“I have an ability to bring people together and that gives me an ability to do something very dangerous.” Martin Atkins speaks not of some secret conspiracy, but of Pigface: a rotating consortium of musicians conceived eight years ago while he was on tour with Ministry. “Without sounding like a Russian Workers’ poster, there is a pretty groovy strength in unity. What Pigface is about, and what Invisible (the independent record label owned and operated by Atkins) is about, is bringing people together.” At 38, Atkins has probably been responsible for bringing more people together than any other musician of his ilk. The former drummer for both Public Image Limited and Killing Joke, who has toured with Nine Inch Nails and the aforementioned Ministry, has recently completed A New High in Low, a two-disc set that is the finished product result of the ninth Pigface amalgamation. Martin says there’s not much difference between his approach to the business of running and interacting with the artists of Invisible, his work with Pigface, and his drumming. “I think I strive for a level of the same commitment that I have when I’m drumming. I exhaust myself.” It’s not hard to imagine him reaching the exhaustion point, because once Martin Atkins gets to talking, he just doesn’t stop.
Let’s talk about Pigface. How did you fist conceive of doing an all star project like this?
Pigface grew directly out of the Ministry 1989 tour, and I have credited Al Jourgensen in the past with being the creator of Pigface. He was invited to contribute to the first album, Gub, and he did in a way. He came down to the studio and he drank a bottle of Bushmills. I looked around the stage during the Ministry tour, there was Ogre, Chris Connolly, Paul Barker, William Tucker — KMFDM were opening on that tour, I loved En Esch. All these people were around. We were like a Ministry cover band. I just thought: what would happen if we all went into the studio and somebody said “Do whatever you want.” So that’s what I did. The day after the tour ended we booked ourselves into Chicago Trax with Steve Albini. Other Chicago people dropped in, like David Yow from the Jesus Lizard. The only person not involved in the [Ministry] tour or not living in Chicago, was Trent Reznor. I flew him out from Cleveland over the protests of Steve Albini, because I like Trent. I think he’d only sold about 8 or 9,000 CDs at the time, but he was my friend, he was living in Cleveland. I thought it would be something cool for him to be involved in.
How did you decide to call it Pigface?
Actually I stole the name. Pigface was the name of a band I was in when I was twelve years old. We used to play music for strippers in the Northeast of England. I just thought it was a great name for a band. Actually… it was the named after the guitarist’s wife [laughs].
I’m sure she’d love to know that.
Well, she knew it, he told me in front of her. She smiled at me and she had about half of a mouthful of teeth. And she was wearing a trouser suit [pants suit] that was made — this stuck with me, this is probably why I started drinking, to forget this, and now I’ve stopped drinking and it’s all coming back — it was made out of the same material that the curtains in her house were made of. And when she turned around to smile, when he said the band was named after her, she was standing next to the curtains. So where did the curtains end and where did her pants suit begin?
I know you really don’t like it when people ask you questions about who’s in the band and I understand your point of view on that, of how you want the music to speak for itself. But don’t you think it’s just natural curiosity for people to automatically want to know who’s in the band? Just because it’s known as a revolving set of highly talented, established industrial artists?
Yeah, I suppose you’re right. But unless I start getting pissed off about that then how is it ever going to change? The thing that upsets me about it is it’s always the first question from a promoter, say. I don’t think there’s ever been a case of a promoter or an audience having been ripped off by Pigface. I think that the opposite is true. I think we’ve done enough, you know?
I guess the reason it pisses me off is that I’m looking for trust. As a label, I don’t expect anybody to give me anything. I don’t expect anybody to give me trust, but I think Pigface has earned it and I think Invisible has earned some trust. We don’t say to people, “You should buy this record because it’s fucking brilliant.” What we do is we put out double CD compilations for the price of a single CD. The second CD is all remixes that we had specially done that you can’t get anywhere else. We try and slowly earn people’s trust, so that when we say ‘Hey there’s this guy from Tucson called Dave Wright who has a band called Not Breathing and it’s really great. Maybe you can check it out.’ Maybe people will. That’s why there are no band names on the outside packaging of the new album. I just got to the point, with Notes from Thee Underground, you know, ‘Flea, Genesis P. Orridge, Shonen Knife… ‘ it’s like well, what’s next? Elvis Fucking Presley. It just becomes meaningless. I’d rather have somebody not buy the CD than buy it because of the names that are listed on the outside of the package.
What Pigface is about — and what Invisible is about — is bringing people together. The interesting side product of Pigface on a bus, which just really gave me a buzz, was, never mind making all the music on stage, when band’s on tour you’re on tour 24 hours a day. I won’t tour with assholes, because there’s so much more than just what goes on on stage. That’s why Pigface succeeds — cause it works 24 hours a day. You get these groups of people — Ogre (Skinny Puppy) talking to En Esch (KMFDM), talking to me, talking to Mary Biker (Gaye Bikers on Acid) talking to whoever about T-shirt deals! Suddenly managers, major labels, exploiters have less power because we’re sharing information between ourselves. Instead of Ogre saying to Mary Biker “Oh, I can’t tell you the details of our deal, it was just outrageous!,” people say “No no no, what are you paying for a shirt? Wow, how does that work?” And suddenly we’re just ripping down layers of years and years of built-up, insecure bollocks that is the music business. And that — never mind the music, never mind the stage show, never mind anything — is so fucking groovy.
