As one half of Suicide, Martin Rev’s influence on modern music cannot be overstated. Formed in the early seventies out of the lower east side arts scene, Rev’s signature organ snarl twinned with Alan Vega’s post rockabilly vocals have had a profound effect on a plethora of musicians during the forty five years since. Alongside their own solo projects, as Suicide they would continue making music and performing as the scenes they had influenced came and went, driven on by an inate desire to continue exploring the boundaries of their art. RCRD had the honour of speaking to Martin Rev in depth about his life in music.
Photograph: Divine Enfant
You were born in Brooklyn, is that correct?
No I was born in Manhattan and I was raised in the Bronx.
Was your family musical?
Yes, everybody in my family played music. My brother, who was a little older than I was, played. As a matter of fact the first tune I played, outside of what I was being taught, was one of his. At the time he was playing accordion but later he played piano. He also taught me, really gave me my first harmony lessons which allowed me to create chords. And my father was a tremendously intuitive musician. I have rarely, or have ever, met one quite like he. He could play song after song after song on a stringed instrument like a guitar or a mandolin without ever having read or studied a note. He could just knock one out after the other. My mother played piano and she had some lessons as a young girl and played quite nicely. And that was it, the four of us.
What was around you at that time in terms of the music both being played by you and your family and also the popular music of the day?
Well rock and roll was always the music of the day for me. Of course that was different for them, although for my brother it was the same. We were born into a rock and roll era. Anything created even a year or two before you just wouldn’t listen to at that time. Later I started hearing jazz but even that was contemporary, what I was listening to, for the most part until I went back a little further and heard other people, the greats who came before. Everything was just springing forth around the time when I was born. Elvis Presley, of course, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis. That was around you all the time. It was all the music the kids around you at school were listening to and dancing to at dances and parties. Music was coming right off the streets and it was a wonderful thing because there was no format radio at that time and this goes all the way through until the 60’s (we’re talking late 50’s into the 60’s) stuff was coming right out of the neighborhoods, right off the street corners. All the way through, even Motown, the music was coming out of the neighbourhoods and the people themselves, as opposed to being ultra produced which came later. Rock and Roll was produced perfectly to for what it needed but it didn’t need (and it didn’t have at that time) all the multi track kind of setup. Reverb was being discovered at the time, people like Les Paul. They put springs in the washroom of the studio, things like that, just to hear what it sounded like. You were just preceded by the beginning of a new age of electronic music technology and there was a whole sense otherwise of future, I guess because it was after World War II there was a sense of optimism in the air. A big generation of kids were born after that war and it was the height of affluence in America, America’s ascent to a big power in the world. Probably the big power at that time. That was a golden period for the country and maybe one of the most affluent times for any nation in history, relatively speaking. Science fiction, the cars were great, every year they would come out with incredible styles. As kids you couldn’t wait to see the previews of the next year’s cars. The Caddy’s the Chevy’s and rock was all part of that.
Was there also an undercurrent of suspicion in that post war period?
Yeah, when I say affluent, it doesn’t mean everyone was affluent. In the sense it was the beginning of a more disseminated middle class, the middle class was starting to really come into a form that affected more people. There was still plenty of poverty of course. There was the lower class, there was the lower middle class. There seemed to be a little more opportunity but it didn’t affect everyone. Racism was incredibly strong, as it has been historically in America. Now the fifties, I was way too young to know what was really happening at the time except that I could read and feel stuff about the cold war politics of China and Russia. I learned, years later what was really happening was a very depressed decade to the end of the fifties where it broke loose but there was also an incredible amount of brilliant research and interlectual prowess in medicine, in theories of all kinds, in art. But it didn’t come through until the end of the decade which I’ve heard that is true in every decade. Same thing with the 70’s and punk, you have a very rich undercurrent formulating that’s not yet going out into the mainstream, it can even be repressed and then at the end of those decades it comes out. I mean McCarthyism in the late 50’s, that incredibly barbaric, brutal time, that was luckily stopped short at some point because of the power of journalism, one in particular, Edward R Murrow. These things, I’ve learned more about it in retrospect, at the time as a kid your not really understanding what’s going on but the anticipation, the apprehension, the fear can definitely permeate. There was a lot of kidnappings. There was a big thing of kidnappings when I was growing up. When you picked up the paper almost every other day or so a child was kidnapped with a ransom note and that was horrendous for kids to see, scared the shit out of me. The civil rights movement, fighting for survival and the non, so called, white people of America, fighting for survival for decades, centuries even. It was reaching a point the laws that existed in an apparteid society, which it was, needed to be dealt with. There was no turning back and the awareness of more and more people and the sophistication by now of people that were basically bought and taken in as slaves in a rural environment, was now so great, and it had been so great in many respects for a long time. You couldn’t deny them and you couldn’t fool them in the same way year after year. In some ways they were much more sophisticated than the white society they were in because they assimilated not only western culture, because they were western now, but they also had all those other cultures from their past and much more of an untainted spiritual reservoir. A real clarity of struggle because of what they were dealing with every day and what they had to deal with for survival, so politically they were much more sophisticated. All this came to the fore with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in the the 60’s.
