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“This Idea of Dub as a Philosophy”: A Talk with KMRU and Kevin Richard Martin (The Bug)

Nina Interviews

A conversation centered around the duo’s debut collaborative release.

By Thea Ballard


Not long after releasing Peel, his 2020 breakthrough LP as KMRU on Editions Mego, Joseph Kamaru moved from his home in Nairobi to begin a master’s program in Sound Studies and Sonic Arts at the Universität der Kunste in Berlin. Kamaru’s work—absorbing, ambient-leaning constructions built from electronics and field recordings—is intertwined with the artist’s intense listening practice: whether he’s tuning in to music or a city street, Kamaru seems to process the world through its sounds. Kevin Richard Martin—the English musician and producer best known for his dancehall- and dub-inflected work as The Bug—became an admirer of Kamaru’s music after hearing Peel. While Kamaru’s vocals are hardly an obvious presence in his own music, appearing processed beyond recognition if at all, Martin took a particular shine to the Kenyan artist’s voice after hearing him speak in a short YouTube documentary. 

The fruits of the pair’s first collaboration arrive in the form of Disconnect, a six-track release that came out June 14 via the British label Phantom Limb. On the record, Kamaru’s voice plays a structuring role: sonically, as an arresting melodic and textural counterpart to the project’s sparse and cavernous soundscapes, but also conceptually. The phrases sung and spoken by Kamaru are drawn from a paper written for his master’s, which pushed back on some of the limits he encountered in European academia. In his original text, Kamaru considers practices of listening through difference in conversation with both the silencing of those deemed other and what the thinker Édouard Glissant terms the “right to opacity.” In conversation with Martin’s resonant production, Kamaru leans into tension; in other words, the record sounds deep precisely because of how the duo seek out distortion and uncertainty as sources of affective heft. 

I caught up with Kamaru and Martin over Zoom this spring. Kamaru was back in Berlin between tour dates, and Martin in his studio in Brussels. As the two talked through Disconnect, our conversation touched on remote collaboration, bringing the inner worlds of ambient music into the live space, and dub, both as a philosophy and a practice. 

KRM & KMRU - Disconnect
KRM & KMRU - DisconnectPhantom Limb

  • 1Differences
  • 2Arkives
  • 3Difference
  • 4Ark
  • 5Differ
  • 6Arcs

What was your relationship to one another’s work before you began collaborating on Disconnect?

Martin: I had heard Joseph's album on [Editions] Mego. Instantly, as soon as I heard it, it resonated with me because it felt like it was a similar mindset and a similar approach and similar mood to a lot of the music I was attempting to make at that time. When I found just how much music Joe had been making, I was sort of staggered and really impressed. And I think I can't remember who contacted whom first or how, but I think we were both going through quite a similar monastic phase, as the whole world was at that time, and making a lot of music, because you certainly weren't traveling.

Kamaru: I knew more of Kevin's work, like the Bug stuff. I don't know if I've ever mentioned this to you, Kevin, but I remember coming across the track “Skeng,” which is quite old. And then later on, the discovery of your Kevin Richard project was very new for me. Seeing these two different worlds together, I was like, wow, this is amazing. I think our contact actually started on Twitter. I sent Kevin a promo code [for a Bandcamp download]. And then every time I put out something new, or Kevin did, we shared codes. And eventually, we just wound up sharing music that then led up to Disconnect

I first heard Peel during that time, and have these deep associations with being on my own, seeking out something that could accompany me inward. 

Martin: For me, COVID, much as it was extremely troubling—economically, financially, practically—ended up being a really fruitful period for me, because you were forced inwards, and it was a time where I think that sort of inspiration can help creatively; you can turn a negative into a positive and like most people, that's the only thing that I felt was possible at that time, really, to stay sane. When I heard Joseph’s music, it reminded me a lot of a compilation I put together for Virgin Records many years ago called Isolationism, which veered from people like Aphex Twin to Thomas Köner to Scorn and Coil. It reflected how a lot of artists have moved from being in bands to working more and more solo or involved in making a sort of ambient counterbalance to very noisy music. I heard in Joseph's music that same sort of almost cocooned immersion. 

Kamaru: Around this time, I was just sharing so much music. With the Mego release, I thought, maybe I should send some of my music to a label, because I was putting out most of my own work. For Peel I was like, let me try and see if a label will respond, because I was supposed to release it on my own as usual. And then I kept creating, keeping on, just working on sound. 

