Ascension Times: In Conversation With The Bug

Kevin Martin on one of 2014’s best albums…

The new album from The Bug, ‘Angels & Devils’, is, as its title so expertly implies, a set of two distinct halves.

There is the angry, antagonistic Bug, the Bug that we’re familiar with, albeit showing up here with teeth freshly sharpened and a hunger in its belly like never before. These tracks, the album’s second half, are savage, spitting fire and venom and reinforcing the fact, made clear enough on the last album from The Bug, 2008’s ‘London Zoo’, that he is amongst a very rare set of domestic producers: able to blend energy and emotion with electronics and machinery with alchemical ability, realising tracks that don’t just move a man, but set about shredding away layers of skin.

But The Bug is also a man, one Kevin Martin, once a resident of Weymouth, Dorset (every now and then a little West Country accent comes through) who now lives a happy life in Berlin with his girlfriend and four-month-old son. He’s not some studio punk with nothing to say on the better things in life, whose sole purpose is to confront the mainstream with fiery missives that bridge a variety of genres, from grime to dubstep to dancehall, without once stopping still long enough to be boxed. (Although those are pretty great, actually.)

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‘Save Me’, feat. Gonjasufi

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He’s old enough, wise enough, to appreciate what he has – and what he has to do not only to grow, creatively, but to maintain personally. To do right by himself and those he has a responsibility for. This side of Martin comes through in the new record’s relatively softer numbers, the underbelly to his armoured hide, the vulnerable intimacy that wasn’t as represented on ‘London Zoo’. So naturally, as the breadwinner in his family, he was pretty pissed off when a recent high-profile show was pulled with no forewarning from its promoters.

“It was a problem,” Martin tells me, as we touch upon the still prickly topic of the ATP’s Jabberwocky Festival being canned just days before its commencement. “I think the lateness of the cancellation was really disrespectful to the bands, and the audience alike. I was never notified by ATP that the show was cancelled. I personally love their booking policy, and their tastes are very similar to my own, but I thought it was quite out that I had to find out that the festival was cancelled through somebody talking about it online. I wasn’t directly informed.

“It left us big in the lurch. Jabberwocky, for me, was a crucial festival. The running order was something like Jesu, and then Earth, and then I was going to collaborate with Dylan (Carlson, Earth frontman) – and then Liars, followed by Electric Wizard, I think. And for me, on this album, I feel it’s crucial that I find a new audience.”

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I felt hemmed in with dubstep. I felt like it was becoming a prison – and I get itchy when I feel claustrophobic…

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Around the time of ‘London Zoo’ – one of the highest-rated album releases of 2008 – Martin was feeling the pressure of being pigeonholed against his will. While the record did wonders for his profile, exposing him to far greater listener numbers than his previous work in GOD, Techno Animal or Ice had ever achieved, it also constricted the scope of his creativity. Dubstep was booming, blooming, becoming a force beyond the underground. And ‘London Zoo’ had become an unlikely beacon for its qualities, despite its absolute rejection of rote tropes that would quickly enough come to characterise the genre’s mainstream excursions.

“I felt hemmed in with dubstep. I felt like it was becoming a prison – and I get itchy when I feel claustrophobic. I didn’t fit what dubstep came to be – I have nothing to do with all these wobbles. I’ve played some pure dubstep parties, with Flowdan, and they’ve been some of the worst shows we’ve ever done. Those audiences just want to hear the same formula, start to finish. They don’t want to be challenged. They want safety.

“I remember one show in Madrid, and another in Italy, where the DJs either side of us were just playing this Skrillex shit. Now, I’m not anti-Skrillex – if some young kid in America gravitates towards Mala, or Kode9, or Burial or Loefah via Skrillex, that’s cool. Good on him. But his sound is very obviously not me. And when you’re in the middle of that situation, it’s like: ‘What the f*ck am I doing here?’”

He goes back to the need to resonate, this time around, with a new audience. “I feel that this album can appeal to a wider audience than ‘London Zoo’. I never make anything to appeal to a narrow audience – with Techno Animal, even, we always wanted to play to as many people as possible. The reason we nipped that in the bud is because we felt interest was limited and we were feeling ghettoised. We were too noisy for hip-hop people, but too hip-hop for noise people. Which is ironic, as now you see acts like Death Grips and clipping., who have come along and maybe had it easier. For us, it wasn’t easy at all.”

