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. 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 byChristina Gubala." /> L.A. Record


November 17th, 2017 | Interviews

Martin Rev: —yeah. And people that really have such a dramatic effect on your life, which is usually your partner-in0life, your wife, your live-in, your girlfriend, your lover—that doesn’t just affect you personally and consciously and subconsciously and all the apprehensions and things that might be attached and haven’t even worked out yet, but it really changes the total arrangement of your life. If you’ve been living with someone, say, for thirty years, as some people do, and that partner goes, and you’re not necessarily the kind of person … some people have a lot of friends, they’re a couple but they have tons of friends or they work every day. Some people, usually where artists are concerned, are much more solo. They’re loners. So they have their partner. But like many couples, they don’t cultivate friends. They’ve grown out of it. They don’t need to go meeting with this couple and that couple. They have each other. They eat together and they live together and they sleep together and they get up together. Their life is together. So when you take that person out of your life, it’s not just like … ‘Oh, I have good memories.’ I have great memories of Alan and I. He was older, and he had certain amount of experience in life, in certain aspects, that I learned from. Or he could just be a friend. If I was going through something he could always have something to add to it that I could say, ‘Oh, that’s a good way of looking at it.’
Perspective from his travels.
Martin Rev: From his travels. So of course you’re startled at first because now I don’t have … that kind of guide anymore. But he hadn’t been a guide for many years because we grew up. We both kept growing and I grew up enough to the point where there was a different dynamic.
I understand that at one point your wife made music with you.
Martin Rev: She played drums with Suicide. I asked her to. To come down one night. Essentially because I felt that our relationship was at a certain critical point at that particular time. I thought being together, in a group setting, where I was most of the time, might solve …. a classic mistake in way. We were very young. I was younger than her. But she had been a musician since she was a young girl, and a great artist and such a sensibility—she knew so much about music. She had listened to so much. From rock to classical. She was the kind of person if she heard a piece by Bach or by Beethoven—her favorites were more Germanic than French—she could hear one interpretation from another. So she would have been fine as a drummer but it just wasn’t in the cards and in her lifetime … but she did! We experienced music together totally. And we listened together all the time. We met at the Village Vanguard when Thelonius Monk was playing. And that really glued us together too because we both immediately said, ‘Oh he’s your favorite? He’s my favorite too.’ I said he’s kind of like a daddy to me at the time. And she said, ‘He’s always like a father to me.’ She loved him. He used to come down there, play three or four times a year, and I’d be down there a lot, especially when he played. And I’d get in for free. And I walked in one night and she was working. She was in transition between going to the coast and saving some money during the summer, working the Vanguard as a cocktail waitress. And we met that way, both at Monk playing. It lasted a long time. It was a major part of my life, obviously.
If you’re involved in a band like Suicide, and you’re having bottles thrown at you, and crowds attacking you … that sounds like something that could strain a romantic relationship. How did you balance being in a publicly loathed punk situation and being in a marriage and in a domestic life?
Martin Rev: In my case, Mari was so much more in the vanguard even, in many ways, then Alan even. Suicide she understood right away. She was already so … She was a woman of mixed race. Brought up in America even earlier than I was, and a brilliant, brilliant woman. Independent, and a fighter who had to survive having children too, outside of marriage. What she had heard and what she had experienced, and the education she had—very well-educated, through all that, on her own. The only thing that could ever put a strain on our relationship was if I was doing something that wasn’t totally genuine, no matter what the response was. She wasn’t crazy about … in the early days … if somebody came down to write about us, maybe I’d walk off and I’d leave the sound blasting, and she’d maybe say, ‘We alienated a possibility again.’ She was a practical woman of the home. But no—that wouldn’t put a strain on us, thankfully. She was an artist too, in the same sensibility. We both basically didn’t have any money and were bringing up kids. But it was a real foundation. She was an artist too.
What was her medium?
Martin Rev: She was a musician first. And then by the time I met her it was all visual. Painting.
Like Alan.
