Sadomasochist or the Ultimate Optimist?
Alan Vega, one half of legendary NYC pre-punk duo Suicide, solo performer and visual artist, is one of the most important faces to emerge from the NYC Punk scene in the mid-Seventies and over thirty years later shows absolutely no sisn of slowing down. Suicide, to put it mildly, is the band that gave birth to the 21st Century with stripped-bare, confrontational electro-shock boogie, forged in the crucible of a street-tough New York lifestyle and near-homicidal audience hatred. Despite being so relentlessly at odds with musical trends, the marketplace and the music-listening public at large, Vega (vocals) and Martin Rev (keyboards/drum machines) turned on all the right people, cultivating a small but discerning fanbase that later went on to form influential bands of their own – Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, Jarvis Cocker, Jesus and Mary Chain and REM, to name but a few. Never resting on these laurels, Suicide fought on and played on, together and in solo and side projects.
Alan Vega, in addition to a solo career that garnered a very unexpected hit single in the early 80s with the rockabilly-tinged “Jukebox Babe,” continued his work in the visual arts, with exhibitions of his sculpture, photography and light installations. Over the years, successive generations of fans have been vibing on those early Suicide records and the times have slowly caught up with Suicide. Vega and Rev were ready for it, still creatively vibrant and able to deliver the goods live, so the legend only grows. And the music just gets stronger. Earlier this year, Nick Cave presented Rev and Vega with a MOJO Award for Innovation in Sound, alongside many of their own idols. Not content to become a mere museum piece, Suicide then hit the road with Grinderman (Cave’s side project) and played some larger shows on their own. It seems that time is finally on the side of Alan Vega.
Time’s a funny thing, as we are now seeing yet another punk nostalgia blitz centering around some spurious milestone; the usual suspects are trotted out by the media to try and convince us that it’s never gonna be musically as real as it was in ’77, maaaaaaan. Unlike many of his New York punk peers, Vega seems uninterested in nostalgia except as a source of some really funny yarns. This summer saw increased activity on all fronts – a solo tour and shows with longtime partner Martin Rev as Suicide, and a brand new solo album, Station, on which a justifiably proud Vega took the reigns on the instrumental end as well as the vocal end. It’s one of his most ambitious and cohesive albums yet. Alan Vega continues to look to the future instead of dwelling on past glories (or failures), his ever-expanding body of work is focused on the now, fearlessly moving forward and toppling boundaries. Ink 19 caught up with him between projects to talk about the new album, his own artwork, Bruce Springsteen and being a father. As usual, Vega holds nothing back.
Now that Station has been out for awhile, both here and in Europe, how do you feel about it both as a finished piece of work and in the reaction it’s getting from people?
I didn’t even know it was out here yet. I don’t see it anywhere…
I never see anything over here! But Europe was great for me. It was amazing, the press is amazing. The shows were amazing. As a finished product? Nothing is ever finished in life. Until you’re dead. But, I’m happy with it. I worked a long time on it. The press liked it over in Europe. I haven’t seen much here yet — one thing just came up — everything’s very positive. Four or five star reviews, like nothing I’ve ever received before.
Wow. Excellent. Now you did all the sounds and vocals for this record all by yourself, is that a new thing for you?
Well, yeah, I basically do most of my own stuff anyway. My wife plays a few things here and there. But on this one — except for my kid’s voice and her voice… Umm, yeah, I’m just like starting to know what I’m doing after all these years. And I enjoy the studio. I love the studio! I love being there. I wish I could spend more time there, but I’ve got to go out on the road and do all these different things.
Would you mind talking a bit about the compositional process for Station? Was it a case of lyrics first and then fitting music to it, or music first….
I always write the music first and then the lyrics follow. Most people write the lyrics first. And then they fill in the music afterwards. The music for me is a soundscape, it’s the only way I can put it. It creates an image for me, the music, and then the lyrics follow that thing that I’m thinking about at the time. But this is a five-year process, the whole album took like five years…
I know! Tell me about it! [laughter] Every time I thought I was through… I started with like 25 songs and worked down to like 16 and then 12 and then finally to 11 songs. It’s like a series, I go through the whole thing, I go from 1 to 25 and because I’m working on these particular songs one at a time, they all get better as it goes along. Then I get to 25 and by the time I get to 25, Number 1 is terrible! Y’know what I’m saying? I have to toss the first 23! [laughter] And at 25 all of a sudden you go, “Ooh, I think I’ll turn a knob a little like this,” and then it goes into a whole new world. So I start all over!
And this process went on for like five years and it kept building up. And I like working like that. I like to let the music… It does, it tells you what you’re going to do anyway. It’s like painting, you get two-thirds of the way through a painting and then the painting says you have to do this now. In other words, it just takes over. You’re out of control of the thing, it controls you. The music kind of controls me. And I like that. I like that open feeling. I like to let it just grow on its own. Some sort of organic thing is happening. And I just let it go. This time I really… Most albums I put out, you can always say that, okay there’s four or five really cool songs and the rest is like, not terrible, but not the same quality. This time I wanted to make 11 really good songs. I think I got close to to it! I think. I’m not sure.
