Wrong Side Of The Traxx, DJ BJ Interviews Martin Atkins of Pigface
DJ BJ: All right this is DJ BJ with a special interview of Martin Atkins for the Wrong Side of the Traxx Radio Show. How are you doing Martin?
Martin Atkins: I’m OK, the weathers kind of horrible in Chicago, but there’s a lot of amazing stuff going on so I’m not complaining.
BJ: Yeah, it gives you a reason to stay inside and listen to some great music, right?
BJ: So, I’m gonna hit you with some questions about music and music you enjoy. So thinking back to your childhood, what is the first song you can remember as being your favorite song?
MA: I don’t know that I do remember that. Uh, I was born in 1959 so, you know when I was ten The Beatles still existed! I remember this strange British soup of pop music that seemed to be so broad in its influence from reggae and dub and almost Vaudeville BS that kind of mixed itself together in the juke box at the pub. And the Pub was where families, you know families went to the pub. It wasn’t just like serious drinking and drugs, but families would go to the pub. So granddad would put on some bizarre Vaudeville banjo music hall song and there’d be the up to the minute music, and cover versions of all of this stuff all mixed up together. All of that is mixed up together for me still.
BJ: You mentioned The Beatles. Did they play any part in your love of music or where they just… Some people absolutely love The Beatles, others are not so…
MA: Well, the instrumentation for sure. I mean, I sit and think about this sometimes when I’m printing or spray painting something. If you hear the sitar that’s throughout Pigface, Allie Jeffrey*, Bob Dog (Robert “BobDog” Catlin) sometimes, often times two sitars on stage. I trace that back to Norwegian Wood from The Beatles. The orchestration with cellos and strings that are prominent within Pigface, I would trace back The Beatles as well.
BJ: That makes sense! Is there a particular song that can bring you to tears?
MA: Oh my goodness, I would say yeah, music can bring me to tears but its also the context. Chickesaw in 2016 when Lesley Rankine flew over for the first time to perform with Pigface. Even though she had performed that song with us on Notes From the Real Underground* she’d never sung it with us live, it was just her in the studio with me, and when she came and sang that, she said, “I’ve been waiting for 23 years to sing that song live”. We were all crying, and I think the next day was Gaelynn Lee’s* first rehearsal with us and her voice just makes me cry… and her voice hits a note which resonates something in my head or heart or both. Gaelynn Lee can bring me to tears.
DJ BJ: Is there a particular artist or drummer that made you want to play the drums, and was the drums your first choice in instruments to play?
MA: Well, my dad bought me a drumkit, that’s what made me play the drums. If my dad bought me a xylophone, I’d be a crazy xylophone player. If he bought me a lawn mower, I’d be a landscape gardener. That’s fathers and sons.
BJ: Was your father a drummer?
MA: No. He played banjo and trombone in his own band. I think he’d heard that I was given the snare drum in music class. Instruments were given out. Somebody said to my mom or my dad that “I hear Martin’s really good on the snare drum”. I think the following week he saw a really beaten up drum kit at the market and bought me a drum kit and I’d play for four hours a day.
BJ: So you come from a musical family…
MA: No, it makes sense for you to say that but there’s no evidence of that in the home. My dad went to night school and worked his way up from the factory floor in a textile mill to end up being the manager of 3000 people in a factory in the north of England. So, my upbringing was more business and creative solutions than it was music. Although I would go and see bands with my dad, the house itself didn’t feel like a musical household. Which is crazy because my drumkit was set up in the hallway.
BJ: I’m gonna switch it up and talk about some bands and projects you’ve been in. Is there one particular project or band that you played with that you wish would have gotten more attention, that didn’t get the attention that it deserves?
