Martin Rev is one of that vanishing breed of New York artist whose lifelong musical quest started in their ‘60s adolescence and has continued in their home city until the present day. Living on the same East Village block since the 1970s, he has spent the last five decades pursuing the solo career that started with 1980’s Martin Rev and continued parallel to Suicide until last July’s passing of long-time comrade Alan Vega ended activities under that fabled name.
While continuing to travel the world for concert bookings and events, Rev recently released Demolition 9, his ninth album, on Craig Leon’s revitalised Atlas Realisations imprint. After working on it for several years, he finished the album shortly before Alan’s death and, with almost supernatural timing, its release has come just before Vega’s ferocious IT, coming in July to mark the first anniversary of his death.
The two albums beautifully illustrate the yin and yang spirit that drove Suicide after these two disparate New Yorkers collided by chance in 1970 then found their attitudes and influences would spontaneously combust when thrown together and produce alchemical magic. Both have just produced modern New York master-pieces that mark their most personal works to date. While the album Vega always intended to be his final statement blasts through nine after-dark city bombardments running around the six-minute mark, Rev’s set presents 34 short, sometimes fleeting vignettes, few stretching past two-minutes, many little over a minute.
As tracks pass like a rapidly-unfolding kaleidoscope of dream sequences, they seem to evoke different stages of Rev’s musical journey in an ever-changing New York over the last 60 years. His childhood doo-wop roots arc over rooftops on ‘Toi’’s pizzicato lullabye; the city’s no-holds-barred jazz spirit explodes in the frenetic drums of ‘Beatus’; ‘RBL’ belches out a snarling two-note early Suicide riff (which amps up into a searing roar on ‘Concrete’); ‘My Street’ is slashed with abrasive guitars that rear into garage-punk on ‘Creation’; ‘Darling’ and ‘Excelsis’ revisit the electronic religious orchestrations of 2009’s Stigmata; ‘Never Mind’ uncorks robust ‘80s electro-funk and ‘Vision Of Mari’ is like a beautiful phantom visitation from his lifelong late partner.
And that’s just a small sample selection. Demolition 9 is Rev’s intensely personal lesson in pin-sharp economy and purest soul, charged with the wild questing spirit that will take every liberty it can in the search for true artistic freedom and fulfilment on this endless journey of discovery.
It’s always a pleasure to spend an hour on the phone with this soft-spoken jazz man, whose thoughts can pinball and riff like one of his heroes’ solo flights. After he’s turned down Roscoe Gordon on his sound system, we start by talking about Rev’s astonishing new album.
KN: Demolition 9 seems like it was in the works for a while.
REV: Yes it was. Recording is like a daily occurrence when I’m not travelling so I’m always working on tracks. Without any deadlines I haven’t been feeling like I’ve got to get out an album. So yeah, it’s been on my desk for a while!
KN: It’s been described as autobiographical, so that’s how I approached and explained it in the reviews I’ve done for magazines. (The press release actually says Marty regards the album as autobiographical – “yearning for joy and the unattainable perfection of the artistic ideal” – and adds “The record spans a lifetime’s worth of moods and musings, encompassing fragments of Rev’s varied passions accrued across his nearly half-century long career. From violent percussion experiments to neo-classical reveries to noir-sleaze abstractions and beyond, Demolition 9 offers a radically non-linear spelunk through the dreams and distractions of one of the 20th century’s most influential sonic iconoclasts.”)
REV: I know that was suggested in the promo but it never occurred to me that way while I was doing it in any of the stages. It was more a matter of exploring different directions and seeing which ones seemed to be missing; like balancing this collection of entities as a whole and putting together things that were not compatible; not purposefully so but having no problem with that. It was just going from my own desire to hear other moods which certain ones suggested by not being there (laughs). If things were too weighted on one side that would suggest to me ‘Hey, let’s go for something a little more this or a little more that.’ I guess it’s like cooking, spicing shit up.
KN: With 34 tracks that’s a lot of ideas. Some of the styles are recognisable from your past work but there are obviously new ones being tried out, or in combination, or from fragments of things you’ve done in the past now developed a bit further. When did you decide to have 34 short tracks?
REV: Yeah…that kind of evolved. After Stigmata, I was starting with a blank canvas and didn’t have that intention at all. It all came out of the music itself. I always tend to lay down a lot of stuff in the beginning; a lot of tracks which are initial ideas. The beginning is always a great kind of phase because you’re spontaneously putting your ideas down almost daily; ‘Let me try this, let me try that, that would sound good.’ You get an idea when you’re not in front of it then come back and do it.
