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A Quietus Interview

Cerebral Assassination & Physical Hits: The Bug Interviewed
Luke Turner , August 29th, 2014 07:50

With Kevin Martin's new album as The Bug released this week, he meets Luke Turner in Berlin to discuss how both personal and political concerns have fed into the fierce and fiery Angels & Devils. Photo by Morisa Tamaki

Kevin Martin didn't have an easy time of his move from Poplar, East London, to Berlin last year. Shortly after arriving in the German capital he snapped his Achilles tendon and was confined to a wheelchair for three months, a perhaps minor consideration given that complications in the birth of his first son nearly resulted in the loss of both the child and Martin's partner. Months later, sat in late summer afternoon sunlight in a cafe a short distance from the River Spree, Martin seems in an upbeat mood as he discusses the third album proper under his The Bug moniker, Angels & Devils. "Mark [Flowdan] said to me, 'You know Kevin, this is our time', and I think he might be right," he recalls. "I'm in a really positive place right now."

The follow-up to London Zoo, the 2008 Quietus album of the year, Angels & Devils is a record of myriad worlds and voices, a response to and escape from a world that, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, seems to be sliding in all directions. In times of great disunity, where global markets seem to be dividing cities between dilapidation and what Martin describes as "the curse of luxury apartments that has infested everywhere", there is a great need for voices whose music is the sound of unity.

Indeed, that's one surprising thing about the middle years of the second decade of the 21st century. Musically we live in fragmented times, with no dominant cultural narrative, but few are the artists who are bringing together male and female voices, different cultures, sounds, musics, narratives under a banner that has politics and society at its heart. This is, as Rory Gibb explains in his brilliant review, what makes Angels & Devils so important, and Kevin Martin one of the most significant artists of the day.

Martin started working on Angels & Devils a year or two after London Zoo, a process that involved creating full tracks and fragments before honing them down to the finished version. Jeff Waye of Ninja Tune USA, who signed Martin, said there were 147 demos in his inbox. "That's part of my selection process, I have to feel that I've got to the heart of what I'm trying to do," says Martin. The creative process has been heightened by his move to the electronic music capital of the world; Martin says he loves Berlin's clubs, the "vaults, dungeons, basements," where he can go and experience new music. Despite not being into the partying side of nightlife, he explains, this is something he needs to stay stimulated, to keep himself moving forwards.

After the move, Mouse On Mars found him a studio space in the Funkhouse complex, a former East German Radio Station. "I just go in there, and it's head between the speakers. Even more so now I'm a father; my time is precious, I wished I could clone myself before, I wish it even more now. I could do with a few more Bugs out there, trust me. I love the monastic retreat of the studio, and I love trying to make something that will have a massive impact on people's brains and bodies."

This retreat seems to be working. You'll not find many tracks this year with more physical power than 'Fat Mac', an unholy alliance between Martin, Flowdan and Justin Broadrick. Or take the up-front sexuality of Warrior Queen's leathery riff on Capleton's 'Slew Dem', 'Fuck You' ("you think me a Barbie?" she asks in disgust) and contrast it with Miss Red's light, skipping pop in 'Mi Lost' or the Eno vistas of 'Pandi'. And live it seems to be working out too. Martin says he was disappointed that the planned Bug / Jesu / Earth set at Jabberwocky didn't transpire due to the ATP event's last-minute cancellation. "I wanted a crack at that audience", he says. He ended up with something better via a last-minute gig organised by Anthony Chalmers of Corsica Studios down in London's Elephant & Castle, that gloriously loud, dank, dark venue soon to be overlooked by the fancy flats replacing the social housing of London's Heygate Estate. From what we've hear so far, Kevin Martin's mission to break down barriers with bass seems to be progressing well.

"There was a mosh pit, crowd-surfing, an amazingly mixed audience," he recalls of the Corsica show. "Right at the front there was this big Jamaican girl rucking out, then there was the typical dubstep low cap dudes, and I could see trendy kids in the middle, and at the back there was a load of beardies headbanging and looking serious. For me Jabberwocky was a really key part of how I wanted to open people's perception up of what I do, and get to another audience. Ever since London Zoo there's that feeling of slight claustrophobia, of being drowned in dubstep, playing the same sort of clubs. It was a major problem for a while."

I always felt you were a bit outside of that world...

