Channeling urban dread with The Bug
Chaos, as Kevin Martin would suggest, is boundless. We live in a cataclysm of neurosis and doubt where catastrophe seems one nuclear drop away. “I was doing an interview at Kode9’s place with a Japanese journalist”, says Martin, recollecting a scene from earlier in the week, “and in the background, over his shoulder, it was BBC 24 hour news. It was just like End Times being signalled out to me continuously.” His summary of current affairs is followed with a stirring chuckle, implying a sense of humour darkened by the feeling that we’re all inevitably doomed.
For Martin, chaos can be the catalyst for creativity. His artistic stimulant relies on discord and disorder. He refers to it as ‘friction’. Having relieved himself of the heavy-handed autocracies of David Cameron’s Britain, we find Martin composed and professedly happy at his current base in Berlin. Yet despite his present placidity, there is still extreme disharmony to his craft. Six years since the release of The Bug’s despicably vexed London Zoo, the project’s new album Angels & Devils concentrates on the intense dualities of human emotion.
“I like friction. I like cultural collisions. What used to be the hell of inner cities is now becoming the hell of luxury apartments”
Angels & Devils’ comparatively more tranquil first side gathers the vocals from Liz Harris of Grouper, former Hype Williams member Inga Copeland, Gonjasufi and Miss Red, while the album’s high-octane latter half features the likes of Warrior Queen, Roll Deep-affiliated MCs Manga [pictured], Flowdan [pictured] and Killa P plus the now-defunct rap experimentalists Death Grips. Friction is literally severed straight down the middle; good and evil, light and dark, positive and negative. “For me”, Martin explains, “it’s all about where extremes meet amidst the confusion and beauty of mutation and collision.
“It’s about the points where Angels and Devils are indistinguishable. It’s not about black and white. We all would prefer life to be in black and white and easily digestible. But I think life is just one great big kaleidoscopic mess. It’s too fucked to really understand. That’s what this album is. It toys with the idea of contrast, contradiction and the beauty of polar opposite.”
Embracing extremes has permitted Martin the freedom to re-imagine The Bug’s sonic palette. London Zoo’s celestial success found the producer ensnared in the congested incline of dubstep; a mutant genre that stifled Martin’s desire to progress. “I already felt like I was trapped inside London. That’s why I made the fucking record [London Zoo]. But I also felt trapped within dubstep.”
Martin pauses. He begins to reminisce about a time where London was fraught with disquiet, philandering with the increasing popularity of underground electronics. “Kode9 invited me to go to very early FWDs. There was about 20 people in the crowd, all producers. Guys like Mala, Coki, Skream, Benga were either running around like nutters or moodily standing in the corner. Back then, it was just them and their mates. But the genre became pretty hideous, pretty quick. Then I would be rolling into these parties feeling like ‘what the fuck am I doing here?’
“For me, much like my relationship with London, it’s love/hate. I feel there are some incredible producers within that area. Any genre that can include the likes of Burial, Shackleton, Coki is of worth. They’re true thinkers with strong aesthetics. IDs. And I was very fortunate in one way because I’ve never really been in the middle of a genre appeal and then explode the way it did. I was purely a fan during jungle. Grime never really blew up because the police and the authorities did everything they could to clamp it down and lyrically, it was publicly dangerous for large radio stations. It was a black movement that the industry didn’t want anything to do with.”
Confinement within a pigeonhole, however, is a predicament which Martin has forcibly resisted. “But fundamentally, dubstep parties are the worst parties to play as far as I’m concerned. The audiences that attend always want formula and vocalists aren’t very well received. Early Bug tunes were never about making a track that some DJ could seamlessly fit into their beat-matched set. I wanted the track that DJs would end their set with, completely wrecking the party and make the following DJ shit themselves immediately.”
