"There are other cities that claim to be the capital of this or the center of that. And I think everybody here is so busy actually doing it that nobody takes the time to wave the flag." Credit: Kara Hammond

Not only is 2020 the Year of Chicago Music, it’s also the 35th year for the nonprofit Arts & Business Council of Chicago (A&BC), which provides business expertise and training to creatives and their organizations citywide. To celebrate, the A&BC has launched the #ChiMusic35 campaign at ChiMusic35.com, which includes a public poll to determine the consensus 35 greatest moments in Chicago music history as well as a raffle to benefit the A&BC’s work supporting creative communities struggling with the impact of COVID-19 in the city’s disinvested neighborhoods.

Another part of the campaign is this Reader collaboration: a series spotlighting important figures in Chicago music serving as #ChiMusic35 ambassadors. This week, we hear from drummer, writer, and educator Martin Atkins. Born in the north of England in 1959, he joined Public Image Ltd in 1979. After stints in London and New York, he moved to Chicago in 1989—”by choice,” as he’s quick to point out. Here he joined seminal industrial band Ministry, formed the supergroup Pigface, and continues to collaborate with a wide range of artists.

This interview was conducted by Ayana Contreras, who’s a DJ, a host and producer at WBEZ radio, and a columnist for DownBeat magazine.

Ayana Contreras: First things first. What’s your favorite Chicago music moment?

Martin Atkins: If you’d asked me this question, I don’t know, six months ago, I would have said the beginning of industrial music, Wax Trax! Records. I’m talking ’89, ’90, ’91, the band Ministry, and the same energy in the city that I felt in London during the beginning of punk rock.

  • Pigface’s encore performance of “Suck” at Thalia Hall on November 30, 2019, with most of the night’s enormous lineup (and likely some other folks) all onstage at once

Today, I have a band called Pigface, and we played at Thalia Hall, November 30, 2019. And I’m so happy that we did that. My band is a collective of musicians from other bands and has always been diverse onstage in every conceivable way. But at Thalia Hall we were joined by Gaelynn Lea, who is a disability rights advocate. She won the Tiny Desk competition for NPR. She’s brittle boned and wheelchair bound, and plays fiddle like a cello. That was really special for me.

But also through our connections with Add-2, the Chicago artist, he sent four artists that he is a mentor to: Just Chris, J. Lamar, Dai, and C.A.M. They jumped onstage and performed with us. I’m so happy to have had that connectedness across so many pieces of Chicago happen before things started to come apart. And I think, at least now, we can see them coming back together.

Pigface at Thalia Hall in November 2019Credit: Bobby Talamine

You mentioned that the music scene in Chicago had that same energy when you moved here as London. More broadly, why do you think Chicago musicians, across different genres, have become so influential worldwide? Everyone I’ve asked this question to before you has been a native Chicagoan. So I would imagine that you might have a slightly different perspective on this.

I’ve got to say, there’s people just doing it, not complaining that they wish this could have happened or that could have happened. It’s like, “In the meantime, let’s roll up our sleeves and make all of the difference we are able to do today.”

There are other cities that claim to be the capital of this or the center of that. And I think everybody here is so busy actually doing it that nobody takes the time to wave the flag and talk about it and promote it. It’s a great place to be.

One of the artists that jumped onstage with us, she’s called Dai. And I really like her music. I follow her on Instagram. And most of her posts recently are like, “Hey, we’ve got a car full of diapers and water. And we’re going to be at this location if you need anything.” And it’s just so great to see—not just that energy of people trying to promote themselves, but people being involved in their communities and trying to make a difference.  v

Martin Atkins onstage with PigfaceCredit: Bobby Talamine