They don’t come much louder than Kevin Martin and Dylan Carlson. Over the last few decades, the two musicians have set the standard for extreme music, Carlson as Earth and Martin as The Bug. In March, the duo released their debut album collaboration Concrete Desert. Chal Ravens talks to the pair about volume, time and space in their only in-person interview.
After three decades out on the deafening fringes of metal, dub and dancehall, Kevin Martin and Dylan Carlson could both stake a claim to the title of loudest musician on earth. It’s a covetable honor, but besides that and the beards, they appear to have little else in common at first.
There’s Martin, the studio-dwelling perfectionist, a Berlin transplant grafting noise and paranoia onto sound system culture as The Bug after years of avant-dub exploration with Techno Animal, E.A.R. and God. And there’s Carlson, the ambient metal pioneer pushing a genre into undiscovered territory with each iteration of his band Earth, a softly-spoken guitarist whose early notoriety was sealed the day he gave Kurt Cobain a gun.
The sense of geographic distance between the two also seems vast. The Bug’s blasted dancehall lives in concrete tower blocks and gullies, in overlit underpasses and gloomy alleyways, the soundtrack to a decaying city – the ‘London Zoo’ of his 2008 album. Far away from urban civilization, Earth’s sludgy, slow-motion riffage belongs under vast empty skies, a tectonic rumble that calls into the past and future at once.
But as far as Martin and Carlson are concerned, there are elemental similarities in what they do. Both of them are on a quest for total immersion – in volume, in texture, in brain-fogging atmospheres. Earth’s churning riffs are as visceral and expansive as the tidal waves of bass that underpin The Bug’s gritty dub mutations.
Carlson says he identifies “cinematic qualities and environmental influences” in both musicians’ work, and it’s this nebulous kinship that’s at the heart of their album collaboration Concrete Desert, a sprawling epic that frames Carlson’s freeform squall against Martin’s intricate, foundation-trembling electronics. The album (and its title) captures the alienation and disorientation Martin felt during their days recording in Los Angeles, a predicament that amused his collaborator, who spent his “missing years” in the city back in the ‘90s. And appearing as a guest vocalist on two tracks is JK Flesh, aka Justin Broadrick, a longtime collaborator of Martin and another missing link between the two artists – the Godflesh and Jesu frontman is also a friend of Carlson’s.
Ahead of Concrete Desert’s much-needed vinyl release on June 16, Carlson and Martin gave FACT their only in-person interview, a rare opportunity to hear two trailblazers compare notes on a lifetime in music. Up for discussion: why volume is so addictive, the ever-present influence of J.G. Ballard, and the importance of never repeating yourself.
“We’re from extremely different areas, but we’re both deep space navigators”Kevin Martin
When were you first aware of each other’s music?
DC: Weirdly enough, I’d heard of God and Techno Animal ‘cos I knew Justin [Broadrick] but I didn’t really know The Bug. I guess the first time was when King Midas Sound opened for Om at the Scala [in London]. We have a mutual friend, the artist Simon Fowler. He played me London Zoo and that’s sort of how the collaboration on the [‘Boa/Cold’] 12″s happened.
KM: For my sins I was a journalist for a while too, and I got sent Earth 2 when I was reviewing electronic music for Tower Records’ in-store magazine. I didn’t get to review it but I was suitably horrified by it and loved the distortion and the slowness and the huge, massive drift. I’d been into Swans so I liked slow, heavy shit, but it was psychedelic – there was this complete environment formed when I heard Earth 2. It was a total piece of sound. When I heard Hex it felt like a different band actually. Suddenly it sounded like Ennio Morricone soundtracks, or the Dead Man soundtrack by Neil Young. The use of space, texture and tone was phenomenal.
Ever since then I’ve kept tabs on where Dylan was going with his records. We’d discussed the idea of working through Simon, and the original idea was that Dylan’s tracks would appear on Angels & Devils. I sent him these slowed down versions of reggae rhythms and Dylan put his parts on top. I heard what he sent back and was gobsmacked, dropped all the original parts, rewrote everything around his parts and then decided the EP didn’t fit on the album, it deserved its own entity.
DC: Then we got invited to play Supersonic and Ninja Tune wanted us to play the 25th anniversary thing in LA. Since we were both in LA for a while, we were going to have time to be in the studio together.
On paper you come from different worlds, so what did you think your common ground might be?
DC: Before we talked in the studio, I think it was the sense of expansiveness, immersion, the cinematic qualities and environmental influences.
KM: Texture, tone, tempo, atmosphere – exactly all the things that Dylan’s saying. A lot of people in reviews are talking about it being a big surprise that we should work together because we’re from very different areas, and yeah, superficially of course we’re from extremely different areas, but as I’ve got to know Dylan through that time in the studio, I’ve realized we’re both deep space navigators. We both like to explore the distance between the notes and we both realize that texture and tone is crucial. Neither of us are good businessmen [both laugh] but we’re both completely obsessed by what we do and treat it with the respect it deserves.
