Zonal Pressure: The Bug returns with Angels & Devils
The Bug, aka Kevin Martin, on the making of dualistic masterpiece Angels & Devils, the long-awaited follow-up to London Zoo
“London Zoo was very much a reflection of my disillusionment with, and my love affair with London, simultaneously. It was near to a time where I'd been living in the studio for about 7 years – it had no kitchen, no shower. It was a very overcrowded, over-machined room in a dire area of London.” Speaking from his home in Berlin – he moved there a year ago – Kevin Martin, better known as The Bug, is reflecting on the genesis of his second album under that alias. Released by Ninja Tune at the height of dubstep's ascendancy towards mainstream success and commodification, it was always going to be a hard act to follow – with iconic tracks like Skeng and Poison Dart booming out of speakers up and down the country and worldwide, the suffering and deprivation that informed the righteous anger of London Zoo might have been transfigured into industry gold, but for Martin, he was still living in the nightmarish dystopia the album described.
“It was a very oppressive atmosphere,” he continues. “I'd had my fill of the city at that time. Personally, I think all of the best music is a reflection of a time and place. With music, most people buy into either a fantasy, or into a harsh reality. London Zoo was a harsh reality for me, at that time. I think I'd lived in London for about 23 years, and always in the poorest areas, so London was always a struggle. It just became even more so, until the point I left.”
Leaving London for the arguably more civilised culture of Berlin, with a clutch of tracks written but not mastered for the long-awaited follow-up to London Zoo, he found a new perspective on life, not least because he was about to become a father for the first time. But even though the rarefied creative atmosphere of Berlin acted as a palliative, he still had struggles to contend with. A snapped Achilles tendon meant that “during the mixdown sessions for this record, my girlfriend was literally having to push me in a wheelchair to the studio every day... I was actually in a great deal of pain.”
Although he describes his first year as “an epic adventure,” it is still, he says, “far too early, really, for me to have an absolute perspective on Berlin.” The two very different halves of his masterful, measured new album as The Bug, Angels & Devils, are therefore still at least partially rooted in the despair and decay which characterised his London period, while also describing “the move away, and the transformation in my life.” The record's first half, which sees Martin working with female vocalists including Inga Copeland (ex-Hype Williams), Liz Harris of Grouper, and ragga siren Miss Red, is a meditative, narcotic experience, which Martin repeatedly describes as “zonal.”
“I almost see the last three albums as a trilogy,” he says. “The first one [Pressure] is an exploration. The second one [London Zoo] is incarceration. The third one is escapism, really. For me, this record points to an outwardness. It's not so insular. It's rooted in my past, but with a direction very much into the future; aesthetically, philosophically and musically.” Is there more distance in the writing process this time? “I'd love to say yeah, because that is a great theory,” he replies. “That's an interesting slant on it.”
“There's not enough anger in music right now, there's not enough challenge, not enough friction” – Kevin Martin
The most significant thing about the new album is its dualism; the sharp contrast and division between its two sides. “This seems to reflect my present view of life, which is pretty extreme,” says Martin. “I am torn between feelings of complete disdain for the human condition one day, and absolute positivity because I've brought a child into this fucked-up world, you know? So I'm actually torn in half right now in terms of how I feel about this planet, and humanity generally.” He gives a hearty laugh. “I reckon that's very much reflected in this record.”
The bliss comes first – the album's first 6 tracks will be a surprise for anyone expecting a London Zoo 2, channelling instead the deep dub of Basic Channel, with dreamlike ambient textures and elaborate sonic sculpture replete with washed-out static and stately, exquisite melodies in the vocals. It is a bold move, and one he had to consider for a long time. “That was a long, long, drawn-out process of discussion between myself and Ninja,” says Martin.