So I was working that way and not looking to finish any one of them. Just getting those ideas down, coming back to them, hearing what worked and what didn’t work and what had to be changed. I found myself working with a whole lot of tracks, not knowing which ones I might keep and which ones I may not because they were just ideas. That was a little different because I guess in the past I worked a little more closely to maybe a 15 track format. The shortness of the tracks came about purely from what they seemed to dictate to me musically by their own inherent dynamic. I found myself less and less interested in extending anything beyond its own internal necessity. Once it was over, it was over.
That happened quite fast. Everything else after that seemed superfluous, unnecessary and just going in a direction that was more contrived. Or rather more narrative, which is more traditional when working in a so-called classical format; extending or making a larger work by developing themes. All of that made less and less sense to me in the process of the work as something that was not fresh enough. If it’s not going to be fresh, let’s just end it here. That happened to it very quickly and that’s fine for me. I also heard tracks as kind of intros or link-ups to the piece that was following. I didn’t know which ones might work that way and which ones may not but I heard them like, ‘Hey, if I do something for two bars, fine; maybe that goes into something else.’ It was like fitting together pieces of a puzzle that aren’t made to fit together. I wouldn’t know until I threw them all together and shook them what might work here or what might work there. I did put them as close as I could to each other when they worked that way, but the way it turned out they seemed to stay as somewhat separate entities.
KN: It’s a lot to take in. I sat through the whole album about six times first of all…
REV: That’s noble!
KN: The more I did that, and the more I knew what was coming next the album seemed to develop a life and character of its own. Some tracks were immediately striking, like ‘Vision Of Mari’, which is very fleeting, then you get into electronic funk. A couple I could hear Alan singing if he’d been around. Did that enter your head and did you record any of it after he died?
REV: I had taken the album to where I felt it could actually be a demo and didn’t make any demo of it until I felt there was one. It worked for me that way and I was talking to Paul Smith (of Blast First) around that time. It was actually Paul who called me the night after Alan passed and told me about it. Originally I thought he was calling me about my album as I’d sent him the demo, so it was already in that stage when Alan passed. But then, going through the process, we decided not to put it out on Blast First. Craig came into the picture and I revisited it several months later because it looked like it may actually be coming out in the spring. Then I went back and heard stuff that I wanted to change. They were slight changes but there were enough of them.
KN: When I spoke to Craig for the Suicide book in 2015 he said he would love to work with you again. Now the album’s appeared on his reactivated label.
REV: That came up rather surprisingly. Outside of an accidental encounter in New York once or twice, I hadn’t seen Craig since we did the first Suicide record together. We did speak intermittently, maybe in the early ‘90s when Craig wanted to possibly represent a Suicide album and make a deal with a few European labels he was talking to. We never did that but, when he nearly did the Barbican show, we spoke on the phone and became more in contact. Craig mentioned a lot of very positive ideas, including that he was thinking about getting his label back up through Harmonia Mundi and would I be interested in doing something. We were talking about doing a compilation of my past albums but then I didn’t hear from him for way over a year.
After my decision not to put Demolition 9 out with Paul Smith I still hadn’t heard from Craig. Then, all of a sudden, he got in contact again and said, “It’s taken a long time but I’ve finally got that arrangement going.” I told him I had been possibly putting out this album with Blast First but now it looked like I would not. Things evolved and it turns out Harmonia Mundi is not the prime distributor after PIAS bought the label’s entire output except for the baroque stuff. It was just one of those converging events.
KN: I know believing the album was autobiographical affected the way I heard it. The jazzy tracks suggest your loft background, the scales your piano lessons with Lennie Tristano and ‘My Street’ quite violently evokes New York in the ‘70s.
REV: Inevitably something like a record is more or less autobiographical because you’re using things that have moved you in the past. You’re working with your ideas, what you’ve lived or what you like and what you like is what you live. That’s what Craig saw, I think. He asked me to write something for the promo department at PIAS. At first I said I’d rather have other people write about what it is. Sometimes it’s more refreshing for me to hear how they respond to it rather than me say what it is because I don’t really have a description of it in words. He said, “Well, just write a line or two, I’ll add a line and I’ll send it in. Just start me off.” I wrote something about searching for the unattainable perfection of artistic ideals and sent that to Craig. Of course, then it appeared in every announcement. I said, “Oh man, okay I said it once but that’s not really what I want to tag on to this either.” But Craig heard the record as autobiographical. He told me that right away when he heard the demo, which was pretty much the finished product at that time.
