There are few figures in electronic music who can claim mastery of such a diverse selection of styles and genres as Kevin Richard Martin, aka The Bug. From his earliest days in the ‘avant-thrash-jazz monstrosity’ group GOD and his groundbreaking work with Justin Broadrick as Techno Animal through to the heavy industrial dancehall of The Bug and the bleak tenderness of his eponymous ambient exploits, Martin’s career has been marked by a penchant for provocation and a obsessive preoccupation with the extremities of electronic sound.
Long-time Bug fan and dancehall dilettante Droid from No Place Like Drone on Dublin Digital Radio caught up with Kevin prior to his forthcoming gig with grime MC Flowdan in the Button Factory on Friday February 2nd to discuss his love of loudness and sonic experimentation, the abiding influence of Jamaican music on his work, his approach to collaboration and creativity, and his recent submergence in the ocean of contemporary ambient music.
“In Dublin generally, the reactions to The Bug shows I’ve played have been pretty cool… I remember when I played with Warrior queen in a basement venue and the crowd just wouldn’t let us stop. The police were trying to get us to stop and there was a lot of talk of a riot going off.”
Droid: I’d like to start by asking you about Dublin. I’ve been scouring my memory and the internet – neither of which are very reliable – for reminders, but you’ve definitely played, at least six times here; you played DEAF in 2003. You played for U:mack in the Shelter in 2004 and then a couple of months later for their 10th anniversary gig with Shellac. You played with Warrior Queen in 2007, and 2008, at the same venue for different promoters. And you played with Dylan Carson (of Earth) in 2017. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there was something between 2008 and 2017?
Kevin: No, y’know, I think you’re right. You’ve set my memory going now… There was another show with Flowdan. I can’t remember what the venue was called but we played on the ground floor and there was rave music in the basement. The reason I recall it particularly was that it was absolutely mental, the crowd were bananas. And basically, I remember mentioning it to someone later on – I can’t remember if it was the promoter, or just a random Irish person I bumped into at another show somewhere who had been to that show. And I was like: ‘Yo, the last show I played in Dublin, with Flowdan was mental’ and he was like: ‘Well, do you not know what happened?’ And it turns out that one of the biggest consignments of acid to hit Dublin for years came in that weekend and a large percentage of the people the show were completely fucked up on acid. I remember there were a lot of people on stage – at one point someone literally leant over and lifted the needle off the record, for no apparent reason at all. It was sort of mental, y’know. I’m used to crazy shows but that one I recall being particularly nuts in terms of the audience reaction.
Droid: (Laughs) It actually sounds like it could have been a not that unusual occurrence for Dublin.
Kevin: Well, I think it was the scale of how mashed up everyone was. I’m used to playing to very drunk people in Dublin – I remember when I played with Warrior queen in a basement venue and the crowd just wouldn’t let us stop. The police were trying to get us to stop and there was a lot of talk of a riot going off or something. So yeah, in Dublin generally, the reactions to The Bug shows I’ve played have been pretty cool. I remember the Shellac show very well because It was Timo from U:mack, it was his idea. He brought me over to play a club show, which I think was my first show in Dublin as The Bug, and that was fairly low key. There weren’t that many people there but it was cool, y’know? I think it was with Ras B if I remember rightly. And then Timo, at the end of the night said to me: ‘Yo, man, you should be playing with rock bands. This is crazy, the sound you come up with, it’d be mental.’ And I was like: “I don’t give a fuck who I play with. I’m happy to play with anyone on the bill.’ And then a couple of months later he calls me out of the blue and says: ‘Kev, I’ve got the idea, I know exactly who I want to put you on with.’ and then he said: ‘Shellac’, and I’m like: ‘Yeah, come on you’re nuts – Shellac?’ That is one of the craziest ideas he could’ve come up with, because for me, Shellac are the embodiment of a band, not particularly electronic, but I was like: ‘Fuck it. Let’s give it a go.’ And I remember afterwards the drummer from Shellac came up to me and said: ‘Man, I don’t know what the fuck this music is that you make, but it’s fucking great.’ And saying I was a genius… And I’m like: ‘Thanks, because the feeling’s mutual, I’m a fan.’ He was very nice – but Albini was nowhere to be seen (laughs). I’m not sure it would have been his cup of tea really?
Droid: I missed that gig, but a friend of mine went to it and he said you were actually louder than Shellac?
Kevin: It’s possible (laughs).
Droid: I think you said in some interview that volume could be used as a ‘sadistic tool’. And from the reports I heard you were probably sharpening that tool at the Shellac gig.
Kevin: Y’know, there was a time in my life when I would say that was absolutely accurate. That I was using volume to empty rooms. My goal was to empty rooms – it was confrontational – with my band GOD. I would take delight in emptying rooms and seeing people running for cover. I remember John Zorn took delight in getting us booked into jazz festivals that he was booked into, he became our champion really. And that was just farcical, seeing how many people would be running out of the venue, literally during the first song. There were GOD shows where I was being attacked on stage, where my soundman was being attacked, and it was pretty fierce as a show. And I was happy with that, because I needed that emotionally at the time. Subsequently, volume is still crucial as far as I’m concerned, but I don’t see it anymore as just being a sadistic vehicle to empty a room, I see it as more a way of achieving sort of heightened awareness really, and just that feeling of being overwhelmed sonically and just, y’know, how important it is to have musical experiences that that are memorable. And volume plays its part in that because some of the most memorable shows I’ve ever been to happen to be some of the loudest as well, and I don’t think that’s coincidental. I think when you play at loud volume, it almost rearranges your DNA. It certainly declares warfare on your nervous system.
The physicality of sound is a very crucial part of what I do, because some of the best experiences I’ve ever had with live music was in seeing outrageously loud artists like Swans at the ICA, or Iration Steppas during clashes with the Disciples or Abi Shanti in London. With Swans – nothing prepared me for that, because I didn’t even know them when I saw them, all I had to go on was a Timeout review. And that, I’d say, was absolutely an S&M type experience really, because I was deaf in one ear for about a week afterwards. And it’s not that I want to reproduce that with Bug shows. But what I do want is for people to have the choice to be allowed to listen to music at loud volume, because right now, it’s a big issue. The reason I don’t play in France very often, and certainly haven’t played in Switzerland for years is because of volume issues. You know, I prefer not to play if I’m being capped at 95 dB. I think it’s up to an audience member to either wear protection or to decide it’s too loud and be allowed to walk out as opposed to a sort of police state tactic that: ‘You know what, anything above this we’re gonna fine you, sue you, etc, etc.’ It seems ridiculous to me that you are not allowed to choose how you want to absorb music.
“…some of the most memorable shows I’ve ever been to happen to be some of the loudest as well, and I don’t think that’s coincidental. I think when you play at loud volume, it almost rearranges your DNA. It certainly declares warfare on your nervous system.”
Droid: And that’s a health and safety thing? It’s not like a noise/nuisance thing?
Kevin: There’s probably a few contributing factors but I think mostly it’s health and safety – that’s the main logic for it. But it’s also about the gentrification of cities and what that leads to, which, invariably is venues getting closed down one by one when the yuppies and the hipsters realise that their sleep’s gonna get disturbed if they move into raucous areas. It’s a sad story that seems to recur again and again.
Droid: And how’s your hearing after all these years?
Kevin: Weirdly, it’s alright. I mean, I’ve got tinnitus. I’ve had tinnitus since the GOD days, but I’ve sort of learned to live with it. It’s not troubled me to a terrible degree. When I was in GOD, I used to have to sleep with a cassette player next to my bed to drown out the ringing in my ears. Because with GOD, there were two drummers on stage. I’d have cymbals right next to my ears, because invariably, we’re playing in small venues. And I was playing sax through a Marshall stack, through effects. So it was ragingly intense on the mid-range and painful frequencies, y’know, the high-end and mid frequencies.
