Interview: Suicide’s Martin Rev

The proto-punk provocateur shares his story

George Wilkes Archive / Hulton Archive

Suicide was never the most popular band in New York City’s early punk scene, but the sounds created by Alan Vega and Martin Rev have undoubtedly proven to be some of the era’s most influential. In fact, the duo is often recognized as the first group to ever describe itself as punk, even using the term on flyers for its earliest shows in 1970.

Taking inspiration from the confrontational performance style of bands like Iggy And The Stooges, Suicide had no qualms about upsetting audiences, both with its noisy, drum machine-driven sonics and its notoriously provocative stage antics. In 1977, the duo released its self-titled debut album, a record which is still widely recognized as not only the group’s best, but as one of the decade’s most important LPs. Songs like “Ghost Rider,” “Che” and “Cheree” may have been punk in spirit, but they ultimately helped lay the groundwork for decades of post-punk, noise, industrial, synth-pop, electro and techno to come. In these interview excerpts taken from Martin Rev's Fireside Chat on RBMA Radio, the irascible New Yorker and Suicide keyboardist discusses their gritty origins and tumultuous career.

Where did you grow up and what music did you grow up on?

I was born in Manhattan, uptown on 144th Street and Convent Avenue. I was brought up in the Bronx and rock and roll was the music of the day. As a teenager I would go to rhythm and blues and doo wop shows. My first record was “At the Hop” with Danny and The Juniors, my second record was “Get a Job” by the Silhouettes. I liked 95% of everything that was coming off out of the streets right onto the radio, which that music did. I did go to rock and roll shows. Sometimes I played hooky from school and sat in an empty movie theater and saw 15 groups one after the other.

At what age did you start playing music and what was your first instrument?

I was told it was six, I always remember it as eight. I was given piano lessons without necessarily asking for them, but everybody in my family played music. Around 10 to 11, I started playing boogie-woogie rhythm music. My brother had an accordion from lessons he was taking, and accordion repertoire is more pop-oriented, so we had some jazzy sounding tunes. By that time I didn’t want to quit, I was playing a lot because I could improvise on things I started. Then I started picking out songs off the radio, the doo wop stuff, just figuring out and improvising more and more on rhythm and boogie-woogie lines. By the time I was 15 I started to look for my own teachers and I’ve been studying ever since.

The first Saturday night that I was practicing I had a tremendous awakening from a next door neighbor who told me he was going to assassinate me if I continued.

You went to music school at a point, right?

I went to a regular school that taught music and majored in music. I didn’t graduate, though. I found it too restrictive for what I was into at the time. I was very heavily into improvisation. As an instrumentalist, jazz, to me, pointed out the future in terms of the sophistication of harmony and technique. By that time it was incredibly advanced music. Jazz was so cutting edge and relevant that that was the direction I wanted to go in. I put aside the rock and roll songwriting and just wanted to learn how to play like the best guys I was hearing in jazz.

What happened when you left home? Where did you go?

When I left home I lived on West End Avenue and 100th Street in Manhattan. I quit school around that time. I found an upright grand piano, and when I left school I was practicing playing every day. The Upper West Side was a very well-populated neighborhood for jazz musicians at that time. You just had the beginning of the avant-garde in jazz. Coltrane was still totally relevant, as we know, until ’67.

When I left there, I got a studio apartment in Washington Heights out of the papers. I took a baby grand piano on a two-year lease and put it right in the middle, which would be pretty much the whole apartment with enough room to walk around it. I got a folding cot bed, put it next to it, and just kept going. Now I had my piano to play. The first Saturday night that I was practicing I had a tremendous awakening from a next door neighbor who told me he was going to assassinate me if I continued. So I sat down and I thought to myself, “Yeah, I’ve got to move.” Three minutes later he knocked on my door again and he had his baby in his arms, about a year old, and he said, “Oh man, don’t worry about that. Don’t worry about me, I’m cool. Come over and we’ll have a beer or something.”

At what point in this did you encounter Alan Vega?

Around that time I did two shows at the Museum for Living Artists, where Alan was based. He had the keys and he could use the loft at any time. It was a fairly respectable cooperative art space in Lower Manhattan. The little board of directors, which was Alan, a painter named Joe Catuccio, and a couple of other people like Paul [Liebgott], who started out with us in Suicide, would use the space very late at night. I ended up being asked to do a show there with my band. A few weeks later I was walking around Lower Manhattan in the winter and I thought, “Well, let me drop in and see what’s happening.” I went to the elevator, it was open, it took me up to the floor, and that’s where I met Alan.

I knew instinctively that Alan was going to be as far from the mainstream as I was.

I got another show there about a month later. I had about eight, nine players, two drummers. Alan walked in from a lecture on art or something, so he picked up a tambourine and he started playing behind me. It wasn’t the way he was playing, it was just that I knew instinctively he was going to be the only one up as late as I was and as far from the mainstream as I was. That’s where this stuff would take you. He was the most radical in that sense.

