(From Mean Street, a free LA-based music magazine, October 2000).
Q&A: Martin Atkins
Interview Lisa Y. Garibay
Martin Atkins' huge body of work includes drumming with PiL, Killing Joke and Ministry; he's also an engineering, remixing and producing guru with his label, Invisible Records. His musical anarchy outfit Pigface has attracted Steve Albini, Jello Biafra, Taime Downe, En Esch, Paul Ferguson, Flea, Lydia Lunch, Ogre, Alex Patterson, Trent Reznor, Bill Rieflin and Andrew Weiss, to name a few.
After twenty years in the business, Atkins still has projects to keep him busy through the next century, including The Damage Manual, his recent collaboration with comrades Chris Connelly, Geordie Walker and Jah Wobble. Atkins breezes into Swinger's Coffee Shop after a day of hell (including a delayed flight, no rental car, little sleep and bad directions). "I need an assistant," he sighs and proceeds to order "the strongest, most caffeinated" drink on the menu.
How did you go from drumming into production and engineering?
I've been in the studio since I was 18 and was always really interested in what was going on. And I was always saying to engineers, "No, no, no -- it's not edgy enough!" I was tired of filtering my ideas through someone else and about ten years ago, I thought, I've got this wealth of reference points from living in a studio; I've probably made a hundred or so albums, so why am I sitting at the mercy of someone who it's their first year in the studio? So I locked myself up in the studio with ProTools. I still take a really long time to do things because I lack self-confidence.
In terms of just engineering or across the board?
I'm shy and a bit insecure and maybe that's why I'm a control freak with my own label. [laughs] I don't know. But I also like to experiment and that takes time. That's how the drums on "Sunset Gun" -- I just went round and round and round trying to get that sound. I had professional engineers in professional studios going, "This is it," and it wasn't! And it wasn't like I was from Mars and there weren't any reference points -- John Bonham, for Christ's sake! I got that sound in my studio in a few hours, because I wasn't going through any filters. So that's how I got into that. It also has to do with the fact that I don't need people to blame. There are bands that go, "Well, if it wasn't for the label, our manager, the engineer and the producer, we'd be huge right now." It's like, no, if it wasn't for you blaming everybody . . . .
Is this how you felt twenty years ago when you got started -- so open to everything that you just wanted to try it all, do it all?
Yeah, except that it was alcohol and drugs. [grins] I didn't try it all, though. I was around some junkies and it was just so gross. No appeal at all. I think John and I were quite lucky to come out of '80 to '85 intact. But I feel more excitement about what's going on now with the Internet than what was happening in London in '77, with the decline of the major labels and everybody starting their own labels.
You've collaborated with so many people in your career. How did it come down to the three guys who are with you now in Damage Manual?
Someone told me that Wobble had played a show in New York at some yoga meditation centre, and I thought, I should call him -- I hadn't spoken to him in 16 years. We talked and set up a time to jam. I got this studio in Soho where Wobble and I recorded the first solo album, Betrayal, and it felt good being there, stirring up the psychic soup a little bit. And then Geordie called, out of the blue, and I'm like, "You'll never fucking guess what, Geordie!" So he came in. We did 22 songs in two days, which is just insane! Within an hour of us sitting down, it was electric immediately, and Wobble said, "You know, this is more of a band than we've ever been in! We've gotta tour!" I called Chris about three months after and that was that.
Were you going for a particular sound in Damage Manual, or something completely new?
There was a point at which I thought that all PiL fans, all Killing Joke fans and all Ministry fans would be happy with it. And at that point, it failed for me, because if the record succeeded for those people, then I don't think I would've wanted to release it because it would've been retroactive. I was trying to be true to the spirit of PiL in '79 - the most dangerous fucking band on the planet! That was Killing Joke in '84, Ministry in '89. Trying to get that. I don't know if the Damage Manual is the most dangerous band on the planet but I've some comments about us from people saying, "Fuck off, Limp Bizkit!" [laughs]
What have you learned from your experiences that's important to what you're doing now?
If I was to expect America to be waiting with bated breath for the Damage Manual album or anything that I had done, I'd have to be some kind of fucking egomaniac wanker. If you want someone to hear your music, you've gotta get out there and give people a reason to listen to it, or else how do people know if they want it? How do people even know that it's in the store? If your music isn't the most important thing to you, how can you expect it to be the tenth most important to anybody else? I see more of the bigger picture. I must've been an appalling prick to deal with when I was signed to major labels -- "Aw, fuck, he's on the phone again!" [grins] Actually, I've gone up and apologized to a few people. It's been quite a journey, and I guess that's why I'm so excited now that I have so many pieces of the puzzle. It feels really great and I feel really powerful. You know, [Invisible's] never going to have any money, just because we're always trying to do some creative things and we're always trying something new and all these people I want to help so there's never any money. But I think in terms of vibe, we challenge any major label. And that's exciting. I'm still an anarchic punk rock fucker.