Ghost Rider Motorcycle Hero: An Interview With Alan Vega

When Alan Vega first heard Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska, he was convinced that the song "State Trooper" was a long lost Suicide song that he had forgotten about. The song was not a lost Suicide track – it was one of Springsteen’s own, but an obvious homage nonetheless.

That’s how powerful Suicide’s influence was and still is – a band created by two nice Jewish boys from Brooklyn. Black clad and with a lethally high-voltage sound, Suicide has had a profound influence on bands like Joy Division and The Jesus and Mary Chain – amongst countless others. But what many people don’t know is that Suicide provided a strange and pulsating soundtrack for a major change in American culture: art was being stripped to a bare minimalism of shapes and primary colors, and music was being peeled away to reveal simple digitized rhythms, computerized static and monotone vocals. Alan Vega – the front man of Suicide – was one of the first people to use the word ‘punk’ to describe their music. Today, Vega, and his band Suicide, is considered the missing link in the lineage between rock n’ roll and what would become known as punk, electro-punk, no wave, new wave and early industrial music. Before listening to Nine Inch Nails, start with Suicide.

Many people also don’t know that Alan Vega is also an established visual artist - art is actually his first passion. In fact, he studied under abstract expressionist turned minimalist artist Ad Reinhardt – an artist who was famous for his black on black painting that he deemed would be the last paintings anyone could ever paint. Vega would seemingly become a physical and creative manifestation of those “last paintings.” Experimenting with bare materials and items found in the barren and depressed landscape that was New York in the 1970s, Vega would create unique light sculptures that resembled Christmas ornamented crucifixes; a pastiche of a dystopian consumerist American culture.

In a new solo show at Invisible Exports – the first show devoted entirely to new work since 1983 – Vega presents a few of his iconic light sculptures and a series of semi-autobiographical portraits that are much more personal than his three-dimensional work. We were fortunate enough to speak with Alan Vega on the eve of the opening of this exhibition – entitled Welcome to Wyoming. In the following interview, Vega talks about Suicide, his current show at Invisible-Exports and how age brings wisdom and the general notion of not giving a fuck anymore what people think. 

What was your earliest introduction to art – when was your introduction?

It must have been in the late sixties – I started making art and that soon turned into music. But I was always into music, anyhow. I was always doing music while I was making art. But I wasn’t doing it as a career or anything. Not even when I started Suicide. To me, we were doing art.

"Everything. Everything was changing.

And it was great. At times, it was impossible

to know what the hell was going on."

Who were some of your earliest artistic influences?

I was influenced by Ad Reinhardt, and also some of the early surrealists. And Picasso – I used to hear all these stories about Picasso that were really wild. But Ad [Ad Reinhardt] was my generation, and as far as I’m concerned [his work] was the end of painting. It was black on black and almost no color.

And that was sort of the birth of minimalism, right – at the end of the 50s?

Yeah, it was. It was the beginning of the end. I didn’t know where to go from there at the time. It was like, ‘Oh shit, what do we do now?’

But that stripped down minimalism must have had a huge effect on your band, Suicide?

Yeah, it did. It was a time of minimalism – in art, in music. And Ad really started that beginning – to the end.

Well, that whole era was a time of change – the end of the fifties and early sixties – everything seemed to be changing at that point in history.  

Everything. Everything was changing. And it was great. At times, it was impossible to know what the hell was going on. But seeing Ad [Reinhardt] was enough – I remember seeing his paintings for the first time and I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ I knew Ad very well – he was a very shy guy, but he was also really funny. But just to see his paintings was really a treat itself.

I want to talk about Iggy Pop for a second, because he has also had a major influence on you as well – mainly as a musician and performer, right?

Yeah, well, Iggy was a major influence. The first time I saw Iggy was in 1969 at the World’s Fair in New York City and MC5 was the headliner. And they [MC5] tried very hard to outdo Iggy, but they could not outdo Iggy – no one could outdo Iggy. And it was twenty minutes of Hell. All his jumping on stage. He was all bloodied. I remember bringing two or three people with me and all their mouths were dropped.

So, how did you come up with the name Suicide? 

[laughs] We all laughed at first when we first thought of it. We would try to come up with names for days and each time we thought of Suicide, we would laugh. And then one day Marty [Martin Rev] decided let’s just keep the name, because that was really the band: SUICIDE – and it was. Suicide sort of summed up the world we lived in: Nixon, the bombings, and the war, and what the hell! People thought we were describing our own suicide, but it was the only appropriate name.

"It greeted hell for me, because

everyone that saw it was, like ‘Holy shit.’

They tried to kill me."

Well, it’s one of the greatest band names, probably ever…

It probably is one of the greatest names of all time. Everyday, you read the newspaper and you feel like you are getting closer and closer to suicide [laughs].