Kevin, you've been around a little bit longer, and you've seen some major shifts in the creation and circulation of music. But Joseph is coming up at a certain moment where, even outside of the exceptional circumstances of COVID, it’s normal to use the internet to consume and also develop relationships around music. And it seems like this idea of this sort of singular producer, or this sort of person working in isolation, is a norm now, too. 

Martin: I mean, ironically, what I hear from people I'm speaking to is actually that it's shifting again: that the electronic musicians and DJs are struggling more and more, and the audiences are generally gravitating towards bands. But yeah, I think for me, I've discovered a lot of music through Bandcamp. When the first year of COVID hit, I'd moved to Brussels the day before all borders closed. I spent a lot of money on the move from Berlin, moving with my two young children and my wife. Within a month, I discovered all my shows had been canceled for the rest of the year. I was panic stricken, and was like, well, what am I going to do in this situation? I discovered Bandcamp, which I didn't really pay that much attention to, in all honesty, until that time. It was a way to save my skin, and pay my rent. 

In terms of my personal background in music, and what turned me on to music—which was post punk music, from punk labels like Crass to Throbbing Gristle’s label—it was all about DIY. I think things have swung heavily DIY now, particularly because a lot of the middle ground has disappeared. You’re either huge, or you're very underground. You're forced to be DIY now, because a lot of the infrastructure has changed. And I think that can have positive or negative effects. Positive is, it can be very inspirational to make music and to know that you've become your own boss, really.

Joseph, getting your start in Nairobi, what was your experience coming up very much a “Bandcamp” artist? How have you used platforms to forge connections, or to share your music?

Kamaru: Things are porous online, and you can meet people, share some music, or try and collaborate: you can meet or exchange sounds with someone without having any physical interaction. But I think for me, being able to share my music outside Nairobi was important. In Nairobi, there’s a very small community of people who are making the same kind of music, and we are always trying to find more people who are like-minded, who are thinking about making sounds in this direction. But things just aligned so seamlessly, because I moved to Berlin during COVID to study. And then at the same time, that's when I had released this record, and then things were snowballing, all happening at the same time. And all the people that I've met online, I was meeting them in person now. 

So some of those remote connections also do become real community, or real opportunities. Can you tell me about your process for writing and recording these tracks? I'm assuming you were doing so remotely from one another, which seems germane to our conversation.

Martin: Joe, was it me or you that popped the question that we should collaborate? I can't really remember, to be honest. 

Kamaru: Yeah, it was you.

Martin: We’d become friends via messaging on Twitter, and then I can remember saying to Joe that it would make sense to collaborate in some manner, if you're up for it. I'd seen a documentary called Under the Bridge where Joseph was shown doing his field recordings in Kenya and his process of recording. What really resonated with me was how Joseph communicated his passion for it in such a quiet, intense fashion. And I liked that straightaway because I'm generally drawn to people who are hardcore in their approach to their work. It's not just a gimmick or a money-making thing. Joe talked with a love and passion for what he was doing.


What really hit home in particular was Joe's voice. Even here, in this conversation, you can hear it, he's got a beautiful voice. I love working with vocalists; I'm drawn to tone and texture of voice, and normally I'm associated with lower baritone voices. But actually, Joe's voice just flies, and in such a soft way. It floats when he speaks. I've got to say, over the course of making this album—and I've collaborated with many people over the years—it was so smooth with Joe, and just so on point, and almost like we're on the same wavelength. Which didn't really make any sense, particularly because we haven't previously worked together in any great manner; we hadn't really spent direct time with each other. 

Kamaru: I also found it so seamless. I went into working with Kevin not having any expectations. But it went so smoothly. I remember that when he reached out regarding me using my voice, it's something that I'm aware of—my voice is so low, like, I can't shout, and my range is super low. But I used to sing in choir and stuff in high school. My voice was my main instrument, then I dropped it. But the idea of using my voice again aligned with a text that I was working on for school; the idea was to do an audio paper, using my voice to vocalize what I was writing. And when Kevin wrote this music, he was thinking of the idea of me moving back to Berlin and this idea of being away from home. I sketched out some ideas with what Kevin was sending, and it was quite a lot, it was very prolific. Initially, I did something for the school stuff around the project, but then, at some point, we came back to our version and then mixed everything and yeah, it's what it is now.

And what did it feel like, using your voice in that way? Was there any anxiety around it? Or did it feel kind of natural?

