Joining Public Image Ltd during the making of Metal Box, drummer Martin Atkins stayed through three albums and then played with Nine Inch Nails, Killing Joke and Ministry. Not content with just playing, Atkins started a record label (with 350 releases to date) and began teaching college-level courses on the music biz, writing popular textbooks and working on a long-term book project about his years in PiL. Through it all, he has continued to play with Pigface, his ‘supergroup’ comprised of old friends and collaborators. Bob Gourley spoke with Atkins.
A key member of John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols project Public Image Ltd during their early, highly experimental years, Martin Atkins has gone on to a prolific and varied career as a musician, entrepreneur, and educator. Atkins had joined PiL during the making of the 1979 Metal Box album and proceeded to be a major contributor to the subsequent studio albums The Flowers of Romance and This Is What You Want… This Is What You Get.
Leaving the group in 1985, he initially focused on his project Brian Brain and went on to drum for such bands as Nine Inch Nails, Killing Joke and Ministry. In 1990 he started Pigface, a ‘supergroup’ whose rotating lineup leaned heavily towards industrial rock musicians but was always wide open to surprises. Atkins has also launched such projects as Murder Inc (with Geordie Walker and Paul Raven of Killing Joke and singer Chris Connelly), The Damage Manual (with Jah Wobble, Walker and Connelly) and Opium Jukebox (instrumental covers done in a Bhangra style.)
To release his various projects as well as the music of others, Atkins founded the independent label Invisible Records, which has put out over 350 albums. He also started Underground, Inc., an association of affiliated independent labels. His extensive knowledge of the music industry led him to teach college classes, lecture around the world, and write several books about it.
For the past several years, Atkins has also been working on a book focusing on PiL, Memories: My Time With Public Image Ltd. (1979-1980). The original plan was to finance publication through a PledgeMusic campaign, but the project fell victim to the collapse of that company. Atkins intends to get the book out eventually, and in the meantime has been giving fans a taste of it through speaking events based around it.
Pigface has once again become the focus for Atkins. While their 25th-anniversary performance in 2016 was thought to be their ‘farewell concert,’ the group is hitting the road this fall for a tour.
PKM: In 2016 Pigface did a one-off show that was thought to be the final performance. What made you want to tour the project again?
Martin Atkins: Oh well, that’s a question I am asking myself. Why, why, why? I guess a number of reasons. I think the single show we did in 2016 was supposed to be the end of it. You know, 25 years, there you go, we’re done. And I think every single one of us, band and audience included, was surprised by what it felt like to be with each other on stage and in the House of Blues and rehearsals and talking and having this long history with everybody. And so this feeling built throughout the week where I sent an email out to everybody and said, ‘listen, I know you bought tickets to the very last Pigface show. But everybody in the band would like to do more of this, but we can’t even talk about it without your permission’.
And I asked permission of the four- or five-hundred people who bought tickets directly from me. Can we do this? And you know, I think I’d expected like 20 people to be like, ‘well FUCK YOU.’ You know, ‘I want my money back’ or something. But hundreds of people wrote really long emails about why Pigface was important to them. And of course, they’d much rather us carry on than not. And it was like we were just crying, you know? I began to see how things like Pigface and music can really help people. Not just the people in the band, because god knows it’s done that, but help people through difficult times, connect people, provide this feeling of being part of something that has this awesome family energy.
PKM: You’ve also been teaching, writing and lecturing about the business side of music. How did you get into that?
Martin Atkins: It really is the most joyful, fulfilling thing, but I started teaching by accident. I went to Columbia College, Chicago, 16 or 17 years ago now to get some interns to help with the Pigface tour; labeling postcards and sending out CDs and all that stuff. I did a presentation for them, and they said, when can you start? And like a fool, I said, ‘well, I could take interns now.’ And they said, I mean, this is literally what they said, ‘when can you start teaching?’ And I’m like ‘teaching what? What are you talking about?’ And they said, ‘well teaching this, this is obviously what you do.’ I’m like, ‘oh, holy shit.’
