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Interview with Martin Rev

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The electro-punk duo Suicide blazed a trail in the 70s that still inspires to this day.  Coming out of the same New York scene that would eventually produce The Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads, these guys were so far ahead of their time it was frightening.  With Alan Vega delivering his wild vocal stylings, Martin Rev provided a hypnotic synthesizer pulse that would be heard around the world.  Throughout their groundbreaking career, they have opened for The Clash, made friends with Bruce Springsteen, been produced by Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, and have been praised by everyone from Bono to Depeche Mode.  They generated enough hate in their early days to fill a New York subway station, yet now they occupy an enviable niche as underground rock legends.
I was thrilled to speak with Martin Rev over the phone.  I enjoyed speaking with this eloquent innovator about everything from rock and roll, the early days, and beat boxes....


Gary Flanagan:  Back when you were growing up and you were just discovering music, what were some of the artists that you found really exciting?


Martin Rev:  Well, starting out it was all rock and roll, I wasn't familiar yet with anything jazz-wise.  Classic wise to an extent because I was practicing little pieces here and there.  It was all rock and roll, I mean 45s.  The first record I ever bought was "At The Hop" by Danny and the Juniors.  I think the second one was "Get A Job" by the Silhouettes.  Of course it was an exciting time for the music.  I mean, seeing Elvis sing, Jerry Lee Lewis and those people on TV on a regular Saturday night and being a pre teenager, being a little kid, it was all happening, it was all coming out.  That was all what I was really weaned on.  Rock and roll...urban rhythm and blues. 


GF:  One thing I always found interesting about your work is that even though much of it was quite dark, there was always a distinct pop feel underneath.  Lester Bangs once said that you guys actually had a knack for pure pop.  Do you think all that rock and rhythm and blues that you listened to in your early days had a real direct effect on your work?


MR:  Oh I'm sure.  Definitely.  It was such a melodic period when you think about it.  It was a very harmonious, romantic, musical era.  Definitely.


GF:  I understand that you had met Alan Vega at the Project For Living Artists.  What was the atmosphere like in a place like that?


MR:  It was also called Museum for Living Artists, but it was also referred to as Project.  I actually did a show there with my old group called Reverend B.  At that time it was during Vietnam, and a lot of quite all ready established artists kind of co-opted it and they had shows...every month or so they would change shows.  They had a little board of directors.  Alan was one, and another guy that we worked with at the time that we knew very well, Joe Cartuccio, who was a painter, he was another.  The little board of directors were the ones who were there all the time, the artists and the painters were never there, they stayed and hung their show or they would sometimes come for events.  They would have these political events, film events, all kinds of stuff, it was a very fervent period during Vietnam.  I was asked to do a show there, actually two I believe, and I met Alan there in between.  It was a great space and sometimes when I was in that area, I was downtown in the Village where I was most of the time, it was mostly during the winter at that time and I would stop in to just get off the street and get out of the cold for a while and hang out.  There was always someone there.  Alan was there, he was there a lot because he needed a spot for the same reason.  It was basically Alan, maybe Joe and a couple of people and then you'd have people coming in off the street, people wanted to hang out, so people tried to live there, sleep there.  Sometimes you'd have big crowds of people off the streets, a lot of getting high, a lot of political awareness, a lot of radicalism which was natural at that time, Alan and I being sometimes the most common to use the space, and Alan having the key. I met him rehearsing, just kind of experimenting with Paul, Paul was playing guitar as a sound player, as two visual artists, trying to get sound feedback out of a tape recorder they had, they didn't really have any equipment other than that.  I heard that and at the time I would pick up some industrial objects…they had some springs, like heavy duty springs and I would use them as drum sticks.  I would accompany and make music with that on the floor of the loft.  It was a good sized loft, it was beautiful.  And then we just started hanging out.  It was a very active, sometimes feverish atmosphere.  The war was creating a lot of energy. 


GF:  The very first time you met Alan, what was your first impression of him?