You then moved back to Manhattan?
Yeah I was brought up in the Bronx several years in Queens and then when I left home (pretty young) I was back into Manhattan which was my first place on my own.
And you were drawn to the free jazz scene?
At that time I was studying in terms of enthusiasm and finding teachers and playing. I was into jazz a lot in Manhattan. New York was, for basically all the arts, like the Paris of previous generations. It was the center and all the great musicians were there. They weren’t born there but they all came to New York. Not only musicians but in all the arts, painters, choreographers, dancers, theatre people, opera people. It was all Manhattan so that was the place to go.
And your influences were coming not just from the music scene but from all the arts?
Yeah, more and more. Visual arts especially. Mari my wife who I met quite young was a great visual artist as well as a musician, she had studied music extensively. A great musical mind but being with her I was exposed to painting and visual arts closer, and in my spare time doing some visual art, painting and drawings over time that have come out in various places. Related to music too, especially the drawings like scores. Visual scores of the music I was playing. I was looking for a way to write that down which was an extension of what was happening, my exposure to free improvisation. You couldn’t help, unless you had a very closed mind, being immersed to some extent, realizing that the arts were really all around you. And the culture. New York as it turned out, I didn’t realized so much at the time, was a settlement of European immigration and they brought so much with them from European culture. Most of them came without a penny but they built New York, though of course there was an establishment there. They all eventually came from Europe. The Dutch were here, they all came after the American Indians who were the first inhabitants of New York that we know. It’s even an Indian name, Manhattan. It was a very exciting time because there was real culture, Jazz, Modern Jazz they were the heirs of generations of movements in jazz before them and that was the new way of looking at life and playing. It was very sophisticated, very cultural, they were the great interlects/artists of the day. Even before that jazz influenced the whole twentieth century rhythm, the way people walked even. From Louis Armstrong and before on, everyone in Europe and America danced slightly differently, wrote slightly differently, thought slightly differently for a whole hundred years. Modern jazz was the influence of the beat generation, abstract expressionism, they all derived their inspiration from jazz and this is really the first time the American visual arts came into it’s own, with it’s own expression, non European. It was all part of that age.
Was Alan on that same scene? Did you meet through the music scene or the art scene?
I met Alan in a space that was called MUSEUM for Living Artists and I had done a couple of shows there with my own group. It had to do with a friend of my wifes at the time who recommended me to do a show there. I became acquainted with the space which was an art co op loft of some very professional artists but who weren’t really involved in the daily management of the space. They would show and then after a month there would be another group. It was a great sized space and some of us ended up flocking to it to get off the streets at night to have a space to work, to hang out and Alan was one of them and I was one of them and this is how we met. After I did a show or two there I just came up one day. I was downtown and I had just done an audition, I think something with my own group for London Records or something but we were playing so far out there was no way I was going to get anywhere near a record at that time. We’re talking about a time when the record industry controlled everything in terms of your final production because you had to have a deal to go into a studio, there was nothing you could make at home no digital, no cd’s. So I remember feeling good after that but knowing nothing came of it and I just happened to go upstairs. I took the elevator up. It was usually open because people like Alan had the keys, he was part of this little board of directors who were just like, the most artistic and impoverished of all of them but they chose them to run the place. And I came up and I met Alan who was trying to make some kind of sound with an old two track tape recorder, a Wollensak. Had his head in this tape recorder trying to squeeze out what he could. So we went from there, we were like two ships that cross paths in the night. We both needed to say things and we were both up that late. We were both very much into what we did without any thought except from to keep developing. We had been doing it for some time, Alan mostly as a visual artist, and now as he told me soon after seeing Iggy in New York, there was no way he could continue being an artist unless he started to perform. And that’s why he wanted to do something in music and that’s obviously why he had the tape recorder trying to squeeze out sounds with another visual artist who was doing the same thing on a guitar. He wasn’t a musician in a traditional sense but he was playing pure sound patches at the same time and we were all in the same flow. Eventually the visual artist Paul went into film, he didn’t stay with us beyond the first several gigs.
It still seems like a unique sound to occur in that time and space. Were other people experimenting in similar ways around you?
