Martin Atkins: Great Wall Of Sound

If the smoke-belching refineries of Chicago’s south side had a human equivalent, it might very well be Martin Atkins, the workmanlike pummeler manning the acoustic and electronically-assisted traps for PiL, Killing Joke, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, and of course, his own long-time band, Pigface.

Fast rewind to 2006, when the veteran English industrialist couldn’t find anything in the current crop of music to inspire him – above or below ground. He finally did find inspiration, and he had to burrow so far underground he ended up in China. While there, Atkins was blown away at the 2006 Beijing Pop festival, where he found an extraordinarily wide range of music being made. “It reminded me of the sort of bands I’d see when I first came to New York,” says the 47-year-old Brit referring to the punk and no wave explosion on the Lower East Side in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “I wanted to recapture what I hadn’t been getting for a long time, which was the amazing thing you have when you get people together to make music.”

The epicenter of this vital new scene is the D-22, a club reminiscent of legendary punk lair CBGBs in its Regan-era heyday. In fact, the club is owned by a pair of Americans who have run similar music venues in New York City over the last few decades. Atkins discovered D-22 with the help of an assistant he hired off MySpace who thoroughly knew the music scene in Beijing. After recording some 30 hours of material, the end result was Look Directly Into The Sun: China Pop 2007, released in mid-December on the Chicago-based Invisible Records, a label that Atkins has owned and run for 20 years.

Making it happen wasn’t as easy as it sounds. D-22’s owners warned Atkins that the PA system wasn’t the best, so he begged and pleaded with Audix (with whom he has an informal relationship) to give him some mikes, which the company was reluctant to do. On top of that he had to pay each contributing band $50. “The bands were saying, ‘Well, that isn’t very much for a live album,’ and I’m thinking, ‘What in the hell do you think this is?’” he recalls with disbelief. “And this was on top of already getting paid by the club owners.”

Once the logistics were ironed out, Atkins became so jazzed about the burgeoning Sino-pop wave that it brought out the studio wizard in him, and he decided to release a companion CD, China Dub Soundsystem, an East-meets-West summit of traditional Chinese musicians, vinyl scratching, Cantonese MCs, and Atkins’ own beat deconstructions using both his own tools and vintage equipment scrounged from local flea markets.

“I didn’t realize it at the time but China Dub Soundsystem ended up being my latest incarnation of Pigface,” he says of the loving collage that includes chanting monks, a goujon drummer, and a respected Chinese commercial recording artist who lent her pipes on “Tibetans Vs. Dirty Girl.” And because it’s Atkins, plenty of exotic percussion is thrown into the mix including pipa, erhu, di zi, and hulusi. To get listeners in the mood, Soundsystem greets them right off the bat with a cheesy jingle played for passengers in Beijing cabs – a familiar refrain for anyone who’s ridden in one of the sprawling megalopolis’ taxis.

Atkins apologizes for rushing our interview as he’s about to prepare for an 11-city book-signing tour that will offer seminars, meet-and-greets and DJing at night. His book, the 600-page graphics-heavy Tour: Smart, is a de facto how-to for bands on the road, replete with humorous anecdotes from the likes of Henry Rollins, Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman, Cynthia Plaster Caster (the sculptress behind many famous band members’, er, members), Zim Zum (ex-Marilyn Manson), and other rock royalty. “I think a lot of people are surprised that drummers can write,” he says, laughing. “A lot of [musicians] aren’t too keen on sharing their insights on the music business. I’m only too happy to share them.”

Larded as it is with contributors, the majority of touring savvy imparted by Tour: Smart comes from Atkins’ not insubstantial time served in the back of a van – or behind the wheel as the case may be. “You’ve got to consider I’m driving 600 miles a day sometimes, just sitting, and that isn’t good. Cup after cup of coffee and Red Bull, maybe some trail mix to eat.” But like all double-edged swords, touring has its upside. “An hour on the kits is like ten work outs – I’m drinking a couple quarts of water. My skin becomes radiant when I’m touring.” (We did notice a healthy glow in the press photos.)

To get an idea of where Atkins wants to take percussion, think Blue Man Group with a masochistic streak. “What I’m really interested in now is doing things that are visually interesting,” he explains. One of his latest tricks sees Atkins diving onto his crash cymbal – just in case, you know, striking it with a stick wasn’t physical enough. “I put my stick about 5" out in front so I don’t slash my face but, it looks basically like I’m head-butting the cymbal.”

But our bloke aims to raise the stakes when playing live, and we don’t mean Bang An A Trashcan folderol for middlebrow audiences – think Grand Guignol meet drum clinic. “I’ve got this thing where I dump a tray of ice cubes on the snare as I’m pounding it for this splishy-splashy shattered glacier thing,” he says with wicked glee. He even turns the physical hazards of drumming to his advantage so that accidentally-shed blood becomes an effect: “The spray makes for a nice biohazard type of look.”

No disrespect to the Allman Brothers, but in the aggro world it was Atkins who made the dual-drummer setup once again respectable. Not surprisingly for a cat who came up in the ’80s, he found his inspiration in the ’70s. “I used to love watching Gary Glitter and the Glitter band growing up – kind of like synchronized trampoline-ing,” he says of the glam band’s two-traps setup.

It’s a conceit Atkins would fall back on repeatedly in his career starting with Ministry in ’91. “Me and Bill Rieflin are very nicely captured in the movie In Case You Didn't Feel Like Showing Up! We went straight into the studio after the tour and began Pigface, which was initially me and Bill on the drums, then everyone,” by which he means well over 100 short-term members including Trent Reznor, the Chili Peppers’ Flea, and, natch, prog-metal god Danny Carey. “The 1994 tour had myself, Joe Trump, and Danny Carey on three beautiful matching black Pearl kits. Murder Inc. was a band that I started around 1994 and was myself and Paul Ferguson, the original drummer with Killing Joke. And you can see me and Chris Vrenna in the NIN video ‘Head Like A Hole.’ So, wow, I've really done quite a bit of that!”

As you can imagine, Atkins goes through sticks faster than a Jinma woodchipper and he’s not shy about hitting up his sponsor, Trueline, when he’s about to go on tour. “I’ll say, ‘I need 200 pairs of sticks,’ and the company will say, ‘Well, we can’t do that because Danny Carey just ordered 10,000.’ And I’m going, ‘Hey, I’m the one who got him to use those.’”

His unique brand of exhibitionism notwithstanding, Atkins retains the drum geek part of his personality. “I had times where I’ve spent hours just trying to get the beater to hit flat against the head.”

Despite the industrial résumé, Atkins’ personal aesthetic isn’t limited to industro thuggery. He has a charmingly old-fashioned streak when it comes to some of his most memorable licks. For example, a classic bump-and-grind rhythm graces “Wish” off Nine Inch Nail’s Broken: “I just basically did the shuffle beat from ‘Ballroom Blitz’ by Sweet. That wasn’t such a stretch, though, when you think about it, because I grew up playing that type of stuff in the strip clubs in northern England.”

All the extra-curricular activities have taken their toll. While he’s been writing his book, teaching a course titled “The Business Of Touring” at Columbia College in Chicago, running the label, and operating his own studio, Mattress Factory, Atkins says he hasn’t got to do enough actual drumming, the whole durned reason he got into the music biz in the first place. As soon as he can drum up (sorry) some collaborators, he aims to get a residency going around Chicago so he can just rediscover the simple joys of playing.

“I don’t want to wake up one day and no longer have that physical urge to play,” he says. “I feel you have to keep that part of your brain alive with actual drumming.”