Droid: While we’re on the subject of Dublin and live shows – I hear you’re a fan of Lankum?
Kevin: Yeah, I met the Lankum guys, all of them, when they played a show here last year. We became sort of mutual admirers really, just before they went fucking huge. But they’re lovely people, I sort of guessed they would be cool. You know, anyone with tats, dodgy hairstyles…
Droid: (Laughs) Yeah, that could be something to do with Ian and Daragh’s anarcho-punk origins.
Kevin: There was an interview at the end of last year that was really good. They talked about the roots of their music and where they came from. And I thought it was fascinating because I didn’t really know that much about their background.
Droid: They’ve gotten a whole new generation of people into Irish folk music which is a pretty remarkable thing to achieve.
Kevin: What was crazy for me was – I can’t remember who it was in particular, but someone from Lankum had mentioned Skeng, or they had dropped Skeng on a radio show. And of course, I’m going to try and see: ‘Who’s this?’ And I was like: ‘What? Irish folk? Where’s the link?’ And then I checked their music more and more, and I was like actually – they’re dope. I like their whole take on traditional folk music, y’know, going in dark, deep and droney.
Droid: Yeah, it’s amazing. It really is something special.
“…someone from Lankum had mentioned Skeng, or they had dropped Skeng on a radio show… And I was like: ‘What? Irish folk? Where’s the link?’ And then I checked their music more and more, and I was like: actually – they’re dope. I like their whole take on traditional folk music, y’know, going in dark, deep and droney.”
Kevin: They were great I gotta say, that was the first time I’d seen them live and they blew me away.
Droid: I heard some rumours that there may be a Lankum collaboration forthcoming?
Kevin: Yeah – we talked about it a couple of years ago and I was just mentally busy and I couldn’t get my shit together. And then I’m pretty sure I had the idea of doing a cover version of a particular folk song and they liked the idea, and then Radie recorded a version of the vocal which I worked on to her acapella. I got it to a point that they were happy with it, and they’re soon to be adding some bits to it, and then I’m going to be getting it back again to mix down and to add some other parts they gave me, like, non-vocal parts that I have to still do stuff with. The impression I get is we’re both into doing the collaboration, but we don’t want to feel pressured about it. And that’s the best way to do it, really, y’know, I mean, there’s no record company pressure. No pressure, y’know, and seeing what their schedule has been like in the last year or so makes my schedule seem pedestrian in comparison.
Droid: It’s good to know there’s something solid in the works.
Kevin: Oh, yeah, it’s real. It’s real. As far as I can tell, we’re both really, y’know, we’re up for it, it’s good. And, I’ve gotta say – to put music to Radie’s voice. I find it quite challenging, actually. Because it’s such a specific area, tone, texture, flow, that it was a challenge to do justice to it. You know, as far as I was concerned.
Droid: So you’re playing here in the Button Factory this Friday the 2nd with MC Flowdan. You first worked with him back in 2007 and you’ve had some pretty big tunes down through the years: ‘Jah war’, ‘Skeng’… You recently came together again on your album ‘Fire’. I think you did three tunes for that, including the track ‘Pressure’, which is absolutely apocalyptic. What do you have in store for the gig Friday?
Kevin: Just to bring fire, sonically and aesthetically. I think both Flowdan and I both try to push each other further and further. You know, it’s not like he’s some tame MC in the background, with the DJ twice as loud kinda thing. It’s almost like clashing each other at times, y’know. It’s like he wants to be the don of the stage but he knows that I’ve got a wall of speakers around me (laughs). So it’s sort of a case of mutual respect we’ve built up over the years. You know, when I first approached Roll Deep. I was looking to work with Rico, Rico Don. And it was Roll Deep’s manager at the time that suggested that I meet Flowdan as well as Rico and decide who I want to work with. And Rico behaved like a total prick, he treated me like an asshole, and Flowdan was professional. So I was like: ‘fuck that I don’t need that’ from Rico. And that was how I started working with Flowdan.
I was a fan of Roll Deep. I’d seen them play numerous times in London and there were virtual riots at their shows, and I’d also happened to play their first show in Europe when someone put The Bug together with them in the Amsterdam Paradiso. I was deeply immersed in grime at that time, ever since I first walked into Rough Trade and they gave me a copy of ‘I love you’ on white label by Dizzee Rascal, and then I was trying to investigate what this sound was. When Flowdan agreed to do it I’m not sure he knew what he was letting himself in for either. But it was brave, y’know, because the beats he was jumping on weren’t grime tempo. At the time of the first Bug album I didn’t really give a fuck about tempo. I wasn’t coming from a DJ background. And I certainly wasn’t interested in beat-matching. I was interested in yard tapes from Jamaica and On-U Sound parties and chaos. And so for him, I know it came as a surprise, and a challenge, in terms of being able to find his space in the middle of this madness really. But I also know that he came from reggae – all he listens to is Jamaican music, he very rarely listens to grime, so he knows what I’m after. Through time we’ve really, really grown to respect each other and become friends, which is great.
You’d have to ask him what he wanted from the experience at the beginning of the relationship, out of working together, but over time, it’s that feeling of respect – but also of just trying to push each other artistically to see how much further we can go. I wrote a couple of new riddims, which we played about a week ago in Istanbul, and I just played these riddims at the soundcheck, not really thinking he would dig them, and he was straight onto them, y’know. It shows me he’s open, and he also knows I’m trying to do things differently. And we’ve had lots of conversations just about what we’re both trying to do artistically over the years. I think we’re both pretty uncompromising – as people, and artistically. And it’s just great to link with someone who’s so ferocious on the mic, and so talented in a live situation – we both love that arena. We don’t do shows just to pay the bills for the sake of paying the bill. Yes, we need that for those reasons. But at the same time, we’re doing it because we love playing live shows, and we love the interaction with audiences, and just seeing how far you can press people’s buttons, and how much damage you can cause, how much chaos you can bring.
“We don’t do shows just to pay the bills for the sake of paying the bill. Yes, we need that for those reasons. But at the same time, we’re doing it because we love playing live shows, and we love the interaction with audiences, and just seeing how far you can press people’s buttons, and how much damage you can cause, how much chaos you can bring.”
Droid: It was good timing hooking up with them then. Presumably, that would have been about 2005/2006? It looked like they were going to take over the world at one stage.
Kevin: Roll Deep? Yeah, it was before they had the big number ones.
Droid: Yeah, I was just gonna say – and then the album came and it all fell to pieces.
Kevin: Yeah, yeah. Y’know, we kept working throughout that period. And in fact, their engineer, Joe Hirst, ended up moving into the same complex that my studio was in. So I’d be bumping into various members of Roll Deep a lot, and that’s how I linked with Manga Saint Hilare – another one of the MC’s I worked with. And I ended up working with Rico too. So it’s not like that never happened. And then Wiley was coming to shows and seeing Bug shows with myself and Flowdan, and he ended up dropping lyrics about that in one of his tunes. So, for me, I’d say what I dug about Roll Deep was they just had a spirit of punk about them, they were raw – and I saw them as like a UK Wu Tang, really. I was obsessed with Wu Tang Clan.
Droid: I think that that’s how Wiley saw them as well.
Kevin: Yeah, and just seeing how he worked as a general with them, like at the show in Amsterdam. And it was interesting for me, because at that time I had a fully live set up, a mixing desk and loads of outboard effects, and he was up on stage asking me loads of questions about what I was doing. He very obviously had a thirst for knowledge. And then seeing how he marshalled his MC’s on the night was really interesting to me, too, y’know. Like I said, I could only feel it echoed how I presumed Wu Tang were working and the RZA was working. And I think it had similar roots, and similar sentiments. It was, for me, a no-brainer to want to link up with people like that.