I’m working on new stuff as we speak. And that’s in another place already, y’know. As a result of working on that album for five years. And the 11th song was a thing, “13 Crosses, 16 Blazin’ Skulls.” That just, all of a sudden it was the 11th song and I wanted to do 11 songs for this album. I’d already finished the 10th, I was working on this one and it just wouldn’t go anywhere, y’know. It just was like, these things you come up against every now and then, things you just can’t let go of, you know something’s there but you can’t get to it. And it went on for weeks. And then one night I was sitting there and like at the keyboard, I wasn’t even looking at the keyboard and I just hit a thing, out of total frustration, I just hit anything, and all of a sudden this just amazing sound came on. And there it was. You can call it one of these great accidents that happen in life, but if I wasn’t sitting there for weeks trying to work this song out it probably wouldn’t have happened. So it was like this wonderful thing happened and it just opened up this whole new world for me. And I’ve been following in that track since. Starting from there and this whole new album I’m working on now is like going from that place. So I’m in another place already, y’know?
Do you write on a laptop or traditional instruments or…
Oh, the music? No, I just work… I set up the keyboards, drum machines… Or I’ve been using a lot of this stuff on the computers now that’s utterly amazing. Effects things. But basically I have a keyboard with effects, drum machine with effects and then just play it. And sometimes I’ll sit there for hours upon hours just scrolling through effects and getting nothing. And some nights you get something right away… I never know when I’m going in what’s going to happen. I just keep scrolling, man, keep going through things to the point of intense boredom, y’know? But it’s just a process you have to do. And now with the computers, for crying out loud man, there’s like an infinite amount of things! It’s hard to make a choice sometimes. It’s like, “Okay I like that,” and then, “Ohhhh, let’s try another little thing,” and then, “I like that,” and then, “I like that!” Y’know what I’m saying? I’m liking everything, but what’s the final thing for crying out loud? It’s really crazy! And then in the end you just hope that you’ve made the best decision. You don’t know, you just never know.
Now when you get in the studio, do you just lay down the tracks based on demos, or do you do a lot of improvising there as well. Do you find the studio to be an environment conducive to creativity?
It’s like I said, it’s an organic thing going on. Sometimes I think I’m out of control completely. Like there’s another power that’s guiding me…
Oh, absolutely. It’s like that painting process… I started out as a painter/sculptor, y’know. And you very often find as you get about two-thirds of the way or three-quarters of the way through a painting or sculpture… then you basically can’t choose, y’know what I’m saying. The painting says you’ve got to put a blue here or a sculpture says that you’ve got to put a straight shape over here. It tells you what to do.
I know. That’s with every painter too. Everyone goes through that process. And then, it’s like, you lose it. I mean, you don’t lose it… it’s guided by angels or whatever it is. [laughter] Hopefully in the right direction! You know, people are always telling me that I changed their life forever, and I keep thinking to myself, “Shit, I hope it was for the good!” [laughter] They never say! ‘I changed your life forever,’ what I sent you to hell?
But I do have a vague idea of what I’m doing and a style begins to develop around what I’m doing and that’s where I start from. Like last night I came into the studio with a song on its way, it was a song that was terrible and it was… On Monday I went in and I did some things on it and then I was like, “Holy shit man, it’s in a new place. It’s really popping now, man!” And then I went in last night to do a few little things to it, just to sort of straighten it out and then it started to go into another place. So I left if last night, undone basically. I thought I was going to complete it for sure last night! It’s just sounding different. I’m not sure it’s better, but it’s different than what it was, but I know it’s in another place already. So it’s because… You know, I go in some nights and just fool around. I say, “Okay just do this” and then I do more than just that! [laughter] Y’know what I’m saying? I’m out of control, man. But I love being out of control, that’s when the good shit happens! You create great accidents! The key to all great art is accidents, man.
That’s a great manifesto.
It’s true! In all the 35 years I’ve been in this business, that’s what I’ve learned. Great things come out of accidents. You’ve got to be cool enough to live with it, man. I know most musicians aren’t. You work with other musicians and they go, “You can’t do THAT! You can’t let it stand like that!” It was an accident, y’know? And I go, that’s it! [laughter] Go with it! Go with the flow, baby!
How much of every day do you work on music and visual arts?
Visual arts… I work on these things continuously. My brain never shuts down. I’m not working on any pieces right now, like sculptures, but I just had a show at PS1 not too long ago, about six months ago. And they ask me to do some new stuff every now and then, and I’ll do it. And I love doing it. Right now… My brain goes in funny ways, when it gets into music, I’m still totally into the music thing. And then suddenly my brain will switch and I’m looking at everything completely different. Walking around, looking and I’m like, “Wait, I never saw that before!” It’s just a switcheroo, y’know? [laughter] It’s true! But I’ve gotta be getting more into film and video… I’m going to do this project in January.
It’s the filmmaker, what’s his fucking name? Korine? Whatever. Young kid, he’s a really great fucking filmmaker, man, he did Julian Donkey Boy…
So we’re going to go over to Paris and do some work together. It’s pretty cool, because I love his work, man. And I just met Chloe Sevigny, whatever, she’s with the… I just had a show at the Dietch with the ARE Weapons.
