When is a podcast not a podcast? This is the square that 32-year-old British writer Clive Martin has been trying to circle with his first “audio experience”, Hypnic Jerk. Wandering, sleepy, and a little off-kilter, Hypnic Jerk’s 45-minute missives are, in Martin’s words, all about “dread and uncertainty.”
“I say it all the time on the show,” Martin says. “I don’t know why I’m doing it, but for some reason I feel like I have to.”
Martin is the show’s Voice of God. Each episode begins with an original thematic essay, on everything from the cult of lifestyle journalism, to Britain’s relationship with Europe through the lens of the interrail scheme. After these short essay reads, Martin invites a guest on for a loose, free-form conversation with only the vaguest connection to the episode’s theme.
As a result, Hypnic Jerk has a similar ambient quality to the classic talk radio style of NPR, America’s highbrow public radio station. But Martin’s inspiration came from closer to home. “I remember, as a child, being in the car on long night trips across the country to see family. As we passed through different areas, we’d tune into all these different local call-in shows, hosted by strange, King-of-the-County DJs, and they fascinated me.”
He is now king of his own carved-out domain, building what he self-deprecatingly calls “an empire” on Patreon, combining Hypnic Jerk with a weekly newsletter, Garlic Is Not A Perfume, and an open slot for more projects. He hasn’t always been so prolific, or so open.
Martin first rose to prominence during London’s first big new media boom at the turn of the tens, as Vice’s accidental starman and staff writer. “I’d just been kicked out of uni – London Met, the worst uni in the country, according to the tables, and the very next day, no word of a lie, an editor/drinking acquaintance of mine asked me if I’d ever considered writing. I hadn’t, but I went for it anyway.”
Martin bristles at this bit of serendipity. “I feel guilty, in a way, because that wouldn’t happen anymore – there are loads of kids who would’ve jumped at that chance, and I didn’t seek it out.”
Upon landing at Vice on a casual basis, Martin spotted the site’s nascent clubbing series, Big Night Out, and asked if he could take it over. It would be, for better or worse, the making of him. Through his wry, fish-out-of-water dispatches from the weird and wacky fringes of British clubland, Martin caught on, moving swiftly from articles to video to the lead late-night show on Viceland at the channel’s launch in 2016.
Throughout this rise was a deep, irrepressible sense of alienation; a sense of stumbling backward into a world he had never asked to be in, and never aspired to break into. “I was losing control of my creativity, my identity, my ambitions,” he says. “I’d be brought into TV meetings and they’d pitch ideas to turn me into Mark Dolan from Balls of Steel: some bumbling, middle-class Englishman in unfamiliar situations, acting all awkward and weird.” Batting off bad ideas with increasing exhaustion, Martin grew more and more resentful of the media landscape he found himself in.
Things came to a head one hungover morning when, getting off at Angel station, he saw an advert for Viceland’s Big Night Out on a phone box, with his face front-and-centre. “There I am, looking back at myself, and thinking ‘this was never meant to happen, I didn’t want this.’ I didn’t handle it well, to be honest. It’s a very odd, cosmically damaging thing to happen, and I’ve been pulling away from it ever since.”
Burned out by London, expectation, and the strains of his accidental career, Martin packed his bags and left, for what he describes in coded terms as “a neutral space” in England – “somewhere with multiplexes and average Italian restaurants, where people aren’t living there as some kind of status signifier.” For a year, he idled – reading, running, walking the dog, processing the whirlwind he’d been flung out of. “It was good for my brain, I needed it.”
He also became far choosier with his projects, picking up a straight job to pay the bills so he could write what he wanted, when he wanted, at his own pace. The most ambitious of these was a semi-fictionalised story published by Vice, titled The Idiot, where Martin – unmoored from the need to give cultural commentary or clubland reportage – wrote honestly and macabrely about himself and the disaffection that led to him leaving the capital.
When read today, you can see how Hypnic Jerk’s opening monologues emerged from them. “I hadn’t ever written about myself like that before,” he tells me. “They’re not confessional but they are personal.” The process of writing The Idiot opened Martin up to making sense of his past through writing his way out of it, as opposed to punching in opinions about questions he had no answers to. Best of all, it allowed him to regain the control he’d been chasing.
Martin is, at this point, evangelical about subscriber media as an antidote to the take economy that precipitated his burnout. “Say what you want about those big American podcasts,” he says. “I’m no superfan, but they’re uneditorialised, creative, and speak directly to their audience – they’re the new magazines.”
Hypnic Jerk doesn’t have any need to fit into a genre or satisfy advertisers. And with that, Martin’s writing for the show is as acerbic and perceptive as ever. His highs and lows, the retreats and returns, are just good anecdotes now, there to be tied into themes of his choosing, for the enjoyment of the late-night drifters who have tuned into his radio station.
“As I said before, this isn’t confessional,” he assures me. “There are already too many egomaniacs out there, using national newspapers as their personal diary. I mean, I might be an egomaniac as well, but at least I’m pretentious enough to try and not be.”