Interview by Alex Zander
The Atkins Diet: Easy Listening For Difficult Fuckheads
Since appearing on the scene in 1980, English-born Martin Atkins has become one of the leading lights in the world of industrial metal. His label, Invisible Records, has been home to some of the most important acts of the genre. Born on August 3, 1959, in Coventry, England, Atkins took up drumming at an early age and soon displayed a notable proficiency. Martin joined John Lydonís Public Image Ltd. He then concentrated on his industrial fuel/inspired collective, Pigface. Throughout the 1980ís and early Ď90s, Atkins played with a large number of bands, including Ministry, Nine Inch Nails and Killing Joke. Since then, Atkins has put most of his efforts into maintaining Pigface and Invisible Records, occasionally joining other bands on a temporary basis. His most significant recent project, the Damage Manual, involved contributions from Jah Wobble, Killing Jokeís Geordie and Chris Connelly. An EP and an eponymous album were released to critical acclaim. Atkins was on a (drum) roll.
As founder of Chicagoís own Invisible Records, producer extraordinaire and the driving force behind Pigface, he had appeared in MK ULTRAís pilgrim issue. Since then, he made 2 other covers and appeared on our nationally syndicated radio show MK ULTRASOUND. The bands on Martinsí imprint Invisible Records have been the topic of many interviews with some of our favorites, who just happen to be thee most innovative and creative bands over the past decade. The bands include Ohgr, Evil Mothers, ChemLab, Killing Joke, Psychic TV, Lick, Ashtrayhead and of course Pigface. Also there are some of the most enjoyable compilations, including Nine Inch Elvis, Opium Jukebox, 2 Ministry tributes, a great Alice Cooper comp and some great double-discs of trippy delights called Drug Test.
2001 opened the door for a revolving lineup of bands plugged into Atkinsí latest brainstorm, an indie-music fire starter heís dubbed Underground, Inc. Inspired by the energy he finds flowing through the underground music scene, devoted to realizing his vision for indie musicís future, heís completely committed to the bands he has embraced. He is not only in it for the cash, he loves doing what he does, and his track record is a true testement to that.
I joined Martin to chew the fat at his new office, studio and home, where I was greeted by his wife, kids and the family dog, Porridge. This is his third space in Chicago since 1998, and how they find the energy to move so much gear and product would baffle most. But I know Martin well enough now that he IS energy and is not lacking motivation. With the motivation this man exudes, he could literally move a mountain, or at least blow it up. For the first time the focus of our conversation was not Pigface or Invisible. I wanted to know why he was getting buried in another mountain of work, a mountain called Underground Inc.
Alex Zander: Why Underground Inc. when you have Invisible?
Martin Atkins: I formed Invisible before I joined Killing Joke. I had a label before that. Itís something I always dug. But it seemed to me there was such an identity to Invisible. I know the guys in Thrill Kill didnít want to sign to Invisible. They were on Wax Trax! And fuck knows what other labels theyíve been on. Why not just keep Invisible to be the label for Pigface and everybody thatís on Invisible, but open things up. Weíve got 15 years of experience with dealing with a large distribution machine, selling to the mom and pops, working this county. Fuck, itís huge, itís great, wonderful, itís so much fucking work. By creating Underground Inc., itís a great place for small/medium-sized labels to be. If Iím not happy with the leverage I have at the distribution level, with the attention I get from a national distributor, then itís fucked for everybody else. If I have 5 titles, even if theyíre selling 10,000 units a piece, itís fucked. Iíve got 260 titles on Underground Inc.
AZ: Whatís the benefit or a small label like Cracknation, Jason and Jamie, doing their thing through Underground Inc.?
