What even is 'rock & roll', and why does popular culture need a giant dose of it? New York duo The Vacant Lots explain, with a little help from Suicide's Martin Rev.
Text by Richard Heasman
Photography by Samuel Quinn and VC.
Approx reading time: 8 mins
Listening time: 8:16
Holding his fist to his stomach Martin Rev, of proto-punk group Suicide, steadies himself: “Rock & roll is what you feel right here, rock & roll is great music and great truth. Rock & roll is gospel, rock & roll is gospel because rock & roll is true. It can be Beethoven, it can be jazz, it’s just true when it hits you right here.”
What is rock & roll? Jared Artaud of The Vacant Lots and I had been trying to answer the age-old question while speaking to the infamous electro-punk rocker after his set in Hackney Wick, London. “Martin is rock & roll man”, Jared leans in.
We are backstage as Martin waits for his water to arrive. Girls pose with him, asking us to take photos while Jim Sclavunos, of Nick Cave’s band Grinderman, shakes my hand and Martin introduces him. “I used to be in a band,” he says, “and Suicide were the only guys who let us open for them.”
A common mistake people make when discussing music is to insist that the golden age has been and gone. A great era that encapsulated the greatest musicians, the most exciting moments with the most free and easy people. These mystic images are set against rolling fields of marijuana, free-flowing rivers of whiskey and tea brewed with LSD, rather than sugar and soya milk.
But the golden era never truly ended. It simply evolved, moved with the times, to reflect the new rock & rollers, the inhabitants of the here and now. Rock & roll is still very much alive and it’s almost entirely as irrelevant as it was in the sixties. It’s the fuel of the loner, the wrinkled biker and the girl who said “fuck you” and wrote a play about her broken family. Rock & roll is truth, rock & roll is gospel and it can be found here, backstage with The Vacant Lots.
Brian MacFayden - the other half of Vacant Lots - and Jared Artaud are two boys brought up on New York’s post-punk cocktail of hard-hitting electronic beats and drone enthused electric guitar. Channelled through their own music, it’s a delicious combination. Brian stands onstage, behind what can only be described as the black box recorder from Spaceman 3’s candy-floss spaceship, and takes us all on a journey inside the whale.
The sound of a giant heartbeat cascades behind the violent strumming of Jared’s 12-string Vox. Brian’s eyes are closed as his hands cusp the mic to his lips and the audience wonder who he is singing to. He later smiles when I ask him. “I’m not singing to anybody, I’m just fucking with the audience.”
Brian is now slouched on a cheap sofa in a poorly lit back-stage room. People pass through, but all stop to stare at the only source of light, an illuminated painting of an old man sat in a rather familiar space. A room with only a sofa, a table and an odd assortment of baby doll pieces.
Brian looks up at the picture: “I’m sick of people staring at their fucking phones at gigs, you know. You’ve paid to come and see a band, why would you stand their just staring at your phone.”
Eyes down, faces basking in news feeds and tap, tap, tap goes the busy social bee. Attendance, and more importantly the announcement of attendance, is the real buzz for many gig-goers today.
“People have to be doing so many things at once now, they can never just focus on one thing. You look at someone’s laptop and they have 17 tabs open, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – sure you can use that shit to be productive, but most don’t. That’s why I fuck with the audience, at least to keep them asking ‘what’s going to happen next?”
The Vacant Lots have had an interesting journey. Meeting in Brian’s mum’s house the pair began as all bands do – with long hair, a guitar and drums. Adverts would dot the streets in their neighbourhood asking for musicians who dug the hymn sheet of the well versed: “The Velvet Underground, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Spacemen 3”. It soon became clear, however, that the pair were destined for a journey with only two on board.
We sit and explore some themes in music. I ask what could be the greatest collaboration? “I’d love to hear Iggy Pop and Can do a record, that would be an amazing record.”
Would Brian ever play the Late Show, and in doing so, would they lose any form of credibility? “No. Because if you have to change your music to appear on TV, then you are already fucked up. When Primal Scream played in Israel in Tel Aviv, people criticised them for doing it because of the whole Palestine, Israel thing. People get so obsessed with the politics, but it’s not why you do it.”
I suggest that maybe politics and music do have a place together. Maybe music is there to represent the zeitgeist of the time? “Yeah,” Brian leans in, “but that’s never really been the fucking case. Go back in time when pop music was The Doors, that’s a pretty great fucking time – forget all the other bullshit.”
Jared, meanwhile, grabs himself a white wine and perches on one of the scattered tables. I ask Jared why he does what he does, and why The Vacant Lots are even relevant to people today.
“I do it because I fucking have to. I don’t make the rules. If I wanted to make money I would have studied to become a doctor, instead I write poetry and songs. The moment I stop believing in what I do, I’ll quit. My goal here is to make a body of work that I can look back on and be proud of, and that holds up over time. Maybe it will inspire future generations."
I push Jared further. Watching the man turn his back to the audience and stab at the air with the neck of his guitar only 30 minutes before made me wonder of the anger locked in that sensual bombardment. “There is no direct anger. There is beauty in uncontrolled release – like when a painter attacks a canvas. There's beauty in violence. Its rock & roll.”
I ask Jared what he thinks rock & roll truly is and if Mad Mary Jones was Louie Reed’s Jenny. He pauses face down into his drink:
“Rock & roll is the medium I found to express myself to the maximum ability. It’s where I can put all of my interests, whether its film, poetry, sound or theatre into one medium. So rock & roll for me is the most direct, the most accurate away I can express my ideas, but also artistically, it’s not where it’s all about me.
"I write for other people and their lives. So who is Mad Mary Jones? I don’t know, who is she to you? It’s beyond me, it’s what it means to you. It’s like walking around a museum, you have to block a lot of bullshit out. This guy is explaining the painting, that guy is taking a picture. So walking through a museum is like walking through your subconscious.
“You look at the images and you gain an experience. When I stare at a Mondrian painting, I take something away from it. That’s exactly what I want people to take away from my music."
"You can listen to the Velvet Underground and be like yeah, that changed my life. It happened to me with Iggy and the Stooges. I heard that shit and I dropped out of school, it completely transformed my life. Everything else is background. All we want to do is create an experience for people.”
Our conversation is cut short by the two owners of the record label who signed Martin Rev, but the narrative is wonderful. Both reflect on memories of Andy Warhol and Nico and how shallow the duo were, how one was obsessed with money and the other with fame.
Rock & roll is irrelevance. More than that, it’s the freedom to be irrelevant and it’s driven only by those that honestly understand its truth. It’s why we idolise those who get it, who remain detached from us and who have the stomach to submit their life to something not hindered by careers, five year plans and ambition. But it’s ultimately flawed. It is demanding.
Many musicians like Jared, Brian and Martin are consumed by its self-destructive nature. But then it is also a place of comfort for those who just don’t want the preordained life set out by society. It's fuel and it is inspiration for them, and for us. It's madness, insanity, lonely drug taking, social drug taking, chasing the moment and organised chaos. It's obsession with the perfect beat and it's profound self-adoration, without the denial.
Text by Richard Heasman
Photography by Samuel Quinn and Vacant Lots