Where can you turn to and find solace when the world is seemingly crumbling around you, when the future seems unpredictable and bleak? This past year, as the carpet was being pulled out from under us, many of us hit a kind of “reset” button on our lives, as we were forced to reprioritize what’s important to us and find ways to stay sane. For Kevin Richard Martin, in other words, things were somewhat the same… but different.
Martin is best-known to listeners as The Bug, the alter ego he has regularly employed to “destroy dancefloors, clubs and bodies.” The twelve tracks on The Bug’s 2008 album London Zoo cleverly and loudly fused dub with industrial noise and fiery screams. The record is an angry, oftentimes bewildering work, forcefully jabbing a finger in the face of inequality, institutionalized division and the marginalization of lost communities. If London was the powder keg, Martin was only too willing to be the match—ready to light the whole thing and walk away from it.
In fact, Martin’s career in music now actually extends back several decades. As a musician, producer and curator, his output—both recorded solo and as a frequent collaborator or remixer—has covered multiple genres, ranging from dub, jazzcore and industrial hip hop to dancehall, dubstep and electronic ambient music. His work has extended across projects including GOD and Techno Animal (both with Godflesh’s Justin Broadrick) and King Midas Sound (with British/Trinidadian poet Roger Robinson), while he has made albums with Earth’s Dylan Carlson and Fennesz. Adding remixes for and collaborations with Thom Yorke, Grace Jones, John Zorn, Kevin Shields, the Beastie Boys and Einstürzende Neubauten to the list might seem somewhat gratuitous here, but they do offer a clear glimpse as to the range of Martin’s output over the years, all of which continues to explore the fringes of experimental and heavy music.
London Zoo managed to be both of those things, while also becoming a commercial success, especially in the UK and continental Europe. On the album, Kevin Martin lobbed apocalyptic musical grenades straight out of the heart of the UK’s capital—its blend of dancehall, grime, hip hop and noise filling a record that could only have originated from within the city’s sound-system culture.
And so it was time to leave. Martin called time on London, packed up his home and his studio, and decamped to Berlin.
2021 finds Martin weathering another storm—obviously, with all of us on a global scale, but also artistically and personally. Indeed, where to go musically when the dancefloors are off-limits and the clubs have all been boarded up? The answer lies in his more recent work—now released under his full name, Kevin Richard Martin—and his goal now is to “penetrate minds.” Leaving London behind was one thing; Martin has now left Earth altogether.
Over the past few years—and after yet another move, this time to Belgium’s capital, Brussels—Martin has been anything but unproductive. He has self-released scores of albums directly via his Kevin Richard Martin Bandcamp page, and now (on the ever-innovative Phantom Limb label) he is releasing Return to Solaris, a stunningly powerful rescore of Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal 1972 movie. As much as that movie is intense, psychologically devastating and bleakly compelling— interweaving themes of love, horror, sorrow, nostalgia, memory and dystopia—Martin’s score expertly mirrors this expansive breadth of psychic weight, from existential dread to heartbreaking poignancy, with immense emotional gravity.
We caught up with Kevin Martin as he beamed in from his Brussels Zoo studio. Anyone expecting an interview full of pessimism and doom as to the current state of the world might also be surprised at the erudite, candid and (yes) often humorous conversation that follows. | a. tobin
Aquarium Drunkard: How have you been dealing with this past year? How have the pandemic and the resulting global shutdown affected you?
