Strength In Numbers: An interview with
The wildly eclectic and colorful career of drummer/producer Martin Atkins generally flies under the radar of most rock music fans, despite a resume of myth-making, notorious and near-legendary gigs with the likes of Ministry, Public Image Ltd, Killing Joke, Nine Inch Nails and The Damage Manual. For the past thirteen or so years, Martin gets his rocks off with Pigface, a traveling circus of his own creation made up of both mainstream and fringe-dwelling musical mavericks (the line up changes from project to project). I recently saw Pigface perform at BB King’s Blues Club here in Manhattan and they blew the roof off the joint, as the saying goes. Pigface live is pretty powerful stuff.
In March of 2003, Pigface released its latest aural assault, entitled Easy Listening…For Difficult Fuckheads, which, believe it or not, is the most accessible Pigface album to date. Easy Listening features the musical and spoken word talents of over 30 musicians including vocalist Chris Connelly, drummer Chris Vrenna, Edsel Dope, Fallon Bowman (ex-Kitty), Steven Siebold of Hate Dept, magician Penn Jillette, plus members of the Rollins band, Godhead, Dry Cell, Chemlab and Moby, to drop just a few names.
I first spoke with Martin Atkins in December of 1997, just after the release of A New High In Low, and I was fortunate to get him back on the phone for a much-needed update just prior to him hitting the road for the currently underway Pigface tour, which also includes support acts Bile, Zeromancer and My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult. Martin Atkins, always a pleasure.
I think that Easy Listening is my favorite Pigface album so far.
Me too. It sounds really lame of me to say that, but I was thinking, at the end of it, “Wow, there’s almost as many people here as there were on Notes from Thee Underground. I love the music, I was working out to it today — and that’s not always easy, because I’ll hear something that will make me go “Argh!” and I can’t go to my other place, in my head. But I like the music on it, I’m proud of the production and I really like the art work. I love the fact that there are both people I was hanging out with 25 years ago — like Keith Levene, and people from the early stages of Pigface like Chris Connelly and En Esch — and there are people who were age ten when Pigface began; like Edsel from Dope and Fallon, who used to play with Kittie, etcetera. I really like that; I don’t know that it was planned or intentional, but it’s nicely diversified in terms of content and age range.
Something that you spoke of in our previous interview was how you have this facility for bringing people together. You also mentioned that the conception of Pigface spawned from you asking yourself on the 1989 Ministry tour, “What would happen if we all went into the studio and somebody said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ So that’s what I did.” Is that still how you look at it?
I think that, twelve years ago, [Pigface] was an idea that needed to be explained constantly. One of the things that has happened [is that this is no longer the case]. I once asked [rock journalist] Jason Pettigrew to get some distance on it for me; to describe it and send me [his input]. What he said was that it was almost like rehab. And, literally, it has been rehab for some people — who shall remain nameless — from substance abuse. It has been rehab in a musical sense, for some people, who were just stuck in a rut. I invited seven drummers to the last show in Chicago. The problem with that, you might think, is like, “Wow, how did the sound engineer… what microphones did he use?” Look, the problem was the crew nearly fucking killed me. “Oh, seven drumkits, are you out of your mind? Where are we going to put them?” The problems of Pigface have to do with everything but what you might think the problems are. To me, it’s still a nurturing place of creativity. It’s a nurturing place for young artists to gain experience and for older artists to regain some enthusiasm.
It’s like me taking my kids to Disneyland. You know, Space Mountain might not exactly be my number one thrill, but watching my kids on that ride would be my number one thrill. I think it’s just this recharging of any battery in any part of the body that you can think of, really: head, heart, soul.
I remember Taime Downe once told me that touring with Pigface was like “Adult Party Camp.”
Well, see, that’s Taime. Taime wants to start a naked airline, you know, so let’s put it in perspective. Caspar Brotzmann might have described it as “some jazz exploration,” you know? I mean, Genesis P. Orridge might describe it as “Was I ever a member of Pigface, or was that in my mind?” It is so many different things to so many people, but I think the energy of Pigface is growing. Now we’ll go play to a thousand people and 700 people already know what it is. They’re not worried because it changes all the time. If you talk to somebody that doesn’t know about Pigface, and you tell them that the members keep changing, they’re like, “So there’s none of the original members? Is it the roadie from Backstreet Boys and his friends? The all original Backstreet Boys II?” When you put it in the frame of reference of the music business, people always assume the worst. “There’s no one from the album? What do you mean? Is somebody ill? I don’t understand.” But as soon as they see one and half minutes of the show, they understand.