“I'd been quite disappointed by the reaction to Dirty, and the Filthy EPs. People were just saying, 'It's more of the same.' For me, it wasn't more of the same. I feel the best music, the best producers of music, see what they do as a craft – it's about bettering their craft. So many people, and so much of the media, is just caught up in this idea that it has to be 'next' – it has to be fresh. For me, the latest isn't always the best. I think a lot of novelty gets put across that way. I thought the Filthy EP was a very valid EP. But in time I realised that if I came with something again that people were expecting, I'd be making life very difficult for myself, and also, I'm as guilty as well of wanting a fresh angle from the artists I like the most. But actually, given a choice between an artist totally departing from their past for something brand new, or someone who just keeps getting better at what they do, I would choose the latter. So that's the challenge for me, to just keep getting better at what I do, but also to make it very much a Bug release. I don't see the point of releasing a Bug record if it doesn't sound like The Bug.”
For casual listeners, The Bug's sound is defined very much by one track – the anthemic, excoriating Skeng, featuring Flowdan. Is the new album's more varied tonal and textural span an attempt to escape Skeng's slipstream? “That was definitely part of it,” says Martin. “I was surprised that Skeng and Poison Dart went stellar. They were in the right place at the right time. I'd be a liar if I didn't say I felt a huge amount of pressure, on myself more than anything, about how to follow that shit up. I was being suffocated by dubstep, really, and by the spectre of dubstep. I was doing what I was doing long before that. So my response was, 'I'm not gonna have anything to do with it. My next record will be, potentially, completely different.'”
Martin is intensely critical of his own work. “When London Zoo blew up, it was as much a surprise to me as it was to anyone else,” he says. “The music-making process is the same for every record, more or less. There are environmental changes, collaborative changes, but it is the same process, ultimately. Obsession, madness and self-punishment.” He laughs again – this time it rings somewhat hollow. “When I finished London Zoo, I remember the day I finished the mastering, I came home and shed a tear or two because I thought I'd fucked it all up. It was just a flat, boring, dull record – I thought it wouldn't translate for anyone. But the more I thought about it, the more I considered all the angles, I realised that if I was honest with myself, I liked London Zoo. I don't think it was a perfect album by any stretch of the imagination, but I like what it set out to do. I decided that for this record, rather than just burn my past, I would try and improve upon my past, and make it obvious that it's the next level, the next extension.”
The second half of Angels & Devils, while still exploring new sonic realms, will be much more familiar territory for those who admired the potent mix of anger and extreme sonics on London Zoo. That fire is never far from Martin's fingertips, and when asked what he thinks of the current musical climate, he unloads both barrels. “It's something that pisses me off right now – most music is being relegated to being just an accessory to life, whereas for me, music literally changed my life. It's sort of unfashionable to say that – everyone has to be ironic or cynical now. But as far as I'm concerned, music is one of the few things I have faith in in this world. It's what I chose as my form of immersion and escapism. There's not enough anger in music right now, there's not enough challenge, not enough friction. There's not enough of what Justin [Broadrick, of Techno Animal and Godflesh] talked about a lot, which is the 'what the fuck' factor.”
He mentions a maxim that his other main band, King Midas Sound, try to bear in mind, coined by legendary hip-hop producer DJ Premier of Gang Starr. “He said he wanted his music to shock, excite and amaze. There are not enough people trying to do that bit extra. There's too much careerism, too many people who are in it just to make money. I started making music out of sheer desperation, just because there was nothing else I could do. I needed it as a catalyst to try and understand the fucked-up world which I was living in.”
He's quick to castigate the current crop of dubstep cash-in EDM wankers and pop-sluts who dominate the industry with their slavering lyrical idiocy and the pandering, chart-baiting blandness of their beats. “There was a point where I started working on this record, I phoned Ninja and I said, 'Who are the new John Lydons, or Ian Curtises, or Nick Caves? Who are the people who are really anti right now, who will really just grate your face and your brain?' And there are none. None I've been able to find who have a perfect tone, or sentiment, or just enough attitude.” He sighs. “I find that really disappointing. For me the best grime, the best dancehall, the best hip-hop, has that antisocial edge. Your mum's not gonna like that shit, and as far as I'm concerned, that's a good thing.”