Kevin Richard Martin: It was huge, absolutely a mountainous weight on my shoulders, like everyone else. We literally moved to Brussels the day before Belgium was totally locked down and closed its borders. We were originally supposed to move here three weeks or so later. For two months leading up to the move, I was getting more and more panic-stricken, just seeing what was going on in the world. I said to my wife: “You know what? This is looking dodgy.” And then four days before we moved, I said: “We’ve got to leave!” We could really have been in shit salad. Notice had been handed in to our landlord in Berlin, and a friend of mine had already given notice to their landlord to take over our place… The same thing applied with my studio in Berlin, and obviously we would have lost this place in Brussels if we’d been stuck in Berlin for an indefinite amount of time. So at the time, it seemed like we were staring catastrophe in the face [laughs]. It was just pretty obvious borders were going to close at that point, and we were just very fortunate that we moved the day before. This is the second big move we’ve made. We moved from London to Berlin, and then from Berlin to Belgium. When you get that sort of move coming up, there’s enough stress anyway—even just things like trying to find train tickets, and all the flights had been cancelled. And it just felt like the imminent end of the world. There were two friends that were invaluable to us. My regular sound man, Goh, helped us pack in those four days. We had to pack everything in my studio, which is like a spaceship, then our flat… and also find a removal company at extremely short notice. They all were saying: “You know what? We’re not sure we can take your stuff. We don’t know if our drivers are going to get back into the country.” It felt like a wartime evacuation, but in the middle of all that, you’re seeing the whole world suffering, and you don’t take it personally. You just deal with it. And when we got to Brussels, it was quite shocking. Berlin hadn’t been taking the coronavirus seriously, in comparison. In Brussels, it felt like a dystopian sci-fi movie. There was no one on the streets, they’d already locked all the shops down. The only place you could go to was a supermarket—and only one person could go, plus you had to queue. The flat we arrived to had no decorations or anything, no curtains, so it all felt alien. Last year just felt like the most alien fucking time in my life! Like it did for many people.
AD: So have you been able to see any of Brussels, your new hometown, in the meantime?
Kevin Richard Martin: Yeah, lately things have been easing up more and more. After we drop the kids off every day, my wife and I go for a one-to-two-hour walk around Brussels to get to know it. And we’ve fallen totally in love with Brussels. It was the right move for us. It’s a great city, people are super-friendly… The neighborhood we live in is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Brussels—if not the poorest—and it’s the most multicultural neighborhood. We literally don’t know what language we’re going to hear when we step out the door. Every person you see, one after the other, you have no idea where they come from. They could be from Poland, they could be from Turkey, they could be from Ukraine, they could be from Congo. It’s amazing. Brussels is the most integrated city I’ve ever lived in. It’s very common to see groups of kids—one can be African, one can be Turkish, one can be white—and they just hang together. Mixed-race relationships? Normal. This neighborhood is fucking poor, but at the same time, there’s a real vibrant street life, where people are just getting on with it. I don’t feel the tension here that I felt in London… and certainly not in New York. We warmed to the fact that people just know that life’s a struggle in our hood. And they just get on with it, you know, respect each other. My wife’s Japanese, and that’s also a reason we wanted to move here. When you’ve got mixed-race kids, these are big parts of your equation.
AD: We also know you as your alter ego The Bug. Your London Zoo album contained big blocks of dancehall and dubstep, and screamed all things “Babylon” and “fire.” Then you moved to Berlin, home of, among others, minimal and the Rhythm & Sound crew. And now you call Brussels home… How much of an influence are your surroundings when it comes to your music?
Kevin Richard Martin: My teenage years were spent in a very pretty Dorset seaside town [on the south coast of England]. It was whiter than white, and monocultural. And I couldn’t wait to move to the city. It was bland, it was boring, and I was totally inspired by music. Music gave me an escape route from the hell of my family life and just general dissatisfaction with the world. For me, I needed to move to where the action was musically. And that was London. It had to be London. There was no more choice in the UK at that time, and it would never dawned on me to move outside of the UK. I just wouldn’t have known how to really.
AD: But moving up to London is already a huge step to take at that age anyway, if you come from a more or less provincial town.
Kevin Richard Martin: Exactly. And it was. It was hardcore. I went there naive, totally green, thinking: “Oh, you know what? I’ll just be able to hang, get shows, blah, blah blah.” Like fuck! It was a disaster. You basically end up in London and realize you have to pay to play shows. You play in front of no one when you do it. You get treated like shit by everyone. And it’s really a test of your conviction to your profession and to your love of music.
AD: Were you already, at that point, looking to express yourself creatively at all? Or were you just there to soak up the scene at first?