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‘F*ck A Bitch’, feat. Death Grips

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The now-defunct Californian crew Death Grips play their part in ‘Angels & Devils’ – one of two first-reveal cuts, ‘F*ck A Bitch’, features their adrenalized MC Stefan Burnett detonating his singular vocal explosives all over the cut. “The Death Grips track was always going to get people’s attention,” says Martin. “But it was important to me to offer the flip to that, with the Gonjasufi(-featuring) track, ‘Save Me’.” Said number is one of the calmer offerings on ‘Angels & Devils’, and the San Diego musician is joined by another stateside artist for the album’s more introspective section, Grouper’s Liz Harris, who appears on opener ‘Void’.

“I personally wanted ‘Void’ to be one of the reveal tracks,” says Martin. “That, and (the Flowdan-featuring) ‘Fat-Mac’. But (releasing label) Ninja Tune thought ‘Fat-Mac’ would be what people were expecting. I get what they were saying. But when you’re so close to the material, it’s hard to know what the ‘best’ track might be. When I was working on ‘London Zoo’, I put just as much effort into other tracks as I did ‘Skeng’ and ‘Poison Dart’ – but those became the tracks that drew the best reactions from people. For me, it can be impossible to tell that.

“But I had no idea that these new songs, and this new album, would be so well received. It’s made me shit myself. When you spend six years working on a record, or five years, you think yourself into a grave. With ‘Angels & Devils’, I knew I wanted this stylistic contrast – but the decision to split it into two halves, as it is, came very late. Ninja Tune were not particularly into the idea at first. I listen to music either to take my head off in a club, between stacks of speakers, or to zone out to, on an iPod when I’m cycling around Berlin, or on a plane, or just at home. That dual functionality, I wanted to mirror that on the record.”

Which brings us back to the dichotomy, the split personality, not only of the album, but also of Martin as an artist. He wants that bigger audience, for more people to get into his work, and always has done. And yet, the music he’s making – the music that he’s always made – has resided in the margins, battling against the ever-coming tide of shit that comprises the commercially successful middle ground of the music industry.

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…raw and funky and dirty, antagonistic and weird, psychedelic and mashed-up. That’s the shit I like…

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“I don’t feel that music that is experimental, that pushes boundaries, should reside in the margins. I grew up listening to pop music that was warped and twisted. I don’t think pop is made that way anymore. I was discussing this with Kode9 and Spaceape the other day, and they were talking about The The, the old band, as Spaceape is a big fan of theirs. But he said that we’ll never see a band like that again, in the pop charts, in the top 10. Pop to me now is just a commodity culture that I don’t feel a part of. The enemy of music is commodity, music as a background. Music is foreground for me, at all times.

“When I was very young, a group that meant a lot to me was Crass. And their music was raw and nasty, purposely antagonistic. But they were selling more than some pop music was, albeit through different channels. They were selling through shops that weren’t registered for the charts. So I feel that viable alternatives exist to the mainstream, which can actually be bigger than what’s on MTV right now. The popularity of Death Grips now, or going back to Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan, that offers hope. That’s real soul.

“I think Chuck D is real, that he’s honest and legit. He’s stuck to his guns. Wu-Tang have been attracted to money rather more, no doubt, but the RZA is one of the most incredible producers I’ve heard in my life. That first wave of Wu releases is so influential on me. Sonically, it had everything I wanted: raw and funky and dirty, antagonistic and weird, psychedelic and mashed-up. That’s the shit I like.”

Hip-hop comprises a massive part of The Bug’s present DNA, even if it’s not instantly obvious. Martin has worked with MCs and producers from the rap world before, and is likely to again in the future. “El-P and I have been in contact through the years – and it was really nice that he tweeted his support for my new album. There are plans for further collaboration, which would be wicked. He’s great.

“I was very fortunate that when Company Flow, Antipop Consortium, Juggaknots, when all these guys started, and were releasing their first records, I was going into Mr Bongo’s, as it was then, in Soho, and this stuff was a revelation. I’d got a bit bored of hip-hop at that point, so hearing ‘Population Control’ by Company Flow was a brainstorm for me. More often than not, I get drawn to music by artists who I feel have a similar mindset to me, and of course Company Flow and El-P, we’re peas in a pod, as far as I’m concerned.