Fortunately, the balance has moved towards more people that understand; more people that get it. I think that in some circles, Pigface is used [as an example] to describe a certain situation. That’s something else Jason Pettigrew wrote to me about. Apparently, there’s been some interviews with Marilyn Manson about a side project he was doing a few years ago. He just described it as “A Pigface kind of thing,” and people went, “Oh, okay.”
Here’s something Bill Rieflin said about you when I interviewed him a few years back: “Pigface was and definitely is Martin’s creation. He liked the idea of two drummers together, and doing something interesting with that. He liked the idea of doing something that was radically out of control and messy.” What’s your input on that?
[Laughs] Well it was only “messy” while Bill Rieflin was still in the band [laughs]! No, no, I don’t think ‘messy’ is the word. [Long pause] What I like the idea of is still being excited by music twenty-three years after I was on American Bandstand with Public Image. How fucking insane is that? That’s what excites me, and I think I’ve gone to fairly great lengths to create that for myself — sometimes not knowing that I was creating that. Maybe I was creating a combination of safety nets — and lack thereof — for myself, maybe unconsciously. The messy part of it, in a live situation — the chaos — is exciting. The fact that anybody can do anything that they want at any given time, in the environment of Pigface, doesn’t mean that GG Allin, if he were still alive, would walk on stage and take a shit. It’s not in the rule book that that is not allowed, but there is an energy when people get together, and I think people put more sensible constraints upon themselves than you can ever impose upon them. Does that make any sense?
So, at any given point, a jazz ensemble could storm the stage, punch me in the face and break into “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck… though it hasn’t happened yet. Although there were nine performers in Dallas who couldn’t get into the show, and I think [this stunt] was just a complete scam to get nine people into the show — which is brilliant. They trumpeted and trombone’d and tuba’d and… what’s that big thing?
Yeah, the bassoon, it’s in every Walt Disney cartoon. They kind of heralded us onto the stage [with those instruments]. And that was Pigface. I mean, it was them doing their thing, but it was a Pigface moment. So…[sighs] “messy”? It’s chaos; chaos is a much more anarchic way of describing what’s going on. The problem is, when you start describing it, at times it can sound like a bunch of idiots goofing off, but it isn’t. It’s deadly fucking serious.
You did mention having seven drummers on stage at one time at the last show in Chicago, and I wonder how did you set that up logistically and what was that like?
It was fantastic. I kind of conducted them with eyebrows and, probably, spit [laughs]. “When I spit, stop!” I mean, we knew that there needed to be some orchestration to that moment, and we created some of that by hiding all of the drum kits for the first hour; revealing two and then revealing the other five. Matt Walker [an amazing studio drummer who is perhaps best known for temporarily replacing Jimmy Chamberlain in Smashing Pumpkins] — who I think is out with Garbage right now — he was behind me, so that was just great. I love playing with other drummers. Matt immediately started playing around the beat. There’s some drummers you play with and it’s like, “When you see my hand, that’s the downbeat,” and my job becomes “preserver of some kind of beat,” for the rest of the band. With people like Matt Walker, it’s like, hey, the beat is now in-between where we are playing. Obviously, it’s really cool.
Beginning with the [multiple] drummer thing, that for me began with Gary Glitter. I saw Gary Glitter when I was nine. He did the two-drummer thing. He also did a lot of theater, as did The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Spray painting on a wall, kicking through the wall; oh, it’s made of styrofoam. Guitarist Zal Cleminson in clown make-up, drumkits set up sideways…just that change of aspect was intriguing. All of the things that Gary Glitter did [were inspiring]; his impersonation of the Godfather, where he had a stocking over his head, because he was singing a song about a guy who was in jail. Then he put the stocking into his mouth and did [his impersonation of] the Godfather, then he sang a song called “She’s Got a Hole in Her Stocking, But She Keeps on Rocking.” Then he pulled a light down off the truss…all of these germs of ideas became huge theater moments when he was playing at Wembley. [I remember] listening to a record called Burning Beat,” which is Gene Kruppa and Buddy Rich trading off, when I was seven. All of those things [inspired what I do now].
It’s like trying to plan an accident, so to speak.
I think that some of the chaos of Pigface on stage comes directly out of that fabulous 1989 Ministry tour. I told Al [Jourgenson, Ministry] at the time, “Look, this tour should not stop.” We had one show and then two or three days off in Denver. At the end of the show, when we went on stage to do an encore, the promoter said, “Hey, we’re going to do this again tomorrow night! Tickets on sale now!” It sold out and we ended up doing three sold-out shows in Denver, to the same audience. I told Al, “I will leave Killing Joke now, let’s do another two or three months.” Because I hadn’t experienced that kind of energy since early PiL.
