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In Extremis

Unmasked: An Interview With Kong
Simon Jay Catling , September 14th, 2011 07:54

Simon Jay Catling talks to Kong's Jon-Lee Martin about the gradual blurring of the lines between himself and his unhinged alter ego Magpie

It's a truism that we all wear masks, whether through a desire to conform, to cause reaction or to escape from personal characteristics that we wish to rid ourselves of. For Jon-Lee Martin, aka Magpie, the deranged front man of UK noise rock act Kong, his mask – a physical garishness of pale white and thick black eyebrows – was initially created for simpler intentions; "I just wanted an excuse to be the naughty boy", laughs Martin today.

The trouble with playing in-character is that it becomes all too easy for the mind to get careless, dance along the tightrope and tip over balance, plunging into the depths of the alter-ego that's been created. Kong are a three-piece noise rock group, made up of Martin and ex-Oceansize members Steve Hodson and Mark Heron – playing their own bipolar roles of Lulu and Krem respectively. They combine gallows humour and sonic speedballs of crunching riffs and crevasse-splitting percussion. Within this, Martin plays the role of dark jester, a noir comic whose lobotomised lyrics at times are almost a side show to his displays of narcissism onstage. Magpie possesses his body to run him to physical rack and ruin, his sadistic grin etched with malice, forced to stay in place throughout.

It's no surprise that such intensity produced consequences. Through touring solidly for five years and releasing mighty debut Snake Magnet in 2008, the roles of Martin and Magpie merged; the latter's fun and games became increasingly aggressive, aggravated and purged – and not just on-stage. A painkiller addiction saw many of his close friends struggle to distinguish between his two personalities and sometimes you got the sense that he was a time bomb waiting to blow up.

Yet speaking to Jon-Lee on a humid summer's day in his native Chorley, it feels like a corner has been turned; indeed it's why he's decided to speak to us today "unmasked". Martin proves a disarmingly warm and genial host, opening up to us about the trials and tribulations that have seen him act to take a step back from a band he clearly loves, and how he's finding his own personal solace in a new side project.

But first, we're in Chorley, and to our shame The Quietus only really knows one thing about it…

Jon-Lee Martin: Peter Kay!

Peter Kay.

JLM: Of course! It's unbelievable man; everywhere I've been in the world you say you're from Chorley and everybody goes 'amazing!' Even in fucking Japan: 'Peter Kay!' For fuck's sake! I've a real problem with that.

Well sell it; what else does Chorley have?

JLM: It's got history, it's got Astley Park, which is the most beautiful park in the north. It's just a really nice chilled out market town. It's also got more pubs than anywhere.

To be honest I was expecting it to be quite rough; I've been to a few towns around Lancashire now – in Preston I was chased down the high street.

JLM: I lived in Preston for a while and hated it - always have. When Kong do a UK tour we always start there, and it's always a free gig, we never announce it. But I hate it.

It's Kong who we're here to talk about; The Quietus posted a video of new track ‘Ribbons' a few weeks ago – it seems heavier, faster and more direct than anything you've done before; is that a good indication as to where you're heading as a band?

JLM: We're not really heading anywhere! We're just kind of spinning around on the spot. There is no direction, but then there was none for Snake Magnet – they were just the first ten songs we'd wrote. With this one there's been so much stuff we've written in the past few years.

It's been three years since Snake Magnet now?

JLM: Yeah, almost four for the band, we've recorded tonnes but we've got eight gigabytes of material and I'm only really happy with five of them, so we're just ploughing on. We're approaching writing differently, we're not spending as long on the little intricacies anymore... We've learnt how to do our tricks and it's just deciding where to put them. But the new batch, like ‘Ribbons,' they're all shorter; we're not as self-indulgent anymore [laughs]. We just wanna get out of rehearsal!

Talk to me about the masks and the characters that epitomise Kong – there's a real intensity that's built up over the past few years with that. As lead singer Magpie, do you find that it's something you have to forcibly step in and step out of, for fear of becoming too involved in it?

