Recorded in New York 25 years ago, Alan Vega’s
long-lost ‘Mutator’ album has been brought to life
by his wife and long-time collaborator Liz Lamere and his close friend Jared Artaud, who offer a fascinating insight into the life and work of the Suicide vocalist

As first evidence of the fabled “Vega Vault”, ‘Mutator’ must make Alan Vega’s many followers feel like they’ve stumbled on a newly unearthed Egyptian tomb stuffed with dazzling treasures. Rather than a collection of out-takes, this initial release from Vega’s extensive solo archives is a previously lost album recorded in the mid-1990s, a period of intense creativity for the Suicide vocalist.

Topped, tailed and mixed in Vega’s towering spirit by his wife and long-time musical collaborator Liz Lamere, and his close friend and co-conspirator Jared Artaud of The Vacant Lots, ‘Mutator’ launches a series of releases on the Sacred Bones label intended to liberate and bring home the vast amount of material Vega recorded over several decades with engineer Perkin Barnes at his 6/8 Studios in New York. As he never sang anything the same way twice, it offers fresh and enthralling evidence of this marauding electronic pioneer’s astonishingly prolific work ethic, which began with his pre-Suicide experiments in the late 1960s.

Originally intended as the follow-up to ‘Dujang Prang’, his acclaimed 1995 album, ‘Mutator’ is Vega on raging form. Combining dense, seething maelstroms of circuit carnage with street sounds, brutal hip hop beats and astral starbursts, the tracks include ‘Fist’, ‘Psalm 68’, ‘Filthy’, ‘Breathe’ and the celestial doo-wop ascension of ‘Samurai’. There’s also an alternate mix of ‘Nike Soldier’, which originally appeared on a 2014 split single with The Vacant Lots.

If Liz Lamere was his creative foil and recording partner outside of Suicide from the late 1970s onwards, Vega viewed Jared Artaud as his protégé and the man who would carry “the torch” after he’d departed. Talking to the pair provides a fascinating insight into Vega’s freeform recording process, one that gleefully ripped apart the manuals and soiled any hints of soul-stifling polish like a Brooklyn street dog, forging blueprints that could never be replicated, even by himself.

The story of ‘Mutator’ starts in 1987, when Alan Vega and Liz Lamere started going to Perkin Barnes’ 6/8 Studios in the Cable Building at Broadway and Houston in Downtown Manhattan. It became their recording base for decades, with the two of them often heading to the studio several times a week.

“Alan was living at the Gramercy Park Hotel, experimenting with old guitar pedals and rhythm machines, developing his ‘no notes’ deconstructionism theory,” says Lamere. “I would listen to the hypnotic linear soundscapes he concocted, mesmerised for hours. Eventually, he asked if I’d go into a studio with him to take it to the next level.

“I’d met Perkin when I was rehearsing at 6/8 with my band SSNUB.

He was super chill, so I thought he would be the perfect complement to Alan’s high-intensity energy. The studio was equipped with machines that Alan used to create sounds without using traditional acoustic instruments. He loved the idea of coming at the electronics with limited knowledge of how they were meant to work, and Perkin was cool enough to let us set about pushing buttons and turning knobs to a drum beat, while he recorded what happened.”

photo: ari marcoupolos

Vega and Lamere recorded numerous albums at 6/8 in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The first was ‘Deuce Avenue’, which was released in 1990.

“Throughout these years, our process adapted with the technology, but our experimental approach remained intact regardless of the changing equipment,” continues Lamere. “In the early days of ‘Deuce Avenue’, all the machines were played live by me. By the time of ‘Power On To Zero Hour’, which came out in 1991, we’d started experimenting with loops and adding samples that Alan had recorded in the street, or static off the radio or the TV. He sampled our voices too and ran them through effects to make them unrecognisable.”

‘Deuce Avenue’ had many fans, among them former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins. The American punk figurehead heard the album while touring in Europe and vowed to make Vega’s solo music more widely known in the US. When Rollins moved to New York to launch his 2.13.61 label in 1994, it was in large part to facilitate the release of Vega’s ‘Dujang Prang’ album.

“We took a hiatus from 6/8 for a while, so we recorded ‘Dujang Prang’ at Dessau Studios,” says Lamere. “It was a more focused attempt to make an album in a specific time period, as Henry was ready to release it. Alan went into the studio like an athlete going to the gym. After ‘Dujang’, we were back at 6/8, initially just looking to create some new sounds. This was the beginning of what would become ‘Mutator’.”

By 1995, Vega had put together a cohesive group of tracks that he felt could be right for his next album. The process for recording this material didn’t change much from what he had done previously at 6/8, but some of the machines at the studio were different. Not that Vega was concerned about that.

“Whenever Alan was asked what machines he was using, he’d say it didn’t matter what they were, it was all about your approach to them,” remembers Lamere. “Sometimes we’d use something on its own and sometimes we’d be manipulating the riffs I was playing on a keyboard. He felt compelled to keep pushing until he’d created sounds that hadn’t been heard before. It often took a lot of time, running the same track through different effects or linking up machines to try to further evolve wherever we’d got to at that point.