As I’ve got to know Dylan, I’m quite surprised that there are so many parallels in how we’ve moved and how we’ve made certain decisions. I think Dylan’s been brave in his changes with Earth. You could have just churned out Earth 2 ad infinitum.
DC: Earth 2.1 or Earth 2.2…!
KM: You basically gave birth to a whole movement in metal, but then you went off and did the opposite to it!
KM: Was that on purpose, was that ‘cos you were like, ‘fuck that’?
DC: I’d never understood the idea of making the same record over and over and over again. To me it’s like a waste of time and opportunity. Every time you go to make a record it’s a whole new situation, you’re different.
KM: It’s tough though, because audiences and media and industry all expect you to make the same record over and over, particularly if you’re successful.
DC: I mean, I guess I’m fortunate that at the time it wasn’t successful. [Both laugh]
“I realized early on, the important thing is to get stuff out, and you do it with whatever you have available”Dylan Carlson
Thinking about the making of the Concrete Desert, did you have ideas going back and forth before you went into the studio, or did Dylan just go in and play over what Kevin had been working on?
DC: Yeah, I just came and did the guitar.
So it was quite improvised?
KM: I’d been writing sketches in Berlin, and then I’d been in Brazil on the way to LA and I was writing sketches ‘cos I had some off time. I knew what Dylan was capable of and I hoped that I could do justice to that and stretch him a little too, try and find new areas for him and for me. I didn’t want it to sound like a conventional Bug album and I didn’t want it to sound like a conventional Earth record – surely if it’s X + Y, Z is the goal.
DC: Personally, I love collaborating with people. You could say I’ve collaborated quite a bit, because the lineups of Earth have changed a lot.
KM: Are there any collaborations you wish you hadn’t done, or any albums you wish you hadn’t done?
DC: No. It’s funny, because to me that’s what’s cool about an album – it’s a moment in time that’s been captured, but that moment will never be the same again. You may start out with an idea but as soon as you’re collaborating it’s gonna change on its way out, and it’s usually gonna end up better than you thought.
KM: I’ve made some records I wish I hadn’t. [Laughs]
DC: I mean, at the time there were some records that I was like, you know… But even Phase 3 [Earth’s 1995 second album, notoriously recorded in an 18-month drug haze that drained Sub Pop’s coffers] was a total disaster on the surface of it, but…
KM: I read some mad shit about you making that record.
DC: Yeah, that record was – I mean I’m surprised it even got released. So to me it’s like, every time is an opportunity to do something.
KM: Every record you make, you have to make to get to wherever you are. You don’t know if it’s going to resonate with anyone. The difference now for me is when I started making music I was happy to empty rooms, I was happy to piss people off and antagonise to the max. Now I’ve realized that feedback from people I trust, or even people I don’t trust, has become an essential part too. I spent four years on London Zoo, three years on the King Midas Sound album, sort of losing my mind. Just getting cabin fever, going in on things again and again and again, to the point where you don’t know if it’s good or bad.
‘Poison Dart’ and ‘Skeng’ were absolutely not my favorite tracks on London Zoo and were no more special than any other piece of music, and it was only seeing Spaceape or Roger Robinson jumping up and down on the couch, or getting texts from Kode9 about how 8,000 people in Barcelona have just flipped the fuck out to ‘Poison Dart’, that made me think, oh shit, maybe it’s a good tune!
That sense of being so close to your music that you can no longer hear it properly feels like the opposite of what you do, Dylan, by coming into the studio and having to improvise with a clear mind. Perhaps you walk away and don’t even know what’s happened.
DC: Yeah, I think in that way we’re a bit different. I have musician friends who are super control-oriented and they always seem really frustrated.
Who would they be?
DC: And I realized early on, the important thing is to get stuff out, and you do it with whatever you have available. If it’s a tin can and a microphone then that’s what you’re gonna use. You can’t just sit around waiting for the perfect gear. And the thing that I think so many people find frustrating and that I find liberating is I don’t pick my best song, I don’t pick my best moment. The audience picks it. And the same with playing live – I used to really love the studio and not really like playing live, but then it totally switched. I love playing live because it’s the rollercoaster. We went on tour with this one band and every night after the show they would be backstage discussing what they did wrong. I’m like, do you guys even enjoy what you’re doing? It’s crazy to me. Dude, the show’s over. It’s done.
