Published Jul 30, 2008Kevin Martin has been scaling walls of sound for years. His 90s band-oriented projects God, Ice and Techno Animal, combined jazz, dub and industrial elements. In this decade, hes been more of a free agent. As the Bug, he has often teamed up with some of Britains most notable dancehall vocalists. If infected by the Bug, you will spasm from deep bass pulses until you surrender completely. London Zoo, a poisonous brew of dub, dancehall and noise, is the Bugs debut on Ninja Tune. If theres any justice, this release will catalyze the critical respect Kevin Martin has garnered on the margins of British music for almost two decades into greater popularity. Martin answered some questions via email regarding the new record's bleak tones as well as his sense of humour and signing to Ninja Tune.
Throughout your career youve been described as experimental when youre making soundsystem music, do you see it that way? Or is it more about channeling your expertise in sound design to move a crowd?
I think I've gradually moved from the idea of flat out experimentation for the sake of it - which was my attempt to get lost in studio space whilst trying to discover my own individual musical voice - to the experimentation that is possible whilst immersed in the discipline of songwriting. Meaning, I've basically moved from the outside in, and am now enjoying trying to write songs that involve experimentation. I'm enjoying the possibilities of moving a crowd on my terms, via structures they know, as I basically attempt to heavily hit their bodies and minds simultaneously, in a twisted kind of way... [Laughs]
Ive read that one of the aims with the Bug is to make it sound system friendly. Are you trying to make banging tunes? Is that the main difference between your previous dub projects and the Bug?
As Ive become disillusioned with bands and guitar groups rehearsed theatrical drama, and become more obsessed with pure sound experiences, I've enjoyed making music that can live up to the powerful potential of dub inspired sound systems, to cause cerebral explosions and physical detonations. Im loving watching some of my recent tunes tear up dance floors and gratefully watched people lose it completely to Bug rhythms. I've basically changed from despising the crowd in my early band days, to now proudly watching the full energy of a massed mosh pit freaking out to a track like "Poison Dart... I've just tried to excite myself first and foremost, and basically hoped that this dynamic energy can translate to others.
The vocals are pretty bleak throughout in terms of tone and subject matter. Was that something you requested from the singers, or did was it something they wanted to bring to you? For instance, Ive never heard Tippa Irie sound like he does on your album was it a challenge to get into that frame of mind for some of the vocalists?
I can't say I find the vocal tone totally bleak. I think London Zoo contains great beauty, emotional intensity, hilarious black comedy and generally high levels of humanity, alongside the words of filth and degradation... [Laughs] But yeah, I work with each MC/singer differently as they are very different people. I wanted an album that actually stood out from the crowd and dared to say something, challenge preconceptions and would ultimately stand the test of time as being reflective of the time and environment it was made in. I didnt want to make another faceless dance album or self obsessed indie album, or bland pop record.
Theres an almost unrelenting sense of dread and doom in so much of your work, yet from interviews Ive read you seem like a very open-minded guy who is quite sensitive to the kind of audience (all-male, white) doomy music seems to attract. How does the Bug use "heaviness in a more diverse way?
Because bass-heavy intensity and physical impact is appealing to both sexes. Im trying not to get lost in chin-stroker land, not just feeding the nerds, nor being happy to attempt to claim to be the biggest, loudest, heaviest, baddest crown like some adolescent metalhead. I wanna simply make music that has maximum impact which isn't merely content to be negative, but enjoys the positive act of exorcising demons and exploding outwards not inwards. I feel my latest music is a celebration of difference and champions diversity. I basically like to see sparks fly when cultures clash and amplify the sound of the collisions therein. Ive never seen what I do as "underground," and always wanted the maximum amount of people to be infected by it.
On the other hand, I find the intensity of some tracks to be dont take this the wrong way humorous, like Gravediggaz for instance. Since much "hipster dancehall has a fascination with gangsta-ish imagery - and youve seen enough dancehall over the years which is both positive and negatively themed - how does your work stand apart?
Tar black humour that had Flowdan, Killa and me splitting our sides in the studio certainly has its place, but overall gallows humour alone would make for a boring album. I tried to make an album that reflects a full frequency spectrum and a total emotional range. I didnt wanna make a cartoon badbwoy album, nor a cheap raver's ragga collection, I wanted this record to tell a story of love, lust, insanity, passion and horror. I feel it stands out by daring to address real life, and not being content to adopt a cartoon character's fake stance. I was happy to go head-to-head with real life on this record and see what happened. To me it is a protest record in the best sense, that is in a world of it's own.
How did this album come about for Ninja Tune? Do you think it will introduce you to a different audience?
Jeff, the head of Ninja North America is a self confessed metal and ragga casualty (whilst also being a bad ass dancehall DJ) and it was he who was responsible for tracking me down and brokering a deal for London Zoo. And to be honest, I am not just interested in appealing to a Ninja audience, I want every audience to have a chance to listen to London Zoo, and that is why I signed to Ninja. I felt they have a great distro network, and do very well with promotion, so I ambitiously thought I want to give it a go with a label capable of getting records in shops. And aside from that I have been a long-term Big Dada fan.