The highly respected drum & bass artist gives a rare interview.
Yet for all his influence, Martin has never played the drum & bass game. Working from the geographic, musical and social peripheries, there's a sense of mystique surrounding him that can be attributed to a few factors. He's media shy. He's selective about DJ bookings. He's never been remixed, and has no online profile whatsoever. Martin lives in the small German town of Mönchengladbach and regularly retreats to the Irish island of Valentia, the westernmost point of Europe, a place where he writes a lot of his material and finds a great deal of creative and spiritual fulfilment. He is also a recovered alcoholic.
Martin recently released a pivotal album and has another one coming up. Grow, released on Craig Richard's The Nothing Special, is one of Martin's most explorative and personal bodies of work, comprising tracks dating back over 15 years. The Deep, meanwhile, is his 14th album, released later this month on his own Signature label. It's a broad sonic investigation that throws dubby textures, deep synths, electro influences and jazzy house into the mix. He also sings on it, something Martin has been incorporating into his music since 2001.
Martin's recent mix for Beats One, one of a small handful of studio mixes he's ever recorded, further illustrates the range of his work and interests these days.
It hints at a future beyond the genre he's been associated with for the past 19 years. I caught some rare interview time with Martin, attempting to understand his current state of flux.
From Belfast to Mönchengladbach—are you attracted to the peripheries?
I'm just not motivated by my geographic position when it comes to music scenes. I'm not bothered by being isolated, and I don't need to run parallels between my success and my exposure to the network that provides said success. There's enough room to do what you want to do and not be worried about protocol. Plus, I'm quite happy to fall into the anarchic unknown, be it through pragmatism or laziness.
Any other way of falling into the anarchic unknown would be contrived, wouldn't it?
I think so. But sometimes it's the way life is. Life does what it wants anyway, regardless of whether you want it to. So as long as I have a space to write, I'm happy. I am trying to change that though, and give myself a bit more of a professional setup. We're actually moving to Cologne. Being closer to a city allows me to be closer to important things like record stores, for example.
On the flipside, your trips to Valentia are also really important aren't they?
Sure. I think over-exposure to cities is a stressful experience. It's difficult to ascertain what's actually happening when lots of people are together, and I think the combination of modern life is a prelude to madness. When you go outside in an environment like Valentia there's an energy that's much stronger. I don't know what the hell it is but it fulfils me. I'm not a religious man.
I guess growing up in Belfast influenced that?
I'm not a fan of any particular big ideology. There might be elements or ideas that resonate with me, but it all feels so anti-anthropomorphic. I love what Terence McKenna thought about culture: it's not your friend, it's like furniture, you can sit in it, enjoy it and walk away from it. People get involved in it in far too much of a serious manner, insofar as it's critically important to them. Your life isn't bound to these things. It's the power of your mind. I had these epiphanies about how people function when I was very young. Maybe four, five years old.
That seems young for such a realisation.
I had a pretty comprehensive deconstructionist view on religious beliefs by that age. It was a sense of something much stronger. And that made much more sense to me. Like some type of Truman Show-type of sensation but years before the film.
Do you still experience that now?
All the time. It's a wide-open world. Like what Musk and other people are saying, this is quite probably a ridiculously fantastic game being played from beyond somewhere. These are fundamental positions that people will take in the future. They will ask, "What is actually there?" Scientifically we're getting closer to putting our finger on what it might be, but you know it will be weirder than anything you can imagine.
How about your position within drum & bass? For an outsider, you're respected and accepted and have been since you emerged on Fabio's Creative Source. You must have some interesting stories from the Music House cutting house?
I'll always remember one of the earliest trips I took down there. Randall came up to me, kissed me and told me I was blessed. He's one of my favourites. He's seen it all and he still has that buzz about him. He's been constant. He's very funny and has lots of energy—every scene needs characters like him. I miss the Music House days, actually. The smell of ganja coming down the road, always loads of people there talking about things and ideas. It was a real community.
Was there much of a drum & bass community in Belfast?
Not at all. I used to run club nights there but there was no interest in us. I barely play in my home city, which is a shame. Soundtracks change from city to city, and I think drum & bass has a stigma attached to it in Northern Ireland.
An outsider even in your own hometown.
Drum & bass was that music everyone hated in Belfast. It wasn't welcome. I remember seeing Bukem play in this fancy house club. It was really busy and I thought, ah ha, we've cracked it! Then the next drum & bass night was empty. That's the way it is. There's a stigma that's never gone away.
There's a stigma with drum & bass generally. It's like an in-joke for junglists.
Yeah it is, but it would be nice if other people got the joke. That's why working with Craig [Richards] has been really interesting. He's been an ambassador for my music. He's respected in other genres, so when he shows my music to people who might not know about me it's authenticated in different way. It's not that I want to sneak in there with a drum & bass outfit hidden under a coat, I'm just looking for an angle to say, "Look, there's some drum & bass that's got some poetic vitality and beauty and you're missing out on it because of a type of sectarian attitude."
Grow was a Trojan horse in that way, and you can hear this on The Deep.
There's a lot of exchange between the styles and genres I'm working in. I've always had that, but it's more prevalent in my music now. The Deep was me trying to show the fringes and areas where I can explore and develop. It's the type of music that I fear for, as it doesn't instantly have the same type of purpose as my drum & bass songs.
Was the first Dominick Martin album, Shine A Light, a watershed for that mindset?
