Interview: The Bug on Bashment, Dub, and Sonic Warfare

Ninja Tune’s sound system devotee takes us through the ups and downs of his career.

Marc Sethi

As far as music is concerned, Kevin Martin is a renaissance man. In addition to writing about music as a journalist, doing graphic design for album covers, and promoting club nights like London’s BASH, he has been involved in such bands as God, Techno Animal and ICE, and run his own label, Pathological. Now after almost 30 years in the game, he’s released his newest album as The Bug, furthering Martin’s idiosyncratic mash up of ragga riddims with harsh sonics. I first met Martin in the early ’90s when he was a music journalist. We later toured together when he was doing Techno Animal with Justin Broadrick, and I eventually put out the first Bug album, Tapping the Conversation in 1997 on my label. Despite the passage of time, Martin is still as passionate about what he does as when we first met.

Let’s start at the beginning. Talk about Weymouth, and what it was like growing up there.

Weymouth is like a toy-town Brighton, but actually incredibly dangerous because there was an RAF base and an army base and a naval base all around the city and all those maniacs would come into town at the weekend looking for girls, and realize at the end of the night that there wasn’t enough girls to go around, but there were some freaky looking dudes that they could put through windows like me. [laughs] So I would just get randomly beaten up by these thugs – it was fucking dangerous, yunno.

I’ve seen more bloodshed in Weymouth than I’ve seen in my 20 years in London. I mean London, if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, it’s lethal, but Weymouth was like consistent thuggery. But very picturesque as well. I’ve always missed the sea since leaving Weymouth. I’ve realized the sea is a calming influence on me, which I didn’t realize at the time. As a kid you just want to get out of your home environment and for me it was grass and trees, and I wanted concrete.

And you were already heavily into music, even as a kid.

Basically my parents were at war, and my father and I hated each other, and he ended up kicking me out of the house when I was 16.

Well, yunno, my mum used to have speakers in every room of the house and would just bombard me with the most disgusting heavy metal, which almost put me off guitars for life. Like Deep Purple, Rainbow, Santana, and shit like that – I don’t think she even liked anything as good as Zeppelin – which I hated, passionately hated. And my dad used to be a musician in the navy, and my grandfather was a sax player in a jazz band, so for me, I sort of think that music’s in my blood anyway, and it was around me all the time through my mum – she was a passionate music person. But I hated all that stuff.

Because of my familial background – basically my parents were at war, and my father and I hated each other, and he ended up kicking me out of the house when I was 16 – I used music. I can just remember very well, I would just have a pair of hi-fi speakers, and I would be pulling them down off the shelf on the floor and lying between these speakers and cranking something like Crass or Discharge at very high volume just to block out the sound of them screaming and arguing in the next room. For me, music was an escape really, and a revolt. I can remember as a 14-year-old, going with ghetto blasters into town, and whenever a policeman went by you’d be pressing play on a punk song with anti-police lyrics. [laughs] Just to fuck ‘em about really.

Somehow I was drawn to post-punk music and to punk shit, just because the whole world was chaos for me. I didn’t understand it. I seemed to go through school not being able to find anything that I was interested in apart from English literature. There was nothing that meant anything to me, and my home life was a disaster zone, yunno, so music offered a path and an escape route – just some way to try to understand the fucked up world outside the house that I had to endure, yunno. I sometimes wonder what the fuck would have happened without music.

What were those initial years in London like?

The first few years it was just doing what everyone does when they move to a city as a young person – just realizing this is dog eat dog, yunno, and the conditions are generally shit. You lose money to play shows. It’s just a testing ground of how much you’re committed to music and that lifestyle, yunno. And I was playing some really poor shows to no people. I can remember a couple of shows playing to literally no one. [laughs] This was [my band] God. Me and a couple of friends from Weymouth moved to London together.

It was actually way out in the suburbs of London, you couldn’t really call it London – it’s far out west. And we just naively tried to get shows, sending demo tapes to venues or to labels. They were actually unlistenable – I’m not proud of any of that shit at all. I was playing sax through a Marshall stack and through lots of effects and just screaming. It was therapy for me, and torture for an audience probably to a large degree.

I remember we even put on someone like Pulp, who became huge, and they played for like ten people at our venue.

So me and one of the guys I moved to London with decided to try and start a club night. We just got a vocal PA, which we paid for in Weymouth, and we took this vocal PA to this pub in Brixton. I don’t even remember how we found the pub – but it was a back room of a pub, which was right behind Brixton police station – and we started contacting bands that we liked to see if they wanted to play, offering them no money at all, just saying we’ve got this sound system and we’ll advertise it with flyers and posters and we won’t take a single penny off the door except for the cost of a travel card.

