“I love the suburbs,” the 38-year-old says, sipping pho at a Vietnamese restaurant in Herndon on a recent Friday afternoon. “It’s very tranquil. And nobody knows what I do.”
Except for the customs officers at Dulles. With about 70 out-of-town bookings to play each year, Martyn’s on a first-name basis with plenty of them. But he won’t have to worry about passports or visas on Thursday when he headlines the U Street Music Hall — it’ll be his first Washington gig since moving to the area.
So how does life in the sleepy D.C. suburbs influence a global music career? Martyn plunges his chopsticks into the broth and recounts his former morning ritual. He’d wake up, walk to a nearby gas station for bad coffee and cheap cigarettes, and chat with the day laborers lingering on the curb — their stilted conversations cut short whenever an approaching police car sent the men scrambling.
Martyn didn’t have to hide behind the gas station.
“This was hard core,” he says. “How can I ever spend a day staring at the [computer] screen thinking, ‘I’m not inspired,’ after seeing something that happening down the street?”
Early club beginnings
Raised in a village outside of Eindhoven, the Netherlands’ fifth-largest city, Martyn lived in a home filled with records that his dad, a pro soccer player, would collect on the road. About age 13, Martyn started following his uncle to local punk shows, including gigs featuring legendary Washingtonians Bad Brains and Henry Rollins. “I never realized these people were from D.C., of course,” he says, “or what being from D.C. even meant.”
The rhythms of Detroit techno and Chicago house music soon drew him into Eindhoven’s after-hours club scene, but in the mid-’90s he converted to the innovative strands of drum-and-bass that came skittering out of the United Kingdom. On weekends, he’d hop over to London to dance at the legendary Blue Note club. In the daylight hours, he’d load up at the local record stores, plotting to bring drum-and-bass back to Holland. Within a year, he was hosting the largest club night in Eindhoven.
When Martyn’s father suddenly died of a heart attack in 2004, he went from deejaying to producing tracks of his own. Building rhythms became a part of the grieving process.
“If a lot of my music is melancholic, it’s not without reason,” Martyn says. “When you’re happy, you go sit in the sun. You make music when you’re down.”
He also set out to make chameleon tracks that could serve as connective tissue in an increasingly polarized drum-and-bass scene — the genre had become either too “dark,” or too “fluffy,” he says.
It didn’t take long for more renowned producer-DJs, including London-based dubstep pioneer Kode9, to notice that Martyn was inventing a vocabulary that vaguely resembled theirs. (This was back in 2008, before American producers mutated the genre by injecting it with cartoonish bass and other performance enhancers.)
But the more acclaim he earned, the further Martyn tried to keep the aesthetic cannibalism of clubland at arm’s length.
“I realize why these styles develop so fiercely in a big city,” he says. “If you run into the same people and hear the same stuff, it spirals into this fringey thing that gets picked up by the rest of the world as a new style or genre.
“That’s an interesting dynamic, but not one I want to be a part of. I love going to London. And I love going to Berlin. But I also love leaving.”
Primal, early rhythms
He doesn’t bump into other DJs when he’s browsing the shelves at Harris Teeter. Or when he’s pedaling his bike down the Washington and Old Dominion Trail. Or when he cracks open his laptop to finish the online prerequisite courses for a graduate program he plans to enroll in. Or when he’s chilling with his wife, who works nine-to-five in consulting, and met her future husband on a European vacation she won in a raffle.
The couple quickly maxed out their credit cards, flying in and out of Dulles for visits. She eventually moved to Rotterdam for a year. Then they returned to Virginia for good. Martyn became a citizen just in time for November’s election. He enjoys teasing a Republican pal of his: “Now, your vote doesn’t count anymore.”
He’s finishing the follow-up to “Ghost People,” the luscious, genre-evading sophomore album he released in 2011 on Brainfeeder, a visionary Los Angeles label run by avant-beatsmith Flying Lotus.
“I’m not one of those kids who will go dancing at every party, but Martyn is one of those guys — I’ll dance when he plays,” Flying Lotus says. “He finds this kind of place that I try to find in my music — a deeper place. But it’s still very inviting and rhythmic. He seeks out that primal, early man rhythm that you just can’t deny.”
And he’ll keep searching in that Ashburn apartment, day in, day out, living an atypical American dream.
“I think the American dream has a lot of problems,” Martyn says. “It doesn’t always work as well as they say it does. But in America, people still wake up and think, ‘I have an idea that’s going to change the world.’ I like that.”
Martyn will DJ at U Street Music Hall on Thursday. For more information, visit www.ustreetmusichall.com.