Suicide and You
by Matthew Moyer
How does one properly introduce Alan Vega? I've spent the last nine years of my life as a fervent acolyte, thrilling to every move, every project, and I'm totally lost for words. One thing's for sure, for any discussion of Alan Vega's influence on popular culture, you have to begin with the understanding that Suicide are one of the most important bands EVER and that they suffered -- words, barbs, fists, axes, riots -- for their art. And that art, immortalized in a handful of visionary albums and white-hot live performances, served as a Gabriel's horn for the underground, a sonic herald of music to come. Punk, industrial, garage, techno, hip-hop, glitch, improv, experimental, noise -- it was all foretold in the first thirty seconds of "Ghost Rider." Alan Vega and Martin Rev evoked a guitarless world of urban noir and electronic drone and they were hated for it.
|L-R: Martin Rev, Alan Vega|
For twenty years they ran straight into a brick wall of hostility and violence. You can hear this hate in its most palpable form on the Twenty-Three Minutes Over Brussels disc included on Mute's reissue of Suicide's eponymous debut; as soon as Rev and Vega began playing, the audience surges with hate, skinheads steal Vega's microphone, and then the place collapses into a total riot complete with cops. They only got to play like two minutes of music! Astonishingly, this didn't deter Rev and Vega in the least. Not only did they continue to kick against the pricks in Suicide, but they also branched off in a number of solo excursions. One of these, Vega's zombie-rockabilly classic "Jukebox Babe," actually scored him the first big hit of his career. The success was short-lived, but the good music kept flowing forth, lending undeniable truth to the maxim that great art flourishes under oppressive circumstances.
Not all ears were deaf though, patrons like Bruce Springsteen, Ric Ocasek and Henry Rollins offered moral and financial support, while artful dodgers like Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, Marc Almond, Siouxsie Sioux, Andrew Eldritch, the Reid Brothers of the Jesus and Mary Chain, and even Depeche Mode's Martin Gore began paying homage to Suicide in both their music and interviews, turning on new generations of fans. Through it all Suicide kept working, finding that the crowds were bigger, less hostile, and younger. By the time Mute Records began reissuing their early output and they played four pivotal nights at London's Garage in 1998, the tide of popular opinion finally turned. Concerts were now rapturous celebrations instead of ugly riot scenes. Vega and Rev were finally recognized as conquering heroes and pioneers of a brave new musical world. Now they're set to expand the Suicide template even farther with American Supreme, their first new work in a decade. Aside from the music, Vega is also garnering plaudits and patrons for his visual art installations and sculptures, many of which were showcased at his Collision Drive showcase for the Jeffrey Dietch Gallery earlier this year. He has another exhibition planned in Europe. As if this wasn't enough, there's also a hip-hop solo project in the works! After thirty years, time is finally on Alan Vega's side.
So you just got done with a small European tour, how'd things shake out?
Great. It's still not over yet, we're going back to Italy in about two-and-a-half weeks. But it was really great. We started out in England with a couple of shows, and then in Berlin and then France. It was really amazing. The audiences have been wonderful.
I saw that one of the gigs in France was at the Pompidou museum in Paris. Was that kind of a buzz for you, as an artist?
Yeah, I know. I always used to say that, for the visual arts, I would love to be able to show my work in the Pompidou someday. But now I'm playing there with Suicide. Literally going in through the back door! It was really beautiful. It has a beautiful theater, and we rocked, man! It just ended up being great, ya know? The crowd was standing, going crazy [laughs]. Ya know, the French can be a little sedate, and there were seats. For the first few songs, except for some people along the sides that were dancing, everyone was sitting there kinda observing… I was telling people after the show that it was kinda bugging me, and they told me, no, that's what French people do, they're observing and they're writing notes. But by the end of the night they were all screaming and it was beautiful, man.
They love you in Paris, right? You have a piece that's going to be on permanent display at the Cartier Foundation…
Hopefully. I don't know. We'll see. They've been talking about it…I had a big show in New York at the Deitch Gallery, pretty big deal. Ya know, this guy Cartier… I mean, they all know each other, they're all big dealers. And we did a couple of shows there about six months ago, nine months ago, I can't even remember. And they're talking about having a piece as a permanent installation, but we'll see, who knows? These things take time. I'm showing some of my sculptures in Holland in the spring, so we'll see.
American Supreme, first album in a decade. When you had it all shrink-wrapped, done and in your hands, were you like, yeah, this is awesome, this is it?