Alan was someone that you would definitely notice.  He was wearing a very large cross around his neck.  Kind of a white plastic cross.  And a very wide brimmed black hat, kind of South American.  Of course whatever he was doing was fairly intense at the time.  I had a show there soon after, I was asked to do something by a friend of a friend who was having a party/political event with films and whatnot.  I had Reverend B there. It was a ten piece band at that time.  Alan took a tambourine and just started playing with the band on one of the last songs.  We knew each other by then but not that well, and I said to him "you and I are going to work together".  We were both kind of in the same degree of distance from the middle of the road at that point.  We were both on a plane that was quite personal and out of synch.  We were both very much into our art, we had been doing it for quite some time.  Alan was the one who stayed up the latest and he was there, cause he was in the same place that I was.  Developing and searching, and the space was something that was valuable to me too, to be able to get in on, when I was in the streets more.  Alan was quite intelligent and all ready had quite a history on his own in art, and he knew a lot.  He knew a lot about music too.


Since we were both in the same space at the same time, kind of with a similar fervent fever of art, ecstasy and agony you might say, we would experiment with sound together, sometimes with someone else, and after everyone left we would still be flying in a visionary sense, we would leave and walk the streets until he would go to Brooklyn and I would go uptown.  We would end up a lot of times getting a loaf of bread from a baker that would just open up in the West Village, at 5 in the morning, get a hot loaf of bread, split it, and then go.  It was still kind of a psychedelic time.  It was the 70s, but the 60s were still hanging over.  The big groups of the 60s were still playing.  It was a very visual, hallucinogenic time. 


GF:  Whenever I read a story about Suicide, one word that I keep seeing pop up is "influential".  You guys had such an incredible influence on a lot of bands that came along afterwards.  When you were doing your early shows or recording your early material, did you have any idea that this stuff would one day be so influential?


No.  Personally I knew it was what I wanted to do.  It was just an extension of what I had been doing up until that time.  And I wanted to keep doing it because that's the only thing you can do.  I couldn't predict anything like that.  I knew there was nothing else around like it.  This was still a time of big stadium shows.  I heard what we were doing as being like in a gigantic stadium.  I had a feeling we were as big as the Beatles, I used to think, it's going to be that big.  It was in terms of the sound, it wasn't in terms of ego.  Any stage or phase that I dedicated myself to I was totally convinced of, even if the world wasn't at all.  I knew it was the future for me, the electronics, using a drum machine, it was perfect for me, it was my future, I could easily envision it being THE future, but that wasn't something that I spent much time thinking about, it was much more personal than that.  It was just the next step for me.  So I just went there and everything else just kind of unraveled, unfurled you might say over years.


GF:  I read somewhere that in the early days you had something like a ten dollar Japanese organ.  The sound that you guys achieved was so unique, can you recall what some of the other keyboards or gear were that you used?


Well, it was a little more than ten dollars but not much.  Everything was used, I'd get it second hand, out of newspapers, journals, product journals.  First I was playing drums, there was a set in the house.  I had a family at that time, very early in life, which was pretty much around the time I was 20.  I would bring down the snare, I would put it in a duffle bag, the ride cymbal and the hi hat, I started working that way.  And I also had a Wurlitzer keyboard that I had bought “on time” a little before I met Alan.  And then through the amplification and feedback that I was getting through using the amp with the Wurlitzer, I was using the drums less, and at some point I was using the keyboard and the snare in the middle and the ride cymbal on the side, I'd use both.  I did that for a while, and then after that I would pick up an organ that I could afford, it was probably more like 30 dollars or 40 dollars, which was a lot then for us.  And then a friend of ours who's pretty well known, she's a French composer named Elodie Lautin, she was also local at the time, around us, and she had a Farfisa that she offered to lend me which I eventually gave her some money for, and that I played for a while right up until the first record.  The first record was done on Farfisa.


GF:  On the subject of gear and electronics, it seems to me that back in the late 70s there was quite an apprehension towards electronics.  Some bands were starting to experiment and use this new technology, but it seemed the public was a little nervous about this.  Why do you think this was?


That's a good question.  We were using electronic appliances, but it wasn't yet a digital age.  It was still the industrial age.  People were still working in steel mills and factories, they do now, but not to that extent.  On one level it could just be the fear of the unknown, it might also signal certain apprehensions like automation, which people talked about then, a loss of work, kind of a science fiction scenario.  I think also for certain acoustic or certain musical reasons, myself I heard these opinions from various musicians, good ones, especially acoustic musicians like jazz ones that electronics was not a sound that was really as human.  An electronic instrument did not have a human quality.  And in some ways it doesn't!  It was really in its own world...sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't.  It was just something that was new.  It did spell somewhat of a threat to the status quo in the sense that when you have a drum machine you don't necessarily have to have a drummer.  Then you don't need a guitar player, then you don't need a bass player.  What does that mean for everyone that is playing in bands?  It's just like any other change and the results of that's a change in the structure of everything that had happened before.  Certainly I'm sure there was a lot of that when we started, ‘cause there's two guys, one instrumentalist and there's no guitar, bass, or drums.  That's putting a lot of the sacred cows right out the door. 



