In the lobby of the East Berlin hotel were he was staying during his visit, Martin Rev of Suicide agreed to give me an interview the day before his show. Martin Rev has a rich solo discography since 1980 and still experiments with new ideas in his albums and shows.
NAmag: You have obviously witnessed the progression of music from a very different point of view than the rest of us, as during your career (both in Suicide and solo) you have contributed to it. How do you think the creative drive to make music has changed throughout the years?
MR: Well, I don't know if it's the creative motive that is changed but certainly technology has changed. It's the way music is being made. The technology used and the instruments used. The way of making sound. Which is good; you have more ways of doing it compared to the past. You needed a record contract with a label with a budget to make music if it was going to be music. Which we used to have to have if we wanted to go anywhere beyond anything like a demo. And working at home –having a home studio - was only for the very well to do. The successful. That's all changed now and that's good. That's a revolution. You know, for a musician, for an artist, to be able to work up to the point were the piece is done just at home, with a laptop. That's an incredible revolution. So that's great.
NAmag: You mean, the fact that you can reach the point were you can actually finish the piece yourself.
MR: Yeah, I mean, before, you could skid something out on a cassette, or you could make a basic track but you'd have to have that deal with a label to get into the studio. The studios were very expensive and the average musician starting out, or even after, could not afford that him/herself, so they had to wait and try to get that contract. And then you had to finish music under the asperses of that contract and the producer or the demands that they had that weren't totally independent either. At first it was different cause we didn't get that right away so by the time we got into studios we knew that would suit what we were doing in this format so strongly and any person that would bring us in a studio knew that too at that point. You know, it was very well defined. But most artists come in very influenced by producers and by the demands of selling too. So that's a big change cause now people can work and do exactly what they wanna do, they can put stuff up on the web and so forth. And it's totally affordable too.
NAmag: You have chosen very unorthodox media to make music at pretty unlikely times. How do you think that was received when first introduced and how did it evolve during the upbringing of the audiences in the future?
MR: It was received, as we know now, looking back; by some immediately embraced (by a small amount of people) but in general it was received the best by many in confusion and not knowing what it was and the worst by dislike or total dislike or anger, I guess a spectrum of emotions. Now people who come to hear me, or Suicide, know of us already so they know what they wanna see. Which of course, is not the case for any artist who is in the beginning were people are coming by accident or are just curious or they come to see someone else and you're playing, you know, you're opening. So that's the difference. You surprise people with what you're doing and then it's weather they like it or they don't. And they may really show that they don't like it. Now audiences have more references after electronic music, hip hop, they have definite points. All these weren’t there at all. Rhythm machines, samplers, etc. So they won’t be that shocked by what you’re using although they still might react to the content of the music. Before it was the content AND the fact that they couldn’t see any of their common comforts of a band there, the instrumentation that they’d be used to. It was a change of the material surface wise and content wise at the same time.
NAmag: How important do you think the scene is to the music?
MR: I think the music usually creates the scene. It is really a development that reaches a place of real importance in its own world. In other words, you might have an innovation in rock, jazz, at a certain stage or new music altogether. It creates the scene around it because, you know, artists and other people and eventually the mainstream realize that this phenomenon. In a sense, it’s revolutionary. So that creates the scene around it. You can have a scene around anything but that depends on the real value of what it is -sometimes you don’t know the actual value until later- I don’t think the scene has as much influence on creating the content of the work. It’s hard to do that from the scene. It comes internally from the individuals who make it. Once it’s out it might attract people to a scene, like bees to the honey you might say, and that makes a scene. But the good thing about a scene is that when it is around something that really is phenomenon in that sense it trades ideas and it influences in a way that usually attracts other artists. Musicians, visual artists and there’s a mix of ideas in that way too and that leads to a necessary abundance of views.
NAmag: That is the point of the scene anyway. Supporting a collective artistic direction.
NR: Yeah, exactly. Eventually the mainstream arrives because there is something happening there. So I think the various degrees of distance headlines the actual work and it’s actual development.
NAmag: What defines the fine line in the use of noise in your work?
MR: I never really thought of it as the use of noise but it’s always been reflected. I mean, I see it as what it seems to come out as. I generally follow my ear in anything. I guess, what I hear sometimes as a sound that works for me could sound in the general area of noise. Cause noise in kinda like a musical aesthetic but I never do it intentionally to reflect in the noise music area. I play what I hear and a lot of times I hear noise.
NAmag: So where do the soundscapes in your music come from? What inspires you in that sense?
