Martin Atkins interview

First published Fodderstompf, Decemeber 2001
© 2001

PiL: BBC, OGWT 1980 © unknownFodderstompf.Com: This interview with PiL drummer Martin Atkins was one of the first to be conducted for the relaunched Fodderstompf in 2001. Martin speaks openly about his time in PiL 1979-85, reveals details of unreleased material, and brings things up to date with The Damage Manual. Popular belief is that Martin was drummer on 'Metal Box' – in fact, he only plays on 'Bad Baby' – however, as the interview reveals he does play on 'Home is Where the Heart is'. Interview conducted for Fodderstompf November 2001.


How did you get involved with PiL, were you already a fan?

MARTIN: I was a fan. I was living in the north east of England, and I was just tired of it, I was playing in Top 20 cover bands seven nights a week, and backing strippers. I hitched a ride in a removals van and went to do some auditions in London. I was there all weekend but ran out of money. On the Monday lunchtime while I was waiting to hitch a ride back, I opened up Melody Maker and I saw an ad, I still remember what it said, 'Drummer required for band with rather well known singer'. And I knew it was PiL. It was the beginning of PiL. So I called Virgin and said look I'm the guy for this job, I'm pretty good, and I'm young, cynical and jaded! (laughs). They said, well you sound great but the auditions are on Wednesday, and I had to leave on the Monday. So when I got back up north I thought, 'Fuck this I'm moving to London, I'm not going through this shit again'.

When I got to London it seemed like PiL were going through drummers every six months, but I'd only find out about it when it was announced in the Music Press! So I just kept calling, I just kept calling. I got to know Jeannette, I got to know Jeannette's Mum! Until one point I called, and I think they had just set fire to Karl Burns(!), so I called them and Jeannette said to Keith, 'It's that northern guy on the phone'. So Keith said, 'Right come down to the Town House I'll call you tomorrow about 4:30'. 4:30 comes and nothing happens, I wait up till about 12, nothings happening so I go to sleep. Of course at 4:30 in the morning the phone rings! It was three flights of stairs down, so I missed it, I missed the phone call...

The next day I called and they said 'You've fucked up, we were ready for you'. I told them I didn't dream they meant 4:30 in the morning. So Keith reluctantly gave me a second chance. I went to the Town House, I think Genesis and Queen were there during the day, and PiL were recording at night. I spoke to Jeannette for a while, John said hello, probably 'Fuck off you northern git'! (laughs), and someone said there's the drums over there, and I just went and did 'Bad Baby' then and there.

I was going to ask you about that, was it true that the studio version of 'Bad Baby' was your audition for the band?

MARTIN: Yeah it was true. We wrote it together that was my audition. Actually, I just saw the new CD version of 'Metal Box' where they don't credit me, I used to be credited on that little piece of paper. On the original they don't credit me as a drummer, they credit me as co-writer.

How much of 'Metal Box' did you actually play on?

MARTIN: 'Bad Baby', that was it. Then I went back to my job... Then, I think 'Memories' had just come out and Keith called me at work, 'We might be on 'Top of the Pops' tomorrow, I'll call you in an hour'! So I was sitting there at work thinking, oh fuck! Of course he never called, it never happened. But a few weeks later Wobble called to say they might be doing a couple of shows, he said come down and lets have a mess about in rehearsals. He just called out, 'Annalisa', 'Low Life', 'Religion', then after about ten minutes he called Jeannette and said book the shows, this guy's ready, and that was that. My first gig was the 'Paris Au Printemps' album. My first show with them was the 'Old Grey Whistle Test', then we went to America...

I've heard PiL barely rehearsed, and the Whistle Test and Paris gigs were basically the first time you had played with the whole band.

: Yeah. I think there's a John Peel session in there somewhere too. I think as early as that Keith and I were kind of going at it. I did 'Chant' at about twice the speed, I jacked it up 'cos I thought it needed it. And I think Keith just thought, what the fuck is going on here.