At the time I had two boys, I have four now. I thought, ‘should I do this just to tell my kids they should grasp opportunity?’ I thought the opportunity was to teach, and I love it, but actually, the opportunity was different. I walked into the class where they were using a textbook written in 1962. That would be fine if it were a class about Shakespeare. But I immediately started to compile classes and bits of material, which became my first book [Tour:Smart]. Because I’m a DIY punk guy with the record label, I put it out myself, so I was able to control the content and keep all 166 ‘fucks’ in it, which was crazy for a textbook. But it was just precisely what was needed. That book really took off and then the next opportunity was going around the world speaking, you know, I’ve been to South America, Chile, Norway, five times, Australia, Europe, speaking on music, business topics and educational issues as well.
PKM: Has the process of teaching and writing books improved your own skills?
Martin Atkins: Yeah, here’s an easy example. I’m pretty shy and one of my slides is advising people to always say yes to everything. You know, just in the minute when something comes up, instead of being shy and going, ‘I’ve got to check my schedule. Let’s talk next week.’ Just say yes, commit to something and you’ll be surprised and stop being shy and fucking get on with it. It’s pretty useful and true for most people who I find are quite shy. I put it in most of my presentations, whatever subject I’m speaking on.
Teaching about the experience crystallizes the experience and causes me to reflect and then come up with a checklist which is useful for the next time. Because I’m an educator, I’m also a learner. I’m on version 7.0 of making sense out of touring. The way to make sense out of touring is not necessarily to strip everything down so that it’s the cheapest it can be because suddenly you’ve lost sight of what touring is about, which is creating spectacle and creating awesomeness, having people laugh, cry, and lose themselves. And so you have to be very conscious of making decisions. I understand business and I can run spreadsheets, but you have to be conscious of making decisions that are rooted in making people laugh, cry, and shit their pants.
I began to see how things like Pigface and music can really help people. Not just the people in the band, because god knows it’s done that, but help people through difficult times, connect people, provide this feeling of being part of something that has this awesome family energy.
PKM: What is the current status of your PiL book?
Martin Atkins: It’s actually in a marvelous state but on hold because of this whole Pigface tour. We were fully funded through Pledge Music and I was really proud and excited that rather than just type up my book and put all of my ridiculous photographs and memorabilia in a book, I actually went around the world and workshopped it just like a comedian working on their material. So I went to Manchester, England and presented in front of people who used to be in the band or in the organization. Went to LA where Nick Lonnie, who produced The Flowers of Romance is. He is still a really high-level international producer and was in the audience, along with people from Warner Brothers. And actually Lol Tolhurst from The Cure was there. I went to Japan; I did the presentation in Tokyo and each place that I was at caused new memories to surface for me. New collisions with people who’d been involved. People were like, ‘oh my god, I’ve got the backstage pass from that show. Let me send that to you.’
I collided with Lee Ranaldo and we were both speaking at an event in Chile and he was like ‘oh shit. Yeah, I remember opening for you in Amsterdam in 1982, you know let me send you my recollection.’ So the book was in a really great place. And then when we requested the money from PledgeMusic, so I could bring in a group of people to scan and layout everything. We spent the three months we had to do that going around and around in circles with Pledge. It was just like being signed to a major label in the old days, you know, check’s in the mail, bullshit. So, I’m really happy with where that book is in my head and my heart. I’m just not happy that it is not on a shelf yet, but it will be.
PKM: So you weren’t able to get any of the PledgeMusic money?
Martin Atkins: Right, they’ve gone into receivership. But it’s like, okay, I don’t think I mean it will be easy for me to say ‘oh, Pledge has got the money. Sorry.’ And, of course, I am saying that, but I don’t think of it as people money to Pledge, they were really sending it to me because of our relationship. I feel the responsibility of that. So I’ve told everybody, ‘okay, I’m not sure how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to do it. I’ll do it. I just can’t do it right now and take my eye off the ball with the Pigface insanity’.
I understand business and I can run spreadsheets, but you have to be conscious of making decisions that are rooted in making people laugh, cry, and shit their pants.
PKM: With the workshopping, did you feel there was any danger of lingering on the book too long, continually tweaking it?
Martin Atkins: No, I think I balance organizational skills and artistic skills. There’s a rule when you’re working in the studio, I think it’s the law of diminishing returns, you know some songs you could spend a day on and they’re pretty good or you could spend 10 days on them and they’re not much better. And there are definitely songs you could work on and the longer you work on them, the worse they get. The great thing about workshopping stuff is the audience is right there and they’re either engaged or they’re not. I know what’s going on, even if my back’s to an audience and I’m not actually looking at them.
