Martin Atkins The Boy Looked At Johnny.
For a while, at the death of the 70s & the birth of the 80s, PIL were the most important, dangerous & downright interesting band on the planet. Following the premature death of Punk rock & untimely the demise of the Sex Pistols, Johnny Rotten (nee Lydon) had set sail in an entirely new direction with the controls set to the heart of the hun (Krautrock had replaced Punkrock marinated in dub).
Over 3 ground-breaking long players; "Public Image Ltd", "Metal Box" & "Flowers Of Romance" PIL set a new agenda for rock & roll. For a large % of this dominant period they were propelled by drummer, Martin Atkins. Martin, who went on to enjoy further success with Ministry, Nine Inch Nails & Killing Joke, recently took time out from his busy schedule to answer one of our annoyingly simple & poorly thought out Q&A type things:
trakMARX - What was the catalyst that made you pick up a pair of drumsticks?
I was given the drumsticks and snare drum at primary school in a random shuffling of instruments - it could have been the xylophone! One of the dinner-ladies saw my mum on the street one day and mentioned that I was amazing on the snare drum - which is ridiculous! Then my dad bought me a rickety old kit down at Durham market for 20 quid or something - I guess then I felt that I should make an effort. I'd play till my hands bled to annoy my mom for some reason. Then I started playing along/drowning out Beatles records - which Bill Rieflin told me was a bad idea because of George Martin's use of tempo changes to increase drama etc - which I now do naturally, so thats weird isn't it?
trakMARX - Prior to joining PIL you drummed for The Hots. Tell us a bit about them & yr. previous experience.
I started playing when I was 9, first band PIGFACE when I was 11, lots of rehearsals, backing strippers on a Sunday afternoon at Newcastle Labour Club (Nights In White Satin!) - then loads of bands - then The MYND, the coolest northern pre punk band at the time with a Mellotron and a Mercedes van! We played 7 nights a week, and yes, still Sunday afternoons with the strippers all over the place. THEN, I went to London because I was tired (at like 17) of going nowhere except Trimdon Village Comrades Club - while I was in London I missed an opportunity to audition for PIL ("band with rather well known singer seeks drummer" - read thee ad in Melody Maker which is still at my Mums somewhere).
trakMARX - You joined PIL in Sept 1979 - how did that come about?
After having narrowly missed the first audition I guess that it weighed on me - it seemed that every time I opened a music mag PIL had fired another drummer - I'd call every time but someone else had filled the gap. One night I was sitting in my flat in Willesden speeding - the t.v. used to stop at 11pm back then so I was reading through old copies of NME - I found ANOTHER drummer had quit/been fired - actually I think that Karl Burns (yikes) from The Fall was actually set on fire ...........I called up Jeanette Lee (by now I knew her and her Mum) Keith got on the phone and told me he'd call me on Sunday at 4.30 - I didn't think that he meant 4.30 in the morning! So, three flights of stairs up - I missed the call and nearly blew my chance - it was eventually agreed that I'd meet up with them the next weekend at the Town House which I assumed would be a rehearsal room. Errrrrrr. It wasn't - I walked in - to comments like "heres that northern git!" - and we wrote Bad Baby. Then I went back to my job working for the government as a clerical officer in St Martins Place (Trafalgar Square).
trakMARX - Considering Lydon's reputation @ the time - how did you find him in the early days?
Well, it was all wierd to me. "Here try this - its speed", cases of Red Stripe, spliff, reggae on Johns huge speakers, Apocalypse Now on the tv, mad people knocking on the door all the time, the police around Gunter Grove kicking the door in.
Keith has said in some interviews that I was a fan thats not exactly true - I didn't LOVE the Sex Pistols at all. I'd come from a Northern work ethic/technical ability background in terms of music - Punk was a kick in the face to all of that which was great if you couldn't play - but to those of us that could - it was a bit frightening to have people say it was all meaningless (know what I mean??). So I wasn't a BIG punk fan really. I liked the idea of it - back then Joe Jackson was a Punk for fucks sake - The Cars? etc.
If there was one thing that I admired in John was that he was quick and smart and FUNNY in a charismatic way. I think I appreciate that more now (having worked with loads more people) than I did then. People throw the word charisma around but he had it.
trakMARX - Was there any element of being overawed by the character he had established for himself by this time?
I dont think so, I didn't really see that other side of it - he was more Lydon than Rotten then.
trakMARX - The recording of "Metal Box" was already underway when you joined the band. You were thrown right in at the deep end & contributed "Bad Baby" almost immediately. What was the established pattern of writing for PIL around this time & what was the chemistry like between Levine & Lydon?