"Ideas are everything, and they can come from any music, any art, sometimes any vision or any imagination.  Just to get to that place again where you can really marvel yourself.  I couldn't justify or say that it’s good or bad, to be so narcissistic, but that's an obsession for most people who work that way.  It's really the primary drive, to find something that makes you go "wow" first and then you can share it with others.  If they don't hear it, they don't hear it.  That's not a deciding factor."- Martin Rev

GF:  It seemed to me that you guys were certainly the first to take that approach.  And then afterwards as the 80s progressed there were all the Soft Cells and all the synth duos.  I really think you guys were probably the first.


I wouldn't say this out of any bravado or anything, but there wasn't anybody else at the time.  Not in the rock world, not that I knew of.  Certainly not in New York around that time.  The closest thing to that were guys who played in hotels, and lounges and catered affairs, that played with a rhythm machine with a keyboard.  I probably got the idea for a rhythm machine by hearing it there!


GF:  Really?!


Yeah, those were the guys who were using rhythm machines.  As corny as it sounds, playing an accordion with a Univox for practical reasons.  As Lester said, in a way, there's fruit in the 80s in that sense because it was a pop period and you had a lot of pop groups doing that and declaring us as an influence.  It was very was still coming right out of the 60s, the 70s was all groups and heavy metal.


GF:  I was curious about your solo albums.  How do you approach them?  I read that a lot of the Suicide material came out of jams...I'm curious if it's the same approach for your solo albums?


To be honest with you, I think each one is different.  I guess there may have been an element of jamming that may have happened, I'm trying to think which one that may have happened in.  Well, with Suicide a lot of stuff came out of gigs, but because there was only two of us and not a lot of other musicians, I'd have an idea and I would lay it down and Alan would respond to it lyrically.  But how that idea would come to fruit would be a lot of jamming, sometimes by myself, or Alan playing around with words on his own and then he would hear something that I was doing, and he has a stock of words or he starts inventing words.  In the very early days we did do jamming, Alan was experimenting with trumpet, and we had the guitar player, the first gigs to most people basically sounded like one wall of sound.  It was four sections but it was all one into the other.  A great wall of electronic, free sound.  Eventually the songs started carving their way out of this block.  We were creating and inventing it out of something that was unknown too.  That was the great joy and beauty of it, it was such a new frontier.  It was like a paradise.  And electronics were definitely the next open frontier that hadn't been explored.


The solo albums all sort of take place out of something that's your own development.  I'm trying to do something that has led to that place from the last one, an idea sometime, an idea concerning space, a way of approaching vocals, a way of approaching instruments differently, exploration of instruments, different combinations, different conceptions, different ideas.  So I went really with a blank canvas so I could see otherwise how that plays out, and then develop it from there.  A lot of time I kind of search for something that is close to what works for me, at that stage of my time.  As you live, you change in terms of what you expect, what you hear, what satisfies you.  And also your motivations... you might be hearing something more for a certain kind of acceptance, a certain kind of audience.  And sometimes you're not interested in going for that kind of audience anymore for various reasons.  And you hear something else and you hear something in other musics and you say "wow, I hear that too, but let me do that in my way".  It's a lot of searching, in one way or the other, either jamming or just by working things out like doing a painting.  In that sense it's kind of jamming. 


GF:  So you think as the artist grows and changes, their art tends to grow and change with them?


I definitely do, if they're honest with themselves.  A lot of times what happens is if they are not that successful, they are not beholden to continuing a certain success.  I'll do something 6 months ago, and I go back to it now, and I'm going to change certain things that I didn't even hear before.  In six months, if an artist is still listening, searching, reading, studying, just living, then it's like a reflection of his values.  It's also a reflection of his human values.  As he changes as a human being, his priorities, aesthetically, become clearer too.  He might not be going for certain audiences or worlds or rewards that he was maybe going for earlier, even though those were pure at the time, because he's still developing as a human being in terms of his values in general. Six months can make a difference, a few months can make a difference, a week...  And what you've done before kind of fulfills a certain drive or a certain idea.  A lot of times I would do a record and it would give me so many ideas after I had finished to do the next one.  It always happens.  That's the interesting thing about an could be 6 songs or it could be 20 songs, but the process that you go through in making it an entity kind of fulfills so much that period of need that you have. You can start the next one with some ideas that were left over, but they're very quickly going to present themselves as just a starting base.  It's a beautiful thing, but it's really a process on a blank canvas each time.  You come at it with a certain motivation from an idea.