KM: I hope so. It's that ambiguity and that contradiction, because obviously without people like Loefah and Kode9 slaying 'Skeng' and 'Poison Dart', London Zoo would never have got to the appeal it did. Dubstep undoubtedly helped me, but at the same time I felt uncomfortable with it all the time. In fairness, all of the producers who became friends all knew that I was just a freak on the outskirts of that scene.

Perhaps that's why they liked working with you.

KM: Maybe, yeah. Hopefully it's that they respected the fact that I was trying to do something individual. That's why I went straight into the Midas thing, it was a reaction to that. I was feeling a bit hemmed in, I tried to escape the zoo of London only to find myself in captivity in dubstep land. When I met Ninja for the meeting after the album, I remember they were like 'OK, what shall we do here? We need to get some strategies together. Do you want to play the Boiler Room and do you want to do remixes?' Come on, neither of those things, I just want to find an audience for this shit. This isn't a pop crossover album, but there's no reason why someone who listens to Sunn O))) on one side and Grouper on the other can't get this record. Let's appeal to the freaks across the board - and I say 'freaks' in a positive way. Originals. So with Jabberwocky I wanted a crack at that audience. I love the idea of confrontation, like when Suicide or Mikey Dread played with The Clash, I like the idea of 'you don't know what's hit you and I'm going to administer it'.

But I've seen you play shows and there's always a 'come with us'.

KM: You're 100% correct. With God I just wanted to get rid of people, I was proud of it. But with Bug shit, it's about a collective sense of catharsis, I hope, it's not sadistic, it's not that at all. I just want to get lost in it, [and] does anyone else want to come with me? That's why I've got a reputation for playing at ridiculously high volume, because I want to feel that intensity and assault as well, I want to feel disorientated and forget where the fuck I am. I want to get lost in that rush of sound. You're right, no way do I want to declare war, that'd be sadistic, I'm not interested in sadism, never have been. 

That approach has been done, you can't really do it again. People are more open to it now, and people who used to be bludgeoners...

KM: ... are becoming hippies? [laughs] I've still got issues, we all have, and it's that realisation, we all know how chaotic and insane this planet is, so let's just find some form of immersion or escapism in parallel, tapping in to some other form of consciousness, bypassing the intellect and going for cerebral assasination and physical hits.

And sex.

KM: For me it's sex and violence in a nutshell, and that's the beauty of the music I like. It has that carnal intensity, it has that moody seductiveness, and for sure I love that shit.

That's the parallel I get. I come at The Bug not from dubstep at all, it's some sort of souped-up version of Adrian Sherwood's 'Yu-Gung' remix or the physicality of what Regis and Surgeon do with techno. That's the mindspace I have The Bug in, which to me is all about sex music.

KM: That Neubauten remix was a killer mix. Techno... I bumped into Regis at Unsound last year, and I'd only ever met him once before in a shitty horrible shopping mall in Birmingham when I was with Justin, and we remembered the meeting really well, he was just laughing because he said me, Justin and Micky were nuts, but how much he respected us all. I said to him, you know what, I haven't really kept tabs on what you're doing, I know it's gone down well, but I'm not really into techno - and he was like 'Nah, neither am I'. A lot of things for me, like metal, dubstep, techno, they're all a bit too embroiled in machismo for me, and masculinity. I prefer a sensitivity and a sense of potential implosion or collapse. For me, virtually everything I've ever done has a huge sense of paranoia and insecurity. When I finished this record I felt like I'd fucked it again.

I was going to ask you about that - there was the Wire interview around London Zoo where you said you were in tears because you thought you'd made a mess of the record.

KM: I was... and this time it was a mail to Jeff who signed me to Ninja Tune, saying 'Hey Jeff, I finished it tonight, but I don't know what anyone is going to make of this shit'. I really meant it, I wasn't trying to get a compliment from him, but having heard it for the first time in one sequenced order after the mastering, I was thinking, I don't know who is going to relate to this record. I thought maybe it had got too noisy for people who had got into this shit through London Zoo, too deep for people who just wanted murderous moodiness like 'Skeng'. I thought 'Have I fucked it?' I know it was an honest record, and that's the most important thing. London Zoo reflected me as a person then and this album absolutely reflects how I feel now, in every way.

Was it not making it even harder for yourself then, doing the 'Angels' and 'Devils' split?