Kevin Richard Martin: It was all about creativity. I had no choice. I left—well, actually, I was thrown out of home by my dad when I was 16. And so I left with no qualifications, no money, no rich parents… I had no possible avenues other than to try and understand this crazy fucking world, and to try and use music as my catalyst to make a path through it. It was all about me trying to navigate my future via music, and because I had no other option, it was sink or swim. London’s a harsh city if you’ve got no money. It’s a palace if you’re a king of cash. I personally feel people in London are pretty mercenary. They tend to use each other a lot. It’s a city people gravitate toward to get what they can from the city and from each other, and then they disappear. As most big cities are… I’d always read about big cities because I love film, literature, music. They were really what I buried myself into as a kid to escape the madness of my family life. My parents effectively hated each other, and I had a father who beat me up and beat my mum up regularly. So for me, art was the way out. And that led to: “Where can I have access to it? Where can I get hold of it?” This is pre-internet, you know, this is dinosaur period! [laughs]
AD: You really had to make a big effort in those days to find your tribe, to find like-minded people who understood what you were about. Was there anyone, or any scene, during your teenage years that took you in under their wing a little and nudged you in the right direction?
Kevin Richard Martin: I was very fortunate, because there was a record store in Weymouth called Handsome Dick’s. That was a hub for all disaffected young kids. The two guys who ran it were sort of angels to us. I used to hang out with punks, rockabillies, two-tone people, hip-hop kids, hippies…You name it. Music was much more tribal than it tends to be now. Our crew of people were all hungry to discover new music, because our only route was via John Peel. Or that record shop. Luckily, the guys that ran it had impeccable taste: free jazz, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Captain Beefheart…And they’d be getting in new records by The Birthday Party, Joy Division, Cocteau Twins.
AD: Throughout your own music, there always seems to be a certain darkness—a dankness even!—sounds that grab you by your neck and shake the innards of your guts. One constant I seem to hear is the use of deep, dark bass tones, which surely also extends back to your love of all things dub. Was that deep sound something that you latched on to pretty early?
Kevin Richard Martin: Absolutely! In post-punk music, a lot of the bass players were playing the lead instrument. I remember telling an uncle or an aunt that I was thinking about getting a bass guitar, and they were like: “Why would you want to get a bass? Only boring people play bass!” And I was listening to Peter Hook, Jah Wobble, Youth, JJ Burnel… They were playing amazing lines that were all heavily inspired by reggae. And then John Peel would be playing full Misty in Roots albums or heavy dub stuff. I’d always be hanging with people older than me to get their knowledge, and they’d be playing me off-the-wall Prince Far I records. So I gravitated toward protest music, DIY music and punk. The first stuff I bought was a Discharge seven-inch. The first shock to my system was when a friend of mine—I must have been about ten—played me the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. I was like: “Does. Not. Compute!” [laughs]
AD: You mentioned the DIY scene, and I know you’re also a writer. Did you ever get involved in zine culture at the time?
Kevin Richard Martin: Oh yeah! I never had my own zine, but I had a very good friend that was running a really great zine. Zines were great, they were the internet of their day. You’d go to shows, and you’d be looking out for zines where you could read interviews about a lot of underground music that you couldn’t discover any other way. You know, it was the Bandcamp of its day. One of my best friends was one of the biggest rockabilly DJs on the south coast of the UK. And I would go to London with him. He was totally into fashion, and we’d go and try to find these sort of fifties retro clothes in [erstwhile London fashion hotspot] King’s Road. I’d be tagging along with him when I was 15, to check out London. And Jesus: It felt like a different planet! All my dreams had come true, one by one.
AD: Especially in places like that and in times like those, things were much more tribal. It seemed like you had many more separate subcultures. Now, there seems to be much more fluidity between scenes and genres.
Kevin Richard Martin: I like that tribalism, to be honest. I like the fact that people express themselves through faction. I like the fact that it was important how artists looked. It’s all about the self-discovery. It can be about your music, it can be about fashion, it can be intertwined. I’m extremely unpatriotic. I hate patriotism. One of the things I’m least proud of is coming from Britain, because it’s got such a dirty historical past. At the same time, I like going to places where there’s still a sense of tradition. So it’s a sort of contradiction. I left Wales when I was young. My dad was Irish, my mum was Scottish, and we moved all the time because my dad was in the navy. And, in a way, that’s probably the key to my musical trajectory. I feel rootless, and I’m going to gravitate toward certain key things: grooves and basslines.
