In one of recent years’ more surprising collaborations, Kevin Martin (AKA The Bug, Ice, Techno Animal, God) and Dylan Carlson (AKA Earth) have followed up a 2014 EP with a full album: 'Concrete Desert'.
Having each established a reputation in what might seem, on the surface, like completely different fields — one in bass-heavy dub-inflected electronica, the other in bass-heavy minimalist guitar drone — 'Concrete Desert' is a powerful demonstration of what genuine musical risk-taking and an ear open to shared loves can do.
Clash caught up with the dynamic duo at Ninja Tune’s headquarters in Kennington, London.
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Clash: It’s great to encounter a genuinely surprising collaboration when so many these days feel like they’re just being done to grab audience share or headlines…
Kevin: My problem with most contemporary music culture is its safe. Some people want music to be an easily consumable thing or want comfort. I like the fact that a band like Autechre or Sunn O))), who have made zero commercial compromises, just by being committed to their aesthetic, people pick up on that: you gain an audience through respect.
It takes a lot of bravery to keep doing what you do if it’s not commercial. Dylan has had the lean years that I’ve had: peer pressure, family pressure, mental pressure thinking “am I mad for going down this path?” But, actually, it’s the only path I can live with myself. Buddhists believe in navigating a path through chaos: I think music is that path through chaos.
Dylan: When I was first starting out I lived in Aberdeen (State of Washington) for a while and I used to watch the Melvins practice. Buzz (Osborne) said, “there’s two ways to do music: you can try and do what’s happening right now which you might succeed at but you might not. Or you do what you do and you keep doing it until, if you keep doing it long enough, people catch up to you.” To me it’s like people think “why would this guy waste his time for 20 years doing this? There must be something there.”
So, yeah, I could have made 'Earth 2' over and over again. When 'Pentastar' came out we played this music festival in New York — we played one song, the Jimi Hendrix tune ‘Peace In Mississippi’ for 45 minutes. I didn’t know but a friend of mine who worked for MTV came backstage and told me the whole audience was all industry people: they’d all come to see Earth and they were furious. One lady was so angry, “who do they think they are making fun of us?!” I had no fucking idea. Supposedly Gene Simmons was there.
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I think music is that path through chaos.
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Kevin: As I’ve gotten to know Dylan I found out he moved around a lot, I did too, my dad was in the navy. I feel quite rootless. I’m sort of envious of musical forms that are pure because I love those forms whether it be reggae or hip-hop or grime or whatever but I’m just this mutant freak who ghosts through cities and scenes.
I am always attracted to the idea of people trying to be originators and mavericks and I feel that’s what Dylan definitely is. Also just trying to maintain a trajectory: I always aspire to a different record, I always want to surprise myself, but I don’t want it to be radically different because that can feel very kneejerk.
Dylan: Yeah, you don’t want to look like you’re genre-hopping but I abhor the idea of making the same record over and over and Kevin feels the same way.
I remember as grunge was happening, it was the tail-end of the hair metal years, and so all the want adverts for musicians were hilarious: “looks, hair, attitude: gotta have gear — we’re going places, we’ve got a development deal…” and, of course, none of those guys went anywhere because grunge killed that paradigm. Then grunge became its own by-rote thing: it’s really funny to me, the concept of picking the genre before you start the band.
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With music that’s the critical question: how can you make yourself have a voice through machinery?
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Kevin: I literally started making music, as opposed to just absorbing it, through DIY post-punk music: the idea of independence — trying to do your own thing. Why would you want to sound like someone else? Why would you want to adopt the formula that gets you accepted? With 'Techno Animal', as soon as we worked on something that sounded like something else we’d drop it and move on.
Of course it makes your life more difficult: sometimes it feels like spiting myself. 'Techno Animal' was too noisy for hip-hop people and too hip-hop for noise people; God was too jazz for noisy people but too noisy for jazz people; Bug it’s too noisy…There’s a theme here isn’t there? Too noisy for grime people or dubstep people.