I think that’s a major point of difference between you two – Kevin, you definitely think about your gigs after they’ve happened. You’re known for doing a kind of post-match report, even…
KM: Yeah, with King Midas Sound, the first show we ever did we argued terrible after the show, absolute insanely so. That particular show, Kode9 and Spaceape had come, it was a Hyperdub event, and they destroyed the place. They started straight after us and I was just sitting there, crouched behind my mixing desk, thinking, “Everything they’re doing, the electricity of the performance, the intensity, is what I would rather be doing.” And that King Midas Sound album was never really meant to be played live anyway. We tried to reproduce it live and hearing people talk all over it just destroyed the intimacy. Steve [Goodman] and Stephen [Gordon] came up and just blew my head off, and I was jealous. I’m competitive with music – in a good way, not in a wanky, macho way, I just feel…
DC: You always wanna do better than others… it’s just like, it feels good if you play with someone and everyone’s talking about your set and not their set.
KM: Yeah, but just to push yourself is what’s crucial. To stay away from the comfort zone. It’s interesting to hear you talk about your attitude towards recordings, I’ve never heard you talk about that before. It’s almost like you think they’re documents of a time and place, and I can totally see that. I hear it in a lot of jazz performances. Studio time was once dictated by the budget, so you had to do that performance at that time, and that’s how it’s gonna sound [on the record]. But the curse and the beauty of how I choose to work now is I’m in my space capsule where there’s all these gadgets that keep calling my name to go back in there. So it’s infinite.
DC: I think if I was a studio guy I would probably have a very different feeling about it, but, you know, I can barely play guitar let alone deal with a recording console.
Do you listen back to your own records?
DC: Not unless I’m relearning a song for tour or getting ready for a show.
KM: You hear the mistakes… if you’re performing the songs regularly you’re hearing them enough anyway.
DC: It was funny, once we were setting up to play this show in Switzerland and this song came on, and I was like, “Wow, this sounds really familiar.” I turned to someone, like, “Who is this?” And they’re like, “Uh, that’s Earth, Bees Made Honey…?
Ohhh…!” But I’d been playing it live, and live it’s a very different song. It was like, wow, I don’t remember this album being quite so lush and shimmery!
KM: I did the same thing in New York – I went to a record store and they were playing some music, and I said, “This sounds wicked. What’s this?” He said, “It’s Experimental Audio Research” – the thing I did with [Spacemen 3’s] Pete Kember. And I thought, shit – I should know the record! I didn’t recognize my own sound on there.
Did the person in the shop recognize you?
KM: No. Thankfully not. I was so embarrassed anyway.
The title of the album is Concrete Desert. How did you pick that? I wondered if it suggests something about what each of you brings to the project, with the urban roots of The Bug and the sweeping landscapes of Earth?
DC: I think it’s a perfect description of LA.
Did you have that in mind leading up to the recording, that it would be “an LA record”?
KM: Not at all.
DC: One of the things we discussed in the studio a lot was Kevin’s reaction to Los Angeles, and I was finding it very interesting because I’d lived in LA. We were basically rapping, as they used to say, about LA – the disorientating, alienating weirdness that is that city.
KM: I think Dylan enjoyed my moaning Brit attitude to LA. We definitely didn’t talk about it being an LA record before – it was more post-recording, when I was in Berlin, trying to understand what was there and what sort of narrative to put on it. I wanted to feel as if I was in LA when I heard the record, so you could imagine yourself in this sprawl. It’s a record about alienation, really, and how you react to life in a big city when you’re a very little ant. I was really interested to hear Dylan’s reactions to what I was saying. “Yeah, of course only madmen and tourists walk around LA.”
DC: It’s funny, ‘cos I had the same reaction. When I was living in LA I took the bus, I took transit and people thought I was completely a lunatic.
Do you find it a creatively inspiring place despite that arid, alienating quality?
DC: Yeah. I actually like Los Angeles because of its high weirdness factor. I have a soft spot for it, probably because I lived there. My “missing years” were spent in LA. [Laughs]
KM: America’s fucking weird to me anyway. Every time I go there I feel so alien. I remember on my first trip thinking, is everyone who I’m speaking to acting? [Dylan laughs] Does anyone mean any of this shit that I’m getting in my face?
DC: No, they don’t!
KM: Just before this trip Kode9 had bigged it up – “LA’s sick, you’ll have a good time, it’s wicked there” – and I remember thinking, maybe I’ll move to LA – and it was the nail in the coffin after my time there.
In the press materials for the album, you mention the novelist J.G. Ballard – he’s been an influence of yours for a long time. LA was a sort of spiritual home of his – what could be more Ballardian than all those tangled freeways?
KM: I think he had a sort of love affair with America. To me he was a genius. His literature strikes me like the best music – it rearranges your whole nervous system when you read his books. It’s immersive, it’s visceral. You’ll be reading a passage and something totally out of the blue will come at you that feels so vivid.
Is that something that you thought about while making the record?
