The year 2002 sees the unexpected yet welcomereturn 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 TheRamones 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 unitedpunk vocals with an electronic, experimental, minimalist background, at atime when the only other people associating the words ‘electronic’ and’music’ to each other were some peculiar Germans who called themselvesKraftwerk.
musicOMH caught up with Martin to find out 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 bitin 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 reallydifferent from anything we’ve done before and we discover new kinds ofplaces 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 andmusically. 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 dowith 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 differentlyand we weren’t trying anything in particular except to be true to ourselves atthat 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 tornbetween your desire to write catchy pop tunes and that of being completelyexperimental. On Why Be Blue you seemed to pick the pop direction butsomehow got lost in the way.
Martin: It’s my least favourite album. We weren’t involved as much in the productionas we might have been and there were some things, song writing andarranging-wise, that we were trying out that ultimately were probablynothing that was that necessary or important for us. So it was more anexperiment, maybe, on the song writing side, and it only happened becausethere was some stuff that we hadn’t yet tried out together . I still thinkthat there’s something particular about the sound of Why Be Blue: thetextures are kind of subtle and sometimes I hear it played for me by otherpeople and I notice things I never heard before.However, overall, we wouldn’t go in that direction again unless we were moreinvolved 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 alwaystogether, it’s just that, in the early eighties, there was a period of timebetween about ’82 and ’85 when there wasn’t much activity for us. Theactivity wasn’t really there, for some reason, and we also weren’t lookingfor it that much. So we got more involved in our solo things and otheraspects of our lives and music lives. From around ’86 and on, we startedgetting asked to play gigs again as there seemed to be a growing demand forus in Europe. We also took a little bit of a break in the mid-nineties andthen we started touring again, so a lot of time we’re associated with acomeback, 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 Statesalways kind of seemed to be a hostile territory, especially in the late’70s/’80s, for us. As far as Europe was concerned, there was aperiod of time when we just didn’t go out, we weren’t called for, and thenwe were, a lot. Of course then we played a lot in Europe and then we had tocool in Europe at that point, cause we’d been playing there a lot, and thenit came back again, came around again. So it’s really been about that, we’vebeen together all these years, it’s just that there are times when activityis less for Suicide and so we’re more involved, as we’re always involvedanyway, into things we do complimentary to it and our own stuff. It’s not adecision, it’s just really based on demand and…
Martin: Money just goes along, money is just part of what goes along with it, but ifwe were in it just for money we would have, you know, just gone crazy tomake 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 whatwe do, so we didn’t just go out for the money, we just went out because, youknow, they said:” you’ve got to play in England because all these groups aresaying that they dig you and that they’ve been influenced by you”, and thenit created demand in Europe and there were a lot of places we hadn’t been tofor a few years… So, that’s what we do, and we would do it anyway. Of course money’sinvolved, 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 toget someone to hire us, get an agent, get us out there because we neededmoney. We were kind of just really comfortable in doing other sides of ourwork, 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 importantthan Suicide. One naturally gets ideas in the work they do, so Suicide givesme more ideas, some of which I can express through Suicide, some of which Imust express by myself because they might be vocal and lyrical ideas ormusical ideas for instrumental songs. Also, when I’m working solo, I canwork almost everyday if I want to. It’s a constant involvement, whereas withSuicide…we work and we perform, we make records at certain times, it’s notnecessary to involve ourselves everyday with that, it’s not like an ongoingdaily thing. Working on your own keeps you involved in what you’re doingall the time and it overlaps…the things I do solo give me ideas for Suicideand vice versa, so the solo side of my work is just a way of continuallydeveloping.
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 onewould expect to hear a Suicide track. Do you think you’ve become moreacceptable, that you’ve been reabsorbed into mainstream culture -and youcan’t go more mainstream than TV advertising- because of your legacy?
