In March 2014, the British musician Kevin Richard Martin—best known for his chest-rattling dub and dancehall as The Bug—became a father for the first time. What would ordinarily be a time of poignant first moments turned into a nightmarish sequence of events. His wife suffered complications during the birth and their son would experience the majority of his early life within sterile hospital walls following two extreme, life-threatening operations.
Martin’s son survived, but his latest album Sirens is inspired by these tragic circumstances. Appropriately, the record is heavy stuff thematically, and even heavier sonically. Across its 61 minutes, Martin grapples with what he describes as the “dark shadows, absolute panic and rollercoaster ride of elation, beauty and tension” which defined the first few months of his son’s existence. The result is both crushing and tender, waves of beat-less bass, drone, and reverb washing up against moments of heart-stopping melodic delicacy. It’s deeply personal but never cloying, precisely because of how soberly Martin conveys the mental and physiological toll of the events, even as he stretches time into strange, hallucinatory configurations for the listener.
The abrasive textures of the electronic artist’s earlier work in God and Techno Animal have seemingly all but vanished, not to mention the signature pummelling percussion heard on his most recent collaboration with the Israeli dancehall artist MC Miss Red. But Martin has long been a sculptor of sound, continuing to work the same dubby, noisy source materials into increasingly intricate, refined and affecting shapes. Sonically, Sirens is cast from a similar mold as the weighty abstractions of the EPs that his project King Midas Sound made with ambient experimentalist Fennesz, but the mood is noticeably more intense. The tension, stress, and pressure of his family’s ordeal is suffused into the album’s all-consuming atmosphere.
On a May morning, over Skype from his Berlin home, Martin tells me exactly what went down with unflinching detail. At one point he checks the exact chronology with his wife, who is just about audible over the connection. Five years on, things have started to become a little fuzzy, but if the precise timeline is slowly fading into memory, Martin’s recollection of his feelings are just as vivid now as they were in 2014.
He explains that Sirens is the third iteration of a composition originally written for live performance while his son was critically ill. In November and December 2018, Martin set to work transforming the live performances into an album fit for home listening. Rather than presenting an unedited facsimile of the live work, Martin decided to treat the record like a soundtrack. In spite of the difficult source material, the result is rich with drama. Indeed, the structure enabled Martin to channel a long-beloved but unlikely source of inspiration: the scores of Alfred Hitchcock’s frequent composer, Bernard Herrmann. Like Vertigo’s swirling, unnerving soundtrack , a recurring melodic theme surfaces throughout Sirens’ foggy soundscapes, a “naive, childlike, almost nursery rhyme motif” according to Martin. It’s one of the few surviving elements from the original performance piece, a direct connection back to that life-changing period.
Over the course of an hour-long conversation, Martin recalls the harrowing events which informed the album, which you can read below, in his own words. "Sirens is fundamentally a tribute to my son and wife,” he begins. "It’s my attempt to address, remember, and come to terms with the trauma of that period."
Kevin Richard Martin: Prior to the birth of my son, I can honestly say that I'd never been interested in having children. I'd run away from being a dad at every opportunity and I'd never really hung with people who had them.
Instantly as Finley was born, my first thought was, "Oh my god, this is amazing." I can’t stand the sight of blood, so I was just looking directly into my wife’s eyes helping her through the birth. Then, just as we were about to call her mum in Japan, I felt someone grab my arm and there was a rush of doctors and nurses into the room. I was on a different planet with the elation of the birth, but then the nurse was saying, “We’ve got an emergency situation. We have to take you out now with the baby.”
As I leave the room, out of the corner of my eye I see a lot of blood around my wife's waist. They take me to the next room where I can't hear anything. I was in there for an hour and a half with a newborn child on my bare chest because skin-to-skin contact is crucial at that period. I was thinking, “What's going on?” They didn't tell me because it was an emergency but my wife had lost liters of blood. After an hour and a half, a doctor came in and said, "Look, we've managed to stop the bleeding but we've had to rush her to intensive care because we're not sure of further complications." They took me to a separate room which was even smaller and barely even lit. I was there for five hours, actually feeling a bit mad, literally repeating a mantric lullaby to keep the baby and myself calm, just thinking, “What's happened to my life? Am I gonna lose my partner while gaining a child?”
I swore to myself during those five hours that if I ever saw her again I would marry her. I'm not someone who has ever believed in the institution of marriage, so this was pure instinct, just a deep devotion. I ended up proposing to her on my knees while she was in intensive care.
We got sent home but ten days after his birth my son started vomiting. He vomited 32 times in the one day and by the end it was like a scene from The Exorcist. There was black shit coming out of his nose and mouth. I'm calling the midwife regularly saying, "What's going on? This doesn't seem normal." And she's like, "No, it's normal. All babies puke a lot at that age." By the 30th time, I said, "Shall we go to the hospital now?" and she said, "Wait for me, I'll come." She arrived, took one look at the baby and started crying and said, "You've got to go to hospital.” At this point, Finley had basically lost consciousness and just as we're dashing out of the door to find a taxi, the midwife asked, "Has your wife got any milk? You need to bring something to try and get him awake, back to consciousness. And food may do that."
When we get to the hospital, I'm trying to dab milk on his lips, and suddenly he starts twitching again. They rush us into an emergency room, and basically start trying to drill a hole in his head to test him for meningitis. I'm just on my knees crying. They gave us the all-clear for meningitis but said, “We're gonna have to operate and find out what the problem is.” We were told that Finley had twisted intestines and that it was life-threatening.
After the operation we lived in the intensive care unit. However, during the period leading up to birth, I'd told my agent not to accept any shows, that I wanted to devote my time to my family. But there was one I couldn't get out of for a very good friend in Berlin, and we'd talked about this piece called Sirens. While we were in the ICU, we’d been told that Fin should be discharged in two days time, so I went to perform and my wife came with me. We were on such a high. All our friends were happy. But when we got back to the hospital straight after the performance, they told us there was a major, major problem. That’s when the shit really hit the fan.
The surgeon wasn't looking confident at all, very pale and very sweaty. "I think he's got necrosis of the intestines,” he said, which basically means [Fin's] intestines were dying rapidly. “We're gonna have to remove the infected area. I can't guarantee he's going to pull through."
They took him away to be operated on at which point we're just walking around the block like insane people. Roger Robinson from King Midas Sound was a really great help, sending a lot of really supportive messages, because at this point you feel very, very alone. My wife and I were trying to keep each other positive, but you feel powerless and in a total void. Nothing makes sense anymore, and you're just trying to use all of your thoughts to be as positive as you can for your child. The minutes just felt like hours that felt like days.
The surgeon looked absolutely exhausted and told us they’d removed 28 centimeters of intestine, which is a lot for a child at that age. For the next six weeks, we were living in the ICU with him. He was wired up all the time, cables coming out of his brain and his nose, everywhere. We’re just thinking, "Come on, Finley. Be strong." We were fighting every battle for him: each time he regained consciousness after the alarms went off because of the dialysis machines, or his blood pressure went too low, or his heartbeat stopped. At the same time in adjacent rooms, I remember one child died; you see families grieving in the unit, too. It was very hard to find any semblance of balance or inner peace, or to just enjoy the moments of tranquility, the magical moments because we were coming to terms with being parents for the first time. There's just terror lurking in those long shadows.
In a way, I'd wanted to forget about all that shit. I was living in a dream-cum-nightmare. But going back to Sirens last year did me good. It was a case of coming to terms with exactly what we went through and realizing just how fragile life is.