When I met up with Martin again in Berlin last month, he'd gained some clarity on just how intense things can get. During the birth of his son a couple months back, his girlfriend lost two litres of blood and was in intensive care for two days. Then one week after he was born, their son was rushed back to hospital and had two life-threatening operations within a month. He was eventually released, but was back in hospital a week later due to a serious bacterial infection. The new family spent 12 days together in intensive care, sleeping among the machines. "It was a life-changing six weeks," Martin said.
In a sense, the preceding 12 months of Martin's life had become a metaphor for his music. He's been recording since the late '80s, playing in groups like Techno Animal, God and Ice, eventually starting projects like The Bug and King Midas Sound, and producing everything from noise to dub. Martin's music is rarely explicitly conceptual, but on a deeper level it deals with eternal themes—love and loss, life and death. "When I made the decision to concentrate totally on music it wasn't a decision, it wasn't really a choice," he said. "I didn't have anything else I could fall back on: I didn't have rich parents, I dropped out of college. It was almost out of terror I made music, and to try and use music as a catalyst to somehow understand or explain to me the fucked-up nature of the world we live in."
When he was young, Martin had two experiences that shaped his musical identity. He grew up in Weymouth, a small seaside town on the south coast of England, and he frequently travelled to London to see gigs. One time, he and a friend hitchhiked into the city and wound up seeing the experimental rock band Swans, who at the time they knew nothing about. "It mentioned some sadomasochistic, hurtful experience and we were like, 'Wow, that sounds different,'" Martin said. "I think if I remember rightly I was deaf in one ear for a week afterwards, and I'd just never seen a show like that. I think they had a group of bodybuilders as their support act. It was the most relentless experience I'd had, and just seeing as many people exit the venue as came in was pretty intriguing."
The other came later, after Martin had moved to London. He went to a reggae soundclash between a soundsystem run by Iration Steppas and another system run by The Disciples called Boomshakalak. "It was a small room with a huge soundsystem at one side and another one facing it at the other," he recalled. "There was no lighting, there was no stage, there was a lightbulb hanging on top of the mixing desk at either end, and they just proceeded to declare war on each other. Every song became more and more intense, every mix became more and more intense, and it just literally felt like my ears were going to explode. It felt like my throat was being pushed into the back of my neck. And I loved it."
This idea of musical provocation can be traced through all of Martin's work, right up to his latest album. Angels & Devils is, loosely speaking, a concept record. It takes the template he established on London Zoo and stretches it at either end—more aggressive on one side, and deeper on the other. The softer "Angels" half, which opens the record, is a wash of hazy downtempo tracks; the much tougher "Devils" half includes some of the most belligerent music Martin has ever recorded.
"The point where polar opposites meet" has always been of interest to Martin. He links the idea behind Angels & Devils back to the bible and man's unending struggle with positive and negative impulses. The record is also a reflection of how he listens to music. On the one hand, he wants to go to a club and get "annihilated" by the "most insane" soundsystem; on the other, he wants the quiet zone, a place in his everyday life within his own headspace. The challenge with the album was to see if these things could exist in the same place.
Before Martin had even written a note of Angels & Devils, he had to overcome an overpowering urge to rip up the blueprint of the last Bug album and start again. When it was released in 2008, London Zoo became one of Martin's most successful records. The album, his third as The Bug, was critically acclaimed, receiving a Best New Music stamp from Pitchfork, a 5/5 from UK broadsheet The Observer, and a 9/10 from Drowned In Sound (among countless other glowing reviews). Its standout tracks, "Skeng" and "Poison Dart," got over a million plays each on YouTube. But Martin was torn. He was grateful for the chance to spread his message, but he also thought he was being creatively pigeonholed, lumped in with a dubstep scene he had nothing to do with, and forced to operate at a level within the music industry he was uncomfortable with. Martin had always thought he was destined to eke out a living in the underground. In the years following London Zoo, he distanced himself from the album and the accolades that came with it.
But eventually, after years of soul searching, he decided that completely changing course was a bad idea. "It was within the last couple of years," Martin said. "Basically I thought, 'Well that's unfair on myself, and on the people who have actually believed in me and shown support for what I do.' I think it's very easy to be very tangential and to be sort of arrogant—'You know what? Fuck off'—and just turn the tables totally."
