City: New York City
Interview by Gregg Foreman
You’re an artist, a sculptor and I read somewhere that being a performer was actually at the bottom of the list of things you wanted to do. So, I’m curious how you ended up being a performer if that was something that was at the bottom of the list?
Being on stage was the last thing I ever through of doing, especially spending the rest of my life doing it. But I couldn’t imagine having it any other way, it’s strange. I was playing a festival about three weeks ago, doing Suicide and thinking, ‘Holy shit, I’m still here.’ I think as far as sculpting, I saw it as a higher art but I don’t know, who knows. I just went with the flow and I don’t regret it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What have been your inspirations, both musically and otherwise for your sound? Especially when you were starting out and most of the rock radio was Zeppelin and guitar based you guys were doing something completely alien for the time period.
Yeah, well we had the Velvet Underground and there were some other underground bands, and I was just inspired by bizzaro things. I was doing electronic music at the time just before I met Marty so it’s in all that stuff. Just as a joke or just as a hobby, who knows. And I just kept going and going and got to be me. And going back to The Velvet Underground, I know Lou Reed just recently passed and I only talked with him once on the phone. He wanted to do something with us once and I just remember his calling and I kept thinking, ‘But you’re Lou Reed!’ He was just kind of ambivalent about the whole thing, but I just kept saying, ‘You’re Lou Reed!’
I feel like you’ve ended up inspiring so many bands—maybe in ways you don’t realize and maybe they don’t even realize.
Yeah, that’s true. Well, the most frequently asked question of me is, ‘Who are your favorite bands’ and I just say there are days when I love everybody and days when I dislike everybody. There are days when I listen to something and really don’t care for it; then I listen again later and think, ‘This is really great.’ So I vacillate. I have to know the terrible about something. Dylan was like that for me. When I first heard him I thought, ‘I’ve never heard anyone sing that badly before,’ and then the next thing I knew I loved Bob Dylan. It’s good though, to change your mind about something, it’s good that we do that.
Yeah, those are my favorite singers, the ones who aren’t traditional singers.
What contemporaries did you relate to the most when you were starting to play live in New York in the 1970s?
The New York Dolls because musically they were a garage band but musically they were somewhere else. There were those bands that played CBGB’s and Max’s. New York City bands were considered garbage heaps, which I loved. I love the garbage heaps.
What about the No-Wave scene, did you like anyone in that genre? Like James Chance and the Contortions?
Yeah, I remember James, they were one of the first bands who visited Suicide with Lydia Lunch. Yeah, they were great. I loved James better without his sax. He was like the next Frank Sinatra, a very thin wiry guy, and Lydia Lunch, of course, was a woman was ahead of her time. So, they were few and far between but nonetheless they were there.
I read that you called your sound at the time New York Blues. I kind of get what that means but what does that mean to you?
It means a joke (laughs). People would ask what we sounded like and I didn’t know what to tell them. For us it was like the New York Jewish blues.
I know you did some tours opening up for The Clash and The Cars, etc. What were some of the best and some of the worst audience reactions you can remember while you were touring with these bands?
The Clash was like a horror story from beginning to end, one long hell. The best I can remember is having a tomahawk thrown at me, it came sailing through the air and it just missed me. Nobody believed me when I told that story, and then I remember meeting the band Jesus and Mary Chain and they said that they were at that concert and remember somebody throwing a tomahawk at me. So, I was like ‘Aha, see,’ I was telling the truth.
Well you would swing a motorcycle chain around at the crowd when you first started playing out right?
Yeah, yeah, well I would beat myself up with it. I never hurt anybody else except me. And going back to The Cars, they were great and Ric Ocasek and I became good friends.
He played on one of your first solo records didn’t he?
A lot of records, more than one. It’s funny Ric was always late and on the third record Marty (Martin Rev) and I decided to sound check and we just recorded the album and by the time Ric got there we had finished it. Ric came in about forty-five minutes late and asked how it was going and we told him we were done and his jaw just dropped. But yeah, that’s how we did it back then, just one take and we got lucky. I mean we rehearsed a lot because when we were on tour we’d be practicing new stuff, so we’d play it for a year or so non-stop and we’d be really good at it and there it was, one take.
As time went by you were buying newer instruments but you were still getting the same sound out of the newer gear.
Yeah, exactly. Marty had a way of doing that. He had a way of finding the right sounds and hitting the keys so it sounded like a ’70s Farfisa or something. But yeah, that’s Marty.
We actually played a show with you. When I was touring with Cat Power we played a show with you at ATP in England.
I actually played “American Dreamer” and “Wipeout Beat” (from Alan Vega’s solo album Saturn Strip) on every set I DJed.
I just love those songs and I was wondering what prompted you to go solo and do your own thing at that time, rather than going back to your art or just doing the band? Did you feel the need to exercise something different, alone?
Well, I did at the time. “American Dreamer” I can’t remember if that was a Suicide song or a solo song. But I remember we would basically put songs to a vote. We agreed that we both had to enjoy the songs together and if one of us didn’t like something in a song, we didn’t do it at all. So there were some songs that I liked and would hide away. “American Dreamer” might have been one of those songs. Marty did the same thing. He had songs that he liked that he would put away and do himself. But yeah, “American Dreamer” was a great song. You know Bruce Springsteen liked the song “Dream Baby Dream” and covered it. And, I have a new solo song that hasn’t been released yet, it’s been on the shelf for four or five years and it’s another anthemic song; it’s called “Prayer.” It’s beautiful and reminds me of “Dream Baby Dream.” You know it could be the next thing, but who knows. I never know. I can start off with one idea about a record when I start it and by the end it could be a whole other thing. You just never know and that’s good. It’s a good way to work, to be surprised at what can happen.
