AU59: The Bug feature

October 12, 2009

Kevin Martin was a slightly daunting prospect to talk to – he’s been around for years but I only knew him as The Bug, and he has a reputation for being as forthright and intense as his music. Fortunately, he was happy to give me a potted history of his work, and to talk about his inspirations in general terms as well as discussing dancehall, dub and suchlike. And he is indeed an absolute motormouth – you set him up with a question, sit back and enjoy a tirade of opinionated quote material. And the show it previewed turned out to be an absolute classic as well.


An uncompromising, underground hero for nearly 20 years, Kevin Martin found a new audience when 2008’s London Zoo album was showered with critical bouquets. Now, ahead of what promise to be two seismic shows in Belfast and Dublin, the digital dancehall pioneer gives AU an insight into what makes him tick.

“It’s not easy listening, it’s not a smooth, segued disco set – it’s fucking all over the shop. It’s meant to be confrontational but it’s meant to be physical and it’s meant to be enjoyable.”

So says Kevin Martin of the Bug live experience, which he brings to Belfast and Dublin this month. For the trip from his London base, Martin’s digital dancehall beats, depth charge bass and sonic chaos will be fighting for supremacy with rapid-fire ragga MC Daddy Freddy, and it promises to be loud, punishing and intense. But then intensity has always been Martin’s watchword. He’s spent the last two decades as a musician exploring extremes of noise, creativity and experimentation, forging a reputation as one of the UK’s foremost underground auteurs in a variety of genres. And although he has committed time and energy to a blend of free jazz and noise with first band God, hip-hop and soundscapes with Techno Animal and now industrial strength dancehall tinged with dub and grime as The Bug – to name three of his many projects – Martin is able to elucidate the common impulse that has driven him from his very earliest days.

“My post-punk background continues to influence everything I’ve been involved in,” he recalls in a West Country burr little polished by years in the capital. “Growing up as a kid, I was really inspired by the likes of Joy Division, The Birthday Party, 23 Skidoo, Throbbing Gristle – a lot of very interesting music that fused lots of different styles and took delight in being original and individual. The musical time that I grew up in was one of experimentation and trying to find fresh sounds and fresh ideas and doing something political – in the broad sense, not in the soapbox sense – and independent.”

Martin continues to dabble in side-projects (namely King Midas Sound and Cult Of The 13th Hour, collaborations with spoken word artists/MCs Roger Robinson and The Spaceape respectively), but his main focus for most of this decade has been The Bug. The first release under that name was 1997’s Tapping The Conversation, an experimental, unofficial soundtrack for the 1974 Francis Ford Coppola film The Conversation, but The Bug proper began with 2003’s Pressure. Last year, the third Bug album London Zoo blew up off the back of two fearsome singles, ‘Skeng’ and ‘Poison Dart’, and ecstatic reviews everywhere you looked – the album was 2008’s best received, according to review aggregator Metacritic.com. To go back to the beginning, though, the project was born of a new passion.

“I was obsessed by dancehall and ragga,” he says. “I was hooked on buying seven inches from Jamaica, and I thought there was room for an electronic form of dancehall that was intense, confrontational, frictional and just in-your-face, really. I didn’t want to just fake it – I didn’t want to play Ja-fake-an [sic] music – I wanted to try and find a sound for myself which was indebted to my own personal roots. That was what I wanted with The Bug – to make very heavy dancehall that was modern.”

Of course, dancehall is a niche genre in these islands and therefore often subject to preconceptions drawn from the outrage its lyrical content can attract. Martin mentions at one point in our conversation that there are aspects of the genre that he “wasn’t keen on”, so it seems fair to ask his views on the genre’s reputation for violence, sexism and homophobia. As it turns out, he’s referring to a lack of basslines and the “cheesy” nature of some traditional dancehall, not the lyrics.