Martin Rev: Exactly. Painting, painting on glass later, incredibly jewelry making, she got into and developed a really personal style. She was a renaissance woman. She loved all kinds of disciplines. Science and art. She always had a vision of science and art combined. She studied like crazy. She kept going back to school all her life. She kept learning new crafts, disciplines, combining them with what she had. She just never felt … motivated enough as she was, she never felt strong enough to go out in the world and face the rejection. She was very tender inside.
And the thing about going out into the world is that you’re not just exposing your art—you’re exposing it to capitalism, to a capitalist concept.
Martin Rev: That’s right. Exactly. And she was such a rebel. From her family, she broke away very early, from all those values because they were so middle class-oriented and materialist. That’s why she left home very early. She wasn’t really finding any community at all until she discovered the Beat Generation. She was like the next generation. She was like the child of the Harlem Renaissance. Like the Harlem Renaissance was basically over, and she was the next generation of that, and like from Langston Hughes, the generation before. She was born in New York in the 50s, and discovering those minds in the 50s and then the Beat Generation, she had a sense of a community, at least, around her. That it wasn’t just her, and she wasn’t alone with that frame of mind.
Do you feel the influence of Black culture as you were creating on the periphery? I’ve noticed elements of the blues and funk in your solo project.
Martin Rev: Oh yeah. I don’t think you could live in America any time—at least in the second half of the middle of the twentieth century and up til now—without the influence of Black music. Everything in America—especially as a musician, the Beats came out of Black music, the abstract expressionists … not totally, Kandinsky came out of Europe too. Certainly in America, the inspiration and the license to go further and be a little freer, in all the art —to everyone—to dance a little freer, to F. Scott Fitzgerald, to the choreographers, it all came out of jazz. And then of course, rock as it’s been described, as the child and the grandchild of blues and gospel. And growing up in New York, and the radio with urban rhythm and blues, which was so much Black and the groups—the kids from the street. Irish—the combinations—Italians especially. Combining with the Black music, gangs on the street, the vocal gangs singing on the corners, which it really was, sometimes integrating and mixing, sometimes separate. And trends that came down the line that I lived through. Disco. Funk. And everything.…
You spend the majority of your life in New York. How do you feel about the way the city has changed?
Martin Rev: I’m lucky because I maintained something from early on that was kind of like a low-income community situation. It was actually sub-code for many years, many years before I got there. Recently it was well-renovated. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be the place… I would have had to probably had left many years ago. It’s got such a history, and thankfully some of it I experienced the tail end of. And also my personal history is so embedded in it, so it has a lot for me from the past that it gives it a richness. Not that I think that I have to walk around thinking about the past, but it makes it very full, even though it’s not as full as it was. When I first moved back into Manhattan, it was probably the most exciting day of my life because all the great artists were there in all the mediums—especially music. And so many were living on the Lower East Side, which was where I moved to. But it’s not a place that gives fertile ground anymore for artists to start from scratch in terms of their dreams and being able to get a place to live…
… to try and make it and feed yourself …
Martin Rev: …to develop long term. I’m sure some kind of do now, but the arts have changed too since that time, so it’s a reflection of that. Same thing with Paris. Before New York became the center of the arts, it was Paris for like 100 years or some time.
Since you’re such a singular entity and you’re so focused on trying to listen to what you create and trusting your own taste … when you step outside of that, how do you consume music? Do you listen to records? Do you download? What do you let in?
Martin Rev: What do I let in? Well, anything. I have the radio going. It’s my main source when I’m doing everything else. When I’m not playing or recording. So scanning stations, which is often all you do because with the radio it’s just so … barren. So many commercials. Even on public radio, to me, it’s still commercials: ‘Our sponsor is this, our support is that.’ But I’ll be surprised. I’ll go through classical, go through jazz, the rock stations, and a lot of times something will hit my ear that I wasn’t expecting to hear and I like that. It will hit something off of something close to what I am working on at the time. There could be some piece or composer that I’ve known for a long time, or a group, but right there in that moment … or otherwise, I’ll just put on my own stuff. I’ll throw on my own CDs or I’ll catch something and think, ‘I want to hear this right now’ and I’ll get it right away online just to hear it for reference. It’s all a learning process. When I listen to stuff that I love so much, something sweet … you know, just sugar on top of cake on top of cherries on top of sugar, there’s gotta be a reason. Because otherwise it’s too sweet. I can sometimes get something out of that too … find a way of working with it vocally or something so it gives me an idea. But that’s really it. The rest of the time, I’m actively engaged in my things so I’m not listening to anything.
