Interview

The Bug Vs Earth discuss their first collaboration – an album about the isolation of the real L.A.

Kevin Martin and Dylan Carlson in conversation

“When I first listened to Earth I just didn’t know what the fuck it was at all. I was just like, ‘woah, this is crazy shit.’ I knew a lot of noisy slow music but that took the biscuit.” So says Kevin Martin of a time when he was working as a music journalist and ‘Earth 2’ landed on his desk. The primary man behind record and band is Dylan Carlson. Earth – from Olympia, Washington – specialised in a strain of drone metal so slow, brooding and gargling it essentially tore apart the concept and notion of what both metal and ambient music could and should be, creating a new genre in the process.

Years later Carlson would have his own life changed when he met his wife to be at a King Midas Sound show, which is one of the many aliases Martin works under, as well the revered The Bug, for which he is most well known and celebrated. Through such projects and collaborations, Martin has genre-hopped from dub to jazz to dancehall to hip hop and in his own way, much like Carlson, has become a king of his own sound and genre through the destruction and melding of pre-existing ones.

On their debut collaborative album, The Bug Vs Earth’s ‘Concrete Desert’ – inspired by the alienation modern L.A. can instil – they have, unsurprisingly, created a new world entirely between them. It’s a vast and exploratory record that absolutely utilises the pair’s strongest abilities aptly. It’s a lingering, looming, occasionally ominous record that creeps and scowls and hisses. Big bellowing drones and rumbling ambience stalks the undercurrent of the record like an eerie presence, and yet it’s also an album rich in melody, restraint, space and beauty.

The combining of the two worlds of Martin and Carlson has sparked a project that feels informed by previous work but results in something new altogether, driven by the feelings a city as sprawling and paradoxical as Los Angeles can create in a bloke from Dorset. Here the pair talk about those experiences and the process that led to ‘Concrete Desert’.

Daniel Dylan Wray: Given this is a new project and collaboration, are you both pleased with the end results?

Kevin Martin: When you make an album you’re always more aware of the mistakes or the things you wish you’d done differently but with this record there really isn’t much I wish I’d done differently. With each consecutive listen I can ease into it more.

Dylan Carlson: Because I didn’t work as long on this as Kevin did it’s easier for me to appreciate it a little more than my other work. Yeah, I’m pleased with it.

KM: Phew. Thank god!

DDW: How did your worlds collide?

DC: I guess I first became aware of Kevin when King Midas Sound opened for OM at the Scala in around 2013. I also remember because it was the second time that I ran into Holly, who would become my wife. So I was originally aware of him through that but then Simon Fowler (who did the artwork for ‘Concrete Desert’) turned me onto [The Bug’s] ‘London Zoo’ record.

KM: I’ve known Dylan’s music a lot longer. I was working as a music journalist and got sent ‘Earth 2’. The first listen, I just didn’t know what the fuck it was at all. It took me a few listens to get my head around it, but it’s one of those classic records for me in which you’re not really sure if you like something or not. Ermmm… how would I say?

DC: It’s a grower not a shower.

KM: Yes! It’s as much about the listener as well, about your own listening tastes. I went back to it and I really liked what it did and then laughed when I heard Sun O))) following it. I then got more and more into un-metal metal. I want to like metal but something holds me back a lot – I had a sort of guitar phobia for years due to my mum having speakers in every room pummeling out heavy rock when I was a kid. So, if anything, Earth were one of those artists that brought me back into listening to heavy guitar music, alongside groups like Swans and Butthole Surfers. Then, as I kept up with his records, I got more and more besotted with them. ‘Hex’ is my favourite Earth record. Then you have the pretty records too with gorgeous melodies. I just like his approach to guitar playing.

DDW: Did you butt heads at any point during the creative process?

DC: Just when I tried to do two handed tapping solos over everything!

KM: It’s funny, I think you kind of have to know someone longer to get to the stage where you feel open enough to argue.

DC: There was really no reason to butt heads. To me, if you’re butting heads in a collaboration then something is not working.

KM: I worked with Justin Broadrick in Techno Animal for 15 years, on and off, and we only ever had one heavy discussion, as we called it. We were in a studio recording an album and he was playing a guitar piece I wasn’t too sure about and I tried to sway him from it. I remember him saying, ‘look Kev, the difference between you and me is I like Hawkwind and you don’t.’ But Dylan hasn’t come out with any of those lines yet.

DDW: And how about the mission statement for this record and the collaboration as a whole – was there one?

DC: I think Kevin had a mission statement inspired by his time in L.A. but I don’t think you can be too tight with a mission statement on a record because music conveys a lot. We’re both interested in the way that environment influences musical output and it was interesting for me because I’ve lived in L.A., so to hear his take on that city and being able to understand why he had this take on it, and looking at the similarities to my take on it, was interesting to me.

DDW: If you read just the track listing to this album, with titles like ‘Snakes Vs Rats’, ‘Hell A’, ‘Broke’, ‘Agoraphobia’, there’s a real undercurrent of fear and uneasiness to them – they’re quite unsettling titles.