They backed me up… It was at the closing of a show. It was these wild, crazy kids… You should have seen the place, it was filled up to the… Fucking three feet high with torn up telephone books and mattress shit and drawing on the walls, holes in the wall and I’m trying to walk in this shit and it’s like quicksand, man. Finally I get up there and I’m playing with ARE Weapons, and I couldn’t move! Unbelievable, man. But they’re great, these guys they’ve always loved Suicide, man…
Certainly, I’ve seen them a couple of times and they are very Suicide indebted…
You say indebted, most people don’t say that man. They don’t want to admit… But there’s something there, man. I just met them for the first time that night and they’re really nice kids, man, they really are. We started playing — no rehearsals or anything — just like straight on. I didn’t even do a soundcheck with them. It was like I’d played with them for like twenty years already, man.
When I saw them they definitely had this joyous, exploratory side to their music similar to what I see in Suicide performances.
Yeah, I was… They brought a sax in and some drums in to play. This was a twenty-minute set pretty much, but it was intense. I had a blast. I have to admit I had a blast. I love working with guys like this. They’re really good musicians, besides being brainy… He’s calls himself “Brain!” And he is! He’s got a brain. It’s an unusual thing in our business. Y’know? [laughter] But he’s cool. No attitudes about them. They’re just nice guys. They’re really really good and we all had a blast. They were all kicking up all the fucking shit, that telephone shit, and flinging it all over the place. I walked out of that place, I was like yellow, man! [laughter] It took me like three hours to shake all that shit off me. So we’re going to collaborate, we’re going to do some shit. Yeah, we’re definitely going to do something together. I know it’s going to be great.
I didn’t realize this then… your Station collaborator Liz Lamere is your wife?
Yeah, she’s my wife, she’s a great musician. We did a lot of stuff together. She works with me on stage now… with my son. My son’s been coming onstage now, doing a little mouth-off stuff, y’know. A nine year-old kid.
It took me years to get him out there, man. He’s great, he’s in the Trinity choir so he’s really learning. He’s becoming a soloist in that choir now. He just turned nine and he’s got this great voice, man. So it’s a family affair now, man.
Like a new Carter Family?
Yeah, right! I hope so! [laughter] But no, we’re still doing Suicide. I don’t know if you know… We just played this place in New York, the South Street Seaport, which has all these big bands play there and packs in thousands of people, this summertime thing. And they actually invited Suicide, of all people! It’s this very corporate thing. And they actually asked us to play. So we played there a couple of weeks ago — and it was fucking great. It was packed silly. We played for a long time and it was really great. So we’re still doing Suicide here and there. But I just went over to Europe and did some shows with Liz and my boy and everything went over great, man. It was like… we’re getting rave reviews. In Suicide it was never like that, just occasional snippety little pieces of shit. But the thing now, one of the knocks on me is “He’s always doing stuff about the war! All this opposing the war shit. Get off of it already, Al!” And I’m going like, “Fuck it, I can’t get off of it. If it would stop I’d get off of it!” No one’s going out there doing anything about this shit. But I know I tend to have that dark side of myself still, I get into all this stuff… like the war ain’t ending! Y’know, I’d start writing love songs if we’d end this shit already. It’s not. Somebody has to do it.
If I could switch tracks for a moment — the cover and interior photographs for Station, are they all your pieces?
Yeah. I had a show with Jeffrey Dietch about three-and-a-half years ago. But before I started doing that shit, I had been working on these series of photographs. And I finally broke through. I never considered myself a photographer of any kind. I think I’m pretty brain dead when it comes to that. But I’m pretty good when it comes to composition and I finally found this new thing. A new way of doing things, of taking pictures of these ordinary objects, but using certain kinds of lights and backgrounds. Usually black backgrounds or brown backgrounds. Doing this… All these small little things and then I blow them up to these huge sizes. So it’s like taking a knife and all of a sudden this knife becomes… it’s almost like an Oldenburg thing.
And so I had all of these photographs laying around and then we had this guy who did this Suicide cover, that last album we did, American Supreme. This guy was a really gifted man and, I don’t know, he freaked out. He started having me dress in Arab shit and again with the flag motif. Y’know like an American flag turban on my head. All kinds of stuff. He took all these pictures. And then in the middle of all this, he freaked out. So Paul Smith, my man from Mute over there, he’s been working with me since 1997… We’ve gotta do something, so he says we’ll get someone else, and then I think, wait a second, I’m going to send him these photographs, you know, and he flipped. Paul’s got a really good eye for new shit. And I really like these pictures, man, and I’ve been trying to get back into it, after I had to work on that Dietch show, and that took me like six months and then I lost track. Once you stop something, man, it’s hard to get it rolling again, you lose the mood, you lose everything. So I’ve been trying to get that mood back again and it hasn’t been so successful. But I had those pictures and I have lots more of them too. I took hundred of pictures, man, I was on a roll for about six months there.
