Suicide and You
Note: This is the second part of a two-part interview. You can view the first part here.
What were some of the influences that made you want to start making music, and even the live performance end of it, in the beginning?
Well, I was a visual artist first, ya know? And by the late ’60s I was already doing electronic music with tapes and stuff because I was really into LaMonte Young and Terry Riley and those guys. It was when I saw Iggy Pop, that’s what did it for me. That changed my life pretty much. One night, this friend calls me up at about 2 in the morning, there was this really great radio show on every night from 2 till 6, it was run by this person called the Nightbird, Allison Steele, she used to play the most amazing music in the world. That’s why it was on from 2 to 6 in the morning! Anyway, this friend calls me up and says, Alan, turn on the radio, turn on the radio! So I turn it on, and there’s this crazy I WANNA BE YOUR… ya know! And there’s this beautiful wah-wah guitar, which I’ve always loved, wah wah guitar. It was Ronnie Asheton. I knew nothing about the Stooges, and it turns out the next night they were opening up for the MC5 at this place, ya know. I saw him in 1969 in what was the only building left in the World’s Fair… 1968 or 1969 in the New York State Pavilion Building. And they had these free concerts all summer long, and it was an amazing scene. It was a circular-shaped building, and it was over the top. And it was in this big park, this huge park, it stretched for miles and miles, I forget the name of this park in Queens. So my friend and I, we went down and that was it! I knew nothing about Iggy, I had no idea what it was all about. I went basically there to see the band and to see Ronnie Asheton play guitar. And there was Iggy! And that blew me away! It was just like, I can’t be the same anymore, ya know what I mean? And the last place I ever thought I’d be spending my life was onstage, ya know what I mean?
Every now and then you think about your life, what you would like to be, you start at Number 1 and you go down to 100. And down at the bottom, 100, was — Stage. Go figure. That would be the last thing. It terrified me, man. But I had to do it. Cuz Iggy… the thing was just… he broke down the audience/stage thing. He broke it down completely! It was like an environmental piece of art. He changed the whole thing, right then and there, that night. And I realized, if I’m gonna be a true artist to myself, I just have to follow in this new direction. It was crazy, man, it was like that fork in the road! Every now and then in life, life presents you with a fork in the road, ya know? And you could stay on that nice, safe, secure one that you’re very comfortable with, and live out the rest of your life that way. Or you take the chance. And that’s the gamble. Life is a gamble. And I took a chance, man. And here I am, talkin’ to you today, thirty years later, wondering what the hell I did in the first place! Why didn’t I go the other way? It would have been better and easier! When they asked Einstein what he would preferred to have done for an occupation, he always said, to be a plumber. [laughs] That’s what I should have done!
What influenced your… I don’t want to make it sound too calculated, but what influenced some of the costumes you wore back then? Because some of that shit was insane!
I know! You know something, man, every now and then I look through The Book — I have great photos with all kinds of rock stars. Ya know what I mean, like all that… Ric Ocasek and Billy Idol and all… I have all these pictures of me with these people, and the way I dressed and the way I looked in those days, and I always say the same thing: What the fuck was I thinking? Ya know what I’m saying, what was I thinking about? Ya know what I mean? [laughs] Why was I looking like that? But then, you think about it then… It’s easy for me to say that now, now I’m a father, I’ve got a four-and-a-half year old boy, I’m a different person. Well, I’m still the same person, but I’m different. I’m older, you wouldn’t catch me dead looking like that ever again, ya know. Although I still think I look pretty funny. I’ve started doing some new stuff onstage now. But then, that’s the way it was then. You had to look the part, I guess. It was a way of trying to make some money, I guess. It was a way of trying to belong. I don’t know, man, it was just playing a role too.