Droid: It’s funny you mentioned that you wanted to work with Rico first – because baritone and heavy bass, like, Jamaican baritone and heavy bass is such an absolutely classic combination, people like Ward 21, Shabba & Buju Banton. And I can see, at least from some of your collaborators – and since you’ve probably worked with Flowdan more than any other MC – that you’re really attracted to that sound.
Kevin: Yeah, I’d agree with you. But Jamaica in the last x-amount of years, it’s not been about bass at all, and mostly been about high voices. And not surprisingly, I’ve become less interested in Jamaican music. Well – not less interested, I’m constantly monitoring it, but there’s very little that I’m finding that’s striking a chord with me really. But yeah, the references you just made. I mean for me, Burro Banton and Cutty Ranks. Those were the Dons, y’know. Ward 21’s Suku. I’d love to work with Suku. It just hasn’t happened. I’ve become friends. with other members of Ward 21, but just not Suku.
Droid: I’m a bit like yourself, I mean, I love dancehall, especially the late-80s to the mid-90’s, that period is probably my favourite; Tiger and Ninjaman, Bailey, Mad Cobra, those kinds of deejays. But I feel like it’s just become so unrelentingly nihilistic and grim recently.
Kevin: You mean lyrically or do you mean aesthetically?
Droid: Lyrically, and thematically and aesthetically… Musically, I think you can still occasionally hear interesting things – there’s things that pop out here and there that are just really fucked up and strange, but the content is just so dark… I don’t have a problem with slackness really, but when it’s just so incessantly bleak and joyless – it’s like it’s gone too far in one direction, there doesn’t seem to be much of a balance anymore.
Kevin: I can’t lie, when I first took dancehall seriously, I loved the fact that it was just sex and violence consistently being dealt with in the lyrics.
Droid: But there was always humour as well, and bits of politics and social commentary and consciousness, sometimes all in one track. There was more allusion and entendre, more subtlety and diversity. It may seem absurd to compare levels of slackness, but I think there’s a world of difference between what Shabba or Yellowman or General Echo did, and a lot of the stuff coming out today… or maybe I’m just getting old (laughs).
Kevin: I think there’s a lot of humour still, in the stuff I hear. You know, I don’t think humour has left dancehall. What I feel has left dancehall is that future shock element that I always loved musically. That ‘what the fuck’ factor, where I’d hear dancehall tunes and I’d never heard anything like them in my life, y’know, sonically. I miss that. And yeah, I miss the baritone growlers that definitely press my buttons in terms of the intensity.
Like Flowdan, for instance, would diss me for expressing similar sentiments to what you’ve just said, y’know. I’ve had long chats with him. I often ask him who I should be looking out for because he’s still very, very much in that loop of dancehall. But even he’s said to me recently when we were in Istanbul, that ultimately, since Vybez Kartel, there’s been very little growth or advancement. As I said, for me, reggae, dub, dancehall, always seemed to be like a fast-forward momentum into the future. And all I hear now really is formula. Apart from Equinoxx, when Equinoxx came along with the albums that Demdike Stare put out, they sounded really fresh. I’d have problems naming producers in Jamaica nowadays, whereas other producers before that, people like Steely and Clevie, Dave Kelly… there’d always be producers I could mention, who would be dear to me, there’d always be producers that had a big influence on me, and made me pay attention sonically.
“…reggae, dub, dancehall, always seemed to be like a fast-forward momentum into the future.”
I don’t know about you, but for many years I couldn’t really listen to dancehall to be honest. I was into dub music, into heavy roots, into going to dub sound systems. Most dancehall, when I heard it just seemed way too cheesy, y’know. It was only when I heard a Steely & Clevie riddim called ‘Street Sweeper’ – that was the riddim that turned me on to dancehall, it was just impossible to ignore. Because ‘Boom Wha Dis’ was voiced on that by Burro Banton, and ‘Final Assassin’ by Capleton…
Droid: I think there’s a good Zebra cut on that riddim as well.
Kevin: Yeah, yeah
Droid: That would have been about ’97/’98… ’98 I think.
Kevin: Was it that late? You’ve obviously got a great head for dates because I am the worst at dates.
Droid: Well, I remember because Greensleeves changed their labels around then and they became way more available here. We could mostly only get the Greensleeves versions of all the 7″s over here, it was rare to find Jamaican pressings.
Kevin: I was living in northwest London, right next to Stonebridge Park and Harlesden, and shopping in Notting Hill, in Dub Vendor, and I’d be going into stores in Harlesden where I was very much a minority and treated with a lot of suspicion.
Droid: (Laughs) I’ve been there.
Kevin: And not particularly nicely sometimes, y’know – fair enough, whatever – but I was just hooked. And I’d be going in every weekend, knowing that new riddims were dropping, and just standing at the back of the store, asking for, like, various, y’know, amounts of each riddim.
Droid: Yeah, it was tricky in those shops – I went over to London a few times around then, just to buy reggae, and the shops would be full of locals, and they’d all just be asking for tunes off the wall, they wouldn’t even want to listen to them. Theyd point at the wall and theyd be like: ‘Give me five slices of Chase Vampire or Black Widow’ or something and I’d just be like: ‘what the fuck’? (laughs)
Kevin: To be honest, they were probably hearing them on pirates to know what they were talking about, whereas I didn’t have access at that time, I didn’t know where the pirates were. I was just randomly tuning the radio trying to find stations. But the knowledge of a lot of the people that were buying tunes in the stores – I’d just stand at the back of the shop in admiration at their knowledge. It was educational to me, y’know, and it was a drug. It was an addiction. Literally, it was an addiction. I spent too much money and too much time going into those stores.
Droid: Yeah, and the economy of it really hooked you as well… I was just talking to someone about this recently. The other day I found a bunch of my old Crass records in my folks house that were in a pile of records my da took down from the attic.
Kevin: Did you say the Crass? The band, the punk band?
Droid: There’s a point to this (laughs).
Kevin: You just took me off guard! (laughs) We were talking about dancehall and reggae stores and you went to Crass!
Droid: (Laughs) Well, what I’m trying to say is that I got hooked into anarcho-punk when I was like 12/13 because I could go into a record shop and buy an anarcho 7″ for £1.50, I could buy an album for three quid, they’d even have ‘pay no more than £3‘ or whatever printed on the sleeve, and then I’d spend my bus fare and just walk home. And with dancehall it was the same thing. You could buy 7″s for like £1.50 or two quid, so it was so easy to just amass them y’know, and you feel like you were getting really good value when you come home with ten 7″s instead of two or three 12″s or one LP.
Kevin: It’s funny though, so much of what you’ve said already in this conversation is like time travelling for me because like you, the first two 7″s I ever bought were Discharge 7″s: ‘The Realities of War’ and ‘Fight Back’. And then I got hooked on Crass and I started buying Crass, The Mob, Flux of Pink Indians, Zounds. I was buying the 7″s regularly. And you’re right, part of the attraction was that I was living on pocket money, and I could buy a 7″ for next to nothing. ‘Pay no more than 99 pence’ as it proclaimed on the sleeve.
Droid: Exactly. And for all of Penny Rimbaud’s complex anarchist stratagems and agitprop ideas. Cheap records were probably the most effective way to get young people sucked into music – or at least it was back then when people still bought records.
Kevin: Absolutely, and the tragedy is now, like for me as a reggae collector, is that Brexit has fucked things so totally for me in one way, but also just the price of music now is alienating to young people and young people are the lifeblood of music. And when you’re being asked to pay fifteen quid for a 7″, which is the going rate now… I’ve literally stopped buying reggae in the last three years, just because I can’t justify paying that. I’ve got a family to feed. Fifteen quid for a 7″ is just nuts.
