The Bug – London Zoo

This interview was conducted by Corina in 2008 for
Vague Terrain 10: Digital Dub

Sound is the ultimate stealth weaponry, infiltrating our bodies at a physically indefensible level, a molecular level. Bass in particular has captured imaginations as an arsenal with which to confront complacency, to overturn the status quo, as an unstoppable force for change. Ghostly yet gravity bound, its perceived weight adds space to sound and moves bodies through space. Kevin Martin’s musical projects have often explored the revolutionary nature of sound, simultaneously seducing and confronting listeners. As The Bug, his sound skirmishes between the bass heavy influences of dub and a clangorous industrial aesthetic result in an incongruous yet irresistibly infectious sound which challenges expectations while causing a commotion on the dancefloor. Given Martin’s personal vision of dub and his inclination to move against the grain in all things musical, his juxtaposition of sounds and genres makes perfect sense.

“For me, dub is almost like a philosophy. I love the way the tracks are totally revamped and the song is a sort of infinite mutation as opposed to a finite entity. And for me, as I became more and more absorbed by dub music, it started occurring to me that dub is more like a philosophy in life generally, and in the arts particularly. It’s the idea of a cut-up, as an approach to music, film, literature. I think some amazing ideas have happened through dub as a form of interpretation, as a way of shuffling everything up, mixing everything up and reinterpreting it. I’ve never really been happy within a herd instinct, so for me mixing and matching apparently contradictory sources and putting them together and seeing what happens, and the friction of soundclashing, appeals to me”.

This idea of dub as philosophy and the cut up as an approach to art-making extends the concept of dub far beyond the realm of reggae and pays homage to what Kevin has described as its viral nature. The Macro Dub Infection album that he compiled for Virgin Records in 1995 played with this idea by bringing together music by artists like Coil, Tortoise and Mad Professor under the common banner of dub.

“When I was working on the compilation Macro Dub Infection, writing the sleeve notes, it just struck me that dub as a term is mostly known through reggae, but Chess records and Sun records were doing dub mixes of their tunes in the 50s and 60s, and musique concrète composers were using similar techniques in the 50s, and people like Varèse were incorporating lion roars and sound effects in the 20s and 30s. I think reggae commodified dub, and there have been huge innovations through reggae, but I’d say it’s debatable whether or not dub as a process started with reggae. Why’s it so infectious? Well, it keeps songs infinite, it doesn’t put an end to a song, it doesn’t say ‘that’s the song’, so it’s totally open to reinterpretation. It keeps music alive and fresh, it’s like a virus that spreads, it’s like a mutant virus that’s continued to spur the imagination, and I think as producers took over from bands in many ways, it’s almost impossible to produce and not be completely spellbound by the innovations that people like Lee Perry and King Tubby utilized, and also people like Adrian Sherwood. They’re incredible producers, who find ways to turn a song inside out and back to front and make the illogical seem totally tangible”.

The philosophy of dub has permeated all of Kevin’s musical projects, including the free jazz/noise group God and his work with Justin Broadrick as Techno Animal. Dub was also the driving force behind his newest work as The Bug.

“When I started The Bug, it was a bad time for me socially and economically…one of the few times I’ve thought of giving up music. I remember saying to my girlfriend at the time that I wanted to try this one thing out, where I make it absolutely apparent that everything I’ve ever done owes a large part of its existence to dub music. Techno Animal was very much indebted to dub. And I can remember working on my first God album, it was John Zorn who suggested we dub out one of the tracks, and I just fell in love with how we did that, with Bill Laswell’s engineers and Zorn and I over their shoulders. Totally minced up a track, and it made total sense to me, and from there on in, it was like yeah, this is a crucial way of doing things”.

The Bug’s beginnings are closely tied to his interest in dancehall productions. After ‘tuning his ear’ to ragga, he began to develop his own signature vision of the genre by fusing it with a more mechanoid sonic palette. While he clearly gained new audiences with this hybrid sound, his take on ragga has also received mixed reactions from some fans.

“It’s good to challenge what people expect from me, I’ve found that Techno Animal or God fans were revolted by the fact that I got involved in ragga, they see it as some kind of disgusting, commercial music and think I’ve sold out. Dancehall’s retained a sort of cultural divide. Like dub has been sort of taken over by middle class white dudes, ragga for various reasons never crossed over too well. I must admit when I first heard a lot of ragga and dancehall, I was probably a bit snotty about it as well, thinking well this is just cheesy crap. But actually there were a few key tunes, one in particular was called Streetsweeper by Steely and Clevie, which completely blew me away with its intensity and the fact that it didn’t seem to follow the rules of any other music I knew. And the more I listened, the more I got hooked on it. Ragga producers were just so hungry for freshness, and they didn’t care about good taste or bad taste, they just wanted stuff that would grab people’s ears and attention. And I thought that was a really interesting approach. I remember a lot of reggae producers I’ve read quotes from saying that they felt the musicianship was lacking when things exploded via the whole digital ragga post Sleng Teng wave. I don’t know if people’s feelings toward that are like any generation gap, like a weird knee jerk reaction where people say it’s not as good as it used to be. I think ragga was just part of the process of reinvention of reggae and it may have actually kickstarted reggae alive again and found a whole new generation for it”.