Yeah, I think so. Ya know, Marty (Rev -- Suicide instrumentalist) and I have been talking about it for ten years, doing a new album. And basically, nothing jumpstarted us right away, because it's like, I knew we had to do something a little bit new. But of course it's always gonna be Suicide, our fingerprints, ya know? You can't ever get rid of that.
But I knew it had to have some kind of twist to it. And we just kept talking about it and talking about it, and then Mute Records started re-releasing the older stuff and, I don't know man, we just reached a point where we were like, okay, let's do a thing. But we knew we wanted to pay for it and do it on our own, and produce it ourselves for the first time. And all these things came… we started making some nice money. Got The Crow, Henry Rollins did one of our songs. Little things like that. Started saving a little money for a change. And we had enough to be able to do our own thing, and we said let's do it.
And when Marty first gave me the tapes, because he did it on his own first, musically, I said, wow, this is phenomenal! And it had like 25 new songs. But then as I tried to start singing to some of them, I couldn't. Ya know what I mean? It was like a different groove, a different thing. So I started knocking them off, one after another, and I got down to about 8 from 25 songs, and I was like, oh my god, we're gonna be left with no album here! And, ya know, it took me about a month, but then one day I did this one song and I finally nailed it. It was the last song on the album, called "I Don't Know." I just kinda nailed it. And then everything else made sense, in a way. I was able to do all the other lyrics after that, all the other singing on it. It was just a different bit of a cadence, or a different bit of an approach to it. Musically it wasn't exactly what we've been doing beat-wise. So it took awhile, man. And at first when I started, I was like, wow, this is phenomenal, and then I was like, we're dead in the water, we don't have anything, and then finally at the end it was like, wow, this is great!
I still don't know what it really sounds like yet, ya know what I'm saying? I'm still so close to it and we've been doing this stuff live, some of the songs. And it's all starting to come around now. I probably won't be able to hear it until five years from now anyway. That's when I always hear my own music. It takes five years to sit down with it after not hearing it for a couple of years. To sit down and go, wow, that's cool! But the response has been amazing, so I assume …
And the cover, I love the cover. It blew me away and all those liner notes and shit. Wow. There's a package. The overall thing, ya know?
|cover of American Supreme|
No, it was a company called CRASH. They're a very hot ad company in England. A very commercial ad company, one of the biggest, does all these commercials. And they heard that Suicide was doing a new album and they begged….
…to do the cover. They're begging us, ya know? It used to be the other way around! And they had a budget, but they blew the budget, went over it, but they didn't care about that, they just wanted to do a great cover! And apparently that flag was not an American flag. It was sewn together by a woman artist, whose art is like making flags out of materials and everything.
So it wasn't like it was painted white or gray or thing. It wasn't like an American flag. She made it to look like that -- down to the stars and everything. And then they put it in like some huge loft and they had fans blowing on it. And I heard for about twenty hours they were shooting this thing, trying to get the right look! And finally they got this thing and it was like, wow. To me it's like if a new Andy Warhol came around, a young Andy Warhol, he'd be doing something like that now. Or a young Jasper Johns. It's really modern and it has so many connotations, it reminds you of so many things. I like the orange border around it too. They did the notes inside it too. I'm glad! I told Marty, I want someone else to do this thing. Usually I'm the one who does the covers. And I just said, man, it would be nice to see what somebody else could do, outside of this thing. A fresher look. And I never, in a million years, would have come up with this. Believe me! I'm so happy with this. It's enough writing the music and writing the lyrics.
There's a bonus CD packaged with some of the albums that.. that…
Wish I was able to get it! I've got two copies, believe it or not. Everybody else has a copy, so I had to beg for my two copies! And this bonus thing, man, there's only going to be like 6,000 of them. I was like, can I have one? [Laughs] Then I found another copy that was in Germany, they have a vinyl thing, a double vinyl thing. We're talking collector's items here! Do I get one? Ya know what I mean, man? Everyone else is getting rich off me! I ain't even getting none of this shit! I can't get it out of them, man! I couldn't it! [laughs]
It's a thing we did a couple of years ago, we did a series of shows, We did four nights at a place in London called the Garage. And I thought they were pretty good shows. I think it was '98 or '99. And they took one of the nights that this guy Paul Smith at Blast First liked best, so yeah… I hope you enjoy it. Did you get it?