MA: Well, I’ve played on a lot of things. I think that the China Dub Soundsystem album is basically a Pigface, the lost Pigface album. It was made in exactly the same way that a Pigface album is made, just with Chinese musicians, orchestra, scratch djs, punk bands, street gangs. I like that that album has a different identity. But I think that we should have called it Pigface made in China. There is a project called Spasm that was really encompasses what was really going on in the label in the early 90s. Mark Spivey was on his way to a Download show with Cevin Key. Curse Mackey was in town working on Evil Mothers probably. I’d set up the studio, I bought Steve Albini’s ½” recording machine his 1/4” and his console and patch bay. I just said one day “lets make an album”. We’ll invite 20 people for a performance. So that was the first Spasm album. The second Spasm album I thought was really ground breaking. It was the beginning of me not giving a “F” about being in the studio and owning the studio. At first when you are in the studio you’re trying to get to the point where you are emulating things that you’d listened to, trying to get “that” bass drum sound or that overall sound or that level of distortion. The second Spasm album which is called Smear, I was just… I am actually very excited to pull those sessions up, perhaps remix them or rerelease them or do something with them. But those are two that come to mind.
BJ: What song are you the most proud of, if you can’t pick just one name a couple songs that you are really proud of that you’re involved with.
MA: I’d have to back to the Flowers of Romance album with Public Image. Where for a 21 year old to be in the same studio that Phil Collins used or Queen used, and to be so creative along with engineer producer Nick Lorne*, to be able to be creative in that environment at that age feels pretty miraculous to me. And that album is still difficult and dangerous today. There is also that Killing Joke album that I worked on just because of the context and the timing was so much more than a musical endeavor. The band was a chaotic mess at the time and had completely eroded its fan base by delivering a midi masturbation album called Outside the Gate. Two members had quit and asked to have their names taken off the album so I mean, there’s been a lot.
BJ: As a fan, I just think about all the stuff that I’ve listened to for so many years, it blows my mind how much of that you’re involved with. Speaking of which you’ve played with some of the biggest acts in the industrial and post punk genres, is there any particular story that stands out on how you came to play with any of those acts?
MA: If I’m talking to students I like describing how I ended up with PiL. I spent two years trying to get that gig, I wanted that gig I’d been playing drums for 10 years. I was bored but pretty good. I thought that even though the whole idea of punk was, join a band now start playing now. Its easy to say that, its easy to be a guitarist or a bass player or a singer like that if your drummer is just rock solid. I wanted to be in PiL, I spent 2 years working to get that job. Staying vigilant, calling people. I kind of like that story. I’d given up on the music business when I got the call to fly to England and join Killing Joke. It was a stressful hopeful move to get on a plane and join Killing Joke. It is those kinds of activities like packing up a suit case and moving to NYC, getting on a plane to go join Killing Joke without any guarantee of success that gives me very little time for people who won’t make that sacrifice or jump off a cliff to fulfill their ambitions. That is what it took for me.
DJ BJ: You’ve mentioned students a couple of times here and I want to make sure that the listeners know, you are a college professor, instructor and what school are you teaching at? MA: Yeah I’ve been teaching for almost 20 years now. I teach at Milikin University, where I’m the music industry supervisor, responsible for the music industry program. We’ve done some pretty interesting things with that program over the last few years. The one thing is we’ve removed the barriers to entry. Most programs that mention music in a university setting have an audition requirement for people to enter. We have no audition requirement. I have my master’s degree now which was not true when I first started teaching at Columbia College in Chicago. I’ve since written three books on the subject. We’ve taken students on the road. We had a 2nd tour bus with Pigface with students on an internship on the bus with mentors like Wendy Day who’s credited with getting Eminem his deal. Lee Morrin* an music business attorney, we have a label at the university. We are doing some pretty interesting different things with the program; putting our own music conference together.
BJ: I’m glad you brought up Pigface because that segues perfectly into my next question. Its kind of a joke in the Industrial genre anyway, pretty much everybody has been in Pigface because there is such a rotating crew of people who’ve come in and out of Pigface over the years. Is there one or two or three people that haven’t partaken or participated with Pigface that you would actually really love to have work with Pigface?