Well they must have been but nobody knew each other. It was obviously happening, like the Dolls were around then or soon after, Television, everybody was there, whether they already had their groups but there was really no place to play. It was a time of limbo between the sixties and mid seventies when the clubs started opening again for this music, like Max’s and CBGC’s. In between there was a definite emptiness in New York until the next phase of rock culture, nobody knew where it was going to come from or if it was there. You had Iggy already and Alice Cooper but not coming out of New York. They kind of spelled a direction. People were rehearsing in their private places and experimenting with clothing and playing. There was an electronic scene, and I remember one time we were doing one of our incredible exhaulted rehearsals with incredible hallucinatory experiences of sound and we looked down from the museum, down the street and there was a guy with his bicycle who was just looking up, standing there looking up. I guess the sound went outside and when he caught my attention looking down he kind of waved like, made some kind of gesture like could he come up and I said ok and signaled to him where to go round the corner get the elevator. Turned out to be Rhys Chatham, and Rhys was just starting out too but he had been doing more pure electronic music. He came up and he was totally blown away, he said he heard what was coming out and was just standing there couldn’t have believed what he was hearing and he just had to come up and talk to us to see what was going on. So that scene was there, you had Charlamagne Palestine, those people were already in place. The so called minimalism movement, Glass and Steve Reich already had records out. Silver Apples, who I wasn’t aware of until after that, they had already recorded, you know the German scene….
Photograph: Divine Enfant
It’s interesting you mention the Silver Apples. Obviously, now information is shared so quickly but as you said, you wouldn’t be familiar with what was going on even on the other coast unless it was a big record, which their stuff wasn’t.
Yeah, if you were immersed in that particular moment then you would be and Alan was more than I was. At that point I was still very immersed in improvised jazz. John Coltrane was still totally cutting edge. He had passed about two or three years before but still had influence. You had fusion, Miles’ fusion. As a jazz instrumentalist I found it was so compelling and such a challenge and incredibly sophisticated harmonically, in some ways more than classical. As a kid I was just thinking about going into vocals, like doo wop, but having that background of playing too I put that aside for some time to learn how you do that because it was so hip, the whole jazz world. Actually a lot of the stuff had already happened five, ten years before but it was still so relevant. Coltranes development and Miles’ and you really had to study and practice and learn what was happening there over quite a period of time. It wasn’t just something you sat down and did.
For me, a lot of the beauty of the early Suicide records was their simplicity. What led you to jump back from the complexities of the free jazz sound you were involved with? How did you land on that sound?
I think it was electronics first of all. I rediscovered what was always in me. Anytime I heard some rock and roll that I always dug it struck me the same way it always did, but I started to do more shows with electronic keyboards because acoustic keyboards were phasing out. You’d play a lot of places in clubs or outdoor concerts and you weren’t going to be playing a so called piano, you’d be playing a portable organ or something that folded up. I remember I was asked to play with this guy who had already been in a group with Albert Ayler. He had a show at this outdoor amphitheatre in Forest Park in Queens and they acquired an electronic organ at the time for the show. We rehearsed it in a loft space with regular instruments but the day of the show I hit this thing and it came out incredibly and filled the space. It also happened at a show I was doing in my own group in Museum too. In both of them I was playing electronic organ. I picked one up myself, I got one I could pay off over two years, a Wurlitzer. That convinced me more and more that was where I wanted to go because I heard the potential of the sound and then adding distortion devices and all kinds of stuff, you could be very free. Also, hearing Tony Williams first record. I knew Tony several years earlier, I was lucky to have known him, he took me under his wing for a while while he was with Miles. I was still pretty much acoustic at the time and when he came out with the Emergency record I picked that up and I heard the potential there for electronics.
There is a Stravinsky quote that resonated with me in terms of your sound “the more contraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit”, what you were doing, crafting something so expansive with just this organ sound.
When I found that sound I found something that was very innate in me, I found my own fingerprint. Painters find the colours, the patterns that work for them. Something natural for them and they develop from there. In terms of rock and roll I found myself going back to, attaching onto what rock and roll meant to me which was a very clear driving raw rhythmic force. Maybe that was what was always there and maybe I was a natural minimalist. I didn’t always think of myself that way but that might have been what attracted me to all music and still does. Rock was getting higher on the tech end and layer generations and you had the movement of the big synthesized groups like Yes and Genesis and ELP. We knew we weren’t going to have any of that stuff for some time, we were never going to come up with the money for that, it didn’t work for me, I found it too heavy, too unnecessary. It also took a form as to how was I going to bring around all that stuff? It didn’t appeal to me. I saw the keyboard as a guitarist sees a guitar, very light with an edge to it and I only ever wanted one and that’s all you need. It wasn’t coming back, it was just finding through electronics the essence for me of what Rock and Roll always was and what music always was.