“It wasn’t unusual for Alan to spend an entire night hunting for a sound that he was hearing in his head. And as elusive as finding it might be, he always knew the moment he heard it. It was like a kind of magic and it would often happen suddenly. We called him the director of sound. His instincts were uncanny.”

There was a magic to the vocals Vega recorded for these tracks too.

“Alan drew portraits and wrote poetry and hashed out his thoughts in notebooks that he turned to for his nightly catharsis,” says Lamere. “At my prompting, he started pulling lyrics from the notebooks when we shifted our focus to the vocals. The music was all done and he wanted to lay down the vocals for the entire thing, working on one track after another. But unlike before, he didn’t ever feel that the songs were finished. He kept going back to them and they kept mutating. Hence the title of the album.

“Alan said his solo music was way harder to work with than Suicide’s because he had to sing in the key of ‘V’. I often asked him to do another performance, because each time the delivery was completely unique.

He was a firm believer that there are no mistakes and there shouldn’t be any expectations during a purely creative process. Like they say in boxing, you have to let your hands go, as scary and dangerous as that can be. The greater the risk, the greater the reward. Alan’s process was so freeing, existing purely in the moment with a relaxed intensity you could see, hear and feel.”

Vega was always influenced by what was going on around him, both in

New York and in the wider world. So what was grabbing him at the time ‘Mutator’ was recorded?

“Right from its inception, Alan felt a kinship with rap, with hip hop,” replies Lamere. “Since the early 1980s, he had thought of the hip hop movement as embodying the true spirit of rock ’n’ roll in the way it rose from the streets and reflected its harsh realities. He saw artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Run-DMC, Ice-T, Ice Cube, NWA, Wu-Tang and 2Pac as having something strong to say. This wasn’t entertainment, it was life. The loss of the lyrical genius 2Pac hit him especially hard.

“But while Alan felt a deep connection with hip hop, he wasn’t interested in emulating anything. He wanted to create something of his own. With his words, he riffed on whatever he was feeling from the vibrations in the universe. We spoke at length about everything – from politics, racism and the disenfranchised to horse racing and his lottery numbers picking system. Whatever he observed in the streets or in the press had an impact on Alan. A recurring theme of his work is the idea of ‘making one nation’ and I think that’s even more valid today than it was then.

“New York in the mid-90s was also feeling the stifling grip of Mayor Giuliani, whose campaign to clean up the streets sterilised creativity in the city. Alan used to say that Times Square, the gritty but fertile Deuce, had become Disney World. The clubs were being shut down. Artists and musicians had limited places to meet and cross-pollinate. The gentrification made the city too expensive for the thousands of creatives feeling the squeeze.”

In 1996, with ‘Mutator’ edging closer to completion, Lamere stopped coming into 6/8 for a while to take care of some pressing business. In her absence, Vega put the tracks they’d been working on to one side and turned his attention to crafting other material. By the time Lamere returned to the studio, his prime concern was to record these new songs, which were subsequently released as an album under the title ‘2007’ in 1999.

“Probably because it originated more directly from Alan, ‘2007’ is one of his darkest and most personal records,” says Lamere. “He was having premonitions about the sort of world our son Dante was going to grow up in. He was having visions of 9/11.”

And with Vega’s mind preoccupied in this way, the ‘Mutator’ tracks stayed put to one side.

“‘Mutator’ wasn’t intentionally shelved,” reveals Lamere. “It just wasn’t its time.”

Alan Vega died in 2016, four years after suffering a stroke that restricted the amount of time he was able to spend working on music. It was during this period that Vega and Lamere met Jared Artaud from NYC electro-psych duo The Vacant Lots. Artaud and his partner Brian MacFadyen had been Suicide fans for years and had recorded a version of Vega’s ‘No More Christmas Blues’ for ‘Psych Out Christmas’, a 2013 covers compilation album on Cleopatra that also featured Iggy Pop, The Fuzztones and Psychic Ills.

“When we were asked to be on this album, we didn’t have a clue what to cover,” notes Artaud. “Then we discovered ‘No More Christmas Blues’ on a Ze Records compilation from 1981. We tried to make our version our own, while honouring the original as best we could. After we’d finished it, I had the idea to send it to Alan, mainly to express our admiration for him and tell him how Suicide were like The Beatles for us, but also to let him know we hoped he didn’t think we butchered his song!”

“They sent the track to me and asked me if I could play it to Alan,” says Lamere. “His reaction was instantaneous. He said, ’Who is this?’, and then he straight away added, ‘Let’s invite them over!’. That was rare for Alan to do.”

“Liz told me they wanted to have us over for brunch,” says Artaud. “That was the ultimate. We went to their apartment and really hit it off.”

The meal was the start of a close bond between Vega and Artaud.

“Jared would pop over and he’d talk to Alan for hours about everything,” remembers Lamere. “He became a member of the family.”

