The year 2002 sees the unexpected yet welcome return of two legends of contemporary music – Alan Vega and Martin Rev, known better together as Suicide.
Part of the ’70s New York scene that spawned bands such as The Ramones and The New York Dolls, Suicide have often been considered “punk”, yet they were and remain fundamentally different from their contemporaries.
They pioneered a new type of music that united punk vocals with an electronic, experimental, minimalist background, at a time when the only other people associating the words ‘electronic’ and ‘music’ to each other were some peculiar Germans who called themselves Kraftwerk.
musicOMH caught up with Martin to find out about new album American Suicide and what Suicide is all about these days…
musicOMH: So what have you been doing all this time?
Martin: Since when?
musicOMH: Suicide-wise. You haven’t really made any albums in a while…
Martin: We’re actually mixing a new record now, we’ve been playing live quite a bit in Europe and the States , and we should have a release fairly soon, because the album should be done by the end of the month (December).
musicOMH: What is the new album going to be like?
Martin: It’s really hard to say at this point, because this record is really different from anything we’ve done before and we discover new kinds of places for ourselves as we work, as we do things. It’s hard to describe, it’s just definitely a Suicide album. It’s quite strong lyrically and musically. It’s got a lot of sides to it. All we know is… it’s what it is.
musicOMH: Is it going to be in the line of your older stuff or in that of Why Be Blue?I meant to ask you about that album, actually. What were you trying to do with it? It sounds pretty different from everything else you’ve recorded…
Martin: Why Be Blue? We actually did that in Rick’s (Ocasek, producer of the album)basement studios, at his home, in the basement. We approached the songwriting situation differently and we weren’t trying anything in particular except to be true to ourselves at that point, and the album just came out the way it did.
musicOMH: A lot of people dislike it. To me it seems that you are permanently torn between your desire to write catchy pop tunes and that of being completely experimental. On Why Be Blue you seemed to pick the pop direction but somehow got lost in the way.
Martin: It’s my least favourite album. We weren’t involved as much in the production as we might have been and there were some things, songwriting and arranging-wise, that we were trying out that ultimately were probably nothing that was that necessary or important for us. So it was more an experiment, maybe, on the song writing side, and it only happened because there was some stuff that we hadn’t yet tried out together. I still think that there’s something particular about the sound of Why Be Blue: the textures are kind of subtle and sometimes I hear it played for me by other people and I notice things I never heard before. However, overall, we wouldn’t go in that direction again unless we were more involved in it.
musicOMH: How come you suddenly decided to get back together and play gigs/record as Suicide again, after all those years of silence?
Martin: We didn’t suddenly decide to get back together. We actually were always together, it’s just that, in the early ’80s, there was a period of time between about ’82 and ’85 when there wasn’t much activity for us. The activity wasn’t really there, for some reason, and we also weren’t looking for it that much. So we got more involved in our solo things and other aspects of our lives and music lives. From around ’86 and on, we started getting asked to play gigs again as there seemed to be a growing demand for us in Europe. We also took a little bit of a break in the mid-nineties and then we started touring again, so a lot of time we’re associated with a comeback, but we never really split up and we never saw it as a comeback. There never really was strong demand for us to play in America. The States always kind of seemed to be a hostile territory, especially in the late ’70s/’80s, for us. As far as Europe was concerned, there was a period of time when we just didn’t go out, we weren’t called for, and then we were, a lot. Of course then we played a lot in Europe and then we had to cool in Europe at that point, cause we’d been playing there a lot, and then it came back again, came around again. So it’s really been about that, we’ve been together all these years, it’s just that there are times when activity is less for Suicide and so we’re more involved, as we’re always involved anyway, into things we do complimentary to it and our own stuff. It’s not a decision, it’s just really based on demand and…
Martin: Money just goes along, money is just part of what goes along with it, but if we were in it just for money we would have, you know, just gone crazy to make sure we were out there.
musicOMH: I didn’t mean that seriously, by the way.
