Martin Atkins: Pioneering punk rocker, educator, reaping the benefits of not giving a f#&!k
Martin Atkins may be best known for his band Pigface and playing in Public Image Ltd. (PiL), the post-punk band fronted by Sex Pistols legend Johnny Rotten; as well as playing in Ministry, The Killing Joke and Nine Inch Nails, but to limit him as a mere drummer would be incomplete. Atkins, who has been living in Chicago since 2000, is also a producer, writer, educator (quite by accident) and father of four who at 59 is showing no signs of slowing down.
He’ll be speaking at South by Southwest next week, the annual conglomerate of film, interactive media, music festivals and conferences about the changing face of revenue in the music business. He also is releasing his third book – “Band:Smart”, which is focused on putting together a band; and a fourth book on his years playing in PiL, which will be serialized — released in 30 installments via PledgeMusic.com until completion at the end of the year.
The Chicago Ambassador’s Bob Chiarito recently sat down with Atkins at the SAE Institute, where he works as the school’s Music Business Department Chairperson about his career, his thoughts on the music industry, Johnny Rotten, Al Jourgensen, Steve Albini and more.
CA) You’re speaking at South by Southwest this year. What is your talk about?
ATKINS) Remember that book, Who Moved My Cheese?
ATKINS) Well, it’s like that for the music business. I called it “Who Moved My Cocaine?” which is a little bit 1980s, but I just love the title.
CA) You’ve done that talk before?
ATKINS) No. I’ve done “Welcome to the Music Business, You’re Fucked”
CA) Do you still teach at Columbia College?
ATKINS) I started at Columbia but I’m the music department chair here [at SAE Institute]. I also teach classes at Millikin University in Decatur once a week.
My third book is currently at the printers and comes out March 1 [“Band:Smart” about putting together a band] and my fourth book which we’ll be releasing in a different manner.
CA) What do you mean by that?
ATKINS) As much as we’d like to say we are breaking new ground, it’s actually the way they did the Sherlock Holmes books. We are serializing it. It’s on my five years with Public Image Ltd. I’m really enjoying putting it together.
CA) You’ve done so much in your life, what do you consider yourself?
ATKINS) I don’t consider myself to be only one thing. I’m a drummer, producer, label owner, teacher, author, speaker and father of four, And kind of a crappy DJ. I try to show that to my students. ‘Don’t look for one job.’ I don’t know anyone who’s just doing one job. I have my own record label, my own studio, my own screen printing company, publishing.
CA) It’s interesting that you have the label and a lot of your teaching is about how to protect yourself as an artist. Was there some sort of impetus that led to it? Early on, did you have a bad deal somewhere?
ATKINS) I’m sure every artist – if you’re unlucky you’ve only had one bad deal. You have to hope that the deal isn’t that bad so you could do another bad deal. I’m sure I’ve had a bunch of bad deals, but I’ve released 350 albums on my own label and the label still exists.
CA) How did you start teaching?
ATKINS) I got into teaching by accident. I was booking multi-band tours with two to three buses. I brought a lot of artists together, we shared crews, merchandising people, sound men. So I was putting these tours together that were quite labor intensive and I had this fantastic idea to go to Columbia College and get some interns. I sat with some of the faculty and did a presentation on what I was doing. They sat through it and said, ‘When can you start?’ I said that I could take interns back in the car with me now and they said ‘No, when can you start teaching?’ I said, ‘Teaching what? What are you talking about?’ They told me that I should be teaching it, so I started to teach the business of touring. The class started a week later. I got the textbook and it was written in 1964. I thought, ‘This is ridiculous’ but I couldn’t find a book that dealt with touring. So, writing “Tour:Smart,” my first book, became the text book. And that was the impetus for me to go around the world speaking. At first, they were looking for someone to do it but I would look down on myself because I realized that you can’t do a presentation on being exciting on stage, getting people’s attention, being different — without being exciting, different and amazing. So, then I started to throw different theatrical ideas into my presentations.
CA) How often are you still playing music?