It seemed like the band 'jammed' in the studio. After Bad Baby the box was finished. NEXT I went into Gooseberry with Wobble and Mark Lucardi.
Wobble told me we were working on new PIL stuff - it turned out that we were working on his solo debut. John laughed when I told him.
The chemistry between John & Keith was distant - but seemed like more of a relationship than (for instance) I had with him. At first I thought that Keith (and Jeanette) lived MILES away - there were always calls etc - then one day after a call Keith came upstairs and I realised he (and Dave Crowe) lived downstairs in a kind of other flat thing.
trakMARX - Did John share Keith's love of opiates?
No, me either.
trakMARX - Was Keith ever forthcoming about his time with The Clash - in particular his lack of a writing credit/royalties from the 1st LP?
trakMARX - In May 1980 you released the 45 "They've Got Me In A Bottle" as Brian Brain - how did the rest of the band respond to yr. extra curricular activities?
I think that it went unmentioned actually - it was only during B B's first American tour where I was continually drunk, carrying prescription speed, in hospital; Washington DC (bottled in the face) New Orleans (stitches) San Francisco (alcohol poisoning) Boston (broken nose and jaw) - that anything was mentioned and then it was "we thought you were trying to kill yourself".
trakMARX - The "Paris..." live LP & "Flowers Of Romance" LP pushed the parameters of commercial enterprise further away than at any time in the band's career - how was morale at this point & were you making a living by this stage?
I was on 60 quid a week. I think I was fired (or let go) by Keith two weeks after the US tour - then, two weeks before another Brian Brain US tour I was asked to go to The Manor to work on Flowers - I was excited to hear what they had done in the preceding two weeks up there - NOTHING!
I dove in and worked on a few rhythms, Mickey Mouse watch loops etc for Four Enclosed, trumpets from this little battery powered trumpet thing that played 3" plastic discs etc. John also told me recently that I performed (and co-wrote) the "Flowers" track - I knew it was my drumming but (maybe) naively didn't protect myself in any way - I just let all of these ideas flow then left them with the ideas and went off to tour the USA. "Flowers" became a bit of a hit but they did TOTPs without me..........I dont know about getting away from commercial enterprise - the album still sounds great to me 20+ years later.
trakMARX - You left the band temporarily in Jan 82 - why?
I was called PIL s prodigal drummer somewhere - I think Keith fired me three times.......
trakMARX - By spring of the same year, Levine had come down to a Brian Brain gig to ask you back - how did that go down?
Actually we had all moved (separately) to NYC - this was I think after the Ritz fiasco - I was performing with Brian Brain at the Mud club - we were doing a version of Careering and when I turned around John was down the front smiling at me - it was weird - I should have had him come up onstage and sing. Later in the dressing room the new manager Bob Tulipan asked me to rejoin to work on a new album. I was happy to get involved.
trakMARX - In August 82 you & Pete Jones were accused of pushing Ken Lockie out of the band - any truth in this?
I liked Ken, I LOVED Cowboys International, I dont know what happend, I think there were points that in his chosen role as phone answerer at the loft on 19th street - that he gained some kind of power - I don't have (nor do I remember) any musical contributions from Ken - he was working on a 12" called "The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight". But, I'm not sure why there was no input from him - as I said I thought that Cowboys were brilliant.
trakMARX - What brought about Sept 82's "new commercial attitude"?
Dont know. We were living in a part of town signposted everywhere as a 'commercial zone' - maybe that had something to do with it - maybe it was simply a lack of cash?
trakMARX - You left PIL around Aug 85 - why did you chuck in the towel?
After Keith - after the 'holiday inn band' and then the newer band that we painstakingly auditioned in LA (thats where I met Flea) - there was just too much sycophantic shit going on - loads of coke (we had turbo-grinders!!!!) - no respect between me & John at all. I was sick of it - it fried my brain for a while - living in a house in LA with palm trees, fire pit and swimming pool overlooking mountains etc etc - it felt like it should have been SUCCESS so I couldn't understand why it felt like shit. I think I initially left to try and jolt John into realising how awful I felt - he simply fuelled the shit storm with my 'betrayal' f.f.f.?
trakMARX - John's choice of Ginger Baker as yr. replacement was a surprise to many - how did you view it?