“…the tragedy is now, like for me as a reggae collector, is that Brexit has fucked things so totally for me in one way, but also just the price of music now is alienating to young people and young people are the lifeblood of music.”
Droid: You’ve already touched on a lot of this, but the influence of reggae and especially dub has probably been the most persistent thread in a career that has encompassed free jazz, ambient, industrial, noise – basically a huge swathe of different strains of electronic music. I mean, you’re probably the only artist on the planet who’s released on Hyperdub, Mille Plateaux, Ninjatune, Fat Cat. Room40, Rephlex and Digital Hardcore…
Kevin: It’s crazy that (laughs). I feel like you’re Eamonn Andrews at the moment. I’m expecting you to pull out a red book, and my Mum to come through the door in a minute (laughs).
Droid: (Laughs) But like I said, I think reggae is the most persistent thread in your work. So could you just talk a bit more about how you got sucked into that world?
Kevin: It doesn’t really make sense why I got sucked into reggae because I grew up in Weymouth, in the south coast of England, which is whiter than white, y’know, certainly no reggae scene that I can remember. But the first record that meant anything to me, which pricked my ears was something I heard via a guy who I was in my first band with, he was studying at college and he hung out with his lecturer, and they smoked weed together, and I went around to their flat and he played ‘Foggy Road’ by Prince Fari. And I remember it made this massive impression on me, it was literally like hearing something from Planet Saturn being beamed through. I had no idea at that time at that very young age, how that music was made, y’know, why it was made, what the antecedents were, and what the fuck it was about. But it sounded so resonant and deep and intense, and it just caught me. And then I started investigating heavily.
And at that time the music that really turned me on to music was punk music. And then the music that inspired me to make music was post-punk music, and all my post-punk heroes, so many of them were indebted to dub and reggae, and at that time, living in Weymouth, before the internet in dinosaur times, you only had access to John Peel’s show and John Peel was playing a lot of reggae. So it was through Peel, and also through a record shop… it’s the classic story really, if you live away from a big city, there always happens to be one very cool record store. And in Weymouth there was ‘Handsome Dicks’, the one I went to when I was a kid at school, up to no good in general and hanging out at a record store with the local punks.
That’s how I discovered a lot of great music, free jazz, reggae, and dub – and if anything for years I was a sort of dub snob really. I could honestly say – and this sounds so dumb now – but at that time I’d say I was into dub but I didn’t like a lot of reggae songs. I liked how dub fucked with structure, fucked with composition, turned it inside out and back to front. At that time in my life a lot of reggae that I heard was pop. I’d hear too many bad Bob Marley tracks at student digs and stuff, and in people’s flats. And dub felt like the opposite end of the spectrum to me from that. And the more I got into reggae the more I realised there was a pattern, and a reason that so many punks seemed attracted to reggae, and a lot of it was about the protestations of Rastas, about it being a sort of Jamaican punk music really, y’know, a street music. And the rawness of the sound. And then ultimately, as I said, when you’ve got people like Youth from Killing Joke, Jah Wobble from PIL, Jean-Jacques Burnel from The Stranglers, all leading the bands by bass. It was just another reason why, of course, I would end up, y’know, magnetised towards reggae’s heartbeat – the rhythm section – and then just build from there and it just became an obsession over the years.
Now I can honestly say that if I’m going to listen to music all night somewhere it would have to be to reggae, because there’s enough variation within reggae to keep me happy for a whole evening without me getting bored. Whether it be growing to like lovers rock – which I used to detest – or Garnett Silk, or Horace Andy tunes, or the toughest King Tubby or Scientist dubs, or the slackest, most fucked up dancehall – there’s enough there to keep me well and truly nourished, emotionally and sonically. No turning back, really. For me I just feel sad that there’s been so little in the last 7 or 8 years that has really come onto my radar – there’s been some: Lila Iké, Skillabeng – Skeng is another new MC – there’s some good MC’s out there, but it doesn’t hit me the way it did before… And you’re right – maybe it’s an ageing thing, who knows?
“…if I’m going to listen to music all night somewhere it would have to be to reggae, because there’s enough variation within reggae to keep me happy for a whole evening without me getting bored. Whether it be growing to like lovers rock… or Garnett Silk, or Horace Andy tunes, or the toughest King Tubby’s or Scientist dubs, or the slackest, most fucked up dancehall – there’s enough there to keep me well and truly nourished, emotionally and sonically.”
Droid: I think it’s difficult to be objective about this stuff. But my fear is that Jamaica has already given so much… When you think of the history, it’s like you say – Jamaica was always looking to the future. And when you think about how quickly things changed: ska to rocksteady to reggae, dub, roots, rockers… and then, I guess at least four or five different waves of dancehall, and every single time it was almost like an entirely new genre of music.
Kevin: It was reinventing itself over and over again.
Droid: Exactly – and even within any of those waves there was so much variation… I went to Jamaica in 2008 and I was there for a month or so travelling around the country and buying records. And when I was there I stopped thinking of reggae as a genre per-se and just saw it as Jamaica’s pop music. That it’s just Jamaica’s national music.
Kevin: Yeah, yeah
Droid: And that if the pop music of the UK could encompass everything from y’know, Rick Astley to Soft Cell to the KLF to Cabaret Voltaire – think about what the UK charts were like in the 80’s and 90’s – then all the variation in reggae made sense, because even within dancehall itself there’s huge variation. Even within dancehall from, like say ’78-’82 there’s so much variation in tempo and style and content and you can get so much – as you say – sustenance or nourishment from it as a listener. You can go to a dance and hear songs about everything. Songs about food, songs about someone stealing your clothes off the washing line, songs about, y’know, international politics, or the evils of the Vatican, love songs, songs about guns, girls, repatriation – there was so much to it. And I guess my fear is that there’s nothing left to give.
Kevin: You mean, it’s been milked? Or you mean, it’s just gone stale?
Droid: Well, how much can one small nation give to the world?
Kevin: Well, y’know, I’ve got to say that I was starting to feel like that about hip hop about, y’know, 5/6 years ago that I thought: ‘Oh, my god, hip-hop’s done’. But in the last couple of years, there’s been some great hip hop again. So I guess, I don’t really want to just write Jamaica off and think ‘that’s it, it’s dried up like a well’. I’m hoping there’s still – and I’m sure that will be – something that will start again. The interesting thing for me is that, y’know, Africa and African music has been showing more originality in the last few years, and has had more surprises for me sonically than Jamaica. But obviously, Africa is the root of Jamaican music anyway, so it’s just a case of cycles, isn’t it? And I just hope the cycle returns to Jamaica too, because as I said, I hold reggae music dear to me – and dub music in particular and sound system culture. On-U Sound records was a massive, massive, massive influence on the early Bug stuff, as was going to Shaka dances or Aba Shanti parties or Iration Steppas sound system onslaughts. So it’s in me now, and I can’t imagine it not being there. So I would be loath to think – and it would kill me to think that, that’s it, y’know, it’s dried up.
“I hold reggae music dear to me – and dub music in particular, and sound system culture. On-U Sound records was a massive, massive, massive influence on the early Bug stuff, as was going to Shaka dances or Aba Shanti parties or Iration Steppas sound system onslaughts. So it’s in me now, and I can’t imagine it not being there.”
Droid: I wonder, just from like, a Marxist perspective, I wonder if the material conditions and the modes of production have lost the ability to sustain the music – like when I was there I went to a load of places in Kingston: to Sonic Sounds and Techniques, to Tuff Gong, because they all had little warehouses, with stacks of 7″s…
Kevin: Yeah, just shelves and shelves of 7″s…
Droid: And they’d let people, y’know, ‘rich’ Europeans, like me come in and buy records. So I had suitcases full of records to bring home. And most of those places are gone now. There’s no one in Jamaica even buying the music necessarily. They’re getting it all for free.