It was never in my mind that I was gonna do an autobiography. It would have been a limitation. Any kind of extra-musical idea that I might come in with at work feels like a limitation. “Now I’m doing an autobiographical work so everything is reflecting that.” It’s really the music itself, the placement of the actual sounds themselves and what they tell you that dictates to me where to go. They tell me based on what the ear hears. The ear follows what you’ve done and follows what should be done, all in a language of sound. There’s no concept at all other than that musical process.
Then at some point it’s really a small compendium of big decisions being made. So all those decisions that were made go into shaping what comes out the end. What comes out the end is a big surprise for me too, except you just take it to where you feel you can really live with it. It’s really as far as you can take each individual identity and know there are no more edits or corrections because you’ve made them all. There’s nothing more that can be done which would be constructive, unless you just want to screw around at that point. You’ve reached that place and you know that’s as far as you can go. If it works for you at that point you leave it in. If not, I take it out and put it into something to come later or never. It’s really all those decisions that are made based on the kind of amorphous ideas that start when you’re just throwing ideas on the canvas, so to speak.
KN: Some of the album reminds me of an impressionistic painting, like a sound painting made with quick bursts. ‘Concrete’ sounds like a New York street being torn up. Then there’s areas you haven’t really gone into before, like garage rock on ‘Creation’, which thrashes for a minute then it’s gone. New York seems a constant presence. Was the city a major influence?
REV: It is, a lot. I’ve only heard the album once or twice all the way through, because I had to check the final masters that Craig sent me so I would have been discovering it at the same time you did. The fact that it comes out sounding autobiographical is totally possible. Different genres that might reflect periods of one’s life. Whatever it comes out suggesting would be a combination of what’s in there but not necessarily what was consciously intended. It takes its own kind of form and could definitely be reflecting New York, and all past and present loves, you might say. As you know as a man of letters, when you add language to describe how music affects you, there are all kinds of associations that can be made; valid ones from a literary perspective. For me, that comes after.
KN: I guess the titles become as important as the track because when you name a track you’re, in a way, describing it. For example, with a track called ‘Concrete’ you’re not going to be expecting a doo-wop lullaby, although I wouldn’t put it past you.
REV: That’s a defect of titling, because they really are a bit of an appendage. I throw out ideas where titles are concerned but until using them I’m not sure what they really have to be. They don’t really mean anything but it’s the best association I can give each track at the time. They give it an association after the fact, is what you’re really saying there. That association could be other things too, and other things for other people. When they tend to define something that doesn’t work as well for me. Maybe I try and be as amorphous as possible. Maybe I can be more so where titles are concerned. That’s the only direction I would go into.
It’s like painters. (Willem) De Kooning would do the most beautiful abstract pieces. Occasionally, he added a title. Dali would be so specific in his titles; such a mysterious tableaux, like the sun doing this to the moon. Long titles describing so much, but it’s like, don’t describe so much! The image is there. Once, De Kooning said something about the bridge at this location in Long Island, or something about the sun coming up over the beach, I forget exactly which one. It’s like “You don’t need to do that, man. The painting is the painting, man. It’s beautiful, it’s incredible, now you’re making it specific.” The whole ideal of Abstract Expressionism is to be non-objective; we don’t need the object any more. So now you have the ultimate approach to doing that, why bring it back to objectivity? It’s a very common kind of tendency because you don’t want to give the viewer something to attach to and it’s such a radical kind of thing just to give them nothing. So artists would play with that occasionally. De Kooning went back to painting women, as you know trying to combine the objective with the non-objective and apparently he had a real struggle with that. He had a terrible time with that and put it away for years.
There’s something to be said about all the works in the past that just said “Symphony number one” or “Quartet Number Three”! And that’s been overly done too. There’s suggestive stuff on the album like ‘Back To Philly”, which is like Philly and it’s Philly Joe Jones. That works for me. They all work up to a level sure, because I felt I still wanted to title ‘em. It’s the same with an album title. You can throw those possibilities around for a long time until you get something that sounds right.
KN: Where did Demolition 9 come from?