One of the bass players from PiL, Pete Jones, came to the London show and we set up a bass rig for him and he sat on a couch and threw in a couple of observations and then played bass on a few tracks. And honestly, before we did it, I thought, ah, this will be a bit weird. Does anybody care? Do I care? But I thought I’d rather do it than not do it. We started to play together, some of those rhythms that we’d never played in England together, we played on tour all over the States. People were standing on chairs. I’m like, ‘holy fuck.’ This stuff is not lost on me, you know? And so I think that it’s been an interesting journey.
Metal Box is 40 years old next year and so a guy from Mojo magazine called to do an interview with me. At the end of the interview, he says, ‘Hey, you know the story about 4AD? You’re in the book.’ My first thought was like, no, no, no, no, it must be the other Martyn Atkins with a ‘y’ in his name, who I think has done like ten quite famous album covers. And like once every three years, people get our names mixed up. But he’s like, no, no, no. Ivo, who started it describes why he started 4AD, which was my Brian Brain demo! Peter Kent didn’t want to release Brian Brain on Beggars Banquet. So Ivo went to Martin Mills and got money to start 4AD, by which time we’d signed to another label. But it’s like, what the fuck? I mean to find that out, you know, 40 years later. I think that’s definitely worth including in the book somewhere, you know?
PKM: I read an interview where you said that if you’d completed this book 12 years ago, it would have been bitter. How has your attitude changed over the years?
Martin Atkins: Well, my attitude to everything has been tempered by losing some people, not within the PiL camp, but within the Killing Joke camp and the Pigface camp. When you lose some people, it changes how you are with other people who are still around. And so yeah, I think I had started to write my one and only book it would have been PiL, Killing Joke, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Pigface, Damage Manual, Murder Inc, you know. But I’m sure it would have been, ‘John said this and that’s not true.’ And ‘here’s the evidence and Keith said this, and that’s a lie,’ and blah, blah, blah. And that’s not even my book. That’s just an addendum to their books. So one of the things that changed as I started this was I saw the documentary, The Public Image is Rotten. I’m in it. They gave me some nice funny clips in there, but [used] none of the stuff that questioned the managerial skills or the organizational or the gritty stuff. It was offensive to me that neither Larry White, Bob Miller, nor especially Keith Levene were included in that documentary. And it was just wrong. So I called up Keith, and I said, ‘hey, you know, you can say whatever you want in my book.’ I was fully expecting it to be nothing but ‘Martin Atkins is a cunt.’ But you know, I sat and I thought that through. I’m thinking, if that’s what he wants to say, I don’t care. It’s not gonna stop my kids from loving me or change how amazing the beat on “Sunset Gun” is. What the fuck, do I really care? The answer is no, I don’t care.
And then I started to open up my book to all kinds of people, some guy who wrote this really nice piece on Facebook about missing the last train home after a show and sleeping at the train station, waking up with two inches of snow on his coat the next day and having to travel home with all of the business commuters looking down their nose. I’m like, ‘great, can I put that in the book?’ I feel like I’ve grown because of it and the book is way more awesome because of it. It’s a tapestry of all of these Polaroid pictures instead of my big fucking pretentious oil painting.
PKM: Could you talk about the creative process and working relationship of early PiL?
Martin Atkins: The big confusion, misnomer, mistake when thinking about PiL is that everybody, fans, journalists, everybody, you know, looks at what it is, the output, looks at who’s around and then assumes people had certain roles and they’re guided with that vision. And of course, John is not going to say to anybody, ‘hey, it wasn’t all me, there are all these other people involved’. John is just not going to do that. Ever. Once in a while, he’ll say, ‘hey, we had Martin who was a pretty decent drummer’ or some bullshit, you know. But in painting John as the producer, visionary of PiL, I think people are denying or not allowing what I think was the amazing coolness of John, which was he didn’t produce the records.