MA: Well, an easy thing to look at is Alternative Press, left to their own devices, theyíd probably take out a quarter-page ad. Well, itís just cheaper for them to take have 3 cuts in a 12-cut, full page ad that we do, 12 titles. You see those ads that we do. So thatís the gist of the really boring part of it. But, weíre all doing those ads together. We use that ad to then say to a group of 17 independent stores, ďhey, weíve taken out this ad, have you ordered the stuff?Ē Weíll bounce it to our distributors and say, ďhey look!Ē Do more with an ad than simply take out an ad. So, when I call my distributor, Iím the guy who has called them about Thrill Kill Kult, Iím the guy whoís called them about Pigface, Einsturzende Neubauten, or Meg Lee Chin. Whatever. And Iím the guy calling about Cracknation. It just has to do with leverage. Itís gross. Itís gross in both ways of gross. Weíve done 60 titles this year, so we have their attention. so if I say to them, ďI really need you to put My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult album on the front cover of your book that goes to every store in the country, theyíll listen. Once that stuff happened I knew that this was a good place for all those people to be. Itís still tough because I donít think a lot of the labels weíre dealing with understand how tough America is, or how bands call and say, ďhey, weíll do our own posters and thatís gonna help!Ē Iím like, ďwell, what is the reason that the store is going to put up your poster? In fact, you need to tell me why you think this envelope is going to get opened? Nevermind the poster getting up on the wall.Ē People look at me like Iím crazy, but itís worth that.
AZ: Anybody whoís worked in a record store knows that a lot of that stuff just goes out in the trash bin.
MA: Yeah, I mean, Iíve paid $10,000 to marketing companies to call record stores across the country and go, ďHey, what do you think of that promo we sent you of the new Meg Lee Chin?... oh you havenít seen it...alright, weíll send you another one.Ē So you send another, and you know itís sitting there; they just canít be bothered to look. So you send them another and you pay someone to make the phonecall to say, ďOk, do you have an envelope with a donkey on it?Ē This one company had a donkey sticker... ďYou do have that envelope, thatís the Meg Lee Chin album. Can you open the envelope? Alright, could you put the CD on? Could you listen to it? Thanks a lot.Ē That was a few years ago. Itís really tough.
AZ: What gave you the idea to do this?
MA: I think that I wanted to use our experience, what is it, fucking 16 years? And our machinery to help labels that didnít necessarily want to sign to Invisible. I also wanted to, not necessarily, produce and engineer every single record that came out through the machinery. It has to do with me changing my focus. I donít play drums very much anymore, I donít engineer very much anymore, Iím producing the new Pigface album and Iím running my company. Iím trying to do a better and better job of doing that. Itís very complicated because Iím still an artist and I still have feelings for bands whose music I like. But Iím doing a better job of running my company.
AZ: And that comes from just the experience?
MA: It comes from the experience and it also comes from, I think, I know people who run really tight ships, who donít have as much empathy for an artist for a band thatís on the road, whatever I can do to help. I think at certain times in my life Iíve been very, very helpful to bands that maybe I was harder working on their band than they were. Lab Report for instance, we did over 2 and half-thousand promos. We took them out and had them do a half-hour opening slot for Pigface. They didnít do anything on their own. I did four albums with them and I should have just told them to fuck off. Youíve had this opportunity and youíve done nothing with it. we were getting phonecalls from all over the country, people prepared to pay $300 for a Lab Report show, $400, for just two guys and a couple of instruments in the back of a pickup truck - theyíre going to be making money every night of the week. I think now Iím doing an alright job of saying I work as hard on anything as the band themselves are working. Iíll match your efforts, but Iím not going to work twice as hard on your music as you are.
AZ: I think bands like Thrill Kill, Chris Connelly will always play. Meg seems like sheís never taken a break. Then youíve got bands that wonít do anything. Whatís it take for, say some guy from Davenport, Iowa says Iíve got this little label, and I want to get under Underground Inc. What do you want to see from them?
MA: Well, first youíve got to call me. Who are the bands that donít do anything?
AZ: Letís say someone like MACE, a band like that. They want their name to do all their work for them. They did this five years ago and now they want to come back and do something. What would it take for a band like that?
