No matter how many albums Martin Rev has released since he started playing music in the late '70s, he will always be remembered as the sunglass-clad noisemaker from the band Suicide. The duo's bleak and uncompromising sound, fed by the tinny pulse of an early drum machine, an overmodulated Farfisa organ, and the confrontational attitude of singer Alan Vega once caused a small riot at a club in Brussels. The world simply doesn't want to let him forget the heights that his band reached in the '70s, particularly with its 1977 self-titled debut, a still-terrifying and beautiful document of New York's No Wave scene.
Rev really isn't doing much to shake off the association either. He still performs regularly with Vega, and the pair released another strange and dark record, American Supreme, in 2002. The long shadow of that group, though, has unfortunately hidden much of the work that Rev has done on his own. In his solo work, he has followed whatever tonal interests may be inspiring him at the moment, be it a blitzed-out, almost industrial feel (2003's To Live), a dusty homage to the Spaghetti Western soundtrack work of Ennio Morricone (1991's Cheyenne), or an album inspired by medieval and Eastern European classical music (2009's Stigmata).
The feeling from talking with Rev is that, even as he nears his 70th birthday, he's still looking to challenge himself creatively. To the point that when asked about what he might have planned for his performance this Saturday at the Alhambra Theatre, he said, "It's really difficult to describe in words. You can tell me after. I'd like to know!"
I've read plenty of interviews with you, but none of the ones I've come across ever discussed how you came to be interested in playing music. When did that start?
It happened at quite an early age. I was playing piano from about eight. That wasn't by choice, but by the time I was 10 I started playing boogie woogie-oriented stuff. I started taking some of the sheet music that my brother was learning from and started to improvise on it. From then on I started to get more definite on wanting to do more and expand and learn.
How did that evolve into wanting to play, for lack of a better word, rock music?
Well, when I say "boogie woogie," that's what I'm talking about. Rock was my environment. It started with figuring out songs I would hear on the radio, rhythm & blues stuff and later on doo wop. Stuff that I liked, I was immersed in rock. It was never difficult to reach into it. It was right there for me.
All the solo material that you've done to date has been strictly solo, you don't have any additional players on them. Is that a conscious choice?
No, it's not a decision in that way. It's much easier to work on my own. I can record and write stuff every night, whenever i get an idea. I pretty much do it six days a week. I also don't need a studio. Where I live is my studio. Musically it has to make sense. I'm not closed to it, but it doesn't seem to come around where it is really absolutely musically necessary. I get a lot of invitations to play on people's new CDs and I usually don't do it because it doesn't make sense to me. It's not really what I do. There's a lot of great keyboard players that can lay down tracks for you. Like a painter or a composer, it's a personal journey.
How does that relate to working with Alan Vega in Suicide? Does that work simply because you're handling all the music and he's only singing?
It's a simple kind of separation. I can suggest something about the vocals, he can suggest something to me, but basically it's always been very clear that way. I'd come in with a sound and he would get an idea for a line or a lyric. With two people, it's not mixing of tones or musical textures. As far as Suicide's concerned there's always a clear kind of give and take. A balance. We would add instruments if we thought there should be a reason for it, It's not an urgency to bring in another player. I can facilitate a lot of sounds of instruments myself. I don't want to be telling other people what to play. When I discovered drum machines, I was able to arrange all the parts. The band, as I say, it's more horizontal. You don't want to tell the drummer, "Do this, do that."
How then do you come up with new material? Is it just hitting on a general theme for an album or coming up with something melodically?
It's where I am at the time and where I left off from where I was before. My music usually gives me ideas to go ahead start something new. I come out of one record feeling like, "I've got food here for a whole other record. I wanna get right into it." It's a kind of blank canvas each time. An adventure to see what works and where you are at the time. It's like a road with no signs. You know where you want to go, you have an idea of what you'd like to do but sometimes it's doesn't necessarily materialize the way you want. It's something of a trial and error and what comes from the process of going through the material seeing what works and what doesn't. It can only come from laying down colors on canvas. Sometimes they look okay there, but terrible there. You put them together in a way that looks right for you, and the goal is to go to a place where you've never been before, trying to turn yourself on.
Are you very meticulous about your material then? Editing and re-editing things as you're making them?
How much are you keeping up with the evolution of synthesizers and the technology that people are using to make electronic sounds and music?
I'm always looking to see what's out there. I tend to pick up whatever might be new that I feel I can use, instead of just getting what might be new. It's, of course, a lot more software than hardware these days. I use either one but it has to be applicable to where I'm at at the time. Technology for one reason or another has been very much a part of what I've been doing for some time. What I've been doing has been found sound. You find the sound in the technology to make music out of them. Once you get out of the acoustic world and you're not in a band stage or in a vertical way rather than a horizontal kind of band situation, technology opens up a lot of possibilities.
How does that work when it comes to doing Suicide shows like you've done in the past where you're performing just your first album?
The only way we've been able to do that is playing them in a different kind of way. When I was approached to do it, the idea they had was to go back to the original instruments and do it that way. That was not going to work for me. Going back to the Farfisa organ and the original rhythm machine was not going to have that same edge, that same intensity. I was not interested in recreating it like a museum piece. I haven't upgraded the technology in that I'm using the same rhythm machine but not the actual instrument. I've sampled it and by doing that it has that edge again. We'll keep the same format, we know the basic template of the first album, but we can both go anywhere we want.
Are you surprised at all that people are still responding to what you and Alan did after all these years?
It was a surprise. And how it was received had its own dynamic path. Some things take time to present itself to you. That's why a lot of things don't get accepted at the time they're done, but they get accepted later, at some point 10 or 20 years down the road. The first record, in its own way, was totally individual at that time. But people finally looked at it in terms of what was going on at the time and realized, "That was important. There was nothing else like that." And in 50 years, it might totally be forgotten. Suicide is still not a well-known entity. We're hardly a household name. A lot of young musicians have still never heard of us. They may at some point find it. It's all relative, I guess.