Like myself and Nick Launay fully formed, I think, five or maybe six of the songs on The Flowers of Romance. And he walked into the studio and you know, within a few minutes, sang complete, fully formed verse, chorus, middle eights, outros over the top of some really strange avant-garde music and turned them into songs. So when you think of John as the guy who had the idea for “Under the House” walking into the studio with pad and pencil saying, “Hey guys, I’ve got these ideas, Martin, do a triplet rhythm” you turn him into a record producer and he isn’t. But he was this other thing that I’ve never seen before that was miraculous.
PiL Ltd live in Germany, 1983, perform “Under the House”:
Especially in the early days, he didn’t like being Johnny Rotten, but he used that to keep record companies at bay to allow us to experiment in the best studios in the world and then to have the output released. He was putting his vocal over the top and interpreting some crazy ‘Captain Beefheart – Zappa bullshit – Can’ music, making it sellable to the label and sustaining for us. So that was his genius. I think that he used every advantage he had to allow PiL to be different. If you take a little bit of that explanation, it could seem insulting, but it’s like, no, no, no, no. John is miraculous and a unique individual. And when he’s painted as the producer and the mastermind of PiL in the traditional sense – it’s obviously his thing, and he’s still doing it- it takes away from what he truly is and what he enabled and nurtured back then.
PKM: Public Image Ltd made a famous 1980 appearance on American Bandstand, where you were miming to edited versions of “Poptones” and “Careering.” John Lydon seemed to make little attempt at lip-syncing, and the whole thing appeared very chaotic. What was going through your mind at the time? Were you panicking at all?
Martin Atkins: Even though this was 39 years ago, it’s still fresh in my mind because we just played a clip at a PiL presentation. And I’ve got a bunch of photographs from backstage that will be in my book. We weren’t panicking. If you look at the clip, at one point I just started playing bass. I mean, to me what we were was we did not give a flying fuck. And as cool as that sounds for a moment, and as much as I’d like to say, yeah, fuck the system, the reason we didn’t give a fuck is, honestly I had no idea what American Bandstand was, and I don’t think any of us did, really. I remember being amazed as we walked onto the lot of ABC, that in the studio next door they filmed the comedy series Soap.
PiL’s infamous “performance” on American Bandstand:
So that gives you an idea that it wasn’t out of disregard. It wasn’t like we knew what it was and we said, ‘fuck it.’ There was a show in England called The Old Grey Whistle Test where we performed live the year before. It was one of the first things I did after Metal Box, and that was an out of body experience. As a very young kid, probably from the age of 10 onwards, I would lay on the carpet, at my mom and dad’s house with my head in my hands in front of the TV watching that show. And so for me to be on that show performing, I was like bouncing back between my 10-year-old self and my current self. And not to say that just playing drums behind John, Keith and Wobble wasn’t insane anyway. But American Bandstand was very different.
He didn’t like being Johnny Rotten, but he used that to keep record companies at bay to allow us to experiment in the best studios in the world and then to have the output released. He was putting his vocal over the top and interpreting some crazy ‘Captain Beefheart – Zappa bullshit – Can’ music, making it sellable to the label and sustaining for us. So that was his genius.
PKM: Did you ever question whether you wanted to focus on your own music or work with existing bands?
Martin Atkins: No. I did the Brian Brain single before I joined PiL and that single was in the alternative charts when we were touring the States, which was pretty cool. But then I was fired from PiL for the first time after the US tour, so we went on tour with Brian Brain immediately. And then they asked me to rejoin, to work on The Flowers of Romance. Then we did some more Brian Brain, then I moved to New York, and PiL asked me to rejoin again. So it just kind of worked its way in there. Where things got strange was the intersection of Killing Joke, touring with Ministry while still in Killing Joke and then starting Pigface during the Ministry tour, while still in Killing Joke. I mean that was insane.
PKM: Years ago, I saw Pigface do a great rendition of the song “The Flowers of Romance.” Will you be doing that or any other PiL material on this upcoming tour?
Martin Atkins: Oh God. You know, it just didn’t occur to me. I think that if Chris [Connelly] was singing with us then probably because he has such a great voice. But for that song, it actually hadn’t occurred to me. I think that we’re looking at a couple of Damage Manual songs, maybe. But I think there are too many Pigface songs to do, to be honest. That’s also why it’s like when people ask ‘is there new material?’ I’m like, ‘no, we won’t be able to get through the material we have’.