When you started Invisible, what was your basic ethic behind wanting to have your own label?
A couple of things. One, I knew I couldn’t fuck it up any more than things I’d been involved in had been fucked up by people at other labels. That was a great starting place. It was actually liberating. The idea was just to take control. The original Invisible credo was “It’s a label from and for artists who are tired of having their work watered down and hyped up.” Right? Because the worst record I ever made with Public Image Limited was called “This is Not a Love Song,” and it was a Top 5 single around the world.
I remember that song very well.
And that was as bad [as it gets]. I used to walk into the Melody Bar in New Brunswick (NJ) and Matt Pinfield, who was DJing there at the time, would invariably put a Killing Joke song on and then “This is Not a Love Song.” To have a track that I didn’t like, one of the WORST PiL songs ever made — if not one of the worst songs ever made… Just to have that song pushed so hard was as offensive as having one of our favorite songs not pushed at all. So I just decided to start a label.
When you travel around the country reading from your Ministry Tour Diaries, do you talk about your Plaster Casting experience?
I was cast by Cynthia Plaster Caster last year on my 37th birthday and I talk about that cause it’s funny. I think that, in talking about my penis, I can certainly make people laugh and actually put a part of myself on the table.
Literally! Do you get a copy of the cast or does she only make one?
Well, I’ve got the original! (Laughs). But, in sharing that, it’s actually quite funny. And you get to talk about Jimi Hendrix and all kinds of stuff…
Yeah, you’re in good company… I guess what everyone wants to know is, when the plaster gets cold, do you experience shrinkage?
[Laughs] That’s one of the things that I talk about. When you think about all of these dicks on the shelves at Cynthia Plaster Caster’s house — I mean there’s like 50 dicks — so right when you thrust into the [plaster] your thinking — at least my mind anyway — goes to one of Cynthia’s dinner parties where people are like ‘Ew, and who’s this?’ So you’re having that thought and you’re thinking ‘Oh I’m as big as I’ve ever been!’ and you put your dick into this stuff and it’s fucking freezing cold! At first it’s warm, but the process of it setting..it feels like you just splashed cologne on your face [after shaving]. And as soon as you have the thought “My god, my dick’s freezing!” then you think “Oh my god, it’s the size of a pea! My fucking dick’s the size of a pea!” This all goes on in the course of like a split second. Then you start to think of Cynthia’s dinner party and it’s like “Oh my god, here’s this huge candelabra of a penis and, oh dear, who’s is this little pea-like cue tip of a penis?’ And so all of this stuff starts going around in your brain and you’re thinking ‘My penis is now like negative energy,’ you know. As it turned out, it was pretty good, except the end of my penis is crumbling. I don’t know, it’s some kind of a fault that she didn’t mix the [setting substance] all the way to the bottom of the mold. So, I think she wants to do me again.
How does your wife feel about all this?
Well, my wife was there. She was my “fluffer.”
That’s a great story. So, Genesis P. Orridge contributes quite a bit to A New High in Low. He’s certainly been around since the beginning and I know he has a lots of strong opinions. What’s it like working with him?
Well, I love him. I mean, he’s not someone to take lightly at all. He has a fantastic sense of humor — I’m not saying that he’s ultra serious — but he is the reason that we released Truth Will Out. It was his second show with us and I wanted to document it. [For] his first show in San Francisco I called him up, I said hello. I didn’t know too much about Throbbing Gristle or Psychic TV, but I use Pigface to meet people… to expand my own personal and social horizons, so I invited him to the show. Now, some people come along to Pigface shows nervous about learning a song. And what I say to them is ‘Learn the words if you want, but we don’t know how the song is gonna go. Because last night it went a certain way with these nine people. Tonight there’s 11 of us, and three of those people are different than last night. So we’re not we’re not really sure what’s gonna happen.’ All I can tell you in there’s no such thing as a mistake and what the fuck have a good time. See you on the other side.
It’s easy to talk about stuff like that, but it was Genesis [who] walked on stage with six tape machines and just changed every fucking song. I can’t tell you what it was like to be playing drums… I’ve done eight week long tours with Killing Joke where I just forgot where I was cause everything was the same all the time. But to be on stage and to be alive and thinking and reacting and interacting — I can’t describe that to you. It was joyful. He took those songs, and he didn’t know the songs, but he was alert and thinking and working with us. It just changed everything for me. Later in that tour we flew him out to Chicago and we did a press conference before that [show] because so many people wanted to interview us. Somebody said ‘So, what is it, this Pigface thing?’ and Genesis went off for fifteen minutes and crystallized, for me, all these thoughts and ideas that I’d felt. It was just so clear. He just saw it and understood it and related that, not just to this journalist who asked the question, but he gave me a level of understanding. So, what’s the value of that? And with Genesis, his music, I mean, they used one of his songs on “you free? Are you really free?” Have you seen that commercial?
Oh, my god it’s on Comedy Central all the time. One of his songs on a television commercial for VW cars!
Martin Atkins lives in Chicago with his wife, Katrina, and their two small sons.