I adore Al Jourgenson. What a sweet, amazing guy.
I butted heads with Al because of some of the substance abuse [problems he had]. I just thought it was a waste. These were the same problems I had with members of Killing Joke and/or Johnny Rotten. Charisma is a gift, and I just don’t like to see it not used… or abused or watered down, or stifled. But I used to love to go hang out with Al back in my drinking days. I’ve been really fortunate to have moments, little snapshots — I don’t know that there’s any Killing Joke moments, in particular — but to be involved with Ministry for six months and have it be 1989, and have that tour be filmed and recorded (for the video, In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up), I mean, how cool is that? To be involved in Nine Inch Nails and be on the “Head Like a Hole” video, and involve Trent in Pigface. I just feel like, if you took all the same things but looked at them in different time frames, it could have just meant so much less.
Because you handle so many different aspects of the various projects you’re involved in — whether you’re the producer or the composer or the engineer — do you still primarily consider yourself a drummer, first?
No. I do less and less drumming. I do more and more production. I had a spell for four years where I was doing an awful lot of engineering. But I think more and more I’m running Underground Inc, a group of twelve independent record labels, and that’s what I do. I have Invisible records, and that stands alongside Sleazebox, which is the label started by My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, plus ToneZone Records from Houston; BileStyle Recordings from New York City; Cracknation Recordings from here in Chicago. Just a bunch of labels doing the same things that I do to bring fifteen people together for a Pigface tour, or 35 people together on this United Tour. I’m doing both things within the business that I’m running, so I think that I’m trying to bang the drum figuratively — oh gawd!
I called up Thrill Kill Kult and said, “For fucks’ sake, don’t start a label. And if you’re going to start a label, please let me get involved and help you, because I don’t want to stand around watching you make all of the mistakes I made twelve years ago.” It’s pointless, you don’t have to do it, because I did it. I think that, the more people who get involved with Underground Inc, the more leverage we’ll have, obviously. But there’s this kind of shared, learned history that…I don’t know that it exists in independent music. Independent labels think that we’re in competition with each other. We’re not; we’re in competition with the majors and we’re in competition with the fact that America is huge, and physical distribution is kind of insane. There are many problems to deal with rather than worrying about other labels, Underground Inc. is an umbrella to help independent artist-driven labels do it.
Will you be the only one playing drums on this tour or will you have guest drummers?
I would expect so. That’s not part of rehearsals but there are three other drummers on the tour; Bile, Thrill Kill Kult and Zeromancer all have drummers, and people wander on stage anyway. We’re travelling with three drumkits…so, I don’t know. The last several tours had been one, two, three drummers. Danny Carrey from Tool came out with us for ten days.
* That leads me to ask you, how much do you alter your drum parts from the studio recordings once on tour?
Well, it depends. Sometimes, in the case of The Damage Manual, for instance, I’m trying to interpret an overall sound that might be a combination [of sources]. Sometimes I’ll use two drumkits, panned left and right, to get a push/pull effect, with some kind of a loop in the middle. Sometimes I’m distilling a whole vibe of the song down, and just echoing that, if you like. So, some drums parts I’ll regurgitate faithfully. Others might be totally changed. Then others change as songs and tours develop. Some songs can change totally. There’s been many different versions of “Suck.” One was a kind of Gary Glitter-esque heavy metal version of that song. That’s the thing; If people know a song, I think we’re way more inclined to completely fuck with it.
I had heard a rumor that you dislike playing to a click track. Is that true?
No. I can tell you where that story came from if you want.
Tell me everything.
When I was rehearsing with Nine Inch Nails, I was off on a click. I was like, “Okay, where did these clicks come from?” I nearly punched an engineer the first time I was playing to loops. I thought he was taking the click out of my headphones, but I was playing totally on the click, so I couldn’t hear it. Some drummers will push or pull against a loop, so they can hear where the click is, but I couldn’t hear it. So I’m like, “Listen, as soon as I start playing, don’t turn the click down in my head phones!” [Laughs] and the guy was like “I’m not!” We eventually worked out that I was just playing on it. One of the things I do exceptionally well is play to a click, I mean, ridiculously. What happened with Nine Inch Nails is the click was put on the track manually afterwards. If you know anything about that kind of stuff… a human being tapping out a click along with the song, I can do it. I can do that stuff in my sleep. What I do now is, I’ll look at what I’ve done, either in MIDI notes or in audio — in ProTools or Logic — and you can see if there’s any drift. But back in the day, all you could do was hear. There was a drift on some of the songs, so I played to the click and then I was drifting against the songs. I would say the clicks were out. Someone else might say I was out, so there you go.