I had listened to Cream when I was 9 and viewed Ginger Baker as one of the top three drummers in the world - it was massively bittersweet - I would have loved to have been back in the band with him (Ginger!) - I think though that there where drug problems with Ginger at the time and I heard that the 2" tapes looked like they had been through a lawnmower with all of the edits to try and make the takes work. I dont think Ginger did any shows - that would have been ultra cool! The album after I left was great - some really great tracks on it.
trakMARX - You proceeded to work with Killing Joke, Ministry & Nine Inch Nails (amongst others) - Jaz, Al & Trent have probably all equaled Lydon in the confrontational stakes at some stage. How do they compare as people?
Well theres half of my book! I guess that I have been very lucky to work with such a charismatic bunch. My attitude to each of them was probably different after PIL. Although I loved Al and Ministry the drug problems were just too close to the bone after Keith thats well documented isn't it? Never mind the singers - what about the guitarists? Geordie! and bass players Raven, Andrew Weiss, Al Kisys (sp?) Flea, Charles Levi - FUCK!!
trakMARX - You currently run a label called Invisible - tell us a little
about the set up & yr. roster.
The label is 15 years old, I have my own studio - just did the new Gravity Kills album in there and the Damage Manual (prod & engineer).
I like to engineer but I'm slow and experimental. There are 220 + releases from Invisible and associated labels; Sheep On Drugs, Test Dept, FM Einheit, Psychic TV, Swans, Chris Connelly, Meg Lee Chin, Pigface, Scorn, etc, etc.
Now I also have an umbrella distribution company that works with smaller labels - to put them though Caroline Distribution. I try to help them avoid making the 7000 and five mistakes that I have......... In many ways this is what we all talked about in 1979 - no shit from no one.
trakMARX - You were recently forced into defending yr. honour following certain inappropriate comments from one John Lydon in Mojo 103, even having a letter printed in response in Mojo 104. His words obviously touched a nerve - what state was yr. relationship with him like prior to this incident & how do you see it maturing?
I think that whilst my relationship with Keith has matured to a point where we are talking and (maybe) ignoring some of the shit we have said about each other, I dont know where my relationship with John is. I guess I find myself at the point of not really caring? It has been up and down over the last 20 years. I like him and respect his talent but its difficult to be around him sometimes. Especially as I strive to grow.
trakMARX - Those Winterland words; "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" seem more apt now than ever. Where we all cheated in some way?
If you are referring to punter being ripped off, I don't see that at all? I do, however, get the vibe that current activities may be throwing either a deepening shadow or, unfortunately, a harsh fluorescent light, on certain assumptions?
trakMARX - Which UK punk veterans do you admire for their subsequent development?. Don't really pay attention - what does that have to do with anything?
I'm astounded by Watties longevity? NOW I look to bands like Not Breathing (developing new instuments and attitudes) Defragmentation - Q; "where do you play" A; "in the park until the police come". Fucking brilliant. Actually I saw The UK Subs in a pub in Coventry - my good friend Simon had booked them to play - just for his own satisfaction I think - I was amazed by Charlie Harpers energy - Beastie boys style! I'm going to ask him to contribute something to the next Pigface cd. Siouxsie and Budgie have their label, I have to admire that.
trakMARX - Looking back, who meant it maaaaan & who was faking?
Who cares? The fakers have faded. Remember that song "Part Time Punks' and anyway, how do you prove you mean something - by ranting and raving about how much you really mean it - or by doing it? Truth will out.
trakMARX - Will you be attending the Crystal Palace gig in July?
I saw the Sex Pistols in Chicago a few years back, I just really wanted to show John my baby pics. Ended up in an Irish bar watching John drink Guiness - I stopped drinking almost ten years ago and am feeling better and more dangerous than ever - but no, I'm not going.
trakMARX - What's on the horizon for Martin Atkins?
Strangely, Keith and I have exchanged a few e mails, that interests me, there are some people I have disagreed with/parted with temporarily - only to have death prevent a reconciliation or at least a re-connection and chance to rework some of the kinks. I have always had tremendous respect for Keiths ability and I'm excited to see where our relationship goes this time around. I have a fantastic distribution network that is growing and I am increasingly delighted to re-discover and re-focus my abilities to understand this glorious business and turn it inside out. We're still here after 15 years so that says something - the label (and group of labels) is starting to grow outside of the limitations of waiting for my next musical project - that is the healthiest thing for the label and ultimately for my musical output. I'm happier and happier in the role of producer/enabler/whatever helping a bunch of artists to achieve what they can in some kind of meaningful way. Maybe doing all that I have really helps me to stay out of the way a bit? Whatever - still pouring gasoline on the fire! If I knew exactly where this was going it would be boring?
Jean Encoule trakMARX July 2002