MARTIN REV: GO FURTHER
illustration by felipe flores
Martin Rev is simultaneously a link to a bygone zeitgeist and a pioneer of the present. The legacy of his work as one half of the confrontational punk act Suicide extends to the most unexpected places—R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen, and countless synth-pop bands have cited them as an influence and turned them in some kind of godfather figures in American music. After a sold-out solo show at Zebulon this summer that drew musical cognoscenti from all demographics and a successful Cinefamily celebration of Suicide Live—a sight to behold, to say the very least—the prospect of asking Martin Rev something meaningful was daunting. However, as Wayne Shorter has been known to emphasize, it’s not about the music—it’s about the person. The warm, wise Mr. Rev was generous with his time and with his memories. His latest record Demolition 9 was underway before the passing of his former bandmate Alan Vega, but listening to the album through the lens of mourning makes for moments of uncanny sense. This life-long New York denizen wore his trademark shades and a Captain America t-shirt—with the sleeves cut off—to our interview at the Standard Hollywood, offering a glimmer of hope in a world that feels increasingly overrun by the cruelest among us. He is not only a link to punk in its most primal state, but also to the tradition of artistic resistance in the era of Nixon and the Vietnam war. His music transmits his own language of protest—it’s a crucial reminder and a much needed encouragement for these times, or for any times at all. Rev’s Demolition 9 is available now from Atlas Realisations and Suicide’s First Rehearsal Tapes reissue is out on Fri., Nov. 24, on Superior Viaduct. This interview by Christina Gubala.
As I understand it, you studied piano as a child?
Martin Rev: Yes. It’s something I had to learn. Everybody in the family played something. There was just four of us. My brother and I were given lessons. It was something we had to do. When I wanted to quit a year or two later—because it was getting in the way of my playing baseball and hanging out with my friends when the week was over—I was told, ‘You can’t quit. You’re 11, 12 now—you can’t make that decision until you’re 15.’ And to me that was like … forever, between 12 and 15.
It’s all about the ratios! When you’re 12, three years is like a fourth of your life.
Martin Rev: It is! The amount of growth and everything physically … In less than a year I was already grateful and thanking them that they kept me doing that. My brother at the time was studying more popular music, and he was doing the boogie-woogie thing, and when I heard that—and I knew how to read that—I took that and just began playing. I started improvising, playing boogie-woogie stuff, figuring things out. And then taking songs that I was listening to all the time, all the rock stuff, and figuring those out. And now I was doing my own playing. And plus getting the facility—the fact I had learned all that and was still learning gave me even more facility. The only classical composer that I only kind of felt something for then—that I had to play—was Debussy.
Also my favorite.
Martin Rev: And still is. Absolute? There’s a few. But he’s definitely still one I come back to.
The Suite Bergamasque is transcendent in a way that music rarely is.
Martin Rev: It’s so modern. All the modern jazz guys too are so influenced … this harmonic innovation was very much in the forefront of Herbie and Bill Evans and, you know, Miles. That was the next stage. ‘Kind of Blue’ came out of … the way Debussy was voicing stuff just like that when he did it, and Ravel. I was playing maybe one piece out of the ‘Children’s Corner’ or something like that. But already it was so visual and descriptive. But I didn’t attach to it that much. I didn’t get up from a lesson and say, ‘I gotta hear Debussy!’ I would listen to Stravinksy and I remember the first time it came on the radio—I knew there was stuff there that I had to learn for myself. I had many times fell asleep—like in the middle of ‘Firebird’—because they’re so long. But I was starting very earnestly to hear what’s happening there. And it continued to this day. I just listen and study.
I noticed a lot of the influence on Stigmata. I’m sure that’s an easy parallel to draw. And that leads me to my next question. In an older interview you mentioned Alan used to wear a giant white cross around his neck, and of course you were on the album cover in a cross position. Tell me about Catholicism—how it has influenced you and how you internalize it as an ethos rather than an aesthetic.
Martin Rev: It was very different for Alan and myself. I didn’t have any real affinity for Catholicism at all. My first impression is of Catholicism is being horrified. Going to friends’ homes and seeing pictures of Jesus on the wall—crucifixion pictures. That was scary stuff. I didn’t know where that was coming from because I wasn’t brought up that way. So Stigmata, to me, was more of continuing the thread for me of the tradition of music and the musical history, which is like the history of art. You can’t separate it from the history of the church and the history of religious art or religious music. So much of the music that is totally the great music—not the great religious music, though it is great religious music … the church was the only institution to preserve and foster and promote music and art, so that became the place for hundreds of years—
They were the bankrollers.