Martin: Okay, but that’s worth responding to. I mean, we wanted to play, we love what we do, so we didn’t just go out for the money, we just went out because, you know, they said:” you’ve got to play in England because all these groups are and there were a lot of places we hadn’t been to for a few years… So, that’s what we do, and we would do it anyway. Of course money’s involved, but it’s not the only motivating factor. We’ve always played, and, like I said, when the activity wasn’t there we weren’t going crazy to get someone to hire us, get an agent, get us out there because we needed money. We were kind of just really comfortable in doing other sides of our work, which wasn’t immediately lucrative.
musicOMH: How important is your solo work to you? Is it more so than Suicide?
Martin: It’s just a natural development of my ideas, it’s not more or less important than Suicide. One naturally gets ideas in the work they do, so Suicide gives me more ideas, some of which I can express through Suicide, some of which I must express by myself because they might be vocal and lyrical ideas or musical ideas for instrumental songs. Also, when I’m working solo, I can work almost everyday if I want to. It’s a constant involvement, whereas with Suicide… we work and we perform, we make records at certain times, it’s not necessary to involve ourselves everyday with that, it’s not like an ongoing daily thing. Working on your own keeps you involved in what you’re doing all the time and it overlaps…the things I do solo give me ideas for Suicide and vice versa, so the solo side of my work is just a way of continually developing.
musicOMH: Do you know that one of your old songs is used in a Tia Maria ad?
Martin: Yes. Have you seen it?
musicOMH: Yes, and it was a complete shock for me. TV ads are the last place where one would expect to hear a Suicide track. Do you think you’ve become more acceptable, that you’ve been reabsorbed into mainstream culture – and you can’t go more mainstream than TV advertising – because of your legacy?
Martin: It does not necessarily reflect that we’ve been accepted by mainstream culture. It does show that there are more people who know of us, so that someone in an advertising studio had our second record with the rehearsal tapes. That track was actually done in 1975 and was part of the second CD but the guy at the advertisement studios was familiar with our work, so when he was thinking about an ad that he wanted to produce he thought that that would be a great cut to go with it. The ad must be quite different, because that track is certainly not a mainstream pop track or an advertising track in any sense of the word. The Tia Maria thing just happened in that way, I don’t think it reflects Suicide as now mainstream or as in any way advertising material. Occasionally, because more people know of your work, generations come in that have heard or have your records at home and they’re looking for something and might just stumble upon one of your songs and think: “Hey, that would work in an ad” and that’s kind of just the way it happened.
musicOMH: It’s not bad for an ad!
Martin: It probably has to be, because the track was a very basic, real, minimal rehearsal thing that we did and although those rehearsal tapes were really intense at the time, they were stuff that we recorded ourselves when we were first starting, and it’s our sound but it’s not really something to do a regular ad to. They have to have done something with it, I mean, the cut itself has to change the ad, I guess, to some extent. Ghost Rider was almost picked up by a major record company, that was Alan’s version, not ours. It’s just one of those things. You know, you can say: “Don’t do it!” and “I’m not going to do it!”, that is always a possibility and some people do that. I think you have to decide how the idea of doing a given ad feels to you, and know what the company’s about. If the company really offends you , of course that will affect your decision to let the muse your music, but since you’re not getting up there on TV and endorsing a product by yourself… It’s the music, the music stands anyway, whether it’s there or anywhere, it’s almost like a soundtrack, and a lot of people will know it’s Suicide, so that might also help change things a little bit. When average “mainstream people” see an ad with a soundtrack like that it helps the culture change into something different and hopefully better.
musicOMH: Recently, I have actually been asked by a few “mainstream people” if I knew who the artists behind the Tia Maria tune were. That’s quite surprising, tome, because I still think of your music as pretty hard to listen to, like pleasurable self-torture, something you can’t listen to but crave because of its honesty. It’s like feelings one doesn’t want to deal with but has to ultimately acknowledge. I don’t know if I am making any sense to you. I’m sorry, I seem to be doing all the talking!
