Interview: The Bug
As The Bug, Kevin Martin paints a world that is first and foremost uncompromising - whether it's through its social or politcal statements, or through the sheer weight, density and volume of the low-end frequencies. Having operated under various aliases and with many collaborators over the past two decades, his debut album under The Bug guise, 2008's London Zoo, was a riveting take on dancehall and dub, brimming with a dark, sullen energy that drew plaudits from all corners.
His 2014 follow-up, Angels & Devils, also released on Ninja Tune, saw a continuation of the same themes but skewed through an even more experimental gaze, with album guests including Death Grips, Liz Harris and Copeland, and of course his long-term collaborative partners Flowdan and Warrior Queen. Martin lands back in the UK over the weekend of October 28th & 29th for two very different shows that highlight the malleability of his sound - on the Friday night he will play at Bloc in London, performing a new, immersive piece of work called Sirens as part of Illuminations festival, before he heads up to Hope Works in Sheffield on the Saturday night for a full-blown live onslaught, accompanied by Flowdan, Riko, Killa P and Miss Red ("bombs will drop", he promises).
Ahead of the Sheffield show, we caught up with Martin over Skype for a typically frank discussion on the current political and cultural landscape, his views on this year's 'B' word, and the life-changing personal experiences that inform his music.
How is life in Berlin? Can you tell us about the new night you’re starting there? You've got some big names playing the first one…
Very good, Berlin agrees with me. I've been more productive than I've ever been since I've been living here.
The night’s called Pressure. For the line-up (featuring Terror Danjah, Goth-Trad, Miss Red and Lady Chann) I just called in some favours - these are friends of mine who understand I'm trying to do something that doesn't exist in Berlin right now. I'm trying to generate a night that I used to go to in London, but that doesn't seem to exist in Berlin. There are plans to do Thursday nights every second or third month, and then to do a bigger Saturday thing every three or four months, most likely with Mala.
My initial idea was that I wanted to set up a futuristic dancehall and dub night, but then when I sat down to think who I could actually book for it the realisation hit me straight between the eyes that there's actually not enough artists doing interesting things in those areas. Of course there's loads of people who do dancehall and loads of people who do dub, but for me I like future shock - because that's what attracted me to reggae in the first place, and to dancehall particularly. It was like music I'd never heard before. And I still crave that. That's what I've been trying to do with Miss Red, with her mixtape and the stuff we've been working on now, just trying to kindle fires of experimentation in the dancehall area.
You mentioned you were linking up with Mala, who currently lives in Belgium. Why do you think there’s been a trend in recent years of artists moving out of London, to find creative spaces elsewhere?
I think there are many things - fundamentally, money. It's hard to exist in London, and if you just wanna make money your god and make lots of it, then London is probably your heaven. But for me, I'd struggled in London for years. Actually, around the time of London Zoo I'd already had enough; London Zoo was very much about my feelings towards London. I felt really in two minds about the city - it'd given me everything I loved in music for so many years, but suddenly it'd lost its novelty value and I'd realised I was just struggling to exist. There's a difference between living somewhere, and struggling to exist somewhere.
I feel what's happened with London echoes what happened with Manhattan in New York - inner cities for so long had a stigma of ‘hell hole’, and no one wanted to live there. Then suddenly the life force and energy of inner cities has been displaced to the outskirts because of this feeding frenzy of yuppies and gentrification, another side product of globalisation. The curse of luxury apartments has hit London big, and with all those gentrified money people moving into the centre, they don't like having their sleep disturbed by a sweaty club. They want their chattering classes to surround them, not people from different cultures.
Do you feel Berlin will prove to be more immune to yuppification?
No, I feel it's already set in. From what I gather from people who've lived here a long time, it’s getting more expensive all the time, and now artists from all over the world are moving here and people are trying to find a buzzy city at a cheaper price, it's meant that rent prices have hiked up really fast. I had to find a new studio space at the start of this year, and it was a complete nightmare.
I think what we're seeing globally is cities, capital cities in particular, the metropolises of every country, people are forced to move to try and make a living - we're all desperate to pay our debts, and everything is about money. It's impossible to just float around and not think about the hard economics of modern existence.
I guess this is quite an obvious topic at the moment, but with Brexit looming, how do you feel that will affect your own relationship and interaction with the UK?
I've been trying to get an Irish passport, because my father's Irish. To be honest I've never really liked the English mentality anyway, and this has just pushed me towards that. I just find the whole Brexit thing nauseating - it was such a blinkered decision, and I feel it was a knee-jerk reaction from a British public who've been instilled with fear by ridiculous reporting in the mass media, and by politicians who've got a vested interest in separation. I mean, Cameron resigned, Farage resigned - they washed their hands of it, they just left the great British public in the shit and didn't give a fuck. For me it's disgusting - those people should be imprisoned for what they've done.