Love/hate seems to be a recurring trope in Martin’s exertions. A lack of comfort and security has led him down paths of apprehension and anxiety. Even with the swathes of rhapsodic reviews ploughing from one rag to the next, giddy over Angels & Devils, Martin seemingly walks a tightrope without a safety net. It has been widely reported that following the completion of London Zoo, Martin was consumed with dismay by the final product, unbeknownst that it was about to swallow the world with its spacious, bass-centric roguery. “I felt exactly the same about [Angels & Devils]”, he admits, “Maybe it’s just some sort of inferiority complex, but I always think the worst. I think ‘what the fuck is anyone going to make of this?’ Again it’s just totally out on its own limb. Part of my creative process is that, as soon as anything is reminiscent of anyone else, I generally drop it. It’s useless to merit being released under my name or under one of my artist names. So that’s a major challenge to me as well; figuring out what is or what should be a Bug stamp.”
Much akin to all Martin’s previous and existing projects – God, Ice, Techno Animal or King Midas Sound – the producer is lionhearted in the art of alienation. But over 20 years in the unforgiving suburban fringes of London can do that to a person. Martin’s affinity with the capital came to an end around a year ago when he moved to Berlin, partly out of a desire for ‘headspace’, predominantly out of necessity. “There are many reasons why I left London. Primarily, my partner is Japanese and was refused a Visa because Cameron and his cronies are essentially right-wing bigots who blame foreigners for the ills of the country.
“I wanted to be with her so we left. Aside from that, I’d just had my fill of London. It was no longer the city that I remembered fondly. I’d lived there 20-plus years and it gave me everything I’ve got musically. It was a huge inspiration socially, aesthetically and culturally. But, just like many of the major metropolises around the world now, they’ve become yuppie paradises where any life and energy is being shipped out to the suburbs.
“You look at somewhere like Manhattan and it’s fucking nullifying. It’s just chitter-chatter of people spending too much money on their clothes and haircuts with no life to their surroundings anymore. For me, I like dirt under my fingernails. I like friction. I like cultural collisions. I just feel that what used to be the hell of inner cities is now becoming the hell of luxury apartments. It’s a curse. Sure, it’s safer for the rich. But the suburbs are becoming these battlegrounds. I know this is a John Carpenter-esque vision of the future but I think city centres in the future are going to become targets for the disaffected.”
“Within extremes are signs of life and resistance, as opposed to pacification in the middle mass.”
It’s a familiar denouncement from Martin. Angels & Devils acts as a confirmation that Martin is still striving to level peace with piqued rage. “What I did with the album reflects how I listen to music, which is to have my head blown off in the best clubs with the best systems on one half and being deeply zoned in my headphones on the other. It’s just an indication of how much I need music. I spend my life with my head between speakers effectively. That’s the happiest I am. It’s like a parallel universe where I reconstruct what I see outside of the window just to keep myself sane.
“I think there’s a conspiracy to pacify people, which I wanted to address, hence the polar extremes of Angels & Devils. Within extremes are signs of life and resistance as opposed to pacification in the middle mass. I guess that’s why in the last few years I’ve gravitated towards more experimental, fucked up shit – because there’s an honesty and an imagination at work that isn’t corrupted by formulaic rules.” It seems Martin’s sole intention is to resist formalism. He is resolutely passionate, yet contradictorily self-deprecating. And having recently become a father has only heightened this anxiety. “Once you’ve got a child, you’re just like ‘wow, this world is nuts! How am I going to help this little being through the madness?’ It becomes even more anxiety-inducing. A friend of mine recently asked ‘do you feel calmer now that you’re a father?’ Do I hell. I feel even more terrorised.
“It’s funny, my girlfriend said to me this morning ‘Don’t you ever think fuck, panic! What am I going to do?’ Of course, like everyone, I’ve undoubtedly had times of maximum insecurity. I remember remixing that Thom Yorke track that took me about four months to do. I didn’t listen to anything else during that period and halfway through I really thought I was going give up music. I just thought I was going insane living in that shithole in Bethnal Green. All I thought was ‘I’ve made a big mistake here. I should not be doing this.
“But I’m not a negative person. I always try finding positive through negative bullshit. I’m very fortunate to do what I do. Music has always been therapy for me. It acts as my continual fight against the powers that be. There’s nothing else I can do. That’s why I started doing this in the first place. Out of sheer terror.”
Angels & Devils is out now via Ninja Tune