Didn’t you have some serious production issues with the Damage Manual CDs?
If you listen to the Damage Manual… [Jah] Wobble and Geordie [Walker] hadn’t had the experience of being in Ministry. When they were faced with this abrasive music, they just couldn’t handle it. I understood why they were freaking out, and I should have said, “You know what? I’m fucking producing this record, shut up.” But, I was faced with blackmail by band members refusing to tour unless I had Bill Laswell mix some tracks. I gave Bill a lot of money to mix some tracks and I’ve never been more appalled or disappointed in anything that anybody’s given to me. I was looking forward to sitting back and going, “You know what? Wow! Wobble and Geordie do have a point!” But I thought the mixes were sloppy. I can hear the levels going up and down, like some intern was knocked up against the snare drum fader. It sounded like an Eighties band to me, and Damage Manual’s not an Eighties band. But, every song on the Damage Manual album, even though the original versions are eight or nine minutes long, they have a click or a loop that I was playing to. That was necessary because I knew that we were, for all intents and purposes, kind of jamming, and I might want to take the riff that Geordie did in the last 30 seconds of a nine minute song, and marry that to what was going on in the first one minute of the song, loop that all up and make that into something.
I mean, this is interesting stuff that I’m willing to bet isn’t talked about a lot in Modern Drummer, [even if] there’s a massive focus on playing to a click, doing what the producer wants or whatever. I taught myself to play drums, and I had conversations with Bill Rieflin — because on the Ministry tour we were playing to clicks — where he said to me “Oh my god, you didn’t play to any Beatles did you?” and I’m like “Yeah! All the time!” and he’s like, “Oh no! You’re fucked!” Because he said that George Martin, who was obviously producing the Beatles, used tempo as a tool. And I was like, “What do you mean?” Apparently, he would speed up a chorus two to four BPM, and he would pull back a melancholy instrumental section two BPM. Oh my god. Two years before that conversation [with Rieflin], when I worked on the Killing Joke album, Extremities, Dirt and Various Repressed Emotions, Jazz [Coleman], the singer from Killing Joke, was freaking out. Everything had to be locked to click because he was such a MIDI keyboard freak, so we had the engineer come in, record my drumming, and map my drumming to a tempo click. Then I could drum in the studio to a click, but maintain anything that was going on, that was felt to be essential to the music. So, the engineer comes back and he says, “Well, okay, this song starts out at 110 BPM, then the chorus goes to 114 BPM…” And I’m like “Then what?” “Then it drops back down to 110 for the next verse.” The melancholy instrumental section drops to 108, and then throughout the outro, it slowly speeds up a little bit. Which sounds bad, until you realize that there are David Bowie singles that throughout the outro of that song, they’ll slowly speed up again. You don’t hear it speeding up. If you have a record on vinyl, and you take the needle, and you listen to the beginning of the outro, then you put the needle on the end, it’s like “Oh holy Christ! It’s sped up 12 BPM!” But if you listen through, it’s so gradual, all that happens is that it sustains interest. Then you take that information, and you apply that to production techniques in the studio. That’s one of the things that I do.
That’s pretty cool.
When you end up with a bunch of people who only think that the drummer should play to a click and that tempo should remain constant, that’s the first refuge of inexperienced idiots. Understanding that with volume and tempo, there’s some really simple things you can do to create a vibe. If you pull the tempo on a melancholy passage of a song, it becomes more melancholy. If you push the tempo of a chorus, it becomes more triumphant. I get the impression that people are just so freaked out. I don’t have many conversations these days about songs and vibe. I have lots of conversations about technology.
Do you miss your drums?
I’d certainly like to do more drumming. We’re preparing for a Pigface tour right now, and I have to say that don’t think I’m preparing to play drums. I’m negotiating deals with bus companies and making sure that Zeromancer from Norway have taken care of their work permit considerations. I’m getting upset with someone who’s supposed to have shipped 10,000 color postcards to us on Friday of last week. I’m worried about satellite-enabled credit card swipe machines for the merch booth. You know, one of the ideas behind The Damage Manual was that it would be a much less stressful environment for me — a five person band instead of a fifteen person band — and I could go out and play my drums. I do want to reconnect to that. I was talking to Chris Connelly about that; we might go and do that later in the year, and I could be a drummer for awhile. I think Chris and I both have an understanding about where we’re at, and I think he’s growing just every day. He went out with his acoustic guitar and opened for Prong, in England. He’ll have a go at anything.
