Rhythm And Blues: A King Midas Sound Interview And Album Micromix
, November 20th, 2009 12:34
You lucky people. Listen to an exclusive micromix of the King Midas Sound album produced by Kode 9 here. Jonny Mugwump talks to Kevin Martin, Roger Robinson and Hitomi about their sublime new sound
Check out King Midas Sound's new album Waiting For You by clicking on Kode 9's exclusive micromix above.
King Midas Sound Interview
Roger Robinson: The spirit and the character of the song knows the song better than you. Think you’re a singer?
Hitomi: Less is more, less is more.
"We kill sound boys with our shaolin styles/ run them out the dancehall wiping tears from their eyes" King Midas Sound 'Cool Out'
On paper, as an opening lyrical salvo, it’s pretty damn devastating. You probably already have an idea how it might sound - the delivery, the tone, the sound. Guess what? You’re entirely wrong.
Over the briefest of crackling harpsichord lurking in a saturated dub cloud, those would-be ferocious words materialise through a barely-masculine fragile dove of a voice that's simultaneously taunting and vulnerable. The voice belongs to Roger Robinson, the music is Kevin Martin, we’ve yet to meet Hitomi... and this is just the beginning of King Midas Sound.
Kevin Martin, Roger Robinson, Hitomi and I are sat in a cafe in Hackney, gratefully thanking the owner for turning Robbie Williams off. I’m asking about the genesis of King Midas Sound.
RR: It’s come along... I met Kevin through recording with Chocolate Art and that was all spoken word, but this is actually the first all singing album I’ve ever done.
Roger Robinson’s cavernous spoken voice (familiar from earlier collaborations with Martin in both Techno Animal and The Bug) is a world away from the almost androgynous vulnerability of his singing character.
RR: I like singing but before that it was all spoken word and then I had just recorded an EP and I played it to Kevin 'cos he knows so much about music. He's like, 'Wow I like this voice - we should do something.' So, we recorded one thing and I was in the cafe round the corner and Kevin just walked in and said we’re doing a whole album and I said 'WHAT!' [everyone laughs] So I said, 'Well, er I’m kind of broke and I aint really got much time d’you know what I’m saying?' And Kevin, well you know that I admire his musical sensibility and his knowledge and then I thought 'Well I CAN’T TELL KEVIN MARTIN NO!' I was saying to myself 'THIS IS NOT WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING NOW!' So I did spend most of that year broke.
The simple description for King Midas’ sound is lovers rock gone on a journey through a myriad of undergrounds that Martin has so expertly documented on compilations like Macro Dub Infection, Isolationism and Jazz Satellites as well as all the projects that he has waged war with in the past. It’s reggae looming back through a looking glass built by Basic Channel, Porter Ricks, Rhythm and Sound and Hyperdub. It’s also much less immediately abstract than any of those mutating elements. The highly distinctive and original sound has drawn some comparisons with Tricky or Massive Attack, although this is really quite misleading and misses something hugely vital.
KM: We were listening to reggae and lovers rock and original hip hop tunes, which is probably what the Wild Bunch were listening to when they started. That would be a crossover of cultural influences if someone wants to go there, but the difference between us and Tricky is that for one, Roger sings. And, just for me these are entirely about songs and I’m not sure anybody would have expected that of me, but it becomes more and more apparent to anybody who has followed my career. London Zoo is very much about songs and song structures and King Midas Sound was conceived at a similar time, so there was a correlation between the two, but I really wanted Zoo to be up front and confrontational and with this, well it was about Roger's voice which is a tone that I’ve never dealt with before. With Techno Animal we’d done some stuff that was more like imaginary soundtracks... On the second disc [of the masterful Re-Entry] especially Justin [Broadrick] and I were trying to imagine soundtracks to films that had never been made, and when we [KMS] first conceived of the album our lives were unravelling and...
RR: We needed the album, I think we needed it at that time and that’s why it came out specifically like that cos we needed to create something for ourselves that we couldn’t find anywhere else, that needed some depth - something wide that was strongly emotional.
Wide is putting it mildly - debut album Waiting for You has the gravitational pull of a black hole with a wide-screen sound that is also devastatingly intimate. It’s soaked in shimmering forgotten melodies that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Lynch movie and distant hooks from underground clubs on the periphery of your senses. Some people will inevitably be shocked at the involvement of Martin, whose musical style is associated with energy and aggression but we’re already shown this to be a misinterpretation. For all the talk of influences and sonic parallels, there is another element yet to be discussed - for King Midas Sound are now three. The third is Japanese illustrator and singer Hitomi.