For the first year, it was a complete non-entity. I remember we even put on someone like Pulp, who became huge, and they played for like ten people at our venue. And then I started inviting people like Extreme Noise Terror and Napalm Death, and I gave Godflesh their first ever London show, and that scene suddenly just took off like in a crazy way. Suddenly the pub was full every week, and my band was supporting all these crazy bands that played there. Then my band started getting reviews in the music press – in like Melody Maker and NME.

Around that time I started a label. I approached a distributor, and I basically said I want to put together a compilation with all these artists. I was on the dole. I had no income or money to offer, and they offered me a manufacturing and distribution deal, and on the compilation it had like Napalm Death, Godflesh, Coil, Carcass, God. Around the same time someone from Beggars Banquet came to the pub where I was promoting the party and saw my band and they snapped us up to do a 12-inch. And I’d asked Justin to come produce both the track for the compilation and the 12-inch, and then suddenly we were being offered support slots for American bands coming over – bands like the Butthole Surfers or Killdozer.

I wanted to make records – and I still want to make records – that will make peoples’ jaws drop.

And there was a sort of noise rock scene in the UK at that time. I guess we were part of that. I mean, my idea at first was to just fucking explode with noise. I was inspired by Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, but I realized I’d never have the technique, so I was like, “OK, how can I get that impact?” Also, I just didn’t want to have to practice scales every day. Somehow that didn’t appeal to me, but the physicality and the sound of the sax did. I wanted to create a wall of noise with the sax – hence deciding on a whole assault weaponry of effects units and Marshall stacks.

There were two phases of God. There was the initial band that got signed to Beggars, and basically I realized quite quickly I was finding it frustrating because we were just being lumped in with all these noise bands all the time. That wasn’t enough for me. That seemed ghettoized, really. So basically I decided to sack half the band – most of the band apart from the bass player – and bring in lots of people. In the end, we had two drummers, two bass players, a double bass player, an electric viola player, two guitarists, three sax players, and even ended up with an African percussionist from Ghana. We ended up with a 12 or 14 piece band, which was obviously like commercial suicide. But the point was I wanted to make records – and I still want to make records – that will make peoples’ jaws drop.

After God you started doing Techno Animal.

Justin and I just hit it off really well for many reasons, yunno, despite the fact that we were sort of opposites – like I didn’t drink or do drugs and he excelled at both. [laughs] We came from very similar backgrounds. He had a very fucked up family background as did I, and we seemed to have the same tastes for extremes in music, were drawn to a lot of the same areas, and he’s very articulate and very cool to hang with, and I liked the fact that he was open whereas a lot of people I came into contact with were actually closed and narrow in their world view or their aspirations.

Justin was the only guy I knew who had a proper home studio at that time.

When I met Justin, he had studio gear cause he had a major label licensing deal in the States, and had seen some money from that. He was the only guy I knew who had a proper home studio at that time. It’s hard to say why that would have meant anything to me, because before then, I was really into the physicality of performance, performance as therapy, and just the sheer exertion of overblowing a saxophone, and feeling like I was gonna collapse on the stage.

But suddenly it was becoming clearer and clearer to me that I was more comfortable in the studio because of the potential to alter, warp, distort sounds. At the time I felt being the leader of a band, I had a responsibility to those people to at least stay fairly close to their performances. And Justin was feeling more and more hemmed in by metal crowds and metal expectations. At the time we were listening to lots of insane music. We were getting into a lot of soundtrack music, early electronic pioneers, world music.

Do you remember when you were first exposed to dub?

So many of the people in bands that really inspired me to make music were inspired by reggae.

Well I remember clearly, I must have been about 17, and friends invited me around. They were smoking weed and listening to a Prince Far I album, and I remember a track called “Foggy Road” coming on the stereo. I must have been a bit stoned as well at that point, and I remember just thinking, “This is like some transmission from some alien universe I know nothing about.” It just hooked me instantly. At the time, the earliest dub shit that I would have been aware of knowing it was dub was Metal Box by P.I.L.. And, somehow, I realized at that time a lot of the bands I liked most were led by bass. So Killing Joke’s bass player Youth, Jah Wobble in P.I.L., Peter Hook in Joy Division, Tracey Pew in The Birthday Party.

I think at that time John Peel was also a very important factor for me. When I was about 14, I started listening to John Peel just because it was this whole crazy universe of sound that I didn’t know anything about. He was playing a lot of dub. He was playing stuff like Misty in Roots albums. But I guess reggae and punk were sort of bredren really, yunno. It was like revolutionary spirits, and it was almost impossible, unless you were some right wing nutter, to not see a very strong connection between the two. So many of the people in bands that really inspired me to make music were inspired by reggae.