AD: Sure, wherever you may be or whatever situation you happen to be in, they can act as constants, as comforts…
Kevin Richard Martin: Exactly. It’s like a heartbeat to gravitate toward, but also just confrontation, culture clash, friction.
AD: I’d like to ask you about The Bug versus Kevin Richard Martin and the stuff that you’ve been putting out under your own name these past few years, which is sonically quite different. Where does the alias stop, and where does Kevin begin? Do you consider them more or less two sides of the same coin?
Kevin Richard Martin: I personally don’t think they’re completely separate, and I can’t see how they could be, because they both come from my mind. But they’re exploring different avenues. I think there’s elements of Kevin Richard Martin in past Bug records—certainly in GOD records and absolutely in Techno Animal records. You know, I don’t see the Kevin Richard Martin music and composition that I’ve been releasing as an immaculate conception. It comes from a constant evolution of my musical endeavors and interests. The first Bug album was actually Tapping the Conversation, which was a new version of a film score [to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 mystery The Conversation]. It was instrumental, non-reggae, but had dubbed production at its core. I don’t see it as “The Bug versus Kevin Richard Martin,” but more like separate opposites moving apart.
AD: Does releasing under your own name afford you more freedom, both artistically and in a music business sense?
Kevin Richard Martin: Bandcamp has been an absolute revelation. I can be finishing something on the Friday morning—like the mastering and artwork—and get it out into the world two hours later. That’s exciting, but you can be slapped back to reality quite quickly when you see the sales. You realize how much of the music industry is run around promotion and the whole promotion industry. And I don’t have that. But that’s not the point with the Bandcamp releases. You asked me earlier about the move to Brussels. A survival mechanism for me was to get the studio set up as soon as possible. I was suddenly seeing that all of my shows were cancelled for the year. I’m the breadwinner for a family of four, so the stress levels are insane when that happens. It’s not that those Bandcamp releases give us security financially, but I just knew that, psychologically, I needed something to believe in, to put my soul into and to just keep me grounded when I felt part of me was losing my mind looking at what’s going on. It was a case of: “How do you navigate this chaos?” It felt invigorating. And yeah, there was a sense of freedom—freedom of movement, freedom from the industry, freedom that other people weren’t making the decisions on my behalf. I wasn’t having to make decisions based on what people expected of me. There’s a lot of pressure, particularly after you make a record that does well. London Zoo may not have been a financial mega-success, but what it did is critically lay a big hammer on the floor—and the pressure is to follow it up, to try and keep people interested. Then the big questions are how much you want to move away from it, how much people are going to move away from you if you move away from it. It raised loads of questions. So for me, the Kevin Richard Martin series was just absolutely essential for my sanity.
AD: One thing you do quite often in your work is collaborate with other people when making music—be it Justin Broadrick, Burial, Fennesz or Roger Robinson in King Midas Sound. Do you feel that gives you a little more leeway to experiment sonically, to escape any potential traps and people’s expectations?
Kevin Richard Martin: Yeah, partly. And also, you can just end up up your own asshole if you just keep on doing your own thing. So it’s nice to work with people to get a few slaps across the face, to actually realize: “Oh, yeah! That’s an interesting way of looking at it.” You don’t want to outrun your sell-by date when you’re regularly releasing music. I think people always have a certain amount of expectation of what you are and what it is you do, and that can be great. If you’re satisfied with making exactly the same record over and over again, and if you realize that, actually, it’s probably going to be the one big record, and then nothing else is going to do as well… But for me, the whole question of working with a lot of collaborators echoes the idea that I like the idea of communication through music with people I respect, and I’m still learning all the time. It’s as much about my own inferiority complex and about the work I make, that I always feel It’s never good enough. And that’s also connected to my constant output. I feel that I’m always trying to attain some sort of perfection which is out of grasp, out of reach, and I’m always more aware of the mistakes than I am of self-praise. Luckily, the internet is also full of people ready to bash you!