I got signed to Elektra Records, I had a hit song with “Jukebox Babe” and suddenly I’m a “rock star”… in quotes, put that in quotes! I never thought of myself as that, that was the funny thing, man. I never saw myself as that, but there I was, because suddenly you’re touring around and your poster is everywhere, and you’re on all the major TV and radio stations, and you’re still going, what’s going on here? Because deep within me, I said fuck, this ain’t me, man. In fact, if you listen to one of my songs on Elektra Records, it’s on Just A Million Dreams, there’s a song called “On The Run,” and there’s a line that goes, “What’s goin’ wrong/ This ain’t my song.” Which is basically what it was, this ain’t my song, man, this ain’t my life! And when I finally got dumped from Elektra, which was pretty good, though at the time it was kinda painful, I just turned things around. I just kinda said, wait, where did I come from, where did I lose myself? This wasn’t really the trip for me, ya know what I mean? This wasn’t where I was coming from. Suicide was my thing.
As Alan Vega I started to redo my thing from there. I got lucky enough to meet my wife then too, which was great, great. She’s a great lady, and it was a very hard time in my life… I just said fuck it man, I’m going back to where I belong! Cuz I just got on this bandwagon… Ya know, you’re making money, you’re famous, you’re surrounded by all kinds of girls, ya know what I’m saying, man. In a way it was really wonderful, and in a way it was terrible because I was always surrounded by people, I never had any time to be alone. I’d be surrounded by this entourage. I loved it and hated it, there were these two sides to me. So I got out of the Elektra thing and I just started to go back, and just started up with this new electronica stuff. And I did that for a solo record, Deuce Avenue, ya know? I think that’s one of my best things, ya know?
That’s a good album.
That is a good album, man. It really is. I listen to it every now and then, and I’m just like, wow. I wonder how I even did it! If you saw the equipment we had… I was going into a really low-rent studio with hardly any kind of equipment, and I don’t know how I got anything out of there, but I did! That was part of the greatness of it, ya know what I mean? It was great getting back to that thing again, and now I’m more myself. But I know what you’re saying, man, I look back at those days, I look back at those pictures and I really do go, what the fuck was I thinking?? Ya know what I mean, I do!
I never would have thought that! [laughs]
I really do! Though I looked pretty good then! I tell ya, man, the way I look now compared to the way I looked then, I’m going like, oh shit!
Rock n’ roll has really ruined this… [laughs] I didn’t die young and I didn’t leave a pretty corpse! That’s what people suggest to me now. That’s what people in England do, how did these old guys get out here? They’ve got that whole age thing in England now.
Oh yeah, it’s like 25 and you’re done, as far as rock n’ roll is concerned…
Yeah, and you have to retire at fifty. So sad, sometimes it’s the prime of peoples’ lives, man. Especially in this day and age, ya know, everyone’s living longer.
And they have that weird term for it, redundancy.
Yeah. You should see some of the reviews of our show. They tear you apart. They love you, they love the stuff, that’s the funny thing. They love it, but they’ve got to tear into you about the way you look. They’re real good at that, the English.
It’s those little lines that are just tossed off, right?
Yeah! I would read you some of these… They’ve always been like that. It’s been like that since the late Eighties. They started on me… It looks like Marty and Al are on vacation…
That was the one, we came out of retirement… that kind of thing “Old geezers.” They got off the geezer thing, now it’s just a bunch of “old farts.” But they talk about the great shows we put on, and yet they have to stick you with this other thing, which is just so stupid, who cares?
But, no, I do look back at those pictures and I go, man, shit, I looked good in those days. Now I look like shit! Now I look like I’m getting older, man! But whatever, I’m a daddy now, ya know? I’ve got no use for it now, I’ve got to look older! I’ve got to look fatherly!
I’ve got to ask you a couple questions about your art installations. I’ve seen some pictures of the installations. How do you construct pieces like these? I’ve never….
I just put ’em together. I just do it. Some of it requires carpentry, like literally screws and nails and hammers and saws and bigger wooden pieces. The other things are just done with wiring… just wire to wire, man. Different kinds of wires have different kinds of tensions, and you can do a lot of amazing things by winding wire around things, ya know? It holds a lot of weight. You just put lights up. I’m a good electrician, so… It looks difficult, but it isn’t really.
And I… Sometimes I wonder about it too! Well, the Deitch show was funny because some of these pieces were like 16 and 17 feet high, and the spaces I put it together in were like only 10 feet tall. So I built it in half, and hoped when I put it together when it got to the gallery that it would be all right! And fortunately they were; it was like a chess game, you have to figure out ahead of time how it’s gonna look, ya know? So that turned out to be pretty amazing.
