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The Bug's War on Mediocrity

The Bug wants to save the underground—one Facebook post at a time.
November 21, 2014, 10:30pm

The Bug doesn't want to play music for you. He wants to permanently alter your consciousness through sound. In order to do that, he'll need one undersized basement club, one world-ending sound system, and, most importantly, the freedom to work said rig to potentially harmful extremes without worrying about pissed off neighbors. And if you, the promoter, fail to meet the strongly-worded but straightforward set of demands listed on his technical rider, then The Bug (AKA Kevin Martin) will personally blast your ass in public.

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"The venue manager [in Vancouver] was moaning like a pussyhole about volume at the soundcheck," Martin reported on The Bug's official Facebook page, where he's been logging his "war reports," dispatches from the tour supporting his apocalyptically heavy new album, Angels and Devils. "Respect to the crowd for losing their shit, even though our sound was steadily reduced song by song to compensate for the number of complaints from neighbors." There's been a review like this for just about every stop on the tour, which carried Martin and his MCs, Flowdan and Manga, to roughly 20 stops across Canada, Mexico and the United States.

His stop at Portland's Rotture was "pure punk mixed with the sexiest funk," a night of "uninhibited abandonment and mass hysteria"—despite a busted turntable and an effects pedal that was on the fritz. Boston's Good Life Bar was a "sweat-pit basement" with a "filthy, nasty, raw, ugly, hideous" crowd (this is a compliment). Calgary was "the druggiest crowd yet," with "k-hole tripsters" circling the stage and a woman in the front row "grabbing Manga's penis throughout the set."

Austin's Barcelona club received a glowing review, despite a turnout of less than 100 people—"it was the perfect formula: an undersized basement venue with an oversized sound system"—and LA was "zero wallflowers, strictly ravers" with a "genuinely massive" sound system. The only cities that didn't fare so well were New York and Chicago, who both scored something like a C-minus, if you're feeling generous.

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"I was so shocked by Williamsburg," he says of his experience at Brooklyn's Output, "just how neurotic it was, and how up-their-own-asses people were in the streets." The neighborhood's air of "dressed-down designer decadence—people too cool to break a sweat, and too vain to empathize" was compounded by the venue's refusal to push their formidable sound system, and the continual lowering of their volume throughout the set.

In Chicago's Evil Olive, the same volume issues persisted, probably because the management didn't want to "disturb the sound of cocktail glasses being toasted in the reserved drinking area upstairs," Martin jokes, taking a dig at the venue's upscale sheen. "I understand he didn't want to have the cops come, but why book our show in the first place when our agent and rider make it very clear we play at extreme levels of volume?"

Martin doesn't want you to think he's being difficult for the sake of his own ego. His insistence on having everything absolutely perfect—from the lights to the sound, equipment, and environment—is all in service of a life-changing (or at least, highly memorable) experience for his audience.

"I've have had my DNA re-arranged by seeing particular shows," he says, citing two nights in particular that had a permanent effect on his psyche. "One was the first sound clash I ever saw between Iration Steppas and The Disciples in a tiny warehouse in London, and the other was a show by Swans," a notoriously heavy noise rock band who were famous for getting their shows shut down by cops and angry neighbors. "I'm just interested in achieving other forms of awareness and consciousness through extreme frequencies and decibels."

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Decibel-heavy acts like Sun O))) and My Bloody Valentine, well known for their bowel-shaking  drones, have played a major role in Martin's approach to the live show experience. "I choose to play at extreme volume because I feel that it has an ignition effect on people's brains and bodies," he says. "So it's been fun to bring the confrontational onslaught to a lot of these American shows. And it's been a blast to see people's expressions, whether it be complete joy, complete shock, or complete disgust."

Earlier this month he played two California gigs at Los Angeles' Echoplex and San Francisco's The Independent with the legendary American noise band Wolf Eyes, a booking decision that seemed bizarre at first but ended up leading to two of his favorite stops on the tour. "There I am in San Francisco," he says, "watching Wolf Eyes play some rock venue in front of quite a few dudes dressed in black looking moody, and I'm thinking, What are we doing here? Why have we been booked with this group? And then when we appeared, suddenly all the girls came to the front, and everyone in the audience starts brucking out, whether it be the old metal heads with beards or the ladies expressing themselves."

What made those shows unique was the fact that, unlike your run-of-the-mill dubstep party or big-budget techno festival, his audience arrived with very few pre-set expectations of how the night would go down. "Dubstep parties in Europe tended to be the worst shows I played through the years," Martin admits, "because most audiences there want a formula. They want beat-matched familiarity; I don't deal in beat-matched familiarity. I deal in explosions and 747s taking off and deep-tissue massage. I'm much more interested in vocal insurrection than providing passive soundtracks to dope-smoking nights."

Dance music in 2014 is playing it safe, Martin believes, and what it needs right now is someone to rip up the playing field rather than simply passing the ball. "The problem is that dance music has become very user-friendly, and much of it is relying on a sort of retro-nostalgia—when I prefer future shock," he says. "The reason I fell in love with Jamaican music was because, successively, each new step forward was revelatory, like, 'What the hell is this?'" He cites his first experience seeing Chicago footwork DJs Rashad and Spinn as one of the only truly futuristic encounters he's had in recent memory.

When asked about his developing reputation as an enfant terrible in the dance music world, Martin insists he's just being honest. "If you actually say what's on your mind and you're being honest, you're seen as being difficult in the music industry," he says. "If you actually have a strong aesthetic that has fuck-all to do with everything else you're seen as some strange black sheep freak—but I'm all for the freaks."

Whatever you think of Martin's almost militant approach to touring and performing, one thing is clear—he's pushing himself as hard as he's pushing his audience.  "I like extremity in sounds, whether it be extremely beautiful or fantastically ugly," he says. "What I don't like is all the boring shit in the middle that just gets in the way." Above all, Martin's truth-telling exercises—whether they're glowing reviews or relentless name-and-shames—are part of a worthwhile cause: to help shake the underground free from the mediocrity that's constantly threatening to envelop it.

Max Pearl is a former editor at THUMP. He likes history books and all-night dance parties@maxpearl