Martin Rev: Yeah, and the ones that gave you a wall to paint on, like Michelangelo. And when you painted, sure, you painted the scenes that they … you know. When you had a gig like that, when you had a gig for the church, you wrote for the masses and for the weekly services and all the different times of the day, different formats, weekend stuff, like what all the scutata is for. So that to me was always totally one with any study of music at all. Stigmata was just a reflection of that for me. The titles.
Did you ever have to study Latin?
Martin Rev: I had studied Latin in high school maybe for a year. I wouldn’t say I was in any way thrilled with it or mastered it.
It’s hard to stick with it.
Martin Rev: Yeah. Well, I came back to it about four years ago, I really started from page one. And I do that now—I dig it, study it once a week, continuing along with a textbook … cuz I dig it. It took a while for me to figure out what that grammar is about —
Martin Rev: Yes, declensions. That’s why I had to go back to page one of the grammar. I was like that with languages anyway. Just go back, school-aged grammar. Start on page one, chapter one.
You said that was only four years ago—Stigmata was 2008?
Martin Rev: That’s true! I don’t know if it was longer. At that time I don’t think I was studying it that way, but I was always influenced by music—all the pieces like the Stabat Maters and whatnot and the titles were always in my head. Right when I realized I wanted to play vocals throughout the music I kind of had that lightbulb go off, as far as the direction. I just heard Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater and I think I heard Pergolesi’s, but all those titles were always there and I could look them up easily. These titles were so frequent in the history of music. I studied French, and that came back pretty quickly, and from there I studied Italian from a textbook, and after French and Italian, you kind of got the idea of the Latin language. But you see Italian and Latin, you see a little French, that they all came out of it … but you’re like, ‘Wait…’
You’re seeing the grandaddy, which had a very different way of operating.
Martin Rev: A very different way of operating.
I was a classics major in school and all I can remember is ‘Carthago delenda est.’ Latin is such a singular endeavor, and yet it’s not because Latin underlies so many of the things we employ daily. I’m curious as to what leads so many people to it.
Martin Rev: For me it was always challenging. That’s the way I always approached music. I realized if I heard something I really liked, I wanted to do it. I was told I was like that when I was a kid. I used to like to dance a lot. When I saw a new dance, I’d stand on the side, and watch it. And then at some point, I’d just come and do it. That’s the way I’ve always been with music. So when I first heard … rock of course came easier as an instrumentalist. Once I knew that’s what I wanted to do, I started playing my own—improvising. And I heard jazz, what at that time was already modern jazz. I said, ‘That is cool! That is hip stuff! I gotta be able to do that!’ Jazz isn’t something that you can just do the next day as an instrumentalist. Especially as a keyboardist. In terms of harmony—to study harmony.
Not to mention the people who were practicing at that time were such upper-echelon musicians. To even attempt it, you’d have to really have confidence —
Martin Rev: Yeah! That was the intelligentsia of the day. That was like the cream of the crop. Like modern art after 300 years in the 1600s. Classical music wasn’t as sophisticated as any time after Bach, but then you got to Stravinsky and Debussy and then to Schoenberg, those are very intellectual. Schoenberg was the height of intellectualism, writing harmony textbooks. But Bach was too, in his own way. For what I wanted from it, I always wanted to distill it. I tend to be a distiller, and I think that’s what I did with rock. Rock was easier because it was native to me—because I grew up on it. So it was what I was doing naturally and based on what I could afford, instrumentally, and whatnot. I was distilling it down to where it worked for me. What worked for me was visceral because that’s what I’d been listening to since I was a baby. When I hit the right frequency and just broke it down to just the rawness of it—that’s what I always heard because I was brought up on really, the beginnings of rock. So classical and jazz are really music of not my time.
You mentioned that you’ve always been someone to put eyes on something, get curious about it, and then internalize it and try to re-manifest. If you get an idea in your head for a new album or for a new artistic endeavor, how do you feed the curiosity? If you pique your interest, what do you research? What do you engage in?
