By James Currie
Martin Atkins is a man on a mission. A madman behind some of Punk Rocks most legendary bands like PiL, Ministry, Killing Joke and Pigface to name just a few. He’s always active in the industry he helped shape whether it’s playing drums, giving lectures on the music business, running a record label or writing books. He’s been involved in the music industry for over 40 years. He’s been through a lot and documented most of it, like 99% of his adventures. He’s been meticulous is documenting his adventures. He’s taken photos, saved just about everything that passed by his desk or drums including receipts for everything from packs of gum to exercise bikes. That brings us to his latest project – Memories: My Time In And Out Of Public Image Ltd. 1979-1985. A project where he is promoting all of these assets and so much more though spoken word, rare music samples and road trinkets from around the world.
I got a chance to talk with Martin about his latest project and what all it has taken to get there with it and where it’s going next. This will all take place with seminars and tech talks ending in Chicago this December.
Here’s our conversation talking about his latest pledge, book and tech talks around being in Public Image Ltd.
James Currie: So, what’s going on with this book, man? I mean, how did this even come about well besides the obvious?
Martin Atkins: So I, I started to write this I wanna say, 10 years ago or more. Maybe which was still you know, 28th 29th 30th anniversary of Public Image Limited, but I got sidetracked, you know, that’s when I started teaching. and I ended up writing Tour Smart. Instead, I wrote and then I think I was like into two pages into Tour Smart, which looks at memorabilia, you know, and that’s all that survived and I think that what an absolute gift and a blessing that I didn’t write this 12 years ago because I’d like to think that I’ve grown up a little bit but, you know, and I don’t just mean I’m 10 years older now, I think the comes a point in your life where you just you know, I’ve got no interest in throwing any punches or you know, metaphorically stabbing anyone, you know with the put the passing of Paul Raven, especially I’ve got more interesting in repairing bridges rather than setting them on fire.
Hmm. having said that so and already this idea of going through my journals and my memorabilia that kind of grounded a lot of this in reality rather than opinion, but I also decided to approach other people whose ideas might not agree with mine and whose thoughts might actually not be welcomed really in my book really in a traditional sense.
JC: So like… who, can you give names yet?
MA: Yeah. Yeah. I can. I mean I’m 35 interviews into the book. I mean, it’s deep. Yeah, but I saw the “Public Image Is Rotten” the documentary that took a few years to put together. Yeah, and that goes from 77 till now and I thought that were three or four people who really should have been in it and I’m not criticizing Tabard Filler that the guy who put it together because I’m not sure that that everybody who I think should be in it wanted to be in it, you know, so and that will be Keith Levene who was the guitarist for the first three or four years Larry White who managed the band during a difficult transition from ‘83 to ’86. Bob Miller who was our sound guy in the studio in New York and a few other people. I mean, there’s a whole list. I’ll send you a couple of links but there’s people like Mark Kate’s who was involved with PiL like 10 days. Yeah. Now he manages MGMT, you know, I had a really fantastic conversation with Nick Launay who really produced “The Flowers of Romance” album, so I just wanted to you know, it’s me. So I wanted to do this differently like fuck me just writing my book, you know, I did this and then I did this and this was my idea and then I did this to them but, you know free our Skype session with Keith and of course there were times when I think we got a little bit pissy but where as you know in 1981-82 I might have just taken it from Keith. There was there was there was a point in our conversation why I said fucking hell Keith, I was 21 and Keith said fucking hell Martin, I was 23. Yeah, you know, my wife was just like standing in the kitchen listening to this stuff transfixed for two hours. You know, I think that even if the book didn’t come out which of course is going to but much of more than I had hoped has already happened with it.
JC: Such as building those relationships again or getting stories clarified building relationships?