MA: An act of God. Someone winning the lottery. For MACE? There are bands whoíve called and wanted to do stuff. You know what? Pay all the bills and Iíll be there for you. There are bands now I wouldnít fucking go near. The fact is that a mediocre band that works their balls off is always going to do better than a fantastic band thatís lazy. Thatís just a fact. I think that the major label machinery, the press, has fostered the belief, the fantasy, that itís not about hard work, itís not about diligent follow through, itís not about doing 250 shows a year, itís not about starving in a band and not showering for 4 days, itís about something else that cannot be defined. The reason everybodyís done that is 1, the press on the major labels want people to believe itís magic. Imagine the headline in MK Ultra: ďHereís another band thatís worked really hard, day-in and day-out!Ē Itís not very sexy. The bands want to believe it because if youíre faced with the alternative - sit around, talking about it, fantasizing about how I could be, if this, if that, if only this, if, if, if... Thatís a lot easier than actually doing it, rolling up your sleeves, going and playing to 9 people on a Tuesday night in Boise. Because youíve got to play in Boise to get to Seattle. Or playing the wrong venue on the wrong night, with the wrong opening band with horrible diarrhea on a fucking Sunday afternoon, all-ages show in San Antonio, TX. You do that because you have to. Youíre running the business of your band; you need to know whatís going on across the country. These days Iíll work with a hard-working band and I can help them present their music. I donít know how to help a band that doesnít get it. If you donít understand whatís involved or you wonít listen, then I donít know what to do.
AZ: To the audience it looks great. It looks like, letís say a Pigface show, youíve got 15 people on stage, 13 drummers in the last case, to the audience looks great. These guys are having the best time. They donít see what it takes to put something together like that. They donít see what happens afterwards when everybody tears down their own shit.
MA: Well, we do have a good time. Thereís no amount of money that would make me got through all of that: printing all these posters and doing all the insanity if we didnít have a good time. And if we werenít having a good time I donít think people would go because that energy comes off the stage.
AZ: I think that some people have the impression itís a three-hour job. Some bands think that theyíre going to go in, say a band that wants to get signed, theyíre gonna come in, do an hour and a half show, do some press and thatís it. What do you say to somebody like that?
MA: Fuck off. Fuck OFF. Give up. Two years ago I had a flight delayed from San Francisco to LA. I called 75 radio stations from a pay phone while I was waiting for my flight. Itís doing an extra interview after the show because the guy wasnít around before, even though your knees are swollen, you havenít had a shower and you can hardly talk because youíve been screaming at the promoter because the PA wasnít big enough. Itís 500 little tiny things and I think people want to believe itís one big thing. Bands want to believe thereís a guy in LA or New York in a big office with a penthouse view. And behind a velvet curtain thereís this big green button, and that guy may or may not decide to press the big green button that means superstardom. Itís just so not about that. The reality is everybodyís future is in their own hands. You can make a massive difference to your own career. Itís not sexy. You can call the venue and make sure they have posters; you can call the local stores. Sometimes a band will come in and say, ďWell, weíve just finished our four-week long tour and hereís a list of 10 stores that didnít have our CD.Ē Well why didnít you call me while you were at the store? This is fantastic information, this is market research that you did on your own behalf. Actually this store wonít do this because of that, but these five stores should have had your CDís, let me make a call. I think some bands want to believe itís not about the largest amount of work that Iíve ever encountered in my life. Itís just not sexy. You want to think itís about a fucking four-foot long rail of coke, a limousine and the major label exploit bands who believe that. Once you buy into that, youíre fucked. Youíre waiting for the major label to tell you when your next albumís gonna come out. You want to work hard like the people we work with now like Krztoff from Bile, holy fucking shit. Look out. How powerful to have a group of people like that, the guys from Sleezebox, running their own business, understanding whatís going on, getting it out there. They have taken the power and theyíre running with it. Now, weíre organizing ourselves, all the labels that are doing this stuff. Theyíre working hard on their own, but they see if we do this together, that hard work will equal ten times the benefit together. Everybody watching out for everybody else. Meg Lee Chin and Chris Connelly handing out postcards for the Thrill Kill Kult tour, Thrill Kill Kult handing out postcards for the Pigface tour, everybody handing out postcards for the new Chris Connelly album. Itís great. Itís all of those communist propaganda posters come to life: unity is strength, all of that stuff.
AZ: Do you want it to be, five years from now I donít want to have drama, I donít want to do Pigface and I just want to sit back and run this thing? Or, I want to do both and just not worry as much?
