American Extreme

Suicide survived hostility and obscurity to return, three decades later, as synth-punk pioneers

"Yeah, that would be real suicide," says Alan Vega, frontman of 32-year-old New York electro-punk duo Suicide, on the other end of the phone. He's trying to answer a question, but it's quickly lost in the commotion of the moment. His young son, undeterred by Vega's attempt to get through a phone interview, is emphatically demanding a game of Chutes and Ladders. And he's not taking no for an answer.

"Could you hold on a minute?"

As Vega barters additional phone minutes for extra board game time at the other end, it's easy for the imagination to run wild. Would Vega — one half of the stripped, sinewy duo that first imbued keyboards and drum machines with a confrontational punk sensibility — wear his trademark black beret and wraparound shades during a heated round of Candy Land? This is, after all, the Alan Vega of silver-studded black-leather jackets and blood-streaked shirts, barking from the stage and fielding abuse from crowds.

But the idea of Chutes and Ladders is as good a metaphor as any for Suicide's career. Clawing their way up only to slide back down into oblivion again is something with which Vega and partner Martin Rev can surely identify. Suicide's impact is undeniable — their gaunt throb and aggressive minimalism is claimed as an influence of acts from new wave (including the Cars, whose Ric Ocasek later produced several Suicide releases) to no wave, and on to the current crop of electroclashers. Supposedly, Bruce Springsteen looks them up from time to time.

Now, with a successful series of reissues and performances in recent years — plus the recent release of American Supreme, Suicide's first new album since 1992, Vega and Rev are again ascendant. But with only five full-length releases since its 1977 debut, the group's profile has certainly slid up and down over the past three decades.

Suicide came together in 1971 as a freeform, improvisational performance-art assault, appearing in squats, lofts, and downtown New York spaces such as the Project for Living Artists and the Mercer Arts Centre. Rev had been playing in a 15-piece jazz group, and Vega created neon-light sculptures. Together, they intended to search for — and illuminate — life at a time when the world seemed, to them, to be committing suicide.

"Suicide started as almost a free-jazz thing," Vega says. "Not sound-wise but conceptually. Our first few gigs, we didn't even have songs. Songs emerged from gigs accidentally. But the frequency we were resonating on was just what I'd been missing. People always said we were an art band, but I always felt we were more a blues band — playing rockabilly, but with no guitar and drums. It was just keyboards and outboard gear — the stuff we thought could be the future of music but, most importantly, was turning us on right then. I listened to tons of great music, but I needed to just hear a certain sound I wasn't finding."

At first, Suicide featured a guitarist and drummer, but soon the group bought an early drum machine and paired down to its keyboardist/vocalist lineup. By the late '70s, Rev's ominously sibilant synth and Vega's menacing yowl — urban beat poetry echoing the grit and white noise of New York's streets — would take its place in the famed punk scene around CBGB and Max's Kansas City. With two-note riffs that echoed punk's three-chord guitars, Suicide's primitive growl elicited an equally primal reaction.

"Suicide was never an entertainment entity," Vega says. "The type of music we play has been a way of finding out truth since the '50s. Rock 'n' roll said young men were going to go do their own thing. It was about confrontation. The people who came to see us didn't get a chance to get a couple hours of relief and escape from their lives. They came off the streets and Suicide shoved the streets back in their face. The more people screamed the more I screamed back."

For most of Suicide's first decade, it seemed the group was screaming into the void. But by the early '80s, Vega and Rev began hearing about British groups — Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Soft Cell, Human League, Depeche Mode — who openly cited Suicide's influence, and helped to keep the duo in high esteem overseas.

"People never want to see their own dirty laundry. Suicide shoved it in their face, so America looked away," Vega says of his group's unrelenting obscurity at home. "Europeans always looked from the outside and looked at us as speaking truth."

Following Kraftwerk, Suicide is perhaps the most seminal influence on synth-pop. More recently, the industrial movement on both sides of the Atlantic has owed a debt to Suicide, as have acts including Big Black and Add N to (X). And several of the groups associated with New York's hyper-fashionable electroclash scene can draw a direct line to Suicide's approach.

But with the new American Supreme, Suicide has not aligned with acts that look to Suicide's past for inspiration. Instead, the group has taken to incorporating an entirely different New York street sound: hip-hop. A handful of tracks on American Supreme use familiar breakbeats and scratch effects that may sound like dancefloor throwbacks but carry Suicide's long-standing streetwise thrust.

"I read something years ago that said I was the first rap artist," Vega says, "Once the words came in, I could only work them in by saying them. I thought calling myself the first rap artist was silly, but the irony of it is, that's all I listen to now except for classic stuff."

Hip-hop isn't the only sound finding its way onto Suicide's streamlined stew of dub, death disco, electro-detritus and filtered robo-funk. "Walk down one block and you hear black music, Latin music, jazz," Vega says of New York, where he still lives. "How can you escape that-- not have it influence your thing? I love calling the album American Supreme. Marty put together an album that put everything from Motown to Thelonious Monk in a pot that came out as Suicide, but mixed with a new funk."

American Supreme, however, has more to do with New York than its blend of music. Mostly finished before Sept. 11, the record nevertheless takes on new meaning after the attacks. Songs hint at the disorientation of choked expression, of recognizing your landscape's changed and the process of getting used to it. The dystopian pulse also focuses on the powers- that-be and the state of being powerless, the fascination with failure, and the misleading allure of consumer culture. Again, Suicide says, stare into the streets and the streets — no matter how bleak — will stare back. You just have to keep your strut.

Temporarily leaving the streets for the open road of an ultra-rare tour, Vega and Rev find that current audiences no longer turning away, spitting at them (as they once did) or starting angry riots.

"We just played a museum in Paris," Vega says. "The French are known for being very laid-back at first, inspecting and intellectual. But we had people crowding down together and jumping in their seats in this nice theater, as if Jerry Lee Lewis was pounding away at his piano. We found an audience — more like an audience found us. Sometimes the edge is missed, but it's still good to see energy."

Two games of Chutes and Ladders agreed upon, Vega turns back to the question being posed on the phone: "So, you're saying that having such a confrontational band name wasn't your idea of commerical suicide? Nor was facing down incensed crowds for 20 years? The only thing that killed you was the idea of separating yourself from experience, good or bad — of not being able to shed light on living to the fullest? That would be the exact opposite of Suicide?"

"Yeah, that would be real suicide."


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