Is there music from your past that you created—or that someone else made—that you can’t listen to anymore?
Martin Rev: No. There’s nothing that I ever dug as a kid that I don’t like now. It holds up for me.
And everything that you’ve made too? It doesn’t feel too emotional for you?
Martin Rev: I’d love to hear it! And it does feel emotional. It can be emotional because the music is emotional, and it has a built in emotionality with the fact that you experienced it at a certain time in life, but I don’t mind that. It just adds to it. It’s got to be there in the music too. I mean, if it’s just about the memory it doesn’t do it for me. But the stuff I’ve liked, for some reason it was not the trivial stuff. The novelty songs, the chipmunk Christmas songs … no. I was very selective then, and the stuff that I selected for myself that I really liked still holds up like crazy. Same thing with jazz and classical music. I always knew instinctively that Monk was great, that Coltrane was great, that Miles was great, and other people were lesser great. I didn’t need anyone to ever tell me that, and I didn’t get attached to anyone that was less than great—I recognized who they were. So when I listen to Coltrane today, he’s just as great or greater than the others. And I’m very thankful for the fact that all that exists. That it existed then, and that it exists now.
And that we still have access to it in the way that we do now too. There are so many options for music consumption.
Martin Rev: Yeah! And so much stuff that’s really good, it’s still—for me—not meaningful enough. It’s not truthful enough. I hear the industry in it, I hear the production, and the artist can be more unique than other artists in that world, but it’s still so much a part of the industry at a certain time. When I hear something I dug originally, it still holds up. There’s no decoration of superficiality. There’s no camouflage of production. It’s just right there, which was always what worked for me. And I think that’s what works for me, at best … or at least, I recognize that’s what I come back to as a performer too, and as a musician, without even really realizing it. And that’s probably why I was never that formularized or commercial in that world because it just didn’t work for me.
What about the songs that people have covered that you created as part of Suicide? Do you feel like anyone really nailed it?
Martin Rev: Yeah! They all sound different to me. Nobody’s nailed it, and that’s fine. Everyone’s had their own, if it’s Neneh Cherry or Bruce Springsteen or the Cars…
I love Neneh. I’m glad she’s the first one you mentioned because I was going to bring her up too.
Martin Rev: I was very surprised when she did. It was a surprise when the Cars first championed us, it was a surprise when Springsteen did, and so many covers … I think Pearl Jam did one… nobody’s nailed it to me, but the problem is … Well, it’s not a problem, but we’re a different age now. When Beethoven wrote a piano sonata, it was on paper, so there was no defining way of playing it because we don’t have Beethoven. And if we had the defining interpretation like we have of Coltrane playing Coltrane … Coltrane nailed Coltrane. We can hear the defining version. So to me, for my sensibility, Suicide nailed ‘Ghost Rider’ because … well, maybe not, but to me, that’s why I did it that way. Nobody’s gonna do that and the best people don’t even try. Neneh Cherry didn’t sound like she was trying to nail ‘Dream Baby Dream.’ She did it in her own way, and that’s all fine. It’s all complimentary, so many people doing what you’re doing.
Both Stigmata and Demolition 9 were created just prior to you experiencing tragedies—going through these personal losses. Did you hear the records differently after enduring that?
Martin Rev: Stigmata was pretty much done while Mari was still here, and didn’t come out until after. I didn’t hear the record differently, but I understood where some people who wrote about it attached it to the fact. Chris Needs was interviewing me on the phone about it and asked me somehow what I was going through around the time of the record, and I may have mentioned it was one of the toughest times of my life, and being curious, as Chris is—he goes very in depth with everything—that moved him quite a bit. He brought that into his review of the record. And then it was considered kind of an absolute that I wrote that as a memorial piece to my wife.