H: I was doing dubplates for The Bug and I was also working on the artwork for his single with Flowdan ['Ganja'] and then he was working in the studio on King Midas and it was so different to Bug and I thought "Oh wow, proper songs!" I listened to Bug all the time but then I found out he was into proper songs things like lovers rock and all this other stuff on his iPod. And he was stuck for what to do on a song and so I just started singing and it just went from there. I wasn’t going to join or anything and I just ended up doing this sick child voice on 'Earth A Kill Ya'.
KM: I first heard Hitomi in a taxi in Tokyo. The driver was playing this song and I asked him who this crazy Japanese girl Raga MC was and he said to me ‘Dokkebi Q’ but that was all I could understand. At the label that’d flown me over there, I asked about this girl because the beats were quite similar to The Bug but the vocal was really maniacal and they told me 'Oh yeah you’d really like them, they’re called Dokkebi Q. And they live in Dalston!' [much laughter] And then the day I got home there was a mySpace invitation to watch them at Plastic People which is my favourite spot and so I just thought 'Fuck it, this is crazy - I’m going.' And for me she has that fire in her belly, she’s so passionate. I’m so lucky to be working with two people who are so on point because so much music, so many vocalists leave me cold - there’s so much empty showbiz - they both resonate so much but there’s so many contradictions. And literally she just sang over the top and I was like 'Whoah...' For me, well, the whole process was so organic and I’m actually the one who's outnumbered here as they’re both avid fans of folk and live music and that’s not my bag at all. In fact I’m at the opposite end of all that so yeah with King Midas Sound I’m outnumbered.
The crucial element then is alchemy. I’m meeting Roger and Hitomi for the first time and I’ve only met Kevin once before after the release of the unexpected success of London Zoo. Over the course of the hour I feel privileged to bear witness to three disparate characters who have fought hard to hang on to their identity in a media-saturated shallow carnival of culture. I get to enjoy watching a musical maverick who has fought misunderstanding only to find himself part of an entirely organic and accidental trio, surrendering control and giving into a hitherto submerged sense of sublime melody. You can almost feel a sense of bafflement at what they’ve created, what they have become part of. Alchemy: it’s the three of them and yet it’s not them at all - it’s a genuine group mind. The respect and the sense of adventure and fearlessness are truly inspirational. The album feels so fresh because you can palpably feel the beginning of a journey. But this is not just idle armchair theorising - it’s blatantly there sonically. The two most exciting songs for me are 'Goodbye Girl' and 'Outer Space' both of which are Midas as trio. The former seems to be a duet - Roger lamenting the loss of love, with Hitomi in more of a vengeful mood. But then there is a strange separation - sometimes you feel they are singing to each other, other times it feels like its two strangers marooned in a parallel limbo. 'Outer Space' could be early Prodigy in smeary dub slo-mo. It starts with a drifting leaking rave riff, Roger and Hitomi both almost wordless, voice as texture and instrument. This is why the musical references come to nothing. Any parallels entirely miss the cultural collision. And all of them have established artistic identities that become transformed on Waiting for You. Both vocalists are actually relatively new to singing and have surrendered their respective styles to explore something new. Kevin has thrown himself into melody, eerie calm and shadow play as opposed to boxing. Theirs is almost a Zen-like refusal. A cliché it might be but this is more than the sum of its parts and considering what each of those parts are...
KM: We come from three radically different backgrounds, radically different pasts - for me this is what’s so radical and beautiful about this project because it’s so different to where I’ve come from. We’re all learning - I was having to pull back from my knee jerk reaction to explode musically and use subtlety [giggles] and well we’re all still learning y’know. Dokkebi Q Hitomi is usually ferocious and every time Roger came in he wanted to blow-up like Luther Vandross.
RR: A thing about the recording process, Kevin, he does A LOT of takes... [everyone laughs]
KM: ...says Roger through gritted teeth!