He had just separated from his wife of several years, living in Brooklyn and trying to make a living. He jumped off that wagon at some point. That’s when I met him, when he was really in transition. He used to wear very wide hats with long black hair, like ’70s rock hair. He wore an incredibly big plastic white crucifix around his neck. The most fanatically religious Christian people wouldn’t even wear that. That’s something you rarely see. He just loved the image. He was on the creative edge and just going on with his creative life.

I think when he got out of college he dedicated himself to art, and that took him out of his marriage. When he saw Iggy Pop for the first time when the Stooges played in New York, he said after that he knew he could not be an artist again without performing. He knew it was the only direction for him. I met him at that point, where he was trying to find a way to start performing with a rock group partner. He had all the intensity that one would have in that position.

Suicide - Rocket U.S.A (1976 Demo)

Was there a hangover of the psychedelic ’60s going on?

We felt a part of no scene because there wasn’t any. The sixties were ending miserably with the deaths of the three J’s: Janis, Jimi and Jim. All within a month. There was Iggy and the Stooges and Alice Cooper, who were kind of intimidating, at the least.

At this juncture, the ’70s hadn’t come in, the ’60s were going out, and any bands that were playing in New York at that time didn’t know each other, or we didn’t know any of them, and there were no places to play. We weren’t part of any scene at all except the ones we made, and we got our own gigs, starting at museums and art galleries, because Alan also had his artwork. It was like that for several years.

Did you have any other names before you were called Suicide?

For our first gig we went over maybe a thousand names in a park with a friend of ours. Each one was funnier than the next, we were just cracking up all night. At the time we had names for ourselves. I was Marty Maniac and Alan was Nasty Cut, because he already was starting to do some self-cutting, and Paul was Cool P. We did one show just with our names, but I think we still said, “We need a name.” Alan says I threw it out, I don’t know, but someone said “Satan Suicide.”

I don’t remember being there but how it got to Suicide was he just said, “No man, don’t call it Satan Suicide, just Suicide.” We had a gig coming up that weekend that was going to be our first show at Museum of Living Artists. Alan came over to me and said, “What do you think about this name? Somebody gave me Suicide.” I said, “Perfect. Let’s do it.” It rang a bell. It was like the best that we could have thought of. Every gig after that was Suicide.

Alan was into audience participation, provocation, self-mutilation.

When you were playing your first gigs as Suicide, was it pretty much all improv?

I always make the analogy that we started with a big unformed piece of stone. A sculptor who sees something in his head goes to the quarry and buys this gigantic block of stone, and then he chisels away at it for who knows how long. He sees the image in the stone. Suicide was like that. We had no preconceived idea except to express. Alan would find himself expressing words, screams at that time. For a while he tried to just blow as hard as he could into a trumpet.

The sound would be what is usually called a wall of sound. That’s the way it was for some time, and eventually it got more and more carved out. When I finally acquired a drum machine several years later we started to actually make little tapes on a two-reel tape recorder and take some around.

That was a good five years after we started. In that improvisational chaos you could hear more and more sounds. In ’71 or so we got a gig in Ungano’s. We actually got two weekends. We weren’t going to be able to come back after the first one. Because of the way we sang, everybody ran out the first night. There were only about 19 people there. We did two sets that night and I walked out after the first feeling great. It was a great set. I walked out to get a little air and when I came back Arnie Ungano said, “Listen, I can’t have you back here tomorrow night.”

I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “You guys are like 99 Iggy Stooges. Do you realize the people who were there went screaming out of that room and wanted their money back immediately? They were scared.” To me, it was like the end of the world. It’s not like we had a life besides this. This was the life. He was a great guy and I stalled him, I said, “Arnie, why don’t you come back to the dressing room, let’s talk about it with the other guys.” By the time he got to the dressing room, Arnie turned around and he said, “Hey, you know what, come back tomorrow night.” He actually broke out a bottle of scotch or something, gave it to us. The next night Ungano’s was full and nobody ran out. Arnie said, “You know what it is, when the room is full like that, nobody’s scared.”

It was rock: the way we looked, the way we sounded. It was all electronic. There were fights. Alan was into audience participation, provocation, self-mutilation. I think the second night we played one of those gigs it was full for a bachelor party. The guy who’s getting married was sitting in the front row. That became quite a chaotic fight night. They got very pissed, I think Alan blew some smoke in one guy’s face, and from there it all lit up like a match. The material was finding itself, we weren’t finding it. In that sense, we weren’t writing any songs at all.

What do you remember about the actual process of making the first Suicide record?

It was June of 1977. We were offered representation, if you want to call it that, by Marty Thau, who had a track record as an independent entrepreneur and record producer. We had been playing that stuff almost seven full years. Our first track on record was for the Max’s Kansas City compilation, which came out in 1976. We had been doing this stuff all the time and could write things very quickly. The album was a live album. It took the same time to record as it did to play those tracks, about 30 minutes to cut the album.