Really it’s just staying true to a path you feel inspired by. I want to develop my own voice. With music that’s the critical question: how can you make yourself have a voice through machinery? Same with guitar. It comes through texture, tone, philosophy, aesthetic: how can you continue to develop an aesthetic that’s true to you and feels good?
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Your shared aesthetic is noticeable, but how did the two of you actually come to make music together?
Kevin: I was a fan-boy. I’d heard 'Earth 2' and was horrified by it in a good way. Then I got totally smitten by 'Hex; Or Printing In The Infernal Method' and then followed Dylan’s path from 'Hex' and really liked how he had continually taken left turns and absolutely explored the space in music between notes and how he seemed obsessed, like me, with slowness and volume.
At the time I was looking to try something different with 'Angels & Devils' and I wanted half the album to be expansive, textural, not club-orientated. When we originally worked together on what became the 'Boa' EP, the idea was that one or two of those tracks would be on 'Angels & Devils'. But, because I felt we had created something really special in a wholly different area and I felt we would push the album in a direction that may not fit.
I must admit I had a hunger to do more stuff with Dylan: I think he’s a craftsman of the top drawer and, for me, I’ve become obsessed with tone and texture and Dylan has that times a zillion.
Dylan: I’m more often in the position of collaborating with people through Earth as the line-up changes a lot, but if I’m working with someone where I trust what they’re going to do is going to work and then with him, since he asked me, I figured ‘how can I not work with him?’ So after 'Angels & Devils' we got asked to play Supersonic together and then the Ninja Tune 25th anniversary party in LA and that’s where the opportunity to work together came from.
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I wanted half the album to be expansive, textural, not club-orientated.
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Kevin: It was originally meant to be another EP. I popped the question: “hey, we’re going to be in LA, how do you feel about doing another EP?” Prior to going to LA I was working on some sketches in Berlin and Brazil — and it snowballed.
Suddenly I had a lot of sketches in front of me that I felt were alright and were very much with Dylan in mind. So I reached out to Dylan, said that we had a few days off, that I had a few more sketches, did he fancy having a crack at an album?
I think Dylan must have thought I was mad particularly as we only had two days booked in a studio. In all fairness it was wicked of Dylan to say yeah.
Dylan: I laid down my guitar tracks in those two days then Kevin did his work after that, the tweaking came later in Berlin. He reacted to what I had done.
Kevin: Exactly that. I reacted to what Dylan had done. Again, what was really interesting was we didn’t really know each other. When we did the first single we had no direct contact other than email.
So the studio sessions for 'Concrete Desert' was the first time we were sitting next to each other, Dylan with a guitar in hand, and we were discussing ideas for the tracks — getting to know someone you know? Being able to communicate about how we could structure shit and just philosophically talking about LA. We didn’t know the album would be focused narratively on LA until after the fact.
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It’s the core of the American dream: Los Angeles. Yet, at the same time, it’s the city of massive homeless encampments.
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So the focus on Los Angeles came later…?
Kevin: I realised that what I would love to do was to recreate LA again in my head. The information I got from Dylan, as a one-time resident of LA, made me think maybe I wasn’t totally mad in my perception of the city. It was me wanting to recreate the haze, the expansiveness, the alien quality of that city: trying to evoke it in a listener.
I think when we discussed the idea of calling the album 'Concrete Desert', when I first heard what Dylan had ended up gravitating toward sonically, he was doing stuff that, for me, sounded like inner-city claustrophobia, but his recent stuff sounded to me like desert music, parched, dry, barren landscapes. The idea of this collision of the two — which I feel LA is — is what I hoped the album would be.
Dylan: I lived there for four years and I still have a weird fondness for LA that Kevin doesn’t share — but a similar view about the disparities of the city, the alienation and fractured nature of the city, the complete ecological disaster that the city is. And yet it’s the producer of fantasies, it pretty well governs the fantasies of the entire world with its output.