Kevin: Yeah, but I think that, y’know, the danger is when you talk like that, to be honest, I think it’s almost showing your age and your nostalgia for times gone by. I think digital music, streaming, y’know, all the things that we would have found alien, literally alien, as being obsessed with vinyl and I can tell you have been, and maybe still are. I just think it’s moved on. You know, I think it’s literally moved on to different ways of listening to music, how you listen to music, people listening to music on their phones. I can understand that bass is less popular, if most people listen to music on their fucking phone, because you’re not going to hear the bass anyway. It’s going to be more about the melody or whatever can transmit on a phone. I just think that, as we mentioned earlier, if teenagers can’t afford to pay twenty five quid on an album or fifteen quid on a 7″, it’s going to change how and why you listen to music, surely.
It’s like, when I was a kid, we’d exchange tapes, me and my mates, one person would buy an album a week, and everyone would tape that album and move on to the next week when someone else would buy an album and we’d all tape it. It’s just different ways of, y’know, amplifying what turns you on, sonically. And as long as music is still making a difference in people’s lives… My fear is that music isn’t playing a key role socially in people’s lives so much anymore. It’s been sort of relegated to an accessory. I’ve been talking about this for years, that it feels like there’s less and less focus on how music can change you philosophically, aesthetically. And it’s more and more just seen as a throwaway byproduct of your life that you have on adverts. That fear is more prominent to me.
“My fear is that music isn’t playing a key role socially in people’s lives so much anymore. It’s been sort of relegated to an accessory… that it feels like there’s less and less focus on how music can change you philosophically, aesthetically. And it’s more and more just seen as a throwaway byproduct of your life that you have on adverts.”
But there’s an ocean of releases out there, there’s so much music being released. Increasingly, it’s impossible to keep tabs on it. So I’m generally a positive person, despite the fact that most people will hear my music and just think I’m a negative fuck, but actually, I’m a very passionate, positive person. And I’m always looking out for new music, new inspiration, because I suffer from production envy, and I suffer from sort of a lack of self confidence in my own productions, and also just wanting to have someone kick my ass competitively, sonically, y’know. So I’m always looking out for music, and that’s not changed, it’s accelerated actually, and I want to pass that on. I feel like a drug dealer when I do live shows. I want to pass on the kick, I want to pass on the sonic chemical. I want to inspire people and have people’s atoms go off in their brains. And that’s still really with me, that hasn’t changed at all – more so even.
So many people I’ve known end up becoming jaded or tired – and I can understand it. The music industry is a fuck to deal with, it’s a battle as far as I’m concerned. It’s like an opponent, a chess opponent. And I can understand why people just duck out, and at the same time, I understand that once people have got obligations or kids, they may feel that ‘well, yeah, music was there when I was a teenager or in my 20s, but, y’know, I haven’t got the time anymore, I can’t listen to it at home because the kids don’t like it’ or whatever. There’s hundreds of different reasons. But actually, it’s still a huge focal point, and there’s nothing I like more than turning my kids on to music and seeing them react to music, and music is still very much the core of my life.
“I feel like a drug dealer when I do live shows. I want to pass on the kick, I want to pass on the sonic chemical. I want to inspire people and have people’s atoms go off in their brains. And that’s still really with me, that hasn’t changed at all – more so even.”
Droid: I guess my point is really that I just don’t think people can make money out of music anymore, regardless of format, especially in Jamaica, I think the material and social infrastructure of record shops and studios, that all of that industry is gone to a large extent, it’s guys with laptops in their cars now. So it’s more about the ability of the music to sustain itself economically. It’s always been very difficult to get paid to make music in Jamaica, so I imagine it’s almost impossible now.
Kevin: Yeah, I talk to Flowdan a lot about this, because he’s in that different world now, particularly since his Skrillex collab. How exactly are people in grime making money? And it’s through streaming in such vast numbers, y’know, it’s just a different way of making coin.
Droid: Do they make much money? Do you make any money from streaming?
Kevin: No, no. (laughs) I wish. You’re talking pop figures and big, big audiences. I’ve been a freak consistently, and I’ve almost gleefully shot myself in the foot in terms of rejecting audiences, or genres, and I kept moving, just because it keeps me sort of inspired, in some way, y’know. If you’re out to chase the coin, there’s ways to make it, but I think I just got this idealistic view that I see music as almost like this craft, y’know, and it’s like, how to keep fine tuning things and getting closer and closer to the ideal.
I think it’s impossible to make the perfect music because I’m always aware of all the faults in it. And I also think now that I’ve realised, like, when I was in GOD and when I started Techno Animal, when I started The Bug even, I used to think I knew best which of my tunes was a good tune. Then I realised I don’t have a clue. It’s the audience or the listener that will decide what a good tune is. They decide what your big tune is. Skeng wasn’t my favourite tune on London Zoo. Neither was ‘Poison Dart’, but they’re the ones that people gravitated towards for whatever reason. And it’s interesting to me to see how your music is processed and how people, y’know, decide for you what your big tunes are.
“I’ve been a freak consistently, and I’ve almost gleefully shot myself in the foot in terms of rejecting audiences, or genres, and I kept moving, just because it keeps me sort of inspired, in some way, y’know. If you’re out to chase the coin, there’s ways to make it, but I think I just got this idealistic view that I see music as almost like this craft, y’know, and it’s like, how to keep fine tuning and getting closer and closer to the ideal.”
Droid: You mentioned your production envy there, and your enjoyment of being challenged – is this why you do so many collaborations?
Kevin: It’s always made sense to me to reinvent myself, because it’s always felt like a good way of avoiding the sell-by-date. And I think that there’s this pressure in the industry… Like, Ninja Tune were killing me to do a follow up to London Zoo straight away. And I didn’t, I pissed them off by doing the opposite, which was not doing any Bug work and spending three years making a King Midas Sound record. The industry wants you to just sell your ass year after year, faster and faster as times go by, to keep up this factory line approach of making albums. There was a time you could live off touring for three or four years after an album. That’s impossible now, it’s a year if you’re lucky. So basically, there’s pressure on to keep delivering an album every year. And I never ever wanted to keep doing that as The Bug, or with anything I do. Because I want to keep myself interested and excited. And it felt like dulling my senses by increasingly watering down what I do – potentially – and I think it’s good to break from things and then reassess and come back.
Collaboration in a way, again, in the music industry, it’s seen as a bit of a dirty word, y’know. You collaborate with people, because it’s your little side project, or it’s not as important. I think that’s bollocks. You look at all the great jazz records that were made in the 60’s and 70’s, where a lot of jazz players were collaborating with different people all the time, and it was just seen as a good way of trying to make a great record. My aim when I collaborate with people is just that I want to keep trying to make great music, I’m just trying to chase that dream of making music that will touch me and hopefully, other people. And I think that a collaboration is a way of refreshing yourself, and keeping yourself refreshed and reinventing your perspectives, and learning. It’s an educational thing, and it’s a personal thing too. Like: ‘do you gel with the people you collaborate with?’ It seems obvious to me that people are gonna get bored. If I make five Bug albums in five years, people will get truly bored. I don’t know about you, but even my favourite artists have probably only made two or three essential albums max. Like, how many Sizzla albums do you need in the end?
“… My aim when I collaborate with people is just that I want to keep trying to make great music, I’m just trying to chase that dream of making music that will touch me and hopefully, other people. And I think that a collaboration is a way of refreshing yourself, and keeping yourself refreshed and reinventing your perspectives, and learning.”
Droid: (Laughs) You picked a good example there. I think he’s probably got exactly three vital albums, maybe four?
