Suicide’s Martin Rev is considered to be a pioneer when it comes to electronic music. In the 70′s he and Alan Vega mixed art-punk with keyboards and drum machines to create a unique sound that was ahead of their time. I was able to chat with Martin about Suicides beginnings, New York then and now, and his solo work in the interview below.
S.O.T.R- You and Alan are considered to be pioneers of electronic music, can you tell me about the birth of Suicide, in a period when all the bands in N. Y. were using guitar, bass, and drums to make music, what inspired you to remain a duo and use a drum machine and electronic organ?
MARTIN REV- Well at some point I realized it was the way for me, Alan and I kinda came from different directions… when we met, he was experimenting with the visual arts and had a definite musical background in terms of listening and interest. He had seen Iggy play live probably less than a year before that, and that changed his total view of the future as far as ours is concerned. That’s what he expressed, and after that he had to become a performer, a musical performer to continue to be an artist. So I met him around that time…soon afterward he was experimenting with feedback, tape recorders and things, late at night in his space in the Museum of Living Art. I started to do a couple shows and private parties and then we both ended up hanging there late at night when everybody else left because we needed the space to get off the streets to continue to experiment.
We had 3 people in the very beginning, we had another visual artist who played guitar, all feedbacked guitar, he wasn’t a schooled musician, he defiantly had the ear and desire to experiment. He left pretty early on, after about a year. I felt I could hear the possibilities of drum machines, and kind of consolidating the sounds, not so horizontal like the bands of the time.We did bring in my wife, Mari, I asked her to sit in with us and play some drums, she did and it sounded great. We had kids at home, very young children too and at some point it just kind of consolidated where Paul the guitarist left and Mari kind of didn’t continue with us for various reasons and I was kinda hearing…I had seen drum machines for quite sometime because they were used in lounge area type catered affairs, but not in rock ‘n’ roll. There was one English group that started using it, umm…Roy…. ummm.. I’m trying to remember his name.. in the very early 70’s, otherwise drum machines just were not there and the realities of having a big band weren’t practical or realistic for us because we had basically no shows, no gigs, and no real place to rehearse.
S.O.T.R.- So it’s kind of out of necessity that your sound was created….
MARTIN REV- Yeah a lot of it was out of necessity. It was where I was coming from as a musician. Since I was a little kid/ pre-teenager I had developed too, that was the next place for me, I was already experimenting with electronics and when Alan met me I was bringing Jazz….well, Jazz had already been to some extent intellectually exploited, free jazz and electronics which was being done maybe by Sun Ra at the time.
I didn’t wanna replace Mari certainly as a drummer with another drummer for personal reasons. It was all necessity really, and looking to something to meet that necessity I realized the drum machine with the keyboard could be an incredible thing. Before that I was playing drums in the beginning with a keyboard. I’d bring a half set of drums, a cymbal, a snare drum and a triangle and I was getting a lot of feedback off the amps. We used amplifiers then, at least one large bass amp and I would use that for feedback with a lot of devices. Those were our early gigs when we started to work just the two of us. At some point I focused in on the drum machine which I had been thinking about for a long time.
S.O.T.R.- That is an aspect of Suicide that I love… the drum machines. Back in the 70’s was it considered cheesy to use a drum machine compared to a real drummer??
MARTIN REV- People didn’t consider it cheesy they just thought it was.. umm.. we were breaking a lot of taboo’s, a lot of sacred cows, we had no guitar, no bass, and having a drum machine for rock ‘n’ roll was like the last straw, plus there were two of us and the name “Suicide” We weren’t giving people anything to hold on to.
S.O.T.R.-Yeah, I read somewhere that at the beginning a lot of people couldn’t grasp what you were doing.
MARTIN REV-We in no way were accepted. There was a circle of artists who immediately saw us for what we were but for the most part it was a real uphill struggle, ya know, it had been a continual uphill struggle just to get shows, everything was changing all the time, what was left from the 60’s was lingering, the 70’s were going out, and clubs would change and were closing and sometimes you had to wait 9 months to a year to get a gig till a club opened up. Punk came in around 75 you might say 74.. and the previous scene was kinda diminishing and just expiring since 1970. You had the “Glam” scene with the Dolls at the forefront and that was a big scene for about a year at Mercer Arts Center. We were part of that… of course on the fringe on the sense of being part of that scene, we were playing shows at Mercer, that was a productive period, that was around 72’. But after Mercer collapsed….. it literally fell down from a building that collapsed on it from the other side. It was a great theater, it was a new kind of a space with about 5 or 6 small theaters, a complex of performing spaces, it was incredible, there was a real scene around that, but after it came down in 72’ there wasn’t anything until Max’s opened up maybe towards 75’. It was a good year and a half easily and then CBGB’s followed suit as a club, and punk kind of surfaced and brought itself to those places around there, so there was a lot of empty space as far as shows were concerned but everything was also happening behind the scenes.
S.O.T.R.- In the early days you guys had a wilder stage show fueled by anger and the struggle to survive in N.Y.. How would you describe your performances as suicide today?
