The Bug – Interview
January 13, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, January 9, 2009.
Kevin Martin turned the UK’s urban underground on it’s head late last year. Having worked and collaborated with everyone from My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and Napalm Death’s Justin Broadrick to US experimental hip-hop legends Antipop Consortium and El-P, his long-awaited second solo record as The Bug – the hellish urban melange that was London Zoo – rewrote the rules of dubstep, grime, dancehall and brutal noise in one earth-shattering swoop. It was unanimously acclaimed as one of 2008’s best releases in the process.
With the help of vocal provocateurs like Ricky Ranking, Killa P, Warrior Queen and Flow Dan, the record conjured a vision one of a London on the edge. A place where the rich rule and poor fight for the scraps. Put simply, it was remarkable. We spoke to The Bug on the eve of his Australian tour with Warrior Queen.
Hi Kevin, how are you going?
Hey man, I’m well. My girl’s unwell, so I’m just hanging out at home with her.
Hey, congratulations on the record mate.
Thank you very, very much man.
It was a bit of a revelation out here, I think. It felt like it came out of nowhere. I knew of your work and I knew of Pressure, but London Zoo felt really complete by comparison.
Yeah, um, during the last stages of making the record, I kind of went back to Pressure and thought about what was wrong with it, and primarily it was the fact that there weren’t really completed songs. I wasn’t really experienced in working with vocalists when I was working on Pressure and directing them and collaborating with them, whereas this whole album was far more in that direction. I had to be working more closely with the vocalists to get the results I needed.
And also, for me, it was just a challenge. My background, musically, is anti-music really. I’d always been pretty disdainful of songs (laughs), if that makes sense. But with this album I wanted to hook people literally. I wanted to give them melodies that they would remember and just push myself, and that’s exactly what happened. It took three years to make this album and it was a nightmare – it was a challenging record to make in every way and it was a real relief when it was finally finished.
I’d love to hear a bit about how you approached the vocal contributions, especially the tracks with Flow Dan and Warrior Queen, which were the real standouts. It feels as if they were really collaborative, rather than you just handing someone a beat to rap over.
Pressure was a bit more of a rent-a-rapper situation. I just didn’t have the contacts to do it any differently. Whereas on this album I had been working with Warrior and Flow Dan and Ricky Ranking for some time, so it really happened on a friendship basis. You can just be so much more open with people in your communication when you’ve known them for longer, and that boded well for the record.
Also, I did a session for that Mary Anne Hobbs show on BBC a couple of years ago now, and they said I should get my dream line-up of MCs. So I brought in about 11 MCs and recorded a version of the show…it was like this incredible party and there was just so much variation in tone and theme from each MC. Prior to that session, I was more or less thinking that the album would just feature Warrior Queen and a live MC I was working a lot with called Ras B. But after that session it was like ‘No, I really want to try and do justice to what London’s myriad of vocalists have to offer’. I wanted that culture clash and that thematic clash and that sort of mad range of contrasts that the session had, which London throws at you day in, day out really.
Yeah, it’s a real eye-opener to people outside of London in a sense. People have really flipped out over it. I was on Metacritic the other day and it’s like the second best critically received record out of everything this year…
Yeah, the reception’s been a total shocker to me. Like, The Wire just voted it their album of the year and stuff, and to be honest with you, the day I finished the album, I came home from the mastering and listened to it and wept. I thought I’d fucked it up and made this unlistenable, self-centred piece of shit, while still hearing every mistake. It took me a couple of weeks to be able to go back and actually listen to it, and that’s when I realised, well you know, it’s okay (laughs). So you know, the reception to it has been pretty blinding really. The audience have just made the step too, which is just great.
When Pressure came out there wasn’t really an audience for that kind of sound, and low and behold, dubstep appeared a couple of years later. As much as I don’t consider myself a dubstep producer, I think its audience was open to my sound. But yeah, I don’t see myself as dubstep – I just make Bug music.
I guess it touches on a bunch of styles that don’t really get a run outside of their particular scene. You know, there’s those echoes of dubstep frequency-wise and dancehall and that much noisier sort of aesthetic…
Yeah, yeah, well for me it was sort of a reaction to dubstep as well. I remember when ‘Poison Dart’ and ‘Skeng’ started going off at dubstep clubs and I was witnessing people going nuts to the tracks, I was shocked and proud, but it almost twisted me. For about a month I started trying to write tracks along those lines and almost rethinking my album, and that was a mistake and I realised that pretty soon. Then I just thought about it a little harder and thought, ‘Actually, you know, I don’t want a collection of dancehall or dubstep tunes – I want a whole album’.