Would you consider Ice to be your first dub project?

Yeah, that’s how I really felt about it.

But there were a lot of beats involved as well?

Beats? Yeah, there was a live drummer on a lot of it as well as sampled beats, and Dave, who was the bass player in God. Dave Cochrane was an incredible bass player and again he was totally inspired by the likes of Wobble and the Stranglers’ Jacques Burnel. Ice was really my way of scaling down God, and making God this dub project. And also I wanted to explore sampling because I could realize the potential to be able to take sound from radically different decades and set up these incredible juxtapositions.

I’ve never wanted to pretend to be Jamaican, speakin’ patois.

But I think what I liked a lot about that era and what echoes in what I do now is no matter how much I truly, truly adore reggae, I’ve never wanted to be Ja’fakin. I’ve never wanted to pretend to be Jamaican, speakin’ patois. Because it’s so cheesy and such a perilous road to go down. What’s shocking is how many white reggae people go down that route. There’s a lot of white reggae producers who want to be authentic. How can it be authentic, it’s an impossibility, yunno.

Stay true to your roots and just take on board what inspires you along the way, yunno? I think that was the beauty of the stuff from a lot of the artists I’ve already mentioned – it was the best form of fusion. Instead of being fusion as in dilution, it was fusion as in nuclear fission, taking energies that just explode. I think that’s stayed with me to this day. I’m always really, really humbled when people tell me that they’ve come to a Bug show and they’ve never heard anything like it, and it really inspires them to make music.

How did you get a deal with Warner/Reprise for Ice, and what happened with it?

[laughs] That’s a good question. Basically Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine, his sister ran that label – I can’t think of the name – it was her vanity label within Reprise, and I don’t even know if she even released anything else. She’s a lovely person, and she really believed in what we were trying to do. I’d take her demos of Ice and she loved the demos, and then during the making of that record, I was going through a lot of personal upheaval, and it took so long to make that I lost the trajectory of the record. I lost touch with the original demos really, and I became obsessed with Pro Tools plug-ins. And basically what happened was I just scrambled the fucker. I really scrambled the record.

Kevin Shields used to do live sound for God a few times and he really liked us.

Some people still talk about that record as being good, but it’s no coincidence it’s more or less the last record I’ve done vocals on. Because I realized at that point, “You know what, if you can’t be Al Green or Horace Andy or you haven’t got the attitude of John Lydon or Michael Gira, why bother?” Apart from one album I made with Justin where we both screamed our heads off for Ipecac, I’m really not interested in doing vocals anymore. But Kevin Shields used to do live sound for God a few times and he really liked us, and got us to support My Bloody Valentine, and it was through supporting my Bloody Valentine that I met Ann Marie Shields, cause she was their tour manager.

But nothing really happened with that record, right?

It died, man. I think we only did like a couple of interviews for the whole world with that record. And it’s crazy when you see who’s involved with that record now. Like Anti-Pop Consortium before anyone knew them. El-P, before anyone knew him. Blixa from Neubauten. I mean, it’s an interesting record, but for me it’s virtually unlistenable because of my vocals…

I remember I did the first Bug record with you, because I was shitting myself about all this equipment that Warner had suddenly bought me, which I’d never had to myself. I’d always worked with engineers, and actually I was responsible for this record on a major label, and I thought, “Fuck me, man, I need something to do to teach myself before finishing that record.” So that’s when I offered to you that I’d do the Bug record, because I had this crazy idea for a solo record based on the movie, so actually your record, Tapping the Conversation, was done before the Ice album, and it was all done on the gear that Warner had paid for.

How much of that record did DJ Vadim do? Did he just give you beats and you put it together? What was the collaboration like?

We met around that time because I liked his first album a lot, and then I went to his place and he just played me loads of samples that he had, drum samples, break samples, and I just chose the ones I wanted. And apart from coming in to do some scratching towards the end of the record, which I remember the engineer – being a real hip hop snob – thought that Vadim was like a complete non-entity as a scratch DJ. Which in hindsight he was, but I like the fact that he was so avant and fucked the way he did it. It wasn’t technically correct, but it was cool. But, yeah, he didn’t do much on the Bug record. He literally gave me some beats and then did some bad scratching. [laughs]

I played Ann Marie the demos of the Bug stuff with Daddy Freddy and Tikiman, and she released the first 12-inch, which Aphex Twin heard. I was meant to do the whole album with her, but at the time she was realizing she was going to be leaving Warner and felt it wasn’t the right home. So I was saying to her, “Hey, can you let me go? Cause Rephlex is saying they’ll release anything by me.” She very kindly allowed me to leave, and take the album to Aphex, which was Pressure.