MA: Well you see whatís going on here. I love working on music. Last week I was chopping the heads off ceramic nuns with a wet saw and photographing my nuns with Newcastle Brown Ale collage, bottle tops and flowers, I mean I want to do all of that all the time, use my abilities and the machinery we have here to help a band like Voodou I am so proud of what weíve done with them and for them. I donít say what weíve done with them like weíve put them in plaid outfits. I mean in conjunction with their efforts, together with them. A year ago they were on the first Notes compilation, they opened for Pigface, we saw them, they were here in the studio in January, now theyíre on the road with Thrill Kill and Michelle is singing on the new Pigface album. I want to be able to help bands like that more and I want to help more bands like that. I want to have quicker, easier, better accounting machinery. many times when a bandís on the road, weíre on the telephones making sure the packages have gone out to the venues, the radio knows about it, the stores have got the posters, etc. sometimes what we need to have is somebody sitting here churning out progress reports for the bands. Thatís a personal goal for me because a lot of bands we deal with, Iím probably between 10 and 80,000 dollars worse off for dealing with them. But, they have an idea of that. They might think I put maybe 30 or 40 grand into them. Robert (Hyman) is doing a brilliant job of getting things sorted out. Whether a band is supposed to get a statement once a year or twice a year, four times a fucking year, hey, look at where this is at now. So that the bands can understand where weíre at, where their business is at, how far theyíre going in a certain direction. Thatís a goal of mine and I think weíre close to achieving that. Just carrying on what weíre doing. The way things are in America right now, I need to not forget the goal of simply just being around because a lot of labels arenít. Wax Trax! isnít, Reconstruction, Fifth Column, Slipdisc, none of those labels are around. Two years ago people would say, ďHow are things going?Ē Well, weíre still here. This year the curve is exponentially upwards, which is a result of all the time and effort everyoneís put in.
AZ: Iím impressed that you stress that you care about the bands and the music because a lot of labels only care about the bank account.
MA: I need to care about the overall financial picture, because with the way things are growing, Bile, Nocturne, Thrill Kill, Cherrie Blue, Voodou, out on the road right now. Every one of those bands need a little bit of help. Four or five other bands are in the studio. We have 8 new releases this month and we just signed a deal with Einsturzende Neubauten in December. I mean all these little things. The next thing you know weíre fucked. We just got $100,000 that flies out the door. We need to stay on top of that. We need to stay on top of where each individual band is for their own progress. But I think that we have the tools to help the band, whether itís relationships with agents, relationships with venues, you know I just talked to a promoter in Portland and Seattle, weíve been working with them for 15 years. Thereís a club in Minneapolis I go back to 1981 with. But itís not a goal of mine to be sitting behind a desk. I want to play my drums whenever I feel like it, do artwork whenever I feel like it, produce music whenever I feel like it and oversee everything thatís going on.
AZ: That brings to Pigface. The new album is January, youíve got 33-34 people on it. Whatís this album about? The last was the Best of Pigface, which was a great collection for the fan. Itís nice to have something like that. But is this a departure from anything youíve done in the past?
MA: Itís similar in that you can hear Curse, Jared, you can hear Charles Levi, you can hear Frankie Thrill Kill, you can hear everybody. Thatís the great thing about Pigface. Itís not like, ďWell whoís that?Ē Everybody is themselves within Pigface. I think the difference is, the closest album to this for me would be Notes From Thee Underground, thereís only like 16 people on there. Look at Jello Biafra, what did he say? ďMental illness is the road to freedom.Ē Well great. But Penn Gillette, for instance, took all of the fucklists from my fucklist and the Preaching tour. Some guy in Denver wrote to fuck cute, skateboarding chicks who turn out to be lesbians. Everybody writes fuck the police, fuck this, fuck that. But Gilette read all of those out and interrupted a voice-over for a Disney movie to do that. They sent me photographs of him with tape wrapped around his head to keep the headphones on. Thereís much more interaction with all of the people. Fallon was here for three days working on stuff. Michelle from Voodou was here. Frankie was down here. A few people have mailed in their contributions. But, to me, itís the record Iím already proudest of.
AZ: Whatís the title of it?