Yeah, yeah, you get on these rolls and it’s like I finally tapped into what I needed to do and I was getting really good at it. In terms of using the camera and everything. And it’s like… nothing like this has been done before. I was talking to other photographers about it, they kept asking me, how did you do this thing? And they really wanna know. Which amazed me, because they have all the techniques, and they were kind of amazed when I told them what I did. I didn’t think I was doing anything extraordinary when I was doing it, but… It’s hard to explain because it’s just things I do on an ordinary fucking kitchen table, man. I set up a tripod with all these crazy simple lights, y’know. Again, it’s like the music. You put one color in, you put another color in, y’know, you keep changing the bulbs, the colors, move it around a little. It’s very close to the musical experience, actually. And when you finally figure you have it, you shoot it. Y’know, try different things. But I’m glad I had the pictures. Or we might have been up shit creek, man. We only had like a week to get art in by this time! Because the guy quit in the middle of all this. And then suddenly there’s only a week left. Of course they need it right away to get the covers printed. So thank god I had this, man.
The knife image in particular was very striking.
Yeah, the ones inside were cool too. It looks like little miniature paintings from god knows where. The funny thing is, I was working on them when I was working on the album early on. It was like three-and-a-half years ago. Taking the pictures in the course of making the record, so maybe there’s this sympatico thing. For some reason, it worked out. Again, great accident — this guy quit! And I go, okay, I’ve got these pictures, Paul, take a look! He flipped out, he loved it, man.
I did want to ask you about your photo. It was a bit of a visual departure for you with the headband and the hair and the colors. You look a little Keith Richards….
Oh really? Cool!
And I was wondering if this was a purposeful departure from the more militant, Che-like image you have in Suicide. Trying out something more sinister, almost decadent glam. And then the coat pulled up over your face was very noir….
I tell you, man, Everybody’s going to read something… Every personality, yourself, myself. Um, I love the fact that you see things like that. I’m not sure if I did. I’ll look at it again and say, “Yeah, you’re right.” You know what I’m saying, man? The artist is the last person in the world who knows about their work. It’s like having your girlfriend cheat on you! Everyone in town knows she’s cheating on you, but you. [laughter] Shit, you wanna go to France, the French are so steeped in their intellectuality, man. They ask these questions, sometimes I don’t even understand the words. I have to look up the words! What does that mean? And so they come up with some of these great things about my work, and I go, “Wow, that’s great, I think I’ll use it!” So sometimes you let the critics tell you what’s going on, because it’s like the girlfriend, I don’t know. It’s like, I do know, but I don’t know. I like my lyrics on this thing a lot. I think it gets my message across in a different way than just ordinary headbanging? Do you know what I mean?
It’s like some people came up to me and said, “Man, this is a really”… what’s the word they used…. beautiful, “this is a beautiful album.” Here I am talking about war and they’re talking about how beautiful it is. And I got that a lot, which is kind of cool, because I wanted to say something about the war and everything but in a whole other way. Rather than just sit here and say, “Bush is an asshole, Bush is an asshole.” And I was getting a lot of these comments about how beautiful it was. Yeah. Because I think I intended it to be, in a way.
You were trying a lot of different styles vocally…..
That’s what I was trying to do a lot on this album, trying to get more kinds of vocals. I’m actually, believe it or not, I’ve actually learned to “sing.” After all these years… Studying the vocal is really hard, man, it’s probably the most difficult… To me it’s the greatest instrument in the world. And you notice how many critics don’t really talk about… Does anyone really talk about Elvis’ tone? Or Roy Orbison’s? [laughter] Think about it. When most critics write, they’ll talk about the music. Suicide reviews basically always talk about Marty’s [Martin Rev, Suicide instrumentalist] thing, stuff like that. And not that many people talk about my voice, y’know, Which… I saw Bruce Springsteen recently in Bridgeport, he was doing the Suicide song, y’know…
I heard about that, he was closing his solo shows with a Suicide number.
Yeah, it was always the last number. So some people from the band D Generation dragged me up there, they’re friends with Bruce… So we went to Bridgeport. I hadn’t seen him since 1981, believe it or not. And then I came in as he was finishing the soundcheck, he saw me off at the side of the stage, he came over and he gave me this fucking bear hug, man! [laughter] He’s a great guy, Bruce. He’s like the man, you know. The Boss! And so I talked with him for about an hour before the show, and then I went out and saw the show. It was a long, long show. A couple of hours. And then he finally finishes it with “Dream Baby Dream” as the second encore. I gotta tell you, man… He introduced me to the audience and everything. And then he was talking about how like… Yeah, this is Alan Vega from Suicide, a far-out band that’s still far out — stuff like that. So it almost brought me to tears, I gotta tell you. It was really… I’ll never be able to listen to “Dream Baby Dream,” I’ll never be able to sing “Dream Baby Dream” again the same way after hearing that. It was beautiful, man. I know he put extra effort into it too because I was there, I’m sure of it. I have several recordings of different shows, people have been sending me shit.
But here’s the thing man. So the show ends, and like all of a sudden this music comes on, as people are leaving, and I say, “Wow this is great, look at this music he’s playing.” This is like the typical Rock and roll stuff, y’know for people leaving or the sweet shit, you know, And I’m listening to this stuff going, wow this is really fucking great, what the fuck is this shit, man. And then about thirty seconds later, my body went into shock! I said, “Wait a minute, this sounds fucking familiar. Holy shit, it’s my song, man!” [laughter] And then it hit me, it was my song “Dujang Prang,” from that album, a solo record about two back, and I flipped, man! I’m in shock! I mean, damn, man! What a cool thing for Bruce to do!