We were so underground at that point Marty Thau was the only link we had to anything in the so-called music business, and he was on the outs. He was like an outcast, going around as an independent guy searching out groups and bringing them in and getting backing. We did it that way, and Marty, being more from the background that we were, had a little bit of a tougher approach. The engineer was flipping out a bit because he wasn’t used to this. Marty would really push everything to red because that’s the way he heard it. He had no problem doing things you don’t do in a studio, apparently. He didn’t even know what they were.

When there were riots like that, where we could really get hurt, I was ready to fight off the whole audience, because I had the sound.

There were some very astute reviews from the English press that were surprising in their scholarship, in their positiveness. I think Rolling Stone gave it one of the worst reviews, but they were all like that. Many years later Rolling Stone came out with the “500 Most Important Records of All Time” special edition. I went into their archives online and there’s the original review from Robert Christgau, who probably feels the same way about us now he did then. The original review of Suicide is the most scathingly degrading analysis, if you want to call it that, and it’s side by side now with a couple hundred or something most important records of all time from the same mag. That’s the way most of the reception was.

That was the first record. We went on tour the following summer to Europe, and it was my first time in Europe. We did a month opening for Elvis Costello, a month opening for The Clash and then two weeks of solo shows in the U.K. We had a riot the first night. They were throwing things and going crazy. Elvis Costello was already a mainstream artist playing regular theaters. The Clash had an audience that would riot when they loved you. They loved The Clash, and it was all throwing and spitting, and us they didn’t necessarily love, so you can imagine. The Clash they gave that to, imagine what we got. It was a very exciting time. It was the apex of punk.

Suicide - Ghost Rider (Live 1979)

Was it kind of fun that a lot of people hated you or that people were rioting?

I really wasn’t looking for hate, personally. The theater or stage is an illusional reality. When you combine that with a sound, you are behind the sound, you are making the sound which is going out and being broadcast at such a decibel level to all those people, man, you are in a very illusory world. We had riots just about every night on that tour. When there were riots like that, where we could really get hurt, I was ready to fight off the whole audience, because I had the sound. The sound was like the ultimate weapon, the ultimate Stallone gear. It was going out to them, so let them come to me. I only had to play with one hand, so I had an arm free.

What sort of things have you been able to explore on your solo records that you wouldn’t do with Suicide?

Those are just ideas that come to mind in terms of spatial relationships of vocals, non-vocals, using certain sounds, not using others, using female-oriented vocals as opposed to male, all those varieties that we wouldn’t necessarily use in Suicide, other resources to explore. A lot of my influences are different than Alan’s. Alan’s been exposed to all music, too, but he experiences it differently.

Martin Rev - Te Deum

I experienced rock and roll, I experienced modern classical music, I experienced jazz. I saw Miles Davis play, I saw Coltrane play, I saw Eric Dolphy play. I passed a lot of guys on the street. What those guys came out of was a musical ethic over generations of generation. Music wasn’t just something you did to make money or an entertainment like it is for most musicians or artists. It’s like coming from the church, from slavery, from that tradition, coming through to a modern American music. They were wise men and women. When you were exposed to that growing up you experience things a little differently, too.

When did it occur to you that your music had been so influential on all these other bands?

It occurred to me that we were influential only when critics started saying it. When we went back to Europe in the late ’80s, Marty Thau said, “You know, groups are now all talking about you in the press. Like, they’re influenced by you.” I remember one time Alan and I got on a plane to go to Paris. We hadn’t had a record out in years, and the French progressive paper Libération had copies on the plane and we were on the front page. What’s the big deal? When you opened up the article, it was an in-depth study of all the bands that we’ve influenced and all the trends. I’m looking at it and I’m thinking, “No, no way. It can’t be.” We couldn’t have influenced every one of these bands. All these bands? We created techno? It never convinced me that way.

I think if I had a thousand more lives, I’d live every one as a musician.

What happens is a lot of bands are influenced by you, but they don’t know you. This always happens. In other words, bands today are influenced by Jerry Lee Lewis, by Little Richard. They don’t necessarily listen to Little Richard, they may never have, because it just gets passed down. Chuck Berry is in just about everybody. I guess there’s an insidious influence.

You’ve been an artist nearly your whole adult life. Did you have a lot of side hustles when you were in Suicide?

I couldn’t say I was living from the music, as the music wasn't making any money. If you want to talk about $50 a year, I can say I was living off of the music. There was a point in time where side hustles weren’t going to work for me. Certain people like myself never took the risk factor into what they were doing. Everyone else, the smart ones, would say, “I’d love to make music but I still got a backup.” I just never really factored in risk.

To me, it’s like falling in love. You fall in love with another person, you’re not thinking about risk. It’s so obsessive and compulsive in the best way. It’s love. Nothing is going to keep you from getting to that person. That’s always in your mind. Music is so incredibly beautiful. I think if I had a thousand more lives, I’d live every one as a musician. There’s nothing better for me than that.

By Vivian Host on October 15, 2015

On a different note