JLM: Yeah, especially now. I'm going through a bit of a transition with Magpie – and it sounds horrible talking in third person like that, but I have to do that now to get rid of it. Early on it was just me dicking about being a knobhead and enjoying it. But it became real when we did a full tour with Nine Black Alps and it was every day, no let up, press everywhere all the time. I actually very rarely do interviews like this [out of character,] but I'm coming round to the idea because I just couldn't keep up with it. It was sending me fucking crazy. A week on the road with Kong is like a month on the road with any other band I've been with.

Where does that character come from? How did it develop? Is it just a part of yourself you've allowed to grow?

JLM: I think so, it's something you always want to do - getting away with stuff and being the funny, quirky, dangerous idiot. But how do you do that in real life? It's impossible, so it was just a really cool way to get away with stuff! I suppose everyone wants to be able to stage dive and smash guitars and stuff; it's a great feeling. I can't do that just as me, it'd just look stupid. Magpie's just the venue to do it - if you can step away from it. It just got to the point where I'd taken the mask off and the red clothes and I was still him.

Because it's a dark character isn't it, but it's a real darkness that's started creeping into the shows.

JLM: Yeah, I mean just recently we played three festivals and we've since been banned from them all.

I was going to ask about that, I heard you got kicked out of [Cheshire] Friends Of Mine Festival for being 'too rowdy,' but surely they knew what they were booking?

JLM: Not only did we get booted out, we got escorted out, we had three vehicles and there was security on all four corners of all the vehicles.


JLM: The organisers and security freaked out because we bypassed them and let people get up on stage if they wanted to. Y'know, someone put Kong on at 3 in the afternoon! And they didn't get us our rider, so they had to go find us some rum, and were like 'Will this do for now?' And we were like 'We'll show you how long it'll fucking last!' And it was literally three big gulps between the three of us and it was gone. It got a bit drunk, a bit crazy and a bit rude, but nothing like terrible. The week after was worse because I stuck a £3500 camera down my pants, jumped into the drums, and it came out in three pieces, at Eurocultured in Manchester. My amp had set on fire and I got super pissed off so I grabbed this guy's camera and jumped into the drums – and then immediately felt bad! [Laughs] And ran off!

Well it's good to hear rock & roll excess isn't dead!

JLM: I can honestly hold my hands up and say I don't go into a gig and think 'Right, I'm going to throw myself into his drum kit,' I'm covered in scars and bruises, I've got chipped bones everywhere, I've cracked me skull. This band has nearly killed me a few times; I'm not doing it on purpose, I don't want to die! [laughs]

It sounds like a pretty intense band to be a part of.

JLM: But that's the thing, it's not! Not off stage. It's probably a problem of ours; we don't really strive or aim for anything – we just want to enjoy it. We've never fallen out, there's no competition. Me and Mark [Heron] occasionally write together but it never turns out the same as when the three of us are all there in the room.

Has there been any fallout from the Oceansize split for Mark and Lulu?

JLM: I think it just came to a natural end; they could've carried on and made more records but touring wise they'd come to an end. With Mike [Vennart] joining Biffy Clyro full time it was inevitable, the guys are in their mid 30s - they need to start earning some money.

As Kong you've always stated you're not a side project, but was it hard for you when people constantly made the link to Oceansize?

JLM: Early on it really used to piss me off, because in the first year of our band there was just little fucking nerds writing down what FX boxes you were using and they'd come up to you after the gig and ask what tuning you'd use. I was like 'Fuck off! – I can barely play the fucking thing! [Laughs] Fuck off back to your World Of Warcraft.'

In some ways it must be good that they can concentrate on Kong, but now you've got your own solo project too, Then Thickens. How's that going?

JLM: Right now it's keeping me sane. I do write a lot of material but I've kept it under wraps for a long time - it's just by accident that a few people hear it and tell me that they like it. I started working with Jorma Vik from The Bronx who's a very close friend of mine, and he encouraged me to play it and to sing – which I've not done in a long time. I've put a live band together for it and it's great to hear these four or five year old songs live finally.

Does it feel like starting again without baggage?

JLM: It's absolutely brilliant; it's my drive right now. I really do want to get out there and play it – you should come and here us rehearse in a bit – but first I want to get straight, fit.

You've touched on this a couple of times this afternoon; are you comfortable with saying what's been going on at a personal level?

