Secondly, this is your first album for Ostgut Ton, with whom you’ve been involved for nearly a decade. Was this a natural development, and can you recall some of your first experiences playing at Berghain?
Martyn is arguably one of the most consistently innovative names in electronic music over the past decade. Whether as a producer, DJ, collaborator or label boss, the humble Dutchman (long since adopted by the East Coast of the USA) holds his evolving style down in myriad ways. When dubstep and bass were at their creative peak, Martyn was among the forward-thinkers personally mutating a shift into house and techno tempos, having already evolved out of the DnB scene. Even more impressive still, was that he often pushed these sounds within the walls of Berghain, by that point, a world-infamous rave institution, frequented by more than the occasional techno purist.
Martyn has compounded this relationship with Berghain and it’s parent label, Ostgut Ton, on his new album, ‘Voids’. Written in the aftermath of a serious health scare, it contains some of his most personal, intricate and intimate material, as well as coming full circle on some of the heavier sounds that made his name as a DJ (no more powerfully than on the earth-shaking, UKG inspired, ‘Cutting Tone’.)
As the latest guest on The Forum, Martyn caught up with John Thorp to talk about some of the relationships that have defined his working approach, diversity and the death of his close friend, Marcus Intalex.
I’m going to start with two questions you’ve probably already been asked during press day in London. Firstly, bluntly, from a creative process, what’s it like to record an album after a serious heart attack? Is it a creatively liberating experience?
Well, it’s interesting. You recover quite quickly physically, but from a psychological perspective, it can take a lifetime to get over. There are definitely certain positive takeaways. I mean, you don’t let anyone mess with you once you’ve come back from the dead. But I wouldn’t say it was liberating. I have always dealt with my own emotions in my creative process, and I’d say some of my best music has been made during some difficult periods of my life.
I first played for Scuba’s night, Sub:Stance a few times, and then I met with and played with Ben Klock and Marcel Dettmann. Ben used one of my tracks on his Berghain mix CD, and then he remixed my track with The Spaceape. I also played upstairs at Panorama Bar. I’ve returned to the club a lot, becoming a resident in 2014, and continued to work with Steffi in particular, on Doms and Deykers.
It’s a really close team, and everyone from the management to the door staff to the bookers all work together, like a family. There was no pressure to organise an international press campaign or anything, and I knew this was going to be a very personal album, so from my perspective, it made perfect sense to release it through Ostgut.
Your productions were really synonymous with a period for me, and I'm not the only one. That was a really exciting time for dance music. Do you still look for innovation in music, or are you after something else these days?
No, I still look to innovate, to create exciting new sounds, if only for myself. If I bridged dubstep and techno or whatever, then I only did it to innovate, but I didn’t necessarily expect everyone to go along with it.
Do you think the current dance music landscape is more or less versatile than in 2009, when you released your rather seminal Fabric mix? There’s a note on that that explains it’s a “snapshot in time”, but all those tunes - Joy Orbison, Cooly G, even Jan Driver - have held up incredibly well.
Well, being eclectic or diverse is just the thing to be nowadays, isn’t it?
There are DJs who are great at this, but some tracks remain obscure because they’re just not very good, and I don’t think we should be championing average music, even if it’s rare. I played with Steffi in Paris recently, alongside Privacy. He basically played a pure electro set. A bit of classic electro, a bit of Detroit stuff, some modern, some Ghettotech… But it was all electro. It was great to be able to listen to that in its pure form, without somebody dropping some random African record they’re not really familiar with, just because that’s what they’re supposed to do.
I feel like you’re good at ending up where you might not be expected… The dubstep guy playing techno at Berghain, the techno guy sneaking garage and bass onto a Fabric compilation, even moving to DC, when it would have musically made sense to settle in London. Do you enjoy being an outsider in this sense?
I think it stems from being from Eindhoven. In the Netherlands, there are four major cities - Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht - and they’re all pretty close together. Eindhoven is the fifth city. I’ve got an accent from the South, and people in Amsterdam would always ask me “What’s happening in Eindhoven?”, like it was some other world.