Martin: It does not necessarily reflect that we’ve been accepted by mainstreamculture. It does show that there are more people who know of us, so thatsomeone in an advertising studio had our second record with the rehearsaltapes. That track was actually done in 1975 and was part of the second CDbut the guy at the advertisement studios was familiar with our work, so whenhe was thinking about an ad that he wanted to produce he thought that thatwould be a great cut to go with it. The ad must be quite different, becausethat track is certainly not a mainstream pop track or an advertising trackin any sense of the word. The Tia Maria thing just happened in that way, Idon’t think it reflects Suicide as now mainstream or as in any wayadvertising material. Occasionally, because more people know of your work,generations come in that have heard or have your records at home and they’relooking for something and might just stumble upon one of your songs andthink: “Hey, that would work in an ad” and that’s kind of just the way ithappened.
musicOMH: It’s not bad for an ad!
Martin: It probably has to be, because the track was a very basic, real, minimalrehearsal thing that we did and although those rehearsal tapes were reallyintense at the time, they were stuff that we recorded ourselves when we werefirst starting, and it’s our sound but it’s not really something to do aregular ad to. They have to have done something with it, I mean, the cutitself has to change the ad, I guess, to some extent.Ghost Rider was almost picked up by a major record company, that was Alan’sversion, 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 possibilityand some people do that. I think you have to decide how the idea of doing agiven ad feels to you, and know what the company’s about. If the companyreally offends you , of course that will affect your decision to let themuse your music, but since you’re not getting up there on TV and endorsing aproduct 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 theculture change into something different and hopefully better.
musicOMH: Recently, I have actually been asked by a few “mainstream people” if I knewwho 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, likepleasurable self-torture, something you can’t listen to but crave because ofits honesty. It’s like feelings one doesn’t want to deal with but has toultimately acknowledge. I don’t know if I am making any sense to you. I’m sorry, I seem to be doingall the talking!
Martin: No, that’s interesting.
musicOMH: What do you think about the new bands coming out of New York City, like TheStrokes, ARE Weapons and The White Stripes, who are heavily influenced byold New York Punk and are having an incredible success over here? Do youthink it’s a good thing or a bad thing?Also, ARE Weapons have actually been compared to Suicide, but who do you seeas 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 oftheir influences, but there must be a reason for that. You know, you comeout and do something, and what it’s doing is basically giving ideas to theworld, to other musicians. Other musicians can come back and draw from theideas you laid out and get ideas for their stuff. That is a good thingbecause when anybody has ever done anything good, in any kind of work, inany kind of field, art or otherwise, it’s really done, it really laid someinformation down which one can go back to. In a sense, all we have is to goforward, but take values and information from people who’ve really exploredavenues and really given things a lot of thought and come out with somethingthat one can continually derive from. As far as rightful successors go…youknow( 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 andthere, what works for them in their influences. Nobody will ever be exactlythe same as anybody who has some kind of identity, so it’s just a matter oflearning and appreciating from what you like and trying to find yourself.With influences…It’s just like life, you know: you come through your friendsand parents, your influences in life, and eventually you become more andmore yourself. These groups will increasingly evolve, through theirinfluences, until they are more and more themselves.