Kamaru: For me, I'm just at home when I do my own recording. I usually record vocals at home on my tracks, but then I process them so much, it’s like make up around it. Getting used to my voice is something—listening to the record so much and being like, “Oh, that's me.” [laughs]

Martin: I remember when I first did the first mix-downs and sent them over to Joseph, I think he was a bit taken aback that I'd mixed his voice so high. Maybe he'd expected me to process the voice much more or bury the vocals much deeper into the sonic tapestry. But as I said, I just loved his voice. I thought the melodies, and also the narrative content, just synced so well with the material I'd sent over in the first place. Joe had found a perfect sweet spot for his voice. I thought it was only to the strength of the material that Joe's voice should be a sort of center point.

How were the texts that formed the basis of your vocals developed, Joseph?

Kamaru: On the conceptual level, I was talking with Kevin about moving from Nairobi to Berlin and this idea of separation, which I was writing about in the text: thinking about the body and also the voice in a way that is very insular, but also indifferent. Removing oneself, observing things. For Disconnect, I was referencing different chapters that I wrote, and just reading them out loud, and seeing which phrases worked well in different parts of the piece, which also extended into the conversations with the artwork and everything. These ideas come through in how heavy it is sonically, although it’s very minimal. I played it during soundcheck, and it's just insane how it sounds.

Martin: So you had the same experience as me! I run a label and a sound system under the name of Pressure, and I remember playing “Differ” for the first time during the soundcheck of a recent Pressure party, which I was playing as The Bug. And literally, my eyeballs were vibrating in my inner sockets, and my clothes were shaking. I play very loud on stage anyway, the monitor level is loud. But I was shocked at the impact of the track. I honestly still don't see the material as being heavy; there was certainly no commitment for me to make this material heavy. I see it as a very deep, deep, deep sound bath. But when I heard it at that volume, it was like, Oh my god, this is insane. You know, it sounded as heavy as any Bug track, but with just that weight that I didn't realize would be so resonant in a live context.

Kamaru: For me it was quite insane, just to play it on a good sound system and hear how much weight it has. The tracks are very sparse, but there’s just this density to them, which I knew connects so much with the text. There's just so much to say. But like, I think all of this was just carried in this weightiness.

I haven't had the chance to hear this particular release out, but hearing it on headphones, I was thinking back to seeing you live here in Durham this spring, Joseph. Everybody was sitting down a ways back from the stage, but I had a very intense experience, with the texture, the density of the sounds. I think there can be something affecting about your music at the physical level. And then Kevin, I think of your music as The Bug as having a weight that’s particular to its structure.

Martin: I haven’t been fortunate enough to hear Joseph live yet. But I'm very smitten by this idea of an ambient music that isn't necessarily background, that’s more about immersiveness. For me, it's a part of the beauty of it, that you can play music that you could have as background if you want, but when you hear it live over a proper system, it becomes literally this sonic ocean to dive into; you don't really have a choice. It can be overwhelming, emotionally. When I heard Peel, it felt like a sort of soul brother in terms of what I try and do with my Kevin Richard Martin material. It isn't meant as fluffy cloud ambient music. It's more monastic, in the vein of a spiritual jazz record, but it's just minimal and slow and doesn't move a lot. It’s a reaction to the fast-forward, short attention span culture that accelerates all the time really. It's almost a political decision to make music like that, and a spiritual one too, as far as I'm concerned.

Kamaru: Yeah, I totally agree with the idea of an ambient or experimental music being played live in a different context, that's not in the background, and more in the fore. I get this a lot during my shows, that people come in with an expectation and then they come up to me afterwards and tell me that's not what they expected to hear. Within my discography, some records are very fluffy, and others are really intense. And for live shows, I realize how much force there can be, with sound, a good sound system, and how much you can just emotionally push sound to people—not in a way that is confronting, but that’s on the liminal edge. 

Martin: That's what's been really interesting to me, finally playing the Kevin Richard Martin live shows over the past few years: people are reacting very positively to the idea of a music that you can get lost into but that has a real force of emotion. It's been a revelation to me as well, because most ambient music is played at reasonable volumes; I've tried to play unreasonable volumes when I do these shows, but also the opposite. I played in a church supporting William Basinski in Brussels recently. And there was a very, very low DB limit. I was interested to see for myself if it could still hold people's attention to play that material at a lesser volume. It seemed to do the trick, and that was very nice. Some music has to be played loud to resonate, it's nice if you can create and compose and make music that couldn't be played loud and enjoyed or played quietly and enjoyed. 

The idea of liveness is at the center of this conversation, which seems to run counter to some of the expectations that people have around ambient music as a kind of Spotify playlist genre, as background listening: the idea that there's sort of a specific experience available when it's heard in a concert setting, around other people, that sort of thing. 