Where I live in DC, there’s no real scene to speak of. But that’s great, because I get to do a week in Berlin or London or elsewhere, and concentrate all my energy on taking part in these creative things that really matter. And it’s good for reflection too, to have some distance.
You now host a strictly jazz show on NTS. An interesting proposition for somebody best known for their versatility. Is that you mellowing a little with age?
I've been buying and collecting jazz records since before I even DJ'd or made music, but I've never felt I could incorporate it into my sets in clubs. I’ve sampled things occasionally, but I’ve never really been able to play jazz in my sets. I did once take a John Coltrane record to Panorama Bar, but I just couldn’t make it work.
That's why it's great to be able to do radio shows playing jazz. I did a one-off special, and then they asked me to make it a regular thing. So every month, I get to thread these things together, like a mixtape really. With me doing my best 6Music presenter voice and introducing some context and history.
You are a notoriously versatile DJ, but you enjoy presenting your music in the live context. Why does that aspect remain so important to you?
You were close friends with Marcus Intalex, who sadly, unexpectedly passed away in the summer of 2018. One of the tracks on the LP, ‘Manchester’, has a sample and title that pays tribute to him directly. How did you first meet?
Well, I used to run DnB nights in Holland, and I think we crossed paths at a gig we played at, I think in Amsterdam. This was in 1998, maybe? A long time ago. And we just sort of stayed in touch, and he played at my night quite often. And when I first started making music, when I made what I suppose were my first endeavours into production, I kind of knew a few people from playing, who I could send my music to for feedback. And he was definitely one of the first people I sent my music to. And I suppose he saw my music progress, and he was actually the first person to sign me as an artist.
The music that I was doing and that he was doing was in the same zone at the time. So I did a few DnB twelves, and then a track called ‘Broken’. So basically, we stayed in touch, swapped music and did a lot of gigs as well. And then eventually he progressed to his sort of techno alias, Trevino, and he would send me a lot of those tracks.
Aha, so I guess your worlds met at that point, when you were known as a house and techno DJ?
Yeah, and when those tracks turned out to be really great, I got to release the first Trevino track, ‘Chip’. So I got to return the favour, in a way, after he had signed me first. So that’s what our relationship was about.
I never knew Marcus when I lived in Manchester, but the impression I got was that he was, for a lack of a better term, old school? Quite direct, maybe grumpy, but he just loved to play music wherever he could. What about his character resonated with you as a fan?
We just really got along. He definitely had that Mancunian sort of thing going on, he spoke his mind pretty clearly and he wasn’t really very impressed by celebrity or status or fame. He was pretty down to earth, and I quite liked that about him. And he certainly had a lot of experience in the early rave and DnB days. And finally, when I started shapeshifting my music and moving about in different circles, I was able to talk to him about that a little bit, and I helped with his Trevino alias. So we would share contacts and music, just a back-and-forth kind of thing.
What I would like to say about Marcus is that, obviously, over the last few years, the contact was a little bit less. And this was just because we were obviously both really busy. And the other thing is, a lot of people used to be friends, but now just follow each other on social media. And that’s not maintaining friendships. You need to make contact. That’s just following someone and liking someone on Facebook all the time, that’s not friendship.
Do you think there’s a culture among DJs of getting your photo with the ‘right’ person for your Instagram feed, above anything else? It could be seductive to those on the outside looking in, who want to DJ.
Yeah, but also, on a more personal level, obviously, as a DJ you travel alot, and you’re always busy, you keep yourself occupied all the time. So it’s easy to forget all of your old mates, but then you go into a darker period, and then all of a sudden, there are no friends left. Because you have never maintained them. And I think that’s really important, and obviously I did have a darker period last year, with the health scare. And I only got through that with the help of my real friends, the people who step up, drop everything, whether to talk or help out. Obviously that’s very important, and you only realise that when you don’t have it any more.
John Thorp, July 2018.