JLM: Yeah; I don't want to get too freaky about it but I did get addicted to strong painkillers and of course it wasn't a good idea to drink on top of that - it can really send you down for two to three days at a time. We were drinking a litre of bourbon each on top of these fucking things, we all smoke weed and on tour there's cocaine everywhere. Five years of it was pretty fucking harrowing. Last year a couple of my friends died and it started to frighten me a bit... I wanted to snap out of it and Then Thickens is helping me do that, it's not something that's crazy and screaming.

Getting addicted can't have helped when you're already in a band having to play two personalities either…

JLM: A few close friends would come and watch the band and think I'd gone mental; and I'd say, 'It's a fucking game, it's a character', and they'd go 'No it's not, there's something going on with you.' I'm just snapping out of it; I'm by no means in the clear yet but I'm not eating those things any more. I still like a drink and a joint but…

Is that part of the reason why Kong aren't doing too much live these coming months?

JLM: Honestly, if it was up to me I'd put it on hold for 12-months and just do my side project. You can't do that though, we're not a massive band, it's got to keep ticking over and we've got to keep people interested. The main focus for me now is to get the next record right. I've had the songs right in my head about 35 fucking times, but actually getting it there is another thing.

How does the creative process work for you guys?

JLM: We'll work and record, and then we'll rehearse until we're sick of it and then we'll go and record it once live. It's got to be ready so that you don't have to spend money. I think Snake Magnet cost £500 to make and, not to blown my own trumpet, it sounds better than most fucking albums.

It's terrific, it's got a real raw quality without being too rough; is it true that you've never listened to it since?

JLM: I think Mark has, but he analyses everything. Those songs on Snake Magnet have been released as singles, had videos, been promoted everywhere - but to him they're still not finished! It's weird, he'll go [puts on Scottish accent] 'Ohh, I'm just gonna try this wee bit,' and you're like 'What the fuck for!?' and he's like 'But on the very original demo we did this.' And it's like 'Fucking hell man, but we've done it now! Just leave it!' But it's funny, and it's heart warming. I don't listen to it though, no.

I guess you've played it so much now you don't need to.

JLM: I could play it with my dick and balls.

I wouldn't be surprised if you tried that at some point.

JLM: [Laughs] It probably has happened!

To go back to your live show; the first time I saw you was when you supported Future Of The Left in 2007 and you came across as one of the most unsettling bands I've ever seen. What do you aim for when you go on stage to do a show? Do you play on this sadistic, awkward quality you seem to have?

JLM: It depends what mood we're in. Sometimes I just want to go out and have a fucking party and be who everyone gets into; other times I'm like 'I'm not going to win these fuckers over, they're not going to be into us,' so it's like just be honest, 'What the fuck are you doing here?'

So what do you see happening over the next twelve months; you say you don't want to do anything with Kong but obviously something has to happen with the new record.

JLM: I think we're just going to be writing. I mean, there's so much that could be done and there is talk; there's a label who wanted to put out all our demos, but mainly, yeah, we're just concentrating on the next album. If nice offers come up then we'll dip in and out, but I don't want to be doing a big European tour or anything.

How about touring with Then Thickens? Or would you be worried about slipping back into the same cycle?

JLM: It'd be completely different. In Kong I'm the naughty one and I can get away with stuff and the band'll stick up for me. In Then Thickens I'm the mother goose, and a few of these have the potential to be psychos as well, so I have to try and keep the lid on it a little bit. But I'm really excited about it. It's got me into writing weekly again which I hadn't done for a long time; I was just floating around stoned on pills. Now I'm out of it I'm dreaming a lot and writing a lot, trying to be healthy, trying to diet. It's a complete opposite to what it was.

From talking to you today it does seem that you're more enthused for that side of it than Kong.

JLM: Yeah I am, but tomorrow it could be different. But then, because I've got this, I'm going to keep on loving Kong because I've got that balance now - before it was just all that, and that's all people knew me for. If I'm favouring Then Thickens at the moment it's because there's a lot to be done and I want it to be perfect for when people actually get to see and hear it. We've thought about inviting new members into Kong, but for me it still is kind of perfect for what I want to deliver to people.