(From the US music magazine Reflex, Issue 31, January 1993)
From PiL to Pigface: the rise, fall, stumble, wallow, and Rise of Martin Atkins by Eric Gladstone
Martin Atkins is perhaps the music world's most blatant opportunist. His 14-year career is literally studded with instances where he has seemingly latched onto a star, milked the connection for all the publicity it's worth, and then moved on. Never has this pattern - including stints with Public Image Ltd., Killing Joke, and Ministry - been more apparent than now.
At this moment, Atkins is enjoying rising success with both Pigface - a malleable group created on a Ministry tour from which he recruited everyone but AI Jourgensen - and Murder Inc., a band who strangely include all members of Killing Joke except leader Jaz Coleman. Is Atkins a megalomaniac? User? Pied piper?
That's one way of looking at it. Then again, Atkins bailed out on drumming for Nine Inch Nails' Lollapalooza slot, and left both Killing Joke and PiL when their eccentric lead singers became too unbearable. And though he's always worn his credits emblazoned, he's never rested on the laurels. The past 10 years of Atkins's life have been a roller coaster of extremes, and if anything, they've taught him not only to grab an opportunity, but also not to waste it.
"A lot of well-learned lessons have gone down in the last decade," says Atkins. Today, he not only drums for Pigface and Murder Inc., but under the umbrella of his and wife Leila Eminson's Invisible company, he also manages both groups, books their tours, releases their records (the latest, by Pigface, is Fook), and coproduces.
But wait, there's more. Atkins is also releasing the second record from his admittedly "unlistenable" project Bizaar Sex Trio (titled Careless Use of Knives), not to mention his co-writing/performance/production of Chris Connelly's latest CD Phenobarb Bam- Ba-Lam (Wax Trax) and the upcoming Mary Byker (ex-Gaye Bykers on Acid) album. Martin's almost maniacally driven work pace seems to have been inspired by a history of uncertainties, delays, and situations under others' control.
"Everything to me has been a logical step," Atkins says from Invisible headquarters in Chicago, where his recuperation from a knee fracture has cancelled the Murder Inc. tour, though his humongous work schedule continues. "Invisible was just a reaction to PiL. I thought PiL was something that it wasn't - all the talk about 'it's not a band, it's a corporation' was just hype. Very clever hype; it struck a chord in me. And I've just spent the last ten years trying to come up with a situation where I'd be happy. I think all of us are nervous about a situation where we hand over our master tapes and artwork into somebody else's hands to be manipulated and presented."
Atkins knows manipulation: The entire time he was part of PiL - from the end of '79 through '85 - he was never a tenured member, constantly being fired and rehired by Keith Levene and getting shafted on credits (including, on what is one of Atkins's most notable achievements, '81's Flowers of Romance on Warner Bros.). After the heroin-addicted Levene was booted out (for an '85 Japanese tour), Lydon and Atkins, the latter recalls, "hired the 'Holiday Inn' band, as it's become known. That was one of my most visible, stupid, ill-advised moments; 'Anarchy in the UK' [with] three guys in tuxedos and a fuckin' piano!" On subsequent LP This Is What You Want. .. This Is What You Get (Elektra), "you can hear John and I struggling with this huge deal we signed. The horns on 'This Is Not a Love Song' - which has to be one of the weakest songs I've ever been involved with, and it was Top Three around the world. So what does any of it mean? I left shortly after that. I'm aware of the impact that major-label dollars and bureaucracy - and the opinions attached to money - have on music."
PiL, of course, had been running parallel, career-wise, with Atkins's own Brian Brain, whose first LP Unexpected Noises (Secret), unlike the lightweight later BB, showed some definite artistic connections to Pigface (NIN's Trent Reznor played horns on some later BB tours). "[During] Unexpected Noises, I was on prescription speed - we were drunk all the time," Atkins bserves. There are other precursors - Lunar Bear Ensemble, for example, an improvisatory, malleable group that Atkins played a part in while living in New Jersey college town New Brunswick. This during the process of getting married and ironing out his citizen status with the INS.
"All of this time I was working construction as an illegal alien, making five dollars an hour," Martin recalls: "We were at this house planting trees for Tico Torres, Bon Jovi's drummer, and he'd seen the Roseland show [in NYC, September '82, PiL's last gig with Levene]. I felt so low at that point, but he was so enthusiastic, and then it started to rain, and 'This Is Not a Love Song' came on the radio."
That was indeed a turning point for Atkins. Bitter experiences with labels Warner Bros., Virgin, Elektra (all with PiL), Celluloid (with Brian Brain), and others convinced him by '87 to have a go at DIY (BB had already been nearing that state with their Plaid label imprint) and start Invisible. "It wasn't that I felt I had some different knowledge, or I could do it better," says Atkins, "but with the experiences of the labels I'd been involved in, I knew I couldn't do any worse. And I wanted to have the ability to put out my own and other people's music." Atkins sent out feelers to the local community for talent; one of those who turned up was (ex-Regressive Aid/Scornflakes) guitarist William Tucker, not only as part of noisefest antigroup Cleft Palate, but also as producer of two other Invisible acts (one of which included this writer, but that's another story). Tucker followed Atkins to Ministry/Pigface, and is now working on solo project Journey to the Betty Ford Center of Your Mind in the Invisible studio.