MR: They are internal I guess. They come from the sound itself. To me sound is incredibly visual. Maybe I work with sound as a visual artist but I don’t specify images through sound. The sounds really dictate their own logic. It’s a language of it’s own. So when you add sounds to sound it’s usually because the nature of one sound compliments your internal sense of arrangement. It’s like two colors on a canvas. Like one painter would put them together and another one wouldn’t. And that’s the nature of the color on the canvas and the space applying to each one’s aesthetics.
NAmag: Sound is an incredible tool to make art with. One can see it in your career as a solo artist. You came across as if expressing in some sort of language you formed and that language happens to be sound. It might as well be something else for another artist but in your case that’s your medium. At least that is what I think I hear. I have always been curious about your choice of the synth and the drum machine.
MR: Well, a lot of it was necessity of economics plus the reality that it existed. It’s like hip-hop in a sense; in terms of the necessity’s influence on the format of the music. There is equipment and very expensive equipment available but when people can’t afford it they resolve to make music out of scratching vinyl on a turntable and creating even a dance to that. It’s like musicians rocked in the beginning with just a guitar or basic instruments. Jazz formulated too. A lot of jazz musicians could have been in symphony orchestras if they were allowed into the society and after the big bands of the swing era and jazz, you had all small groups because now the economics wasn’t there to support bands after WWII. So you had this revolution in the new music, be bop, which was small-band orientated. Well, a lot of that was economic too. There was a new time, a new consciousness and a new music. So for me it was all those things. I met the technology that existed parallel to the R’n’R world and allowed me to explore it differently. Because R’n’R at that time was the only music young enough to have open frontiers that hadn’t been explored yet. The other ones were already very mature for some years at the time. Jazz had reached a fine guard and classical music even more so which left rock young enough to allow you to go wild. You could do anything within it. It was an unfound territory and there was still adventure in it. At that point there were very large groups in studios and they were mass-produced cause the technology was very advanced – you had 48-track records (like Genesis etc) and that set the trend then (big orchestration etc) but that wasn’t not accessible at all to me, to us, so I had to find a way to play the rock that worked for me cause I was a child of rock myself, I had a native sense for it, I grew up with it and that was what was accessible to me. Also, the reality of not having a studio to keep a band together when there was really no work at all got us back down to two people. In that setup I found that by using electronics and have one person making the music that way and another one doing the vocals I can make a music too. And the music that I found was the next place for me, it showed me the place to go. I figured that the format change was the way to form the music style. For instance, if you have 5-member bands’ playing the same instruments it’s really hard to change the music radically. The format dictates sometimes enough to keep it in the same world.
The love of my life at the time played drums with us a couple of times and for various reasons we didn’t continue that. We had a guitarist too who left seeing that was not his destiny. He went to filmmaking. And that’s the closest we got to a “full band”. Eventually and soon enough we distilled back to two people and we used the very limited space we had to store the very little equipment we had. I didn’t use a synth of course, I used an electric keyboard that was one of the basic ones and had other electronic devices to it and then started working with all kinds of feedback and went on from there. And I never had a synthesizer until maybe our second album where I used something that was considered a prophet for an actual synthesizer. Out of that the drummachine was the next logical place to go. I didn’t hear any more drums or guitars that was already self-explored for us. Also, the drummachine I could afford. I remember it was 30 dollars at the time, I got it used and I had to put down all the money I had for a new instrument, I used to get all my keyboards and instruments from second-had stores. I remember the minute I heard it first when I tried it out to buy it, I said “that’s it”. I could hear it. And the minute I plugged it in at the basement were we rehearsed and we did a song run I knew it. It was so basic, so right. To evolve music you got to first simplify it to elaborate. It goes from simple to complicated and that’s what that did for me. I found the simplicity to be the essence of it and the rhythm was the reason and the base.
NAmag: And that simplicity is something you have to find yourself and go on from there. It can’t be manufactured. Your producer won’t do it for you.
MR: You can’t manufacture realities or scenes. You can’t manufacture another punk movement. You can’t manufacture art. The business takes what’s done already and then sells it but it can’t possibly make it. Although you know, it can influence sometimes. In the better cases. I’ll give you an example. John Coltrane’s very sensitive A&R guy in Impulse records suggested to him to do a record of ballads. And then Coltrane didn’t want to do it cause he was very advanced in his music, revolutionary even, and though that doing ballads would ring him back to making songs but eventually he was convinced. And the record turned out to be one of his most beautiful, incredible records. It’s called “Ballads”. Listen to it I love it. It’s definitely one of his greatest albums. It’s a less aggressive step on his own direction. What came out was that side of him which was always there, the lyrical side. It’s a beautiful record. It’s the kind of album you listen to over and over again. He wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for A&R label guy. Another example is Miles Davis. His label called him and told him “sorry, we can’t sell your records anymore cause this rock ‘n’ roll thing is getting treally big. (Rev and I crack up at this point) You have to do something that is Rock’n’Roll or we probably have to drop you” and he though “well, I guess gotta do it”. So the business sometimes can work to your benefit. An artist can use anything. Any idea. Even if forced to use an idea they will find the way of using it.