Does he feel that in the current musical climate, there is an antipathy towards anger in music, particularly in lyrics? “I remember Spaceape, who I'm a huge fan of and is a personal friend of mine, how much criticism he would get on dubstep forums for being serious...” He laughs again. “What the hell? Is everything, is life just one great big party? I don't fucking think so. It's really important someone comes with something that changes your life, or your attitude, changes your way of hearing or seeing something. The best art, more often than not, in terms of what it has meant to me, is stuff that when I first heard it or saw it or felt it, I didn't like, because it made me uncomfortable. I think causing discomfort is a good thing. It makes you reassess what your position is on this planet.”
From the look of his latest album's cover, Martin still identifies as one of the same people who comprise, or at least used to comprise, the majority of his crowd – those he once described as “black-clad miserable bastards.” Does he still see these guys at his shows? “That was a long time ago!” he snaps, momentarily annoyed. “Look, when I first started making music, I was very proud of emptying a room. I wanted to do that. For me, then, music was therapy. When I was in Techno Animal, our ambition was to play to as many people as possible, and as far as I'm concerned now, I don't want to exclude anyone. Anyone who is interested enough to find something in my music, I'm more than happy. Anyone that comes up to me after a show... although people think I'm this moody bastard, because I'm not particularly open or communicative, I'm very pleased when someone comes up to me and says an album or a track that I've made has meant a lot to them in their life. It's the ultimate compliment.”
What qualities did the female voices on Angels & Devils bring to the table? “The people I approached for this record for the vocals were people who I felt would help add the narrative that I wanted. I wanted this record to go global. That sounds like a pithy thing to say; I just mean I wanted it to open up barriers and cut across borders. I wanted a wider emotional range than even there had been on London Zoo. A lot of the people I approached, I felt they were capable of stretching the parameters. I wanted a sensuality, as well as violence. I wanted some feeling of intimacy, as well as destructiveness. My own listening habits are torn between zoning out at home, or being in a club and wanting to have the top of my head taken off. The collaborators I approached were all people who had a very singular voice, who were all very original, and borderline misfits in their own way. I like people that are challenging their own audiences, and that don't quite fit into one given area. Someone like Gonjasufi, or Inga Copeland, or Liz Grouper. They don't quite fit into any one area. They're freaks, in the best possible sense – and I guess that's how I feel I am.”
As with London Zoo, behind the great vengeance and furious anger of the most intense tracks, there remains a mysticism, a sense of spirituality. This is evidenced in the album's promotional artwork too, which resembles occult inscriptions, incorporating a modified caduceus. Is there spirituality in his dub? What form does it take? “There is definitely a spirituality deep within my music,” says Martin, “but that spirituality, as much as anything, is just about honesty for me. I equate spirituality with the finding of oneself. I don't follow any religion, I don't believe in any deity. The thing I feel closest to, in Buddhism they say the whole world is just made up of chaos, and all you can do is find your path through the middle of that chaos. That's what I try and do with music.”
Indeed, music itself has become his religion. “The longer I've worked on music, the more it has become a faith in itself for me,” he says. “There are a lot of artists who, for me, are involved in a sort of 'deep listening' side of music – someone like Alice Coltrane on one side, or Thomas Köner on the other side – they have a way of hearing and making music which requires a deeply meditative response, which is non-dynamic. In the same way, I've been drawn so much in recent years to non-Hollywood movies; movies which are far more poetic and slow-moving, where you can get lost in eternity itself. That's what I tried to balance with this record – the oblivion-seeking directness of clubs, but on the other side, a zonal, meditative, almost womb-like opposition to the world outside your window.”