MA: That’s an interesting question. There are, I think close to 600 people, not including people who have jumped onto stage, and people are welcome to do that. The thing I like most about Pigface is that it’s the people who I don’t know, so how can I regret or hopefully want to work with artist “X” or Performer “Y” because that’s still limited by my frame of reference. So my most favorite example of that at the moment is Rhandy Blythe* from Lamb of God. I mean, I know of the band of course, and I wouldn’t have thought of him as one of 5 or 6 vocalists to come out with Pigface. And I think perhaps, that neither would he. But Greta Brinkman*, one of our bass players, suggested Randy when Mary Byker had to go back to England for a PWEI Festival that he’d forgotten about. She’s like, “I know this guy, he’d be really good”. Well that would be interesting, no harm no foul. We had Chris Connelly, Curse Mackey, Lesley Rankine, Dirk Flanigan*, En Eshe, its almost like marching band theory. If you’ve got 7 people playing trumpet, people can hit a bad note if there are 6 people playing the good note to drown out the bad note. When Randy came to rehearsal, we were like, ok, lets do Tapeworm. It wasn’t one of Mary’s songs but Randy wanted to do it. He absolutely shredded that song and made it his own. After two days on the road with Pigface, Mary Byker is coming back and Randy just said, “yeah, I’m not leaving I’m gonna stay and do all 19 shows”. What an amazing individual. That’s the amazing thing about Pigface, within the band, the extended band between the band and the fans, we’re just family.
BJ: You recently the Museum of Post Punk and Industrial Music in Chicago. Was there an “ah-ha” moment that made you want to do this?
MA: I’ve thought about this for a while. One of my slides in one of my “be a better band” presentations, start the museum of you. What I try to say to bands is invest in your own future. Think about the long term. The show you have next week may have sold 10 tickets and it may not sell many more. Because its early, and maybe you think it doesn’t need a flyer. It certainly doesn’t need an extravagant screen-printed flyer. But, if you are running the museum of you, the museum needs a flyer for that first gig because you are building the myth of your project. Trying to get people to have a different attitude towards you. So I have all of this accumulated stuff; you’ve seen it. I’m still… what’s this with the rubber band? Its 12 polaroid snaps from the first 1 hour of the existence of The Damage Manual, when it was me, Geordie Walker and Jah Wobble in a studio in London. I started two years ago to do lots of Zoom events, I’d be in the basement near the studio talking to people about Killing Joke so I’d wander into the studio and pull up the faders on something. Instead of talking about all the scenery I made, I’d put a bunch of the scenery up in the basement! I just thought it will never be easier for me than to take these objects and put them up in the space downstairs. I started to move things into the building and hang them on the walls and pull things out of boxes. I don’t know that those were a-ha moments. When people started to send things, and you would be one of those people. I think you were very nervous about having Ogre’s stage suit out of your hands if you like. I sensed that you were, felt that the suit wasn’t being enjoyed in your closet. Maybe it was selfish of you to do that. But of course, it is like having a child, I mean I get it. You were nervous about sending that suit to a museum. We put that suit in front of the Fook backdrop which Ogre sung in front of. I put hand written lyrics from the Process album next to it. Handwritten lyrics from the Ritalin album. Tim Gore worked on that backdrop, designed the latex part. And then Steven Gilmore sent two posters, one from The Process the album I worked on with Puppy. The event that you were at, Logan Sholtz* came out and brought the Rabies subway poster. Somebody else is donating a place setting, knife and fork with a plate with a cover over it. Somebody has a piece of intestine from a tour where Ogre’s intestines exploded all over the audience. And I just received this signed microphone from I think that same tour 2015 from. So, I think that suit you sent out magnetized other pieces, and all of that then makes somebody else more able, relaxed, less stressed about sending us an important piece. And it just keeps happening…
BJ: It’s the snowball effect.