Kamaru: Sometimes I just create material for live performance, and won’t release it, or some records I’ll create just for [home] listening, and some records are material that I'm sure is going to fit well in a live context. But it changes so much, because live, you're listening with other people, and there’s the system and the space itself. There's so much interaction that translates through sound—visually, even, or how the whole show is curated. 

Martin: I think also, the music we're creating, in these particular contexts, Joseph solo, me solo, it's very insular. So personally, I have no idea how it will translate. Because it's only been very much about my own head and my inner workings, and then to take it into the live arena, music that's so personal, there’s always a slight nervousness for me: is this going to mean anything to anyone? I've been to ambient shows, good, ambient shows bad, where I've been literally counting the minutes and just like, leaving early, you know, because they didn't touch me. You never really know what effect your music’s going to have on anyone until it's in the live arena. But Disconnect is very much produced to be heard at home. So, ironically, considering that we seem to be gravitating towards talking about live shows a lot, there was no thought of that when I made Disconnect, in all honesty.

Kamaru: Yeah. Sometimes you just make the work for personal reasons. I actually don't make records thinking about playing live in this context of like, touring it a certain way. It's always personal experience, experimentation with sounds, and seeing what happens.

And of course, that heaviness can be felt by home listeners, even if you're not in the room with them; there’s an intensity to that kind of listening as well.  There are two terms that are iterated around Disconnect: “Arkives” and “Differences.” Could you talk about how those terms came to be at the center of your vocal contributions here, and what they carry for you, Joseph? 

Kamaru: “Differences” is the main one, it was the general theme of the paper. I was also thinking about the idea of otherness, which I also borrowed from the paper. Then there was a section about archives and field recordings. I was just thinking about how to view difference and otherness, mostly from a personal point of view. The thematic sound that Kevin initially shared fit perfectly with what I was writing. And I thought, maybe I could explore this thing with my voice, with sound.

Most of my school projects were trying to find alternate perspectives on things. For this paper, I took an outsider approach, against a normative way of thinking about sound. While I was in my master’s I had the academic thing going on, and also my art practice. Having this situation where I can work through ideas in an academic context, and then put them out in a very non-academic way is interesting to me. It opens up new perspectives.

You have this one release from 2022, Temporary Stored, which deals very literally with this idea of archives, using sounds from the collection of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, which was established during Belgium’s colonial rule in the Congo. That work thinks about repatriation and sound as an intervention in Eurocentric ideas of objecthood and colonial histories. Are any of those ideas present for you here? 

Kamaru: The initial version of “Arkives” had recordings of interviews with Audre Lorde and archival material, actually from the same project I produced for my master’s. It made sense to also have it lingering on the theme, the project. That’s where my headspace was at when the album was forming.

Kevin, how did you receive these ideas? What was it like to be in conversation with what Joseph was processing through his academic work and his art practice?

Martin: Well, it was so coincidental that when we first discussed the idea of Joe committing vocals to the project, I'd suggested the idea of difference and otherness, maybe partly because of my relationship to Berlin, and trying to imagine how Joseph worked in an academic arena in a country like Germany. And it just so happened, Joseph was working in school around the same concept, as he just outlined to you, which I had no idea of. I think for me, there's subliminal factors at work when you collaborate with someone; there's an unspoken thing where you’re trying to get into someone else's head. When I composed the music, it was a case of that, and trying to think how Joe was relating to his surroundings. I've never been to Nairobi, but having seen Under the Bridge, I could imagine Berlin as an extreme opposite. I was trying to picture a sort of melancholy, an alienation, in how Joe might feel sometimes. Academia for me, the little I know—well, I basically decided to leave education at a very young age, because I just didn't like what it entailed, but I can only imagine how stiff and inflexible it can be if you're a free-thinking musician or artist. Germany is still riddled with racism; you know, my wife's Japanese, she had racism in her face a few times whilst we lived in Berlin. And there's an inflexibility to Berlin that I didn't expect, in certain places and manners, and I just imagined how Joe might be reacting to that when I was making the music.

When I'd made the suggestion of potential concepts that we could crunch together, lyrically or sonically, if anything it was coming from me and the ghost of Berlin in my studio. I lived there eight years, and that's where my children were born. I had a very important time of my life in Berlin, but I never loved it. There were certain social cliches or cultural cliches that made me feel disconnected from Germany. I'm European, obviously, born in Wales, Father, Irish mother Scottish. The reason I moved to London was because I never liked white English culture where I grew up, I wanted to immerse myself in a multicultural polyglot society. When I moved to Berlin, I thought it might be similar to London, but it seems colder. Some of the best friendships I made were with Turkish shopkeepers or Syrian taxi drivers, all of whom felt very unwelcome within Berlin, and within Germany. 