ATKINS) We have a band called Pigface and we did a show at the House of Blues in 2016 and we sold it out. That was the first time that I played drums in a couple of years. I’ll run in and play drums for somebody at times. I was speaking in Toronto and just Tweeted “Who wants drums?” and someone called. Sometimes I just do that type of thing for no money. But for the Pigface show, I rehearsed a lot, I worked out and dropped 20 pounds. I’d like to do that again at some point in the future. This year is the 40th anniversary of the beginning of Public Image Ltd. I’ll be 60 next year and I look around and I can still play. People that I might want to play with are still around and I know enough to know that won’t always be the case. So, I might do something but I’m just not sure what.
CA) What about Public Image Ltd.? Johnny’s [John Lyndon, aka Johnny Rotten] still around, right?
ATKINS) Yes, John’s around and he hired some session musicians to be PiL. I think that when I left there was some great music, but it’s made by producers and I don’t think it’s quite as dangerous or interesting as it used to be. It seems to be true that when you surround yourself with those you employ, no one is going to say ‘F.U., this is a bad idea.’ They all say, ‘This is fantastic.’
CA) Do you still communicate with him?
ATKINS) A little bit. It’s up and down. It’s difficult. Drummers do not need singer’s bands. I’m sure John sees my departure as a betrayal and I understand that. I still am friends— I still communicate with everybody else. I’m not necessarily friends with everybody.
CA) Do you see yourself ever playing with them again?
ATKINS) I’ve worked with Jah Wobble, the bass player. We did an album under the name The Damage Manual together in 2000. That was great. I’ve suggested that he and I do something again because I don’t think people understand what a rhythm section is. There aren’t that many around anymore, two people who become a pair. You hire a rhythm section. You don’t hire a drummer and then shop around for a bassist. That would be very interesting to me. At the moment, I’m dealing more with the emotional stuff of the years 1979 to 1985 when I was with PiL. I’ve been reaching out to a lot of people that I haven’t spoken to in a long time and have started to compile this book. That will be accompanied by —I’m kind of an insane pack-rat, so I have hand-typed itineraries from 1979 and some amazing photographs. I had a 35mm camera and I don’t think I’m a great photographer, but I was there. A few people have come forward and said things like, ‘Holy crap, do you remember you and John roller skating after the Detroit show?’ Oh, here’s pictures. I’m really excited about what that book could be, especially having seen a few people tell their side of the story, I’ve managed to not rise to that bait. So, my book won’t be ‘Oh no, that’s not true. Here’s the facts, here’s exhibit B.’ Screw that, I’m actually quite delighted and enjoying other people’s ideas of what happened.
CA) What happens if someone’s recollection is way off from yours?
ATKINS) Why would it be the same? That’s what’s interesting to me. Aside from of course every body in every band thinking they came up with the killer riff, which is bullshit. But the emotions, for instance, I had an almost 3-hour Skype conversation with Keith Levene and we never got along when we were in the band together. He had his problems and I had my opinion of those problems. But we were talking just two weeks ago and at one point he tried to have a go at me. And I said, ‘Fuck Jim, I was 21’ and he said ‘Martin, I was 22’ and we were both like, ‘Oh, Wow.’ Neither of us were younger or older, we were just in it. My wife was messing around in the kitchen when we were Skyping and she sat for 3 hours and just listened. It was really an interesting point in my life. The book may or may better for Keith’s input but I’m certainly better for having that perspective.
CA) Did you talk to the other guys?
ATKINS) I talk to Wobble all the time. I’m reaching out to a lot of people right now.
CA) And Johnny too?
ATKINS) No, I’ve never asked him. I think John might believe that it’s his band. Legally he could claim that, but from a creative energy standpoint, it clearly wasn’t. On “The Flowers of Romance” sometimes the engineer and I would make a fully formed track. John would walk in the studio and sing over it. Amazing vocals, putting an interesting twist on some cool ideas but those ideas were fully formed and existed before he came in. Some people, and perhaps John also believes that he created the music that we created and that he sang over, so I don’t know that I will ask John for his opinion. There’s a new documentary called The Public Image is Rotten and the title alone says a lot. The Public Image wasn’t Rotten. The implication being that it was John’s vision, it wasn’t. I will give him all kinds of credit for assembling some interesting people and being 25 percent of that band.
