Martin Atkins Interview by Vittorio Carli

Martin Atkins has made many significant contributions to industrial music and rock’roll in general. He has excelled in many diverse roles such as drummer, producer, bandleader, and record label owner. His resume reads like a who’s who of seminal underground bands. He’s served stints in Public Image Ltd., Killing Joke, Murder Inc., and Ministry. He’s also the leader of Pigface, a group with a diverse morphing lineup, and the hard-edged dub band, Damage Manuel. He’s worked with everyone from Trent Reznor to John Lydon to Genesis P. Oridge to Margot of the the Go Gos.

"Vito with Martin Atkins of Pigface, Ministry and Public Image Ltd. Photo by Oona Burke, 2003"

His record label, Invisible Records , has put out releases by many bright, fresh talents such as Voodou, Nocturne, Chris Connelly, as well as an upcoming work by Railer. Acquiring complimentary CDs or concert seats from Invisible was about as easy as extracting cavities with pliers, but the uniform high quality of the releases made the Herculean effort worthwhile.

I recently spoke with Martin at his studio in Bridgeport right before he was about to go on tour with My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, and found that he was engaging and full of interesting anecdotes and observations on musicPigface

Can you tell us about your childhood and early life?

I grew up in the North of England near Leeds, which became a musical hotbed. Later I was close to Newcastle which is where I started drinking Newcastle brand ale. That’s why you’ll see Newcastle bottle caps in all my artwork from that period.

Did you always want to be a drummer?

When I was 16 or 17 we moved to London. I started playing drums when I was nine and I played music for strippers when I was 12. I left school. I had a job as an electrical technician apprentice. Then I left that to become a professional musician. I played drums seven nights a week and Sunday afternoon. We had an original band that was playing psychedelic /Pink Floyd,/Todd Rundren type stuff. We had a mellotron. The Mellotron was the first sampler. Every key was like a play button on a cassette machine and every key had its own tape. We also had a cover band that we called money, and we were in that for the money. We played four or five night a week with them and that allowed us to be in the original band for two nights. When the punk movement hit it was scary because I had spent years trying to hone my technical skills and the punks were all saying “None of that matters. ”It was frightening because I had spent all my time listening to drummers and deciding who was the best drummer, Billy Cobham or Buddy Rich. I went straight down to London to audition for any band because that’s where it was all happening. I saw an ad. I was 15 or 16. It said drummer required for band with well-known singer and I knew that was Public Image limited. I had to leave and get a ride to the North of England. But I had no money in my pocket. As soon as I got there I thought I had made a huge mistake. I had no money. I moved to London and I spent a year and a half calling everyone in Virgin Records and Public Image Ltd. I told them listen I know there are lots of punks that say “Fuck technical ability, fuck it all.” but I’m someone who says, “fuck it all” who has technical ability. I don’t know if you know about the early history of Public Image Ltd, but there were five drummers. Jim Walker was on the first album and maybe one or two tracks on Metal Box. Ritchie Dedanski played drums on one or two tracks but the band set fire to him while he was asleep. I have no idea why. Later Geordie from Killing Joke set fire to the keyboard player maybe, so there’s a link. Every time I picked up Melody Maker or New Music Express, I would read PiL fires another drummer. I’d call and they’d say no we just found someone. One time I was up on speed and I read that PiL had just fired Karl Burns the drummer from The Fall. It was two months old. I called and they said they had just fired the drummer after that. Pil was rehearsing and they invited me over to the Townhouse. It was a big studio. Queen was there and Phil Collins had recorded a solo single there.

Did you get hired right away?

I played on and co-wrote “Bad Babies” for “Metal Box’ with them and that was my audition.

How did the unusual film canister cover of ” Metal Box” come about?

It had nothing to do with me. I played on the last song and went back to my job working with the government. They called me up later and said come and audition for the band. The packaging for the first album was very smart. For Metal Box, they wanted to do three four-inch singles to capture Jah Wobble’s low bass. The idea comes from Jamaican dub. It gives the grooves more room. Putting out three singles presented a packaging problem. The idea of putting out a triple gatefold sleeve was a bit too Deep Purple or old school. John came up with the idea of a metal box container and it caused a sensation in England. It was originally supposed to be sealed with white tape with a PiL logo on it. Virgin manufactured the tape but the company owner thought it was getting out of control, and he refused to pay for the machine to put the tape on the metal box. It was a great lesson in marketing. There was a whole page in “Melody Maker.“

about the situation with the caption: “What Can You Do With Your Metal Box?” A commune wrote in and said that they used one to make hash brownies. Creative packaging may cost a little more but it ‘s worth it. That album and the packaging are still talked about.

