Interview: Martin Rev
Suicide man talks starting out, influences and jazz ahead of upcoming shows
Words Ben Graham
“SOMETIMES you’re surprised because you don’t realise that certain people actually know who you are, and listen to your work, and then they cover your song.”
That’s an unnecessarily humble Martin Rev, who for over forty years has been the keyboard-playing musical half of seminal New York electronic duo Suicide, alongside menacing, Elvis-from-Hell vocalist Alan Vega. Received with almost blanket hostility on their inception, and generating riots when they toured supporting the Clash and Elvis Costello, Suicide have proved influential on generations of forward-thinking artists, from Joy Division and The Jesus and Mary Chain to Spiritualized, The Horrors and MIA, whose ‘Born Free’ was based around a sample from Suicide’s 1977 classic ‘Ghost Rider.’ The latest artist to cover a Suicide song is Neneh Cherry, who has recorded a brilliant version of the band’s ‘Dream Baby Dream’ on her album with Scandinavian jazz collective The Thing.
“I was just informed about that yesterday, but I didn’t have a chance to hear it yet,” Martin growls in his rasping Brooklyn accent. “But I heard it’s kinda cool. It was a nice surprise. Her father [jazz legend Don Cherry] was someone that I met, that I knew in a very nice way — not really personally, but Mari my wife knew him when she was growing up in California. She used to go hear Ornette [Coleman, whose band Don Cherry played in] when he was just starting out there, and she and Don were very close all those years; not always seeing each other or talking to each other, but they were very good friends, and he was very significant in a couple of incidents in her life. We’d see him sometimes in New York, when he came back from Sweden. So that was a nice surprise.”
Commonly considered a part of punk or post-punk, Suicide aren’t usually imagined hanging out with the major figures of 1960s jazz. But by the time of their ground-breaking eponymous debut LP in 1977 the band were already veterans of the New York club and art circuit, following on from fellow New York electronic pioneers the Silver Apples, and contemporaries of krautrock bands like Can, although Rev insists he hadn’t heard either of these artists when Suicide started out.
“Alan [Vega] told me about Silver Apples,” he recalls. “Alan had seen Iggy [Pop, with the Stooges], and that had really changed his direction radically, and that’s when I met him soon after that. At that time I was still listening principally to jazz, and I didn’t hear a lot of other stuff. Alan told me about the German electronic scene, and said you’ve gotta hear this group Can, and maybe played me some tracks, and I related to it, because we’d already started Suicide and it was nice to know that anyone else was anywhere near that ball park. Because I already realised this was something really new, I mean I was creating music pretty much out of pure feedback at that time. But I felt there were differences in terms of the temperament and the emotion, the expression, where it was coming from. We were something much closer to my roots which were very urban, rhythm and blues, New York…”
There’s a sense with those early Suicide records that you’re almost trying to play your environment…
“Yeah, probably. You almost can’t help doing it; it’s what’s close to you, it’s what you know best. You’ve got the subway trains, the streets; it’s the construction of the décor that you grew up in, it really informs your sense of dimension and arrangement, no matter what materials you’re working with.”
Alongside Suicide, Rev has maintained an ever-evolving solo career; his last album, 2009’s Stigmata, was an electronic requiem mass for his late wife and muse Mari that fused motifs from European religious classical music to haunting vocal treatments, all built up from loops and synthesised orchestral instruments. None of which is likely to feature in Rev’s forthcoming solo show at Islington’s Electrowerkz on the 25th of May. “I tend to do more club kind of, stronger beat material when I work live, unless it’s a special kind of venue that requests a more cerebral concert type of environment,” he says. “I did something that way in Vienna a couple of years ago at a modern classical festival. But otherwise I just like to play, back to the club roots that I dig so much. And a lot of the stuff has not been recorded.”
The show will be Rev’s first performance in the UK capital since Suicide opened for Iggy and the Stooges at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2010, where the duo played their debut LP in its entirety. I asked Rev how he felt about the whole notion of such carefully curated, retrospective performances, which would seem the diametric opposite of Suicide’s onstage ethos of orchestrated chaos.