The term American Dreamer what does that mean to you?
It’s hard to describe. With music there is an answer and there isn’t an answer. I never really know.
There are so many bands that your band has inspired. There’s a label, Mute Records, that did all the early Depeche Mode, etc. I’m wondering if there are any bands within the last thirty or forty years that you really identify with or you really love?
I really like Pan Sonic (originally Panasonic, an experimental electronic duo from Finland). I ended up making two albums with those guys and we’re going to make a third one. But I love Depeche Mode. I love all of them.
I remember seeing a performance by Soft Cell.
Yeah, yeah, they were great. Marc Almond wanted me to do something with them for God knows how long and Dave Ball used to take cab rides with me in London and beg, ‘Please do the record with me, please.’ And I said, ‘I will do it, I will do it,’ but he never got around to doing the thing. I’ll never forget that guy, he’s great.
Yeah, I saw Soft Cell and James Thirlwell (of the band Foetus) cover “Ghost Rider” on a TV show in the early 1980s and it was pretty great.
He’s a great guy. We were always having people come up to us saying they wanted to collaborate, Soft Cell, Spacemen 3, but they never did. Spacemen 3 came the closest. They’re a good band, really good.
You did some live stuff with Primal Scream and Grinderman.
Yeah, it’s funny I think we were playing with Grinderman and we were all done and left the stage and Marty had his shades and earplugs on and just kept playing., He didn’t even know we had all left the stage so he just kept doing his thing but that’s Marty. ,Then finally there was this call, ‘You have to leave the stage.’
From my perspective, music in the last twenty years has lost that element of unpredictability or danger that you guys exuded. Do you feel that way and, if so, why do you think that is?
I don’t know, somebody else asked me that question and I hadn’t realized it. Someone asked me why was Suicide the only band that did songs about death? It never occurred to me that “Frankie Teardrop” was a song about death. It was about life I thought. Apparently at the time we were the only ones around who did something like that or had a band name like that and so people seemed to think we focused on death, and it’s funny because that just never occurred to me. But, you know, look at the Dead Kennedys; who else had a name like that? So, but yeah, people love us now, they all love us now.
There are certain bands people seem to have to say they are into. They just have to say Can, Suicide, Silver Apples, and the 13th Floor Elevators. But, all of those bands have an element of something real, something unpredictable, something dangerous; I don’t see that in music that much these days, and it’s something that I really miss.
Well, the both of us are visionaries and we’re lucky to have that, and we don’t have that anymore. I agree with you a hundred percent. If you want to know who are the best bands alive, you mentioned the 1970s. We’re never going to see anything else like that as long as we live, because that mood that was in the ’70s doesn’t exist anymore. Yeah, I agree with you a hundred percent, there’s no danger anymore. I get that question a lot from younger people, ‘Do you miss the ’60s. Do you miss the ’70s?’ I do you know, and there was some good stuff in the ’80s too, and I just say, ‘Yeah, sorry, but you missed it.’
And they look at me like I’m crazy—but it’s true. The danger isn’t here anymore.
Yeah, even the MC5, and I know Wayne and he’s just a real peaceful, spiritual cat and I really love the fact that you can see a transformation in people and music. But, again, I still love music that makes me feel like I’m getting something real. Nick Cave still does that for me.
Yeah his writing is beautiful.
But, it’s funny that to listen to something real, I have to listen to records that were made around the time I was born or before I was born. To me some of the most real music out there is The Velvet Underground and Suicide, period. And that’s just the way it is.
And that’s just the way it is. Ha, that’s great. It’s really sad that the kids of today don’t know it, really sad.
I have a hard time with that. I want to accept people for where and what they are but I just don’t feel challenged.
Well maybe something will come along again. Who knows? Things have a way of going around in circles. But I’m like you, I still sit and wonder what’s going to happen. I’m the only one who’s listening to my shit as far as I know. My solo stuff is crazy, it’s nuts, it’s electronic, it’s out of this world. And for all I know, no one is going to listen to it.
Well I will tell you this, it took a lot of years for people to rediscover Suicide, and if I meet someone who likes Suicide then I know something about them already. I mean it’s different than saying ‘I like Joy Division,’ because everybody likes Joy Division or everybody likes The Cure or whatever, but if you say Suicide—it’s like you have a bond.
Well, then you know you both got the two Jew blues.
Out of all that you’ve done musically, what do you feel most proud of?
You know, I probably don’t even know it yet. Maybe I’m about to do something where I’ll feel prouder. I hope so. I always feel like I’m about to do something better. I listen to the album I’m making now and I think to myself, maybe this will have something that nothing else has, who knows? And I’m still here, miraculously. It’s like Lou Reed, was anyone listening to him before he died? No, but now people are listening to Lou. No one wanted to listen to him all those years, so who knows, that’s his proud moment, in death.
It’s kind of this bizarre fear of the unknown, maybe, or why I am more into Rimbaud or Pablo Neruda than some modern author, I don’t know. I tend to just like what moves me so it doesn’t matter if it’s from four hundred years ago or tomorrow. If it makes me feel, that’s all that matters, you know?
Yeah, that true. We probably love the same things. That’s why we’re Suicide fans.
Suicide consists of Alan Vega and Martin Rev who have been playing together and in solo projects since 1970. They have always been seen as highly innovative and influential pioneers in electronic music.
Gregg Foreman is a Musician and DJ who has played for the likes of: Cat Power, Pink Mountaintops, The Delta 72, The Black Ryder, The Meek, and more. Gregg has been the Musical Director of Cat Power’s band since 2012. He started Djing ’60s Soul and Mod 45s in 1995 and has Djed around the world. Gregg currently lives in L.A. and divides his time among playing live music, producing records, and djing various clubs and parties from L.A. to Australia.