‘Keep those dreams burnin forever’, sand Alan Vega in ‘Dream Baby Dream’, an impassioned entreaty to the romantic urge recorded by his pioneering electronic band, Suicide, three decades ago. Now 71, the redoubtable singer and ‘light sculptor’ is still pushing inexorably forward. Here, he reveals just how he sets about fashioning transcendent music and artworks from glamour and detritus of New York City and explains what it takes to keep those dreams burnin‘. “We’ve been here for almost 40 years now”, he tells Paul Nataraj. “We’ve haven’t committed suicide yet.”
At the start of the ’70s, up and coming art graduate Alan Vega was working out of The Project of Living Artists, a Warhol Factory-style venue in downtown New York City that he’d co-founded in 1968. It was here that he met sometime free-jazzer Marty Rev and formed seminal electronic punk dup Suicide. Vega and Rev came out of an art/music crossover that was as dirty, aggressive and raw as the city itself. Using just a broken keyboard and antediluvian drum box , they would crystallise the boho quintessence of their surroundings. Taking inspiration from Elvis and The Stooges, they were as cult as The Velvet Underground and toured with the Clash, yet Suicide sounded like no one else and remain impossible to recognise. Ahead of their time, they were part band, part art project and pushed even the most cutting edge punk rock beyond its ‘alternative’ boundaries. Suicide gigs were legendary; Vega incited the audience, kicking over tables, stabbing cigarettes out on his arm and cutting his face with a blade. In response, oh-so enlightened punk fans lobbed bottles at the duo, outraged that they had dared take the stage without guitars. But, by the time their first album was released, in 1977. Suicide had set the blueprint for the future of electronic music, their shimmering hymns to glamour, sex and salvation going on to influence everyone from Soft Cell and The Pet Shop Boys to The Jesus & Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, Spiritualised and Primal Scream, not to mention auguring an entire musical genre: electroclash.
If Alan Vega ditched guitars, bass and drums to force New York’s music scene in a new direction, his use of light, plastic and found objects did the same in his art. Vega’s light sculptures were not executed in a Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman ‘conceptual’ way, nor was he attempting to make something radical for its own sake. Instead, he was literally pulling objects from the world around him and making formal sense out of them. Discarded TV sets, wires, drawings, pop culture ephemera, lights and semi-functioning electrical equipment were arranged into unique sound and light installations. This presaged ’80s scatter art and likewise predated the work artists like Sarah Sze and Tomoko Takahashi would show in museums some 20 years later. Vega was exhibiting his ‘sculptures’ at O.K. Harris Works of Art in 1974 when he caught the eye of the influential critic Jeffrey Deitch, who was shocked by the rough and ready materials but saw a clear, individualistic talent. Dietch remained a devoted fan (and gave Vega a solo spot in his gallery in 2002). Other than a show at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery, in 1984, Vega’s art has, historically, taken a back seat to his music. In 2009, chiming with renewed interest in Suicide, the Musee d’art comtemporian de Lyon staged a Vega retrospective; now his light sculptures are en route for London and a show at the ISIS Gallery.
Paul Nataraj: You met Martin Rev- and Suicide was conceived- at the Project of Living Artists in the early ’70s. Can you tell us a little about that scene and what was happening there?
Alan Vega: There were about five of us, who got a grant from New York state’s Council of the Arts, and we kept this place [the Project of Living Artists] open on Waverly and Broadway, for 24 hours a day. Anybody who thought they were an artist was able to do whatever it is they did. We got a lot of crazies in there, but that was OK. We just allowed everybody; we got some great jazz that couldn’t [otherwise] get a place to play; you got everything, just everything. I kinda ended up sleeping there; that was my home, for a while. I slept in a sleeping bag, didn’t have any bed or anything. So, we had shows, and, eventually, I had a show there and this guy Ivan Carp saw it and he said, “Who’s this guy? I wanna give you a show.” Usually, you had to writ three years, but he said, “I’ll give you a show in three weeks, are you ready?” I said, “Yeah, I’m ready, man!” Then, we got into the whole Suicide thing. Marty was into free jazz. The Reverend B was the name of hi stand, and I actually sat in and jammed with those guys once or twice with just a tambourine or mouth organ. Marty was kinda through with that whole jazz thing. He had so many pieces in that, maybe 16 or 20 pieces, and he had an electric keyboard. He was the first guy in the whole jazz scene that was using an electric keyboard. But [the band also] had all these saxes, trumpets, drummers and this and that… then suddenly we [Suicide] were just two guys. I needed a change from this whole art thing, although I kept up with it- it’s something I just do- but I knew it had to go somewhere else, into more of an environmental thing. We wanted to change the whole music scene; the idea of, like, drums and lead guitar was finished for all we were concerned. So Marty ended up playing keyboard; he played the melodic line on one hand and the bass line on the other, and he even played some drums at first. He kept a sort of snare by the side, so he hit that. Then we found the drum machine, and that became Suicide, man, out of cheapness- we didn’t have any money. We bought all these Electro Harmonix [effects] boxes to boost the sound coming out of an old Japanese keyboard. We couldn’t even get a sound out of that, so we had to use treble boosters, bass boosters…. you name it; put ’em in sequence, and that created [the] Suicide [sound], and then the drum machine: boom, history!