Those early shows, as I understand, were filled with confrontation and violence. Was that something you sought out, or something that came to you and you pushed back against?
It just happened. Nobody could predict those things. Alan did of course cultivate that idea of audience participation you might say, from his back ground and from what he felt was the way to go but it was really just him expressing himself. We were very much in a sub economic class, not just economic but we were starting out as street guys with no acceptance. We had been developing our individual focus through art and music for several years and we were very uncompromised, on the edge of society because we were just following our own development. And it was (counter) to anything so called normal so that probably gave us a short edge too. The way we were living but it was what we were doing itself, we were doing what sounded the greatest thing in the world to us. Going for the great sound, the great theatre, like any artist does at that moment, from everything he’s prepared or learned before and the way the audience reacts you never know beforehand.
Was building an audience a gradual process or was there a sudden change and if so what caused that? Why did people’s attitude towards you alter?
I would say it wasn’t sudden, it took some time. Certain people dug us right away and got us right away but usually people that were more open artistically or knew other artists, people who were just very open inside and weren’t threatened. There was always a smaller crowd of people who were aware of things and they dug us and they had references for us that most people didn’t. For a general kind of an audience you are never going to please everybody, and hopefully not if you are still vibrant, that took some time, over a period of ten or twenty years. It never just flipped overnight, although it seemed to, there were a couple of times that were very poignant and significant for that to happen. It was after a few years, like when Mute bought the first album and re-issued it. There was a whole thing then, that was around 98/97 I believe and all of a sudden there was this resurgence, a lot in the intellectual crowd of musicians in the UK. Stuff that had been around gestating for a while, a lot of the groups like Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Spacemen, Soft Cell talking about us and modelling a lot of stuff after us and that was all underneath. Then at that moment, we did a promotional gig after that a whole lot of press came out at that time. A whole look at us and then so much press came back in the states. It wasn’t overnight at all but it was definitely a watershed moment in that sense and there has been several of those.
In the mid/late 70’s seventies did you feel a part of the punk scene, I know you also mentioned Rhys Chatham, obviously you were a big influence on the No Wave scene. Did you sit more with that crowd.
No, No Wave came a little after we had been playing for a while. No Wave has said that we were an influence, I never thought I was influencing anybody. I wasn’t really concerned about that. Punk just being around us, it kind of dragged us in on it’s coat-tails but we were never really punk either in the typical sense. We didn’t have a band and it was electronic, but there was of course so much in the attitude and the way we performed. We had just been there when all that stuff started coming together and the groups started coming out and there was a great scene. There was a scene in Max’s Kansas City, there was a scene in CBGB’s so even when you weren’t playing you could go down there any night and hang out with all the musicians you knew or people would come in. Other artists, journalists, dancers, club dancers, girls that were just trying to make a living dancing in clubs who could be very smart where music was concerned, very knowledgeable but we were one of the last groups in that scene to get signed. When some of the mavericks like Marty Thau started looking through the barrel and seeing what was there (he was one of the more adventurous) they started taking out the apples and trying to get them out into the world and when they got to the bottom of the barrel there was Suicide. There was an apple left and nobody knew what to do with it. Marty did, but it was only when he heard a single. He had heard us play several years before at a show he had organized at the first kitchen in New York which had a lot of theatres. The Kitchen was one theatre in the Mercer Arts Centre, that’s where we started, where Rhys eventually became curator and he heard us but he said years later, “as I liked them I never thought they could make a record”. I mean he was a record man from Buddha/Kama Sutra as a kid, I mean getting right out of school. He never saw us as making a records. He got involved with the Dolls of course, he was their manager early on and Blondie and the Ramones early on. It wasn’t until a few years later, Television had a single they made themselves and there was a jukebox at Max’s where everybody used to hang out downstairs. I said to Tommy Dean who was the man in charge, the manager of the new Max’s, I said could we put a single in there too? He said yeah, just ask Peter. He had brought in Peter Crowley as a person to be his live club A&R, who would bring in the acts because everybody knew there was something going on at the time and Tommy really wanted to bring those new groups in to play. He asked somebody “who should I go to? Who would know this scene to bring them in?” and Peter Crowley was recommended. He was an incredible mind and intellect who had a history already with the Lyric theatre and all kinds of stuff back then and he was hip to us immediately. We had done stuff with a little club where he had his booking previously in New York, a couple of shows. At that time you could go to midtown Manhattan, you could cut a 45 for a couple of dollars. You’d go up to these studios, which were the old world, and this guy in a booth, you give him a couple of dollars, tell him you want a 45, you bring him a tape and he would cut the tape on a little two track and you come out with two 45’s. I gave one to Peter and that night it was on the jukebox and people were hearing it. Max’s had a big crowd of people there, especially at weekends but all through the week and apparently that’s where Marty Fowler heard us one time . He said apparently it really slugged him, he said wow that’s great, I never thought they could make records. He approached us to manage us that was maybe end of 76 and we had done that gig that he organized probably around 72/73.