“So often, dancehall and hip-hop are scapegoats for crimes that are committed in every other area of music,” he argues. “For some reason, probably because it’s black music, it’s an easy target. I steer clear of homophobic lyrics in The Bug tunes, but the idea of misanthropic, anti-social violence? Yeah, that’s alright for me, I don’t mind that being raised as an issue or an emotion. It’s very much part of where I come from musically, which is music as a catalyst for emotion, and a soundtrack to change. To me, that was a really important part of post-punk music and I see it echoed in dancehall.”

The Bug, then, is music with fire in its belly. Both Pressure and London Zoo are all-out assaults on the ears and mind, particularly the latter with its abrasively articulated 21st century nihilism, exploring Martin’s love/hate relationship with the city that’s been his home for most of his adult life. “London’s an amazing city if you can afford to take advantage of what it’s got to offer,” he says, “but if you can’t it’ll just torture you day in, day out.” It’s also the city that spawned dubstep, a genre that Martin has in recent years become popularly associated with. It’s no mystery why, as London Zoo featured tracks that share some of the same rhythmic and bass-driven DNA as dubstep, just as the genre was going overground. However, Martin is keen to distance himself from it, decrying the current scene.

“I feel very separate from it,” he says. “I like music within that scene, and for sure at first there was a lot of really interesting music within dubstep. But for me, London Zoo is just an extension of what I was already doing with Pressure, before dubstep. I don’t in any way, shape or means want to accept any responsibility at all for dubstep. Those people on that scene, apart from [Hyperdub label boss and leading producer in his own right] Kode9, had no idea who I was. It was just coincidental that they were interested in doing similar things with sound as what we were doing with Techno Animal and maybe Mick Harris was doing with Scorn. Personally, I feel it peaked two years ago as a genre and it’s got really predictable now and primarily very boring, but there’s been some amazing music made within dubstep.”

He goes further, arguing that it’s not just dubstep that’s had its day, but much of modern music. Not that Martin comes across as the kind of guy that sticks his head in the sand and looks nostalgically backwards – the thrilling, forward-thinking music he’s making with The Bug should be proof of that – but he isn’t happy with what he’s hearing.

“What I miss about music, particularly at the moment when so much music is really vacuous, is a reason for it to exist,” he says. “The genres I normally look to have been really disappointing in the last couple of years. I like to be inspired by music. I like to have music around me that’s making me work harder, and at the moment I’m finding it difficult. I’ve been talking to friends in recent months about it, and I can’t remember a time when it’s seemed so barren. I always like to look to the next thing and be inspired by new experiments in music, but everything seems to be going backwards. It’s like, fuck that.”

Martin’s ears remain open, and he speaks passionately about doom metal bands Corrupted and Thorr’s Hammer (“fucking intense and belligerent and heavy as hell”) as well as avant-garde hip-hop producer Flying Lotus (“fucking incredible”), but it seems he craves a scene to get his teeth into, in the same way that dancehall fired his synapses and inspired The Bug. “There are always going to be minor things,” he allows, “but it’s nice if there is a cluster or a group of new explosions of ideas, and at the moment that just doesn’t seem to be happening as much.”

With Kevin Martin, a burning intensity is ever-present. It’s in The Bug, it’s in his musical tastes and it drives everything he does. It’s even in how he speaks – quickly, confidently and at length. And as he makes a passionate call-to-arms of his fellow musicians, it’s pretty obvious that he is willing to carry the fight. “A lot of the music that I told you about that I grew up on, there’s a really fierce anti-control, anti-system, anti-apathy approach or mindset which for me is still very much part of how I feel. You know, question everything – the purpose of everything, the structure of everything. And for me that’s becoming rare at the moment.”






“It’s huge physicality, it’s a direct impulse, it bypasses the intellect, it moves you physically and mentally. Bass, volume and extremity in music is what I’ve been interested in continually. For me, making a bassline isn’t a revolutionary statement – it’s what you do with it, the context you put it in, how you work with it. Basically, I’m heavily attracted to grooves and basslines and always have been. The sound of bass, the effect of bass, the impulse of bass… Yeah, crucial.”


One comment

  1. […] Picnic live review AU60: The Bug live review November 17, 2009 When I posted my interview with Kevin Martin (aka The Bug), I mentioned that the gig was a total belter. Here’s the […]

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