Bedside Toxicology (Invisible)
An interview with Martin Atkins
by Chris Best
I feel two ways about legends. On one hand, I think they deserve respect for their past accomplishments. But the on other, part of me feels that you are only as good as the last thing you’ve done. So while I was ecstatic to get the chance to speak to Martin Atkins and Ogre, I had no idea whether their new project together was any good. The day before the interviews, I received a copy of Bedside Toxicology. From the very start, it’s obvious that Ogre and Atkins were out to please themselves. The album is abrasive and disjointed in some parts, but is still so clean that the listener is drawn to every sound being created. This is one of best albums I’ve heard this year, and it put me at ease when the time came to speak with the two responsible for it. Because, if truth be told, I don’t think things would have gone so well if I just bagged on them the whole time. Martin Atkins and Ogre made a new record together. It’s on Martin’s Invisible label and it’s damn great. It’s also the first record Ogre has released since he left Skinny Puppy. As for Martin Atkins, he’s a busy guy with Ritalin being only one (though a major one) of the projects on his mind.
I got the new Ritalin CD, and I do want to talk about it, but I also want to talk about your work in general. I guess a good place to start would be to ask you why you started your own label in the first place.
Several reasons. Obviously, I’ve been on many major labels as a member of Public Image Ltd. and Killing Joke. I’ve experienced a lot of different things that can happen with labels on both sides of the Atlantic; but I think I finally reached a point – the deciding factor in starting Invisible was coming to the conclusion that even with fucking things up, even not paying attention, it would be impossible for me to make more of a mess of my career than other people had of it for me. It’s a tremendously liberating feeling when you know that whatever you do, if you stumble, hit your head on a post, step in dog shit, and fall into oncoming traffic; all of that stuff has been done to you by supposed professionals. Instead of calling the labels and asking “did you send this package to this person?”, instead of calling and checking on people every day and trying to motivate people, I was doing things for myself. And that’s a really good feeling.
It’s really frustrating, and I’m sure most artists can identify with the feeling of frustration, to know that they’ve made the most important album they’ve ever made, and everyone at the label is taking the day off, gone on holiday, or left early. So those are the reasons I started the label. Also, to give me more of a reason to go into the studio. What was beginning to happen was that it was difficult to go into the studio to make new music, not knowing what was going to happen to that music after it was finished. It put a damper on the spark and energy we’d feel in the studio. Now I go into the studio and I know whenever I’m finished doing what I’m doing, I’ll work on designing the package and develop the marketing program, shoot some photos, maybe make a video, maybe tour – I’ll know what will happen to my music.
Was it also so you could showcase more artistically-bent bands rather than commercial ones?
Invisible is over 11 years old, and initially it was an outlet for anything I was messing around with. In 1991, the first Pigface album was the biggest selling album we’d ever had. Invisible became Pigface’s label. I like to work with people that, though we might not share the same musical aesthetic, we all share the idea that if you roll up your sleeves and do something, it’s better than going to a bar to sit and complain and place blame. Though the music is diverse, you’ll find a lack of assholes amongst the many bands that call Invisible home. And now there aren’t just bands, there are five other labels under the Invisible umbrella.
I do see a lack of posturing among the bands on the label. Even if they are doing big concepts, they’re not contrived.
Even if you could argue that Pigface is successful, I have never seen “success” or anything as an excuse for being an asshole. And I guess pretension goes with that, too.
I’m sure that with all the bands you’ve been in, you’re no stranger to assholes.
I’ve seen levels of behavior I wouldn’t tolerate in my two-year-old son. But I guess that’s rock’n’roll. I was just speaking with some people over breakfast about what it takes to be an incompetent fuck-up in this business. And it takes a lot.
Really? What does it take to be an incompetent fuck-up in this business?
That’s a really good question. We were talking about a management company that was involved with a band that broke up, another band that was dropped, just disaster, after disaster, after disaster. And if this management company was in construction and building faulty houses, putting walls at weird angles, and generally making a mess of everything, they wouldn’t be working. This was the professionalism of this management company, but since it’s the music business, it’s just explained away and brushed under the carpet. And that goes back to your first question, about starting Invisible; I’ve unplugged myself from the shit. I go about my business and do my thing. I don’t play other people’s games.
There’s always an evolution in music. Influences are elaborated upon and many times, elements in the most daring music will ultimately become the new pop. How does it make you feel after all your years of hard work?
It just means that I’m still amongst it. I think that most people when they get into the music business on the artistic side feel that they only have three or four years to do anything. It feels great that some early twisted ideas are now being recycled, especially in England, as pop.
So are you proud of the Ritalin CD?
Yeah! Even before you open the digipack and listen to a song, it exists and that makes me proud. I make things happen, I don’t talk about making things happen… well, yes, I do talk about making things happen… but I make things happen. It makes me happy that there’s a record out with Ogre on it because there was and there needed to be one. There needed to be one for two years.
What was the songwriting process?
It was a combination of things. Like “Crackhead Waltz” I worked on in England. My mission was to come up with an instrument that was a spaced-out version of a Mellotron, the earliest sampler, but totally fucked up and very, very heavy. So I made the same instrument electronically, but still used tape loops at varying speed and pitch. Then I played a song, and the higher the note, the faster the tempo. I just kept playing until this sick rhythm made sense in my head. Then I gave the song to Ogre. Really, there was no one way we wrote the songs. There was some preparation, because you don’t just go into the studio expecting to be inspired by the hiss of the tape.
What now? The CD is released and people are buying it. Are there any plans to tour?
Originally, we played the Ritalin video on the Pigface tour just to get people up to speed with what was coming. In a sense, 700-1500 people a night saw the video. We took the CD out and played it for kids at the shows. In Cincinnati, I sat with some kids in their car and played them the CD. There were 14 kids crammed in an Oldsmobile. I’d do that not because I was the head of a label and I was pushing the CD, but because I was really excited about it. I’d see some kid in a Skinny Puppy t-shirt and I’d be like, “Hey, you. Come here.”What do we do now? On the label side, we call the stores and the distributors, do interviews all over Europe and America, and I’d like to do some concerts. There are plans for some Pigface dates in September. A few in Europe and maybe one on the East Coast on the way. I want to play my drums again this year, whether it’s with Ritalin or Pigface.
So you still get a kick out of playing live?
I love playing my drums! Just ask anyone who saw me during the last Pigface shows. It takes a lot to be away from my wife and two young children, but I love playing my drums. Once every 18 months I just go mad.
Do you ever have times when you ask yourself “why bother?”
Every day. Every single day there’s something that makes you stop and go, “What’s the fucking point?” Sometimes I think about what it would be like to just be left alone in the studio to do whatever I’m doing. But then I think about sending my finished work to a major label and having them reject it and tell me about their concept for my work and this new producer who just worked with David Bowie and has a great new ska idea for the band. Fuck that.
So Pigface wouldn’t ever do a ska tune? Not even as a lark?
There was talk at one point that we should make the end of the show be a tribute to Gary Glitter. The whole set would be covered in glitter, with all sorts of Gary Glitter costumes, and we’d do five songs that way. But it’s hard enough just to get Pigface on the road.
I always wondered how you get Pigface to rehearse. With all the people in and out of the band, maybe playing a couple of shows, then leaving, it would seem next to impossible.
The core of the band rehearses, but the rest of the band just shows up.