“Alan and Liz lived one subway stop from me across the East River,” says Artaud. “I would go over and we’d talk for hours about music, art, politics, physics, life, death… I was amazed at his depth of knowledge about a vast array of topics. That and his ability to keep filling my glass with vodka led to some of the best times I shared with him.”

Perhaps inevitably, Vega and Artaud’s strong friendship led to musical collaborations, with Vega remixing a track from ‘Departure’, The Vacant Lots’ debut album, and contributing vocals to ‘Suicide Note’ on ‘Endless Night’, the band’s follow-up. Vega and The Vacant Lots also released a split 10-inch single on Fuzz Club in 2014. Vega’s contribution was a mix of ’Nike Soldier’, a track from the ‘Mutator’ sessions.

“When we were searching for an unreleased track for the split 10-inch,

photo: jared artaud

I was struck by the sheer volume of material on the inventory list in Perkin’s computer,” says Lamere. “Once Alan created something, he was quickly onto the next one, so neither of us had given it much thought until then. As Perkin was scrolling, the title ‘Nike Soldier’ jumped out, and I figured I’d take a run at mixing it, with him engineering. When Alan heard it, he said, ‘Holy shit, where did that come from?’. He felt it should be released without any further input from him.”

Likely knowing his time in this realm was nearing an end, it was at this point that Vega told Lamere she had his blessing to return to what he dubbed the “Vega Vault” after he was gone and release whatever she felt should be shared.

“Alan had already said to Jared that he was ‘passing the torch’ to him,” notes Lamere. “As Alan said to me, ‘He just gets it!’. I’d been mixing and co-producing albums with Alan for many years, but when the time came to bring the Vault into the light, it was obvious to me that I should partner with Jared on the project. Jared and I balance and complement each other in many ways and we each bring our own creative energy while staying true to Alan’s vision. And now that we’ve seen how influential and inspiring he’s been to so many others, I think it’s a perfect time to be bringing more of his work to the world.”

Lamere and Artaud discovered the original ADAT tapes of ‘Mutator’ in 2019, when they were trying to log everything in the Vega Vault. Lamere had long believed that the album was lost.

“When our mixing engineer Ted Young transferred the analogue recordings to digital, we could feel Alan’s presence as we were listening to them,” she says. “It was as if he was literally there in the room with us and we got chills hearing how timely the tracks felt, both lyrically and sonically. When Jared and I started working on the material, I asked my son Dante to sit in on the sessions with us. Dante had been studying sound engineering for over a year, but he’s been in the recording studio with his dad since 1999, so it was great to get his input.”

“We could tell ‘Mutator’ was raw and unmixed, but we could hear there was a conceptual whole within the tracks,” says Artaud. “We wanted to complete the unfinished album, but it was important to us that it didn’t sound dated or over-produced. Alan was a sonic architect and I was blown away by the sheer intensity and raw power of his ability to transform sound. His instincts as an artist are unparalleled. I remember listening to his vocals over and over, thinking how he was a master of delivering inimitable vocal performances and making tracks that were truly unique.

“Alan had many conversations with me about his ‘no notes’ philosophy, where you use and manipulate sounds and machines, rather than keys and chord progressions. He had a mantra that he called ‘KISS – ‘Keep It Simple, Shit’, and we kept thinking of that when we were working on the album. Whenever Liz or I was about to cross the threshold of restraint, the other one would call out, ‘KEEP IT SIMPLE, SHIT!’.

“Throughout the process, we tried to make ‘Mutator’ sound cohesive and modern, to strike a balance between the universal themes Alan was exploring and the minimalism of the music, both of which are timeless and are still relevant to the world today. Above all, we wanted to make something Alan would have been proud of, something that was authentic and preserved his vision, while bringing tracks recorded 25 years ago into the present.”

The fact that ‘Mutator’ is being released by Sacred Bones, the Brooklyn label run by Caleb Braaten, is another notable aspect of this New York tale. Keeping the album within the NYC family certainly makes a lot of sense, along with Lamere and Artaud hooking up with cover designer Michael Handis to establish Vega’s presence on social media.

“We’re very grateful to be working with Sacred Bones,” says Lamere.

“It’s home to a lot of other artists Alan greatly respected.”

“Sacred Bones was our first choice,” adds Artaud. “They understand Alan’s impact and the depth of his body of work. We all want to help to get his music out there and we’re really glad to see how it’s resonating with people around the world, which is inspiring us to continue on this path.”

Liz Lamere’s ongoing role in the Alan Vega story is, of course, exactly as it should be. Jared Artaud, however, is still pinching himself when he thinks about how he’s gone from a hardcore Suicide devotee to being one of the two curators of the Vega Vault.

“I’m endlessly grateful to be a part of this,” he says. “Alan and I became really close before he died and it’s been an honour to have known him, to have collaborated with him, and now to be mixing and producing his music. It’s amazing to be working alongside Liz too. She is a great musician and I’ve learned so much from her. I can see why Alan chose her as his crucial ally for his solo work and I think we make a good team. We’re going to be keeping Alan and his legacy alive for a very long time to come. We’re on a mission.”

‘Mutator’ is released by Sacred Bones

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