What was it like working with them, were they difficult to deal with?

MARTIN: I actually hung with John a lot, and Wobble. I admired Keith's guitar work, I thought it was pretty cool. But he was heavily into drugs at the time, and I was drinking, doing a bit speed. And I just didn't get on with Keith. He seemed to spend an awful long time in the studio messing about with synthesisers he didn't fully understand, and just putting up a smokescreen of shit...

Whereas by the time we got to 'Flowers of Romance', Nick Launay [producer] and I were experimenting in the studio. I brought a watch into the studio and miked it up, ran it through some effects, and that became the chhh chhh chhh sound, the texture behind 'Four Enclosed Walls'. I was drinking bottles of Perrier Water, recorded to quarter inch tape, slowed down it sounded almost like fucking dinosaurs. That was the backing for an unreleased track called 'Vampire'.

I was going to ask you about that, I was told you had a tape of stuff, and one of the tracks was instrumental called 'Vampire' which I'd never heard of.

: There are vocals on it. Yeah, I've got some stuff, I've got John singing 'Twist and Shout'. I've got great different mixes of stuff, I've got a lot of different stuff. Unreleased songs, I mean real songs.

I actually wanted to put it on 'Plastic Box'. I accidentally found out about 'Plastic Box', when I called up the BBC to license the Scorn BBC Peel session, and they said 'Martin Atkins, we've just been talking about you', we were just doing the PiL stuff for the box set. So I called John, and I called his manager, I really thought the 'Plastic Box' could have really been a great thing for the fans. It didn't have to be shit. I think really all that's on 'Plastic Box' that's a different mix is the version 'This is Not a Love Song'.

Yeah, and that was a mistake! I mean I'm in two minds, I sort of helped Virgin a little with it. I think it's a good compilation, but it could have been so much better. I remember when Virgin told me you had unreleased stuff I kept saying you've got to get it on the box set.

MARTIN: Yeah, I told them about the stuff. I wasn't asking for anything, other than, what I said is, why don't you buy me an EQ unit for my studio. That would feel karmacally right to me, because I've had this stuff for 20 years, and it would be nice that if for the next ten years every time I touched the EQ unit I could think hey, that worked out nicely. But of course they didn't want to do that... I mean I would have put on stuff like the 'Electric Dread EP', stuff like that.

Yeah, I kept saying things like that, even 'Commercial Zone'. They wouldn't put that on because there would be too many licensing problems.

MARTIN: Licensing from who? Keith stole the tapes! It's not supposed to be sold or released anywhere. We own those recordings. I mean Keith didn't know about half of those songs until he stole the fucking tapes. Tracks like 'Miller Hi-Life' he wasn't even there it was me, Pete Jones, and Bob Miller our sound guy. Who was almost part of the band at that time. That's where 'Miller Hi-Life' came from, well, it's a beer too... We were experimenting by putting drum kits through synthesisers in 1982. That's what we did, we experimented.

Martin at Invisible © unknownGoing back, can you tell us a little more about 'Vampire'. Is there much unreleased stuff from that era?

MARTIN: Well, '1981' that went onto the 'This is What You Want' album was written for the 'Flowers of Romance'. 'Vampire' wasn't lyrically as together, but there are lyrics with John singing on it. It's just kind of interesting track that belongs to that 'Flowers of Romance' time period.

So '1981' originates from the 'Flowers of Romance' sessions?

MARTIN: Yeah, it's from 1981. That's what John was singing about. And there's lots of live stuff. There is stuff out there. Plus I've got stuff like my plane ticket from the Paris show I found in an old box, my itineraries. As you might know I've got a couple of rolls of the PiL tape that was supposed to seal the original 'Metal Box'. I've got a lot of stuff.

Yeah, I never knew anything about that. Was that one of those ideas that was thought about but never saw through?

MARTIN: Well, they made the sticky tape to seal the 'Metal Box' but Richard Branson said it was already costing too much money...