Kevin: Yeah. Yeah. So there’s lots of reasons that I choose to collaborate, y’know, and also, there’s probably lots of deep psychological reasons why I keep moving in different spheres, because I moved a lot as a kid, when my dad was in the Navy, so I would never settle in any town we lived in. When I was a kid, listening to music, my classmate was one of the leading rockabilly DJs in the south coast. I’d be hanging out with punks, going to shows by The Mob, or whatever anarcho bands were playing, or then I’d be hanging out later on with hip hop kids even though I didn’t look like one.
And, for me, it never made sense to me – maybe I’m just greedy. I just want the best of everything. But I’ve never made the sense to limit myself to one scene, one genre or whatever. And it’s always looking for the hardcore, uncompromising sentiments, the pioneering best of every genre, y’know, and trying to understand that, and be inspired and influenced by that really – if that makes sense? That makes it sound parasitic as well – it’s not meant in any parasitic way…
Droid: I think you have to also consider the fact that you might be bringing out the best in other people. I mean, those tunes you did with Burial, I think it’s the best stuff he’s done since Untrue. They’re beautiful, those two records.
Kevin: It’s nice of you to say that. It’s funny because we got some shit for that, really, because some of his fans want to have the sort of skippy garage beats behind him. And they didn’t like the heaviosity, the mood of some of that stuff. But Will and I were both really happy with those EP’s. And there’s gonna be a third one, I just haven’t got around to working on it. I mean, he’s one of the most original people I’ve ever dealt with as a collaborator. And also, I would say – honestly say, this isn’t bullshit – that what he sent me was the elements to work with, and they were some of the best elements I’ve ever worked with. He’s got incredible taste and an incredible ear – based on the stuff he sent me for our collaboration. And I don’t know if he’s second guessing me, but in terms of beauty and melancholy, and depth, and resonance of sound it’s unbelievable. Literally, my jaw’s on the floor every time he sends me parts, and it’ll end up as being three singles in the end.
And it’s great, y’know, I’m very flattered when people whose music I appreciate actually show a willingness to work with me. I never take that for granted, obviously, and I’m always shocked if anyone does. And I think if you can bring out new sides of someone you work with. If you’re mutually detonating ideas and concepts, and compositional work, it’s amazing. It’s an amazing thing, I’ve got to say, I’ve been very lucky that in the collaborations I’ve made, I feel I’ve very rarely been disappointed by the people I’ve worked with. It’s the opposite. I’ve been inspired by working with them and I always feel that they’re better than I am anyway. All the time it feels like that. So it’s just like: ‘okay, game on’. I raise my game by working with whoever it is: X, Y or Z. My reputation does precede me sometimes, and some people just think that I’m a troublemaker. In terms of sonically or show-wise, or whatever, and that I may be difficult to work with, but if it’s the right conversation at the right time with the right person, then something happens.
Droid: I think the fact that you’ve collaborated successfully with so many people is probably testament to the fact that you’re quite easy to work with. Because I’ve been in the studio with people who are difficult to work with – or I may even be one of those people (laughs), and nothing good comes out of those relationships, musically.
Kevin: The funny thing is, a lot of the people I’ve worked with musically, I haven’t even been in the same studio as them. Burial and I haven’t shared a studio. Dylan Carlson and I shared the studio for two days. I worked on the album for months after that. I have worked a lot with vocalists in the studio. And that was always… unpredictable.
Droid: You said in another interview that you sent Cutty Ranks a loop because you didn’t think he’d chat over your finished track?
Kevin: Yeah, that’s right. I just looped one four bar beat. Because I knew if I gave him a normal Bug riddim, then he wouldn’t go near it, it would be impossible. At that time, I was doing a lot of Razor X material. And maybe that would have just hurt his ears so much that he wouldn’t even be able to flow as he normally would. It’s generally a case of trying to suss out who that person is that you’re working with, what their strengths are or what their weaknesses might be. And how to play around those things – and respect them as well, y’know. I didn’t do that to deceive Cutty Ranks. I just did that out of respect to him. And because I really, really, really wanted to work with him on a tune. It wasn’t to take the piss at all. Not even slightly.
Droid: You’ve worked with Daddy Freddy a few times as well?
Kevin: A lot.
Droid: He seems like an absolute gentleman.
Kevin: Yeah, man, he was amazing to work with. He has his quirks, as we all do, but we worked a lot in the studio and toured a lot, a hell of a lot. An unbelievable MC, like, a shocking MC as far as I’m concerned. I learned a lot about live interaction with MCs through working with him. When I’m working with an MC, I’m working with them, not against them. Because some people may think that this barrage I’m throwing out is anti-MC in some way. It’s like declaring war on them. It’s not that at all. Anyone who comes to the show in Dublin will hear how there’s a sort of sense to the madness. There’s a way of building chaos around a vocalist’s performance, and fanning the flames of both – in a good way. Working with Freddy, I learned a lot about that as a craft, and he’s just an incredible performer. Like a monster on the microphone literally, in all the best ways.
“Anyone who comes to the show in Dublin will hear how there’s a sort of sense to the madness. There’s a way of building chaos around a vocalist’s performance, and fanning the flames of both – in a good way.”
Droid: I think we’ve kinda touched on this… I have another quote here from an old interview with you, where you said: ‘music is a necessity, not a choice.’ And by my count you’ve got about 50 albums, loads of solo stuff, collaborations and there’s all the EP’s, and singles.
Kevin: Is it that many, really? Fucking hell.
Droid: Yeah, I think your first release was in 1991. So that’s about two albums worth of material a year since you started releasing music. And then there’s the compilations you’ve curated, your sound system, the various labels, the live shows, the DJ sets… It’s a completely insane level of profligacy. It’s crazy.
Kevin: Some people have accused me of being insane (laughs). Y’know what it is? Like I said, it’s an addiction. It’s my medication. It’s probably also my Achilles heel as well. It’s everything. Music’s given me everything. Good and bad. Positive and negative, but primarily positive, and it’s my parallel world. The musical universe I choose to construct is one that I feel I have some control over and I have a vision for, whereas the real world is so fucked I feel totally lost at sea half the time when I see what’s going on.
“Music’s given me everything. Good and bad. Positive and negative, but primarily positive, and it’s my parallel world. The musical universe I choose to construct is one that I feel I have some control over and I have a vision for, whereas the real world is so fucked I feel totally lost at sea half the time when I see what’s going on.”
Droid: You must have some thoughts about the creative process in all this, considering that’s what you do constantly.
Kevin: Thoughts about it? In what way? What do you mean?
Droid: Well, I saw an interview you did with Emma Warren for RBMA, and you hinted towards some ideas from Crowley and Thelemic magick – magic as defined as the art and science of causing change to occur in the world. Alan Moore talks about this all the time, he sees art and magic as basically the same thing. So I guess my question is: ‘do you believe in the creative process as a way to change consciousness and art as a magical medium for affecting change in the world’?
Kevin: Both of course, without a shadow of doubt. I think that it literally is a magical process, creating music. Taking all these ingredients and putting them together when you have no idea on any given day exactly what will come out of them. I mean, of course, you have some conception… As time’s gone by, I’ve realised that I work best by having some idea in advance of what I’m trying to do, as opposed to just experimenting for the sake of it. I know I can find better results by having a blueprint in my mind. And I’ve become a bit more disciplined in setting up those mental pictures of what I’d like to achieve artistically, but at the same time, just the fact that you can take random elements that seem totally unrelated, and make them into some magical end product, through focus, repetition, discipline, and, y’know, mental cookery, I think it’s a real gem – that this is something that’s achievable.
And also just the fact that I’m still doing music, after all these years – and still passionate – is to do with dream theory as well, and making dreams real. And it’s the power of will. It’s how to stay focused, when there’s so much around that’s going to throw you off your course. It touches on lots of extreme philosophy, and tales of magic, and methods to improve your art. But ultimately, every day still seems like a fresh day. The slate is clean, the canvas is clean and ‘let’s go’. And it’s a challenge. And I’ve got to say, to stay motivated and to stay Inspired, can sometimes feel crushingly difficult, but it always seems to be there for me as an answer. It’s spiritual as well, y’know, it’s my religion really, in a way, I think.