MA: Easy Listening for Difficult Fuckheads. For me, to be working with Edsel, Fallon, etc, that feels good to me because they werenít fucking born when I was in Public Image Limited or when I did American Bandstand. But at the same time, to be working with Keith Levine, who I havenít spoken to in 20 years, he was the guitarist for PiL, co-founder of The Clash, to have Chris Connelly working on Pigface again and En Esch, itís all of the spirit of when Pigface first began. But I think the major difference is thereís ten times the input aíla producing the record. Whereas I think that possibly Notes, definitely Gub, definitely Fook and probably Notes From Thee Underground, things just existed. Hereís this song thatís 7 minutes long, fuck off. Whereas, this album, hereís this song thatís 7 minutes long, god, I like the chorus, but if Chris Connelly was singing in the chorus it would be fucking great. So I asked Chris to come in and sing Ė OK. Then I take I verse out, why donít I fuck with that, put the middle bit at the beginning, and producing and arranging the songs so isnít it cool that thereís 14 people on the song. Isnít this a cool song. Itís not a cool song because so many people are involved. To me a lot of the songs succeed in and of themselves. Itís the most diverse, but itís also the most focused and Iím really pleased with that. Thereís a track, to me, that reminds me of the stuff I did with Nine Inch Nails on ďWish,Ē thereís bits of Ministry in there, thereís bits of Ruby and psychedelia and trip-hop. Of course the sitar and those nasty guitars, layered vocals and bullshit, obscenity and itís fucking cool.
AZ: Now how do you pull off something like 13 drummers on a stage without rehearsing? From the balcony it looked and sounded great.
MA: It was pretty wild. Once again, that probably had more to do with the help and support of our crew than it had to do with any kind of magic. It was magic, it was a magic moment, but I think that you reach a point with an exhausted crew on a tour like that and you better hope that if you have an opportunity in Iowa four weeks before the 13 drummer show to buy your crew pizza at midnight because the venue hasnít done their job and everybodyís exhausted, or you can make somebody a sandwich, anytime you can show your crew that fucking care about them, you better do it. Because the last night of a tour nobody wants to be thinking about 13 fucking drumkits. The tour manager doesnít need 13 people, ďWhereís the dressing room? Whenís that song? When do we come on again? Do you have any more drumsticks? Whoís got the snare drum?Ē The lighting person, everybody thinking, ďIím gonna be home tomorrow, Iím gonna have a shower, shag the girlfriend. No oneís thinking about, fuck (laughs) 13 drumkits. The soundman doesnít need to deal with it, the lighting person doesnít need to deal with it. We called a band in Columbus, Ohio and said, we really like you guys, you can come and hang out, jump onstage with us? OK! Iím like ok, how many drumkits do I have kicking about? You think of something and you hope that there are enough people who care around you who can help you realize that.
AZ: Iíve seen you drum with a lot of people, but LeAnn (Dickless from The Beer Nuts), she really kept up.
MA: Sheís a great drummer, but sheís just really nice. Sheís pretty stunningly talented at pop songs, singing pop songs in the back of the bus, and then before the next line of the pop song, asking a question where that line of the pop song is the answer to. Itís a stunning party-game ability.
AZ: You know, she gets through 3-4 times a year, Beer Nuts shows, but a 90-minute grueling set of Pigface could tear anybody up.
MA: Yeah, I remember when Danny from Tool came out with us. When was that 1998? Yeah, he came out for the last 10 days of the tour. Me and Joe Trump were playing and we had the third, black Pearl drumkit, hey heís fucking playing in Tool. I looked along the line and I liked that camera angle of three drummers in a line. It looks good from the front. But, itís good from the side, and I see Danny like ďooohhh, fuck,Ē thereís bits of tape just coming off of his hands where heís taped his fingers up. It is tough. Thereís times weíve played 4 hours. Thereís an energy level that fuels all of that. But once you get caught up in that energy level, youíre not exhausted. Youíre just caught up in it. But LeAnn was great. Iíll tell you who was really good as well, Krztoff was great. I really like him. Matt Walker is fucking solid. Heíd never rehearsed with us, heís just really solid.
Posted by Alex Zander at November 1, 2003 12:00 AM
At this point we wrapped up, talked shop for about another hour and then I let Martin free to watch the soccer game with his Brit visitors who were still nursing a hangover from a night out on the town. It was our 5th interview w/ Mr. Atkins in 7 years, a man who knows nothing of the word exhaustion, who works tirelessly for the bands you love and continues to still make the most creative music this side of the corporate machine. And Underground Inc. is showcasing and developing the newest and true cutting-edge sonic art. For one reason, and thatís the same reason weíre still around. Do the math.