Kamaru: I think it's very coherent and relevant. This idea of alterity and otherness was based on my move to Berlin—in school, but also just in Germany in general, there's a way my body is very aware. And I've never been aware like this in any other place. In Nairobi, I don't think about it, but it happens when I come back to Berlin; my body enters a very heightened state. I remember making a decision in school that my work there would be based on my history, just being Black or being from Nairobi, and sort of exploring that world, because I was coming up against the sound art world and Eurocentric ways of thinking and I wanted to find other ways of doing things that related more to me. But also, more and more, I’m leaning towards this idea of distorting things and making them very opaque. Not having to fully explain things, when I feel sometimes you're confronted to say so much.

Martin: It's funny that Joseph says that, because the tracks that were left off the album were possibly the most blatant lyrically, and most militant sonically, and I think that was why we called it to leave it off. Because in a way, what's tantalizing about the record is that the themes explored are open-ended. The themes are heavy, but it’s a beautiful record; it’s a very kaleidoscopic record. 

Joseph’s work has performed literal confrontations with the archive as a European or colonial concept. But Kevin, I was thinking about your own body of work, its interactions with diasporic genres like dub or dancehall, your collaborations, as speaking to the idea of the song as a kind of archive itself. What’s your relationship to archives—does your work perform some function of cultural memory? 

Martin: The idea of an archive is there to be, and throughout my life, I’ve been about losing chapters and burning the archive. I’m just committed to the idea of forward motion. And I think that nostalgia isn't something I generally welcome. But maybe it's because I've never particularly liked large parts of my past. And it's like, I'm happier now than I've ever been in my life, and still committed to the idea of fast forward, into the future momentum. When I'm asked about making records, even the processes, I can't even remember how most things were made. I'm not methodical in how I work. I'm very instinctive.  But I think the archival, with respect to the roots of the music, or the musicians you're working with, is crucial. Respect is crucial with someone that you work with, or in your connection to a music that's not just plunder and move on. Consistently, I've either worked with dub as a medium or dub as a philosophy, and tried to act as a propaganda machine for people working within those areas.

It's not that I have a disrespect for the idea of history, the archive, etc. But I'm just more excited about the idea of what comes next and where things lead to than where they've led from. And maybe that's why I dropped out of school. I've got a problem with nostalgia, but maybe that's just a punk thing. It was punk music that turned me on to music and a lot of the philosophies they're in.

Kamaru: This idea of dub as a philosophy, it's something that I've learned a lot from this project. Starting from the theme and then sort of having some dub elements trickling into the other tracks. All of them exist on their own, but each can encompass everything.

Martin: For me, dub can be seen as a sort of survival mechanism in the postmodern times we are living in. It's always been a bit irksome to me to see people using dub and reggae as a fashion. I was hit by future shock when I first heard dub music, when I first heard hip hop. I was lucky enough to speak to someone like Lee Perry. When he spoke, I could barely understand what he was trying to get at with some of the things he was saying, but when I transposed the interview at home, I realized there were about four different levels of meaning to virtually everything he said, which was shockingly brilliant. Actually, someone reviewed “Differences,” and talked about parallels between Joe's voice and Lee Perry's voice and I can sort of see what they were getting at. There's a sort of frailty to how Joe approached the melodies. Some people don't applaud Lee Perry for his voice, but I personally loved his voice. And I think that Joe has a similar spiritual depth of tone that Lee Perry had.

Joseph, are there certain figures or forms that you think about your work in relation to?

Kamaru: It’s also quite instinctive for me. For ideas or ways to think about sound, I listen to so much music, which I’m sure trickles into what I’m creating: experimental avant-garde stuff, but also jazz or some music from the continent, like Moroccan Berber music. Having this huge listening repertoire is something that, on its own, is inherent for me. When I'm making music—it's like, I listen to lots of hip hop, and it's not something that I try and make, but I'm curious to hear music itself.

And then with field recordings, that listening practice, there’s just so much sonic information outside, or in my environment. Sometimes I play shows and people have never heard field recordings this intense or at the forefront. They haven’t heard how with these natural sounds—which are familiar to people, but then abstracted in a very physical way—you can feel an aircraft drone or a train going through your body. You realize people don't really listen to things. I find myself taking people to the edge, like, “you have to listen,” because no one's listening anymore.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

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