MARTIN REV- It’s basically the same, the intensity is there. Alan had Iggy as a model in terms of his theater but the rest just happened at the performances. We played also between performances, we sort of called them rehearsals, they were these incredible sessions on our own, but we got to a gig and we didn’t know and nobody else knew what was goin to happen. Now it’s difficult to have that same impact because the times have changed and people now either know of us and were not hitting them totally broadside. Whatever you do, even with the same intensity at least musically, ya know its not gonna have the same effect, there are still times we get a lot of audience involvement, certainly its usually more positive, sometime its kind of mock negative.
S.O.T.R.- What different countries have had the greatest demand for your music?
MARTIN REV- France kind of embraced us very early on, even before our first record probably from the Max’s compilation we did. We did two Max’s compilations with a track or two on each, those were our first recordings, so the French know of us from that and they had some word of us. A guy in France sent me a keyboard that he built, that was a couple of years before the Red Star record. After our fist album came out we used to do some tours in France. France had a more progressive journal that would publish front page captions that announced that we were coming and what were were doing.
We had mixed reviews in London but not from the critics. The critics actually took the first album in a very cool educated way, they compared it to a whole lot of stuff. We came out right in the middle of English punk and they were very positive about it. We got to tour other countries later on like Italy. Our fist tour in Europe was met with a lot of hype, we had basically a riot every night…. its been documented in some of the live recordings. We opened for Elvis Costello… he was more mainstream but also part of the punk movement, he had an audience who was very happy with him and his songs and we opened for him and it was just a literally a riot. Then we went form opening for him to opening for the Clash who already had riots, they were one of the pinnacle punk models for the punk movement. They were all hearing us for the fist time so the audience in England went crazy, and the audiences in France went crazy too…. they reacted.
S.O.T.R.- Does suicide have any new music in the works?
MARTIN REV- Yeah, we do new things live but we don’t have a recording in the works at this point.
S.O.T.R.- How often do you get together with Alan to work on Suicide stuff?
MARTIN REV- We do shows, we basically prepare for the shows usually at the show before we go on. Its not the kinda thing we find we need to rehearse for. I’m only playing with one other musician so the band plays and we come together and we develop a lot of stuff on stage, and at sound checks. There’s a lot of work for us now if we wanted it and we take some, we leave some. We will be playing in May opening for Iggy in London. Iggy will be doing “Raw Power” and we will be doing a version of the fist record, there will be 2 nights of that.
S.O.T.R.- Id kill to see that show.
MARTIN REV- Its had that reaction it seems, as soon as they announced it, it sold out. Were gonna do those, ya know things come up, otherwise, I’ve been doing actually more solo work than Suicide.
S.O.T.R.- I wanted to ask you about your newest release Stigmata, it’s defiantly different than anything Suicide wise, can you tell me more about it? I hear orchestral aspects to it.
MARTIN REV- There is defiantly orchestral instruments making up the sound of it. I found certain phrases and melodies and such, and the way that they worked for me, when I heard them I realized this is a direction I really like, so I continued it. The way of doing the vocals, was part of something I had been thinking about since the record before. The record before had a similar aspect to the vocals, and this was just another extension of that there’s kind of a mass context of it in a way. I was commenting on the rich tradition of religious classical music. I felt that this was a new frontier in terms of finding some room in so called classical music. I don’t really accept the term totally as is, but there is a space there that I found that I could add a layer to a tape to a personal place. I felt the same way about rock when I did Suicide. It has to do with a lot of things like changes in technology, it was something I was hearing with the ability to do things now digitally. I kind of followed that part of my reference point after the album before kind of culminated something for me. With each album I’m looking for the next place to go. But sometime there’s room for extensions to continue what you did before, but with this one I didn’t see the room and same direction anymore.
S.O.T.R.- How would you say that NY has changed since the 70’s in your opinion?
MARTIN REV- NY is similar to what it was in the early 70’s which was kind of a bottoming out transition of culture, the only difference was then it was at a low end economically, now its kind of a high end, high cost of living city, but definitely not immune to the economic concerns of today. In the 70’s there was a cultural richness that so much had happened and so much was to happen. Punk came out of this richness of rock ‘n’ roll and also the history of NY artistically, it was still the center of the arts. You could feel it, you could feel it even in the down time, a year or two of downtime, and that’s what punk came out of in the mid to late 70’s. Now it’s too expensive of a city to develop that kind of a scene, and also music and art is different because of new technology. So it wouldn’t develop here the same way because the whole concept of bands and punk was something that needed to be said as a continuation of rock ‘n’ roll. There are so many ways you can turn over an art form like rock ‘n’ roll and get the next movement out of it. At some point you develop and saturate all the major varieties of that art form, and rock has came to that place, and punk was an extension of it. I think NY is still a good place to work, it has great energy. If you’ve grown up here like I did, the history is in you really, its not so much in the actually city itself. When I was growing up the greatest artists were living here and you could feel that, and everyone was coming to NY. The situation that way globally has changed the arts in a way cycled to a great extent across the board. You still have new things coming from individuals, but the major movements you don’t find the way you did then. Then they were coming every year or two, jazz was movement after movement, rock was movement after movement, and dance was movement after movement, and modern classical was still evolving. Now thers a lot of eclecticism, and its all much more relaxed, in a sense NY is a Reflection of that.