DC: Yeah. I think any interaction with the city means there is fear. That’s what’s interesting about music to me, that it can convey all this information at once, so with a city there is the beauty of it, the negative aspects, fear – it’s all influencing you and pressing on you and invoking a reaction from you. There’s always going to be a sense of fear in any big city; we’re biologically programmed that way and we’re surrounded by people we don’t know, what their plans are or what they’re up to. The city is always a bit fraught that way.

KM: With L.A. in particular, it promises a lot on the surface: sunshine everyday, wealth, comfort, luxury, but when I was there I didn’t see much of that. I just got set adrift in L.A. without a car and without a phone and just sort of wandered haphazardly through the city. I didn’t know before making the record that L.A. would shape it as much as it did. I realised in the production and post-production that I wanted to craft something that was reflective of the atmosphere I felt in L.A. walking around. Yet nobody walks in L.A. and I’m trudging through the streets being looked at like I’m some nut case because I’m walking for hours. It’s so shocking to me that I would be stumbling over massive amounts of homeless people in what is meant to be fantasy USA where the American Dream is promoted so heavily through the movie industry, yet actually its underbelly is quite sour and it became apparent that there’s just no safety net in America. If you’ve got the gold and glory you’re fine, but anyone that falls foul of that is actually just totally fucked.

I had a friend who is in a wheelchair for life now after getting hit by a taxi and he had to get people to play shows for him to pay his hospital bills. There’s a tension in L.A between what is promised and what is delivered. Unfortunately, I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, so I generally pick up on the vibe of people who are as broke as me. The L.A. I found wasn’t the glistening Hollywood, it was more like Hollyweird.

DC: It’s definitely a city of stark contrasts, compartmentalisation and alienation.

DDW: Would you say this is a political record?

KM: Not that it was in any way thought to be. It’s more like an anthropological study of complete alienation and destitution, really. It was in no way thought about in any way prior to it, but it is a political comment if you’re talking about a concrete desert, because it’s about culture. I like to meet people face to face in places and interact; I just got the feeling in L.A that people lock themselves in their car or condo – the interactions seem very controlled, very elitist and very contrived.

DDW: The track ‘American Dream’ is a real centre point to this album – what does that term mean to you both?

DC: It’s the belief, even though it’s palpably untrue, that I’m going to be part of the rich one day. This belief that I may not be in the 1% now but one day I’m going to be there. I think one of the most pernicious myths of the so-called American Dream is this idea that of the self-made man and these rich guys thinking they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and doing it all themselves and that other people can too but they’re just lazy and blah blah blah – it’s so untrue. The people in America who have benefited most from society refuse to pay their fair share of putting back into it.

KM: It’s like some of my working class Scottish relatives who would vote Conservative because they aspire to the wealth that they believed the Conservative party could get them.

DC: Yeah, like I don’t want the rich to pay proper taxes because I might be rich one day. It’s just total madness.

KM: The whole thing for me is that the American Dream is built on nothing but fantasy.

DC: The whole country is built on fantasy. I’m just continually fucking gobsmacked by how backwards America is.

DDW: We’re not doing too great in the UK right now to be honest.

KM: The world is in a fucking mess right now.

DC: We’re in the end game, definitely, of post-capitalism or whatever it is. It’s not even capitalism anymore; it’s just wealth extraction.

DDW: Kevin, your music often has a very indoorsy feel, like club music or the pulse of the inner city. Dylan, yours is often very vast, like a landscape. The title ‘Concrete Desert’ seems like the perfect amalgamation of these two.

KM: The ‘Concrete Desert’ came as an idea before we even made any music because I tried to imagine what a collaboration between me and Dylan would sound like and it made sense. It’s interesting that you say that as I just read a review on Pitchfork and the writer said what you said about me dealing with inner city claustrophobia and Dylan dealing in open space. I’d never really thought about it like that before but I guess it might be true.

DDW: This album seems to be able to exist wonderfully if played on a constant loop, feeding back into itself over again. Was this something you considered?

KM: Lately with The Bug I’ve been very much dealing with songs and structures, having begun very much hating structures and conventional songs. I hated melodies – I was anti-song, really. Then when I worked with Dylan I felt it needed to go somewhere else and L.A. made me feel displaced, so I wanted that sense of journey through sound. It sounds like a cliché but I hope that’s what we can achieve with the album. It’s like a different chemical formula. Working with someone else to achieve something else, that was the goal.
DDW: Can we expect future collaborations from the two of you?

DC: I enjoy doing it, Kevin enjoys doing it, so never say never.

KM: I feel exactly the same way. Working with Dylan has been really refreshing in terms of my sound palate and me questioning what I want to hear from a record. So I’m really happy to work on more stuff. We’ve both discussed about how we’d like to score movies actually but it’s a perilous area because you have to deal with shit politics because you’re working in the industry. Dylan has scored a movie but I haven’t and I love the idea of scoring a movie with him. I think we’d be a really interesting team.

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