"I think there's an art involved in bringing all of these people together under the Pigface umbrella," says Martin Atkins, drummer and founder of the industrial supergroup called, yes, Pigface. Fighting to be heard over the buzz of a bad connection (he's calling from a pay phone on a pedestrian mall in Florida), he adds, "It's not like a camping trip."
Since the early Nineties Atkins has served as Pigface's organizer and entrepreneur, assembling some of the most talented players from various alternative acts to contribute to his projects. At one time or another, performers from Public Image Limited, Ministry, Silverfish, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Shonen Knife, Die Warzau, Skinny Puppy, Swans, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Faster Pussycat, Gaye Bykers on Acid, Jesus Lizard, the Dead Kennedys and Psychic TV have helped him create his brand of cathartic cacophony. On Pigface's Notes From Thee Underground, which Atkins produced and released this year on his Invisible label, at least twenty artists offer random input--which places them in the company of close to 100 musicians who can claim temporary Pigface membership.
Because of the huge array of personalities involved, contractual and paperwork glitches are common problems for Pigface. However, the biggest headaches arise in relation to tour schedules. The core members of Pigface '94 are committed to a grueling slate of 48 shows in 49 days, and the appearance of guest stars on many dates makes juggling the lineup a logistical nightmare. When asked why several of Pigface's better-known contributors won't be appearing in Denver, Atkins--who swears he'd be a mass murderer if it weren't for the band--gets defensive.
"Well, excuse me!" he interjects. "If you're referring to someone like [Skinny Puppy's] Ogre, none of us gets billing above any other member of the band--and I think Ogre will be the first to say that it's not about Ogre or Martin Atkins or John Lydon. I happen to think that Charles Levi from Thrill Kill Kult is one of the coolest bass players I've ever worked with. I don't know where Taime Downe from Faster Pussycat fits into the grand scheme of things, but they have a platinum album. And I think that Caspar Brotzmann will be at the Denver show. Is he a big enough name for you? And I think, although this is not confirmed and you shouldn't buy a ticket based upon this, that Danny Carey from Tool is coming out for that week. Probably. So it'll just be those guys and me, plus Pat Sprawl from Skinny Puppy, Joe Trump from Elliot Sharp's Carbon--they tour the world constantly and are very well respected--Meg Lee Chin, who is awesome on vocals, Mary Byker from Gaye Bykers, and who knows who else by then. Sorry!"
In Atkins's view, Pigface eschews glamour in favor of the basic tenets of punk--self-expression, survival and making ends meet. "It costs us $4,000 a day to do this," Atkins claims, "and that's not because we're paying ourselves a huge salary. We have to play seven shows a week, because if we didn't, then we'd be more in debt. Invisible is a small label, and we just can't afford it."
Yet Atkins readily acknowledges that running his own label has its advantages: "We release what we want to whenever we want to. We have our own preproduction studio--it's Steve Albini's eight-track studio. Instead of giving all of our money to all these other people, we held on to some of it and passed it on to other bands who can use a break."
Atkins goes to great lengths to dramatize both his approachability and his support for underdogs. He tells about "a guy from Raleigh, North Carolina; he has a shopping cart with these electronic pickups on it, and he played shopping cart with us. And somebody from a radio station said, `Oh, I'm a drummer. I suppose I could be in Pigface.' I'm like, `Yeah, bring your drums.' So he was on stage with us. People don't realize how open we all are. There are no barriers. We try to erode the barrier between the band and the audience and between bands and other bands."
When Atkins recalls his musical history, though, his humble pose gives way to more name-dropping. "I've had a lot of experience being in supposedly successful bands where you would think, `How dare he be unhappy, that asshole Martin Atkins,'" he explains. "The truth is, in my five years with PIL, I wasn't happy, so I left. I was with Killing Joke for a couple of years, and I've worked with Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. I played drums on `Wish' on the Broken EP."
In addition, Atkins also co-wrote "Suck" with Trent Reznor; the song is featured on the first two Pigface releases, Gub and Welcome to Mexico...Asshole, as well as on the unlabeled B-side of the Broken cassette. Reznor gave the tune mass exposure by including it in his set at Woodstock '94.
"I don't particularly care for Trent's version of it, but I think it's cool," Atkins says. "And I don't think it puts an extra thousand people at a Pigface show. Maybe fifty people who are curious. But most people are frightened of us."
As if to elaborate, Atkins begins razzing his companion, tour-mate and Psychic TV veteran Genesis P-Orridge, during this conversation. "Can you hear the evangelist screaming in the background?" Genesis asks after being handed the phone. "He's crazy! I'm actually wearing my Evil Mothers T-shirt with a great big picture of the Virgin Mary with her eyes gouged out. I'm going to go wander and stand in front of him."
After Genesis leaves on his mission, Atkins admits that he enjoys playing on the average listener's fears. While some songs on Underground are listenable--"like `Asphole,'" he says, "which I've heard on the dance floor already, and `Chickasaw,' [which] is very friendly and inviting"--most of the cuts on the album continue the violent and profane pattern established by previous Pigface discs.
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"The other tracks on there are the most distorted, nasty, left-field things I've ever heard," he continues. "So there are some tracks that welcome you in, like your mum standing in the doorway with a hot cup of chocolate on a cold winter evening. [But] as soon as you're through the door, she cracks you across the back of the head with a baseball bat, asking, `Where the hell have you been?' I think our first album was a slammed door in people's faces. I think that with this one it's easier to find a way in, but I don't think Pigface will ever be mainstream."
And that's okay, he insists. "I've actually found a reason to get excited again. I consider myself to be very lucky," he announces. "There are so many cynical, twisted, jaded, screwed-up people in this business that could be sober and excited and absolutely fueled with adrenaline. It feels good."
Pigface, with Evil Mothers and Foreskin 500. 8 p.m. Thursday, November 24, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, $14, 290-TIXS or 830-2525.