I have to agree with you, sometimes I look at some of my art and I go, how the hell did I do that? But while I’m doing it, you get into a… It’s a lot of work, man, it’s a lot of physical work and a lot of time-consuming work, like stripping wire, putting all these sockets together… But I would get into like a Zen thing… it was like I have to do it, I have to do it. And it’s like knitting or any of these other kinda boring things, you get into a rhythm and after a while you don’t even know you’re in a rhythm, and a few hours later you go, wow, it’s done! You know, you first start and you’re like, oh no, I don’t wanna do this, I know it’s gonna be three or four hours, I just don’t wanna do it! But somewhere you get into a rhythm and then you go, I have to, because if I don’t do it, then it’s not gonna get done, and I won’t have a show! I’m the only one here who can do it! So you get into a trancelike state with it. It just happens as you’re working, and you stop bitching, and you work. Then next thing you know, it’s three hours later, and you’re done, your arms are aching like crazy, your shoulders and everything else. Your fingers are bleeding, but it’s like, wow, it’s done! And that’s kind of a nice feeling at the end of it all. You start out bitching and moaning but you end up with a good feeling at the end. Then you hope and pray as you put the lights in them.
I’ve been doing this for so long already, that I sort of know what I want. Like a painting, you sort of know what the colors are, and you hope for the best. Always, you hope for the best, you never know with art. All the greatest plans of mice and men, man… and whatever the end of it. You might end up with a piece of shit there. You thought, oh, this is gonna be great. Then sometimes you think, oh, this is gonna be shit, and it turns out great, sometimes the other way around.
It’s like doing shows. Some nights you’re feeling great, and you’re gonna go and do a great show, but you throw a bummer in. Some nights I walk out half dead and I go, oh this is gonna be terrible, and I’ll end up doing the greatest show of my life, ya know? You never know, man. You gotta hope for the best sometimes. It’s about the best you can do! [laughs] Really, art is funny that way, I’ve often said that Suicide is running Marty and I right now, ya know? It’s like, that’s the art form. I don’t know if you ever did any art, but I remember with painting, for two-thirds or three-quarters of a painting, you do it all. Ba ba pa! You’re painting away happily, and then all of a sudden it’s telling you what to do. You can’t put a certain color in that space, you can’t put a certain shape in that space! The painting says you must put a blue in there, and it has to be a square. It starts telling you what to do, and I feel like Suicide is like this entity that’s telling Marty and I, YOU HAVEN’T DONE A RECORD IN TEN YEARS! It’s a big voice from the sky… or down below, I don’t know! It’s like, DO IT NOW! It’s like something outside of us, man. And it came out at such a perfect time, if you think about it. It started before this 9-11 thing, and now we’re in the middle of this Iraq thing, it spans the time we made it, the time it’s coming out. It seems so relevant, it’s scary.
For these visual pieces… When I saw them, I was really, really happy because whenever you think of “Rock Star Does Art” you think of some really crappy David Bowie painting or something…
Oh yeah, I’ve been saying it for years but nobody believes me! David Bowie thinks he knows a lot about art… I remember this one time, he was on this show with Julian Schnabel, on Charlie Rose. So they’re talking about art, and I’m going, David… please. But Julian really knows his shit. He really knows about art, he’s a great artist. David Bowie’s like yammering on about this shit. Julian calls me like a couple months after that thing and he goes, “did you see that show Alan?” And I go, yeah, “David was kinda stupid.” He says the same thing! “What did you think about that show?” I said, “Julian please, he doesn’t know anything, he really doesn’t!” He’s a great performer though, his early stuff is amazing. But after that… he hasn’t done anything in twenty years, ya know? But his art? Forget about it, I never liked it. It’s crap. Sorry David!
I’m sure he’ll take it in stride… Is this art something you’re going to focus a lot more of your energy on now that you’re getting these shows?