One collaboration that makes Angels & Devils a must-listen album in 2014 is the appearance of Death Grips, now sadly defunct as a unit. “They are one of the most interesting groups to have surfaced in the last few years,” says Martin. “They remind me of a lot of the music that made me start making music in the first place. I was a child of post-punk music, and people like Throbbing Gristle or Crass, or Public Image Limited or Killing Joke, were all massively influential. Death Grips are one of the only recent groups who I feel have that spirit.”
The collaboration took place remotely: “When I approached them about the album, I had met them once before, at their first ever London show,” Martin explains. “They'd known of my past stuff, and they were very welcoming. I loved the show, I was blown away by the energy, by the intensity, and by the sheer fuck-you attitude at work. When I mailed them, or in fact anyone who appeared on this record, my first thought – out of self-doubt – was 'I'm probably not going to receive a response.'” The Death Grips camp's response was to send him a verse of them doing the lyrics from Skeng. “All they said apart from that was 'Fuck yeah,'” he says with a hint of pride.
“The rhythm from Fuck A Bitch had originally been written for Roll Deep, but they had turned it down for being too aggy. I loved that rhythm, so when Death Grips said yeah, it just seemed obvious that rhythm would suit MC Ride. I sent them the track, but when the parts came back, it just said 'Death Grips' – there was no reference to Ride. So I don't know what part the others played in what I received – I guess it's the editing of the vocals? I'm not quite sure. But they always mailed me without names, just as Death Grips.” This is one of his favourite things about the group. “They move in mysterious ways, but that's the beauty of it. I think it's great to have room left for your imagination, and to go against the grain. I also like the fact that half the people who listen to Death Grips fucking hate it, and the other half love it.” Once again, we're discussing duality, division, opposites.
“I've been told by many people that I'm a typical Gemini.” Martin's gruff laugh echoes down the phone line once more. “If ever there was a star sign responsible for complete schizophrenia, it's Gemini. I'm not particularly a believer in all that shit, but at the same time I'm aware that I swing between optimism and completely nihilistic depression. I think that bipolar approach is what shaped the record. I feel like there is an essential duality to life and death, love and hate. These are classical confrontations and classic conflicts within people on a day to day level, which have existed since humanity first began. So in a way, it seems quite grandiose to even mention things like that, in respect of a record. But it is very much the core of it. It's not meant to be grandiose, it's just meant to be a very fucking honest record.” He had his doubts about such a Miltonian title, but trusted his instincts. “There are so many parallels to classic literature, and art, and theology, but it just pointed to the explosion of opposites that is this record for me, and which I wanted.”
Given his distaste for dubstep, especially since its commodification – embraced by everyone from Korn to Celine Dion as a go-to hook to reel in the yout dem to music which is the apotheosis of commercial bullshit – does he consider his music a 'pure' form, or the kind of mutant or hybrid form he sees as so prevalent in today's culture? “The truth of the matter is, I've always wished I could make a purist form. I never seem able to,” he confesses. “I've always loved the pure forms of music. Whenever I approach my own music, it always seems to be mutant by necessity and by trajectory. I like the idea of purity, but I'm too aware of the fact that everything is impure. I think it's almost futile for me to believe, for myself, that I could come with something totally pure. Plus I'm not really a team player! I'm more of an assassin style, out on my own, doing my thing.”
This is why he was uncomfortable being “dragged along in the wake of dubstep,” as he puts it. “Dubstep, just like jungle before it, both were very much hybrid forms. What you had was this slew of new producers who were all geographically more or less centred around the same place, looking for the same thing in music. It was mad exciting, when it first began. When I was first meeting people like Mala, Loefah, Coki and Kode9, I thought it was a really intriguing area, because it echoed things I'd been involved in for years, and yet they weren't aware of any of the shit I was drawing on – except for Kode9, who was responsible for introducing me to a lot of people in that area. He was also responsible for me making tracks at 140bpm. I didn't used to give a shit about the tempo, but he asked me to do tracks at 140 because he wanted to play some of the stuff I'd been responsible for.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Will his other project, the more meditative King Midas Sound, return in the future? “Very much so,” he assures me. “I feel sorry for Roger [Robinson] and Kiki [Hitomi] that I had to basically pull shut the gates on King Midas last year to focus on finishing this record. I had no choice, for many reasons. Now, it's very much back to Midas-land. We're in the middle of a new collaboration for a new series of recordings that will be publicised soon, and also very hard at work on our new record. Ironically, we've all had children within the same year, which is sort of insane. We've all become parents for the first time, which is another reason we didn't do all that much work on King Midas this year.”