GF:  And when you finally create that finished work it must be very rewarding!


Yeah, because you're really trying to satisfy yourself.  And to satisfy yourself you really have to satisfy all the demands not only emotionally and value wise, but everything you know...your sensitivity and your sophistication that develops over the years of the art itself.  If you continue learning about the art, the more you know and appreciate, the higher is your sense or need to add to those higher demands you make on yourself.  I think a person understands more and more in time in the same way through art or music, and it can be the same piece but they can hear it over a period of say, forty years, and they're going to understand it better.  They approach their own music with those same standards, and then it's a matter of trying to climb that hill, to get that idea across that meets those standards and then you feel "wow, this stands up to everything I've all ready heard".  That's kind of the process, I think. 


GF:  Are you working on any new projects at the moment?


There's one that's going to be released by the end of November.  That's all ready printed.  There was one that came out last year in the same time called "Les Nymphes".  I'm working, it's just what I can't help doing.  A lot of times by the time something is released there's all ready something new in the works.  Sometimes it's a process of at least a year or two. 


GF:  Do you follow any of the current music that's out there these days?


I don't follow, I scan, I kind of hear a lot around me.  And I hear trends.  I don't follow as I did when I was a kid, when there was a lot of stuff that I was learning from, I find myself learning more from things that I understand less, that are newer to me or that are challenging.  I can recognize a genre or I can recognize a sound, but also being in the world of contemporary rhythm and blues or rock, I guess I kind of know it so well so I don't spend a lot of time cultivating it.  As much as I respect anything that's good, I need to chew the bone like a dog, on things that are tough for me, or really new. 


GF:  And I suppose that exposing yourself to something that's new or challenging, you must learn a lot from that.


Yeah!  And sometimes something that's new and challenging could have happened 300 years ago.  But it's just new for me at that time.  It's sending me kind of an idea or a message of a way of approaching something that's fresh for me at that point.  After finishing one kind of journey, you kind of want to start another one.  You want to try and find a frontier again.  Ideas are everything, and they can come from any music, any art, sometimes any vision or any imagination.  Just to get to that place again where you can really marvel yourself.  I couldn't justify or say that it’s good or bad, to be so narcissistic, but that's an obsession for most people who work that way.  It's really the primary drive, to find something that makes you go "wow" first and then you can share it with others.  If they don't hear it, they don't hear it.  That's not a deciding factor. 


GF:  I was wondering if you could tell me what sort of impact New York City has had on your work?  Has it really had an influence on your music?


Oh yeah, I'm sure.  It would take a lot of examining to figure out exactly what, when, why and how, it's a little ephemeral, but yeah, the sound of New York, the theatre of New York, the subways, the city, anything that has form, every city has its own theatre, the drama, the certain energy, the excitement, the culture, and the culture that came before us.  It's no accident that the New York movements...and punk was a New York didn't come out of fresh, thin air, it came out of generations and generations before in New York, immigrants really who made New York, who came with their ideas and their art and of course influences from all kinds of other things, like French symbolist poetry, but the New York step-by-step cultural development just led up to everything it did.  And New York was the centre of the arts, no doubt.  When I was growing up it was the Paris of the world.  And all the great artists, especially in music, they all lived in New York.  They all came here from all over.  Rock and roll wasn't all out of New York, but a lot of it was.  Culturally it's not the city that it once was, but that's probably true everywhere.  A week or so is probably all one would need, and then to get back where there's some sanity.  It is a phenomenon that is probably the most unnatural, I think, city in the world. 


There's a certain rhythm, there's a certain closeness with other people, races, ethnicities, and all the cultural and musical ramifications of that.  There's a timing of living in anywhere that you live.  Your body reacts to the rhythm and to the structure where you live, and it develops a certain dance in terms of the way you walk, the timing that you live.  You’re living in a certain structured scene with various props and various places and that's going to influence the way you turn, and how you turn, and how fast or how slow, depending on the amount of people, the frequency of these structures. 




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