It’s funny you asked me that, I was just thinking about that today! Because the show in Holland, I’m dying to do it. [Art dealer Jeffrey] Deitch said he wants to like… this is gonna be a long term thing. I haven’t seen him follow up with anything, there’s this Cartier thing and some other things. I sold this big piece for a lot of money. That was cool, but that was it, one large piece, a floor piece. But it’s funny, before I got into the Deitch thing, for years I was struggling with photography, trying to find something with that. Before this Deitch thing came out, I was really starting to get somewhere with it, after thirty years of trying to do this shit. I was always the lousiest photographer, man. And I was painting too. I was always a lousy painter. I had hang-ups with painting. The last year or two, though, I was painting, I was finally having fun with it and everything was going good! I got release from it. I think maybe I was too intellectual about painting, ya know? I was taught to be a painter, I learned from some really great teachers, and then you have to spend the rest of your life unlearning what they taught you, ya know? I never really learned music, I took some courses but I never really learned to play an instrument. I never wanted to because I didn’t want to have to unlearn something.
I wanted to come to music with a pure head and not be buckled down by chords and notes and blah, blah, blah. All that stuff, all that excess baggage. I got all that as a visual artist, I went to art school, ya know? I studied physics too, I got some kind of degree in physics with it. But I got so intellectual about it that I got hung up on it. I got into sculpture through painting actually. It was a lucky break. I couldn’t handle that flat surface, the concept of the flat surface. It’s all they used to talk about. Flat surface. It drove me nuts!
It took me until about three years ago, I was doing a video with this guy, and we passed by an art supply store — we were filming in the street, and I went in and I was like, wow, this is great! The smells, the smell of paint, it reminded me of being a student again, man. It got me really excited! So I bought some canvas and paint, and I just started painting and things just started coming out like great, because I didn’t give a shit. And I just painted for fun! I said, I’m not gonna show this anywhere, who cares? Who cares if nobody sees it? I don’t give a shit, it’s not gonna be for public consumption, I’m just gonna do it! And the stuff was coming out great! And then I started getting into this photography thing, and I took pictures of light and all kinds of… I was getting these amazing things happening, but it wasn’t really happening, and then the Deitch show came up, and then the Suicide thing came up, and I did an album with VVV [side project with members of Pan Sonic]…
So yesterday and today I started thinking, man, I’d love to get back to that thing again, but I’ve been so busy lately! I’ve been frustrated lately. It’s really crazy, I’ve been frustrated and I’m trying to figure out why. I think it’s because of that thing. I was on a good roll and then I had to stop, and now it’s gonna take me some time to get back. What was I thinking about, then, ya know? I’m gonna have to rethink that, get back to where I was, and go from there, because I was in a good place. And I was getting some nice things happening. And then it was just… I had hundreds and hundreds of pictures done! And, ya know, maybe ten of them were good, but those ten were like, where did this come from? So I was heading into this really nice place and then it all got stopped last August… not this August, but the August before. So it’s been a long run and I just think about trying to get back again because I’m really busy with Suicide and trying to be a father and… all kinds of stuff.
But it’s all sort of intertwined… the way you approach Suicide and the way you approach your art…
No, this is serious stuff, man. This is my life, People say, aren’t you gonna retire? And I go, how can you think that? Retire! I do art like I take a shit or I eat. It’s my life. It’s the same with music, art, it’s all the same. I write poetry. I write every night, basically.
Yeah… I did some this morning. Usually it’s one word or two words, you just keep going! I hear something somebody said to me, and I’m like, wow that’s great! Or some nights I’ll write twenty pages. Most of it’s shit but you’ll find a line or two in there that’s worth it. It’s good to keep in a flow all the time. I heard, that guy Liszt, the composer, he used to play the practice… What do you call it?
Scales! Every day he’d wake up and that would be the first thing he’d do every day for a couple hours, play the scales. As great as he was… One of the greatest keyboardists of all time, he’d play the scales every day for two hours. I played the trumpet for a while and you have to play every day for like an hour or so. You have to keep your lips good and your breath, and that’s why I gave it up after three years. I said fuck it, it’s like being in the Marines! You have to do it religiously otherwise… if you miss a day, it takes you three or four days to build it up again. It’s the same thing with writing, man, it’s the same thing, if you let it go for too long, it’s hard to get it going again. And like everything else, it’s good to try and keep it going every day — even if it’s a word! Even if it’s one word, ya know?