It was. Or rather the build up to it. I got attacked, my face was busted up, my jaw was broken, I felt down. I wanted to write music and do something. I wanted to get that feeling out and make sense of how someone can do that to me. So, I tried to do that but my hard drive went. It just blew up. Then I painted the self-portrait that's on the cover. It became this manifestation that built up to that first Dominick Martin album. By the time I made it I didn't give a shit what it was, I just wanted to put it out there. I did an I Ching reading and it gave me a reading about a fox trying to cross a frozen pond without getting its tail wet. And that's what happened. It's strange—the universe rewards bravery. I think there's still some interesting material on that album. It's closer to the air of rawness that I want to capture.
What did you capture on The Deep?
The Deep was more focused on how I try and encapsulate the vocals of what I do. Particularly in the falsetto range, where I think I'm more at home in my voice. I've discovered I have an ability to hold notes. I sometimes worry people might think it's too Bee Gees-y, but I love The Bee Gees anyway. In fact, The Deep was actually going to be an all-vocal album. It didn't quite end up like that, but it's more on the edge than any of the other Calibre albums. Experimentation needs to have sugar, if that makes sense?
Yes, or it could just come off as experimentation for the sake of it, which alienates your fans.
Yeah, it becomes mechanical and all about the technical side. That bores me. The thing has to have this free-flowing sense of poetry. I worry I sound pretentious now.
It's about that roughness you mentioned earlier. Not over-finessing.
You have to face the fact that there's a multitude of ways to finish a track, try not to think about them and just let it set its own course. It's about getting into a mindless state where the creativity is happening naturally and you're not thinking at all. Like meditation. I'm sure you get it with writing. When you have that sensation where you're merely holding the reigns of a horse.
An ideal state that's often scuppered by a deadline or brief.
I hate deadlines. Life is full of them. Trains you have to make, meetings, calls, flights. You have to deal with these deadlines all the time. It becomes an irritant. I love having freedom, having a few months to figure something out.
How often do you have that luxury? You're selective about DJ gigs because of this, aren't you?
To a degree. It's an ongoing balance. I could do six gigs a week and make so much more money, but I'd be tired, emotionally drained, unhappy. The capacity to write is far more important than going out entertaining people week after week. You have to protect things that give you longevity. It wasn't DJing that created my career. It was my music. So I find ways to protect that. Valentia is crucial for that. I go there, I wake up and see the sea and I can already hear the beats. No responsibilities as a father or partner or anything.
We've spoken about how negative experiences can influence your writing, but how are positive influences channelled or reflected in your music? Have you ever written or dedicated a tune to your daughter?
Because I write music all the time it doesn't make sense for me to write a tune for my daughter as a gift. But there is a beatless thing with a piano that was my favourite thing from the last writing session I did in Valentia. She loves that, she calls it her tune.
So I guess positivity manifests whether I like it or not. But I've always preferred the melancholic. I feel there's a natural sadness in the world. We all know that we're only here for a moment and everything we create and generate, the connections and love and emotion, there's a possibility it will never be there again. We have to take it on that premise. It's the blues—you have this moment to enjoy this amazing place. God knows what happens next. It's the most beautiful thing in the world to see your kids growing up, sure, but the sadder things will provide more ideas.
You once described your creative process as "capturing ideas." At what point do you transition from capturing to crafting?
That transition is there now. I'm a lot more patient than I was. This idea of taking your time is creeping into all my work. The whole process is slowly changing. Especially when I consider recent requests to produce for other artists. The process will become more convoluted and I'll have to reciprocate other people's creative nature. One of the reasons why my music has been the way it has is because I've been working on my own in isolation for so many years. I've been in the undergrowth for many years.
Is that daunting? You collaborate with other artists but producing someone is a different thing.
It's a little daunting. Also because I'm from drum & bass. It's like, "You want me to work with you? Really? Sure you don't want me to go and clean your glasses?" It's that old stigma thing again, but I know we're moving on from it. I love how drum & bass has diversified on its own terms. Other bass-related genres have never been able to diversify.
Is there a parallel universe where Calibre never made drum & bass and was rooted in another genre?
Maybe. It's all just tempos and utilisation of space around the beat. It's not as much a challenge to change tempos as people think. People who play instruments don't see it as a challenge. Think about Irish bands who play in pubs and alcohol makes them go faster, and that in turn affects their technique. Whenever you're used to that it affects your style.
How did stopping drinking affect your output or technique?
That's the Shine A Light album again. Basically someone literally knocked me on my head and all these things came to me. I've read that trauma experiences can flick a lightbulb on. That's what happened to me when I was attacked. Something was happening to me at the time anyway, I could feel life changing, I could feel things happening inside my body.
Had you stopped drinking when you got attacked?
I hadn't drunk for two years by then. But I was still recovering. People had no sympathy for me when I got attacked, they thought I was drunk and caused it myself. Because that was the type of thing I did for years. No sympathy for the devil. I'd spent all these years right on the edge, so close to so many palms in my face, goading people to try but never once got touched. I do nothing and I get attacked. Ironic, isn't it? Life has a strange way of teaching you lessons.
It does. We can't finish the interview like this, though. Does your slower creative process mean we won't hear quite so many Calibre records in the future?
No, no. There's a lot of material I need to work out what to do with. There'll be another Shelflife album, there are some singles lined up. There's also more stuff coming on Craig's label. Some really interesting things later on this year that may manifest as something live. But that's all in the future. First let's get The Deep out there.