MA: Yeah! So, I think your suit was an ah-ha moment. I also like how when you came to visit the suit and you confided in me that, “you know, this is all really cool, and you’re cool Martin, but Charles Levi is a hero of mine”, and then Charles walks into the museum. Just a few days before he collapsed and ended up in hospital, where he still is by the way. But he’s doing really quite well and should be out in a few weeks; fingers crossed. Touch wood.
BJ: Let me interject here real quick. You mentioned Charles in the hospital. I know you’ve put plenty of items up for sale to raise funds for Charles. Would you like to plug anything, is there anything, gofundmes, or any more items that people can buy?
MA: Yeah, his gofundme is still up. You can search for Charles Levi Medical gofundme started by a guy called Wolfie*. There is a Black from the Dead, kind of, almost ironically horrible, but now ironically triumphant I think, that he is almost Black from the Dead. So, you can find that on my Big Cartel. There is also the Charles Levi Voodoo doll which goes to him, made by the same people who make my voodoo doll in Louisiana. So that’s pretty cool. You know, Paul Fergeson* the drummer from Killing Joke makes the Pigface solid silver logo ring. I had one made for Charles. It wasn’t until it arrived a couple of months ago that I realized, oh my goodness, when I ordered this ring, I was going to put it in his coffin.
BJ; You mentioned how I seemed apprehensive to send my suit to you, or Ogre’s suit. I can tell you who wasn’t apprehensive is my wife. She was happy to see the thing go.
MA: You know, that’s a strange thing. There’s a resonance to all of these items that have been touched by people that have been important to people that have been loved by people. And sometimes that vibrations upsets some other people who don’t get the weird wonderful world of post punk and industrial music. I think it is really triumphant that your suit is now surrounded by a bunch of stuff and now will have a microphone, a signed microphone, in front of it. And who knows what’s next? Its pretty interesting. I think a lot of people are thinking about donating items after they’ve passed. Which is a tiny bit strange. I understand it completely. I guess it is just a little bit heavy to think about. Its becoming a really special place to have all of these items. All of the boxes of things that have to be displayed.
BJ: so you mentioned that I did come out to the museum there back in October I believe, and that was for a special event with Chris Connelly. And I know you’ve had some other special events. Some sleep overs, some pancake and whiskey breakfasts, making your own remix of Suck. Do you have any other events lined up or Covid really kind of keeping everything down, what are you able to do?
MA: it got so difficult. I had Michael Alago* who signed Metallica at the age of 23. Crazy, lunatic, photographer, A&R person who also worked with White Zombie, PiL, and Nina Simone; has a book and documentary. We had a week with him arranged for, just a fantastic hotel. An exhibit of his photographs, a reading, just all kinds of stuff. Then he became ill for a little while. We were going to have an event before Chris Connelly’s David Bowie tribute event. Its so much effort to put these things together just to have them not happen. I think we are ready to start doing a very small events, you know we still have Michael Alago* on the schedule for 2022. I’m hoping that Lesley Rankine will come out and spend a week with us doing some really tiny super cool events. But it has been very difficult. We have a benefit for Charles Levi booked at the Metro with Pigface. We’re licking our wounds a little bit at the moment but still preparing for the next 5 or 6 things for sure. I’ve got to tell you, that we had a pop-up haircut thing with Gil Sharon* and Randy* who are just amazing. You can’t get into their salon; its overbooked. They came in cut hair the day before Cold Waves. We did a whiskey pancake mimosa brunch. We had to do to sittings of that the last day of Cold Waves. Just really great, different events. As you mentioned going downstairs and mixing a version of Suck to cassette. Sometimes I’ll DJ, sometimes we’ll tell stories, sometimes we’ll make pancakes. Its very special.
BJ: Its overwhelming to walk in there and see all the stuff, hanging on the walls, the clothing. Its like watching a movie and seeing something new every single time. I just can’t imagine how much time it would really take to see everything in your museum.