I always keep like notebooks and pencils, it was Ric Ocasek who got me into that, ya know… Because I used to do these albums, and he’s the first one who said, hey man, you’re a poet! And I said, what?? [laughs] Yeah, whoever said I was a poet? I’m trying to write lyrics for the albums here, man! And he said, Al you should really… I throw everything away after every record! He said, look, you should never do that, because you never know when you might run dry in the future, later on. I said, yeah, I think you’re right! I know about that, I know about running dry sometimes. Then I just started keeping a book around all the time. Anytime something would come up, I’d just write it down. Some nights, like I said, I’ll write ten or twenty pages, and some nights, two words, ya know? So I have to keep it going. Because it seems like I’m always busy doing things, making an album, or putting lyrics on other people’s songs… I’m a gun for hire, man!
These albums, man, they have no singers on these things… gun for hire…
So this is something that’s gonna keep going until you drop dead, right?
Probably, I imagine so. Either drop dead or I become paralyzed or I can’t use my hands… I don’t know. I mean I love doing it! There are some days I hate doing it, of course. Some days it’s like, aw fuck this shit, ya know? But I love it, man! I love starting projects that begin in one place, and then end up in another place that you can’t even imagine how it got there, ya know what I mean? You start a project, or you start a record, or a sculpture and you envision the beginning of it, but you also envision what it’s supposed to look like at the end of the thing, and then you finish it, and whether it was a song or an album or a sculpture — and it’s something where you’re looking at it and going, where did this thing come from, then I know I’ve been successful! Pushing myself beyond… it’s like, my father always used to say, you have no patience! You have no patience, no nothing!
I’m like that, once I get to one place, I can’t stay there for too long, ya know? That’s why I can’t do the lyrics the same every night. It’s like I already did those lyrics. Another day, another lyric. It’s like life, ya know? Today is not like it was yesterday, and tomorrow, I don’t know what it’s gonna be like. I just like climbing to the next mountain, and finding out what’s there. Once I climb one, I say, okay, that’s nice, cool, time to move on. And I always do that purposely. I like to jolt myself like that. And like I say, when an album gets done and it comes out being like, where did this come from, I say, wow, that’s great! I’m in a new place, a place I never expected to be. And you get that from pushing yourself. You just don’t relax on your laurels, ya know what I mean? You just don’t say, oh well, I’m SUICIDE! I’ve been around for thirty years! I’m Alan Vega! A-ha! Big shit! That and a buck-fifty will get me on the subway, ya know what I mean? I can’t stand that, man. I just don’t see myself like that! I feel like a scientist more than anything else, like an experimenter.
You never stop learning, ever, in your life. You know the expression, you never stop learning, once you think you’ve seen it all… Like, I’ll walk out of here fifteen minutes from now, I’ll walk out onto the street and I’ll see something I’ll never have seen before in my life, ya know? New York is like that. Life is like that. And it’s real easy to go, wow, I’m in a good place right now… Like where I am right now, I have a pretty decent place, I make a few bucks, got a great wife, a great kid, living nice for the first time in my life! But for me it’s not enough, ya know what I mean, man? I could relax on my laurels now, say, hey it’s been a great life, pal, see ya! Put my thirty years in, got my name in the books, in the history books. I did my job… But that’s not the end, man, it’s only the beginning! I don’t know what’s out there yet. I still don’t know anything. It’s like the last song on the album, “I Don’t Know.” For all that I do know, I’ve realized that I don’t know anything.
Yeah, it’s like, when I go through these punk coffee table books they have these days…
We’re in a couple of those!
