Alongside late vocalist Alan Vega, Martin Rev comprised one of New York’s most provocative and game-changing acts. Beginning in the early ‘70s, Suicide’s pioneering no wave experiments laid the blueprint for punk, techno, industrial and everything in between, with both artists also creating a wealth of solo material. To mark the release of Rev’s ninth album Demolition 9 and the 40th anniversary of Suicide’s self-titled debut, April Clare Welsh caught up with the titan of outsider music.
Towards the end of Suicide’s A Punk Mass show at the Barbican in 2015, I had to take some time out. Seeing two gnarly provocateurs rattling around such a stark hall – Martin Rev decked out in his customary PVC trousers and visor shades, Alan Vega resting on a green throne while seething with undiluted attitude – was simply too much. I sat by the fountain outside gazing into space for about 15 minutes, gulping mouthfuls of fresh air in the hope of clearing my head.
The New York trailblazers hadn’t lost their capacity for shock and awe and the performance was as bizarre and shambolic – albeit minus the vomit, blood and broken bones – as any Suicide fan would have hoped. So when news broke of Vega’s passing the following year, I felt both sad and privileged to have seen the duo’s last ever show.
When I speak to Rev on the phone nearly two years later, he is melancholic and matter-of-fact about the death of his longtime partner in crime. “It happens, but it is what it is,” he rasps. “Alan’s not here anymore, he’s just somewhere else. I’ve experienced a lot of loss over the past few years and if you don’t find another way of looking it, you just live with it internally. But we were very, very close friends and buddies – working partners, if you can separate them at all – so it’s definitely a change when he’s no longer in the world.”
“Alan was a very essential person during my formative years”
He continues: “In my life, Alan was a very essential person during my formative years – we both kind of fought this battle together, just he and I, as far as Suicide was concerned. Going from nowhere, going from the streets trying to even get a show. So we were both committed to the same goal and just working together that way, with very little means. We were hanging out a lot, not just to rehearse but we were the only ones that were at the same place, evolving as artists. Nothing else mattered.”
The Suicide frontman died in his sleep last July, and everyone from Henry Rollins to The New York Times wheeled out tributes. Rev has just released his first new material since Vega’s passing. But whereas his religion-inspired, classically-rich 2009 album Stigmata was a direct allaying of the grief he experienced after the death of his beloved wife Mari in 2008 – what he has previously described as the “the most tumultuous time of my life” – all of the 34 tracks for new album Demolition 9 pre-dated Vega’s death. The album, then, is less a tribute to Vega than a rough-hewn journal containing synth scribbles and short instrumental missives collected over the past eight years.
In the press release, Rev describes the album as an autobiographical ‘yearning for joy and the unattainable perfection of the artistic ideal.’ “Yeah, I didn’t actually say that,” he laughs. “Or maybe I did? Essentially, Craig [Leon, the producer who helmed Suicide’s 1977 debut and whose revived Atlas Réalisations label has released Demolition 9] asked me to say a few words about the record to give to our promo guy and that’s what he arrived at. But I certainly didn’t go into it saying, ‘I am going to do an autobiographical thing for all these moods.’”
“I can see all of that now though, looking out,” he continues. “And it’s always more interesting to hear what others hear. It’s still just a surface thing though – creating all these different moods – but what it’s really about is the quality of the individual moods or the way they’re put together.”
Demolition 9 is a splatter collage where hissing noise collides with angelic orchestral meditations and bright flashes of well-honed pop melodies. ‘Stickball’, ‘Concrete’ and ‘Into The Blue’ explode with distorted jackhammer beats and abrasive junkyard percussion, while the hypnagogic doo-wop of ‘My Street’ is reminiscent of Suicide’s warped ‘50s-sounding dream sequences. There are the playfully cosmic, Tomita-esque soundscapes of ‘Vision Of Mari’ and ‘Warning’ and while ‘Creation’ packs a harsher industrial punch and sees a rare outing for Rev’s voice, ‘Toi’ tiptoes along like a lullaby. Essentially, the album presents itself like a living patchwork of Rev’s previous solo releases, including the bells and bleep-strewn minimalism of his much-lauded self-titled 1980 debut (which contains one of his standout tracks, ‘Mari’). It’s intense, beautiful and all over the shop.
“The beginning of a record is so fresh, it’s like a blank canvas”
Rev savors the album’s lack of linear narrative. “There is no literary story at all,” he states confidently. “To say that there’s a theme or an idea – I don’t have one. To me, sequencing is something I find essential and I enjoy, but usually the story is the logic of the tracks themselves. You know right away this one works better after this one and this one works better before this one. The sequence is a musical logic.”
“For me it’s really dealing with the musical elements, they are a language that tell you right away what works better than other combinations,” he explains. “The ear tells you everything. So I just follow my ear and most of the time it doesn’t work – like the beginning of a record is so fresh, it’s like a blank canvas. You have so many new ideas, you’re just throwing a load of colors against the canvas. That’s always in some ways the most exciting part. But then you come back the next day and say, ‘But that’s not gonna work,’ etc, like a performance. Then you are dealing with the details for X amount of time – it could be years. That’s true with anything creative.”
Brooklyn-born Alan Vega – né Bermowitz – and Bronx-born Martin Rev – né Reverby – met in 1971 and spent the first few years of Suicide’s existence seeing each other almost every day. They also spent the first five or so years of their career without any label support – that didn’t come into view until the release of their debut album in 1977.
“Alan was living in the space in New York in which we were rehearsing,” recalls Rev – who had been performing in avant-garde jazz ensembles prior to their formation – of the early years. “Basically, he was between places. He was homeless. I would shoot up to those places to get out of the streets, get out of the cold, even though I had a place to live – but it wasn’t downtown, so when I was downtown that’s where I would go. And we met each other that way – we had already been doing that for several years. So we were really radically on the edge, looking to keep developing and finding stuff.”
The pair’s mutually beneficial existence forked off as they began carving out their own lives, but over the proceeding decades they would still get together for shows. “What blew my mind a little bit is the kind of press that came out in the States when Alan passed,” says Rev. “It was like the greatest promo event of all time. If only Alan could see this, and maybe if we knew we would have staged this – maybe he’s still around – because this is the kind of press we’d never got in our lifetimes.”
Suicide’s debut self-titled album turns 40 this year. “One good thing about it for me is that it holds up,” Rev says of the record. “If you hear the songs a week or ten years later and they don’t hold up you think, ‘What was the point? They shouldn’t have come out.’ But whenever I have to hear it, Suicide for the most part holds up.
“So I hear it, and it’s right there again for me. There’s nothing I would change, except a slight edit here and there that would be hardly discernible. That’s a good sign for me. It’s got this strength we felt at the time. For me, the record hasn’t lost its vitality.”
Suicide are synonymous with New York and the bohemian cultural hotbed that was the Lower East Side in the ‘70s. The band formed some years before the no wave movement really kicked into gear, but are associated with the scene nonetheless. As FACT’s John Calvert neatly puts it, “in many ways, the story of no wave is also the story of New York”, and it’s true that NYC’s lifeblood courses through the veins of everything Rev creates. For this new album, he took late night strolls around the city in order to refresh his mind before retuning to work and talks about relishing “that quiet mood at the end of the day”, where the usually bustling streets seem to stretch out for miles. He muses: “But, that said, who knows how much of any of it is about New York and how much of it is personal, psychological and even just genetic?.”
April Clare Welsh is on Twitter
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