KM: Yeah, Ninja were against it. That was a big discussion. I pushed it because it made sense to me, that little personal satori where you're just 'Oh shit, I remember Low being pretty ill because it had these two pretty distinct sides', and just how I want to hear music personally now. My taste for music is absolutely split between being in a club playing shows where I just want to be physically assaulted and overwhelmed and taken to a different planet, or riding around on a bike or in an aeroplane or waiting in an airport, zoning. I wanted that duality pushed to the fore. When I finally decided to continue some sort of line from London Zoo as opposed to destroying any path or route towards where I've gone, I knew I wanted to stretch the parameters.

The title was actually a fairly pithy response to Ninja about what I was going to do with the next album. I'm going to stretch it in both directions and amplify the angels and devils. The frustrating thing for me with London Zoo and Pressure, the tracks that aren't heavier or more obviously intense get either totally ignored, or took a slating. People didn't want to acknowledge that flip of the coin to the bigger tracks. That side of it is important, and I refuse to just make an album of what people expect from me. I want to test myself as well as test people who are brave enough to follow me down the line.

It's not as simple as just saying 'here are the angels, here are the devils', is it?

KM: 100%. 100%. Like I said, the idea came from a pithy comment, but the same with London Zoo - Jeff said he thought it was a shit title, but afterwards he said 'you're totally on point'. With Angels & Devils, internally, once you have the idea, you're thinking 'Did I take that right, does it make sense where I'm going with it?' The more I thought about Angels & Devils, the more it made sense to me. The obvious things are the polar opposites and extremes, but actually even more pertinent for me is that it's really about where opposites meet and the emotion of that collision, and the fact that you can no longer tell who the angels and devils are to a large extent because we live in a fairly fluid lifestyle, where everything has that sense of unreality to it.

An uneasy grey to it. That's what I really get from that track 'Pandi', this huge Eno, second half of Low vibe.

KM: Low used to be a really big album for me, though I'd not heard it for years. Where that actually came from, and Ninja will assassinate me for this because they swore me to never talk about my new son in interviews, but it was the first day that I'd seen this ultrasound scan of my son, and I was completely dumfounded by what I saw, this tiny creature inside my partner. Then I went to the studio that night to work on a track and I just couldn't finish that track. My head was in another place. I knew I wanted to have one or two tracks of that ilk on the album, I wanted to stretch the parameters, and it was the raw terror of fatherhood, those feelings more than anything. Luckily, for me, unusually, it got close to what I set out to do, it didn't get derailed, rerouted or fall over on the way. I feel it fairly accurately has that mood. It's awe and terror. As it happens we had an incredibly difficult time with our child in the first month and a half, so for me it was literal terror. My partner almost died, and our child had two life-threatening operations in the first month, so for me the track had this weird, prophetic mood. I spent my life running away from being a father, but it's a life-changer, every cliché you ever hear is true.

Was that relating to your own difficult experience of family life?

KM: Undoubtedly. I didn't believe in family. I said something in an interview to accompany a review, that me and Justin came from the same disgusting family backgrounds. What I went on to say was that my father was a complete arsehole, of course that part wasn't printed, and I got an irate text from my mother saying 'Kevin the review's fantastic, I'm really proud of you, but this makes me look really bad'. Maybe I didn't say more, but in my mind I knew what I meant. My father was a cunt, he beat the shit out of her and he beat the shit out of me. I took refuge between speakers. It made no sense to me, why would someone spend their life with someone who's a sadist and selfish? He was in the navy and moved a lot when I was a child, so I never felt rooted to anywhere, and that's had a bearing on my view of everything. I moved to London because I hated Britain, and I felt that I'd never know London. I liked the fact of never knowing London, even to this day, I lived there for 23 years, north, south, east, west and I still feel there's these huge areas I have no idea about. My music years that were crucial to me were all in Weymouth. I had the choice to go west to Bristol or east to London, and I chose London.

I keep hearing about weird Weymouth connections and music - Dom of Factory Floor and Bronze Teeth talked to us about the free party scene and all the crazy shit around that

KM: There was a lot of drugs in Weymouth, for sure. It's an open port for drugs.

Was it an extreme place behind the Georgian frontage?