I can see how, on a Pigface tour, maybe you feel like a dad who’s watching after all his children, metaphorically speaking.
I know what you mean, but here’s the weird thing, in the sense that being the Tour Dad pulls me away from playing my drums — or certainly from losing myself within it — being a real Dad, and having two children, pushes me to want to go and play my drums. I think one of my sons said to me, “So, that’s what you do Dad, you talk on the phone all day!” I don’t want to be that Dad. I know that once, Al Jourgenson’s daughter was asked in school, “Hey what does your dad do?” And she said, “Oh, he plays ice hockey.” And it was like “WOW!” until they realized it was Nintendo Ice Hockey. I try and have my sons come out to some shows and they love being on the tour bus because they think it’s like a pirate ship — a great analogy! But I would certainly like for them to experience a full blown Pigface show, with me lost within my drumming. I would love to see them seek to lose themselves in something, no matter what that would be. They don’t have to be musicians or artists, I just want them to see how lost I get and how much I enjoy that, and find that for themselves within something; computer graphics or accounting or drumming or guitar or baking or whatever.
Do you have favorite songs on the new record? What do you like most about the way it came out?
[Long pause] Ah, what I like about the album is that I’ve had different favorites already. I think that record labels say, “Oh, you only need a couple of good tracks on an album. Then you can go to radio with a good track, and people will still buy the album.” Well, I don’t know that that’s true anymore. I was working on twenty songs and of the 10 or 12 songs that I chose, my immediate favorite was “Mind Your Own Business,” which is a cover of a Delta Five song. It was very strange, talking about all of these moments over twenty-five years [of my career], I used to go out with two of the girls from Delta Five. And here I am, 23 years later, typing their names on the publishing credits for the cover of a Pigface album. Weird, weird shit. But, yeah, I really like that song, and my favorite at the moment is “Closer to Heaven.” I was driving around for two weeks and my favorite was “Insect/Suspect.” Where the lyrics go [chants], “Back to the subject!” [laughs] I’m driving around with my fist out the window! And people are like “What the fuck’s up with him?” I like that after I’ve listened to it fifty times, a couple of songs emerge, that have just grown on me and burrowed their way under the skin. I love the fact that this record does that.
I think it’s the most accessible Pigface album but it’s still completely out there.
I mean, the full title is Easy Listening for Difficult Fuckheads, but if you just take “The Horse You Rode In On,” for instance, it’s not just a song that says “fuck” a million times. Those lyrics, that’s my “fuck list” along with the “fuck list” we left at the merchandise booth on the last tour we did, so that anybody in Salt Lake City, Denver, or wherever, could write down their “fuck list.” I still go out and read my “fuck list.” I was just in St. Louis and I did Cleveland and I’ll go and read my “fuck list,” and it becomes fluid. It’s become this interesting thing, where people in Philadelphia can hear what people in Salt Lake City are talking about and… it’s weird. So, I’ll say, “Alright, here’s the ‘fucks’ from Atlanta. Here’s some ‘fucks’ from…” wherever. I sent my “fuck list,” along with everyone else’s list of fucks, to Penn Jillette from Penn & Teller. He’s the voice of Comedy Central and Disney movies. So, he recorded them and sent them back to me, and I chopped that together with some kids in Australia who sent me a cassette tape, and some other people who left messages on the answering machine. To have this, on the one hand, have a pop sheen to it [is weird]. But at the same time, it’s still as open as Pigface has ever been, [because] there are people on the album that I don’t know. That idea, that openness, the blurring of the line between the stage and the audience; I just love that. I’ve gotta keep holding that door open. That feels really special to me. I mean, how cool is it to call up a label office, leave a “Fuck this fuck that fuck fuck fuck…” message, and then have it be edited onto the album? Or to walk over to the merch booth, write down a couple of fucks, and have Penn Jillette read them? It’s wild.
It’s the ultimate in interactive theater.
Well, yeah. Going back to what we were talking about at the beginning; the whole idea of Pigface is still growing and becoming. I don’t know where it’s going, but it feels so great to me. I don’t know how many twelve-year-old bands could say that. It doesn’t feel like it’s over. There are things that I’ve done that I’m proud of in the most disgusting, horrifying, brutal business in the world.