“I wouldn’t wanna play a reproductive, retrospective gig like that unless it was in a glass box maybe in a museum somewhere, and even then I would hesitate very strongly,” he admits. “The idea was broached some time before, at a time when it was apparently a kind of a trend, in the UK especially, to do live reproduction shows of your albums. It was presented very sincerely that people would really want to see that, with us going back to the original instruments, but I felt that was not going to work for me, because the energy and the edge that they had for me at that time, they’re not necessarily going to have now. So I didn’t do it. But I did in time play around with the sounds I had originally, with the rhythm machine and whatnot, and my idea was always that we could do old material — that hasn’t lost any of the glimmer for me — but do it in the way that I play now. So I said yeah, I’ll do it, but I wanna upgrade it like this. And finally I guess it was seen that that was the only way I was going to do it, so they said yeah, okay, and it worked out great. For me it had all the energy and edge that it ever had, and people had the same reactions they did twenty or thirty years ago. They just didn’t know what to do, they were in this suffocating space, whether they wanted to leave but they couldn’t… it was like they heard it for the first time.”
Rev obviously retains the forward-thinking, improvisatory attitude that characterised the modern jazz he was listening to, and indeed performing, prior to Suicide’s early seventies inception.
“Well, originally I was a rock’n'roll kid; I was born into the rock’n'roll era of 45s in the late fifties, so rock was the breast that I nurtured from originally,” Rev qualifies. “Jazz I got into as a pre-teenager and then all the way through my teenage years I studied it very intently. For a keyboard player, or any instrumentalist, it was as erudite, in terms of harmony and theory, as any European classical music was. It was just as deep, and in some ways you had to be more versatile, as you’re improvising all the time.”
“After the sixties, so many rock groups started to say they were influenced by jazz — the Allman Brothers, Hendrix, they all started saying after a few years, yeah, they got that from listening to Coltrane, you know. I mean we’re talking about a time when John Coltrane was really cutting-edge; he was reflecting the whole energy, the whole social progression, the whole social future of the time. And Miles Davis at the same time… it was still one developing generation, which means that every six months sometimes, or two years, they were overlapping each other into new movements. It hadn’t yet reached an interpretive era. So it was really, really vibrant. The same way rock’n’roll has been; its cycle started later, in the fifties, and it was like that too, with all the movements that happened in the sixties and the seventies, through punk, and even the eighties. But especially in America, jazz had a real meaning, and as an instrumentalist it was like, wow, let me try and do that. Of course, trying to do that you study, and you practice for quite a few years, and you come out of it with a lot of stuff, and then later I realised what I wanted to use and what I wasn’t gonna use.”
It’s interesting that you should say that you were drawn to the complexity of jazz, because when Suicide started out you were known for doing this very minimal, brutal, deliberately simple music that was almost seen as a reaction against people like the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead and these extemporising bands. But actually before that, you had the chops to be doing quite complex stuff.
“Yeah, I was reacting against that; I thought that had reached a turning point, and as someone living very close to the surface I couldn’t afford to actually put together a group and go to those studios, and that whole scene I was coming in on, I couldn’t compete with that kind of establishment, and I had to find a way to make music that moved me with the most minimal ways too. And then I discovered something that for me was more vibrant. Because after that many years of elaborating itself in the studios and in bands, that format had reached an end point. And rock’n'roll can be very profound in its emotion, but it’s not necessary to learn that much in terms of spurting out like that, in terms of what’s happening in jazz and classical music. So you can kind of do a lot of playing pretty early on.”
“So between the two worlds I actually came back to my roots, which was rock’n’roll. Jazz, as much as I loved it, was really music based in a generation or two before me. All the greats were born in the twenties, pretty much, at the latest the thirties, and so they listened to different things on the radio. Their pop music was Bing Crosby, standard songs. My pop music was ‘Get A Job’, ‘At The Hop’. So I came back to me, basically, but I didn’t come back to it by throwing anything away.”
Immediately before Suicide you had a band called Reverend B. What were they like? Was that in the jazz period, or had you moved more into rock’n’ roll by then?
“It started as a free group. I’d have sometimes as many as between six and ten or twelve musicians, and then through the fact that there weren’t keyboards in a lot of the places I was playing, because I was playing lofts, I would borrow an electric organ off somebody, and eventually I bought like a Wurlitzer electric piano that I started Suicide with. But with the organs I started to hear the possibility of electronics and free music like that. This was a time when jazz was in its avant-garde, and free music was the current music of the day. Coltrane had already made that leap, and the most relevant people at the time were Coltrane, Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor, and it was very much centred in New York, too. So it evolved into electronic free music like that, which was still novel to me because really only Sun Ra was dabbling that way in electronics. Miles Davis was too, but in a more rhythmic, rock-oriented way. And then it started to evolve into the pure beat too, because sometimes the drummer would really sink into the electronics with a strong backbeat, but with a lot of free improvisation over it. And that was what I was doing for quite a while before I met Alan. I actually played some of the first shows in the Museum of Living Artists, where I met Alan and where we started Suicide.”