You know, I moved to London because I didn't like England. For me, London was this multicultural melting pot where there were cultural collisions on every corner. And I lived in the poorest areas for 20+ years, and my neighbours were always Jamaican, or Turkish, or African, or Pakistani, or Bengali, and I loved it for that. Surely living should be about new experiences, and growing mentally through travel, or conversations that bring you new information, that teach you ultimately that we all are the same. No matter what skin colour, we all have the same life cravings, we all revolve around the same ideas.
On the topic of London, you're there this Friday to premiere your Sirens show at Bloc – how did the idea for the show develop?
Sirens is a piece of music very close to my heart, which people that only know me for Skeng and Poison Dart would probably gag at because it's so different in terms of its composition, in terms of it not being based around a club impact.
When my child was born I cancelled all the shows around the time of his birth, but there was one that I couldn't cancel because it was for a very close friend's gallery. He’d wanted me to write something very specific, like something I'd never written before, which I liked the idea of.
Then what happened, basically my wife and child struggled; my wife had to fight for her life at birth, she was rushed to intensive care and lost way too much blood - so that was stressful enough. But then my son, in the first six months, had two life threatening operations too, and we were living in an intensive care room for months, surrounded by the sound of alarms going off when his blood pressure would drop too low, or whenever the complications would become too obvious. And this piece of music was written during that period. In a way it sounds pithy to many people maybe, that I should write a piece of music based on my son's struggle to live, but actually in a way it enforces how my life is intrinsically linked to music, and how music has always been my therapy. It's always been my parallel universe for this crazy world we all have to live in. For me, ultimately it was a celebration of life, this piece of music, because my son is a fighter; he wanted to be in this world. And he smashed it, he's amazing right now, he's an energy ball.
It's a really super-intense piece of music, and I think the intensity, the volume, and the low-end frequency continuation all totally link with the path I've always taken in music. So it's not like I've suddenly done a happy house track, or made a country & western concept album. For me, it's still in the same ballpark in terms of the tools, but by being one 45-minute piece with no concession to conventional song structure, no hooks, no drops, no vocal. It could be challenging to some, but I hope challenging in a good way. Also by the way it's presented, in terms of the use of lighting, and denial of anything other than this wall of fog, it's a call for immersion, to get lost in this sound experience. So it's almost part installation as well as composition.
This week also sees the release of Grime 2016, the latest compilation from Elijah and Skilliam on Butterz, which features your tracks Iceman and Box. What’s your take on the health of the grime scene at the moment?
That's a good question, because 2015 was absolutely explosive in terms of certain tunes that blew my head off, and this year's been a little bit anticlimactic. There hasn’t been the same amount of high impact tunes that have hooked me like the previous year absolutely did. I think Novelist is killing it, and I'm very happy we're going to share the stage in Sheffield, I'm a long term fan of his stuff - I think he's carrying on the spirit of Dizzee Rascal, but doing it in his own individual manner. But it's been a weird year for grime; I thought last year would just open the floodgates, but it actually hasn't.
Do you think there was too much expectation placed on grime following the buzz of last year?
I think if there's a flood of great tracks last year, just as a greedy person I'd like a flood of great tracks this year, and it's just disappointing there haven't been as many 'blow my head off' tunes.
But there still is a big energy going on in grime, between that and stuff like Brixton drill music there's still some big vocal club tracks around. And ultimately that's what I revolve around. When dubstep first began, Kode9 introduced me to FWD>> just when it first started and I was a regular because it was just round the corner from where I lived. If I'm honest at that time I was much more into grime, so I'd be waiting for Flowdan, Wiley, God’s Gift, Riko, Jamakabi, Trim, all of them to pile down, which they did periodically. They were the exciting times at FWD>> for me, because I've always gravitated towards vocal music. I've always made instrumental music and will continue to do so, but I love the fire, energy and soul of a great vocal.
There was a track on Angels & Devils that was a collaboration with Liz Harris (Grouper) – how does it differ working with someone like Liz, compared to MCs like Flowdan or D Double E?
They're all masters, for me. I was a huge Grouper fan, so I wrote to her because I wanted to have this schizoid duality to the album, but I thought she wouldn't be remotely interested in my shit. I wrote her an e-mail saying, “I guess you have no idea what I do or what this is, but I'm heavily inspired by your music and I'd love to collaborate on my next record”. And then bizarrely she wrote back to me saying she'd been playing Skeng to her mum the week before, and that she'd love to collaborate.
