Touring for the first time in 14 years, the industrial music collective known as Pigface is preparing to fuck things up once again, as ReGen speaks with drummer and impresario Martin Atkins.
An InterView with Martin Atkins of Pigface
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
The late ’80s and early ’90s was indeed a most vibrant time for the industrial music scene as numerous bands and side projects were emerging, bringing together artists of various backgrounds and styles into a noxious vat of poignant, if often toxic brew. Among the many entities to appear was the collective known as Pigface; curated over the years by drummer extraordinaire Martin Atkins, who had already cultivated a reputation for his work with the likes of Public Image Ltd., Killing Joke, Nine Inch Nails, and MINISTRY, Pigface first bore its sharpened claws in 1990 with the Gub album. With such prominent scene figures contributing to the album like Nivek Ogre (Skinny Puppy), David Yow (The Jesus Lizard), EN ESCH (ex-KMFDM), Matt Schultz (Lab Report), Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), and MINISTRY members Paul Barker, Chris Connelly, William Rieflin, and William Tucker, it was perhaps only natural that the term “supergroup” would be applied; however, Pigface soon began to surpass and exceed the definition of the word as the band’s maintaining of an open door policy would ensure that each song, album, and tour would bring aboard numerous other contributors, the number totaling in the hundreds. More albums would follow, along with numerous singles and compilations, but after the release of 6 in 2009, Pigface apparently entered into what would perhaps best be referred to as a holding pattern as no new original material would appear afterward. Then in November 2016, a vast lineup of Pigface alumni gathered onstage at the House of Blues in Chicago to commemorate the band’s 25th Anniversary… and what a momentous occasion it proved to be, marking one of the industrial music scene’s most celebrated events.
Now, Atkins has assembled the troops for the first Pigface tour in 14 years, taking place in November 2019 and featuring more than a few familiar faces, along with some new ones – EN ESCH, Curse Mackey (Evil Mothers), Charlies Levi (My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult), Great Brinkman (Druglord), Lesley Rankine (Ruby), Mary Byker (Pop Will Eat Itself), Bradley Bills (CHANT), violinist/activist Gaelynn Lea, Randy Blythe (Lamb of God), Dirk Flanigan (77 Luscious Babes), Orville Kline (Porn and Chicken), plus guest appearances on certain dates by Chris Connelly, Jim Marcus (GoFight), Fallon Bowman (Amphibious Assault), Martin King (DogTablet), Ali Jafri (Jafri Music), Krztoff (BILE), Justin Pearson (Planet B), Joe Letz (ex-Combichrist), and more… if that doesn’t sound like a tour not to be missed, than what would? ReGen Magazine
is privileged to have had the opportunity to speak with Martin Atkins prior to the tour to discuss the history of Pigface, the logistics of touring, the varied sounds in the band’s music, and what lies ahead for one of the most unique musical collectives ever to exist.
Pigface has become something of a benchmark for underground alternative and industrial music when new ‘supergroups’ emerge – or rather, any band that features a wide range of collaborators, all with some extensive creative background (i.e. Primitive Race, REVillusion, K.P. Riot Brigade, to name a few). What are your thoughts on this?
: I think you’re referring to interesting one-off style collaborations that often happen by way of internet track sharing? That’s just not what Pigface is. There are over (at last count) 500 members and the intense face-to-face contact between band members and audience is a powerful thing. I don’t think there’s anything like it in any genre. Pigface is a live experience of community, not a computer based project. Without taking anything away from the projects you mention, I don’t understand the comparison.
What can you tell us about the changing landscape of modern music, especially in underground alternative music scenes as you’ve observed them over the years (particularly in the decade since Pigface’s last album)? How have you personally responded to or been affected by these changes, how have they changed the way you think about or perform music?
Atkins: Personally, I don’t give a fuck about a changing landscape; it has been changing constantly for me since coming up through punk. There is an ebb and flow to certain things. I’m feeling it push now for sure, and there is a time to pour gasoline on the sparks.
In your mind, how did you personally reconcile such a stylistic milieu – as the artist, how did you find cohesion among the disparate sounds and voices?
: I didn’t know cohesion was a yardstick of anything. It’s interesting to me to have one album to have a different sound than another, or even tracks on the same album with different textures, etc. I agree that some of Pigface might be unlistenable to one person and a joy to others, but I also think it is better when experienced – that experience explains it all and creates the cohesion, I think. Maybe I should put another Best of
/Beginner’s Guide to Pigface
together. Despite what some of our albums may suggest, Pigface has never been ‘Easy Listening
Regarding the role of advancing technology in music and art, what sorts of advancements would you like to see happen within your lifetime?
Atkins: I’ve just turned 60. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen the beginning of the drum machine, the internet, amazing platforms for artists, ProTools, Skype, Photoshop. If there’s one thing I see coming, it might be the total opposite of that and a desire to remove oneself from a smart device and experience music, human interactions, and conversations uninterrupted by bullshit – cassette tapes, human interaction, looking at people, holding hands.
It’s been 10 years since 6 was released, which was the last full-length album of new material from Pigface; why is this so? Why hasn’t there been a new Pigface release in so long? Is there a future for Pigface, or is that something you feel this tour will help to determine?
Atkins: Obviously, there’s a future for Pigface, as a sold-out crowd in 2016 indicated and the incredible response to this tour confirms, but the future of Pigface isn’t dictated by audience response or sales. It’s determined by those of us that come together and decide and want and push to make it happen. Why hasn’t there been a new release? There just didn’t feel a need for it – I was busy writing and releasing books, documentaries (16 Days in China), and writing curriculum – new stuff, new releases – creative output, just not music on a flat circle of vinyl.