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‘Freakshow’ feat. Danny Brown and Kiki Hitomi

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“Hip-hop is a massive inspiration for me. I actually cancelled a show once, to have the opportunity to DJ at a Public Enemy after-party. I met Hank Shocklee, and shook his hand. I told him how much I admired him – basically, without The Bomb Squad, I wouldn’t be doing this. They’re that big of an influence. But then he told me how much he liked ‘Skeng’, and I was taken aback. That was amazing.”

A prominent MC of the here and now who collaborated with Martin last summer is Danny Brown – that’s him on ‘Freakshow’, over The Bug’s ‘Dirty’ beat, with Kiki Hitomi of King Midas Sound on the hook. On ‘Angels & Devils’ it’s the Flowdan-starring version of ‘Dirty’ that makes the cut, but perhaps inevitably Ninja Tune were keen for Danny’s presence to be felt on the long-player. “I didn’t think it suited the overall tone,” says Martin. “I understand why they wanted it, but Flowdan’s is better fitted to the album. And besides, Danny never gave me a hook – he sent through this freestyle, and it was great, but when I asked him for a hook he told me he didn’t have the time. That’s why I got Kiki in, and I think it came out okay in the end.”

It was Martin’s between-Bug-LPs work with King Midas Sound, producing the album ‘Waiting For You’ for Hyperdub, that helped him to really begin to focus in on what ‘Angels & Devils’ would become. “Seeing the reaction to ‘London Zoo’, and how journalists were responding to dubstep, it was making me go through these mini-crises in my head, where I didn’t know where I wanted to go next. In hindsight, working on King Midas Sound was very obviously me deflecting that.

“King Midas Sound was a reaction to not wanting to be seen as some sort of sonic thug. And it bought me time, to keep working, because I was working on Bug stuff through the Midas stuff. It’s like working with wood, if you’re a craftsman. You whittle down the sound, trying to decide where to go next. ‘London Zoo’ was a very big thing for me – I’d always struggled on the underground, so to go from there to a million and a half hits made me feel intense pressure.

“I felt really challenged with this album. And I think that’s been a consistent challenge, since I went solo: how can I make these machines reflect me, as a person? How can I give them an identity? These synths and drum machines, how can they be arranged that people will recognise as a Bug song? All of the artists I like the most, they’re recognisable within bars.

“The challenge on this one was to find myself, in it. I haven’t jettisoned the sound of ‘London Zoo’, but I did want to craft it more, to expand it. It’s impossible to make a perfect record, so you just try to become better. I’m a studio obsessive, and it’s quite a monastic process, my relationship with music. You spend so many hours, listening to something over and over again, that you need to keep breathing life into it, to prevent it going stale. That’s a big challenge. So I was nervous about this album.”

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I can’t remember a time that feels as f*cked up as this, right now. The BBC News channel was on, and it was just atrocity after atrocity…

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One track that perhaps isn’t immediately identifiable as a Bug arrangement, albeit one that finds such a connection within the wider context of its parent LP, is ‘Pandi’. An instrumental, it begins with big, thick organ sounds and cathedral drones, before finding a crackling beat, a sound like shoes shuffling on a forest floor. It’s incidental, somewhat, in the grand scheme of ‘Angels & Devils’, a connective composition that joins the pulsating ‘Mi Lost’, with Miss Red on vocals, to the contemplative contortions of ‘Save Me’. But it’s a very special track for Martin, with unique inspiration. It is, perhaps, the track that best encapsulates the beauty of this record’s ‘Angels’ half.

“‘Pandi’ was the nickname we gave our son, before he was born,” Martin reveals. “That track was written the day of our first ultrasound, the first time I’d seen the baby in the womb. And I felt this mixture of awe and terror. I didn’t go to the studio specifically to work on this track, but I ended up doing so, and the ultrasound was totally the catalyst for getting on with it.”

Acclaimed as a musician of extremes, Martin’s introduction to being a father put a lot of what he’d done before into perspective. “It was a very turbulent birth – my partner could have passed away, as she lost a lot of blood, and had to be rushed into intensive care. And our baby had to have two life-threatening operations in the first month. We were living on an intensive care unit for six weeks, and that shit had a huge impact on me. I thought I’d had an extreme life before, but that was terror of a level I’d never experienced. That definitely had an impact.