What I look for ultimately in my collaborators is a hardcore attitude. And I don't mean a hardcore punk attitude, although that would be cool too; I just mean being uncompromising, where you've basically dedicated your life to your artistry. And I believe Liz has, and I believe Flowdan and D Double have. In that respect, I don’t see any difference. Of course stylistically there's a world of difference, but I wanted that difference to be amplified on Angels & Devils.
Is there anyone who you haven't worked with so far who you'd be particularly keen to work with?
There's always a multitude of people I'd love to work with. I got turned down by Stephen O'Malley [of Sunn O)))]; I tried to reach out to Dizzee Rascal, around the time of London Zoo. The first grime tune I ever bought was I Luv U by Dizzee, it was on a white label and I bought it in Rough Trade. I'd never heard anything like it in my life, which is the perfect reaction for me. When it feels like a track or an album has been transmitted from another planet, that's perfect for me.
Busta Rhymes I'd like to work with, Damien Marley I'd like to work with, but those are different planets, different budgets to the world I move in. And I was going to say, have those guys lost their spark, but I don't know if they have. I think Damien Marley is still incredibly inventive, and experimental, and brave in his choices. I like mavericks; I like people who push the boundaries of what's possible in music.
I've got collaborations coming up with people that I'm a huge fan of - that I can't publicise just yet - so there's more shit on the way. I like the collaborative process. I started playing sax when I was a kid and I was a big fan of jazz music, and a lot of the free jazz players in the ‘60s would play in each other’s bands. But it didn't mean it was shit, or it was compromising, it was the opposite - they would ignite fires in each other, and that’s what I want to do when I collaborate with people, I want to light a creative fire in the person I'm working with.
What mavericks do you feel are creating at the moment? Whose work are you admiring?
In the last two weeks I've been blown away by an Indonesian duo called Senyawa. There's one guy who makes his own instruments, and he makes this string thing that's like a bass, but it's so deep and resonant, it's ridiculous. And then the vocalist improvises, or sings Indonesian songs, and he's got something like a four or five octave range, so he effortlessly flits between sounding like the devil one second and a songbird the next. It's one of the most incredible shows I've ever seen. That blew my head off, in terms of individuality and craft; these guys are virtuosos, they're not just computer punchers.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, I found a YouTube playlist earlier this week of a collection of Brixton drill music, and it just seems like Lock Arff by Section Boyz, or Giggs' rise, has given rise to a whole generation of artists under that umbrella, and it's great.
I like a punk / independent / DIY spirit, that's always very welcome for me. Whether it be grime, hip hop, bashment, free jazz in the ‘60s… there was fire and a punk energy, that sort of “fuck you” energy, and a question of why do you have to struggle in a world that has so much to give.
That's always been resonant with me; those are the areas I always look for. The enemy for me, apart from the music industry itself, has always been the middle mass, the bland nothingness. So often the shit that's most popular is the shit that's most average, in terms of composition, or emotion, or creativity. The bland shit is the best selling shit, across the board. Fuck that! I'd rather keep struggling and doing music that I can be proud of, and my child will grow up knowing that was what I made and know that I made it for the right reasons, even if we have to struggle.
Do you have many releases on the horizon at the moment?
There's going to be a new Bug / Earth collaboration; we're going to tour together and play some festivals. There's also a new King Midas Sound album that I mastered two days ago, which is very different again from what people would expect, and actually probably one of the most extreme records I've ever made, even though it's one of the quietest.
It feels a while since there's been new King Midas Sound material?
We did a collaborative album with Fennesz about a year ago, but in our own right, yeah. With King Midas Sound, Roger and I really share the same philosophy, which is we like to keep people guessing. DJ Premier of Gang Starr once said in an interview that his job through music was to shock, excite and amaze, and with King Midas Sound we like to pull the rug from under people.
We've moved a few times to question ourselves, and question the perception of what we do, but we’re trying to fundamentally amplify that what we've always done, which is to try and explore emotion as the most ultimate part of what we do and how you can convey emotion through music. We seem drawn to melancholy, the colour blue - that is probably the thread that holds it together, even though stylistically it changes quite a lot.
Words: Jack Scourfield
Tickets are on-sale now through PFTP for Gett Off x Amigos at Hope Works on Saturday, 29th October, featuring The Bug performing with Flowdan, Riko, Killa P and Miss Red, alongside Novelist, Fabio & Grooverider, DJ Die, Spooky, Riz La Teef and more.