This marks the first tour from Pigface in 14 years, although there was the 25th Anniversary show. As it’s been a decade since the release of the last Pigface album (not counting compilations and remix releases), what was the spark that led to this tour?
: The show in 2016 on the 25th anniversary of the band was supposed to be the end. We advertised it as the last show, but as soon as we started to rehearse, the connections between us all really started to resonate. You know, it’s a strange thing when you’re working with people that you have a 25-year long relationship with – there’s a glue that connects you, a shorthand language between you that is very special. When Lesley joined us and sang ‘Chickasaw’ for the first time in 20+ years, we were crying, and when Gaelynn joined us, there were more tears of pure joy. All of this was then reinforced and amplified by the reaction by everybody at dress rehearsal and House of Blues, and so we’d all really decided together, band and audience, that it wouldn’t be the end; it would be a beginning and here we are.
Also as part of the tour, you recently announced partnering with Millikin University (where I understand you’re a music business program coordinator) for the ‘Bus Edition’ of Tour:Smart, bringing students on as part of the tour to learn about live performance and tour management. Tell us about how this idea came about?
: I spent the last 16 years in the classroom and now consult and advise on methods of engaging students from high school onwards – keeping their attention, giving them a reason other than a grade (which is ludicrous) to even show up, and allowing them to put in the work, learn, and truly grow. So, as we were putting the tour together, the idea of a second bus with a second crew felt like the perfect opportunity to shake things up, push the acceptable limits of education, raise the bar, and revolutionize what’s possible in a teaching environment. I like the partnership with Millikin because it feels smart to combine my radical ideas with a 111-year-old institution. They get it. They understand and support creative people like myself in many areas and are carefully accrediting the courses. It’s not easy to navigate, but there is a whole team of dedicated people bending over backwards to facilitate this for the students.
Although the tour hasn’t happened yet, what do you foresee as being the major difficulties or challenges to overcome – both for the musicians/crew and for the students?
Atkins: The central issues for band, crew, and students is that whatever might happen – accident, illness, insanity – we know that we can deal with whatever it is and triumph in the face of adversity. Some challenges are external obstacles, some are internal. I think many of us in Pigface feel more unstoppable having been through this process than we did before being involved and if some of that rubs off on students, that would be priceless.
Obviously, you’ve maintained a good friendship and working relationship with several of them (Charles Levi, Lesley Rankine, etc.), but with so many people in and out of Pigface over the years, can you tell us about the process by which this current lineup of musicians came to be? What were some of the factors that determined their involvement – or to put it another way, was it all just a matter of scheduling, or was there a specific sound/style you were hoping to garner?
: In answer to the last part, no. There’s no sound, genre, or strategy to the lineup of Pigface. It is and has always been a leap of faith for me. Scheduling? Not so much – more self-determination and prioritizations. Some people are busy through the arc of their careers. Some are just in a different headspace and how awesome that people only need to be in it when they absolutely have to – it makes it so much more special than a ‘J O B.’
Instead of an open-door policy, we very much have an open-stage policy, where even though the lineup changes and revolutions throughout this tour, we will be sprinkled with famous, infamous, and unknown guests whenever and wherever that happens. It’s thrilling for me to meet and work with Randy Blythe for the first time and continue my growing relationship with Justin Pearson from the Locust and I know that nothing but surprises and excitement are ahead of us.
Among the names you listed was Joe Letz, who has had a ‘questionable’ history (to put it mildly); what can you tell us about his involvement?
: All of us here on the edges push the limits in one way or another. Musically, theatrically, metaphorically, with substance, style, and sacrifice, but the recipe isn’t always right. Sometimes the distance from A to B is misjudged, the beat distorted or out of time, the images too unnerving or provocative; certainly nontraditional, sometimes just unacceptable, especially at first. This has been punk, industrial, and the avant-garde. The Butthole Surfers’ live shows challenged the viewer with multiple eye surgery videos, punk challenged the norms and shocked the wartime generation with costumes using Nazi memorabilia and (then) outrageous disrespect to the monarchy… it’s the nature of the underground, the edges of the art to sometimes spill over that edge.
I don’t think anyone deserves to have a final judgment made on their worth or their history, not all of which has yet been written.
Pigface has always been a place of healing, mistakes, experimentation, support, love, growth, and more mistakes. Joe has been supportive of me with my struggles with sobriety and vocal about his own. I would always rather be supportive and helpful than judgmental and dismissive. That’s a choice for everyone to make for themselves of course, but without any risk, we are all just waiting for a bus.
Having been a touring musician for 40 years, what can you tell us about the logistics of putting on such a tour – or to rephrase, and I know you cover these topics in Tour:Smart and Band:Smart, but what aspects of touring do you feel have become more/less difficult in your experience?
: Well, it’s just simply ridiculous to take something like this on. Touring is dangerous, difficult, and complicated enough without having a core line up of 17 people. It is precisely my 40 years of experience and the faith and belief that people place in me that makes something like this possible. The skills acquired on the road with Killing Joke, early Pigface, PiL, etc. etc. leads to reflection and next-level stuff like a more intimate involvement with the audience, personalized VIP packs, custom vinyl, limited edition T-shirts, and all of these elements that are so time/money/energy-consuming to create, but so fulfilling to distribute. These are the million things that go into making the tour successful; not a strong rope to pull things up, but a spider web of silken threads whose sum total is greater than any of the single pieces.
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Tour:Smart: Bus Edition
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