Kevin Martin is best known for the piledriver ragga of The Bug, but there’s always been a sweetness lurking amidst the violence.
Over the last few years he’s sneaked out two jaw-droppingly subtle twelves with poet and singer Roger Robinson as King Midas Sound which have built up incredible levels of anticipation amongst those that know. The King Midas Sound album Waiting For You also features female vocalist/artist Hitomi and is about to drop on Hyperdub.
FACT caught up with Kevin and Roger in a Hackney cafe to talk about the album and reasoned with them about emotional intensity. We were joined briefly by Hitomi, who was midway through a mission to find a melodica for the forthcoming KMS gigs.
The guy from FACT pussied out on this interview because he felt a bit out of depth with it being so much of a reggae album. I’m not really sure it is though? How do you see it?
Kevin Martin: “I think it actually is, you know? It has more in common with Lovers [Lovers Rock – sweet strain of reggae with nuff female vocalists originating in south London in the mid 70s] than with anything else. I don’t think it’s got anything to do with dubstep. Or hip-hop. Lovers is very much a British, London fusion.”
“The album was conceived when I’d started BASH [seminal reggae night with a splash of dubstep run by Kevin and Loefah]. Roger was in the studio a lot at that point and we’d originally planned to do dub poetry on the rhythms. Then he brought in this really high falsetto voice which I’d never heard him do. It blew me away – it reminded me of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield… it had a politic but also a weird androgynous dreaminess to it – really hypnotic.
“I was pissed off at the time because I felt that The Bug was getting really caricatured. In the music industry you’re only allowed to have one dimension. For me it was really important to push against that caricature. The stuff with Roger was the perfect way of doing it. In a way King Midas Sound is the opposite of The Bug.”
That’s interesting because there were tracks on Pressure with you, Roger, which were like coming up for a breath of air after being pummelled by ragga. And this album maybe reaches back a bit further to [past Bug LPs] Tapping The Conversation and the Isolationism compilation Kevin did. So perhaps it’s always been there?
KM: “Yeah, but it gets overlooked. I think Roger was frustrated – with Pressure a lot of the reviews were praising ‘Killer’ or Daddy Freddy… and then they’d have a jibe at Rog! And it was pissing me off as well, so I thought maybe we should do it as a completely separate project. Although in the end I put Roger on London Zoo as well.”
Roger Robinson: “I’m the relaxation on each Bug album!”
KM: “The other frustration is this being seen as a “Bug project” when it’s not – it’s a group, it’s the three of us. It’s very much a combined effort, it’s not just a Bug record without the ragga voices. There’s a real aesthetic behind King Midas Sound.”
RR: “My songwriting comes from more of a folk tradition where it’s really thick with metaphor. So I started coming round the studio, not really to record anything but just to listen to music. So we’d hear reggae records and realise how to say more with less – and not be flowery.”
KM: “The whole album was conceived on a diet of Gregory Isaacs, Cornell Campbell…”
RR: “Horace Andy…”
KM: “I was sorting sets out for BASH and Roger would say “Wow! I haven’t heard that for years!” and just be vibing off it. So the inspiration is almost solely reggae. But I would have felt it was fake to do a reggae album… well, not fake, but…”
…it has to come through the filters of your own life and your surroundings in London?
RR: “…and definitely lovers rock in terms of the association of identity through a tone, you know? In lovers rock, those singers weren’t great singers, but they still gave something emotional, and they used a sort of tone to do it. It was very different from the equivalent singers in Jamaica – they were doing it their way. So it was very much like that – how can we use this voice that I’m using and this stripped down form of lyric writing to reassert an identity.”
Roger, you grew up in Trinidad, right? Were you doing vocals there?
RR: “I was doing rapso, which is like a rap version of calypso.”
OK right, was that with soundsystems?