Martin’s musical projects have always been about exploring the frictions between genres and overturning stylistic conventions. His album Pressure on Rephlex/Tigerbeat6 and releases for labels like Ninja Tune, Klein Records and Hyperdub among others propagate dancehall’s digital roots into an industrial post-apocalyptic future, where aggressive aspects of ragga are translated into a powerful array of futuristic beats and bass.

“Dancehall is like the untouchable, and like I said earlier I’m not really happy with the herd instinct, that’s where mediocrity resides, and I’m not interested. I’ve risked ridicule and risked turning audiences away with my sound but in the end I can say it’s true to me and true to my own vision. For me it’s about making music that owes something to my past, present and future. I remember Cutty Ranks saying how much he hated one of the tracks I did for him, he offered to give me money to get a proper ragga remix done. I was laughing and I said ‘Cutty, I make music because it’s true to me, I’m not trying to be a fake Jamaican’, and he accepted what I was saying. But I think he was shocked by how intense and noisy the track I’d done for him was. It was one of the noisiest tracks I’ve ever done. Some people find it difficult to deal with the fact that my music’s very intense. I like music with fire in its belly, that’s why I like free jazz, that’s why I love hip hop, that’s why I love reggae, because it was protest music, rebel music. I like the fact it got up people’s noses, and in all those genres of music at any given point, the sound is totally fresh. I wanted to do something fresh that people hadn’t heard before. Lyrically in ragga and in dancehall, a lot of the themes revolve around sex and violence. What I did is try to amplify those lyrical themes musically”.

Kevin’s unwillingness to compromise musically manifests itself through a variety of projects. An important part of his work has been his collaboration with an impressive list of vocalists and MCs, including among others Paul St. Hilaire, Warrior Queen, Flowdan, Daddy Freddy, Cutty Ranks and Ras Bogle. Razor X, a 2006 collaboration with the Rootsman, epitomized the noisiest aspects of The Bug. His ongoing Ladybug project sees him working solely with women MCs of all stripes. King Midas Sound is a project in collaboration with vocalist Roger Robinson. He’s also been busy remixing tracks by artists like Ghislain Poirier, Thom Yorke, Anthony B, T. Raumschmiere, and Grace Jones. Vocalists are a common denominator across all this work, the human element that delivers an emotional intensity equal to the sounds he creates.

“When we called ourselves Techno Animal, it was actually an abbreviation for technological animal, of the human-technology interface, and still I love that idea, of mechanoid music with soul, with hopefully more often than not vocals providing the emotional soul at the core. I LOVE vocals, so there’s always a huge list of people I would love to work with. Ladybug wise, I’ve been trying to work with very eclectic vocalists”.

Martin is set to confound expectations yet again with his upcoming Bug album on Ninja Tune, London Zoo, an upcoming Ladybug album on Soul Jazz, and a King Midas Sound release on Hyperdub, all of which showcase different aspects of his relationship to dub.

“This Bug album ended up quite different from how I expected. I knew I didn’t want to make a thoroughly noisy record, cause I felt I’d pushed that side as far as I could with Razor X, and I didn’t want to repeat myself, so the album is ultra intense without being particularly noisy. It’s very heavy lyrically. The reason for calling it London Zoo is because of the atmosphere of the city, it couldn’t have come from anywhere else I don’t think. There’s a friction here….London’s great in one way because there’s actually some very upfront interaction between different cultures, and as long as I’ve lived in London I’ve always lived in the poorest areas, where there is potential for negative friction, and for me just trying to deal with that and deal with London and struggling to survive cause of the cost of living here, it’s reflected in the mood of the album I think. Also I wanted to make something that had a very emotional core and that was saying something.

The King Midas stuff is very different from what anyone would expect from me other than people who might have heard the really smacked out hip hop shit that I was doing with Techno Animal. It’s very zoned out, it’s very melancholy, pretty melodic, very drifty and dreamy, and very emotive, but the link with the Bug is the fact that Roger Robinson is the vocalist, and I worked with him on my album Pressure. Razor X was amazing, it created such interest, but I also became very aware, which I should have been before but for some reason wasn’t, of how much the music industry and music media want to compartmentalize you into a one-dimensional entity, like oh yeah he’s The Bug and he does all that noisy dancehall. Well, yeah I do fucking heavy ragga rhythms, but that’s not everything that I want to do or care about. The King Midas thing was definitely a reaction to Razor X, and for me it’s fantastic to do something that will totally upturn people’s expectations”.

London Zoo was released in July 2008, and promises to further The Bug’s legacy of beats, bombs, bass and weapons, smashing any preconceptions that may exist about his music. All we can be certain of is that his sounds will continue to spread the dub virus, and that we will be helpless to resist it.