REV: I had been thinking of titles for a while. Track titles come faster as the consequences aren’t so great. Album titles get more and more difficult. It just came to me in an e-mail letter I received from someone who seemed to be taken in a very vehement, antagonistic way by everything I’d been doing (laughs). It was like one of the worst reviews you’ll ever read in your life. I started to read it and knew where it was going so I just put it aside. I thought, “This is coming from some other place, this is not even a review.” Whatever was bugging this person had nothing whatsoever to do with what I do musically. It was more like what I represent to him some way, politically. I came back to it and read it through, and in the letter I found my title. I had been looking for one all the time I was working on the record, over a couple of years. I’d run through titles in my mind, maybe jot ‘em down then whenever I came back to it I’d be “It’s okay but it’s not it.” But I found it right there. I thought, how cool; out of this total negativity, to the verge of hatred, I found what I had been looking for and it was positive. So I just added a ‘9’ because it worked better for me and has some connotations to New York and what happened here. (9 stands for September…)
KN: That sounds like the kind of negativity you used to get with Suicide that you would then turn into something positive.
REV: Yeah, like Suicide. Once in a while it would really be on that level of such, I would have to say, hatred. I remember a guy that I really enjoyed working with when I was playing with (old jazz bassist buddy) Steve Tintweiss. Steve did a concert in Forest Park, that I mentioned to you in the book. There was a poet, I don’t have his name now, who worked in long, traditional sonnet forms. Steve brought him in to work with the band on a couple of tracks at the gig. We got along wonderfully and he was very open and seemed like a genuinely searching and productive artist, very scholarly. I saw him years later sitting at a table at a Suicide show in the Blue Room at the Mercer Arts Center. I guess he was one of the few that were still remaining in the club. I came off the stage and walked by him and he said “Hey, how you doing?” “Wow, how you doing?” I sat down and man, the cat just lashed into what we’d been doing. I think something had happened with his mind because I would see him on the streets of New York a couple of years later and the stuff that was coming out of him was so full of vitriol – politically and about people. I was sorry that he went to that extent. It was like Ezra Pound going totally berserk, totally paranoid in a bigoted way coming from such an innovative, scholarly place. It was like Pound syndrome.
KN: When I saw the track called ‘It’s Time’ it instantly conjured up an early ’60s jazz album for me. The only one I was mystified over was ‘RBL’.
REV: …Which came about not long ago through a video that that was made by Divine Enfant of one of my scores that she put up online and I titled ‘RBL’. I don’t know what RBL actually stands for.
KN: Talking of scores, the album’s cover painting (of a defaced music score) says it’s a painting you did in 1972. Those jagged, blurred ink notations perfectly describe some of the music.
MR: That was done very early, one of my first. I have to credit Paul Smith for the fact that, when he wanted to design the artwork package for the album when we talked about putting it out on Blast First, he sent an incredibly thought-out package of what the album was on his terms, which I thought was very astute. He designed a cover and also had a whole bunch of scores and transcriptions of some of the pieces that he felt could be in a large booklet. It was a very ambitious idea and that’s maybe partially why we didn’t put it out, because it was more ambitious than he may of wanted. He designed a great technologically directed cover but, when I saw the scores. I said “Let’s try one of those”. That one seemed to work the best under the heading of Demolition 9.
KN: We should talk about Alan. When did you last see him?
REV: I guess the last time I saw him was at the Barbican (in July 2015) which, of course, ended up being our last show. We had two large festivals booked that Alan felt he wanted to do. The Peace and Love festival in Sweden was the biggest we’d probably ever done up to that date. That was coming up.
KN: Have you spoken to Liz lately?
REV: I have. I know how tough it can be and it is. She mentions that (their son) Dante’s growing up too, so it’s kind of like an empty nest phase and grieving process that’s happening all at the same time. I know it’s not easy but I think she’s doing pretty well. Liz has a spirit that is always very positive and looks to the future. She’s a busy person and she stays involved with projects in her own work and I think that helps a lot. She’s not that isolated; she goes to work every day so she’s involved with people. That helps but I know it’s not easy.
KN: How does it feel now Alan’s not here? I know you didn’t see so much of each other in recent years.
REV: The fact we didn’t see each other much personally helped dull the blow. For the last several years we only saw each other on stage. That was the only time. Everything that needed to be handled between the two of us was done with Liz as an intermediary. My communications were with Liz. Very occasionally we would talk on the phone. The summer before the Barbican we did a few shows in France; Marseilles and Paris, so we spent several days together there, but it helps when one that you are that close to is physically not in your life every day or close to it. That’s why, where (Rev’s lifelong partner and muse) Mari was concerned, it was the whole nine yards of being one to one with someone on a daily level and losing such an absolutely significant person in your life. That’s what Liz is going through.