NAmag: So knowing this is your instrument you have built an affluent (in content) solo career. Listening through your records, I realize that there is a variation of styles within the limitations of your instrument. Somehow every album is a different project. How do you decide which direction to go musically?
MR: I don’t usually choose it. What happens is that I have an idea of where I want to go and then there is a sort of, blank canvas I want to fill. I see every record as a record. In fact, a collection, a chapter, an adventure in your life. When it works for you and you feel it’s something you can go out with and it’s commutated to the form that you’re satisfied with it seems to take that whole part of you and express it. And then when you start another it’s another blank canvas you are going to fill. You certainly have some ideas from the past if you opened up before and throw color in the canvas. Like throw words in paper. I know for myself that I can’t go too far repeating a direction. So then you’re up against how the sounds work up against each other and what’s working with what. Sometimes you’ll find what you’re going for right away and sometimes you don’t for a long time. Maybe because you’re in a new place and you have to go through the process of finding it. Once you know that that’s happening you can enjoy the process. The “artist in anguish” is a reality too. It’s part of a time. It’s one way of looking at it. It also relates to the circumstances in life, which may have added to the anguish but also comes from the way the individual looks at life. At some point you realize life is a game. A profound game. So is the process of art. If you play the game with the intention to find something and it’s not there yet keep playing. You’ll find it, be patient. Some things don’t come right away. It’s organic and develops as such. It differentiates the way you do. Some of us are less satisfied with what we did and try to reach new levels everytime.
NAmag: That means a lot coming from you. Every type of creativity goes through that and a lot of times you expect too much at an early stage.
MR: Yeah a lot of these things are real but external to the process. They’re gonna influence but they’re not in terms of the art. So we have to balance it as much as we can. In a way it’s even an interesting adventure realizing you’re never gonna finish what you started and reach perfection up to that non-existing point. Cause if you did you’d stop creating. So you won’t reach perfection unless you want an end. And you don’t want an end.
NAmag: Like the never-to-be-answered human question.
MR: Yeah, cause then, we’d stop growing. A painter, I think it’s Bernard, French impressionism, was continuingly changing stuff in his paintings. He sold a painting to somebody in Paris, didn’t see him for fifteen years and meets him on the street one day. The guy says, “come on over, have a coffee” and he does and he sees his painting on the wall, fifteen years later! So immediately takes out a paintbrush, walks over to the wall and starts, you know, painting lines and details and stuff and the owner of the painting says” what are you doing? To my painting?” and the painter won’t stop “perfecting” the work.
NAmag: It never stops, does it? So last question is about Suicide’s Suicide, which has proven to be one of the most influential albums to various different genres that even occurred after it. From punk, synthpop, shoegaze to industrial and so on. Was making it as extraordinary as listening to it?
MR: In a sense it was. The reality of that record is that we had been playing that music way before we were signed to record it. And, of course, it wasn’t even a punk scene that we had been playing in, it was only starting out; except that we were calling ourselves punk and we even stopped that by ‘73. And there was a punk scene eventually and we got signed in ’77 so all those songs were made on stage. We’ve been doing them in clubs and shows way before we were to record them. So the album we recorded live. You know, we just recorded it. They asked me to separate my effects and play straight but we recorded it just like a live gig. Maybe did the whole album in half an hour and then all of us worked the effects and the sound. But the whole process was an incredible one…making your first record. We had already something on a 45 single in Max’s Kansas City Records but that was the first time going in the studio for us. Having an experience like that and working with the people we did and releasing a record and learning soon how the industry kind of worked that way was an amazing experience. But the music itself was already very much part of our lives. The reaction of course was very interesting to.
NAmag: I assume that for anyone making this it would be a dominant part of their lives cause it’s just so powerful.
MR: well music was my life and Art was Alan’s life and when we decided to make music it was his life. We both met as very “over the edge” kind of people. People who “there’s no hope for”. You know, what Dante says about when you give up all hope; but we had already been doing what we did ourselves for long enough time to own it and the record was an extension of it. For me it was returning to finding Rock’n’Roll again that was my roots.
NAmag: And it happened great. You can’t help falling in love whith that record.
MR: That’s the best reaction anybody would ever want.