What about the rumours they re-recorded the first album with you on it, is that true?

MARTIN: No I don't think so. But I know there was some confusion over 'Home is Where the Heart is'. That's me, but Virgin credited it to Jim Walker. That was funny because this journalist went off on me saying Jim Walker was a genius, Martin Atkins was a cunt. And as his proof he said the drumming on 'Paris Au Printemps' was shit and when Jim Walker got back with them to record 'Home is Where the Heart is' it illustrated Atkins was crap, and that Jim Walker is the king! No, mate that's me!

I often wondered about that. I always thought it originated from the US gigs. There's the bit on the 'Profile' bootleg when John says we're gonna make up a song and they play it, and obviously it's you on drums. I did notice they changed it to you on 'Plastic Box' though.

MARTIN: Yeah, they eventually changed it.

You were obviously involved quite a bit with 'Flowers of Romance'. How much input did you have in 'Commercial Zone'. Keith would have people believe it's all him.

MARTIN: Well, there's talk, and Keith Levene is a really good talker. But in the last 20 years I've established Pigface, Murder Inc, The Damage Manual, the record label, my own studio, releasing 220 albums, blah blah fucking blah. And Keith Levene has done jack shit. If you want to believe that Keith Levene was the driving force behind PiL then be my guest. I don't need to sit on the phone slagging Keith. I think what I've done stands...

I think Keith Levene is an amazing guitarist and a pretty good PR person, and good luck to him. He's one of my favourite guitarist's. The fact that he went through large periods of time where he couldn't play guitar because his arms had swollen up was just very disappointing... I think the Edge from U2 was heavily influenced by him.

Do you feel with so much attention on John, Keith and Wobble, that your role in PiL was understated?

MARTIN: (pause) This is 20 years ago, I dunno. I don't know (laughs). I don't play my drums very often. I'm just about to go out on tour but I love playing my drums, occasionally. I'm playing to a much younger audience now with Pigface, and there are people who don't remember Ministry in 1989 never mind PiL in 1979. So I don't spend much time worrying about whether or not I got the credit I may have deserved 20 years ago. I moved onto other things. There's other things, you can either sit at home and get upset or you can afford to make other things happen. I don't feel bad about anything. I talk to John occasionally, I wouldn't mind saying hello to Keith actually. I'd be interested to see what he's up to. There are people who know what I did, people important to me, and that's all that matters.

I've thought about this a lot, I think I've taken their PR statements, 'It's not a band it's a company', 'We're fiercely independent' etc etc. The model of PiL as a band with a publicist and their own bookkeeper, running it as a business. Here I am, I'm running my own label and studio, still breaking ground 20 years after. That's fucking punk rock...

You're happy with what you did at the time and moved on. If people don't know, then so be it...

MARTIN: Yeah. Maybe Keith didn't know what I was doing, he fired me like three times! (laughs). They fired me before 'Flowers of Romance' then I get the phone call as if nothing happened.

Yeah, why do you think they kept doing that?

: Because they were paying me every week (laughs). Lets fire Martin, if we need him in two months hire him back! Save a bit of money. It was tough, it was tough to be in PiL and get fired. Though, I remember one of the times I was hired back, I was playing the Mud Club with Brian Brain in New York and we were doing a cover of 'Careering'. We're all jumping up and down on stage, and I'm singing Career-ing then I turn round and there's fucking John in the front row! (laughs).

Where the '83 band really a Hotel cabaret band? What was the story behind it?

MARTIN: Yes. At that point PiL was John and I, we had to fire Keith because PiL had shows booked in Japan, and at that time Paul McCartney had just been busted in Japan with a suitcase of Pot. So there was a clause in the contract called the 'Paul McCartney Clause' and if you were found with any drugs they'd cancel the whole tour and you would have had to pay the promoter everything. It was really bad. Keith had a problem with drugs and we couldn't take him.

