In early February of this year, Kevin Martin opened the door of his London studio to find a 60-year-old woman standing outside, pants dropped. Kneeling beside her, a younger man was injecting a needle into her groin. Frozen in shock, Martin watched as the pair finished up and ambled their way into an elevator. Human excrement clung to the floor.
“I was living in that fucking studio,” Martin exclaims. “If I hadn’t found a room later that February, I’m not sure I would have been able to finish London Zoo. It really wasn’t the best environment to be making an album, psychologically. When I was finally done, I was almost in tears–I thought I’d made this unlistenable, freakish record that belonged nowhere... that no one would get.”
Run the Road
Situated in the middle of a “crackhead meeting point” in East London, Martin holed up in his live-in studio for nearly two and a half years, meticulously working under his production alias, The Bug. Matching a new strain of bass against his mutant dancehall template, Martin brought in a wild range of MCs as collaborators, from the Jamaican-born Warrior Queen to Hyperdub’s resident intellectual The Spaceape to Roll Deep MC Flow Dan. And rather than gather acapellas, as he had on previous outings like Pressure or Razor X Productions, Martin recorded it all himself.
“I wanted [London Zoo] to reflect a specific environment,” says Martin. “All the music that has meant the most to me, whether it was post-punk, reggae, hip-hop, free jazz… all these things came from a definite environment. The music had a very strong reason to exist–a very strong politic, a strong style and content. And that’s still very important to me. I think as things get harder and harder, art gets a little more telling.”
As such, London Zoo is both a dark reflection of the city’s grimy underbelly and a celebration of it. When Spaceape sneers “Believe me, nothing begins at home” on “Fuckaz,” he might as well be laughing–the indignation drips with a wry sort of humor that can only come from rising above the bullshit. Meanwhile, the beats that Martin provides are a perfect compliment: the low-end crush of dubstep rushed forward by dancehall and ragga’s syncopated intensity.
Compared to Martin’s previous work, tracks like “Freak Freak” also carry a far different weight than the ragga-core blasts of his Razor X alias. Similar to post-punk’s shunting of mid-range for bass, Martin has eased up on the crumbling distortion in favor of subs and melody, creating a whole new open space in the process.
“It’s only since [I’ve been recording as] The Bug that I’ve been more interested in songs,” says Martin. “For a long time, I didn’t trust structure. I didn’t trust melody. So the challenge has been to do something fucked up within these conventional means.”
Brotherhood of the Bomb
“Kevin is a very extreme person,” offers Justin Broadrick, founder of Godflesh and Jesu, and a longtime friend and collaborator of Martin’s. “He’s very driven–very passionate, and very extreme about where things sit and where he sits within it. It’s a kind of self-consciousness that I really admire.”
Broadrick began working with Martin in the early ’90s, first with the aggro-jazz band God, and later with Ice and Techno Animal. Coming from an anarcho-punk and metal background, Broadrick’s guitar sludge and studio knowledge merged well with Martin’s flood of ideas–the two worked together on the fringes of blown-out industrial, hip-hop, and drum & bass right up until the last few years.
“The first Techno Animal record we did, I had a CD player and a saxophone and some effects, and that was it,” says Martin. “I’d hear these samples all over the place and mark A-to-B points for loops on the CD player–I didn’t have money for a sampler. So I’d just bring these CDs over to Justin’s place, and we’d get working on loops, building sounds up from them. To me, the fact that he could sequence, the fact that he had gear, it was all new.”
“We shared so much in common, taste-wise,” says Broadrick. “But there was always this big grey area in the middle, which was largely my love for guitar pop. [Kevin] despised anything like that. The fact that I listened to Teenage Fanclub records would make him physically sick.”
By the early 2000s, Broadrick had begun to take a more guitar-oriented path with Jesu, while Martin further explored the ragga-inspired music that had come to dominate his tastes. Early singles in this vein, like the Daddy Freddy-led “Politicians and Paedophiles,” paved the way for 2003’s critically acclaimed Pressure, Martin’s first proper album as The Bug.
“To be honest, I didn’t feel that I totally got it with Pressure–I got sidetracked by myself,” says Martin. “I still wanted to do something fresh with ragga and dancehall that hadn’t been done anywhere else… that wasn’t just faking it in a Jamaican copyist sense.”
Martin continued to tweak the Pressure formula via a string of records in collaboration with Warrior Queen and Rootsman. With Warrior Queen, Martin returned to a cleaner sound, crafting basslines that owed an equal debt to darker U.K. garage and No-U-Turn’s deathray bass wobble. In contrast, the Rootsman tracks, made under the moniker Razor X Productions, linked back to the industrial intensity Martin had explored with Broadrick.
“Razor X went as far as it could go without being a caricature,” says Martin. “So I was going to make another album using just a core of vocalists, like Warrior Queen and Ras B. But that totally changed after I did this radio session for [BBC DJ] Mary Anne Hobbes. It was an eye-opener. She met me up with people like Flow Dan and Ricky Ranking–it was like a dream line-up. And the diversity of the voices... that all these people came from different backgrounds but had this Caribbean link… I just thought, ‘Wow. This is incredible. If I could do justice to this, it could be a really special record.’”
Around the same time, Martin’s tracks with Warrior Queen, “Fire” and “Poison Dart,” began to blow up in the dubstep scene. Although neither track was made with dubstep in mind, Warrior Queen’s authoritative growl–not to mention Martin’s layered basslines–fit in clearly with the aesthetics the scene was striving for. Almost accidentally, The Bug had become a staple in sets from Loefah, Jamie from Vex’d, and Kode9.