Obviously with Alan there were roots there that were a very real and solid part of my coming of age as an artist, from the streets on up. I can enjoy the streets more now because I’m not subject to them; I’m living on ‘em. I’m still living on pretty much the same block I did then. It was definitely losing a buddy. We went through some real good wars, you might say. We started from scratch and we broke our way into something that was just he and I, with all the resistance that we had, that any new entity would have, but adding all the resistance that we had because of the nature of what we did; what we called it, what it sounded like. It was like he and I against the world; like when you meet your significant other and it’s like you and she against the world, depending on where you’re coming from, what you feel and what you’re standing for if you have any kind of vision, which Mari and I of course did. Mari certainly did. It’s a struggle for survival but a very passionate and joyous one. It’s definitely a loss, for sure, but I’m glad that he’s not suffering and found his way out from suffering.
KN: The last time I spoke to Alan was for the Suicide book. There was nothing fading about his spirit but I could tell he was quite frustrated because there was so much he still wanted to do with his art but his health wouldn’t allow.
REV: I disagreed with his approach to recuperation, or rather thought of what he could add to his approach outside of what he was being given, which apparently saved his life initially so that’s essential, but not going beyond that of course.
Personally I wouldn’t have felt there was enough that was going to really get him to where he should have wanted to be. But he did it his way and, at that point, it was really his way or the highway. He just wasn’t going to break in anything else. I wish him the best; may he be blessed, as they say.
KN: Did you go to his funeral?
REV: I don’t think there was one. He was cremated and if there was any memorial or funeral it was very limited to immediate family or a friend or two of Liz’s.
KN: Alan passing was like another piece of old New York going.
REV: Yeah, and he goes back because he was quite a bit older than I was. He goes back to a New York a decade before I do. He was born in New York before world war two, the first generation from Europe. If his parents had stayed in Europe they would probably never have survived.
KN: How do you feel about New York as it is now?
REV: It doesn’t bother me now. I’ve seen it happening since the end of the ‘70s so have kind of got used to it. There’s still a lot of New York here that was always here. If you go around Sixth Avenue, west of that and Chelsea, a lot of those buildings are still here and haven’t been cleaned up much. I think the essential thing is the culture that was here, a combination of generations starting from the immigrants that landed over from Europe, that would give any place its essence. It’s more like the city is a shell and what’s inside it is what the cultural artistic life is. New York had that going all the way through in modern times with all the art forms after Paris and world war two. Abstract Expressionism may really have been the first American visual art painting form. A lot of people weren’t born here but came to New York to do what they did. That’s what made it rich for me; living in the middle of such…for someone who already knew that’s what they were gonna do and wanted to do and was doing it, to be in the middle of all that. The great musicians of that time were living right around the corner. I would see them walking by on the street. It happened simultaneously with music, with jazz, with dance, with classical, with painting, but then everything empties out anyway. It empties out because that’s what gave it it’s life.
Same thing with Paris. You’d get information about Picasso and all those movements and go up to Montmartre if you had that on your mind, but without those movements still existing, those people actually doing it, dreaming and cutting new works every day, that whole kind of energy, you just have that shell. The outer shell of Paris is still beautiful and New York is still a great city. It still has great energy. The new stuff that comes up is what it is. I guess it’s kind of like a catch 22 because the city becomes so tourist oriented it can’t really give seed to new art that’s coming in, but it’s still very diverse here. You can find a lot of stuff compared to almost anywhere else but it’s not what it was. Luckily, if you remember it like I do being born and growing up here, what was here not that long ago has more meaning.
KN: And you have a new President. How has that impacted on the city?
REV: There’s definitely a quieter, more reflective mood. Right after the election people told me the city was very, very sombre, like people who were on the subways going to work or taking their kids to school. People were saying how totally sombre and depressed the mood was. I find it a bit quieter now. The cover story of The Voice, which I never read now, was called ‘Days Of Solitude’; the first 102 days or something.
Any way you look at it, New York is a state that thinks a little more broadly than in terms of immediate solutions to immediate frustrations and fears. So they wouldn’t necessarily expect to be overjoyed. Thankfully the country is not ready yet to get on that bandwagon of Let’s all go for a very mob-oriented insane approach. That will remain to be seen. Nobody still knows how far that will go. It’s a big constitutional test for this country. See how we can balance good and bad, as we’ve always been instructed to do, and mollify some of the more extreme views with the positive ones.
Photos: Divine Enfant and Helen Donlon