So I go back to the dressing room, thank him, we talk some more. I got him to sign a couple of photos for my kid and his neighbor downstairs. And I say, “Hey Bruce, it’s time we… Leave me an address, so we can stay in touch, send each other Christmas cards or something.” But I didn’t know. So he gives it to me, and as I’m walking out, I notice there’s some writing underneath it, coming through from the other side of the page and I turn it over and it’s his setlist, man, from the show that night. His fucking setlist! Someone goes, you need to put that on Ebay right now, and I go no way, this is going into the grave with me, man! Definitely going into the grave with me. Such a wonderful night, man. He is the fucking best, he’s the man. I mean it.
Have you been a fan of his music for awhile?
Yeah. You would think that I wouldn’t be, but I’ve always liked his music. I find it uplifting sometimes. And I think he saved my life once. I was going on a tour of Europe and I was really freaked out, y’know girlfriend shit, that shit. Being on tour can be depressing enough as it is. It can be both, uplifting and depressing. But I got into this really depressed place and I went out and bought a small tape player and the one record I bought was the Born in the USA album. And that was the only thing I played. I played it forever. The band was ready to kill me! It was so uplifting, man. It just got me through my depression. It was amazing! Just that one album. But I’ve always liked it. He always liked my shit too. Do you remember that song “State Trooper” from the Nebraska album?
He walked into my record company at the time, that was Ze Records in New York. This song was going on, it was “State Trooper,” and I didn’t know, I’m walking in and I go, “Wait a minute, that thing sounds like I did a song that I forgot I did.” [laughter] You know those kind of vocal things I do, and the melody sounded like a Suicide thing, man. We met, we did an album, side by side with one another at the Power Station in New York, he was doing The River and we were doing the second Suicide album, Ric Ocasek was producing. And Bruce came in, and he immediately loved Suicide. So we started hanging out, I remember, and we became like really cool together, y’know, just hanging out, drinking and doing stuff, y’know. No drugs. Just drinking and talking…. Bruce, he talks the way he sings, y’know, and he hangs out the way he performs!
So we became really tight and… It’s a funny story, Ric Ocasek was telling me once he’s like, he’s in a clothing store in LA and all of a sudden he hears, “Pssst, psst. Ric!” And he looks around and he doesn’t see anybody and then Ric! He turns out and he sees Bruce with like his head through the clothes, and he says, “Hey Ric, How’s Vega, man?” Ric was telling me this, he didn’t ask how I was, he was asking about you! [laughter] So it was like… I saw him in Bridgewater for the first time since 1981, do you know how many years that is? It was like we didn’t miss a beat. Like I just saw him yesterday, y’know.
Do you have more touring plans in the works?
Yeah, something’s always coming up. I’ve actually been turning down a bunch of gigs, with Suicide and with myself too. It’s hard with a kid, y’know. It’s like, he’s got to be in school and… he’s been everywhere, he’s been to 13 or 14 countries already, my boy. And he’s going into a higher grade this year, where attendance is really crucial. Of course as they go further up the ladder they have to… It’s getting so insane. You used to go to, whatever district you were in, there was the school you went. Bam. But now there’s so much competition going on… there’s so many kids moving into the neighborhoods and classroom size is limited. So he’s gotta get these great grades, which he is, so far, y’know. They start counting now, this year, the fourth grade, so they require better attendance rates. So I don’t know if I can take him out as much as I did.
So… hey, you become a father and the world changes, y’know? [laughter] Really! Priorities shift immediately. Thank god I love it, I love being a dad, man. And it’s like… this unconditional love thing. I never thought… I never knew what that was! My friends all have kids, they would say, “Oh have a kid, it’s great, it’s like blah blah.” And I’d go, “Ehhhh!” And I finally have enough money to have a kid and… They don’t teach you these things in books! The love thing, man! How can you explain unconditional love? Someone loves you more than God, y’know? And I love him more than God, y’know. I’ve never experienced anything like this, y’know, parents, girlfriends, friends. There’s nothing like this thing. There’s nothing like this relationship. Ahhh, it’s unbelievable man. And I instantly realized this trip I was on, man… Made so much of career, now it all seems meaningless, y’know? It’s like waittaminute, this kid is the thing here, this is life. This is the real deal, man. All those other things I was worrying about were so trite now. So ridiculous. I look back at old photographs of myself sometimes and I go, “Why was I dressed like that? What was I thinking?” Really! Who was that? It’s unbelievable, man. I kept going, “How did I choose that?” Why did I do that? Y’know? [laughter]
How is New York treating you these days?
New York? Ehhhhh… It’s, uh, I’m starting to feel more and more like a stranger in a strange land, I’ve been living here all my life and I still love this city more than…. I’ve been all over the world, man, and I’ve spent some time in Paris, Berlin, but nothing compares to this city, although, they’re fucking it up, y’know? The older areas are being destroyed and condominiums are going up every minute as we talk. It’s like I walk around the streets and I go, “Where the fuck am it?” I went to Times Square, I haven’t been to Times Square in years, I walked out of the train station — which has changed — looked around and I didn’t know where the fuck I was! [laughter] I know! I swear! I didn’t know which direction was which! North? East? South? Where am I? The old spots… The sign points north, I’m going north, that’s the north, y’know. It’s all gone. I swear to God, man! I feel really weird, y’know, like I don’t belong here, but where the hell else am I gonna go? It’s still the greatest city in the world in terms of energy and everything. It’s open all night, basically. It’s always been the beauty of New York, y’know. Even though I hardly go out anymore, man, with the kid and everything. I still hear the buzz. At four o’clock in the morning, I go, hmmmm, should I wanna go to some club or something, some afterhours joint or something, I know it’s there. Just knowing it’s there makes it cool.