RR: “I was doing shows, but it’s not really a soundsystem thing like in Jamaica. You roll up to a show with your CDs and backing tracks ready to perform and you get different shows at spots with loads of different people. It’s really hype, it’s a completely different way of working from this. Rapso is very much about how can you get the crowd completely hyped up as quick as possible. Most times you’ll only have two tracks and them two tracks will cost you a lot of money so you have to do whatever you have to do with those tracks.”
So is that poetry or singing, or MC-ing?
RR: “Well rapso is like the poetry of calypso, which was started by a guy called Brother Resistance. And that got me into formal poetry [Roger has written a number of books and performed at poetry festivals] and my poetry got me into recording, which brought me to Kevin.”
KM: “A guy called A-sides played me a track Roger was on – ‘Chocolate Art Project’, an EP with members of Anti-Pop Consortium.”
RR: “Before they were Anti-Pop Consortium. They used to crash on my floor!”
KM: “I was blown away by Roger’s tone and his gravity. I felt it echoed someone like Linton Kwesi Johnson who I’d always been a massive admirer of. I could listen to Roger recite the alphabet and I’d find it amazing. He has such an amazing tone of voice generally. Knowing he already had that, and then busting into the falsetto – it was incredible. I just get bored of the middle ground – I love extremes. I love really beautiful music or I love really ugly music. For me it’s an assertion of life. There’s so much middle ground that’s just nothingness now. It’s like a conspiracy to narrow your horizons. So for me this was about stretching my parameters. I’m pushing myself. For year and years the song was the enemy for me. The audience was the enemy!” [much laughter from the rest of us]
“Yeah! Structure, melody, song – I hated. So I had to fight myself. It was a real test for me to work with Roger so closely on structure and on hooks. With London Zoo and certainly on this album I’ve realised that it’s really perverse to combine the sickest sonics with the most beautiful melodies.
It’s also the first time you’ve released anything which refers specifically to women, except perhaps in a kind of bashment way?
KM: “It’s true.”
RR: “When we were recording it was an extreme emotional time – for both of us. The vibe of the studio was extreme. We recorded through one summer and I just remember being bare-back, dripping with sweat. And I was counting in my head, like “Take 60! In this heat? This is bullshit!”. We definitely had an extreme thing which we had to channel into a concentrated feel. Not extreme where there is no control – you have to strip it back, let it breathe.”
KM: “It’s very much a case of “less is more”, as opposed to the wall of sound that I’m known for. I wanted to make it apparent that I am equally interested in spaciousness. And Dub! If anything I guess it’s a dub lovers album, because those are the most potent inspirations on the record. When I hear it, that’s where it comes from – because there’s no dub in dubstep, there’s no dub in most club music at the moment. So it’s a reversion to space and the sensuality of bass. The heights which amazing vocal performances can take music to are incredible. It really was a case of frustration with people just thinking I wanted to work with aggro MCs. Much as I love doing that I also am in love with amazing singers – Billie Holiday, Ian Curtis, people who just move you. Emotionality is the key to this album.”
RR: “Also the spoken intention of the voice. If you think about people like Tom Waits, Marlene Dietrich – they move me, but there is a spoken intention in their voice.”
KM: “There are spoken narratives on the album. It’s almost a classical album – everything late 20th century was post-modern, abstract. This isn’t, it deals with very central themes.”
And what would you say they were?
RR: “Melancholy and love. And how that melancholia can bleed into different types of feelings. Sometimes that bleeds into a kind of anger, a seething anger. And sometimes it bleeds into a kind of hope. Sometimes we’ve been listening to something and we’ve tried to work out why we love it so much. The corniest lyrics, the stupidest song, why do we love it? Because it’s the melancholy of hope. We’ve definitely tried to have that as a standard.”
KM: “I think it’s Samuel Beckett who talks about the micro containing the macro. For me the analysis of micro relationships can be extrapolated to the relationship with people to their environment and the world that surrounds them. We never really talked about it but Roger just nailed it – his lyrics would address the most intimate micro relationships and the most extreme macro relationships.”
RR: “It’s trying to explore the universal theme of love on very personal terms.”