MA: Yeah, that’s stories are being clarified. I think it’s some instances people’s idea of what they thought the truth might be being. Committed to black and white ink in an interview from three decades ago and more people have read that interview and I had somebody today saying, you know, it’s such a shame they fired you. I’m like, I’ve I fucking quit, you know, what’s that? I don’t think anybody would dispute that but some of the stories of how the music was made as much as I’ve surprised myself with how open I’ve been to so many different people’s input and that it’s not just Keith Levine and Mark Cates and Kevin Lyman and all these people just like bystanders who happened to be at the gig who slept on a park bench in woke up underneath six inches of snow, you know, I mean somebody who is at the Paris show in 1980 and his contribution is all in French, which I think is quite appropriate with that live album being called Paris on Prawn Tops” is like hey either translate this French, oh fuck off, you know, yeah. I’ve also surprised myself in how important as much of the truth that I can get at is so that involves me going through 50 or 60 cassette tapes with dates and studios written on them and just looking at all of the songs and all of the takes on I think 17 rolls of two-inch tape, which from the New York sessions which you know, when you realize that you can put 17 minutes of music on a roll of 2 inch tape is like, god, 250 minutes of recorded music and that just tells me right there something was going wrong internally. You know, we weren’t disciplined too much too. Many different takes will being recorded without finishing enough if that makes sense. There’s eight song titles. I don’t even I have no clue what those songs are.
MA: I don’t so I’m starting to you know dig in and look at some of this stuff and I think actually, you know, I just got my Master’s Degree but you know, you talked about like a value of an education and I think I can definitely feel my Master’s Degree getting approached like diligently thoroughly going through forensically going through the materials I have and getting other people’s opinions and joining some dots together. So it’s almost like CSI – Public Image, you know.
JC: So how did you end up acquiring so much of the original masters and raw material from this at this point? I mean, I know you were a major contributor and co-wrote and stuff like that. But how is John (Lydon) not the majority holder of this or is it something you guys worked out back then?
MA: No, you know, I’ve been thinking about that as well because I have a ticket from Fenway Park from 1980, which is it’s tiny it’s like the size of one of those raffle tickets you might get at some kind of auction. I still have a lot of stuff. I think that you know, when we were creating in the studio, I’d always ask for is like session tape to go home and listen. Hmm and I kept all of the itineraries and I’ve got a receipt from the opening of the Hard Rock Cafe in Tokyo. I’ve got a receipt John signed for his exercise bike fucking ridiculous, you know, but and just to be clear, you know John just put out a 40-year anniversary box set. And I’ve been in contact with John and his manager for probably 15 years now, maybe longer, you know, sometimes my relationship with John is good. Sometimes it isn’t.
JC: That was going to be another question I had for you.
MA: But yeah, well, you know, I left I left his band, you know a very successful time, you know. Yeah, so I think there’s no getting over that really but I’ve made John in his manager aware ever since I knew they were putting the plastic box together, which that what that must be 15 years ago. I have all of this material… no and I don’t know. I am not about to just hand it over. You know, no, I think I think 15 years ago. I said, hey look I spent 16 -18 hours a day in the studio and I’ve spent at that time 25 years at this this time 38 years holding on to all of the staff and keeping it safe. I think it would be really nice. If you bought me a really nice EQ unit for my studio. So, you know, it would kind of nurture every recording that I made from now on you know, and that wasn’t acceptable to them 15 years ago, which I thought was kind of lame and I just heard an unreleased track on the new box set is called “Vampire” and it was recorded during “The Flowers of Romance” sessions in much the same way that most of the material on Flowers was recorded I go in the studio with Nick Launay and we were kind of fascinated by loops and I didn’t play drums to a metronome back then but I like to play drums with things in my headphones and just like foreign closed walls I had the Mickey Mouse watch or was it banging their foreign causal? This song called “Vampire”, I drank Perrier recorded at 15 inches of second on a quarter-inch tape machine and we played it back at 1 and 3/4 inches of seconds and it sounds like dinosaurs coming out of the Earth. Yeah. But the version that I listen to on Spotify yesterday doesn’t have vocals doesn’t have guitar and has about four seconds for bass synthesizer. Hmm and my version has, well it’s a fucking pop song. It’s got keep loving skeet are all the way through bass synthesizer all the way through and fully formed lyrics and vocals all the way through so it’s like do you know whatever, you know, I ‘d much rather that people got to hear this stuff then people hearing that I have the stuff.