It was just about realising that most dance music fans and clubbers don’t really want an album; they just want an accessory to their drug trip. I wanted to make an album that stood the test of time and had some sense of longevity, which summed up my environment and summed up my thoughts about London and living in this cosmopolitan kaleidoscope really. And I guess what really helped me was coming up with the title London Zoo…when I came up with the title it focussed me with what I wanted, with the artwork and everything really.”
That’s exactly what I was going to ask you – when this thematic direction came about. Was it something you’d articulated to yourself beforehand or after working with all the rappers?
I think the whole London-centric side of it was more an afterthought, like two-and-a-half years down the line. But it definitely helped me, because I was going through a really tough time. I was living in my studio for two years, which is one room, which had no kitchen, no shower and you know, just a rough existence. It was grinding me to the ground and I was pretty depressed around the time of the two-and-a-half year mark, thinking that I was never going to be able to finish this record.”
It was really the first time since I’ve lived in London that I thought that maybe I’m not going to be here much longer. I thought I would have to move away because I couldn’t afford it anymore – it’s insanely expensive – and I’m still not sure if I can afford to carry on here. But the title being about London and the fact that everything I’ve ever really done musically is ode to London.
The city engendered on London Zoo seems part of a much wider narrative coming out of the London at the moment. The outside world, that has grown up with this romanticised vision of London is finally getting this gritty, minority outlook – people saying ‘Look, it’s not actually that kinder place’…
London’s a fucked up city. It’s not what it promises to be. It isn’t a 24-hour city. It’s an amazing place if you can afford to take advantage of it, but if you can’t it tortures you mercilessly day in, day out. It has a lot to offer and I love the cultural make-up of the city, but it’s still riddled with racism and, really, is at the mercy of the rich. It’s an absolute love-hate relationship that I have with this city – total extremes. I mean, I’m worried about leaving it, because it’s given me so much and I’m worried how anywhere else would impact on me in terms of where I’d go musically. But at the same time it’s a really hard place to live. In the last couple of years particularly, it’s become really blatantly apparent to me how all my friends are just struggling to exist.
Going back to the record, in terms of the vocalists, was there anyone you really wanted to get for the record but couldn’t?
Yeah, Roots Manuva and Dizzee Rascal were two who I really wanted by I couldn’t get. But I sort of had ambiguous feelings because I didn’t want this record to be sold on names, and also, I’d never worked with them before. Both of them are just so amazing and such quintessentially London MCs and from different eras, and I tried for a long time, but I just basically never managed to hook up with them one way or the other.
How did the collab with Flow Dan come about? It seems like such a good fit…
Well he and I sort of laugh about now, because for Mary Anne Hobbs’ show I’d tried to get hold of Riko from Roll Deep, and Roll Deep’s manager said that I should get Flow Dan too. I’d been aware of Flow Dan and liked him, but I really hadn’t heard enough of his versus at that point. So when it finally came to the session, Riko didn’t show up and Flow Dan did and Flow Dan absolutely massacred the tune. From that point it just seemed obvious that he was the perfect MC for me to work with, and he was up for the challenge. He’s a total professional.
I didn’t even know whether or not I liked ‘Skeng’ at first. It was kind of like ‘What’s going on here? What’s with this guy’s voice?’ It was almost like a caricature – it was so deep and brooding.
Yeah, totally, well the irony with that tune is that it was done at the end of a very long session and it almost didn’t happen, and Killa P had to convince Flow Dan to do it. Then Flow Dan started with his normal style and I was like ‘Just do it half-tempo’ and that’s where he got the idea to chant the way he did on it.
Lyrically, Killa P and Flow came up with the lyrics totally off the top of their heads and we were howling at the end of it. Now there’s been all this controversy over the lyrics, stupidly, because they’re just straight-up Manga lyrics, like a caricature of violence. And so yeah, it’s an intense piece and for some people who are unaware of the idea of tackling violence in lyrics, they will find it monstrous, I’m sure. But for me it’s an incredible piece of work and they came up with incredible lines. The contrast between the two MCs was amazing.”
“Shot in the face like dart in a board” would have to be my favourite line…
(Laughs) Yeah, I get a lot of that. Says it all really. But yeah, yeah, I was really happy with how that one turned out.
The Bug and Warrior Queen – National Tour
Friday, January 23 – Perth
The Bakery, http://www.artrage.com.au
Saturday, January 24 – Sydney
Becks Festival Bar, http://www.sydneyfestival.org.au
Sunday, January 25 – Melbourne
The Laundry, http://www.thelaundrybar.com.au
Monday, January 26 (4pm) – Brisbane
Step Inn, Fortitude Valley, http://www.stepinn.com.au
London Zoo is out through Ninja Tune/Inertia