Martin: No, that’s interesting.
musicOMH: What do you think about the new bands coming out of New York City, like The Strokes, ARE Weapons and The White Stripes, who are heavily influenced by old New York Punk and are having an incredible success over here? Do you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing? Also, ARE Weapons have actually been compared to Suicide, but who do you see as your rightful successors?
Martin: Well, I can’t say it’s a good or a bad thing as it’s just the way it is. Ina way, of course, it’s complimentary to you if people see you as one of their influences, but there must be a reason for that. You know, you come out and do something, and what it’s doing is basically giving ideas to the world, to other musicians. Other musicians can come back and draw from the ideas you laid out and get ideas for their stuff. That is a good thing because when anybody has ever done anything good, in any kind of work, in any kind of field, art or otherwise, it’s really done, it really laid some information down which one can go back to. In a sense, all we have is to go forward, but take values and information from people who’ve really explored avenues and really given things a lot of thought and come out with something that one can continually derive from. As far as rightful successors go… you know( laughs) …it doesn’t really matter, there aren’t really any successors, it’s just other groups doing what they do and taking a little from here and there, what works for them in their influences. Nobody will ever be exactly the same as anybody who has some kind of identity, so it’s just a matter of learning and appreciating from what you like and trying to find yourself. With influences…It’s just like life, you know: you come through your friends and parents, your influences in life, and eventually you become more and more yourself. These groups will increasingly evolve, through their influences, until they are more and more themselves.
musicOMH: A lot of the bands coming out right now aren’t doing anything new. The Strokes, for example, are unarguably retro. I actually like them, for some reason, but it’s mainly because they borrow heavily from The Velvet Underground, Television, The Stooges and other bands I like. They are taking elements of old New York Punk and presenting them as new… They are having an incredible success over here, but I personally don’t know whether that’s a good or a bad thing. I wanted to know your opinion.
Martin: In a sense rock music has reached a point where it finished a major part of its cycle. It’s not like in the fifties and sixties and even in the ’70s anymore. Every art reaches a point where every aspect of it has been explored, so then it becomes more interpretive as opposed to creative.I see that happening with Jazz. Jazz was always a creative art form for about almost a hundred years, and every couple of years there was a major innovator with a new view of it. Jazz kept being developed in new and creative ways and then, at some point, it really became more of a reflection of a time, and what you see now is new musicians coming out and, as good as some of them are, basically reinterpreting what has already happened, not innovating the music to another place. However, the way people think and the technology change so much in time that there is always a new way to say something old. So in a sense you may have that in Rock. That’s why younger groups come in and reinterpret and take from what happened before, because more has happened before than what is going to happen in Rock ‘n’ Roll per se. Now you can derive influences from the Doors and Television and all these different generations of musicians, whereas, years ago, a young person from the ’60s and ’50s favourite group wouldn’t be from the forties.They wouldn’t listen to anything recorded before 1950. Now, if you ask somebody who’s maybe 20-25 years old who their favourite group is, they’ll maybe tell you they love The Doors and Television, or even groups that came before their time. That’s just a matter of when you’re born and when you come into this whole thing, and that kind of Rock, group Rock, band Rock, guitar Rock has actually probably done the majority of what it’s going to doing that format, and there’s less left to do that’s really new than what has been done already. Groups that want to continually play that kind of music are going to be deriving from what’s happened before and also from what they liked, what they grew up on, which is stuff like Television, etc…. You know, that generation grew up on groups like that, so they’re going to be reflecting that, and somehow it’ll come out a little differently, because it’s different people doing it, it’s a different generation doing it and it’ll come out differently and be for different people, people who didn’t explore, say, Television or groups from the sixties, so they’ll see this asa fresh thing.
musicOMH: What is it like to make music today as opposed to when you got started?
Martin: Well, of course the equipment and technology have changed a little bit so there’s the possibility to affordably make music almost any time you want to, even at home or in very small studios, whereas when we started you had to have a budget from a label to get into a studio, because you didn’t have access to studios unless you were wealthy. Without a label deal you couldn’t make music and in that sense it’s changed for the better, it’s less monolithic. People can just make music for themselves, for their websites, for anything. They can work on their own, like a painter would work, just get up every day and do the work they want to do.
musicOMH: Do you think so? To me it seems that there’s a lot less freedom nowadays.