Did the punk scene dissolve pretty quickly or did it peter out?
Then punk scene generally?
In New York specifically.
It had it’s run. I guess like any other movement. It went into post-punk and then into hardcore. It just went into the next phase of musicians. The next generation which means two-three years. The ones who were too young to be on the scene the first time. They just obviously wanted to continue it so you had, for quite a while, these hardcore bands or basically punk bands but they were doing it in the mid eighties to the nineties. The original bands from the punk scene, they all kept going in their own ways, most of them were working pretty often if they wanted to.
Did you feel like you connected with the wave that followed, the post punk bands….?
No. I mean, punk wasn’t something I ever anything I felt I had to connect with, it just kind of connected with me in a sense. It was a meeting in the road, a crossroads. We met up to each other but I didn’t feel I ever had to, or with any scene, identify with it to the point that I’m just going to manifest that direction. The other bands coming after, I was in a different phase of my development. They had their friends and I had mine, whoever they were at the time.
Your sound within the punk scene was very unique and it seems like you were quite self sufficient in creating that sound. It seems like you were admired and had influence on the scenes around you but it didn’t seem like you took too much influence from them. Is that a fair comment?
Yeah, I would say that. By the time we came headlong into punk we were already (and Alan and his whole work and direction) fairly developed and as Suicide we were. It took a while to come to the clubs and out of rehearsals, talking about maybe ’75/’76. So we were just going our way and then by ’75 there was a scene and it was being called punk. At that point it wasn’t necessary, I mean I’m sure it rubbed off in certain ways but not necessarily musically, that was already very carved out. It was really an accident, like things are, the times, something’s in the air and in certain artistic movements. They flower at certain times depending on what came before. How much room there is to still explore and then all of a sudden there is a scene around you and it’s being identified as one. But we came on it as we were there already and what we did was deemed quite punk at least in terms of stage presence because certain very insightful people like Peter Crowley consienciously started bringing us in pretty regularly in to Max’s. When we played the Mercer Arts Centre some of the bands identified with us and a lot of them didn’t, though it wasn’t considered punk yet it was glam rock, but it was a pre punk stage for sure. Everybody was there and everybody was different. I’m sure in the punk milieu not everyone was crazy about us either.
In that post punk era were you still playing out live a lot.
Yeah I would say, well Suicide had certain breaks you might say, when we were not out there and we were doing solo things. Alan was fairly active performing wise and I was pretty active recording wise (as he probably was), shows occasionally but in the 80’s after Max’s closed, I think CBGB stayed open but it was a post 70’s scene. We didnt go back to Europe until 85/86 when our original manager he approached us and said groups are really talking about you guys you really should go back. He said you’re in the press a lot now, we should make a tour. So he arranged a tour.
I was wondering at what point you realized the influence you’d had? As early as ’85?
It was ‘85/’86 at the latest that Marty approached us. I wasn’t reading trade so much at that time so I didn’t really register any of that. I was too much into my own thing. He said, “yeah, there’s a real resurgence”. The first time you came over (to the UK) some of the press, especially the UK press, got it but a whole lot didn’t. Now it’s like eight years later and these groups want to sound like you. They’re talking about you. They’re looking again at what you guys were and its time to go back because you haven’t been there. So he arranged a tour with Paul Boswell who was an agent at that time in London and we started doing tours a couple of times a year, short tours, maybe two weeks all over Europe. Now we were playing our own shows and the audience was coming out to see us so that was the difference.
You also mentioned you were both working solo at that time. Was it always very clear to you when you were starting out a project that there was something you were going to do or Alan was going to do, and then you would book in to bring it together? Would you work on material and think this is a Suicide project or this is a Martin Rev project?
Yeah, well eventually it was more and more like that because when we first met, as we were carving out this stone into a sculpture, it was more involved. There was a lot less you could do on your own because labels controlled the whole industry. If you were a guy on the street, an average musician on the street, couldn’t afford to go beyond maybe a cassette demo of anything. But yeah individually I was always working on stuff and laying down cassettes and ideas. It got to be more and more at some point that I would say this is something I would do and this is something I’ll bring in for Suicide. In the beginning it was maybe a little more intensive where Suicide was also part of our lifestyle, the music was part of our life. Living and playing at the same time and finding the fact you had a teammate, like playing a game of ball or something, you were just doing it and that’s really all you could do at that point. It was a limited time of technology and certainly individually you couldn’t afford that stuff and you couldn’t get into a studio but yeah for sure I would start, and Alan would do that too I’m sure. He would write lyrics all the time on his own and I was always playing tracks and listening to stuff and laying down stuff. For me sometimes laying it down meant I would just be playing it and I’d remember and bring it in to our next rehearsal. More and more I started to hear things, especially around solo albums, and I started to hear ideas that I’d say “well I’ll have this”. It’s actually less now because I’ll overlap things and use things in both aspects.