In fact, Martin had already started a project to combat the response to London Zoo. King Midas Sound, as he explained to me last year, was his attempt to make an album that was "so melancholy it would almost reduce you to tears." He said that the media would always try to reduce an artist to a singular entity—in the case of The Bug, "agro ragga shit"—and that King Midas Sound, with its deeply melancholic take on dub and lovers rock, was his reaction to this. "I was being increasingly hustled into a corner," he said, "and whenever I feel I am being pushed into a corner I just lash out. Not in a violent way, just in a way so I can find a new direction."
King Midas Sound was originally a duo with Roger Robinson, a vocalist with a distinctive, buttery flow who Martin had worked with on Techno Animal. They wrote about two thirds of what would become the album Waiting For You… before hitting a creative brick wall. Martin proposed they bring Kiki Hitomi, a vocalist he had recently befriended, on board. Robinson strongly disagreed and threatened to leave the band, saying he could carry the album by himself. Martin eventually got his way, and Hitomi ended up playing what Martin describes as a "very crucial role" in King Midas Sound. The dispute set the tone for a tumultuous working dynamic within the group.
"For me it's been an incredible trip with King Midas Sound," said Martin. "Because we argue like hell, we are three very distinct personalities, but luckily we all respect each other very much. There is a fine line between arguing for ego's sake and arguing in a constructive manner, and I feel very fortunate to work with both of them, because I have real respect for both of them as artists."
In his "enthusiasm, passion and positive energy," Martin likens Robinson to Justin Broadrick, his most frequent collaborator. Although Martin and Broadrick haven't worked together for a number of years, during the '90s they were prolific. Techno Animal, a channel for the pair's electronic experiments, became their main collaboration, releasing around five albums in ten years. In addition to various other short-lived projects, they also recorded together as part of God. (Broadrick is a founding member of Godflesh, the long-running industrial metal band who recently returned after a 13-year hiatus.) In a recent interview with FACT, Martin said that he "wouldn't be producing if it wasn't for Justin… I think I recognise in him the same need for the shock of the new, the same need to reinvent yourself to keep yourself interested, and just that passionate urge to connect with sound, and to need sound as a catalyst to navigate this fucked up world."
In November 2009, King Midas Sound played their first gig together at London's Corsica Studios. Waiting For You…, their debut album, which was released on Hyperdub, was being well received, and they had offers to perform it live. They decided to play a faithful reproduction of the record, which went down extremely well with the crowd. But the group themselves hated it, and fought bitterly in the dressing room after the show. Kode9 and Spaceape were also on the bill that night, and the energy and edginess of their performance sparked something in Martin.
King Midas Sound were booked to play Mutek festival in Montreal the following year, and by that point the band had decided to try and shake things up. Martin didn't specify exactly what they did that day, but apparently half the audience (and the organisers) hated the show, and half loved it. They unanimously agreed that they'd found their new direction. At Unsound, I saw how powerful (and potentially divisive) the group's live show could be. Where King Midas Sound's recorded music is based on smooth but portentous atmospheres and a deep sense of melancholy, in their live performances they go on the attack. Noise and bass become central to their sound. Melodic and lyrical content of tracks like "Lost" and "Outta Space" were trace element in the chaos, while Robinson's usually gentle delivery is inverted. The extreme disconnect between King Midas Sound's records and live shows makes their performances all the more potent—and all the more frustrating for those who come expecting serene tones.
In order to deliver this sonic onslaught, Martin insists on strict standards from the venues he plays. The sound and lighting must meet a set of non-negotiable criteria, and he has cancelled shows before (one time in London, on the day of the gig) when aspects of the production have not been up to scratch. At Unsound, the set was delayed by around 30 minutes as Martin tried to ascertain why the strobes on his tech rider were not on stage. "I have a very bad reputation," Martin said. "You are perceived to be difficult if you stick to your guns and if you don't just accept the low con de nom, and you are honest with people. We want an experience even more so now that music isn't selling, so the live arena has become a critical battle as far as I see it. As far as I'm concerned my perfectionism, or attempted perfectionism, in what we are trying to do live isn't just selfish ego, it's as much—more, actually—about me wanting to give an audience the best possible scenario, and to give them the most intense experience I can possibly deliver."