PN: The eponymous first album has such immediacy and an intense visceral quality; in some ways it doesn’t even sound like it’s been recorded; it seems to transcend the platform. How did you achieve this?
AV: We went into a studio in upstate New York which, ironically, had a board [mixing desk] that was used on one of Bruce Springsteen’s records. It was, like, 16 tracks, and they transported the board from [New] Jersey and put it in this studio. It was way out of the way, it was crazy. We kinda recorded it live; we had two guys produce it, one guy [Craig Leon], quit, he became a big time producer in London and we were stuck with Marry Thau [Leon’s Instant Records production partner] who became our first manager at the time. But we recorded live and then spent forever mixing it and putting things on, you know a few overdubs. We changed the lyrics on ‘Frankie Teardrop’, I think, but basically it was recorded live, right then and there. It probably tok us a day or two to record the whole album, so it had that immediacy about it, which was what I really wanted.
PN: Can you explain the relationship between New York and Suicide?
AV: It’s the subway, the street sounds… it’s just the atmosphere. It was a pretty bad tim, in those days. I think Lilly [Lydia] Lunch put it succinctly when they asked her, “Which album of the ’70s was most like New York at that time?” and she said, “Suicide“. It was and still is. It was funny, when R.E.M. decided to do a cover of ‘Ghost Rider’ [a track from Vega and Rev’s debut] they didn’t understand Suicide at all. It was, “How do we do this thing?” Then, one or two of the guys [from the band] when into the subway in New York City; they said, “Now we understand Suicide.” So, it’s just us, Marty and I, living in New York all our lives; you can’t get away from that. People have always tried to explain Suicide; I call it all kinds of things, but I always says it’s “Country & Eastern music”, you know. It’s like the antithesis of the Beach Boys. It is New York, the street sounds, the street life, the noise, the poverty, the food we eat, the subway… everything about it.
PN: You were a visual artist before you were musicians, and now you’re very much both things. How do you see the relationship between art and music?
AV: As I look at it, it’s probably all the same. It’s the electricity of the lights; it’s the electricity of the music. I know when my art first came out, in the early ’70s, the critic, Jeffrey Ditch, believe it or not, was a buyer for the Citibank, or whatever, and it was, like, the craziest thing he’d ever seen in his life, in the entire art world, you know. So maybe between the Suicide thing and the art thing- the art being the craziest thing in the world, and the music being the craziest thing in that world- it was just the same imprint, the same fingerprint. I can’t be specific about it. I see light as electricity; I see light as music. That was especially true in the early days when I was using on and off switches a lot [in the fine art]- it had a beat, and the music had a beat. When I do the music, I see the lights, you know, coming from the music. It’s almost like Suicide under an umbrella. As a singer, I feel freer when I’m doing something with Suicide. To me, it all has the same energy.
PN: Your singing beautifully parodies Elvis, while your art uses a great deal of collaged Americana- images of Marilyn Monroe and so on. Can you explain why you use these iconic images and sounds?
AV: Elvis was something I grew up with, man, you know, I had to put on an Elvis record to get me the fuck out of the house to go to school, literally. Marilyn came later; it wasn’t only America pop, I was very much into French cinema, for a while, all the pop images out of that, and I always loved pop music in a way. People often ask, “What is a Suicide record?” It’s got the rockability, it’s got the Country & Eastern thing, the pop thing, and if you look at the first album it’s basically all portraits of people. It’s just part of me growing up. I mean, I read the classics, I read a lot of shit, man, you know, but I tell you I had to hide it. My mom didn’t want to see me doing it. I read the comic books, too. I loved the comic books, man; I used to have to hide while reading them. While I was [first] reading Dickens, I hated Dickens, now I love him. I had to read this for school, you know, so I ended up reading a lot and I got into college. I read, oh, everything, all the greats and all the shit, and I was always reading comic books as well. I was reading Marvel comics, and they had a series called Ghost Rider. This particular issue said something like ‘Satan’s Suicide’, and it was at that point we were trying to come up with a name [for the band], me and Marty and a friend of ours. Howie. And then, one day, I was sitting there with the comics, tis Ghost Rider thing with [the] ‘Satan’s Suicide’ [strip in it], and then Marty says to me, “Let’s just call it Suicide“, and I said, “Oh yeah, that’s it!” that was the band; we are Suicide, it’s about not our suicide, but the world’s suicide. Obviously we’ve been here [as the band] for almost 40 years now, for crying out loud; we haven’t committed suicide yet, you know! So it was supposed to be, “What’s going on,” you know. We were trying to say, “Hey, the whole world’s doing itself in so, maybe that’s what the kids see now, too.”