JC: Is this something you talked to him about having this stuff and you know, is this something you’re planning on possibly releasing yourself as a box set of maybe “Martin Atkins Greatest Hits” or deep cuts or…?
MA: No, I can’t I can’t do that. Although this material is in my possession I know enough to know I could eBay that cassette tape, right? I’m not selling the rights to that music own music, but I could eBay the cassette tape. Yeah, but I’m not about to do that. I know that that would probably Napalm what is left of my relationship with John but you know, I think it’s a foolhardy thing to do when we’re connected across fabulous bits of some really great musical output.
JC: So he is aware obviously that you have this stuff. Is he aware of how good of stuff you really have is or does he think you just have bits and parts?
MA: Oh, I don’t know. And of course I plan on using some of this stuff in my live presentations. Looking back on all of the stuff, you know, I love to go out and speak and I think there’s a very small but very interested audience to sit in a room and I mean, my photographs are insane not because I think I’m a great photographer, I was just there with my 35mm camera. So yeah, I want to go out and do a kind of a hey, this is the kinda live version of my book, you know.
JC: Yeah. That’s one thing I really appreciated about coming to know you so well in these past few years is your passion, your completeness, you know the way that you collect things is whole was kind of similar to myself. I’m as you know, I’m a collector. I liked stories. I like to get the pieces of the stories. I like to collect things from the people who made the stories you’re kind of like a wholelist. I don’t know really how to put it but you know, you’ve got all these great things and you had the insight to keep these great records from the get-go. I mean that just didn’t happen in rock and roll in most bands.
MA: As this as much as I’d like to sit here and go, yeah yeah yeah, I don’t think I ever imagined a world with a Pledgemusic campaign and you know enjoying doing these updates. Public updates some only for pledges and creating this back and forth were all of these people are contributing not just financially but contributing stories and pictures and posters and I’m loving these stories to like, you know, I got my windshield kicked in at the LA show or I mowed my grandmother’s lawn to get money for the tickets. So yeah, I mean it’s just all of the stuff and I tell these stories of people like, oh fuck I had no idea, you know about this or about that and I’m something like scrubbing that aspect but also and I want to I want to get this point across as well. This book isn’t about I did this beat and then I came up with this sound and then I did this and you know, it’s like, you know, there’s been back and forth on the song The Flowers of Romance sounds like my drums to me and actually about four years ago I got a letter from John’s management saying yeah, it’s your drums Martin, you know, sorry about that, you know, and of course no offer of back royalties, but you know, that was enough for me, but you know in talking with Nick Launay, I said to Nick yeah. Yeah because those are my drums and blah blah blah. Is that all oh actually Martin, my recollection is that that track wasn’t you that John did the hi-hat and Keith did the drums. He said let me check my notes. So, you know, this isn’t a one-sided the story according to Martin Atkins, you know, that makes Martin Atkins look better one of the outcomes of this already like oh shit fair enough right? Maybe that isn’t me on that track. And also I got to tell you this. I spoke to a girl that I met in Los Angeles in 1980. Actually I met her in San Francisco and to cut a long story short and I’m still grappling with how I’m telling the story, you know, I was kind of prodding her for a memory and prodding her for a memory in one part of the story was that I stuck up for her when a couple people are having a go at her and she felt like, you know, I was a knight in shining armor and like, you know, and of course I’m a person I have an ego and I’m partly thinking oh, this will be what a lovely little anecdote for the book, but it was quickly followed by an account that I remember the situation. But it stopped me in my tracks to hear her tell it of a situation in which I didn’t stick up for her and I fucking I woke up. I was watering the garden, it was a Friday night, I was watering the garden and I was fucking I was crying and I woke up the next day crying. And you know, it’s like Jesus Christ, you know to not be able to go back 35 years to be confronted, you know, as you know, a master’s degreed father of four, record label owning, you know to all intents and purposes the kind of punk rock success story to be confronted with something that I have absolutely no power. You go back and change. Yeah, and to realize that the only thing I can do really is try and tell the story in a way that prevents somebody else making the same mistake. Yeah, you know, I mean so…
JC: Well, it’s like you said you were 21. Things are way different at that age and what you were going through and what you were living. It shows you’re a compassionate human now to be able to give that emotion. That’s a good thing.