AD: Let’s talk about this new record, Return to Solaris. As you said earlier on, this isn’t your first stab at creating a new score to an existing film. When you create these re-scores, how influential are the original soundtracks by David Shire, Eduard Artemyev and Cliff Martinez’s 2002 rework of Solaris? And how do you set about trying to fuse sound and vision?
Kevin Richard Martin: Well, with the two I’ve done, I had very different approaches. With Return to Solaris, I actually was able to work to picture for the first time, so I was composing to the visuals, which are intrinsically connected. Whereas I didn’t have the technology at the time of Tapping the Conversation. I wasn’t even aware that there was a David Shire soundtrack; I just was aware of Walter Murch’s sound design. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to make the film score, because I didn’t think there was a score. So I was quite shocked when the score was released. But with Solaris, it was amazing to be able to work to picture. Ha! That sounds so “dinosaur” again! It was a thrill to work so closely with the visual, and to be able to go back and forth, back and forth… like chiseling and carving a grain into the film, sonically.
AD: There’s, of course, been quite a long history of musicians turning toward film scores at some stage in their careers. Is that something you see yourself doing more of in the future, given the chance?
Kevin Richard Martin: It was always an aspiration, going back to Re-Entry by Techno Animal. That was also basically imaginary soundtracks, and we were already completely besotted by tracking down film scores. Justin’s knowledge of independent cinema was massive. So the interest was always there. We started Techno Animal really because of frustration with dealing with bands, and scenes and the compromises that they’re in. And we just both wanted an outlet for music that wasn’t based practically or genre-specific. We were just wanting to explore what you can do that isn’t a song. So that had a large catchment area. We suddenly were exploring lots of contemporary classical music and film scores or a lot of world music… just anything we could find that wasn’t song-based. And I was particularly militant about it. Justin actually liked a lot of songs, whereas for me The Beatles were the enemy! [laughs] To be honest, that was probably a pain in Justin’s ass at that time. Literally vetoing melodies… like: “Fuck melodies!”
AD: I also want to ask you about ambient music. In 1994, Virgin asked you to compile the fourth volume of their well-regarded Ambient series, Ambient 4: Isolationism. To me, it seems like your take on what constitutes “ambient”—scuzzy, dirty, grainy—has always differed quite a bit from the aural wallpaper that is all too often synonymous with the term.
Kevin Richard Martin: Ambient is environmental, it’s peripheral sound that conjures environmental areas.
AD: … and your environmental area isn’t, say, the same someone like Virginia Astley shares. Maybe not such a bucolic summer’s day for you…
Kevin Richard Martin: Exactly! When I lived in my studio for ten years, my ambience was because I was on a main road that led from [the London borough of] Hackney to the main hospital in the East End. My ambience was just non-stop ambulance or police sirens. For me, ambient music offers a lot, but often the delivery and the way it’s packaged within an industry just ends up really coffee-table and insubstantial. As far as I’m concerned, I like tension. When I hear what is going on outside the window here, now, it can be totally contradictory and contrasting in terms of tonality or atmosphere or, you know, just life memories. I think, in a way, that’s how I feel ambient music should be: peripheral—otherwise, it becomes something different. I’ve just been asked to do a two-hour ambient mix for BBC Radio 6 Music, and I’m just plotting what to put on there now. It’s going to end up with me questioning myself as to what you can define as being “ambient music” and still be ambient. How far can you pull “ambient” apart? [laughs] And I think if there’s something that unites my output, it’s the fact that I’m always trying to construct something that doesn’t exist. And it can be from opposite elements, where opposite elements attract or repulse. It’s always trying to test what is possible within… and preferably without genre. I don’t want to be a slave to my record collection. I don’t want to repeat what others have done. How can you try and define who you are sonically? How can somebody recognize your voice when you’re not singing? And that’s been a major challenge. How can you do something fresh that hasn’t been done before, in increasingly congested areas?
AD: Well, with Return to Solaris, you’ve gone as far as outer space in this case.
Kevin Richard Martin: [laughs] Yeah, true! Maybe that was a point where I just thought: “Fuck it, I’m outta here!”