DC: Yeah, we talked about Ballard. It’s funny, when I was here over the holidays, me and my wife were in Portobello and I was freaking out ‘cos we were near the high rise that he wrote High Rise about [Trellick Tower in Kensal Town].
“I’m not comfortable on stage. I just want to get lost in the sound. I literally don’t want to see anyone”Kevin Martin
KM: Which is actually where I ended up living – there’s one on the other side of London [Balfron Tower in Poplar, also designed by Erno Goldfinger] and that’s where I lived just before I left London, for a year and a half. And it was hell on earth. That whole area, Poplar, is just disgusting. That’s where Flowdan grew up. He told me that when he was a kid it was just a battlefield. I remember having to meet my partner at the bus stop every night to walk her 200 meters to our flat. We got chased a number of times. Guys shitting in the entrance hall of the flats. I had got sick of going mad living in my studio, so the only alternative to impress my partner was, “I’ll get a flat”, and the Guardianship thing [a rental scheme that’s effectively legal squatting] was the only thing I could find that was remotely doable in terms of money. By the time I moved in there they’d moved out most of the normal tenants and decided to rehouse people who were mentally disturbed or couldn’t live anywhere else. So it was either artists or… sort of lunatics that were living in this big crazy block of flats!
And that is Ballard’s idea, isn’t it – that modernity itself will bring about this psychological and spiritual decay.
DC: So our next record should be at Cape Canaveral if we’re gonna do the Ballardian thing. [Many of Ballard’s early short stories were set at the space rocket launch site in Florida.]
KM: With Techno Animal we did a track called ‘Cape Canaveral’, a 21-minute track, which was just this total zoned lunacy – I’ll send it to [Dylan], I think you’d dig it actually! Because as a kid, the first thing I ever remember is watching the moon landing with my dad and being blown away by it. Cape Canaveral had this aura of, “This is my gateway off the planet”!
Is it true that you gave a God tape to J.G. Ballard?
KM: Yeah, 100%. I was being a fanboy, he was doing a signing. I was shitting myself. I was too scared to hand him the tape or get my book signed, so my girlfriend at the time took him the book and the cassette, and he signed it: “To the voice of God”. I didn’t think anything about it, but a year or two later someone calls me and says, “Have you seen the new annotated version of Atrocity Exhibition? You get namechecked!” And I was like, yeah, go on, don’t take the piss. And they’re like, “Nah, serious!” And Ballard had said [in the book], “I met the voice of English pop band God.” The tape was a rehearsal tape in a squat, in the basement, with a microphone of total noise – and just the fact he’d call it a pop band?! Classic.
At the time, you were God and Dylan was Earth.
KM: Yeee-ah! There’s weird parallels [between us] – like with [The Bug’s] Angels & Devils…
DC: [Earth’s] Angels Of Darkness & Demons Of Light…
KM: And then you had snakes on your sleeves and there were serpents all over ours…
DC: A hibernaculum, where snakes go when they hibernate. It’s a big ball of snakes, and during the winter they’ll live in these pits.
KM: Sounds like the music industry. [Laughs]
One final question – who is louder?
KM: Ahhh! [Thinks] He, very shockingly to me, plays through a very small amp on stage, and in the studio.
Whereas you prefer the wall of speakers.
KM: That’s actually just ‘cos I want to forget where I am, ‘cos I’m not comfortable on stage. I just want to get lost in the sound. I literally don’t want to see anyone.
DC: The thing that many people don’t know, and why I find it funny to see all these bands with ridiculous backlines – I mean, I understand why it is, because we all grew up on pictures of Hendrix and Motorhead with all the Marshall stacks. In the ‘70s there were no PAs so you needed them.
KM: I’ve never even thought about that, that’s so true.
DC: And amp companies want to sell their expensive amps. Basically, every time you double the wattage of an amp, you’re only increasing the volume by three dBs, which is not noticeable by the human ear. So a 50W amp and a 100W amp are the same loudness – it’s just about headroom. And the more wattage you have, the higher the headroom, which means you’re not gonna hit the sweet spot where the amp breaks up, at a volume that’s usable, on a 100W amp.
KM: I really believe – maybe it’s just me – volume is addictive.
DC: We opened for a band, which I will not name, but it was hilarious because I was playing a ‘71 WEM Dominator, which is technically a 15W amp, and our other guy had an H&H combo, and everyone said we sounded louder than the headliner who had this ridiculous backline. Part of it’s because we’re letting the PA do part of the work.
KM: I used to have really bad tinnitus, when I was in God, and I used to have to listen to music to stop the sound of ringing ‘cos I’d go mad and not be able to sleep.
Dylan, is your hearing good?
DC: I used to wear earplugs all the time, back in the day. But we don’t have bad stage volumes anymore.
KM: Only when I’m around!
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