KM: Totally extreme, because in the winter it's a ghost town, and in the summer it's, as I remember it, infested with psychopathic Brummies. At the time I was growing up there it was surrounded by a naval base, an air force base and an army base, so I just had the shit beaten out of me on a regular basis for looking a bit different. It was the most violent place I've ever lived in. London doesn't seem as violent to me. A lot of these servicemen would, at the end of the drunken night, realise that there weren't any women interested and would take out their frustration on whoever looked different or anti what they felt they stood for.

The Georgian front, there was a very key place I lived in for a year or two that ended up on the front page of the newspapers. It was the main hotel that the king used to stay in, which for some reason, God knows why and I was too out of my face at that time to know what the fuck was going on, but it became... I remember the headline in the papers was 'holiday home for the jobless'. It just ended up this huge, crazy, maybe five floor palatial place filled by drug heads, drunks, mental patients, it was a mad place. The rent was being paid by housing benefit, and a whole load of way weird people ended up in there, including myself. It was a very savagely psychedelic environment to be in. Things got so strange that they ended up hiring security people, because we tenants were not allowed to get in there at certain hours. I'd be climbing up the side of building, Spiderman-style, fucked out of my face, thinking 'how am I going to get into my own flat?' Weymouth was a really nutty place.

London? I think suburbs become systematically violent places because there's a loss of hope, whereas what used to be the hellholes of inner cities are now the gentrified playgrounds for the luxury apartment dwellers. It's becoming this huge schism. I think systematically regular violence in Weymouth, as opposed to deadly random violence in the city. At one show it was fucking insane, I was upstairs talking to Flowdan and Manga and this huge bonehead dude comes upstairs and he's got a big suit on. Manga is all 'How you doing' and he says 'Yo, Manga, they stabbed me, man'. He just lifts his jacket up and it's covered in red, Reservoir Dogs style, and I can't stand the sight of blood, and I'm getting scared, because I realise this guy's serious. He'd got stabbed in the belly, if the guy hadn't been so fat it'd have been lethal. I saw him lifting up his shirt and had this huge gushing knife wound in his belly. That's the thing for me with London personally - I saw less violence, but when I did see it, oh shit, it was deadly.

That's the sort of thing London Zoo captured, like 'Skeng' - but with this edge of humour, too.

KM: 'Skeng', for us, we were rolling on floor laughing when we were working on that track. I remember at the time getting taken to task; I used to check out Dubstep Forum all those years ago, and actually give a shit, and suddenly all these cunts are coming online saying that I was glorifying violence with a song like that. All those arseholes don't want to hear a vocal interpretation of the world - they just want to head nod in a dark corner to a wobbling bassline. I remember Spaceape used to get such shit on that board, and it used to drive me insane on his behalf, but to suddenly get shit for glorifying violence. Are they not looking at newspapers? Are they not in the real world? It was more like Manga really, as in the Japanese crazed fiction - it was obviously taken to such an extreme that you had to be an idiot to take it at face value, but you can of course see where the shadows lurk. Of course there are reflections in metropolitan life.

I think that all works because you're able to create all these different spaces for these very different voices to work in. That must have been a headfuck on Angels & Devils.

KM: It's like a world in itself, this record, it's created its own world in a weird sort of way. When I approached any of those vocalists it was very much me knowing that there was a certain flavour or atmosphere or chapter that I wanted to add to the overall tale of the album. It's juggling - what's still needed, who else would I really want to try and approach or write something with? Fantastically for me, it's amazing that with most of the people I collaborated with on this record it turned out pretty good, and those people seemed positive about the experience. If I was capable of cloning myself several times over, I'd love to do albums with all those people. They're all incredible, and I feel really honoured to be able to work with those people because they're all mavericks. Mark, Flowdan, he's just starting to peak, I think he was amazing from the beginning, but he's stratospherically good right now - I can barely think of a better MC in this country.

Him and Justin Broadrick together... I must admit I was wary of listening to Angels & Devils and London Zoo together in case it didn't stand up, but then I did and it really does, it exceeds it, and it's Flowdan on 'Fat Mac' who nails it.

KM: That's my favourite track on the album. For me it's trademark Mark, the blackest of humour, intense social realism, just that tone. Justin's tone makes that riff, and what you don't hear is a ridiculous amount of layers over that riff, which I wrote on a synth. It's a body barrage. There's never an album that I feel 100% happy with, but that's one of the few on the album that absolutely kicks arse.