“I started writing tracks with the [dubstep scene] in mind, which was a mistake, and I realized that pretty soon,” Martin admits. “I ditched some of the tracks I’d been writing after I got possessed with the idea of just making a dancefloor album. So I went back to my original idea of doing something with a little more depth and range.”
Too Much Pain
“I don’t seem to be able to make records easily,” says Martin. “It takes a lot out of me just to get to the point where I feel like what I’m doing isn’t a total embarrassment. It’s a bit too easy for me to get lost in the technology, lost in the machine.”
It wasn’t until the late ’90s soundtrack experiment Tapping the Conversation (to which DJ Vadim contributed some beats) that Martin first attempted to compose solo. Although mentored by Broadrick in the ways of the studio from the beginning, it took Martin some time to acquire his own gear and find an easy level of comfort with it.
“I generally learn by my mistakes–trial and error,” says Martin. “I like learning that way, even if it’s more time-consuming. I found out the very hard way that having good monitors is crucial. Only in the last four years have I had proper monitors. But it still constantly amazes me how other people are able to get great results out of the most primitive means. I don’t think there are any easy tricks. A lot of dubstep people are just using Fruity Loops and doing a fucking good job of it!”
Martin first witnessed dubstep’s spartan methods after Loefah and Vex’d briefly moved into his studio a year and a half ago. Loefah was blown away by the amount of gear that Martin had; Martin was blown away by the level of production Loefah was achieving on a simple laptop set-up.
“Even with all the kit, it didn’t matter for fuck with those guys,” says Martin. “It’s all about your imagination and ear. If I could have done London Zoo on a laptop and it would have sounded good, then cool. But for me, I find the best results through valve and analog equipment, where there’s a depth and warmth and superficial noise. There’s something very clinical about the digital environment, and that’s great if you want to make a clinical statement… but I didn’t. I’m messy. I’m messy in my head, and messy in life. And there’s this surface noise of analog and tape and valve that I like–it gives this richness and atmospheric pressure that’s crucial for what I do.”
Besides a horde of compressors and valve processors, the biggest contributor to Martin’s sound is his mixing desk: a Soundcraft Ghost. More often than not, Martin uses the desk itself for compression, driving channels into the red in order to reduce dynamics. This creates an undoubtedly messier sound, which ties in with the rest of his production philosophy.
“I use digital technology too,” he says. “I record with Logic [Audio]. Whatever it takes to realize the idea. I hate snobbery; I hate people banging on their drum about some inconsequential gear shit.”
Placed in the context of Martin’s long career of noise, provocation, and the spaces in between, London Zoo is probably his most accessible work. It’s also his most successful: Soon after the album’s uniformly positive reception, in came tour offers from the likes of Nine Inch Nails.
“Having people like Aphex Twin or Massive Attack or Radiohead or Adrian Sherwood–people I rate very highly–stepping up and saying how into my sound they are… you really have to pinch yourself,” says Martin. “But at the moment, I haven’t even paid rent on the studio! Everyone I know in London is struggling–struggling to pay bills, struggling to get by. I’m actually actively thinking of leaving the city, and the country for that matter. I just can’t afford to live here.”
Following the completion of Martin’s next record as King Midas Sound, the harsh decision of what to do, and where to go next, is unavoidable.
“I’m almost fearful of leaving London because it’s shaped my musical world,” he explains. “I owe everything to this city. But I’ve always preferred the idea of chaos and insecurity. I guess you just move ahead and continue to stay hungry.”
Flow Dan and Warrior Queen on collaborating with The Bug.
The first meeting between Kevin Martin and Warrior Queen actually took place in 2004, while recording “Aktion Pak” and “World War 3” for Rephlex. “It was pretty funny,” admits Martin. “I was so shy and definitely not used to dealing with vocalists; I could barely look her in the eye, let alone direct the session… Later on I realized she had been as nervous as me, a reaction I failed to register on the day.”
Martin recorded her vocals in a cheap recording studio, as he was typically just using a Shure SM58 mic and an Avalon compressor. “I was embarrassed, feeling it would be impossible to get a good sound for her with what I felt was my lo-fi studio set-up at the time,” he says.
“After recording the first two tracks with [Kevin], I started to feel as if I was on a different planet, and I really wanted to explore more of this unusual invention,” counters Warrior Queen. “His genuine love for music, his ability to enhance the music to a higher level, his expectations… he was creating a whole new era!”
Flow Dan concurs: “Working with The Bug is exciting for me because he prefers the more raw side of my style as an artist, as opposed to when I’m doing my solo and Roll Deep projects. I need to vary my style and sound to keep me and my fan base interested… and I never know what to expect from his beats.”
“The care I took over the vocal recordings [on London Zoo] was absolutely as crucial as the beats themselves,” says Martin. “I want to recognize someone’s voice when they make music. I want to know that someone is making music because they need to make music, because it’s a compulsion or an obsession.
“As I got to know Warrior’s studio habits better and appreciated just how good she is, I realized that we seem to bring the best out of each other in the studio, as we have been able to increasingly throw fresh ideas at each other every time we work together. And finally I have assembled a vocal recording chain I feel does justice to her unbelievably unique voice. By recording through a Neumann U87 AI into a distressor and my Soundcraft Ghost desk, I feel it’s been possible to get a clear, warm tone that avoids being too harsh or top-heavy.”