Were you in PiL during the famous American Bandstand incident? Can you tell us anything about it?

Yes it was PiL’s first American tour and we had no idea who Dick Clark was. We had no idea what American Bandstand was. He came in the dressing room and said “Heyyyyyy!!!!” I think we were all supposed to go “Oh my god, it’s Dick Clark.” But our bass player said, “Hey, I’m Jah Wobble, who the fuck are you?’ The host freaked out because no one had ever spoken to him like that. We thought it was a cable TV show. But that was not unusual.

Is it true that you traded instruments during the show?

We were supposed to lip-synch, and pretend like we were playing live while the recording was on. After a certain point it all got ridiculous. So I started playing the bass and Wobble started playing the drums. We invited the whole audience on stage and Keith gave his guitar to an audience member to play during the song and left.

Did you know that’s considered one of the great rock’n roll moments?

Yes it still gets played on VH1. And that was 22 years ago. And the new Pigface album just came out. How blessed am I? I am the most proud of that album because of the scope of the performances. It’s really cool to still be on the edge.

Is it true that after awhile, Lydon fired the whole band?

I was fired three times. I was fired at the end of the American tour for the first time. Keith and I never got along very well because he did heroin. I objected because I worked hard as a musician, and I had a healthy respect for the audience. If they pay fifteen or twenty dollars, they should get a good show. Keith was smoking coke on stage and shooting up. His arms were so swollen he couldn’t play. It pissed me off. Some of the tunes were sloppy because Keith wouldn’t hearse. We got back to England and Keith fired me. Maybe John agreed with him. I was only making $100 a week anyway. They spent six or seven months working on “The Flowers of Romance.” I had my own band, Brian Brain. They called me and said will you come in and do something? I came into the studio and worked on some tracks. I did “Under the House” and ‘Four Enclosed Walls.” I did the title track too, but I didn’t get credit for it. John admitted a few years ago that that it was me drumming. And they used the track for an African Bambatta track and a commercial. Thanks for ripping me off, John. Well at least he got it off his chest. They hired and fired me again. They asked me to rejoin at the time of “This is What You Want, This is What You Get” after I had moved to America.
Brian Brain had just had a show at the Mudd Club.

Can you tell me about Brian Brain?

Yes, it was early punk/anarchic performance art meets disco madness. The show was 22 minutes long. I had all the drum parts on tape, so I could sing and jump around on stage. We drank cases of brandy and beer every night, and did lots of speed. There were three of us in the group. I still have a bill for the removal of banana pulp. One night we got sick of waiting for the audience to applaud, so we started pelting them with bananas. We didn’t anticipate that they would throw them back, and it turned into a big banana fight. It was wild. Five years after that show, people still smelled bananas. There was still banana pulp in the light fixtures.

Have you been influenced by performance art or other drummers?

Not really. I did see Blue Man Group recently. People attribute all kinds of influences to my drumming with PiL like Can. Chris Connelly sat me down and played me some can only a few years ago, and everyone says they’re an influence on my work. I can’t think of any direct influences. I just try to push the audience

Didn’t Brian Brain get a reputation for violence?

Some of the shows verged on extreme physical violence. I was bottled at a club in Washingon DC. I threw G.G. Allen on the floor and threw microphones and a speaker at him. He did nothing. Two and a half-hours later, he broke my nose and jaw while I was pissing in a bathroom stall Brian Brain was pretty wild. Margot from the Go Gos even joined for awhile. We switched from drum tracks to live drums. We brought in a graffiti artist –remember it was 1983, and other members. It was always changing.

Since you were in New York in ’83, was rap a big influence?

We absorbed everything. It was a big melting pot. Futura 2000 were doing graffiti. The Beastie Boys were emerging. They were called Young and Useless back then. The Clash and all of us always used dub.

How did you end up in Killing Joke?