I like that.
That’s it, that’s all you need sometimes. It’s like, you know your friends are there. They’re always there, whether you speak to them a lot or not, and they love you and I love them. It’s cool. It’s the same thing with New York. It’s open. It’s like you decide, “Hey, I feel like going out tonight, I’m getting out of here,” and you know you have a place to go.
Nick Cave recently presented you and Martin Rev with a MOJO award in London — did that feel like a validation?
Oh yeah, man. It is my first and it’s probably gonna be my last, y’know. And it was for innovation, an Innovation in Sound award. What was great was Iggy got a Lifetime award too… apparently it’s the hippest… It’s a fun thing, compared to the Grammies or MTV. We all had a fucking blast, man. I got up onstage, I was getting really nervous, because people kept getting awards and it came like later in the night, and I kept thinking, “Am I going to remember to say anything? Am I going to go blank?” [laughter] It scared the shit out of me, man. But they put on a beautiful, huge video of an older thing, a “Ghost Rider” thing that was done in the 70s, and it looked fucking amazing. And then we took a group, photograph, man, I was there with Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne and his crazy wife! [laughter] They were telling everyone, sit down! Stand up! Don’t block Ozzy! So right behind me was Alice and Iggy and Ozzy. Ike Turner was there, man. Holy shit, man. And I talked to them! I was talking to them! And my son is a big fan of Iggy’s, y’know? And he was sitting a couple tables away from me, so I brought him over and I say, “Iggy will you shake my son’s hand?” And I got some pictures of it, so that was really cool, and my son was starstruck, man, he couldn’t believe he was shaking Iggy’s hand, y’know? And I’ve always been a huge fan of Iggy’s too, man. He changed my life for the best.
You’ve often spoken about the Stooges show at the World Fair and the influence that had on you.
Yeah, ’69, man. Unbelievable. It changed my life, literally it did. So it was great. And he got an award, he deserves it. He’ll never get it in America, that’s for sure!
Have you read the new biography on him that’s come out?
One of the MOJO guys (Paul Trynka) wrote it. It’s called Open Up and Bleed, you’d really enjoy it.
What’s it called?
Open Up and Bleed.
Okay, cool, I’ll go look for it. It’s out now, right?
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
You’ve often said that the point of Suicide was to throw the streets back at people, instead of entertainment or escapism, is there a similar purpose to your music as Alan Vega, or is it meant to convey a more personal vision?
I can’t help what’s happened. I never thought… I never considered the idea of being an entertainer. That was the whole key to Suicide. People came off the streets, wanting to be entertained. And of course I can’t blame them for that, they wanted to forget their problems too. But what they got from us was, they got the streets back in their face. People would try to flee out of fear at the early shows, or a riot would ensue, y’know. Through the course of the years, and it started, ironically, with touring with the Clash. First we toured with Elvis Costello, this was ’78, in the continent — Europe — and then we got to England. Of course we had so many riots with Elvis, man. So we get to England to open for the Clash and we say, “Wow, this is gonna be great!” Little did I realize I was stepping out of the frying pan and into the fire. It got worse. But after that whole tour, we did our own, I don’t know, 6 or 8 days, tour of England as Suicide. And that’s when the unbelievable happened, man. This was in ’78. First show was in Edinburgh, Scotland. And it was a huge disco ballroom type thing. And we’re playing on this large stage that is very low and you see people… but it was dark in the audience. And at some point around the third or fourth song I remember, man, everybody was starting to move so I went back to Marty and I said, “Marty be careful. Shit is about to happen.”
“Watch out for flying objects, y’know” And I’d pretty much just said that, and this big disco ball.. you know those old disco balls that throw light all over the fucking place? Someone had smacked a light on it or something and it came on and I look out and I see everybody dancing, and I go,” Oh Shit. What am I gonna do now?” I can’t be the provocateur anymore! So I go over to Marty and I say, “Marty, man,” he’s playing away, and I say, “I’m fucked.” [laughter] I say, “Take a look Marty, take a look.” Because he’s behind his shades, and behind the shades his eyes are closed! [laughter] I said, “Marty take a look, they’re fucking dancing. What am I gonna do now?”
And that’s when we went on this tour and wherever we went, Leeds, Liverpool, wherever we went, we were beseiged in the dressing rooms after shows by bands that became Soft Cell, Haircut 100, it was unbelievable, man. Everywhere we went. But it was still not the same in America, of course, we still had shit. But now it’s like, I can’t help it anymore, I can’t do anything to intimidate anymore, man. It’s been this way for awhile. This new audience, it’s a new audience… I remember we went to Texas, we went to Austin, Texas a couple years ago, man, to play Emo’s, the famous country and western club. I was actually probably sitting in the same seat that Willie Nelson and all those guys were. And what Suicide does basically is an hour show, an hour and fifiteen minutes with encores and everything. We came backstage after that show and I looked at my watch, we’d played two-and-a-half fucking hours man! The place was packed. And I couldn’t believe because they kept screaming for another one, another one, and they knew all the fucking words to it. And Marty and I, I think we played out everything we had that night. And I couldn’t believe how long it was. I thought, for Texas, we’re probably going to get killed out here. All the cowboys hats out there! Mexicans! Right in front of the stage there was a couple who’d just gotten married!