It almost feels a bit more worried than London Zoo, more immersed in stuff being really wrong at the moment. I thought before that maybe this wasn't going to be as intense... It's a different kind of intense, it's more like reading the newspaper. Different kinds of bad stuff going on. "They're putting bare shit in our food", "I can't get no justice". But I must admit I struggle with 'Fuck A Bitch'. I find it too grindingly male.

KM: It was crucial to have 'Mi Lost' [with Miss Red] on the album, it reminded me of 'Dub Be Good To Me', I would want to hear it in the charts. But on the other hand I wanted to revolt myself, and 'Fuck A Bitch' did that. I didn't choose the title, they wrote the lyric, and when it came I was 'Yeah, I wanted it on there, because discomfort is important'. I don't think anyone's perfect, and Death Grips exist in their own vaccum, they will fuck people off with their choices, and there's something seriously anti about their philosophy and their approach. It reminds me of the shit that I grew up with.

I had the years to take shitloads of drugs, get fucked up and work out what I wanted to do. I knew from being thirteen years old that I wanted to make music, I was already hooked. My father and grandfather were musicians, not professional. My mother had speakers wired up to every room in the house playing the most obnoxious rock music, which almost put me off guitars for life. I knew it was music and I would do anything I could to be making it - not making it as in industry making it, but to literally make music, it was a physical and psychological necessity for me. Now that's changed - there's a lot of pressure on teenagers leaving school, debts straight away leaving university. The social sciences have been underfunded for decades, and they're great for raising question marks about you and your environment, and I think they're crucial. I discovered so much political theory, philosophical literature, incredible movies, novels through reading interviews with musicians. It's crucial, even more so now, to say there is an alternative.

Moving to Berlin's great, because there's still that feeling that it's politicised. Me and my girl laugh all the time because Berlin has still got that feeling of 'Fuck you'. I think the danger signs are properly in place here, but it still has a lineage, and it's a music city; those things were crucial in my choice of moving here. I'd been coming here for years and had ended up with different allies and friends in various parts of the Berlin scene. We only had four choices of where to go because my girlfriend's Japanese and she was unable to get a visa any more in the UK. That was the ultimate catalyst for us to leave - the normal shit, David Cameron and his cronies and the idiot side of British culture will blame some Polish construction worker or Indian cook for the ills of the nation, rather than looking at the overpaid nastiness of corporate directors or bank directors or politicians themselves. It's red herrings blaming foreigners; look at the real stories of strife in the economy.

I didn't move here to party, I don't drink, I don't do drugs. I came here because I wanted a base that still stimulates me, a place that I can afford to live in and not feel in danger. We ended up living in E14 in Poplar and I'd have to meet my girlfriend at a bus stop every night because the 200 metre walk to our flat was dangerous. We got chased once, there'd be dudes shitting in the lobby, it was hell on earth. You hope that the mulitcultural melting pot is going to work, but when you look at Poplar you seriously question it, because everyone hates everyone and communities are divided because of poverty. This isn't living in London. If this is where I am really at, I need to get the fuck out here.

Do you feel more optimistic in Berlin?

KM: It gives me a headspace. Every day feels like a Sunday in Berlin by comparison to London. There's space to move and think. It's a sociable city - I've never seen as many children and dogs, and I guess we've added to that statistic.

But is it still a London record?

KM: I don't think I approached it like that. The reason I wanted to work with people from America and wherever was because I wanted to globalise the concerns, and globalise the emotional questions raised by what I wanted from a record. I want a record that's more than just functional, and that's what crushes me about a lot of dance music albums. Of course they can be great as tools, but I want more and need more, and I wanted something that could address my feelings on a global thing. I saw an interview recently I did around the time of London Zoo where I was saying then, 'I think I've got to leave this city, it's not for me any more'. I think it was just a bit delayed how long it took me. One of the things with London Zoo is that it took me to all sorts of new places, I think it's important to travel, and it's crucial to do that. You realise that across the world we all have the same concerns and aspirations and fears and dread, so for me I'd hope this is a universal, global album rather than a geographically specific album, which I feel like London Zoo was. It sounds a bit flippant to say that, but it's not meant flippantly. I just think there's an even deeper emotional core to this record.

There are angels and devils wherever you go...

KM: In the poem that I wrote to accompany the thing that's what I wrote - there are angels and devils behind all of our eyes. And it's an acknowledgement of that.

The Bug's Angels & Devils is out now on Ninja Tune