And regarding your process, and whether that has evolved over time, did you have a formula? Would you jam and tracks would come out of that or would you sit down to record with very specific ideas?
Well, I’d usually just play, I mean with Suicide I was doing, as one can hear, riff based tracks. That was the basis of them and everything would be added to that if we needed (which wasn’t that much because that was what was working for me). I’d go right to a riff and start playing or I‘d hear one and mold one right away. It doesn’t take long if you focus that way with a certain kind of sound that I used. There wasn’t a lot of preconception except I knew the direction I was in and I knew what was working for me. I guess I was uncovering for myself the basic energy, pure rhythm and bass that was still yet to be fully exposed from rock and roll and before. There was still potential there. I didn’t feel melody was as important. I didn’t feel that had the energy that moved me that way but the basic energy of rock and roll came back to me as pure rhythm and pure bass. I would go right to that place. Eventually there was more and more access to rhythm machines. I would listen to records and hear something and right away I’d say “that’s a riff”. I wouldn’t take it as it was but it would steer me to something. It got transposed or altered. Even if I took some thing exact it wouldn’t sound so exact once I played it because of the sound I had and the way it was placed on keyboard instead of a bass. I would always change something. I would want to change it a bit out of respect for the original, which I’ve always had, to make it more fresh for me I’d always start messing with it and come up with something else.
Was staying up with the cutting edge music technology of interest to you or did you just find a setup that worked and weren’t too bothered about machinery or new instruments that were coming out?
I was always in to new stuff but I only really liked what I could use. If I found my sound in it and I could carry it easily, that was really important in those days. I liked things that we really small and portable, light, so I was always looking at stuff that came out or reading about it. If it looked interesting I’d check it out, if I could afford it, and at many times I couldn’t in those early days.
Hip hop was coming in through the eighties as well. Your sound was futuristic but also referenced the past in the rock and roll and rockabilly influence. Hip hop seemed to tap into that in a certain sense, it had a futuristic side but in the sampling and breaks also had a nod to the past. In general was hip hop a style of music that interested you or does now?
Yeah it always has but I didn’t feel it was, like punk I didn’t feel I’m going to start playing hip hop or I’m just going to take that or do vocals that way or lines that way but it was very copacetic to me because all of a sudden here are all these two man groups based on a certain technology that was only just available at that time. I mean I wasn’t collaging or sampling cause that came a little later, it came with hip hop but it made perfect sense at that time because of where we had moved technologically. I also identified quite a bit because although as dire as it could have been for me some times, it was much more for the hip hop community. They were making, which I think is where most great creations of art come, out of is neccesity. People who had to make music, would make it any way they could and found a way of doing it on whatever they could find. That made a new movement and that’s similar to where we found ourselves. They, as a whole community, were feeling that crunch but as an artistic community, if they could find a turntable here and some vinyl, they started playing around with it and found they could make music out of it. They didn’t have access to all this equipment, stuff that costs money and studios right away.
Photograph: Divine Enfant
Moving into the nineties, electronic music really came to the fore and again that crowd was referencing your sound. Was there anything in that scene you associated with or were you still continuing to do your own thing?
I usually reference what is not known or close to my scene. It’s different kinds of information and sometimes it’s more of a challenge to understand things that are not so known. So other groups, as you mention I was aware of, usually because the press would say now there’s a new scene happening, have you heard of that scene they’re referencing you guys they’re talking about you guys. That’s how I’d find out because to me, to listen to so many groups it would usually be to the exclusion of other things that I was trying to master or trying to crack. That usually came from other music and things that were not so easy and enjoyable. The records I love I could listen to over and over and over again, its like eating strawberry sundaes or banana splits and they’re good, they’re great but at some point I would go to other stuff. It’s information. Sometimes I would find information in stuff I love that I’ve heard for years, I hear something in it and it’s a great idea that relates immediately to a track or album I’m working on.
You mention the music you love, are there specific albums that stand out to you?