musicOMH: A lot of the bands coming out right now aren’t doing anything new. TheStrokes, for example, are unarguably retro. I actually like them, for somereason, but it’s mainly because they borrow heavily from The Velvet Underground,Television, The Stooges and other bands I like. They are taking elements ofold New York Punk and presenting them as new… They are having an incredible success over here, but I personally don’t knowwhether 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 ofits cycle. It’s not like in the fifties and sixties and even in theseventies anymore. Every art reaches a point where every aspect of it hasbeen explored, so then it becomes more interpretive as opposed to creative.I see that happening with Jazz. Jazz was always a creative art form forabout almost a hundred years, and every couple of years there was a majorinnovator with a new view of it . Jazz kept being developed in new andcreative ways and then, at some point, it really became more of a reflectionof a time, and what you see now is new musicians coming out and, as good assome of them are, basically reinterpreting what has already happened, notinnovating the music to another place. However, the way people think and thetechnology change so much in time that there is always a new way to saysomething old. So in a sense you may have that in Rock. That’s why youngergroups come in and reinterpret and take from what happened before, becausemore has happened before than what is going to happen in Rock and Roll perse. Now you can derive influences from the Doors and Television and allthese different generations of musicians, whereas, years ago, a young personfrom the sixties and fifties’s favourite group wouldn’t be from the forties.They wouldn’t listen to anything recorded before 1950. Now, if you asksomebody who’s maybe 20-25 years old who their favourite group is, they’llmaybe tell you they love the Doors and Television, or even groups that camebefore their time. That’s just a matter of when you’re born and when youcome 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 doin that format, and there’s less left to do that’s really new than what hasbeen done already. Groups that want to continually play that kind of musicare going to be deriving from what’s happened before and also from whatthey liked, what they grew up on, which is stuff like Television, etc…. Youknow, that generation grew up on groups like that, so they’re going to bereflecting that, and somehow it’ll come out a little differently, becauseit’s different people doing it, it’s a different generation doing it andit’ll come out differently and be for different people, people who didn’texplore, 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 sothere’s the possibility to affordably make music almost any time you wantto, even at home or in very small studios, whereas when we started you hadto have a budget from a label to get into a studio, because you didn’t haveaccess to studios unless you were wealthy. Without a label deal you couldn’tmake music and in that sense it’s changed for the better, it’s lessmonolithic. People can just make music for themselves, for their websites,for anything. They can work on their own, like a painter would work, justget 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 seventies and during the Punk years, a lot of young people were startingtheir own labels and putting out their own records and now there seem tojust be major labels and no way to bypass them. Anyone can make their ownmusic and record it, but without a major deal it’s really hard to get anyexposure. Young people are picked up by record companies, polished andserved up as a product. There doesn’t seem to be any risk-taking orspontaneity and it’s incredibly difficult for new bands to come out withoutthe consensus of a major label. On that level it is true. As far as labels and getting records out go, it’sprobably more difficult now. Everything’s gotten much more mainstream, eventhe Internet’s basically been taken over by major labels now, so on thematter of getting your music played or getting a contract it might be moredifficult. Also, there’s such a huge quantity of bands wanting to playclubs, now, that clubs sort of take advantage of that and everything’s morecontrolled, there’s less freedom. At the same time the actual making ofmusic is easier, in a sense. The making of state of the art studio music orhaving lots of instruments and sounds at disposal…that stuff is veryaccessible for a lot of people, so as long as people can make the music theywant to make, at least the music will be made and it’ll create the outlet itneeds, and maybe what we’ve known as the norm is going to shift slightly andthere might be more of a listening thing in the future. Take electronicmusic: in many ways electronic music is the present and the future, it’sfresh but it’s not presented in the same way as bands. Electronic Music ismore of a listening kind of thing and doesn’t always necessitate clubplaying and the same kind of attitude and label projection as Rock musicdoes. When labels try and do it up like a Rock band, it gets watered downand screwed up and any artists who are really electronic loose out becausethey start diluting what they’re doing. It’s almost like when classicalmusic or Jazz moved into smaller forms, from Symphony Orchestras and BigBands, which were very popular, into smaller groups like quartets, and therewas less of a big smash about them, but they were very vital. We don’t knowwhere 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 theperson that’s making it they’ll find a way to get it out without the help ofa major label. They’ll just hold it for a while and keep trying because oncethey suppress any kind of new stuff coming out for that long everything’sbasically over. It was always difficult and anything worthy is always difficult andsometimes…I mean…look at us, we’re still not on a major label after allthese 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 – inthis case the reissues and the new record – on the same label. Every recordwe’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, andanything, 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 youdon’t want to, you just hold out for the big one, but sometimes you build upfrom the small label and go from there. You get some exposure… a lot ofpeople have done OK just putting out their own stuff, doing it and gettingbehind it business-wise. There are still some avenues to go on, it might alllook bleak at one moment, but you can kind of open up a bit at the next. Itall depends on what you are holding out for.
musicOMH: Finally, how has what happened in New York on September the 11th affectedyou as an artist? What kind of impact has America’s political situation onyour musical output? Also, as a European, I am both disgusted and fascinatedby 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 livingabroad….