Droid: Well, it’s an interaction with something – and I’m glad you said that, because that’s pretty much what I think as well – but it’s an interaction or an entanglement with something beyond yourself – not necessarily something divine or supernatural, it could be something that takes place entirely within the brain. But it’s an engagement with something over which you have no conscious control. You create the conditions for this process to happen, through discipline, through craft, through practice, through openness, but the actual mechanics of the process itself… There’s something ineffable or otherworldly there that can’t really be described, I think.
Kevin: Yeah, well, I’m glad you said that. Because, as you can tell, I love talking about music. I love talking about the art of making music. But no matter how much I can talk about it, there’s still a huge mystery at its core as to why something comes out the way it comes out. And also there’s a part of me that’s done my best to mystify the process. Like I couldn’t tell you how I made lots of the music I made, because I don’t do things that regularly I don’t work regularly. I wasn’t trained as a musician. I wasn’t trained to read music, y’know. So there’s a chaotic epicentre to what I do that I enjoy.
“I couldn’t tell you how I made lots of the music I made, because I don’t do things that regularly I don’t work regularly. I wasn’t trained as a musician. I wasn’t trained to read music, y’know. So there’s a chaotic epicentre to what I do that I enjoy.”
Droid: Because you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Kevin: Exactly, exactly that. But, as I said, it would be a lie to say that as time has gone on, I haven’t self-defined myself in certain ways. But then I’ll work with another collaborator, which will throw a complete spanner in the works – on purpose. Like I said, going from The Bug to King Midas Sound at that time was commercial suicide. It was a complete idiocy, but I had to do it, I had to follow my path as illogical as it may have seemed at that time, because it was my instincts telling me to do it. Who knows where those instincts come from? And who knows if they’re positive or negative.
I remember I went to see Godflesh play, in Manchester I think, the day after I’d done a Bug show, I had a day off and decided to stay in Manchester because I knew they were playing and they’re obviously long term friends. Benny, the bass player in Godflesh, has trained in psychology for many years, I believe. And we were just talking about a lot of intense emotional things that have happened to us or to friends over the years. And he said to me: ‘Well, y’know, what you do musically is your coping mechanism psychologically for a lot of the intensities you faced through your life’. And that’s exactly right, y’know. On one hand, there’s my view of music as an art. On the other hand, it’s pure animal instinct. It’s literally animal instinct, and intensity.
When we called it Techno Animal, which was a shit name (laughs), but It was about the concept of a technological animal. It was the idea of balancing who you are, genetically through your parents, parents, parents, parents, parents, parents – going all the way back through generations, about how you exist in this modern world, which is becoming increasingly dehumanised – and how you react to that. I don’t think it’s even logical half the time. I think you’re part of a chemical process or an alchemical process. And I think that’s fascinating, but it’s also terrifying at the same time. I think making music is such a challenge. How to reinvent yourself, the pressure of it. I talked to – I think it was Roger Robinson – recently about it, how to keep trying to better yourself, and it’s like: ‘Okay, I got there, can I make that better?’ It’s almost like a madman’s obsession, really, and you can see that – I think a lot of people involved in arts, whatever it be, music, painting, photography, film, are probably balancing a lot of very extreme psychological mechanisms.
“I think making music is such a challenge. How to reinvent yourself, the pressure of it. I talked to… It’s almost like a madman’s obsession, really, and you can see that. I think a lot of people involved in arts, whatever it be, music, painting, photography, film, are probably balancing a lot of very extreme psychological mechanisms.”
Droid: Before we wrap up, I’d like to talk to you about ambient music. You’ve been drifting more and more into ambient in recent years, I think it’s fair to say – but your engagement with the genre goes back to at least 1994 when you compiled the Isolationism compilation for Virgin Records. And you actually coined the term ‘isolationism’, which makes you one of the few critics who’ve actually coined a decent genre name.
Kevin: The funny thing is, most of the musicians that were on that compilation hated that as a genre name, and slammed me for it (laughs).
Droid: That was an important compilation for me, because I started out doing pirate radio, doing a chill-out show on Sunday mornings, in ’96. That’s how I started DJing. And so being able to find something like that on the shelves in HMV or Golden Discs or wherever, that was important because I’d never heard of Thomas Köner when I got that album – and I do think the liner notes stand up pretty well too, I have to say.
Kevin: Thank you. To be honest, Thomas Köner was really the beginning of the inspiration for that compilation. If I remember rightly, it could be my mind playing tricks on me. But I think the article I did for the WIRE magazine in which I interviewed Thomas was when I first coined the expression ‘isolationism’, and then the compilation happened – It may have been the other way around, I can’t quite remember – but I thought it was in the interview with Thomas. And as I analysed his music, it made more and more sense to put it in that area and to coin that phrase.
Droid: I think you were spot on, because it is the perfect description of his music, and he was probably the most important ambient figure of the 1990’s.
Kevin: I would agree with you. He is actually one of my favourite producers full stop, not just in ambient terms or the ambient area.
Droid: But yeah, just to continue your ambient life (laughs). You then collaborated with Fennesz in 2017. And the most recent King Midas album ‘Solitude’ – which is absolutely gorgeous, by the way – has this kind of dark, poetic ambience running all the way through it. But I think 2020’s ‘Frequencies For Leaving Earth’ was the clearest signal of a more sustained engagement with ambient. And since then you must have done what? Twelve or thirteen ambient albums?
Kevin: Yeah, yeah, I’ve done a lot of solo albums. I mean, there’s two parts to what you’re saying. I would agree that I’ve focused on it more in recent years, but it goes all the way back. If you listen to the first Techno Animal album. And ‘Reentry’ also, and there’s even a track at the end of ‘Possession’ by GOD called ‘Black Jesus’ where I was using church bell recordings and drones. The interest has always been there, it’s not just a recent thing at all. With disc two of the Reentry record we decided to try and make an album as imaginary soundtracks, but it was also really our homage to ambient music, which Justin (Justin Broadrick of Godflesh/Techno Animal) and I were both obsessed by.
“…ambient music seemed to melt song compositions down into fluid, liquid forms, as opposed to, y’know, verse/chorus/middle eight/verse/chorus. It was an antidote to what I saw as the tyranny of songs, and ambient music freed up sound as far as I was concerned”
Ultimately we started Techno Animal at a time where he was disenfranchised with Godflesh being sucked into metal, and I was feeling that I was having to make a lot of compromises by having a band in a studio that wasn’t allowing me to experiment with what a studio can do. And the more we talked about Techno Animal and what we wanted from Techno Animal, it mirrored our increasing interest in electro-acoustic music, in experimental music, in ambient music. Anything that wasn’t structured song composition, and ambient music seemed to melt song compositions down into fluid, liquid forms, as opposed to, y’know, verse/chorus/middle eight/verse/chorus. It was an antidote to what I saw as the tyranny of songs, and ambient music freed up sound as far as I was concerned,
Droid: It takes the figure out of the landscape, as Eno would say.
Kevin: Yeah, yeah. That’s a great quote. I didn’t know that quote at all. But I think, y’know, the danger was, that there’s a whole side of ambient music I despise, to be honest. It’s become synonymous with exactly what I said, my fear of music becoming this background – I wouldn’t call it background noise, because that makes it sound interesting. But a kind of background wallpaper for a lifestyle.
Droid: Yeah, There’s been a lot of critiques of ambient over the last few years suggesting that it’s become a kind of a Soma, a soporific, exemplified by these ambient soundtracked meditation and mindfulness apps, and some people see ambient as a way of softening, or ameliorating the worst excesses of the capitalist hellscape we all live in.