John is doing a new thing in a car with Jay Leno. John doesn’t need his story told. I want to tell this other story. The new documentary told me a lot. It went from 1978 until the present day.
CA) Who was behind that?
ATKINS) I’m not really sure.
CA) Did they talk to you for it?
ATKINS) Yes, I’m in it. I’ve watched it a couple times. I went out to New York and did a Q&A for it and did the same thing in Chicago. All the documentary did for me is underline the importance of the band from before I was in it in 1978 to from after I was in it in 1987.
CA) The thing that comes to mind and maybe you don’t care, but do you think there will be any criticism that John’s viewpoint isn’t in the book?
ATKINS) As I said, I think he’s released three books about his life about how he did this and how he did that. I know for instance that in his last book he said that I demanded payment for a tour before the tour happened. And then he extrapolated from that to say, ‘Martin would do anything for money.’ I read that and I thought, ‘My mum is reading this. My dad isn’t around to read it, but it’s just not true.’ What happened was I did a tour, and this is interesting, I wasn’t paid for the tour. I had a condo in Pasadena and I lost it because I wasn’t paid for the tour. I had to get an attorney to sue to get my money, so it’s actually the opposite [of what he wrote]. I feel like anything he would say I’d have to address. I might address the point in my book of how strange memory is because I’ve gone through my files and I have everything. While that stuff is interesting to me, I don’t want to go down those roads.
CA) The other thing, to get back to teaching, it seems like musicians have been ripped off going back to the days of the early blues musicians. Other forms of artists have been ripped off as well. Do you think it’s because they don’t focus on the business end much?
ATKINS) There are so many reasons why musicians don’t. I do. Certainly, before I went on the road with Ministry I had a signed contract. I think I was the only member of the tour who had a signed contract. And honestly, all that did for me was create tension between myself and Al Jourgensen. He was like ‘F.U’ and felt like he wasn’t being trusted.
CA) Do you think that’s a concern that musicians, especially young ones, may have to be aware of?
ATKINS) Yeah. People sent me emails when I was working on “Tour:Smart” saying things like ‘You’re going to give away all the secrets’ and ‘There will be no reason for you to teach any classes’ and I remember thinking, ‘Am I destroying a potential career path for myself? — I have four children. But no, you realize when you give something like that, which is good inside information, that it creates a need and something else comes. Doors don’t close. You open a door and it opens another one I think.
CA) It seems like over the last couple decades more artists are standing up for themselves and taking control. What do you think about what Chance The Rapper is doing?
ATKINS) It’s brilliant. I’ve said for a long time that the best way to get the best deal possible is not to need it. If you need the record contract, you’re fucked. It’s only when you don’t need it that you can walk away from the table.
CA) I know Suzanne Vega re-recorded a lot of her old albums because she didn’t own her masters. I’m wondering your thoughts about Steve Albini and the way he works?
ATKINS) How does he work? He doesn’t take percentages?
CA) Right. You pay him to record and that’s pretty much it.
ATKINS) Yeah, I don’t know why he does that. I understand people’s desire, along with my own, of not doing things like they were done in the past, but when large pieces of machinery still function in the same manner, it’s not always the smartest thing to do everything differently. Like Factory Records, Touch And Go, Wax Trax! — all had different, naive or nonexistent contracts and they paid the price.
CA) I think as for Touch and Go, I’ve seen and read that a lot of the bands had handshake deals and that they were pretty trustworthy guys and that was their whole M.O. Business-wise it may not be the best thing, and I think a guy like Albini would be the first to admit that he could be a lot richer money-wise but that’s not really his goal.
ATKINS) He’s part of that whole Touch and Go family and Corey Rusk who ran it didn’t have distribution for many years. So the problem with that is not when you’re selling 5,000 or 10,000 albums. It’s when you have a band like The Butthole Surfers who start to explode on another label and the management or the attorneys or somebody sees the potential of the back catalog and they find a way to get it. And in finding a way to get it they open up a door that everybody falls through, myself included. I pulled my catalog off Touch and Go.