RR: But I’m used to it now and I have to give him his props cos his hearing is so tuned in that the difference between what is and what’s not could be a filament. There was a real thing he was looking for and I’d be saying [exasperated] "Man, that’s no different to the last one." But then you hear it and you think "Wow, that IS really different." And you can’t even put your finger on what it is but it’s definitely there y’know. But by the 50th take you’re just tired and pissed off and you’re just doing it quieter and quieter and you just think 'Fuck this, what am I doing this for?' But then you do it and something comes out...
KM: Well Roger is really patient. For a start I kept him waiting three and a half years for the album to come out but he understood that I had to concentrate on finishing The Bug album for a number of reasons. By that time most people would have given up on me. But also on a daily basis Roger was putting the work in and I can see it now with Hitomi too - I’m not interested in working with lazy MCs - I’ll work 24-hours-a-day if I have to for however long it takes to get it right because I believe that you can get it right and I won’t be rushed. There’s so much mediocre music, mediocre ideas and lyrics and are you going to try and raise the game and benefit everyone or are you just going to add to the sum total of crap out there?
Do you have a particular working method in the studio?
RR: Actually we have many different ways and whatever we did for one we didn’t do for the next. In other projects I’ve worked on, what song you did before guides what you would do next but with this, well it’s funny but there IS a link from one to the next but not what you think it would be. Sometimes I remember I would just come into the studio and listen to reggae all day and that would be it. And so I would say 'HEY listen to this' and then something might come out of that.
KM: Roger would hear a track and he’d say 'Do you know what I love about this?' And then he would come out with this incredibly flowery but beautiful description and then I would think about it and then when he would come in the next day I might have something for him. I am always conscious that I am writing with for vocalists and I’ll say it again but I just feel so honoured. I spent so much time working in bands with people who all had their own agenda whereas with this, well you can feel the potential creative energy it has.
It feels to me like you’re all reigning yourselves in?
Hitomi: Well if you hear Dokkebi Q, one of the Hyperdub guys says that I sounded like an 80s rock singer [laughs]. With Kevin its less is more, less is more and for me not to sing like an opera singer. [She points to different parts of her chest and throat] So, I sing from a different place - it's different physically, spiritually, emotionally. I try to whisper or sing more like spoken word. And I’m staying focussed on King Midas for the time being because I feel a lot more fragile now, more soulful - well, both are soulful but yes Midas is alot more fragile.
RR: Definitely in this project, for me, the spirit and the character of the song knows the song better than you think you are a singer. You just have to get into the character and not worry - it was refreshing to let go and not worry if I’m on tune or off-tune but it really didn’t matter as long as it served the song.
Roger, is lyric writing very different to writing poetry then?
RR: Yes and no, not that different but more like a different discipline - much like reggae, it’s less is more. It’s like Raymond Carver where everything is stripped down so he leaves a space for people to imagine.
KM: ...and also, we’re free agents. We don’t feel constrained by anything in King Midas. We can just let it go wherever it wants to go and we don’t know where the next record is going to end up but we don’t feel hemmed in by any genre constraints...
RR: Yes that’s so refreshing...
KM: ...when we started, Roger was doing spoken word and then we decided to take that out and then by the end it had come back in again but I thought well fuck it, why not? It doesn’t have to be anything set in stone.
You are playing your London debut this Saturday night at the Hyperdub fifth birthday party, and this will only be your second gig. How does it work live?
RR: We’re looking for a tunnel where people can contemplate and dance at the same time y’know. We’re trying to choose zones... it’s in our minds so that you can think and move.
KM: We’re putting so much energy and effort into the live show we’re dress rehearsing each show and discussing what impact it’s going to have – physically, lyrically, emotionally, sonically - we’re so aware of how much more there is to put into this than just some ramshackle DJ spot with a guest vocalist. This is why I’ve gone back to using a 24 channel mixer so it’s a live dub session so I’m the loosest part of the set-up.
Both voices feel as much like instruments as well as being for lyrical delivery.
RR: Live you have to sacrifice some of the fragility but none of the clarity. And we play new stuff, HOT NEW STUFF that isn’t on the album.
KM: We feel that there is a special chemistry. In the show in Austria we all had nerves maybe me especially more than Hitomi or Roger and I was very apprehensive as to whether it would work or not. To me it brought that special chemistry that you couldn’t predict to a head and this also comes entirely from living in London - if I had been living on the south coast I would not have been working with this female illustrator and singer from Japan or this Trinidadian poet or songwriter - it’s a testament to this city and what it can throw up.