PiL Cabaret Band, Autumn 1983: Lou Bernardi, Atkins, Lydon, Arthur Stead, Joe Guida © unknownPete Jones bailed at the same time, so it ended up just me and John three weeks away from a Japanese tour. We had a period of panic because we had these shows that we were committed to doing. With Bob Miller we auditioned a bunch of guys, bass players, guitarists, keyboard players. It turned out, much later, that the three guys Bob suggested were old friends of his.

Actually, when I went out to find Louis Bernardi, the bass player, I was told he was at the New Jersey Holiday Inn. I thought well, he must be staying there for a few days. I get there and there's Louis Bernardi with a Clash Combat Rock outfit singing 'Rock The Casbah'! Kind of like a toned down elevator version of 'Rock The Casbah'. I just thought, oh shit! But he was a great bass player... There was a guy who was making suits for me at the time, and John said, make suits for the band at my expense. And it was just horrible. The guitarist was a little bit heavy and he had a suit made with the stripes going the wrong way and it just made him look a lot worse. I was thinking, this is appalling, it's getting worse every minute. So said to John, the only way we can do this is to put them in Tuxedo's and just pretend it's a joke.

I called them the 'Holiday Inn band', because it was like a Holiday Inn band! We were just supposed to do Japan, then it spiralled out of control a bit, and the next thing you know we're on 'The Tube' on Channel 4 doing a version of 'Anarchy in the UK' on the piano like Chas and Dave! It was terrible.

I'm not a fan of the 1983 line up at all!

MARTIN: Oh, it was terrible, it was terrible. But after that I think we came to our senses and pulled a new band together in LA.

Yeah, I liked the 1984 line up a lot better, they sounded like a good band. Where did you find them from. I heard you had auditioned Flea for that line up?

MARTIN: Yeah that's true. We just held auditions. We had something like 80 bass players, 80 guitarists, it was fucking awful. We hired this huge theatre, I mean it was so big Phil Collins did a concert there recently, it was just ridiculous! John was like 65 rows back with a case of beer and I'm on stage trying to put people through their paces.

After about 25 bass players I started to loose my patience! Then Flea comes in and he starts going off. I was playing with him and then throwing him some weird stuff to deal with, which he was just immediately all over throwing it back at me, which I was all over throwing it back to him. We just went mad for 20 minutes. I thought that's it! 'Everybody can fuck off home!'. This is it. And then Flea said, 'Hold on, I don't want to join the band I just wanted to jam with you, I love the 'Flowers of Romance' album. I just wanted a jam'.

I was like, 'FUCK OFF!'. You can't come down here and do that to me and then leave. So, myself and the manager at the time Larry White, spent a week trying to persuade him, we took him out to lunch, we told him we were going to Japan, everything. I remember this, he said, 'Listen, I've got this thing going called The Red Hot Chill Peppers it's my band I want to stick with it', and I remember Larry said, 'Listen, this Chill Peppers thing is going nowhere. The best thing you can do is come out with PiL, it's a secure future blah blah blah'. I mean we just gave him some ridiculous speech.

God bless him, he didn't join PiL but I think we put a pretty cool band together. Jebin on keyboards he was really great, I see him very occasionally when I'm out on the west Coast. Mark Schulz on guitar, and Brett Helm on bass. He was a monster bass player, actually, if Flea hadn't have come down he'd have been first choice. Flea just overshadowed him, but Brett was really great. He lost his mind a little bit, I remember when we were in Japan he was drawing all over his body, with a T-shirt wrapped round his head like someone who had sunstroke! But that was a pretty good band.

What happened, why didn't John keep that band?

MARTIN: Well, that's a question for John. It was a good band but I don't know what happened. At that time John and I weren't getting along. There was shit going down, personal shit between us I still don't fully understand to this day. Things were so bad that I said, look I'll still do Australia and Japan but things are so bad I'm leaving the band. Next thing I heard Ginger Baker was drumming, but I don't know what role the other guys had. I saw them a year or two later and they were all pretty pissed off. I think they felt they'd been involved in the new songs but then at the last minute they were just pushed out of the picture. But yeah, it was a good band...