No, I didn't get the bonus! [laughs]
If you get the bonus, man, enjoy it! I'm certainly not gonna be able to! [laughs] There was only like 2,000 for America.
I was at two of those shows… I was over there, working at the time…
Were you really? Get out of here!
It was a fucking great show… Were those shows a high watermark for you?
Yeah, it was great. It was like our coming back out again, ya know? It started out with the re-releases, and with a show at the Barbican Museum in London. It was like a 15-20 minute set, invitees-only kind of thing. It was an interesting show because the rest of the show was mostly visuals of American icons. All of the old motorcycles, like the one Brando rode in that film and the Fonda kid, that film he was in… what was that film?
Yeah, Easy Rider and all these Hell's Angels. These bikes, you wouldn't believe it… And all these other American things. And who do they invite, supposedly as the American icon? Suicide! Nobody listens to us in America, but we're still in there with the American icons! It's really funny. It's hard to believe.
So we did a quick thing, and the response was great and then Paul said, why don't we do this? And we did, and that probably got us to do this new album. So I hope it's not going to be another ten years! We're probably gonna do three new songs in April, put those out, and try to keep this thing going.
Will this be like an EP-type thing?
Yeah, I have no idea, but I assume it will be.
I wanna veer back to the record for a moment. You mentioned earlier that Rev wrote all of the music for it. I've always been curious -- what's the studio method for Suicide?
I don't really know. He has his own… It's basically what anyone can have with computers now. The basic outboard equipment, you can use any keyboard and whatever boxes he uses. He has a drum machine type thing and he's been using the Orbit. You know the EMU series, I think that was the first one, it was called Orbit or Dance-something. First one was like a yellow box, and now they have Planet Phat and have added all these things since then. And he just takes stuff from there, and I don't know, he brought in a CD of basic tracks and I put'em down on ADAT for awhile, just on two tracks, stereo. Believe it or not, I'm still working with ADAT. Though now with PowerTools… At the time that wasn't available to me.
I still like working with ADAT, I can't get used to this other world of computers. I mean, putting all of your tracks into this other world is like a funny… I still like the feeling of it "on tape," so there's a backup in case something happens. Ya know, the way these computers break down over the course of time, and all of a sudden you see your life's work disappearing…. I can hold a tape, man! I'm from the old school. I'm from the old button school. I still like to turn knobs, to get between 1 and 2, and one-and-a-half and one-and-a-quarter, ya know? In the new world there's no in-between 1 and 2, or 2 and 3, it's either 1 or 2 or 3, and it's always the in-between places that are nicer, ya know? That's why so much of the music today sounds so much alike, because there's no in-between. So it's kind of nice to still turn some buttons every now and then.
But anyway, so he gave me the basic stuff, it was about 22 or 23 tracks. I immediately lopped off a couple of them that I said I'm not gonna even bother with. And ironically the one song that I hated so much, that I said I can't do this, is actually the first song on the album. That James Brown type thing ("Televised Executions")…
Oh yeah, with the scratching….
|L-R: Martin Rev, Alan Vega|
"Marty, are you kidding me?? Are you kidding me, man? Do you really think I'm going to do something with this shit? This a joke, ya know?" Even his wife was saying the same thing, Marty are you crazy? You're not really going to do this thing are you? So where does it end up? It ends up being the first song on the album! I ended up falling in love with it and I did what I thought was a really cool vocal and a great lyric to the thing. So it was funny, that was my first rejection, no fucking way am I going to do this thing, man! At first it was like, what??? [laughs] There were a couple other things like that too. But that's what I love about the album, man. Because there's lots going on here. We've been doing a lot of shows lately and we've been doing basically what Suicide does. And up until that time, Marty hadn't done any of this kind of thing live. So when he gave me this stuff, it was like woahhhh… [laughs] At first I said, yeah it's great, and I tried to, as I told you earlier, I tried to sing to it, it was like, oh my god, I'm in trouble here! But it all worked out cool. I'm really happy about it. I knew we had to come up with something different, man. It wouldn't be the same. We're supposed to be about experimentation. That's what I feel Suicide has been put here for, ya know? To shake things up a little bit and give people information. I think this album is going to be very influential for a long time… for young bands to come yet.
