“I’m still alive, still ticking over,” announces Alan Vega, the singer with Suicide, his long-running duo project with perverter-of-electronics Martin Rev. In 2012, Vega suffered a heart attack and a stroke, eventually undergoing surgery, which wasn’t initially thought to be viable. There have been a handful of Suicide gigs since his recovery: at Primavera Sound in Barcelona, David Lynch’s Silencio club in Paris, and the Station to Station happening-on-a-train in New York.
Back in 1977, when their eponymous debut album was released, Suicide stood alone on New York’s punk-dominated plane. Their disturbingly minimalist songs sounded distinctly antisocial, yet managed to marry elements of heavily obscured pop with deep slurries of noise. Vega was prone to intense spurts of fragmented vocalisation, dotted with sudden screams and mutterings, while Rev was intent on crafting repetitive keyboard pulses, shooting primitivist drum machine stutters underneath.
In the 45 years since their first performances, the pair’s sporadic, though persistent, reunions have produced a line of sound that has only gradually evolved, lately attaining an increasingly abstract, improvisational feel.
“We never really rehearse, because at our age it doesn’t really matter,” says Vega. “What we know, we know already. My ears are getting better, harmonically, with time, and my drawings are getting better with time; I don’t understand why.”
Even before teaming up with Rev, Vega was actively engaged with the art world, as a sculptor, painter and performance artist. He studied at Brooklyn College, and has operated this career in parallel with Suicide.
“Things have looked up – things are looking great, so far. If it doesn’t work, fuck it anyway,” says Vega, who is looking forward to next month’s rare NYC appearance, at Webster Hall (7 March).
“We move ahead with the way we’re playing now,” says Rev. “Now, it’s not a direct selection, but things will sound like aspects of the first album, although we’re not re-playing it.”
“We very easily combine,” says Rev. “Wherever we are. We’re not an arranged act. I have an idea, an outline, and Alan has an idea of what he’s going to do. He has an array of words stored up and a lot of them come spontaneously. I can’t predict the content, but who would want to?”
“I go with it, I love the idea of letting it become what it is, and seeing where it goes,” says Vega. “It’s also OK when it goes elsewhere. Who knows, who cares?”
For a while, around the time of their 40th anniversary, Suicide shows had involved playing their debut album in full, but the current approach is set on using that source as a launching point for wilder digressions and developments, Vega spouting stream-of-consciousness lyrics or riffing on existing songs.
Rev’s approach might not have altered too radically, but evolution comes with the steady changes he makes to his equipment, the details, the textures made possible by new effects units. It’s easier now to instantly trigger sounds digitally, compared to his laborious processes in the old days.
“You bring your life with you,” says Rev. “The way you are in the present, what you’ve learned, what you know. But I’m always looking for the next cool instrument or pedal. I’m not using software, live, so not everything works for me; I don’t need everything.”
Vega had hoped that their song Ghost Rider would be used in the movie adaptation of the Marvel comicbook of the same name, but was ultimately frustrated. “I really think that Dream Baby Dream is the national anthem of America, Bruce’s [Springsteen] version,” Vega enthuses, taking that as consolation.
Although the pair first started performing together way back in 1970, it took seven years to produce their first recorded evidence. “We started like sculptors,” says Rev. “With a big piece of stone, pure clay, pure sound, big lumps of sound. We started from scratch, and then out of that we carved out the songs. After a year or two, we were playing the earliest, Ghost Rider, Cheree and Rocket USA. Also, when I was finally able to get a rhythm machine, that changed things a lot. I was able to delineate songs more clearly. The first year or two was a pure wall of sound.”
It’s difficult to cite direct precedents for the extremity of Suicide’s sound. There are submerged hints of rock’n’roll in the vocals, with Gene Vincent and Roy Orbison evoked, while the electronics hark back to Terry Riley or Philip Glass, but Rev doesn’t quite agree, and points out some surprisingly jazzy antecedents: “Not as much as [John] Coltrane and [Albert] Ayler. The free improvisation of New York was very vibrant.” Another pair of strong contenders are the Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray and 96 Tears, by ? & The Mysterians, the latter of which Suicide have actually covered.
When they emerged Vega and Rev felt that rock’n’roll was still very much an unexplored area, ripe for introducing attitudes from other musical zones. Rev recalls: “When Alan saw Iggy [Pop] in New York, he said that he would now have to perform to be an artist, and he could not be an artist anymore unless he went in that direction.”
Next month, Vega will be particularly busy, as the Suicide gig falls right in the middle of New York art fair the Armory Show, where he will be exhibiting artwork. Some of his pieces will be from the 1970s, but there is also a large amount of more recent work, including his series of box paintings, and his latest portraits of imaginary faces. Perhaps one of these could be Frankie Teardrop?