I chose to leave Public Image. I had a house in Los Angeles, and a swimming pool, but I was still unhappy. It didn’t make sense. If you’re British, if you have a swimming pool and a palm tree, that is luxury. I moved to New Jersey and I thought, “Fuck this. Fuck music.” I started a construction company. As soon as it stated doing well Killing Joke invited me to join their band. I listened to their latest album. “Outside the Gate” and I hated it. It was appalling. I loved early Killing Joke. But “Outside the Gate” was a milestone in horrifying bullshit. A friend asked would they sound better with you in them? So I went to England and ended up managing and playing in Killing Joke. I also put out a few CDs by some local bands I wanted to help out on Invisible Records.

Is it true that the original Killing Joke singer quit the band to move to Iceland and wait for the end of the world?

Well, that was before my time. They had a single in England and they were asked to play on the Top of the Pops. The lead singer, Jaz Coleman, was in Iceland and started hanging around a lot with Bjork who was in the Sugarcubes at the time. So the band ended up playing the Top of the Pops with a mannequin in a boiler suit to take Jaz’s place. Jaz and Geordie and the whole original lineup are interesting people. I invited the original drummer to join me in Murder Inc. and later Pigface’s “Notes from Thee Underground. “

How did you get involved in Ministry and Nine Inch Nails?

After a year with Killing Joke, I met Al Jourgensen and he asked me to be on the 1989 Ministry Tour. The day that tour ended, Pigface began. During that whole period I worked a lot with Nine-Inch Nails a lot. Trent Reznor came and worked on the first Pigface album too.

On your Pigface’s “ Greatest Hits” CD, you say you have been sober for 10 years. How has sobriety affected your work?

It’s actually been eight years. I found that inside of me is a very dangerous human being. But when I was very drunk it would come out in dangerous ways. When I drum now, I access that energy sober. Anyone who is involved with substance abuse to be creative always says, “I need blah blah blah to be creative.” But that stuff is inside you and you can still get to it a different way.
I noticed that t here are lots of literary references on Pigface. The title of “Notes from Thee Underground” puns with a Doestovesky title and Meg Lee Chin quotes the opening line in Ginsberg’s “Howl” in a Pigface song. Has literature been a big influence on you?

I don’t think so. But you know what has been a big influence? George Harrison. Harrison just died while we were on tour. I just asked the sound engineer, Jamie to put on "Norwegian Wood” the other day with all the sitars. Notice every Pigface album has sitars on it. The Beatles were a big influence. I grew up listening to them.

Why did you move to America or Bridgeport in particular?

Well, England is horrifying. Entrepreneurial people feel a sense of entitlement, there. Whenever you ask them to do their job they respond: “How dare you ask me to do that1.” Every place I went in America has better PA systems than the ones in England. Also, in every club here you actually find people who care. I’ve had club owners’s mothers who brought us dinner while we played. You’d never see that in England
They give you four cans of warm beer When we played in the US in 1980 we would stay in a big suite, the class would be there. We’d have great shows. We would go to London and we would have to play using some appalling sound systems and they would give us a hundred dollars and two cold beers. I packed up and left.’ I was New York for a few years than I moved to LA with PIL. I moved to New Jersey than I moved to Chicago. I moved to Pilsen 10 years ago. And I bought space on 18th street. I was lucky enough to find this building a few years ago.

But radio here is very closed and few innovative bands get any airplay. Don’t you agree?

Yes, it’s very different there. My wife and I went back there for a few years when we were having our second baby. They were playing Fat Boy Slim every half-hour on Radio 1. He was never mainstream here. Very different understanding. The Gorillaz track with the dubbing was a big deal here. But in England, we hear a new single like that every week. There is a much broad appreciation of music there. But the rest of it’s crap.

How do you get around the rigid playlists and system in the country?

There are all kinds of ways to get around it. You have to pay money to Tower Records to become pick of the week, but employees get their own picks. If you make good music and you’re not an asshole someone will eventually pick you. You can reach out to radio shows. College radio can help. If you work at it, you can create your own box. In England, they will give the store 10 copies if they buy one. So it isn’t all contingent on the profits from one CD.

What are the advantages of working in a band like Pigface with an unstable lineup? What are the disadvantages?