And out of that you created some music that eventually was very influential. Songs like ‘Ghost Rider’; the riff in that is so minimal and simple, yet it seems like it’s been ripped off and sampled a million times since, it’s kind of like the ‘Smoke On The Water’ of electronic music. I wonder if you can remember coming up with that, and if you felt like it stood out from everything else at the time.
“I actually remember very specifically… I was rehearsing with Alan at the time, and we even had a guitar player for the first couple of shows — these were all in the museum — and they were basically coming from being visual artists, but wanting to find a way into music, using electronics. And at some point, after the first few rehearsals, which were incredible of course — energy-wise and visionary-wise, psychedelically or however you want to put it — but I was still searching for an expression that would work, as a group, that we could play gigs on. And I used to just go and crash right into the university that’s around there, which you couldn’t do now, and grab their practice rooms, just go in there and throw around ideas and just try things. And I remember this one day, I just went in and in just a few minutes I started playing ‘Rocket USA’. Just two notes really, like that, and in that so-called minimalism I heard and saw everything. It was as visual as it was audible. I heard and saw my whole… it was something very primordial to me. It was like the pictures that used to be in my room when I was a baby, which I remember were like cowboy pictures, a cowboy lassoing this or the cow jumping over the moon, all these very American, Americana-like, almost like drawn cartoon kind of things, not real paintings. And when I started playing those notes I saw all of that, I saw all that Americana… it was right. Plus it had the energy. And I just went from there to ‘Ghost Rider’ in the next few minutes, and the sound, even the register I was playing in… it was there, it was ready to find. And then I brought it back into the next time we played, around the corner in the museum, and it was a new place for everybody. It was the direction.”
That moment of epiphany has sent tremors through the entire music world ever since, that show no signs of abating. When pushed to name acts that he thinks have taken what Suicide did and then built on it, as opposed to just imitating, Rev singles out Spacemen 3 and ARE Weapons as particular favourites, while also nodding to “those guys who did ‘Tainted Love’…”
“Yeah, they said they were totally into us, but they did something different or in their own way with it. Some have really just tried to replicate us, and that’s their decision too, they try to do certain periods, like early period of Suicide; sometimes at our gigs I’m in the dressing room and the opener is like, ‘They’re doing you guys, but in 1974,’ and it sounds much more us than… it’s like hearing yourself play, 20 or 30 years before.”
You’ve always kept moving forward with your sound though; I guess you don’t pine for the days of a forty buck keyboard or whatever.
“No… I know a lot of people like to go back to analogue, but to me it’s never really been that much of a passion. Maybe I just kind of did it, for me, when it was the latest thing, too.”
So you’re still enthusiastic about the possibilities of new technology and seeing what you can do with it?
“Oh, yeah. It’s always been what spurred me on in a way. I always like found music, like found art — you know the found art movement, where they were finding things, they took a throwaway from the street and they made art out of it. Well you hear a module or something that just came out, and you can find a lot of incredible ideas out of that, and make music out of that. Now there’s less new hardware being manufactured, it’s all about software, but the combination of the two, that’s really where the freshness is — for me anyway, working in electronics and working in something that’s not a traditional, known music, you might say. If you’re interpreting, of course, you can interpret forever.”
And are you working towards a new album at all, at the moment?
“Yeah, I am. It’s been in the works for a little while and it’s really reaching that stage where I should be putting something out as a demo, or looking to put something out at some point in the near future.”
And is any of this material likely to be showcased at the gig on the 25th?
“Actually probably not, no. It’s a different thing. It’s a generalisation, but the new album is actually going on from Stigmata, for me. Towards what has been almost an open, unknown space, in many respects, but coming from that end. But who knows; after this it might come back to stuff I’m doing live.”
And finally do you think Suicide will make another studio album? It’s been ten years since American Supreme, and that came ten years after Why Be Blue, so…
“I know. One can never say. We’ve never really planned our records to any extent. They’ve always presented themselves in one way or another, in a way that we almost couldn’t refuse to do them. There’s a general kind of environment that circles you and makes it happen. We tend not to, at this point, say, ‘Okay, we gotta make a new album,’ like a band that says, ‘Okay, it’s time to get in the studio and make a new album and try to sell it to somebody…’ But if it’s in the wind, so to speak, if it’s necessary, we’ll be called. One way or the other.”