Right at the front. They gave me a camera and made me take a picture of them! [laughter] It was unbelievable, man! I began to realize, it’s over. We’re entertainers now. And it’s kind of a relief in a way. But I do miss the old days. But I can’t help that, there’s nothing I can do anymore. And the kids are different, man. They’re conditioned to so much more. They’re exposed to so much more. The shit in the streets alone is so much more intense than when I started. Killings and this and that. It’s getting so much more violent. Suicide compared to what’s in their lives? Forget about it! There’s nothing I can do that’s worse than what they’ve got in their ordinary lives! Unbelievable.
Hold on, lost my place… I notice on your website there’s a lot of new output, both video and audio, Suicide and solo, coming out, is there anything you’d like to highlight?
I never look at my thing, by the way. But I do know that there’s gonna be early Suicide — I don’t know several early shows, ’76 or ’78, that’s coming out. The tribute album’s coming out soon. Our first album again, I don’t know what’s gonna be on it, I think it’s a DVD. Yeah, I don’t keep up with that shit… That’s the Suicide site, right?
Oh good, it’s on there too. I haven’t really looked at it, y’know. I should. [laughter] Like I said, I don’t know how to work the fucking computer! I’m way back! I’m way back. I’m illiterate. I finally understand what illiteracy means. I’m computer illiterate, man. My son knows more shit than I do! He knows much more shit than I do. I get him to open it up for me, for crying out loud! I kind of hate the computer, but I kind of love it, for certain reasons. But for other reasons I hate it. [laughter] It’s the fascist dream, y’know. Keep controlling the media, man. Keep us under control by feeding us all this useless shit that you don’t need to know.
Another side note: How much of an influence was Gene Vincent on you?
Yeah. He influenced that song “Jukebox Baby” that I did. More him than anybody else, I think. Yeah, I still love Gene Vincent. I love rockabilly music. Still do. Still think about doing another one somewhere down the line. Yeah, give another side to rockabilly. That early album I did, which was a hit by the way…
Yeah, nicely done.
A smash, for crying out loud! Never expected. Shit, I never even knew it was happening until I started getting first class treatment on planes. All of a sudden I started going first class, I’m thinking, “Why am I going first class?” No one ever bothered to tell me I have a hit here! Although I did hear it on the radio a couple of times, I should have assumed something was up. But I was so used to all of the bad years with Suicide, I couldn’t believe that sometthing like this was happening, I never expected it. I still make money off of the damn song. It never lets me down. [laughter] It’s still being played all over, y’know. So, yeah, I’d like to give another stab at it.
Who’d I open for… I opened up for Jon Spencer recently, really great guy. So I did my show, an Alan Vega show, and these guys loved it… But Spencer had a whole new band with him (Heavy Trash) and they were doing sort of a rockabilly thing. And I was standing backstage going, “Awww, fuck man. why am I not doing this?” [laughter] I had a tinge of jealousy, man! I’ve been wanting to do it. And I’ve gotta tell you man, he had a great band, he was really into it. I was telling my wife, “Man, if only I could work with him, I could show him to do this and this, make it sound newer, give it a 21st century feel.” My wife says, “Forget about it, man, why would you do that? The guys played great! They were passionate about what they played.” She was right! They loved what they were doing and they were doing it so good and they all had smiles on their faces and they were really, really into it like this great show. And usually, after I do a show, I’ll go out for a little while and check out the band I open for, check them out and after 10-15 minutes I’ll go backstage and cool out. I watched this whole show! It was like, wow, man, this is fucking great! I was getting more pissed by the minute because I wasn’t doing it, man! I wished I was onstage with them, for crying out loud! So fucking great, man. They were so into it and so happy and really into it. That’s what my wife said, “Look, he’s obviously passionate about the music, he loves what he’s doing.” It was obvious.
Yeah, fuck, I’m not going to say anything. Because I get like that. There’s sort of an intellectual side of mine that gets into this mess. I go, I think it can be done this way, I think it can be done that way, why aren’t they doing that? And I get caught up in that bullshit, y’know? Instead of just going, “wow these guys are fucking great.” And they were. They were. I really loved that show. I don’t like that much sometimes. But this was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life. And they’re great guys. He’s a great, great guy. Always been a huge fan of mine. He’s got a quirky side, he tries different things sometimes. He tries new kinds of music, he collaborates with a lot of different people. And if you go down the list of who he worked with… I saw the list one day of who he’s been playing with, I was really surprised. The Jon Spencer you know is what you hear on the mainstream kind of thing, but all of the other things he’s done, the really out-of-the-way kind of things. He’s a cool dude, man. Musically he’s a very… You know the way Bruce ventures into new worlds sometimes? Jon’s like that too. Big time.