Kevin: You mentioned the Kevin Richard Martin albums – the reason they’re different for me, in terms of my approach, and how I incorporated ambient elements into whatever I’ve done in the past… I guess there’s two things, firstly that I made an album for Room40, ‘Sirens’, that was dedicated to my son in which I tried to capture the ambience of the terror of the experience and the ultimate beauty that he pulled through after almost passing away…
Droid: …I was gonna ask you about that. It’s a wonderful album. I think that record and ‘Return to Solaris’ are perhaps my two favourites of your ambient work… I was listening to Sirens recently and I thought of something the late Cormac McCarthy said about the perceived grimness of his work, that: ‘tragedy is at the core of the human experience. That’s what we have to deal with. And that’s what we want to know how to deal with’, and that record has a very powerful, bleak beauty and it’s dealing literally with a tragedy – your newborn son’s struggles with very serious health issues… I hope he’s doing well now by the way?
Kevin: Yeah he’s a battler, and full of spirit, I just took him to his football class in fact, he’s totally fine now.
Droid: Im very glad to hear that – so I was thinking about that record and I was also thinking about how tragedy or sadness or anxiety can be reflected in art in relation to your ‘Black’ album, which is the last ambient record you released in 2023, and was dedicated to Amy Winehouse, though I have to admit, I did a double take when I when I saw that I was like: ‘what a strange thing for him to do’…
Kevin: That was absolutely conscious, because I knew it would fuck people up If I was to make an album based on a tribute to her voice and her as a human being, and to one song in particular: ‘Back to Black’. And as you would have seen, I guess, in the blurb I accompanied it with – it wasn’t that I was a fan of Amy Winehouse during her lifetime, it was just that this documentary struck me like a hammer on this plane journey and made me reassess both her and my perception of her. This is very much an album dedicated to an analysis of loss, as it is to the life of Amy Winehouse, and it’s as much a tribute to the filmmaker for making such an incredible portrayal of a human being’s positives and negatives. To me the whole point of all this is that there’s an emotional core to the Kevin Richard Martin stuff that is so completely personal, and completely self immersive.
I think I mentioned it in one interview with some magazine, I can’t remember which one it was. But basically, we moved to Brussels the day before all borders were closed for Covid. We spent virtually all our money to get here and to put the deposit down on an apartment. We got here, and of course, like everyone else in Covid year one, we saw the world collapse. I’m seeing all my bookings gone. Shitting my pants, worried about how we’re going to pay the rent, or feed ourselves. And having to put a brave face on for two young kids and my wife in the middle of this calamity was a challenge, y’know. And then the first thing I could think to do was set my studio up as soon as possible. I would basically monastically retire to my studio to keep sane. Try and keep it locked down, keep my head locked down in any way. And that’s where I started making these solo records.
I’d be a liar If I was to say that was the only reason. I’d already thought for years before Covid – since becoming a dad even, that there’s a point at which I don’t want to tour every single fucking weekend like a robot, I want some family life, because my father wasn’t there for me, y’know. And also, I didn’t want to become a caricature as The Bug, I wanted the freedom to explore my other interests in music and sound, with aspirations that I had had to do film score work or sound design work, or ambient composition. That was also very much part of my thinking at that time, but it was the panic button of what was going on at that time that led me to really just bury myself in that sound and to express myself in that manner. It was definitely the most applied that I was to – if you want to call it ambient or a form of ambient music – that’s for sure.
But what I would say is that at its worst ambient music is superficial, and at its best it will change your way of thinking, and change you as a person. As I felt hearing Thomas Köner’s first three albums and what they did to me. They just made me see life differently and music differently, and that’s what you deal with when you deal with ambient music, those two poles – but love it or hate it, ambient music is a very extreme form of music, and I happen to love it. And also discovering Bandcamp which saved my life in that year.
“…at its worst ambient music is superficial, and at its best it will change your way of thinking, and change you as a person… that’s what you deal with when you deal with ambient music, those two poles – but love it or hate it, ambient music is a very extreme form of music, and I happen to love it.”
Droid: I was gonna ask – you were obviously able to survive…
Kevin: That’s how I got by, and I didn’t know about Bandcamp until that year.
Droid: Wow. And I see now that you have everything up there from all your different aliases – I think that is a good reminder to people who are, like myself, sometimes tempted to just listen to stuff on YouTube or wherever, that buying something on Bandcamp is actually a very direct and vital way to support an artist.
Kevin: It makes a difference, it makes a big, big difference. And I think in a revolutionary way. It is sort of revolutionary that artists can deal with their audiences directly by cutting out the middleman. I think that there’s something very DIY in a very cool way about Bandcamp. But unfortunately, as we all know, it’s been bought up, so who knows where it’s going to end up. But the idea of what it could be and can be and has been, is very cool, y’know, certainly, as far as I’m concerned. But I’m very lucky. I’m sure it’s much harder for new artists starting to get their music known. Because it’s just like I said earlier, there’s just an ocean of music released out there. But I’ve got to say for experimental music in particular and ambient music, I think Bandcamp has been incredible. I’ve just found a lot of incredible music via Bandcamp that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
Droid: We have a running joke on our radio show about the lockdown ambient album, because everyone seems to have made lockdown ambient albums.
Kevin: True – or ten (laughs)
Droid: But even so, that was still coming at the end of a ten year period, probably of the most prolific period in ambient music, from about probably 2008 on, there’s been more ambient music released in the last fifteen years than there had been in the previous forty years, so there’s a lot of stuff out there right now… Have you had any success with soundtrack stuff? Because, ‘Nightcrawler’, ‘City of Ghosts’, those two albums sound basically like pre-made soundtracks, they’re fantastic records, very evocative.
Kevin: It’s been very difficult. Justin Broadrick, as well as being a very good friend, has also been an avid supporter, and he’s encouraged me when I’ve been really down about how difficult it’s been to place music, or to get the work that I aspire to. You mentioned the recent years as being this boom in ambient. I would say, very interestingly, for me, because I’m very interested in the area – that for film scores and soundtracks it’s also been a monumental time, and when I look at people like Colin Stetson, Mica Levi, Bobby Krilic, even the work that Trent Reznor, and Atticus Ross who do on a very big level. It’s been a really interesting time for film scores. But to get into that world, I’ve found it hellishly difficult. It’s partly due to The Bug being the sort of Albatross in the worst way. My reputation precedes, and to get taken seriously as a composer once you’ve been seen as a club DJ is tough. You’re seen as this dirty, squalid pretender.
At the moment, funnily enough though, there’s something that I’ve done a demo for. I’ve signed, what do you call it – a non-disclosure agreement? But there’s something I’m working on which isn’t a full score, but it’s part of something which came from a composer who’s doing really well. She’s a big fan. And on the other hand, there’s people like Clint Mansell who I’ve gotten to know, through their liking of The Bug, have now said to me that they very much appreciate what I’m doing as Kevin Richard Martin. I think there’s so many of the Kevin Richard Martin releases of film scores of the mind, really. And I suppose it’s me really making these imaginary scores of imaginary movies.
Droid: To go back to something you were saying earlier, it occurs to me now that your project seems to veer between two extremes: meditation versus provocation, restraint versus exuberance, quietness versus loudness…
Kevin: Wow, that’s a great expression – no one’s ever said that to me before. Meditation versus provocation. Very cool…
Droid: …or self containment and tenderness versus chaos, dirt and heaviness. And y’know, there’s something very pleasing about that dichotomy.
Kevin: It sounds like me. (laughs) I mean, when you put it like that, and you phrase it so well, it’s like, yeah. I’d say, that’s the balancing act of my brain really – or imbalance might be a more correct way of putting it. I think it’s a yearning for extremity. And just being a product of extremity, one way or another.