MA: Yeah, and I mean, I think it’s a good thing and you know, I have a much deeper relationship now with this girl. Having gone through this, you know, very difficult three-hour phone conversation and so much. Oh, well, I’m getting to this deeper place with these relationships, you know.
JC: So this is almost therapeutic in a way.
MA: Yeah, absolutely, nothing but, absolutely.
JC: Wow, so I guess that’s another reason why this is taking so long to happen. It’s not something like you said that you just decided, Okay, I’m going to write a rock book. No, this is about your life. This is about how you’ve grown. This is about yes, the time you’ve were with that, but also the things that have happened since so.
MA: Yeah, it’s also it’s also, you know, my dad was alive back then and he’s in some pictures with John and it’s a complicated. It’s a complicated period it was a glorious period in music. I honestly think the use my quote on the front of Uncut Magazine, you know, we were we were, “The most dangerous band on the planet” in 1980-1981 and so I’m trying to unravel some of that put it in context. I’m also thinking about myself younger at that point then my eldest son is now so it’s this put me in this bizarre head spinning, would you call it like reverie, you know a place where you know last night. I just sat in the garden and thought you know, which I’ve never done that, you know, just like I can’t sit still and I sat still last night because so much of this stuff is swirling around me.
JC: That’s heavy Wow. So when can we expect this? What are you looking at for a release date?
MA: Well, my Pledgemusic campaign says December 1st. Okay. So I mean honestly, it’s very different writing this that it has been writing my music business books. I feel like I’m writing better and intertwining things and finding a poetry in it. So, I think that that December 1st is realistic. I’m loving all of these contributions from people. And I love the this format of like, you know, I think five years ago, I would have fully written this book and then printed it but I think it’s going to remain fluid until the end until the last remnant of mowing Grandma’s lawn or riding on a Moped from England to Amsterdam in the snow all of these random little stories that make up this tapestry that I get all of those in there and I think for me make some sense out of all of this my own creativity my own naiveté my own creative process and punk and PiL and what the fuck and drugs and Insanity. I mean, this was the 80s. In London and New York City, you know it was fucking crazy.
JC: And is that the main focus then is going to be from those time periods, or are you going to extend it into modern times reflecting back?
MA: I’m reflecting back as I go, but I’m also I also made another decision which I was approached to write a book, you know PiL which was 1979 to 1985 Killing Joke, which was 1988 89 90 to Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Pigface, Invisible Records. Like I mean, I’m getting agitated just reciting all of that shit off to you and so the moment that I finish this book I start work on my Killing Joke book.
JC: Yeah, I was going to say there’s no way that you could do everything you’ve done in your life in one book and do yourself justice.
MA: Well, that’s so and I think process so to me, you know, it makes sense. It’s the 40th anniversary of PiL. It’s the 30th anniversary of Killed Joke. It’s the 30th anniversary of my label. So Yeah, I’ll go straight onto the Killing Joke book and then I think I think what my plan is, you know doing the next book which will be Pigface, friends, don’t let friends own record labels. We put out their albums built my own studio and there’s a story there too, but I think then if somebody wants to go through all of this and distill it down to the you know, Martin Atkins life a paperback then somebody else can fucking do that. I do have a few what I call epilogues in my PiL book was you know one is trying to help Keith with his with his Kickstarter campaign to release the tapes he absconded with from the studio in New York, which once again the craziest thing I could think of to do was to help him when I saw his is Crowdfunding campaign floundering and then my son, my oldest son and I made t-shirts for him. Like it was just ridiculous. So there are a few epilogues already that I’m writing as I go. You know.