With Station, lyrically it’s very dark, with a very bleak, almost hopeless worldview, in contrast to the hope that American Supreme‘s “Child, It’s A New World” offered. Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel?
I tell you man. I don’t know. It’s like, I keep thinking, because you want things really cool… You know something? I wouldn’t give a shit about it, at all, except now I have a kid and that’s…
It’s changed my whole outlook on things, man. I want him to have a better world than I’m seeing around me. It really hurts me, man, because sometimes I think it’s getting worse and worse. I wouldn’t want to be his age, just because of the computer thing, the overload of information and all the activities he has take to part in. Y’know, the choir, the soccer, the baseball. When we were kids we just got a fucking bat and a ball and went outside. No organizations. You know what I mean? We just played on the streets. Stickball. Punchball. After school everybody just came out and we played! Chose teams and boom! Off we go! Now it’s coaches and blah, blah, blah and leagues and this, and I have to take him to soccer practice and baseball practice and the games and… It’s okay, I love it! I don’t care for soccer that much, the game is dry as far as I’m concerned. [laughter] But baseball I love. I used to be a pretty damn good baseball player as a kid! But it’s the fact that it’s so organized, man! The kids should just go out and play! The coaches have to remind them, you’re supposed to be having fun, guys. But how can you be having fun when everything’s so fucking organized?
Every now and then I’ll wake up feeling kind of cool and then I open the newspaper up… I try to avoid the news. I try to hit the Sports page… [laughter] And just let the rest of it go! But with the Sports page, there’s nothing much there. So I have to read something, I’ll read the rest of the newspaper. And then I’m hit with — Iraq, rapes, torture, y’know what I mean? Every page, man! It’s like, what the fuck! I get depressed immediately, man! I’m saying, “Why did I read this shit?” And with my kid, this is what he’s growing up in. You know, when I was his age, parents used to just send us out into the streets! And that was it! Now you can’t even let a kid fucking wander alone anymore. You don’t know what’s going to happen anymore, all these freaking perverts all over the damn place. That didn’t exist in my time! And I grew up in Brooklyn, man, it’s a tough motherfucking place to be growing up in and we didn’t have that kind of shit! And now, living in a nice great neighborhood over here, you can’t believe where I’m living because I can’t… I belong in the Bowery, man! [laughter] In a refrigerator box as my wife tells me, because that’s where I’d be right now if it wasn’t for her, and I believe she’s right! [laughter] I’m living two blocks away from the Stock Exchange for crying out loud! Like I say, stranger in a strange land. I don’t know how I got here! Unbelievable, man. I’ve lived in about thirteen places in Manhattan alone, for crying out loud. How’d I end up here? I don’t know.
So yeah, do I see that light? Awww, man, something in me wants to see it, y’know. I have to be an optimistic in a way. Especially after all those years with Suicide, I probably should have quit after the first year, if I was smart! I don’t know whether I was a sadomasochist or the ultimate optimist! [laughter] Maybe I was both!
There’s the headline for this story right now!
[laughter] Forget the optimist part!
For me, I’ll tell ya man, it’s like, with the joy of this kid, and I go into the studio, man, no matter how funky or fucked up I feel some nights, I go in there and I start making music and I walk out always feeling great. There’s something in music, man, that’s — and art too — it’s like, I work on that shit and stuff actually gets done and comes out and I look at it and I go, “How the hell did I do that?” Or I look at something like, Henry Rollins put out that poetry book of mine… What’s it called?
Right. Cripple Nation. Y’know, I scribble, I write with pens, pencils on paper and I write late at night, y’know, and look at it the next morning and most of it’s shit but you find these little gems. For every hundred lines, you get two words and those two words can be… like your headline, y’know, and a song comes from it. So I’m used to looking at it like that. But then all of a sudden, y’know, when you look at it in print, you go, woah. And then I started reading the shit, and I’m going, “I did this?” Y’know what I’m saying? Some of it’s not bad! Y’know, it’s like, shit, I wrote that? You look at it in a book, a real book, and it’s in nice print, it gives it that aura of… cool. Y’know what I mean, man? [laughter] Whereas before it was just a scribble on a fucking page, man! I’d wipe my ass with those things!
Oh my god!
Y’know? Not really, but you know what I’m saying. I’ve got thousands of these things lying around! I’ve been saving all this shit and I don’t know why, but, suddenly it gets in a book like that… It’s that way with my music sometimes. Y’know as a musician you can’t really listen to your album once you’re done with it. Like Station, I have no idea what it is in a way but I listen to some of these things like five years later and I go, “Holy fucking shit!” You really begin to hear it for the first time in your life. It’s like, I had this album called Deuce Avenue…
Great album. Very industrial.
Yeah. Right? In fact, it’s funny, because with ARE Weapons, doing that show, they happened to mention that Deuce Avenue was a great album. And Liz did a lot on that one. She did a lot of the sounds…
Yeah. I remember listening to it a couple of years ago. I hadn’t listened to it for awhile and I went, How the fuck did I do that? How did I get that sound? I don’t remember how I did it! Sounds in there that I’m going like, what the fuck? Y’know what I mean, man? How’d I do this shit? I started to hear it for the first time. That’s what’ll happen with Station. Five years from now I’ll listen to it and go, holy shit! I hope.