Oh yeah, I would say too numerous to mention but there are jazz albums, there are rock songs maybe more than albums, the stuff I grew up on is still very relevant. It holds up. The great jazz albums, they’re pretty well known to any person who’s gotten in to jazz on a surface level. Then there’s classical which I always come back to because of what it demands from a performer but also just an understanding and the possibility of getting ideas. I mean ideas are like food, certainly to me I think most artists who continually try to find something that nourishes them. Artistically the food for that is ideas. I mean you can have a great idea, like Suicide in 72 or 73 but it’s like food, you ate a great meal in 77 what are you eating in 2007? You still got to eat. What are you eating in 87 or the day after, you have to eat every day and that’s the way it is for certain artists. You’ve got to find something that gives you that energy like good food does, continually. So that comes from a lot of sources. The stimulation can come from a lot of art and the rest is life, your living experiences. It’s like writers, I was reading once about, I don’t know if it was Mailer, but a lot of writers who are already very well established, they read tons of books. All the great writers before and you get a lot out of it. Sometimes its just impressions, its all the stuff you learned at school or when you were young. You can learn something when you are 15, that’s like a foundation you’re familiar with it but then learn it again when you are 25 or 30 or 35, you start understanding it on deeper levels, on different levels. Ideas I find over time are what I gravitate towards so I’ll listen to anything that gives me those ideas. Its great when it’s a surprise You’re not always knowing its going to give you anything and sometimes it just feeds you because you are meeting it half way. You’re working on something and all of a sudden that track says hey this could be something you could use now in this way. You could have heard that 50 times before at different times and it never dawned on you. It’s like when you’re working on an album you’re more concentraitedly needing stuff to keep yourself going. It’s like an immersion, like an intensive course in a language or something so your reaching for stuff. Its (the same) with art too, I always got ideas from painting and more modern painters. Of course it doesn’t sound like direct musical ideas but it opens you up. It definitely keeps you inspired and open and that’s important too to cross scenes sometimes. You can be in one that can get so closed, like if you’re just a painter and a musician. In the music world we tend to be in especially when its commercial too a lot of musicians feel that they have to work within those parameters because that’s all they hear around them. Then you look at a painter sometime and it reminds you, the great painters you’ve known too but you need to refresh your memory how free art can be. Just keep going that way, try this or that and a lot of stuff doesn’t work, that’s the bottom line. When you work on an album I’m starting out with a very inspired view with expectations but as you work on something and you see the reality of it, what works and doesn’t, a lot of those expectations, I don’t know if you ever reach them. At some point you realise it’s not a matter of completely satisfying those expectations. Your not going to do it because you’re always going to be looking beyond anyway but it’s a matter of aspiring towards, really working towards them in the most conscientious way.
I think its interesting you talking about appetite. It seems to be something you have retained and as long as you retain that appetite you’re driven to keep going.
Yeah, those are two very apropos words, appetite and driven. Those two are things that you didn’t choose and you don’t choose because in my case its just there. You realize it’s the only way you can go that gives any value to living the next day. Music has always been that way for me anyway in general. Rhythm is the pulse of life, there’s no doubt. It goes into you and re-energizes you. Music notes, I see them as, they are phenomena of nature It’s like all those guys, Pythagoras and before could look at the planets and devise the scales. Well those are the scales and those notes, not just western but eastern, the relationship of those sounds are part of the spheres. That’s why they work so well, so healthy for human anatomy because this is total nature. For musicians it’s an incredible gift. They’re given these entities, like colour too, that are totally coming from the galaxies we live in, from the essence of nature and we’re able to juggle them around and play with them. It’s like an angel comes down and gives us a box of colours or a box of jewels from Saturn or something. We didn’t create them but he’s saying “go ahead now they’re yours, you can paint a little picture if you want with them, arrange them wear them”. No musician in the world created a scale or a C or anything like that. I mean western and eastern music have organized sounds to get as close as possible to something uniform, so they have a scale which is like a uniform representation of what exists in nature. But otherwise those sounds and relationships when we work with them, we find out what works better what doesn’t based on what we like or want and its very nourishing for the system because it’s the same source we come out of I guess.
In terms of music scenes now, I’m interested in your views regarding the internet. Do you think having to invest less in scenes is to the detriment of the music or do you think that the ability to share information has enriched the culture?