PN: Crucifixes have always been prevalent in your sculpture; can you tell us about the importance of this symbol in your work?
AV: I used to study art history a lot, and I began to notice that everything is based on a cross, the whole composition of most masterpiece paintings, through the centuries, is based on the cross. As we know, in life there’s no such thing as a straight line, it’s all curved anyway. That’s where you get the idea of the French curve… But all the way I see it, we see things, in a very minuscule way, we see everything as a cross, you know. So I started, man, and the connotation of it… it’s so universal. It means so many things; it’s where two lines meet infinity, it has the whole religious thing, the Catholic thing or whatever, and the whole compositional thing. You start with a cross and you work your way from that. At time I break away from the cross, but I like the feeling of it, it gives a certain sense of something. I hate to use the world religious, because I’m not very religious, but I don’t know exactly what it is. Again, it’s just what you do when you do your thing; it’s the mystery of the thing.
PN: Can you tell us a little bit about the use of wood and objects from the New York streets in your sculpture?
AV: One day, it was funny, this was in the ’80s, I think, I was gonna do a big show for [US gallery owner] Barbara Gladstone and I was working on all these pieces. I walked outside from where I had a loft studio, and right outside the door was this huge fucking piece, with all letters on and everything. I said immediately, “That’s it, that’s beginning of a new piece,” you know what I mean? I’ll [often] walk around and look at piece of wood or this and that, and wires… you can find a lot of shit in the street in New York, man, and you can tell almost right away if this is gonna happen. I mean, I still have stuff lying around from years and years ago; wires, wood and this and that. It was going to be part of something that’s not part of something that’s not part of anything right now, but I always ultimately find a place for it. So, it starts from there, yeah, and the music starts from there, I guess, too, from the streets of New York, or what I hear on the radio or hear on records. Then it gets twisted into my thing.
PN: Can you tell us about the use of light in your work and how you started to use this medium?
AV: I get a lot of lights beforehand, you know, a lot of different colours, as many different shapes. I’ve also started using a lot more wood, and wire; I love exposed wire. So I get all these different kind of grades of wire and then it’s like a painting or something. I actually started out as a painter and just said, “Fuck this”; I can’t stand the flat surface. I was doing a giant purple painting and I had one light bulb in the ceiling and the colour would change and I finally said, “Fuck it”, I’m going to take the light bulb and put it on the canvas. So I had a definite colour and that led me into the whole sculpture thing, too. But I think, whether it’s an art or a musical idea, it starts from nothing. The other day I was going, “Why am I doing all this shit?”, it’s like you know, why was I bothering? I had this piece of paper and it was blank, and I though what do I do? Before I write sometimes I do drawings to get myself motivated to write. Then I went, “Holy shit, yeah”… it was a blank page before I started and now there’s something on there, and that’s the reason why I’m doing it, you know. A lot of it was because, if someone else was doing the sculptures I wanted to do I wouldn’t have done that. It was like I was doing things that I wanted to hear and wanted to see but which weren’t around to see it to be heard. I was the only one that could do it. But that idea of putting something on that piece of paper, which was a blank, and then it becomes something… maybe that something means something to me….
PN: So what’s next for Alan Vega and Suicide?
AV: Suicide is playing with the Stooges in London, I think two shows, and then two solo shows after that, and the art show is around that time, too. Right now I just finished a retrospective in Lyon [Musee d’art contemporian de Lyon] and the work is supposedly coming back to New York, to Deitch [Projects]. [Jeffrey] Deitch is now becoming the head of The Museum of Contemporary Art [MOCA], out in California, but he wants to keep on certain artists with whoever’s going to run the gallery. I’m one of them. He wants to show works in California; so where my work is going to be, how much they’re going to be, and everything, is way up in the air right now. I’ve been in all these museum shows recently, in Lyon, Brussels, Korea, Vienna, Rome and God knows where else it’s going, and there’s a piece in a travelling show with Sonic Youth, [Sensational Fix] which is going everywhere in the world. So that’s all happening; all of a sudden the art thing has grown really huge, after all these year.