I was reading some of the promotional material for American Supreme, and it said not to be put off by the scratching and funk guitars on the first song! You're still able to weird people out after all these years…
Yeah, but it's a good weird-out. You should see the audiences these days, it's like a whole reversal of what it used to be. It used to be total hell for us to be out there. But now, ya know, these last four gigs… it's frigging amazing! In France, they tend to be more laid back, they were funny, man, they were on their seats! Everybody! [laughs] We had to do an encore, there was a time limit…. But we could've been out there all night, ya know? We played in Texas about a year ago, at Emo's, the famous country and western club in Austin. And I figured, well, if I'm finally gonna die onstage, that's where it's going to be! What am I doing here, you know? But it was great, we sit in the same dressing room where, like, Johnny Cash sat and Willie Nelson and all those guys. That was in itself something amazing -- I was on the same space these guys stood on, ya know? And a packed house, a totally fucking packed house, it held 980, I think it was, and it's part indoors and a part outdoors kind of thing. And everyone, Mexicans, guys in cowboy hats, ya know what I mean, man? And I'll tell you something, man, usually our sets are 45 minutes, maybe do an encore or two, maybe tops we'll play for an hour. We were out there for two hours and fifteen minutes, man! Encore after encore after encore after encore. I think we must have done every Suicide song we had!
My god, that's like Bruce Springsteen length…
I know man, it was like un-fucking-real! Like, what's happening here? They knew everything, they were screaming for songs, they were singing along, which is impossible for me because I never sing it the same way twice anyway, man. It's embarrassing, ya know, they had all the words, I didn't!
It was amazing, man. I couldn't believe it. I really couldn't believe it!
Is this sort of… The way the audience reaction has changed, has that influenced the way that your performance style has changed? I read about the older concerts and it's like the audience were trying to kill you, and the bloodletting and all, but then when I saw you in 1998, it was more of a celebratory vibe…
Yeah, I mean, it sure makes it a lot easier on us! We pretty much know we're not gonna die tonight. Because every time the first 10-15 years it was like, okay, is tonight the night, ya know? Everything that's imaginable has been thrown at us, including a fucking axe! Nobody believed me on that one! We were opening for the Clash in Glasgow in '78, and I saw a fucking axe come flying… I mean, an axe, baby! It was like one of those old John Wayne 3-D movies! You know those old 3-D movies? Arrows flying, tomahawks… It was like, where am I, in a 3-D western film? And no one believed me!
When I started doing my Alan Vega stuff, when I had that hit with "Jukebox Babe," and I had to get a band and I had to go on tour with these guys, I kept telling them, look man, I'm telling ya man, somebody threw an axe by my head! And it wasn't till about 1985 or 1986, we were doing a show in Leeds, and after the show the Jesus and Mary Chain came backstage and one of them says, hey Alan, do you remember about 1978 when that axe went flying by your head? And the guys were standing there, and they'd never believed it, and their mouths dropped! I said, I told ya man! [laughs]
But that's what it was like. There were riots. It was a nightly occurrence. We started getting booed as soon as we came onstage. Just from the way we looked they started giving us hell already. So it was pretty bad, but now it's… you can't cause a riot now, anyway. The kids today, they've seen it all already. With television, the video games, the way the world is, the amount of information kids receive compared to what I got as a kid, it's completely different. I can't see what would cause a riot now. The shit I did years ago that caused a riot would be celebrations today, ya know? They would love me for it! So what the hell, I've turned into an entertainer, I can't believe it! I always said I was never gonna be an entertainer, Suicide was never supposed to be entertainment. We gave you back the street. Everybody came in to see Suicide to be entertained, and all we did was give them back the street, in all its glory, and that's what they hated us for. Because that's what bands are supposed to do -- you're supposed to come to a show to get out of your life.
Like escapism, sure! But we did the opposite, we gave them their life back in their face, ya know? For which we received compensatory hell, ya know? But anyway, now it's like, hell man, whether I like it or not, I'm entertaining people. Marty and I are playing with the same intensity. That's the beautiful thing, man, we're actually better now than ever, probably more intense now than ever, tighter now than ever. People in Paris, some guys I know in France, were saying that they couldn't believe it. And the lady at the Pompidou, who runs the thing, said it was the best show she's ever seen there. And people tell us how much we "rock!" I mean, that's the word they used for us! You fucking rock! And we're playing intense. I mean, hey babe, it's experience, there's nothing in the world that can replace experience, ya know? We're just getting better at our trade, man. We know what we're doing, and the reason why is that we've spent 30 years doing it. There's nothing that can replace that. That's what so sad about a lot of modern music, in my opinion, so many young bands never stay around long enough to fulfill their ultimate promise. They only get halfway there or a quarter of the way there. You see some bands when they're young, and you say, these guys are gonna be fucking great, and they break up, like Guns N' Roses or Smashing Pumpkins. If these bands had stayed on for another ten years, what would they be doing? They don't understand that, yeah, you can be good at a certain age, but you can also be a hell of a lot better at another age too. Experience really does make you better, man.