It’s the core of the American dream: Los Angeles. Yet, at the same time, it’s the city of massive homeless encampments. Because it’s so big it’s very territorial: people don’t go outside of their neighbourhoods. A friend of mine was from San Gabrielle and there are two gangs there: none of his cousins could go to school there because it meant crossing five blocks of the other gang’s territory.
The very insular nature of the neighbourhoods and the fact that it’s a supremely racist city. America’s a supremely racist country which it keeps trying to deny but I especially notice it having spent a lot of time in London now.
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So the album isn’t just pure dystopia or celebration then?
Dylan: I consider myself weirdly optimistic. I’ve always viewed my band Earth and the music I make as an antidote to the bad stuff in the world rather than waving a flag for it.
Kevin: Earth’s music now is incredibly pretty — to me it’s beautiful — and 'Concrete Desert', I feel there’s a beauty to it. OK, it’s dystopian in theme but actually, just as LA isn’t all hell, there’s sunshine and beauty in that city — and the dreams of a city, and LA in particular, there are the dreams everyone aspires to. And I didn’t just want to make an ugly record, I wanted it to have duality.
Some people might listen to 'Concrete Desert' and be disappointed it doesn’t sound like ‘Skeng’ (note: track from 'London Zoo') or may be disappointed that it doesn’t sound like 'Earth 2'. We wanted to sound like X plus Y equals Z.
We both knew that we wouldn’t want it to sound like a typical Earth record or a typical Bug record. I know Dylan pushed me: for instance, there’s a couple of tracks where it’s like trying to find a new form of fuzzed out jazz that swings like a motherfucker — I don’t think I would have done that without playing alongside Dylan. The collaborative process is crucial: it’s about creating sparks and collisions that form new mutations.
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When I started making music, music was the only thing I loved that helped me make sense of the world.
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Dylan: There are musicians that I admire that are weird, solitary types in a certain way but, to me, other people do stuff you wouldn’t think of and they add to what you’re doing, so the magic happens when you interact with other musicians.
Kevin: When I started making music, music was the only thing I loved that helped me make sense of the world. I started because my father and my grandfather were musicians, so it was in my blood. Also I dropped out of school very young, warfare at home so got kicked out my house — there weren’t any other options.
Punk music was my driving force because it seemed to reflect the madness I was surrounded by. You didn’t make music as a career move: I think, now, a lot of people are doing it just to make money — same with contemporary art. I made music to make myself feel better about this world; to understand this world, and myself, a bit better — to escape this planet.
Dylan: That’s the thing, all the best music, there’s a sense of freedom and limitless possibilities. So much music now — and there was plenty of shit back in the old days too, we’ve just cherrypicked the good stuff and think “oh it must have been great back then,” when really it was the same — I question its motives: they don’t seem pure, there’s a lack of people who are doing music because they can’t do anything else. The best music, to me, it’s because you’re desperate to make music, it’s all you can do.
I’ve watched it change so much. Before, alternative music was made by people no one liked, the outcasts who had to find their people. Now it’s the cool kids doing it: the cool kids already have everything else… When I started I really wanted to fuck people off.
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The best music, to me, it’s because you’re desperate to make music, it’s all you can do.
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Dylan: I think that’s a common theme when we’re young. I remember when someone interviewing me asked “what inspired you in the early days?” and I said “revenge.”
Kevin: That’s it. I had a lot of issues and music was my way of dealing with them: it was about therapy and spite. I was all about getting immersed in the horror: I wanted my music to show the ugly madness of it all. Now I feel I’m trying to create parallel worlds and to create sounds I can’t hear anywhere else as opposed to trying to reflect the madness of everything else. There’s a shift, that’s something different.
Maybe I’m, finally, a more positive person? I feel I am attempting to be a craftsman at what I do. I would have spat at myself saying that 25 years ago. But I’ve fallen in love with the craft of producing sound and I’d like to leave this planet in the process of doing so. I think Dylan feels the same.
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Words: Nick Soulsby
'Concrete Desert' is out now.