Moving onto the Damage Manual, how did Damage Manual actually come about?

MARTIN: I always felt that Wobble and I had some unfinished business. He left PiL before we kind of got bored of each other, if you know what I mean. So when I moved back to England, I called Wobble about doing something. I said I'll pay you to come in and do some stuff then I'll chop it all around, bring in some loops, I've got my own studio, my own label. So he said yeah alright. Then Geordie called up and I said, I'm playing with Jah Wobble in two weeks time, come on down.

We went down to a studio in London, and based on rhythm and beats, kind of jammed. Sometimes for five minutes sometimes for eleven minutes. I took those tapes back to my studio and started to chop them up, create songs that I thought were more 'now' out of those long jams. So for instance, Wobble would play two different bass lines over the course of say 'Stateless' and I chose two bars. Looped it up, pasted in some bits and pieces and slowly it together.

It would have been very easy to make it sound like PiL meets Killing Joke, but I thought the worse thing I can do is to create an album from two innovative bands, who were very, very dangerous in their own time. And create this new thing that just felt like a re-hash. So I wanted it to feel dangerous to me.

I think I said in the review at the time that there's elements of both bands, but it does sound different, it does sounds modern.

MARTIN: Wobble and Geordie thought I'd completely lost my mind and had totally fucked up their music. Yet I've still to see one review in America that didn't give it at least 8 out of 10. Unfortunately I spent an awful lot of time on that record and an awful lot of money, and it's probably brought me to the point where I'll never be able to do anything like that again, though I might do another Pigface album, I probably will. I was really enjoying the idea of being in a band with other people, it was a fucking great band, but it just turned into a fucking nightmare.

The Damage Manaul 2000: Geordie, Chris Connelly, Wob, Atkins © unknownDid you approach John Lydon with the Damage Manual?

: Yeah, I called him. Geordie said, well we've got to call John. I think Wobble and I said, well you don't know John that's why you're saying that (laughs). Then I phoned Wobble two or three weeks later and said, I feel we have to call John. It felt wrong not to call John because some of the music sounded so PiL like. So I called him, sent him a tape and never heard from him. I feel much better knowing he decided...

What happened with the US tour?

MARTIN: There was an immigration problem with Wobble. It wasn't anybody's fault. The US Embassy in England had been audited by the government and it created like a two week long delay. I think if maybe we had got to America, and Wobble had seen it, it might all have been different. There's people who will come out and see me no matter what. People love Geordie. People love Chris Connelly, Chris has sold three and half million records with Ministry and The Revolting Cocks. People still call me up and say, 'Fuck, that Damage Manual show was brilliant'. I have to say Charles Levi who replaced Wobble on bass in America fucking smoked, he was stunning, the shows were amazing. But it was a different band.

So you don't think there will be anymore from the band?

: I don't know, I want to work with Chris, but I don't know if we're going to work together as the Damage Manual. If we do, I don't suspect that Wobble will want to be involved, and I don't know about Geordie. I wanted everybody who was involved in the record to love the record, and that's just a terrible situation to be in once you start compromising. I mean we never compromised as PiL.

I did like the band, I thought the '1' Ep was superb.

: Well, there's a Japanese import that has the EP tracks and the tracks on the album I was happy with. The edgy stuff.

Not to slag it off but I was slightly disappointed by the album, maybe 'cos I had built up the EP so much. I think there's maybe only four or five stand out tracks.

: Well, here's what happened I put the EP together, Wobble and Geordie were going to kill me. 'You've ruined this band, you're a cunt, blah blah blah'. Just really outrageous stuff. And I thought that once the EP got all the good reviews it did, because I had argued with Geordie, I said I am listening to you but I'm producing this record, I'm deciding which tracks and what mixes go on. And he was just (pause) fucking awful. It was awful.