Finally, Martin addresses the comparisons that Angels & Devils has received with two seminal, dualistic musical touchstones: David Bowie and Brian Eno's Low, and Can's Tago Mago. “The truth is the citing of Low and Tago Mago wasn't from me, it was from the person who runs Ninja Tune in America,” says Martin. “I thought it was a very astute parallel. Angels & Devils, for me, is not anywhere near as 'pop' as one side of Low is, but in a way I think it has that same duality that was at the core of Low, and Tago Mago. So it wasn't my idea to reference them but I am a great admirer of both.”
What does he admire about Low in particular? “Bowie took chances on Low, which I feel I took on this record,” he says. “I was very aware that some people who might have loved Skeng or Poison Dart were gonna have a problem with side one of this album, but that wasn't an issue for me – it's up to them if they want to go down this new route and open their ears further. I felt I did take a chance, and I did want to confront my own expectations, question my own path. That's what Bowie did with Low. A lot of that was to do with his collaboration with Brian Eno, and I guess my collaborations with vocalists also shaped this album. When I decide on a vocalist I want to work with, I write with that vocalist in my mind.”
One collaboration he would consider re-engaging with would be that with Justin Broadrick, still of Godflesh, and formerly his partner in Techno Animal. Is he ever tempted to go back to his textural, drone-based roots with Broadrick at his side? “I don't feel comfortable towing a line or existing on the horizontal. I want to aim for the vertical,” he says cryptically. “Justin and I, I certainly hope we will collaborate again in the future – we've become very friendly again in the last couple of years. He's also become a father, a couple of years ago. He and I were always like soul brothers – he was like a little brother to me, who actually had more experience and was technically better than me. Without Justin, I would not have been able to make any of The Bug's records. He's always been an inspiration to me.” In fact, Martin re-wrote the track Fuck You after seeing Godflesh play in The Berghain last year. “It inspired me so much again and made me realise where I come from, sonically.”
Long ago, he says, “I gave up attempting to be a vocalist – there was a realisation I was never going to be Horace Andy, or Al Green, or Ian Curtis. So I might as well give up and do what I'm best at. But I love working with vocalists, and also with other musicians.” One confirmed collaboration will see him make a record with Earth's Dylan Carlson: “When people hear that, it will be different again to what they expect,” he says.
Reinvention, and the pushing of boundaries, are all still key to his process. “After Techno Animal, and after the Razor X productions, and the Pressure record, I became very interested in song structure,” he explains. “I realised that it's a lot easier to make a freeform noise record than it is to make a record which has incredible sonics and beautiful emotional sentiments in it. It became much more of an ongoing challenge for me to want to include insanely confrontational sonics within a very structured song. That was the beauty for me of people like The Bomb Squad – they were capable of doing both. If I'm honest, I know I could very easily knock out extended noise jams, or singular sonic assaults, and I know how much more difficult it is to work on a song I'll finally be happy with. That's not to say it's any more valid than a sustained frequency attack. Anyone who comes to a Bug show is well aware that this is what I am trying to balance. I want both. I still want that avalanche of sound, I still want to give people that experience where they walk away with their head shaking, like 'What the fuck?'”
You can almost picture him, a devilish grin on his face, but suffused with a calm, angelic confidence as he says: “That's a victory.”