Martin: Well, there’s a lot to say about it. Of course Suicide has always, in manyways, been a commentary on America and on the direction we felt it wastaking, and how we felt living and struggling in it. It’s always been adifficult relationship and of course it hasn’t gotten any better. I think,in perspective, what we see is that America, in our generation, has beencontinually growing in power, to the point where now it doesn’t have anyreal obstacle or opponent like it had before, all the time we were growingup. Then, Russia was always saying: “We want half, you want half, so we’lldivide up the spoils”. America could just go so far, whereas now there is noone really to oppose America’s global yearnings and global aspirations, andI think that is a very great concern. Alan and I always felt it was gettingcloser 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 rememberit being a better city in many ways, for many things. It’s been losing a lotof that for a good few years, not just now. I don’t think that New York wasever a greatly loved city at all by the powers in America, anyhow. It’s sadto see it happen here, but then again the direction New York was takingpolitically has not been something that made people – most people who havereal feelings or are not part of the upper, powerful elite- feel very goodin living here. At this point it certainly has an influence on your workbecause it helps you see even more clearly what at least you feel is goingon in the world. Like I said however, it hasn’t been a sudden thing. We’vehad a sudden expression of it. A calamitous expression. A tragic expressionof it. It’s just been an escalation of everything. It’s been getting closerand closer to something not very good, for some time and, of course, some ofthe other countries, even England and her partnership with this stuff, arepart of it too. I’m hoping that at some point the Europeans and some othercountries will say something. It happened in the summer when they passed theKyoto agreement even though America would have nothing to do with them. Thenations of the world have, at some point, to say : “Hey, we can’t go alongwith everything you want to do!” and they’re saying that now, to some extentthey won’t go along with everything. At the moment they’ll fall in line witha lot because of the way this tragedy has been presented.
musicOMH: Actually, I know someone who holds that the Twin Towers tragedy was reallyorchestrated by the US government and that there’s been a cover up. Ineffect, this tragedy’s given America pretty much the excuse to do whateverit wants in foreign politics without encountering opposition of any sort. Idon’t think this is the sort of opinion anyone would be allowed to voice atthe moment, especially to an American, but precisely that makes it moreinteresting.
Martin: There is always more than what people are told on these things, and thereare always a lot of people in higher places that don’t know any more or thatmuch more than we do, but there are also people who are more powerful thanthey are who might. You kind of have to go by how you read the situation. Iwouldn’t rule out anything anybody feels about this, and I certainly thinkthat at the least it’s the responsibility of a country to protect its peopleand hopefully to look at the world in a more humanitarian way. If you’vecreated a situation, in the world, by your policies, where something likethis can happen and a situation where you’ve neglected even your securitytask to protect the people, if you did have an idea that this was going tohappen -and apparently the information had come through that this was goingto happen-, and if you create or help to create a world situation in whichthese things are ready to happen, that alone is a responsibility. We’re notlooking at countries that are yet viewing the world and saying: “Ok, wehave great riches here, how can we make the world a better place?”. Thereare aspects of that, but I think that they’re very subservient to a desireto 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 besuccessful. 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 ofworlds 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 humanitarianchoice as opposed to a career, ego, or economic choice it’s OK to safeguardyour own interests, but at some point you will inevitably find yourself inthe 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 screwsomeone over! What should I do?”. When you get to that point -which happensto everybody in certain times and on any level , not necessarily with amillion dollars- you can take the humanitarian choice and say : ” I won’tmake 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’slives”. In the latter case, you’ve ultimately made a choice to bedestructive.
musicOMH: Humanitarianism Vs Utilitarianism – discuss.
Martin: Well, we’re reaping the effects of very utilitarian policies that eventuallypeople have to do something about too. We don’t even know who did this andwhat the reasons really were, but , at some point, if you screw enoughpeople around with your policies, those people are going to have to dosomething, that’s human nature. It’s sad that it creates this kind ofsituation, but Americans fought a revolution too and so did other countriesthat were oppressed. It’s too bad that these countries, nowadays, are notreally for the oppressed any more and they have become the ones that theoppressed resent.
Interview: Suicide’s Martin Rev
Suicide @ Electric Ballroom, London