KM: “It involves poetry, illustration, it’s trying to broaden what is possible. This album has organically grown without being cynically planned. Hitomi came in pretty late to the project, but just fits perfectly. When Roger wrote his lyrics down I read them and I knew they had to be part of the sleeve because there’s an amazing literary quality to what he does. It’s really important – if you condescend to your audience why are they going to respect you and why are they going to buy it? Surely if you give people the best product then there’s a reason for them to want to keep it.”
It’s about not making things disposable…
KM: “That’s it, exactly – we’re talking about digipaks, a 24 page booklet. CD packaging is usually so hideous. It’s trying to give people more. Everyone’s talking about a crisis in the music industry. Well of course it’s in a fucking crisis, music’s overpriced, underproduced and done on zero aesthetic impetus. So for us this is a genuine intimate record and we reflect that in how we present it.”
RR: “It’s also about honesty. People who are honest will get supported in what they are doing.”
Hitomi, when did you come to London?
Hitomi: “I moved here in 1993. First to study, because I wanted to be a stewardess. I ended up graduating from art school with graphic design. I only started singing properly 3 years ago – I wanted to do something completely different with my life. I’m also in a band called Dokkebi Q. I was listening to The Bug all the time and met Kevin…”
KM: “I was using Hitomi for Bug dubplates, voicing the rhythms. I was playing some King Midas Sound tracks in the studio that we were having some difficulties with. She started singing along and I thought “woah, that sounds good”. So again it wasn’t a conscious thing it was an organic growth. We have our own strengths artistically, and culturally we come from such different backgrounds. How many interviews have you seen with a dubstep producer who looks like the next one and has the same influences as the next one? There are stories in all three of us that are radically different.”
How are you going to do King Midas Sound live? Presumably you won’t be going out and shoving a load of amen breaks under it and doing jungle versions!
RR: “I believe that people can move to something and contemplate something at the same time. Sometimes music polarises people, they just dance and don’t think, or they stand and think. I think King Midas Sound will come straight down the centre and make people move and contemplate.”
KM: “I agree. More and more everything is functional now. Dance music should just be danced to, folk music should just be listened to. Well actually we want both – we want people to move and when they go home the album will hopefully have an emotional resonance. But it’s a huge challenge to keep that intimacy we feel is on the record and do it live. Preparing for the first show we have been changing our stance a little bit. There are tracks which didn’t make the album which we are going to do live because they’re faster. It’s keeping that blunted warmth of sound. We can’t compete with someone who’s going to come on with lots of midrange bass or huge 4/4 tunes. So what we’re going to do is walls of hypnosis – drones and tones that are circular and just build up until you fall into the sound.”
Do you feel an affinity with the other Hyperdub artists? I suppose a lazy comparison would be Burial with all the crackle and atmospherics?
KM: “I think we all respect what Burial has done – but it’s certainly not a direct influence. We started this album four years ago and if you hear the earlier Bug tracks I did with Roger, or Techno Animal you can also hear that hiss, crackle and buzz, that extraneous noise.”
“Burial’s also analysing melancholy and sadness, the same way we are. Crackle and hiss? Well you can listen to Premier tracks or Basic Channel tracks. What I like about his static crackle is that it gives history to what you do and it gives a highly atmospheric pressure – it adds to it. I don’t know why, but it’s like a sonic illusion.”
RR: “It’s like with Lee Scratch Perry trying to create a 3D atmosphere. Sonic reverb to sound like a dancehall, crackle to sound like the beginning of a record. So it’s a big reggae thing, y’know?”
KM: “The difference between us and a lot of contemporary music – dance and club culture, is that these are songs. Pure classic songs. Hyperdub isn’t known for songs, so on the one hand we feel the odd one out. But on the other hand when you speak to the other people you realise it’s a collection freaks on Hyperdub. It’s got that same cultural friction and clash that this city contains. Hyperdub is an essentially London label and I’m totally at home in that because I feel that London is my only home.”
King Midas Sound’s Waiting for You is out this month on Hyperdub.