Right, and the mythology spiraled from there.
Martin Rev: Yeah—but of course it was done before. She listened to it one time. We were in Montreal and I went and left to do some shows, and I left her the tape because I knew … in a way I wanted her to hear it too because I felt very proud of it, but it was very close to the finished product. And she made a list. When I came back, she had written notes on every track. [laughs] But Demolition 9, I had done a lot of it, a good amount of it, while Alan was still here. And just maybe a lot … I let it sit. I came back to it because it looked like it was coming out and we had a label for it, so I revisited and started editing again. That happens a lot of times. If I feel like I’ve brought something up to a demo stage, which can take years … well, it depends on the record. Stigmata was a lot faster. But I’ll let it sit because I go onto other things. The editing goes so far until I can say, ‘OK, now I can live with it as a demo. I can let someone else hear it.’
How do you know when you’ve reached that moment?
Martin Rev: Yeah, I can hear it. I just hear it. I’m talking about when I’ve done all the improvements. I went into the zone of fixing it, you might say. Like when you study tai chi in a zone. You do that for three segments and then there are three segments of corrections, they call it, right? Tai chi corrections. So you’re editing your form with whoever is the instructor. And you do that for a year at least. It’s the same thing with music. You do the corrections until you’re not hearing any more corrections on those particular pieces at that time. You may not be totally thrilled with them, but you’re thrilled enough because if you’re not, you’ll take them out and put them in another folder or throw them away. So in situations where you’ll have a demo and you hear, ‘You need a new record, Rev.’ You’ll always hear that from agents, and when it reaches that place I can say, ‘OK, if you have a label, I have a demo.’ That’s because I saturated that correction up to that time. So it sits for maybe three, four, five, six … whatever time it takes, sometimes. I’m not going to keep listening to it. Now it’s time for them to catch up—for the label to catch up. For someone to say they either want to do something with it or not. Because I have already moved on to new material. Then when they hear it and they say, ‘This is cool, I would like to put this out,’ I go back to it and say, ‘Yeah, now this is going to come out.’ I go back to it and I hear it and think, ‘Oh shit, this thing needs a lot of work!’ Four, five, six months later and I’m hearing a whole new series of corrections because it’s had time and I’ve had time. But usually I go faster than that. With Demolition 9, I did it right up to the time when Craig said, ‘You’ve got to turn in the master.’ Like the day is Wednesday, and I say, ‘OK, if you can hold it until Friday because I just found a few things …’ I took it right down to the line. You just know. It’s your ear.
My last question, and I’m a little shy but I think I have to ask. Cocaine was present in everyone’s life in the 70s and 80s it seems—was drug use ever a factor in your life? Did it ever cause any problems? Or regrets?
Martin Rev: Luckily, I don’t have any regrets and it never became a problem, thankfully, for me. I was fortunate because knowing I wanted to be a musician and that I was going to be a musician no matter what—I had no doubts about it—I considered the risk. You know, I’m only 10 or 11 years old, but that was always in the forefront of my mind and my life habits. I knew a lot of people, even before—not just musicians, people I was growing up with—who could go off on tangents, sometimes irretrievably. I always had a sense of where the limits were for me, and I had the blinders on in a certain way … I was seeing peripherally, but I knew the next day I wanted to get back to that stuff I was working on. While drugs seemed … well, especially certain ones that supposedly expanded the mind—living in the 60s—seemed like a great way to experiment with playing music, anything that might take your life into its own hands and control your life … to me very early on, that had warning signals. Red lights going off as far as how far you go. I knew what I was into, and it was going to take a long time, and I really dug it, and it took physical energy too, and I was lucky to have that. I wasn’t as desperate as many people were. I experimented plenty, but I always came back in because of that discipline. Remember, we talked about the barre? The next day I’ve got to be at the barre.


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