What new bands are you into right now?
You're gonna laugh when I tell you this, man, but I'm starting to enjoy Eminem, for Christ's sake.
Oh no… [laughs]
It's getting bad, man… I've been doing a lot more rap onstage myself now! People said that way back in the early days I was probably one of the first rappers; the reason is that I couldn't sing, so I had to talk! Lou Reed was probably the one who started it all. But I've been really enjoying doing it. Especially when you go to places like France and Germany and they don't understand what the fuck I'm saying anyway, so I can say anything! I can stand there and rap, ya know? Anything off the top of my head, it doesn't really matter.
But, Eminem… No, I've loved rap for a long time, especially when it got out of its first period and became this gangsta rap, ya know this heavy rap thing? That's when I started to fall in love with it. I loved the lyrics. I loved the beat. I think the beat became the new rock n' roll beat. That was a major change. And using electronics in a way that very few bands were. They were getting away from that guitar thing. It was very close to what Suicide had been doing already. So I found a… I bonded with them, ya know? And I just like it, man! That's basically what I listen to.
Lately I've been listening to some classical music again, some jazz. I'm going back in time to re-listen to the things I listened to years ago and discovering it all over again with new ears, ya know? And going like, wow, fucking amazing. Mozart, like wow, ya know? John Coltrane -- I've been listening to the 'Trane again. It blows you away, because I know more now and I hear more now and I had a life that I've lived! I have the life experience thing. I hear it completely different than the way I heard it twenty years ago. So it's blowing me away to go back again. But basically I turn on the radio and go to one station here, it's a hip-hop station, it plays some pretty good stuff.
That's what my music… I'm working on a solo record right now, it's gonna be more hip-hop than anything, like electronic hip-hop, futuristic hip-hop. I'm probably gonna be rapping on it.
I did a couple songs with this hip-hop guy named Tim Dark. He was working in the same studio I've been working in, he heard my music and he said, aw man, I've got to do something with you. And I go, what? Anyway we did one song that came out great, and I did another song with him. It came out really great, man. I really enjoyed it! It was fun. I always wanted to work with a rap guy, ya know? And I learned a lot from working with this kid, and I think he's gonna be a big star. Remember the name, Tim Dark, because he has something about his voice that's different from all the other rappers, even though his style is similar. Something about his voice. And his lyrics are amazing. They're very political, very intense.
So I've been working on this thing. Most of the songs are slow, I'm tired of all these fast songs already! It's slow… And I think I'm doing a hip-hop record! That's something -- you laugh about Eminem… It's funny, man, because I didn't like him when he first came out, ya know. It seemed like a big joke. But I think the guy's for real, and I like his lyrics! I want to go see his film, ya know? I'm curious to see it. And I almost crossed the line and went out and bought an Eminem record, but I haven't got there yet.
Uh oh… Yeah, you shouldn't write this down, this should be between me and you.
No, this is gonna be the pull quote…
It's close to having guitars on a Suicide record! [laughs]
Oh my god! But I think the guy's for real, I really do. I think his lyrics are valid. It's not put-on shit. I think the guy lives the life… some of the shit might be put-on bullshit, like raping his mother and stuff like that, trying to be ultra-crazy and ultra-hip. I think that was bullshit, but I think most of the other stuff is real, and I just like his style, ya know? And I kinda like the music, man! It's just black music, man, it's just basic black hip-hop anyway, with a white guy doing it. But I think he does it well. I really do. As opposed to some other guys who don't. Some other white guys who I don't think do it well. I'm not mentioning names on that one. I don't wanna end up in hot water with this.
I'll not dig then. [laughs]
I don't wanna mention… there's two or three other ones who I think are total phonies. I think Eminem's for real. That's what I like about him, I don't give a shit about the rest. I like performers who I know are for real. You can tell, man, there's an intensity about their stuff. You can tell right away they're real people, ya know? Not bullshit.
Part II of this interview will run on Friday, January 31, 2003