It’s not unstable but morphing. It enables to say to say to Esel let’s get together. It’s a social experiment I can work with people I never met and rekindle my relationship with Keith from PiL. I can change as I wish to. The next Pigface may have only three members. Something inside of me has created something that nourished my enthusiasm for music. Maybe it was in part a protective measure. I had invested much of myself in PiL and I had to leave it for my own sanity. I didn’t want to repeat that. Pigface has had an energy and longevity that is uncommon in the underground.

What was it like working with Keith Levene after all those years?

It was kind of interesting because there were points where he would go off. Instead of it and me getting pulled into that, I would say I think this is Keith of 1981 talking to Martin of 1981 in 2003. .

What's the distinction between Invisible Records and Underground Inc.?

Underground Inc includes Invisible Records, Sleezebox, Tonezone. And Bilestyle The idea is friends don’t let friends start labels. It’s really tough even for me. I have 250 releases and my own studio. And I’m the major producer for the label. We don’t have to hire someone outside and pay them 30 grand to produce Meg Lee Chin and Voodou. The three main acts are me. If it’s hard for me, can you imagine how it is for someone with only 5,10 or 20 CDs? They would be fucked. So I’m helping people like My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult run their business. We have a tour now with My Life with the Thrill Kill Cult, Bile, Zeromancer and DJ Scary Sara. It’s feeling like a very empowered community. It feels like it’s 1976 again.

Who’s going to be in the Pigface lineup on the new tour?

Charles Levy from My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, Michelle Walters from Voodou, Lacey Conner from Nocturne, Seibold from Hate Department, Krztof from Bile, Curse Mackey from Evil Mothers, and Frankie from Thrill Kill may do song. There are five or six people I haven't heard back from like Jared from Chemlad, and the guys from Godhead

Isn’t Jared Louche the spoke word guy on the new Pigface?

Jared is doing spoken word in England and he has his own radio show. He’s always morphing and that’s great.

What are your favorite bands what do you listen to?

Well I’m kind of in my own little world, and I listen to different things at different times. I’ve discovered a band called Eea, which has the guy from Lydia Lunch. Six months later it came out on Invisible. Right now I’m listening to Railer. My kids love them. Every time it came on it sounded like a greatest hits. It has an 80s tinge of early punk and influences from Buzzcocks, Only Ones, Undertones and just a tinge of electronic and Nirvana. I was just about to sign them but they got a lawyer in New York and we're still putting together a deal. There’s so much music coming through here. When I leave the office the last thing I want to do ids listen to music recreationally. Somehow, Shania Twain has infected my boys in England, so my recreational listening could well be something the kids like

Do you have any great stories about or John Lydon stories?

Well John Lydon worked with Harvey Keitel on “Cop Killer” and Keitel came to the PiL show. And John fucking made him pay to see us. Sometimes John was just so… I don’t know what to call it. He’s going to do a voice-over on the new Pigface. Virgin Records Australia took us out to eat and they told us we can have whatever we want, and John ordered five lobsters. They asked “Are they for the whole band?” He replied “No, they’re for me.” They were five pounds each. He ate half of one and left the rest there.

I have some Psychic TV can you tell me about Genesis P. Orridge?

I have many stories about him. But they all can be distilled by saying he disappointed me and had a complete lack of moral fiber. I’ve given him $25,000 and when I think of what he did with it. He completely misused my trust. He has a fairly unique set of problems to do with releasing 400 CDs. He is the single reason why Psychic TV has become completely devalued.

Didn’t he put out 24 live CDs in a year all on the 24rth day of the month?

Well that was a cool experiment. He was a lightning rod. I was a bit intoxicated by him at one point. He walked on stage during a Pigface show with four tape machines in San Francisco, and he had no idea how the songs went and he didn’t care which was fine. He radically changed many of the songs. He also understood and articulated some of the aspects of Pigface that weren’t clear to me. But since then his creativity and ingenuity has declined and his moral fiber has been flushed down the toilet. But it was a good lesson for any record label owner.

I recently interviewed Cynthia Plastercaster and she said she cast you. What was that like?

It’s something I talk about in my spoken word piece. It was funny to think of my penis being on a shelf alongside 100 other guys. It’s even more insane than comparing chart positions. It made me nervous but It was just something I wanted to do.

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Photography by Vittorio Carli