yeah, that was my contribution. Suggesting he chants “fuck off”. I seem to remember helping Daddy Freddie with some lyrics. At the time of London Zoo, there were MCs that I helped with lyrics and the same with King Midas Sound. I love helping with lyrics but the mission was already understood from this A-Team.
The Roger Robinson contributions along with the Manga Saint Hilare track – High Rise – put the listener in a very distinct place. The images of tower blocks and the disparity between the people there and the people in power, The Missing, about the Grenfell Tower disaster, really knocked me for six.
Me too, me too. Ever since I first read the poem, I was completely floored. I literally had to beg Roger to let me record him. And I knew it was going to be the last track. And once I placed the narrative for the album I said to him, we’ve got the last track and now I want you to do the introductory track which is this mirror of pandemic life.
I know you’ve released a lot of music recently, including your recent soundtrack to Solaris (cult sci-fi masterpiece from ’72). I read that The Bug actually started out as a way for you to make an alternative soundtrack for the Francis Ford Coppola film, The Conversation. Interestingly, Trent Reznor did the soundtrack to Pixar animation Soul recently. Where would you take your own soundtrack work in the future?
Going back to the Techno Animal days, my and Justin’s interest in soundtracks was already there. Re-Entry [’95 album] was basically our imaginary soundtracks to films that never existed. The first album I made as The Bug was a loose score of The Conversation because I wasn’t aware there was a soundtrack. It’s an ongoing obsession with film score. My ambition? Of course my ambition would be to work with an incredible director on an incredible movie. Chances of that? Maybe slim. I didn’t want to move to LA. I’ve got huge, huge admiration for Mica Levi. And she’s done it on her terms, brilliantly. I’m not a compromising sort of person. So my fingers are crossed.
In the last year and a half I went through a lot of soul searching. I knew wanted to try and make something happen outside the clubs but knowing that The Bug is almost an albatross around my neck. The music industry is fixated on keeping people in one place, as one entity. Not just in the music industry, people in general. I can be like that too. You think someone is just this, they can’t be that as well. Some people just want songs and see the experimental side projects as not important. Sorry but my side projects are as important as my Bug projects. I put my heart and soul into everything I try to construct and compose.
When I was working on a lot of the Kevin Richard Martin solo albums that I made in the last year and a half; on one side it was this monastic discipline to try and stay sane in the eye of the storm of Corona, but on the other hand it was knowing I wasn’t going to get any work as The Bug or Mr Skeng or Mr Poison Dart. Film directors are probably not going to think twice about coming near me. I am the destroyer of all sound systems [as with much of tonight’s chat, Martin lets out a laugh]. I knew I needed a cannon of work as a calling card.
We then go on to chat about soundtrack work from Clint Mansell to the legendary Angelo Badalamenti (when Martin clocks the Eraserhead picture on my wall). What’s clear throughout is Martin’s pure passion for music and it’s always a pleasure to leap down a musical rabbit hole with a fellow obsessive. I bring up Reznor’s work again and Martin shares his thoughts.
I think Trent Reznor is an incredibly talented guy. Ironically, he’s been very supportive of The Bug. He invited me to support NIN, which I did, as part of an American tour many years ago. And also late this year he asked me to contribute (I think I’m allowed to talk about this) production and music to an outro for a track for some massive pop star called Halsey. He’s produced the album for her. For a maverick like Reznor to kick down the doors of Hollywood is amazing. If ever there’s going to be a chance for me to grab the shirttails of incredible composers, this is it. Right now you’ve got Colin Stetson, Clint Mansell, Mica Levi, Bobby Krilic [The Haxan Cloak], Trent Reznor…all killing it! Also, Ben Power from Blanck Mass.
It fills me with joy that they’ve got to the position they’ve got because they’re all uncompromising and they’ve all done it through sheer talent. There are so many people involved in underground music that just want to stay underground and they’re just bitter and twisted and bitch about artist like those. But for me artists like those give me hope. The same with Techno Animal, when we did exist, we always wanted as many people to hear us as possible. We weren’t just doing it for our trendy, miserable, clique elite. We wanted popular ears. For me I don’t see division as a good thing. As far as I’m concerned if you can crack the mainstream without compromising, you’re a genius.
As a music fanatic I like to think we recognise our own. We discuss Martin’s admiration for El-P’s productions skills and Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann. For the last 10 minutes we discuss a shared love for rock mystics Om and our passion for jazz titans Alice Coltrane and Charles Mingus. Martin recommends the Don Cherry album Brown Rice and the On-U Sound record label. Like The Bug explained earlier, music isn’t some background accessory to him, it’s everything.
The Bug’s latest LP, Fire, comes out on August 27th. Get ready to burn.
Thanks to Kevin Martin and the legendary Ninja Tune label.
Photos by Caroline Lessire.
Pre-order FIRE – released by Ninja Tune – HERE
Buy and listen to Return To Solaris – released by Phantom Limb – HERE.
Interview and article by Andy Brown. You can visit his author profile and read more of his reviews for Louder Than War here.