Martin: In the ’70s and during the Punk years, a lot of young people were starting their own labels and putting out their own records and now there seem to just be major labels and no way to bypass them. Anyone can make their own music and record it, but without a major deal it’s really hard to get any exposure. Young people are picked up by record companies, polished and served up as a product. There doesn’t seem to be any risk-taking or spontaneity and it’s incredibly difficult for new bands to come out without the consensus of a major label. On that level it is true. As far as labels and getting records out go, it’s probably more difficult now. Everything’s gotten much more mainstream, even the Internet’s basically been taken over by major labels now, so on the matter of getting your music played or getting a contract it might be more difficult. Also, there’s such a huge quantity of bands wanting to play clubs, now, that clubs sort of take advantage of that and everything’s more controlled, there’s less freedom. At the same time the actual making of music is easier, in a sense. The making of state of the art studio music or having lots of instruments and sounds at disposal…that stuff is very accessible for a lot of people, so as long as people can make the music they want to make, at least the music will be made and it’ll create the outlet it needs, and maybe what we’ve known as the norm is going to shift slightly and there might be more of a listening thing in the future. Take electronic music: in many ways electronic music is the present and the future, it’s fresh but it’s not presented in the same way as bands. Electronic Music is more of a listening kind of thing and doesn’t always necessitate club playing and the same kind of attitude and label projection as Rock music does. When labels try and do it up like a Rock band, it gets watered down and screwed up and any artists who are really electronic loose out because they start diluting what they’re doing. It’s almost like when classical music or Jazz moved into smaller forms, from Symphony Orchestras and Big Bands, which were very popular, into smaller groups like quartets, and there was less of a big smash about them, but they were very vital. We don’t know where the avenues will be, I mean, if the Internet gets more closed up… Anyway, I believe that if the music is really important and vital to the person that’s making it they’ll find a way to get it out without the help of a major label. They’ll just hold it for a while and keep trying because once they suppress any kind of new stuff coming out for that long everything’s basically over. It was always difficult and anything worthy is always difficult and sometimes… I mean… look at us, we’re still not on a major label after all these years…
musicOMH: Mute’s a pretty good label however…
Martin: Mute’s a major independent label, if you want to call it like that. It’s great, but it’s a really recent thing. This will actually be the first time we’ve made two consecutive records – in this case the reissues and the new record – on the same label. Every record we’ve made before has been on a different label, same with our solo records. It’s always difficult and sometimes you’ve got to sleep on the floor for awhile – hopefully you wouldn’t have to – but if you stick to it, and anything, long enough and it means that much to you, you’re going to find away through. Sometimes you’ve got to get the small label first and if you don’t want to, you just hold out for the big one, but sometimes you build up from the small label and go from there. You get some exposure… a lot of people have done OK just putting out their own stuff, doing it and getting behind it business-wise. There are still some avenues to go on, it might all look bleak at one moment, but you can kind of open up a bit at the next. It all depends on what you are holding out for.
musicOMH: Finally, how has what happened in New York on September the 11th affected you as an artist? What kind of impact has America’s political situation on your musical output? Also, as a European, I am both disgusted and fascinated by America. TV talk shows, guns, self-help gurus, TV preachers, anti-abortionists who paradoxically support the death penalty for criminals, the extreme censorship, etc… that’s what America looks like to someone living abroad….