CA) You mentioned Al Jourgensen. Are you friendly with him?
ATKINS) Not at all, no. I said hello to him at NAM [North American Music Marketing Festival] in Anaheim. I saw Paul Raven, who’s not around anymore. He was playing with Ministry at the time. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was doing an album signing. Then I saw Al, and thought it would be silly not to say hi. He looked up at me like I was customer number 11 for the signed album and said ‘Oh, it’s you, you —‘ and I forget what he called me. I thought, ‘You’re calling me that, you’re in a band with Paul Raven who’s a pirate. What’s your point, exactly?’ We talked a little bit but haven’t talked since.
CA) He was here in Chicago back in September for Riot Fest, as was Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails. Do you still communicate with him?
ATKINS) Not really. There’s no bad blood, he’s just Trent. He’s busy.
CA) You’ve been in living in Bridgeport since about 2000. How did you end up in Chicago?
ATKINS) I came through a bunch of times with PiL and Killing Joke. I met Al Jourgensen. A promoter ripped off Killing Joke for about $6,000 and I said ‘You don’t know me, you don’t know my friends and what we do, but you don’t rip us off. I’m not expecting to solve this tonight but I’m coming back after the tour and we’ll sort it out. So, I came back after the tour and hung out with Ministry for a while. Found a really amazing apartment. Celebrated Albini’s birthday in a Korean restaurant. A week later Jesus Lizard did their first concert ever on the roof of my apartment. I just moved here. I had lived in New York City and Los Angeles but just ended up here. It just worked out.
CA) How is it with your students, do most of them know the bands you were in?
ATKINS) Not at all. For a while, when I started teaching 16 years ago, Pigface and Nine Inch Nails, sure. Public Image, what? Now, not so much. They know that I’ve done stuff, but I think it’s the weight of those experiences that is helpful, not the fact that I was in a bunch of bands that they recognize.
CA) How did the trip and documentary on Chinese music come about?
ATKINS) I went there twice and had one of the Chinese bands come here. I think I was just bored. It was 2006 or 2007 and that was early for Beijing. I was on the edge of punk or post punk, on the edge of industrial and was like ’now what?’ It didn’t take me long to be absolutely enraptured with the Beijing scene. Watching these bands, it was almost like reliving punk. Like, ‘Fuck it! I’m banging on a chair!’ Really smashing it up. There were so many of these bands that I enjoyed. Pretty soon it was obvious to me that everything I was bored of in the English and American music scenes, which I think was attitudes of people, was all bubbling under the surface in Beijing. I had some interesting creative discussions with some the bands I signed [from China] but in the end, I was just happy to have made those albums and made those connections. I still have a bunch of those connections.
CA) Is there anything I haven’t touched on that you want to bring up?
ATKINS) Oh my goodness.
CA) What’s next for you?
ATKINS) Well, I like where I’m at. Things aren’t easy, I’m doing a lot and constantly pushing, but I don’t need to prove myself as a drummer. I don’t need to prove myself as an educator or an author or an academic. I just got my master’s degree and when I started teaching at Columbia I didn’t even have an associate’s degree. I left school when I was 16. So, I’m starting to enjoy this idea that I don’t have to prove anything and see what that allows. It’s already allowed all these people to invade my book. I haven’t seen the transcription of the interview, but I’m sure at some point Keith [Levene] said a couple of nasty things. I’d be disappointed if he didn’t. But I don’t know many people who wouldn’t care that that was in their own book. I rather have Keith in my book saying that than not have him in it. So, I’m enjoying whatever you would call the place where I’m at. This don’t give a fuck place. You could say that is punk rock, but when we didn’t give a fuck in 1979 we were persuading ourselves that we didn’t. ‘I don’t give a fuck, but what did that journalist say? I don’t give a fuck about that review, let me read it.’ But now, I’m really not giving a fuck and the artistic or the emotional rewards of that have been huge already.
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