There's a mix of 'Stateless' on the album called 'Delusional Mix' because he came to my house and called me delusional because of my choice of tracks and mixes for the EP. I went down to my studio and mixed 'Stateless' and called it 'Delusional Mix'. The problem with the album is that Wobble and Geordie insisted that Bill Laswell mix the tracks. Then insisted the mixes went on the album even though I thought they were crap and long winded, they wouldn't tour unless those tracks went on. So I put them on, and that was the end for me, I just thought the record was too long.

Yeah, I'd agree the album was too long.

: Yeah, too long, too wimpy, too eighties. I live in America now and I've spent the last 20 years in America. I suppose I forget that after Killing Joke when I joined Ministry, I went into the studio to hang out with Al and listen to some songs, and I swear to god, I thought they'd put the tape on at double speed the drums were so fast! Then I went on tour with them, and played on the live album. I spent ten years of my life emerced in some very abrasive music. So the Damage Manual made a lot of sense to me, and in Wobble and Geordie's defence maybe they felt like I had, fuck, the tape's at the wrong speed.

I think some good stuff came out of the Damage Manual, 'Expand', 'Damage Addict', 'Blame and Demand'... 'Stateless' is a superb song.

MARTIN: Yeah, oh my god. We were just listening to 'Stateless' because we're going to do it live. Chris Connelly and I are gonna do four or five Damage Manual songs, 'Sunset Gun' we're gonna do that, 'Damage Addict' too. I think Chris might do a couple of songs on acoustic guitar before we start too.

How did you get involved with the likes of Ministry and NIN?

MARTIN: Well, I've knew Trent for years, I him met when Brian Brain played Cleveland he came on stage with us and played trumpet in front of about 150 people... I was hanging out with Al after the Killing Joke show in Chicago, Geordie was there too, then I moved to Chicago.

Martin live with PIgface © unknown You're about to go on tour with Pigface, what can we expect, expect the unexpected?

MARTIN: Yeah as usual. The line up is Chris Krztoff the guitarist from Bile, Chris Haskett the guitarist from Rollins Band, Charles Levi from Thrill Kill Kult on bass, Chris Connelly singing, Meg Lee Chin singing, Curse Mackey from Evil Mothers on keyboards. Gravity Kills are on the bill along with Godhead. We're putting on as many unsigned bands as we can in the opening slot from the 'Notes From Thee Real Underground' project. I've asked Jim from Fetus to come on stage with us in New York, John from Pitchshifter has been invited too. We've got all kinds of bondage performance, sparks flying in the air, people flying all over the place, jumping on stage with us. The usual (laughs).

Are there any plans to bring it to the UK?

MARTIN: Not this time. It's too much, it's a two bus tour. It's just a massive undertaking. Sometimes it's just not practical to get everybody on a plane. It just makes everything three times more difficult, what with the immigration and the equipment. Maybe if this one goes ok we'll probably do something next year.

It's very rarely you get an Invisible band playing in the UK, is that just down to logistics and money?

: Yeah, Jesus Christ it's 1995 since we played the Grand in London. One day it'll happen!

I once read that John Lydon appeared with Pigface is that true?

MARTIN: No. He was gonna come on stage with us back in 1994 in LA, I called and said are you gonna do this, and he said yeah. So I put his name in a tour programme and he never showed up. Micky Dolenz from the Monkeys showed up, but John didn't.

Lastly, did you play on the live cover version of 'Public Image' on the Revolting Cocks 'Beers, Steers and Queers' EP?

MARTIN: Yes I did, I am an honorary cock!


Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)
PiL: BBC, OGWT 1980 © unknown
Martin at Invisible © unknown
PiL "Cabaret Band", Autumn 1983: Lou Bernardi, Atkins, Lydon, Arthur Stead, Joe Guida © unknown
The Damage Manaul 2000: Geordie, Chris Connelly, Wob, Atkins © unknown
Martin live with PIgface © unknown
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