They have like the one Alan Vega page, but like the ninety Sex Pistols pages, and it’s like, there’s more to it than just this…
Oh yeah, I know! I know. Every now and again I get this thing — Hey Al, you’re a has-been! How can I be a has-been when I’m a never-was? [laughs] But it’s a funny thing when you think about it — it’s good in a way because we were ignored for so long as Suicide. Like the coffee table books that came out in the ’80s and ’90s, we weren’t even in them, which was really ridiculous considering the number of bands that we’ve influenced. And now we’re showing up finally. Now they finally caught on to what Suicide was really doing. And it took 30 years, but it’s okay to see you in the same book with Elvis and the Stones, ya know what I mean? I can show this to my kids someday and go, hey, look what your dad did! First time that ever happened to me was in the ’80s, the late ’80s, there was this Rolling Stone in France that put out the Top 100 Artists Ever, and here I was at Number 33 or something! I couldn’t believe it when people showed it to me! At 33 I was one ahead of Jim Morrison and one below, I forget who it was… but the first 14 or 15 were like the Stones, Elvis Presley, the real big ones, ya know? And there I’m sitting at 33 going, how the fuck did this happen? Ya know what I mean, it blew me away, man!
Or the day… talking about the Pompidou, man, I gotta tell you a funny story about the Pompidou! I used to always live in that area around the Pompidou. I spent a lot of time in Paris, and there’s a shop across the street from the Pompidou that sells all these old Fifties rock n’ roll guys postcards. And I get ’em every year I go there — the new Elvis ones, Duane Eddy, all those. One day I see a picture, a black and white… and I go, oh no… and they’re all dead, those guys, by the way… and I see this picture and I do a double-take and I go wait a second, is that me?? Holy shit! Where? How the fuck? No! What? Really, I was totally confused! I was going, is this me? It looks like me man! It can’t be me because these other guys are like… Did I die??? Did I die in Paris and somebody forgot to tell me that I died?? I turn over to the back, and there it is, Alan Vega, man! It turns out the picture was taken in London by a French guy, oddly enough. No color, black and white… It was really scary, to see yourself with all of these dead guys. I really thought that I was dead!! I really did, so help me god! I thought I’d died and they all forgot to tell me! [laughs]. It’s really weird shit, man! I’ll never forget that moment, man! My hearts started pounding, believe me. I made it into the Pantheon of Dead Rock n’ Rollers, man!
Talking about Bowie and Iggy Pop and all that… My friends will always make these lists of who’s still creative, who’s not a prisoner to the nostalgia train as far as rock music… And Suicide seems to still be at a very pure point with the music… It’s strange…
It’s crazy, that’s what it is! Henry Rollins said recently, “Isn’t it weird that one of the longest-standing groups of all time is a band called Suicide?” It’s beautiful, man! The full irony. I love it, man. The greatest cosmic joke of all time. We do it because we’re getting better, man, we’re just getting better, that’s what it is. That’s what sustains us.
And you’re still taking in new sounds… Many bands at your age would have closed off all new input… But hip-hop? At this stage in your career? That’s good shit….
Yeah… I know. That’s what I was saying before about discovery, man. That’s what really turns me on more than anything else, man. I really love finding out new things, I’ve always been that way. I was always sticking my fingers in where they shouldn’t belong. As a kid, I was like, curious as hell, ya know? Getting into places I shouldn’t have gotten into, suffering an amazing amount of injuries because of it. But I’ve always been like that, and I still am. And Marty’s the same way. That’s why we do what we do together too. And we do our own things too, that’s what keeps Suicide so alive as well. Because if we just did Suicide all along, we probably would have killed each other by now! We’re brothers, but as artists, that would have been a death threat. There are so many ideas he wants to incorporate that we really can’t. And there are so many things that I want to incorporate into Suicide that we really can’t either because Marty doesn’t want it or I don’t want it. Suicide has its own thing, but we do our own things and that’s what keeps us going, and that’s what keeps Suicide going too. We’re able to express those things in other ways, not through Suicide, otherwise it would have imploded Suicide.
Suicide has it’s own thing, and we keep it that way, like a democracy kind of thing. We both have to agree on everything that we do. If one doesn’t like it, it’s gone. Ya know what I mean? If Marty doesn’t like an idea — gone! If I don’t like an idea — gone! We don’t fight about it, we don’t discuss it — it’s gone. And we maintain… He’s a brother, man. He’s like a blood brother! Thirty years…
American Supreme is out now on Mute Records. Bow and worship.