Soon after came the call to join Killing Joke, a stroke of luck that got Atkins back into the mainstream, but slowly became as much liability as asset. "There were many business problems with KJ, and I ended up pretty much managing the band," says Martin. "I really enjoyed playing that music, a really gruelling hour-and-a-half show. And out on the road, I met Al [Jourgensen], and he asked me to work on Ministry, and everything exploded from there." Invisible first released a dubious spoken-word Joke LP The Courtauld Talks, as Martin and the group pulled off a respectable nostalgia tour. But never one to live in the past (unlike most of the class of '78-'79), Atkins ushered the band into new strength with Extremities, Dirt and Various Repressed Emotions (Noise Int'l.). And after more touring. he kicked over his drumkit and went home. "After Pigface, and the mutual respect between band members [and] crew on the road," he says, "to go back to Killing Joke - where Jaz is a slave-driving, inhuman, uncaring asshole, not to mention the fact that he can't sing to save his life - was intolerable." Bassist Paul Raven, guitarist Geordie Walker, and keyboardist John Bechdel slowly followed Martin to the US, bringing original KJ drummer Paul Ferguson, and they hooked up with vocalist Chris Connelly to form Murder Inc.
Pigface, arguably Atkins's most notable recent achievement, also perhaps represent his greatest opportunism. It grew directly out of Atkins playing with Ministry during their '90 Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste tour. Along for that trek with Atkins were Connelly, Tucker, drummer Bill Rieflin, Skinny Puppy's Ogre, Reznor, and many others who've since turned up on the Pigface roster (En Esch's KMFDM were the tour's openers). Days after they arrived home in Chicago, Atkins brought the assemblage into Steye Albini's studio and set the tapes rolling for five days. The results, on Gub and the Spoon Breakfast remix EP, stretched the aggro-industrial realm with occasionally exhilarating tracks, though it was equally weighted with half-baked (and perhaps pretentious) experiments. Pigface's approach appeared not so much musique concrete as musique plastique - take what you find, twist it up both before and after performance, throw it at a wall, and see if it sticks. "For me, and for Invisible," he says, "the Gub album was such a major step: to go from projects that I was just drummer in, to this project that Bill [Rieflin] and I put together, coming out on my own label. Gub has sold over 35,000 copies - and while it's hardly a Nirvana or Tubular Bells, in terms of Invisible, it kind of is."
Without waiting for those results, Martin and Leila coordinated and booked three short tours of the US and Europe, and through their ever-changing lineups, Pig face began to become the experimental collective that Atkins had been proclaiming it in the press. Not only did it work better live, but it worked different every time, as documented on subsequent releases Welcome to Mexico... Asshole (CD); Lean, Juicy Pork (promo LP); and now Glitch (home video). He says, "I think Glitch was a conscious attempt to get it together - Mexico and Pork were conceptually flawed. I wanted people to understand what Pigface was, and I sought to communicate that in the wrong medium. And the reason I think that's a really watchable video is that the band changes. You don't have to come up with different concepts for each song when the entire lineup changes.
"In the same way that Mexico came out of the first tour, Fook came out of the second. It was much more intense than Mexico or Gub - it just happened in a studio. We had two shows cancelled, and I was thinking, 'How can we turn this around? Well, let's book two days in a studio, and tell everyone in London to come down.' So Chris Haskett from Rollins Band was in town, one of the guys in Meat Beat [Manifesto], Leslie and Fuzz from Silverfish. We had two days in London, and a week in Chicago. What it did was create this huge jumble of tape, and then it took a long time editing and remixing - me, Chris, and William up in Minnesota. It was made in the way we wanted to make it, though it created a lot of work on the back end tidying up."
Fook includes contributions from Ogre, Mary Byker, Jesus Lizard bassist David Sims, and members of Killing Joke, Rollins Band, KMFDM, Silverfish, and Lab Report. Glitch includes just as many more. Both are notable progressions from their predecessors - more cohesive and equally more malleable. Glitch features songs from every LP release; Fook offers an entire set of new, more honed (and better packaged) songs.
"Pigface was just kind of the worst test case for anybody's business," Atkins half-jokes. "At first, Bill and I said things of what it was conceptually; the more we described to people what we were doing and why, the more it solidified in our minds. That's a great thing about touring and doing interviews: Good interviews really help solidify your ideas.
"We have these kind of revolving priorities, which is great. It's really
bad to tour when people aren't interested, and it's great to tour when they
are... really go out and celebrate. And I know now that I need to do that. I
can't live, breathe, eat, and sleep one thing."
[Current scribe-at-large Eric Gladstone sang for Leather Studded Diaphragm, whose 1988 LP Bump and Grind with Leather Studded Diaphragm came out on Invisible Records.]