Tapping The Conversation sounds so different from Pressure, so at some point in the interim, you must have really got into ragga.

I think it’s very much down to the fact that a lot of the music that I cherish the most, when I first hear it, I don’t like it. I call it the “What The Fuck Factor.” Whether it’s the voice of Ian Curtis, the voice of Nina Simone, Throbbing Gristle, P.I.L., bashment... A lot of that shit when I first heard it, I just couldn’t handle it at all. Every time I heard a bashment track I was like, “Wow, what the fuck is this? Where does this come from? How do they get these sounds?” And also just loving the swing and loving the groove, and also the fact that it was technological. It was like this warped technological freak music that contained maximum sex and violence.

Basically the only other person I knew at that time who was remotely interested in bashment was this guy called DJ Scud. He’d released this 7-inch called Total Destruction with an Admiral Bailey bashment sample on a breakcore track, and it was an incredible track. He and I became friends for a while, and I remember saying to him, “You should work with Jamaican MCs and do this shit live, this would be the most phenomenal shit – like breakcore annihilation with a Jamaican MC.” He was quite a cynical guy and he just kept thinking of reasons not to do it. And when he totally ruled it out, the more I thought about it, the more I was like, “Well, fuck it, I want to do that.”

I was very lucky to see a soundclash between Iration Steppas and The Disciples and that totally warped me.

Just after I moved to London, I was very lucky to see a soundclash between Iration Steppas and The Disciples and that totally warped me. Still, today, I remember that night very memorably. There’s two live shows that really shape what I do now – one is that Iration Steppas soundclash and the other was an early Swans show I saw, which they released as Public Castration – and both were really about physicality and disorientation.

When I first started doing Bug live, Tikiman was my live MC, and I was doing what I learned with Techno Animal, which is a large mixing desk with effects, synths, and multi-tracks. And then I realized that was cool, but somehow I missed the intensity and chaos of what inspired me to start Bug. I realized having decks, crazier effects, rewinds, spinbacks through huge delays... The tools of chaos were better for me using decks and effects rather than multi-tracks.

But as of this year, I’m planning three different ways to do Bug live: The way I have been doing with decks and effects and synths will carry on with the MCs. Also I’m planning the Acid Ragga shit with my soundsystem, which is going to be taking drum machines, 303 effects modular and maybe one or two vocalists, preferably through my soundsystem, and just going in heavy and danceable as hell but in a very technological fashion. The third way is that I want to try and work with Dylan Carlson from Earth who I’ve collaborated with, and with Liz from Grouper, and to try and do more zoned-out Bug sets in the style of the early Bug sets with multi-tracks. At the moment I’m going through a bit of a transformation in wanting all those three approaches – or to be able to swap between them.

What do you currently use for live Bug sets?

I use four Kaoss Pads, a synth, a tone generator, sirens, and sound effects from CD. I used to read reviews of On-U Sound Live when I lived in Weymouth, and they sounded like apocalyptic happenings. It sounded like everything I always wanted to hear in music. A large part of the Bug’s decks and effects shows were how I would imagine those sets being, where it’s like avalanches of sound going from huge grooves to massive effected chaos to sheer noise to absolute minimalism, but with MCs too.

I like music that divides people, cause I still feel it has an edge.

I remember a good friend of mine saying, when he was living in London for those early On-U Sound shows, there’d be a huge queue to come in and an equally huge queue running out, and I always loved that idea. I like music that divides people, cause I still feel it has an edge. I think that’s the problem with most music now – there’s so little that has edge, there’s so little that confronts, there’s so little that causes a psychological reaction in the listener. For me, that stuff’s still crucial. It has to be about all or nothing, because music to my life is all or nothing. I know it’s unfashionable to talk about how music changed your life, but music changed my life. Now, people have much more choice about how to spend their income or their downtime. For me, it’s still about the worship of sound.

How do you rate the state of music today?

Well, things have changed now. You can do more damage with one great track and a YouTube clip than a full album. It’s not all bad. I remain positive about it. I can see the point. Fuckin’ don’t release an album of filler, make sure every track kills it, make sure every track has an identity. But at the same time, I’m still a child of albums and I worked really hard at making the new album feel cohesive.

But dealing with music is so different now, yunno. You either see it as a challenge, and I personally see the whole music industry as my chess opponent. So, for me, you’ve got the good guys versus the bad guys and that never changes. That’s music, that’s life. It makes me sad that people who I’ve known who were genuinely really talented – more talented than me in many cases – gave up music. So, for me, it’s a battle. Life’s one big soundclash. [laughs]

Header photo: Marc Sethi from The Bug’s Facebook

By S.H. Fernando Jr. on August 26, 2014

On a different note