Martin Rev: You asked me about Latin, and it was the same thing with Latin. ‘This is tough, it’s the Latin language—I gotta find out what makes this work.’ I guess my approach is to put color on a canvas. Start with a blank canvas. It comes from a certain idea, a very simple idea, a musical idea. Just my own like … how do you pronounce that, debarré? When a dancer goes back to class—the principal dancer who is so totally the star and getting all the reception the night before, the next morning, she’s at the barre at 6 in the morning doing the same simple pliés and things like everybody else. That’s what it’s about. Like Martha Graham said—this is where the progress is made. Not the performance. I’m doing that basically every day when I’m not touring, and I get ideas out of that by exercises. I work on my own exercises I made up over the years, and just continuing progress forever, for years, because I just keep going around the keys. So I get ideas from that. Or ideas from something I heard, a concept maybe. Always the easiest place for me and the most enjoyable for me is starting something on a blank canvas. I just do anything based on an idea and you’re not editing now or making those kinds analytical decisions, so it’s all fun and games. It’s like just opening cans of paint, like Jackson Pollack, and pouring them on, you know? And that’s great. That’s fun. And then you come back the next day. I tend to leave things. I might do two or three like that at time easily, starting out. I might do two or three ideas and then I don’t even try to edit it or see what I have that closely until maybe a day or two later. Sometimes I go around to twenty or thirty pieces like that and then I come back.
When they’re less familiar to you.
Martin Rev: Yeah. And then I hear what I have and I hear usually—’Yeah, OK, that was fun, but now it’s work time. Now this sounds off, this could be better here …’ At this point, it’s all just following your ear. The ear tells you what you like and what you don’t like. And what could sound better. It usually does or it doesn’t but you gotta try. It’s trial and error. And it’s the ear saying, ‘That’s not quite right.’ ‘That could be better here or there.’ ‘Do this.’ It’s a very simple thing. I realize how … it’s like somebody’s eye who’s a visual artist. Two people will put things in totally different places. And I think that the culmination of it all, the end product of it all, is a dossier of decisions. So that’s what it is. Even more so maybe this last record because Stigmata seemed to have more of a unifying feel … but this last one, especially, although they all are, it’s a culmination of all those decisions made on the musical matter. On the material.
It reminded me of channel surfing—channel surfing through the subconscious. The way the tracks were sequenced really spoke to that because you would follow ‘Creation’ with ‘Toy’ and then ‘Pieta.’ A one-two punch of something innocent and then something vaguely religious and weighty.
Martin Rev: That’s a cool observation—yeah.
I appreciate that you would include things alongside one another. That really speaks to the human existence these days. Did you feel like you had that kind of flexibility in Suicide? Or did you have a different focus when you were making music?
Martin Rev: We had flexibility but it was a different kind of degree of special—the format was pretty much fixed, like a ship in a bottle. Everything was a song—everything would be a vocal and an instrumental song. And everything was a timbre and the spacing—vocal-wise—was Alan’s, you know, area. Totally. And the way the instrumental section, you might say … what was done instrumentally, with that or on it or against it … most of us worked together or against. However we phrased anything, our sense of arrangement, what we were doing, was totally open-ended—but it was his personality and mine. In other words, if he felt the need—which he did later sometimes—for a whole different arrangement of the group or whatnot, or if I did suggest to him certain things like whispering and that led to something that he attached to … If I really wanted to change vocals in a whole different way with music or with a different music, that would mean I would do that separately. Or he would do what he did separately. So there were limitations like with anything. It could give you a lot of room within those limitations, and at the same time, give you ideas. And sometimes you fulfilled that outside, which we both did.
By the way, I’m sorry for your loss. And I’m sorry that I hadn’t said that until this point, and I’m sure that it’s this grief that I imagine you’re living through now. In the wake of losing him, how do you feel about Suicide’s music without him present? Have things changed for you?
Martin Rev: They may have, but I’m not that aware of how or if they have. But for quite a long time, we’ve both been doing individual things. Suicide has been working live maybe once or twice a year, sometimes three. It wasn’t like the predominant factor in our artistic or musical lives, although it was always there and there were always offers to do things. And we were very selective for various reasons, Alan maybe even more so. How he felt about traveling, how he felt personally, healthwise. And so I, in a way, have just been continuing—and I think he was too, and also as a visual artist, a thread that was pretty concentrated for quite some time—on our own ideas. On our own solo work, you might say, for lack of a better term. The loss of any one that close, of course—I’ve lost a lot of people in the past couple of years. Once you lose the closest person to you, if you get through that, I’ve found … coming after, it’s a little easier.
Once the wound has been cut that deep—