"Kevin Martin is the loveliest and most pleasantly uncompromising bastard to work with," said Jeff Waye, A&R at Ninja Tune, via email. "He's secure in his ideas and vision, but always open to suggestions for pushing it all further and conceptualising how to present The Bug to the public. That we both think Swans are one of the most important bands in the history of music is telling for the shared common-ground love of beautiful brutality and mutual respect from which we share ideas."
Martin will return to Unsound next month with a revised show that, like the album itself, will stretch the parameters of The Bug's live sound. It will also feature an extensive cast of vocalists—copeland, Flowdan, Liz Harris, Manga, Miss Red—who all appeared on Angels & Devils. Martin was particularly pleased with the guests he secured for the album. He said no one had to be paid for his or her time because everyone he approached already believed in his work, something he described as "humbling, flattering and shocking." Martin told me that he loves recording with vocalists and MCs. He tends to write with someone in mind, and then send that person the track in the hope that they'll work with him.
On Angels & Devils this tactic yielded impressive results. The album opens with Liz Harris (AKA Grouper) drifting through "Void" with the type of delivery that makes her voice feel like an instrumental, rather than vocal, component. (Martin was particularly blown away by Harris's willingness to work with him; she told him she'd been playing "Skeng" to her mom just a few weeks before he approached her.) Elsewhere, Death Grips' MC Ride, copeland (formerly of Hype Williams) and Warp artist Gonjasufi all slip seamlessly into Martin's sound world. There are also appearances from Flowdan and Warrior Queen, artists Martin has collaborated with in the past with considerable success—they were the voices of "Skeng" and "Poison Dart" respectively.
Perhaps the biggest challenge Martin faces in the coming months is striking a balance between touring the new album and his responsibilities back at home. "I'd spent my life running away from children," he told me in Berlin. "It was just with my present partner, neither of us had planned it, absolutely not, but both of us just smiled and laughed when we looked at the pregnancy test, and it made sense for the first time in my life.
"I'll be honest with you," he went on, "the irony is that most people when they meet me, if they hear my music they think I'm just going to be this miserable fucker—you know, full stop. I am pretty intense in my approach to music, and what I expect from it and what I try to achieve with it. So therefore in the music industry, most of the time you are expected to just say yes and follow whichever line is in vogue at that particular time, and that's never me. And for me, it's a case of having to question now, as a father, all those things that I kicked against, seeing if any of them are now valid, which lines I now have to go down, and obviously you very much start thinking not as 'I' but as 'we.'"
Back in 2012, Martin started a 7-inch series called Acid Ragga, and in the coming months he hopes to get a live version of the project off the ground. He believes that the style, which, as the name suggests, melds ragga vocals with the Roland 303, is ripe for exploration. He also hopes to use his own soundsystem, a hefty reggae rig that he's had in storage for a number of years, for the shows. There are also plans to release music from the series as a compilation. Martin says that King Midas Sound will return in the near future, but with a different direction ("we may piss some people off in the process, but that's cool"). They plan to record a series of collaborations called The King Midas Sound Tape Archive, in which they work with instrumentalists from various areas, take their material, and put a King Midas Sound spin on it with dubs and vocals.
Martin is now in his third decade of making music, but he doesn't view maintaining an interest in his art as a challenge. In any case, he says there's enough going on outside of music to fuel his creativity. "It's like, the fire isn't just from making music, it's how you are inspired by your surroundings or despair at the global shifts," he said at the end of our conversation in Berlin. "Of course, anyone that's passionate about life, there's got to still be fire—what's the alternative? For me it's passion that's at the core, and I'm still every bit as passionate now as I've always been, and more, I think. It's never ceased—anyone that comes to my shows or listens to my records is obviously aware of that, too. I'm not jaded in any way, otherwise I'd give up as there's just no point."
When I stopped the tape, Martin asked me what I'd been listening to recently. It was the first time I could remember an artist I'd interviewed doing so.