London noisenik Kevin Martin was last in Shanghai in 2008 touring London Zoo, a critically incendiary album that, along with a few others, is widely believed to have lit the fuse of dubstep’s subsequent explosion. Much has changed since then. The genre’s evolution has spawn a number of micro-genres – some good, some bad – and Martin is now one third of Hyperdub’s King Midas Sound, a band which started off the back of a collaboration with British poet Roger Robinson on London Zoo. Ahead of Martin’s return to Shanghai, we called him in London in February just after his controversial, blog-rattling decision to pull King Midas Sound from a high-profile, sold-out show after a dispute with the venue owner about – surprise – volume.
Any regrets about pulling out of the Bishopsgate gig? What happened?
It’s basically about people who own a venue that don’t understand what they’re putting on. They’re happy to sell out tickets and then treat the artists like assholes. The promoters were the middle-men. I warned them that [Bishopsgate Institute] wasn’t an appropriate venue. When we were booked to do the show I warned them that we play at extremely loud volume, with quite an intense lighting show. On the day, the venue owners had a coronary when they heard us rehearsing at probably only 70 per cent of what we normally play.
So it was really unfortunate. I’m still pissed off about it now to be honest. But it was out of my control. Well, it wasn’t out of my control, it was my choice. But, ultimately, I just wasn’t willing to compromise for people who pretend to be supporters of the arts but actually don’t give a shit and are just happy to take the money and behave like idiots. I don’t want to support that. It was a nightmare. It was our first sold out London show and wasn’t a decision we took lightly. But, unfortunately, when you play shows, your reputation is at stake. That’s why you have to take precautions.
The last time you were in Shanghai was to tour London Zoo, which was huge for you. Did you expect it to be that big?
No, not at all. I wrote the album over a year in absolute isolation in quite unsettling and unsavory conditions. It was an album that I needed to make for my own personal therapy, to keep sane. I didn’t know whether anyone would relate to it in any way. I think it was just a case of right place, right time. Dubstep blew up and people like Kode9 were extremely supportive of my sound. Even though I didn’t really set out to with that sound in mind.
Bass music has changed considerably since then.
Yes, it’s quite shocking. I played in Madrid last week and it was an extremely young crowd who just really wanted to listen to Skrillex, or Rusko-style, plastic-y, wobbly stuff [laughs]. And I couldn’t help but reminisce. I was talking to [collaborator] Slowdan afterwards and, we thought, it’s funny really, this is diametrically the opposite of what dubstep was when it started: highly unpredictable, highly eclectic and just all over the shop – in a very good way. There were no rules or regulations. Now, it seems like formulas are in place, the taste police have moved in, and there’s an expected sound. But, having said all that, it’s still a genre that includes people as disparate as Kode9, Shackleton and Burial. So I don’t see it as all doom and gloom.
So Skrillex hasn’t killed it?
I don’t think so. He’s just popularised it. The same thing happened to jungle really, it went pop. Americans popped it. American’s are always out to colonise. They’re just musical dubstep colonialists really. And [Skrillex] is raking it in, good for him. I think it cheapens the sound a bit, but then at the same time, it means it’s going to mutate, evolve. And if that means I can go and play a club in Madrid and shock people with what I do – so be it.
But, post-crossover, as an artist, how do you make a dubstep album now?
To be honest, for the past six months, working very heavily on the album, I’ve been asking myself the same question. And there’s been times at which it’s terrifying thinking about it. I was having a bit of a crisis for about a year, when I was working on Kind Midas Sound, when I should’ve been working on The Bug stuff. The way the underground scene in London exploded, I did feel a pressure to follow [London Zoo]. But, then, I thought, I need to make a decision, and think about what I would want from a new Bug album. And I decided I didn’t want to totally re-invent what I do. So in places there are going to be tracks that sound as if they’ve definitely evolved from London Zoo, and others very, very different. So it’s a consolidation, evolution and a future shock all in one hopefully.
You announced you’ve been working with Grouper which people have generally taken to mean that you’re taking a more ambient direction. Is that accurate?
Well, if anyone’s actually listened to my first album Pressure, or even the whole of London Zoo, they’d actually find tracks there that are deep and more cerebral. That’s the whole point of making an album. For me, it has to have a narrative, it has to have a reason to exist; it has to take you on an emotional journey. So I’ve been quite shocked at, a) how extreme the reaction has been to fact that I’m going to work with Grouper and, b) how weird it is that people want to continually try and see you as a single dimensional piece – I don’t only do tracks like ‘Skeng’.
What else can you tell us about the new album? When’s it coming out?
I wish I could tell you when it was going to be out. Ninja Tune wishes they could tell you when it was going to be out. It’s going to be out when I’m happy with it. And I have no idea when that’s going to be. I hope it’s going to be out this year. What I’m doing now is stockpiling demos, getting vocals recorded and then trying to work out what is going to be the strongest within that and slimming it down. London Zoo could easily have been double its size. I’m just trying to feel my way into it, producing something that’s real and reflective of this world at the moment.
Do you always feel a pressure to stay ahead of the curve?
Yeah, I do. But it’s good pressure. I remember when I was in my studio working on London Zoo, there were about eight studios on the whole floor: Jamie Vex’d in the room opposite me, Morgan Zarate in the room opposite him, Steve Spacek next to me – and everyone was trying to bang out some serious music and it’s competitive in a really positive way. I need to be inspired; I hate it when there’s not much around that I’m not inspired by. I need to feel there’s a fire around me.
But, I’m very aware that I’ve managed to keep an audience with me. Obviously, I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t think about what people expect. I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I didn’t want to trump people’s expectations. I’d be liar if I said I didn’t care what people think, critically, or audience-wise. But at the same time there’s a hipster trap, always wanting the latest thing and chucking away where you’ve come from. I still value the shit that went before and the stuff that’s around now – it’s not all about what’s next.
What are you bringing to Shanghai?
[Laughs] I’m bringing [MC] Daddy Freddy to Shanghai. He and [London rapper] Flowdan will be very important in the next album. I’m making them both work hard with the lyrics.And their very central to my live set-up, too. Daddy Freddy is sounding better than he ever has, better than he used to, in fact. His voice is lower and more gravel-y now. And he's hilarious, a complete fruitcake.