I think it does and I think every new development changes things and it can change things positively or negatively. Not necessarily for the better but to change them just as well in a different way. When you change the scenery in a play and you pull out another scene that was rolled up at the back you have to deal with that reality. The internet of course has incredible potential for all kinds of stuff. There has been a major change and the internet has definitely been major in that change but there are other factors too, the age and development of the musics themselves and the arts in their particular language and vernacular. There is a reason why sometimes things coalesce and don’t continue in a certain way and it’s not a technology or one factor. You reach the end of something, it can be after 300 years or 400 years of totally unexplored territories one after the other which is what art forms are. You had that in classical European music for hundreds of years, you had jazz for a hundred years you had rock and roll since the fourties and depending on when you come into that movement depends on how much material is left to really go “holy shit this is really so new and open and hasn’t been explored yet”. That’s why when an art form is really happening you have the new movements coming on top of each other every generation, which is more like every two or three years, just flip flopping on each other like art movements. Like impressionism coming after romanticism going eventually into abstract expressionism coming after realism coming after symbolism coming after surrealism that stuff was all overlapping in a lot of ways because the canvas hadn’t been explored in those areas. It’s the same thing in music, so we’re heading to a place now where I couldn’t say if it’s the internet that’s stopping the next phase in rock and roll or the next phase in jazz, the next vital phase, because you have phases every new generation who wants to play a music. You know, you’ve got guys who love jazz and they play it great but it’s different than what it was for Coltrane and Miles and those people and the same thing with rock and roll now. It’s different than what it was for Little Richard and for Chuck Berry and different for the audience therefore. Electronics for me was the last great expanse of uncharted territory and it still is in many ways. It’s still not totally used up but we have a lot more exposure to it now. So where we are now it’s not easy for someone who says “I want to be a rock musician and I want to do incredibly innovative new sound in rock”, the idea is not to feel you have to do it in rock you’ve just got to develop because it might overlap. It’s like the jazz guy coming out and saying I want to be the next Coltrane. Coltrane was a part of a whole dynamic of his time of the culture, social aspect of his time, the struggles of his time, the technology of his time that allowed him to have the insight that was so fresh. It hadn’t been said yet and it needed to be said. It needs to be said now, we can’t stop saying what needs to be said. Those truths need to be said all the time but we have to find ways of saying them and we have to make the internet a means to do that. It’s never enough to have access to all kinds of sounds it has to go beyond that. The same way if a guy learns to play trumpet and is very fast and learns how to play scales really quickly and is brilliant at picking up the rudiments but it’s not going to be enough to make something really poignant that is going to say something. You got to go beyond. That’s just part of the development, You have to keep going to where it leads you and if you’re in a medium that really doesn’t have that much left that way you’ll find the meaning you are looking in it or it’ll lead to something else. I mean you can still be a writer now and say incredible things, you can be a musician and say incredible things but to try to add to that when it’s already reached it’s lifecycle….when things go through an avant garde phase it is usually towards the end or is the end of that whole development. The difference with rock is that rock went through it’s avant garde, it went through it with no wave but electronics came after that which is interesting because electronics can be seen as even ultra avant garde but also ultra tonal again because you can do things in a combination of ways, a whole new meaning, which can still be rock and roll but out of electronics you go a lot of places. All the other music jazz and symphonic music when they reached that period of total abstraction, and they all do it, the next wave, it comes towards the end, they’re can be important individual things after that but it’s normally not the big movements we’re used to or people are waiting for.
So many people all the way through since you began have cited you as references and real influencers over their music. Did you ever wonder what was the key to that longevity. Was it ever something that occurred to you or was it case of just continually moving on without paying too much attention.
Yeah, it’s occurred to me, this particular dynamic, and a certain recognition they achieved rather than another. I think the longevity, you don’t create the history and I think anybody can see that once they get to a certain age they can look back at their life. They can see how they started or they are into mid life and their marriage, they see them, it becomes like a tree that is now in full bloom or full growth and they can see the past or the present from it but they didn’t know in the beginning where it was going to end up so I don’t really convince myself, I cant really sit and go wow, I’ve done this, its so great because inside it doesn’t work for me. The only thing that works for me is what I did yesterday or today, is that working for me? Who knows the real value of Suicide. It could be totally forgotten in 50 or 100 years like so much else or not totally forgotten but its going to be in a place so I cant really sit on Suicide. I mean I did that and I still do it and some of our gigs now are as mind-blowingly fresh but all that might be understood more and more years from now so you just go on. If you’re ready to stop or ready to say I’ve made my peace with it all I don’t have to do anymore, which many do, go into business and start a cosmetic company or something, a lot of guys do and make a fortune, but otherwise its not information that’s valuable for what you seem to need every day. I tend to not be one who can really amplify that much. I have to go out a lot at night and be around people who keep catering to that and reminding me what I’ve been it’s a whole different lifestyle. When I come back to New York in many ways I can go out and get a lot of that attention, when I perform and you come back to home base a lot of times you’re as anonymous as anyone else and that brings you back to normal. Some guys use to say I go out and get all this attention and girls looking at me and making money and its incredible when I come home and open the door to my wife, when I face my wife I’m back down to regular size otherwise she’ll or the relationship will make sure I am. I can’t be coming in saying, “hey baby, I’m a king”, I mean you can say that at the beginning, she’ll be happy to hear it maybe, but don’t be acting like that. You’ve got to come back down real fast to who you are which is just a human being trying to continue in whatever you’re doing.