“Being a father is huge. It’s really hard being away. Just leaving the house is hard, when my girlfriend’s at the door, holding our son, saying goodbye – that’s wrenching, for me to have to leave that. I’m an all or nothing person. I want to be the best musician Bug, the best producer Bug, the best partner Bug. Now I need to be best dad Bug. And it’s frustrating, because there are only so many hours in every day, and I want to do the best I can in any area of life. So yeah, it’s intense.

“I’m experiencing so many things I’ve never felt before, and I’m still coming to terms with it. I don’t know about you, but even four months in, you’ll look at the baby sometimes and think, ‘Wow, that’s so alien. What’s its connection to me?’ I remember when they put him on his mummy’s tummy, for the first second or something I was just, ‘What the f*ck is that?’ But then the next second, ‘Woah’, and then, ‘F*ck, amazing’. Such a big, big moment. All the clichés you hear about people talking about having babies, that I used to ignore, they’re true.”

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‘Function’, feat. Manga

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Clichéd is not an accusation that anyone could level at ‘Angels & Devils’. Just as individual as its predecessor, it’s a fascinating, engrossing document of our times, of these incredibly uncertain days that seem, sometimes, to be counting down to destruction.

“I can’t remember a time that feels as f*cked up as this, right now. I was at Kode9’s place yesterday, doing an interview, and while it was happening the BBC News channel was on opposite me – and it was just atrocity after atrocity. It seems like end times right now. The stuff that’s happening in Ferguson, that’s outrageous.

“I feel that the best music and art comes out of perilous times. Punk came out from the bottom of a trough so far as social interaction in the UK went. You look at when hip-hop was first blowing up in the States, when it was a terrible time, socially and economically, for black people in New York. You look at Jamaica in the early 1970s and it was popping off there, with rioting and various political situations. Personally, I don’t know how anyone can be happy just making a bland house record right now. For me, when everyone in dance starts turning to house music as some kind of salvation, that’s like, ‘What the f*ck?’ My world is not that – so I had no choice but to make a record like this.

“I like music with an intensity – and that doesn’t mean it needs to be noisy. It can be full of suspense, or beauty. As long as it has those extremes in it, because it’s the mass-consumer shit in the middle that drives me nuts. You just drown in it. That middle-mass, that’s living death, and I’m all about passion and light.”

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The emotional content of the music is still key to me, as much as my obsession with tonality and texture…

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Passion and light: that sounds about right for The Bug’s latest long-player. It’s a fire stoked, emotions boiled, energy swollen. For all of the guesting vocalists, though, much like ‘London Zoo’ it is still a very personal document.

“I hope that comes across. It’s perilous making records like this, as a producer, because you’re not a vocalist, you’re not at the forefront. It can begin to look like a rent-a-voice situation, or a series of singles, stapled together. I dunno... It can feel like genre hopping. And I was very aware of those risks. I guess it takes a long time for me to finish a record, because for a lot of the time I’m trying to understand my own narrative direction, and my own impulses. And I want those impulses on the record.

“The choice of vocalist is dictated by what I feel the atmosphere needs, so it’s a very careful process. I’ve been knocked back by people in the past, but I was very fortunate on this record, as virtually everyone I approached responded very positively. That was quite unexpected. As there was never money exchanged on this record – those involved are there because they believe in the project, and me as an artist. The emotional content of the music is still key to me, as much as my obsession with tonality and texture.”

‘Angels & Devils’ offers the listener two ways to engage with it. You can totally lose yourself with it, to the rhymes of Flowdan and MC Ride; or within it, as Liz Harris and Martin’s instrumental pieces welcome you into a warm embrace. But then, of course there’s heat: even at rest, The Bug exhales sheets of sulphur. For this music to reside on the edges of anyone’s radar any longer risks the entire operation. Music needs this more than it does the mulch of the everyday “middle-mass”. Turn your telly on: the world’s on fire and there aren’t many musicians making sounds to best see out our remaining days. Might as well party as the ground collapses beneath you.

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Words: Mike Diver
Photos: Fabrice Bourgelle

‘Angels & Devils’ is released by Ninja Tune on August 25th. Read our review of it here. Find The Bug online here

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