And you used to walk around with a jacket that read Suicide, right?

Yeah, it said Suicide on the back. It greeted hell for me, because everyone that saw it was, like ‘Holy shit.’ They tried to kill me. They threw things at me. It was just a jacket! I took hell. In fact, I took hell for the first ten to fifteen years of Suicide.

Yeah, I mean people probably hadn’t seen anything like that before. Can you describe one of your craziest experiences?

Oh god, there are so many of them. It’s hard, because we were younger. We also went out with a different energy than we do now. We were insane. Or we were acting insane. Or maybe we were insane! Every night was different. Really, because we never knew what to do – we never knew how to start. Sometimes it started right off the bat and sometimes there was silence. Waiting for a sound. For something….

So, when do you think that people started really appreciating the sound?

Well, we started getting appreciation in the United Kingdom in the early 80s. I remember there was a show in Edinburgh at the Glass Door and we expected all kinds of hell – I remember they had a big disco ball, but it was completely dark while we played four numbers or so. Then I told Marty to watch out – “expect it from all angles.” But then the lights came on and people were dancing! So it started then – then people were against the walls and they started following us. They really loved Suicide.

What about some of your peers – I mean there were other bands in New York making very avant-garde music, like Television and a number of other bands. How did they perceive your music?

I liked the guys from Televsion, but they were more rock n’ roll. But I liked the guys. I knew the drummer – he was very friendly with me. The lead singer was a very quiet guy and he didn’t really talk to anybody. But compared to Suicide, they were more commercial.

Speaking of commercial, Bruce Springsteen has said that you guys have been a major, major influence, right?

Bruce – I became very friendly with him.  He was in the same studio we were in – in about 1981 or 1982. We had a lot of laughs together, me and Bruce. But when I first heard that album [Nebraska] I thought: Did I write a song that I don’t remember now? There was a song on there that I thought was a Suicide song, but no, it was Bruce Springsteen. But I like Bruce and I always liked his music.

So, I wanted to talk about your upcoming show at Invisible-Exports. Can you tell us a little bit about Welcome to Wyoming?

I’ve always wanted to go to Wyoming all my life and I want to go before I die, and see the horses. So I was working on these drawings and the show came up, so I decided to call it Welcome to Wyoming.

And this is your first show devoted to new work in multiple years – what prompted you to show your work again?

Well, I love the gallery and the two people that run the gallery, they really know me.

And a majority of the work in this show is portraits – are they self-portraits?

They are portraits, but they are not really self-portraits. I’ve been doing these drawings since I was a kid. I would do them on the Bowery – these portraits of old people. But in a way they are self-portraits. And I don’t use any models or anything like that – I just draw. I’ve been doing it all my life. I did it before Suicide stuff. In this show, there are a bunch of drawings of these guys.

And I heard that you like to draw while under the influence?

I did, but….

Not anymore?  

Yeah, I did, but now the doctors have got me staying away. But I’ve been focused – I’ve been doing shows. Suicide has been better than ever. And I have new music that I’ve been working on. It’s the blues, which is something that I’ve always wanted to do.

"Age is a hell of a thing.

Maybe it’s the idea of running out of time –

knowing that I could go at any day."

You’ve always wanted to make blues music or play the blues?

Yeah, I was only going to do one song…maybe two…but it turned into a volume of ten songs…and everything is live from the top of my head. I just heard a few tracks and it sounds really good. As I get older, everything is better. Drawing is better. Singing is better. So, I don’t know…I don’t know what’s happened. After forty years, maybe I finally know what the hell I’m doing. And the album is going to come out soon.

Do you think wisdom comes from age?

Yeah, I do. Yeah, there is a lot of shit that comes with youth. Horrendous fuck-ups. Which is great – I really love fuck-ups. But working through that is a good thing. But after forty years – forty-five years – of busting my hump…now I don’t give a shit. I just do what I want to do. Age is a hell of a thing. Maybe it’s the idea of running out of time – knowing that I could go at any day.

Well, I hope for more albums and music and more of everything…

I hope so too! But I’m going through a re-birth. I’m already thinking of the next show and I am hoping for good things for it. I have a lot of ideas for it and now I don’t want to die. Whereas before, I was like, ‘The hell with it.’ Now I feel like I could live a little longer. Now, I can keep making my art, but all my friends are starting to reach that age…

But you can’t really retire from art, right?

You never retire from it. I get calls all the time – people asking why don’t I quit or retire. But why the hell would I want to quit? How do you stop art or music? You don’t…you do it forever and that’s what I want to do and I love it. 

Alan Vega 'Welcome to Wyoming' is on view now until March 29, 2015 at Invisible-Exports in New York. Click here to see photos from the opening. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE