ONE half of electronic rock duo Suicide, Martin Rev helped to change the face of alternative music. By basing their approach around drum machines and keyboards, the New York group created a sound that was propulsive and dynamic. Singer Alan Vega was known for his lyrics revolving around the scuzzy yet strangely glamorous underbelly of urban life.

Suicide’s debut album 1977 landed at the same time of the punk explosion in the UK. Rev continued to play as Suicide with Vega until the singer’s death earlier this year. He has enjoyed a critically acclaimed solo career. Rev, now 68, spoke to EDWIN GILSON about the early days of Suicide and his relationship with Vega.

Where did the electronic elements of Suicide come from? It seemed like nobody had heard that kind of propulsive, electronic sound with drum machines in the alternative rock world before then.

Before Suicide I was in a band called Reverend D. It was a combination of various improvisational musicians. At that point in time there weren’t many keyboards in venues so you had to bring your own. I started to hear the potential of that electronic sound – it was so big and rich. When I met Alan I continued using the keyboard and started to add electronic distortion into the sound.

At some point everybody around me said we needed a drummer, so I brought in my wife Mari and it sounded great. When she left, I thought I wasn’t going to replace her with another drummer because she was my wife. Then I remembered having heard people use drum machines and it struck me that was the way to go. I heard a whole type of music open up in front of me.

When you first met Alan you said you could see he was “as far away from the mainstream” as you were. Did you sense immediately you would be on his wavelength?

I was playing at this venue called The Museum of Living Arts, which I found one night in winter when I was walking around the city. Alan was there with a little two-track tape recorder trying to get whatever sounds he could get from it. I sat on the floor and listened to him and soon I started to drum on the floor. That’s how it started. I think Alan and I knew we were out on a limb. He left his comfortable home and job to try and be a performer. He thought he had to do it.

We were similar in that sense – we wanted to do music, no risk factor considered. We both used to stay up really late making as much music as possible. Alan wanted to recruit more musicians but I thought that would have made us more conventional. I didn’t want to go back to the old rock format of the 1960s and early 70s. The duo setup with drum machine was a whole new world for me, it was totally unexplored.

Fifteen thousand people booed Suicide when you supported The Cars in the late 1970s. Do you think this reaction was more out of bewilderment at your sound than anything else?

For sure. We also had that when we opened up for The Clash and Elvis Costello. Everybody was used to a more conventional band set-up. I think the crowd’s reaction to us was “if this is the future, we don’t want it”. Our debut album had already been out when we first played with The Clash but most people hadn’t heard it yet.

Did you enjoy ruffling a few feathers?

Well, there was a lot of energy in it. I never went out to be provocative – that was more Alan’s thing. He used to go into the audiences to create a stir. You always want people to like what you’re doing, there’s no doubt about that. You don’t want to have 15,000 people booing you, but at the same time it brings an incredible energy.

Alan would walk off the stage before me and I would keep playing. So I’m standing in front of 2,000 to 15,000 irate people. I thought: “I’ll take you on. I’m playing with one hand, I’ve got the other one free.” That was the power of the sound and the stage. They were incredible moments but I wasn’t looking to be disliked like that. It was just what we did. Some people took it personally and some people were afraid.

The word “punk” appeared on one of your gig posters as early as 1970. What was your conception of that term back then?

We always put up our own posters and we were thinking what word we could put on them for our early shows. Lester Bangs was the most respected writer of that rock era, and I read an article he wrote about The Stooges. Lester referred to Iggy Pop as punk. We thought we should use that for ourselves. Punk was a word that was around when I was growing up, often used by pretty rough guys. It was used in gangster movies before then. Punk just sounded perfect, as did Suicide. I didn’t know why at the time but the energy of the word was enough.

You were playing as Suicide with Alan until very recently. Is it upsetting you can no longer do that?

The shows we played were always pretty sporadic. Alan trained me off Suicide in a way because he was doing less and less shows with the band and I had more time to do solo material. If we had been doing Suicide a lot more I perhaps would miss it more. But sure, there was something in a Suicide show that was always great. The camaraderie, you might say, of having two guys up on stage.

Does having such a legacy of music behind you act as a burden or do you feel quite liberated at this stage?

I really don’t think about what I’ve done in an external sense, especially when I’m immersed in the playing of the music itself. I try to find something that really moves me.

How are you holding up after Alan’s death in the summer?

Well, it is what it is. Alan was a great friend, especially in the early days. More recently we weren’t in contact when we weren’t playing together but I mostly remember those first couple of years when it was us against the world and we broke into the establishment of rock and roll. Being a bit older, Alan was more experienced in the art world and I considered him a guide, as intense as he was. Besides my wife, Alan was my only friend at that time. I thank him for whatever input he had on my life.

He had given me the sense for several years that I didn’t know how much longer he was going to be here for. Every show we did, I thought it might be the last. But that’s how it works – we all lose those close to us eventually. It’s this crazy thing called life. I’m thankful he and I ran into each other when we did.

Martin Rev, Komedia Studio, Gardner Street, Brighton, Monday, December 5, 7.30pm, £15, 08452 938480