JC: That’s cool. I know I just really enjoy hearing your talks, your lecture discussions and just open candor. I mean, it’s just fun just to talk with you. So I’m really looking forward to seeing how this turns out.
MA: Well, thank you.
JC: Yeah, I think this is going to be good. So with the December date being when you plan on having it finished or you’ll go to print or it’s going to be ready for public.
MA: That’s what it will be ready for public. Although, you know, the way Pledgemusic works is you know, I just wrote a piece about Paul McCartney and you know, he was involved in a drug bust in Japan in 1982. He had eight ounces of weed at the airport. Like I’m going to punch him when I think about that, that created something called the “Paul McCartney Clause” which any band traveling to Japan had to find this Clause that made you liable for any profits that promoters think they might have made if you were caught with any kind of drugs and any kind of drug in Japan is like a Vicks inhaler is like an illegal substance, so much of this stuff is being made available to anybody who wants to hear it. I think its like nine dollars is the lowest support you can give to the pledge campaign, but that gets you access to all of the updates are posted and the 12 updates already. Some of them are open to the public. Some of them only Pledge donors can see that but so, I’m writing this as I go making some of it available as I go making some of it public so it’s so the actual release of the book at the is the last thing the last part of this not the first part of this it’s you know, and of course all of this is another lesson for one of my music business classes, you know.
JC: So, are you cordial enough with John that you’re going to go see them when they come to town the next month? Is this something you’d do or want to?
MA: Yeah, I think so. I spoke to the guy from Virgin Records Australia who greeted us at the airport in 1984. It occurred to me. Like wow, you know, maybe I should talk to John but I think either John or is manager asked for final approval and I said well final approval over the interview. I’m not sure and they said no final approval of the book. I’m sorry, but you know, I think I believe so. Yeah. Yeah, I just I don’t know. I don’t want to sound caddy, but, Bruce is a great drummer, but he just mangles my beats man. It’s just it’s painful. Those are my beats and so I don’t know.
JC: It’s like seeing an old girlfriend.
MA: Yeah, but having said that, I’d love to go down in the afternoon see sound check and say hi. Say hi to John for breakfast. You know, I’m not saying I want to be friendly a bit of Bill Bridges and I’m trying to be careful. I can be abrasive and sarcastic and funny as fuck. I’m trying not to be all three of those things at the same time and upset people. You know.
JC: It’s a hard balance I’m sure. So now what’s next in this plan?
MA: Well, I’m going through all this stuff still and yeah finding some really rare stuff like record store materials and bootleg stickers from Japan and okay these lovely photographs Maureen Baker just sent through. A couple of photographs as well I have and we’re adding a 25 hundred dollar level, which is me playing drums for the afternoon for you know, but whoever wants to click on that level which I think is kind of a fun Punk thing to do to have me tear the wallpaper off somebody’s studio.
JC: And your future with John and PiL?
MA: I’ve read some material recently where it seems to me that the John is kind of claiming he’s responsible for all the music and like executive producer of a lot of the material and just wasn’t I will and I think in claiming that I think he’s diminishing what is actual role was which was being strong enough and open enough to put me Wobble, Keith, together with Nick Launay and just step back to imply that he was in the studio a lot is just not true. He was largely absent and that’s true before I was in the band while I was in the band and the album that I’ve seen descriptions of after I left are just not true. Material was fully formed and he sang over the top of it. And that’s very different than claiming that he was masterminding things from the first pressing of the record button with blank tape. So, you know, it’s I’m trying to walk a line but it’s tough. You know.
JC: That’s all right, keeping it punk as fuck. All right Martin. Thank you so much for your time.
MA: Yeah, thanks and you too.
For more on Martins books, lectures / seminars and pledges, click here
For tickets to his upcoming Chicago show, click here