Martin: Well, there’s a lot to say about it. Of course Suicide has always, in many ways, been a commentary on America and on the direction we felt it was taking, and how we felt living and struggling in it. It’s always been a difficult relationship and of course it hasn’t gotten any better. I think, in perspective, what we see is that America, in our generation, has been continually growing in power, to the point where now it doesn’t have any real obstacle or opponent like it had before, all the time we were growing up. Then, Russia was always saying: “We want half, you want half, so we’ll divide up the spoils”. America could just go so far, whereas now there is no-one really to oppose America’s global yearnings and global aspirations, and I think that is a very great concern. Alan and I always felt it was getting closer and closer to that, with all the consequences that that would bring, and as artists, it’s part of our expression. Now, of course, while New York is the city we were both born in, we remember it being a better city in many ways, for many things. It’s been losing a lot of that for a good few years, not just now. I don’t think that New York was ever a greatly loved city at all by the powers in America, anyhow. It’s sad to see it happen here, but then again the direction New York was taking politically has not been something that made people – most people who have real feelings or are not part of the upper, powerful elite- feel very good in living here. At this point it certainly has an influence on your work because it helps you see even more clearly what at least you feel is going on in the world. Like I said however, it hasn’t been a sudden thing. We’ve had a sudden expression of it. A calamitous expression. A tragic expression of it. It’s just been an escalation of everything. It’s been getting closer and closer to something not very good, for some time and, of course, some of the other countries, even England and her partnership with this stuff, are part of it too. I’m hoping that at some point the Europeans and some other countries will say something. It happened in the summer when they passed theKyoto agreement even though America would have nothing to do with them. The nations of the world have, at some point, to say: “Hey, we can’t go along with everything you want to do!” and they’re saying that now, to some extent they won’t go along with everything. At the moment they’ll fall in line with a lot because of the way this tragedy has been presented.
musicOMH: Actually, I know someone who holds that the Twin Towers tragedy was really orchestrated by the US government and that there’s been a cover up. In effect, this tragedy’s given America pretty much the excuse to do whatever it wants in foreign politics without encountering opposition of any sort. I don’t think this is the sort of opinion anyone would be allowed to voice at the moment, especially to an American, but precisely that makes it more interesting.
Martin: There is always more than what people are told on these things, and there are always a lot of people in higher places that don’t know any more or that much more than we do, but there are also people who are more powerful than they are who might. You kind of have to go by how you read the situation. I wouldn’t rule out anything anybody feels about this, and I certainly think that at the least it’s the responsibility of a country to protect its people and hopefully to look at the world in a more humanitarian way. If you’ve created a situation, in the world, by your policies, where something like this can happen and a situation where you’ve neglected even your security task to protect the people, if you did have an idea that this was going to happen -and apparently the information had come through that this was going to happen-, and if you create or help to create a world situation in which these things are ready to happen, that alone is a responsibility. We’re not looking at countries that are yet viewing the world and saying: “OK, we have great riches here, how can we make the world a better place?”. There are aspects of that, but I think that they’re very subservient to a desire to increase power, domination goals and conquest, in terms of those goals, for the country’s business interests and global interests in the world. Therefore they choose to leave any opposition to it, in order to be successful. When you take that attitude, just like you take it in a family, in life, in school, or whatever, that’s going to influence the kinds of worlds you make and you’ re going to create less of a err…(laughs) “happy, safe world” for people. When you have the possibility to make a humanitarian choice as opposed to a career, ego, or economic choice it’s OK to safeguard your own interests, but at some point you will inevitably find yourself in the kind of situation where, for example, you’ll have to ask yourself: “Hey, if I make this million dollars I’m going to have to really screw someone over! What should I do?”. When you get to that point -which happens to everybody in certain times and on any level , not necessarily with a million dollars- you can take the humanitarian choice and say: ” I won’t make the million right now because there are people involved”, or, instead, say: “I’m going to make the million and I don’t care about these people’s lives”. In the latter case, you’ve ultimately made a choice to be destructive.
musicOMH: Humanitarianism Vs Utilitarianism – discuss.
Martin: Well, we’re reaping the effects of very utilitarian policies that eventually people have to do something about too. We don’t even know who did this and what the reasons really were, but, at some point, if you screw enough people around with your policies, those people are going to have to do something, that’s human nature. It’s sad that it creates this kind of situation, but Americans fought a revolution too and so did other countries that were oppressed. It’s too bad that these countries, nowadays, are not really for the oppressed any more and they have become the ones that the oppressed resent.
Suicide’s American Supreme is out now through Mute.