MA: We just got three projectors, but there’s also some kind of nice flat screen technology and programs to be able to be able to flip through books. We wanted to get the spectacle together which I think we are definitely there. We have the crazy expresso machine, our own coffee, our own whiskey. But once the scanning starts to take place, where you can type in Ministry, or Chris Connelly, or William Tucker, or April or Houston and you start to call everything up. From receipts to itinerary pages to photographs, reviews. Then, I mean, people are going to spend days there. We’re only just scratching the surface.
BJ: fast forward to when we finally get past Covid. Do you see this as a museum that would have regular hours, that people off the street can come in and check everything out for a fee? Or do you want to keep this more special events?
MA: well, you know I’m honestly not sure. I originally intended to open it up at some point. But I like the idea of founders only. And if someone doesn’t have money to be a founder, they can donate an item. There are 600 founders at the moment. I need to make sure that they feel honored and respected for the belief and the faith and the trust that they’ve shown. I just had a small delegation come up from Sao Paolo Brazil; and they really loved the fact that it wasn’t open to the public, and they’d been allowed to come and visit. I think there’ll be days where people can wander in, but that may be a year from now. We’ve had 3 people so far spend the night. For somebody, someone like yourself, somebody who gets all this, understands all these pieces of the puzzle. I can’t imagine what it would be like to spend the night in the museum. You know, I don’t know, maybe this belongs fully in a hotel, or maybe it will become a hotel. I don’t know where its going, but I like that we are not being a traditional “hands off, keep your voice down, don’t touch the drum kit” kind of museum. It’s a, “hey, go and have a go at my drums. Go downstairs and solo Trent’s voice and do your own mix of Suck. Walk away with a cassette tape. I love the kind of museum that it is, I call it a theme park.
BJ: I get that, 100%. One of the things you said about the scanning and everything, made me think of the catalog you are about to put out. How close to being done is the catalog, and when can people that bought it expect it to arrive in their mailbox?
MA: Amongst everything else I guess I’m now a magazine editor. The catalog is DONE. The only thing that is not finished, that I’m leaving open for perhaps another few days is the founders’ list. And that is for 2 reasons. One is, because I just had something today where, hold on a minute, you are a founder because you are donating a copy of the Research Industrial Music Handbook, which is quite rare, and your name says one thing on my sheet, but there’s another name on the return address envelope. So that’s an email. First you have to see that difference, then you have to send the email, then you have to track the response. I’m going through everybody’s name, every package at the museum. There were a few people, I think, who didn’t want to go on-line and fill out the order form for the founder’s package, and just gave Molly cash. You know like, hold on! Or just gave an item. People were contacting me via Twitter, Instagram, like Oh my God! So the catalog is 100 pages. It is just stunning. It comes with a free flexi disc, and the flexi-disc itself comes in its own hand screened then spray painted signed and numbered sleeve.
BJ: Yeah, I actually played the flexi, cuz I ordered the catalog and I got a flexi early. For a flexi, I can’t believe how good it sounds. It just sounds amazing.
MA: Yeah! Yeah! And now I think, its on my list for today, to order, they are called Stay Flat Craft cardboard envelopes for the magazine to go in. and now I’m thinking that those need to be screen-printed. I remember when Wax Trax had their mail order. Their mail order packages for vinyl, were these like, industrial hazard black and yellow striped bags that the orders went into. And its like, oh my goodness, the thrill of mail from the mailman. And its like, if there ever was a time to do way to much inefficient crazy S#!T it would be now! So people can be like, Oh my goodness, there’s a huge envelope from the museum! “How do you know it?” Because there’s a 12” high screen-print on the envelope. So we’re perpetuating this idea… There’s an envelope from the first Wax Trax catalog in one of my stand-up cases. I’m creating the museum of the museum! So I’m making a collector’s item out of the first catalog of the museum, that 20 years from now someone might say, “I’ve got all 10 editions of the catalog, one’s unopened and one comes in its own envelope”! I can’t believe that all of these things exist, but they do. Just as I was describing getting on the plane to NYC, in 1982 was scary prospect for a 21- or 22-year-old. Opening the museum has been that same leap, and so many people have been there to support and encourage this undertaking. Its very exciting. I’ve actually consciously tried to stop talking about stuff over the last month as the catalog became nearer to completion. The amazing photographs in there! I feel like, anybody I’m talking to about the museum, there just like, “oh yeah yeah yeah. Martin’s got like 10 scrapbooks and a couple of suits and some scenery and some photographs, and yeah, its going to be a very interesting room, a back room of a bar…”. I’m just consciously, I’m just waiting instead of calling a few people, I’m waiting to send them the catalog. It’s a very exciting week here.