RR: I think those combinations make it interesting - the way these things plat together.
KM: We can already feel that the live thing will open things up and we are totally open. Maybe I’m going to be inspired by a drawing or maybe a poem by Roger or maybe it will be visual ideas that spark something off cos we’re totally open - most bands are closed and retreading what they’re already done - it’s a closed circle. But 'cos we’re a little older and we have our own aesthetic and we trust each other’s tastes but we’re harsh harsh critics of ourselves too - nobody can get away with any loose shit.
RR: Like there’s no way any record label would be able to tell us what to do.
Which brings us to Hyperdub - was it a deliberate choice to sign with Kode9?
KM: Well when we recorded the first things I said I’m going to give this to Steve, he’s going to love this shit. So I gave it to Kode and said look you’re going to want to release this and he laughed and said 'Yeah whatever Bug man.' And then I didn’t hear from him for a couple of days and I thought 'Oh fuck! I’ve got that totally wrong.' Then he did come back and say yeah you have to do something and we feel so fortunate 'cos there’s nothing mercenary or cynical about the way that Steve has built that label up - in fact we’ve developed alongside it in the same way y’know. We signed to them three or four years ago and we could stay covert until we were happy and then we’ve been able to release it on the back of the compilation and the success of Burial and Kode9 and Spaceape.
RR: And we like all the artists on the label and it has, well Hyperdub is a space for thinking and how rare is that in this climate.
KM: there is a real aesthetic behind the label and it's honest and genuine and these times of mass-marketing and everything is pre-pigeonholed then it’s amazing really. But I get pissed off cos I keep hearing 'Bug Bug Bug' and this isn’t The Bug, this is a group. And I know there are going to be times when Hitomi hates me and when Roger is going to want to kill me.
RR: Well we’ve had that already.
KM: But this is the healthiest of frictions - it's creative friction and that can be so incredible as long as it doesn’t become self-destructive. We’re all hungry for creativity and for artistic impulses just like Kode9 is - that’s why we’ve found a soul mate in him. He runs on the same maverick independent energy and that’s why we feel when something becomes predictable then you have to move on. The three of us are an acknowledgement of difference.
RR: I don’t want to be corny but the album sounds like a cornucopia, a multi-cultural melting pot. It’s the sound of London.
KM: I remember going up to my mum’s in Scotland whilst I was working on the album and I had my iPod on and she walked past the door and said 'What’s that?' I was expecting her to say turn that shit off but she said 'That sounds lovely.' And I said 'Oh that’s what I’m working on with Roger.' And she said [in disbelief] 'YOU?!' And then I played it to Mr Dubstep, Jason at Transition, and he literally jumped out of his chair and started dancing round the room. We’re getting reactions where people don’t give a shit where it’s come from. We really feel that it taps into an emotional universal core. I learn from Roger and now I’m learning from Hitomi about her cross-cultural collisions about being Japanese or Korean living in London for X number of years. For me I could carry on hiring singers as I’ve had to do sometimes in the past but I’m really enjoying this - it’s a combination of all of us but without anybody at the helm. I’ve become a control freak over the years for many reasons...
KM: ...and I’ve had to really relinquish control with KMS and I’m like 'Wow this is fucking brilliant.' Like Hitomi’s illustrations for the book or Roger thinking about different ways in which we can operate and for me well, I sound like some ridiculously positive hippy or something but it’s just enthusiasm.
I try and assure Kevin that it’s OK to not feel shit all the time - they’ve all suffered enough for their art in the past. Not to disparage The Bug or any of Kevin’s previous work, I tell them that this is an album you can fall in love with.
KM: Do you know I even find myself singing KMS songs when I’m walking down the street and I don’t think I’ve ever done that with anything I’ve written before. [There is a slight pause whilst I have to recover from hysterics at the thought of Kevin Martin walking down the road, Homer Simpson style, whistling Fucked or Hate Mediation.] I know it seems a little ego wanky to listen to your own music but fuck it, it’s a great record. Now, when I don’t know what to listen to, I just put KMS on.
I can guarantee that he’s not going to be the only one.
Waiting For You drops 30th November
King Midas Sound have a new blog here and make their London debut at Corsica Studios this Saturday as part of Hyperdub’s 5th Birthday celebrations.