BJ: Going back to the physical space of the museum. It was really cool to walk into a room… I live in San Diego, so I come into Chicago from San Diego, where I don’t know anybody. But the community is so strong… Logan who you mentioned earlier is a FB friend of mine because we bump into each other in all the music pages on FB, and Lorie and I are friends on FB and I got to actually become real friends with two people. And I got to meet you, and I’m not trying to brown nose but it was really really really cool cuz you know, I’ve been a fan for years. But its such a tight community of the people that want to come to the museum as well.
MA: Well thank you. I don’t think we had our own whiskey at that point did we?
BJ: There was, but I quit drinking in ’98 after blowing $20 grand on beer in Germany the two years I was stationed there.
MA: Well there you go! I’m a few days away from my… I had 16 years sober, I’m a few days away from my first year back in the saddle.
BJ: Well congratulations!
MA: Thank you! Dark Matter, not only came up with this amazing new blend of the museum coffee, but they gave me this, like, ridiculous $5.5k expresso machine! So now, imagine being able to be hospitable, to like, “hey would you like expresso, a glass of whiskey, a mimosa”? It just keeps exponentially growing. I have a photograph of the PiL wall, I call it, when it was just the rain coat. I remember thinking, “yeah!! I like it just the rain coat”. And now, its like you can’t see, you can’t see the backdrop for everything in front of the backdrop.
BJ: Its got to be such a good feeling to know, that 1, the things that you’ve kept over the years are appreciated so much by so many people. And then there are so many people that want to share THEIR items with you and everyone else as well.
MA: I like the deal. You know, I like the… If you can’t afford the founder’s package, donate something. Everybody has something! I love the story of you and the suit. I got the sense that two months or three months ago you were having a conversation with some people. I got the impression that they were saying to you, “you F-ing idiot, why would you send that suit to some guy? Sure its Martin, but, you could have sold that suit for blah blah blah”. And I think right as that conversation was happening, I’m like I should send Brad a picture so he can see the posters from Steven Gilmore and all the other stuff. I just like it. It is like a trust, belief, leap of faith, its all of these things. Its exactly as it should be. At the moment, you don’t get to come and see the stuff. For the moment the people who this stuff is important to, get to bathe in it. I’m smiling. It’s a lot of work, and its not without risks and stress, really really terrific things so far.
BJ: is there anything else you wanted to cover or talk about before I wrap it up?
MA: No I don’t think so, just to say, hey, thanks! I think you that you started the ball rolling. Somebody sent me a couple of press clippings from a Ministry show in Houston. That’s cool, and along with 40 other items of Ministry things, collectively its really cool. The importance of that suit, really I think made a few people go, holy S#IT. So thank you for that.
BJ: Well you are welcome. I had no idea that’s how you felt about that suit. It was nerve wracking to send the suit off. But I think I told you that the suit was going to stay in that closet until I died, and then it was going into the dumpster with the rest of my stuff. Well, I think we’ve covered everything and I cannot thank you enough for spending all this time discussing your history, your career, your museum. I really appreciate all of your time Martin. Hopefully the listeners of the Wrong Side of the Traxx radio show appreciate it too. Thank you very much.
MA: Thanks Brad, its good to talk to you man.
BJ: and great talking with you too.
Below are links to check out on topics mentioned in the interview
Petition to make the old WAX TRAX! shop a Chicago landmark
Martin Atkins’ Big Cartel shop (A portion of funds raised also go to help with Charles Levi’s medical expenses)
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