MUDKISS FANZINE

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MARTY THAU: THE FUTURE IS NOW! INTERVIEWED BY DICK PORTER

As track records go, Marty Thau’s is pretty close to impeccable. Having worked at Billboard magazine as an executive advertising trainee during the mid 1960s, he branched out into managing local groups in 1966. This brought him to the attention of Neil Bogart, boss of Cameo-Parkway Records, who appointed Marty as National Promotions Manager. He was a roaring success, scoring twenty-eight hits in his first year on the job. The following year, he joined Buddah records, where he oversaw the release of such hits as ‘Yummy Yummy Yummy’ by the Ohio Express and the 1910 Fruitgum Company’s huge hit, ‘Simon Says’.
         By the early seventies, Thau had tired of the incessant hyping of dull singer-songwriters and manufactured acts. ‘So I resigned and went towards the area of the industry that had always intrigued me the most, which was the music.’ He became partners in a company, which sold Warner Brothers the rights to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Moondance, plus John Cale’s Vintage Violence and the album he did with Terry Riley, Church Of Anthrax. Marty also had a brief spell at Paramount as head of A&R but still found that sitting behind a desk wasn’t to his liking.
       ‘At a celebration one night with my wife – dinner somewhere, walking around on a nice, warm spring night – we passed by the Mercer Arts Center. There was this little sign advertising the New York Dolls, two bucks in the Oscar Wilde Room. I said, “Sounds interesting, let’s go”.
        From that point, Marty was charged with the task of persuading a tin-eared business that the Dolls were the groundbreaking band that posterity has proven them to be. Having moved to the heliosphere of rock’n’roll innovation, Thau stayed there – producing the Ramones’ first proper demo and releasing Suicide’s era-defining debut album on his Red Star label. Cited by Billboard as one of the all time most important industry figures, Marty has also worked with Blondie, Richard Hell and the Fleshtones, playing a pivotal role in the birth of the US punk scene.

Most recently, Thau has revived Red Star for the download age. The label relaunched in December 2009 with a trio of releases from Jeremy Gluck & Kate McEwan, Bob Collum and the Welfare Mothers, and the Carbon Manual. Mudkiss caught up with him to discover what a man who seems magnetically drawn towards the good stuff will be bringing us next.

DICK:You’ve reinvented your Red Star imprint as a digital label – what made you decide to concentrate on downloads, this time around?

MARTY: Today’s digital technology provided me with an opportunity to release new music without having to deal with managers and their temperamental artists, lawyers, music promoters, media types plus all of the tedious tasks and involvements that come into play when one is trying to build a record company. Now I can sit in my shorts in front of my computer screen and search the Internet for music that I like and want to release.

DICK:One of the original Red Star Releases was Suicide’s landmark debut album. Suicide, like the New York Dolls, were a band that terrified much of the music industry – Do you see any of the fierce independence and breathtaking originality that characterised those bands in any of the new Red Star groups?

MARTY:I hope that the artists I’m currently working with will match yesterday’s musical achievements but Suicide and the Dolls were brilliant and unique and I think it’s unlikely. Today’s Red Star artists all have qualities that I admire – otherwise I wouldn’t have signed them – but time will tell just how unique and special those qualities are by current standards.

DICK:How did you come to select the three groups that have been chosen to launch the label? Has your methodology for finding bands changed over the years, or do you tend to trust your instincts?

MARTY:I simply trust my instincts but selecting artists to work with is an educated guess at best – but I’m confident that my opinion is a well honed one.

DICK:Are there any particular qualities that especially excite you when you see a new group?

MARTY:I’m always looking for artistry that’s abstract and conventional at the same time. I’m not interested in artists who make music designed to satisfy their egos and only appeal to eight people. The art of the day is to reach people.

DICK:The version of Jeremy Gluck and Kate McEwan's ‘Whisper’ that you produced for their EP with Martin Rev has some of the same ethereal quality that characterizes much of Suicide's work. Was this a conscious creative choice, or is it simply a bi-product of the way in which you and Martin work together?

MARTY:The ethereal quality that characterizes much of Suicide’s work, is evident on the Jeremy and Kate version of ‘Whisper’ because the track itself was originally included in Rev’s 1980 Clouds of Glory album as an instrumental. When I came in contact with Jeremy, in 2009 and discovered that he was a serious Suicide fan, I asked him if he would like to do the vocal part over the original track.

DICK:How was it working with Martin again? Have you maintained a close relationship over the four decades or so that you've known each other?

MARTY:Rev lives in NY and I live in Virginia, so I don’t see him that often but we do stay in contact because we’re still involved in the business aspects of the music we mutually own. Working with him has always been a rewarding experience because he’s always open to new ideas and his demeanour has always been consistent and stable.

 

DICK:Bob Collum & The Welfare Mothers have a strong country vibe. Many people wouldn't necessarily associate Marty Thau with country music. Is it a genre that you've always had an interest in, or does this represent a new direction for you?

MARTY:Bob Collum is more than just another country and western singer. He’s more like a country and wasted singer! Bob addresses issues that are sceptically humorous and entertaining at the same time. I chose to work with him because I appreciate his irreverent sensibilities. Actually I think Bob is more r‘n’r than country. Shades of Buddy Holly. I never really followed country music. Most of it is too conservative and pedantic and there’s no edge to it. The only C&W artists that I’ve ever followed were Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Hank Williams.

DICK:The Carbon Manual seem to be particularly interesting. They have a Velvets/Doors feel, but the remixes take their sound into dance territory. Do you have much of an interest in dance music?

MARTY:I do like dance music. I especially like Brendon Moeller’s Beat Pharmacy recordings and just about everything Dub Gabriel produces. But a lot of today’s dance music is getting to be too formulaic and narrow. We already have enough uninspired music out there. The Carbon Manual just might have their fingers on the pulse of some new psychedelic music.

DICK:Could you tell us a little more about the Carbon Manual? Were you or Martin involved in producing their Truth Is EP? The vocals on ‘I Break Through’ bring to mind Alan Vega's anxious and urgent vocal style.

MARTY:The Carbon Manual band produced their EP and it’s best described as ambient rock’n’roll. Carbon Manual’s music (for me) is an enlightened psychedelic adventure and in my opinion will be viewed as refreshingly advanced and surprisingly accessible for those able to appreciate it. But it’s not for everybody. Jeremy Gluck has been a Suicide fan for ages, so it’s no surprise that a bit of Alan Vega’s urgency has rubbed off on him.

DICK:What future releases can we expect from Red Star Digital? Do you have a specific direction in mind, or are you inclined to go for diversity?

MARTY:I like diversity and I try not to be predictable. It's hard to find truly original artists. It seems like everyone is doing sideways versions of everyone else.

DICK:A recent BBC documentary about the birth of electronic music accorded the likes of Kraftwerk and Throbbing Gristle due credit; however, there was no mention of Suicide – which to me seemed a gross omission. Do you think that Suicide has failed to receive the proper recognition that their groundbreaking music deserves, and if so, why do you think this has become the case?

MARTY:For the BBC to omit Suicide in an electronic music documentary says to me that they didn’t do their homework. Suicide was an original pastiche of punk’s minimalist fervour, disco’s hypnotic rhythms and electronica’s hi-tech futurism all rolled into one. Only Kraftwerk might have been in a similar musical arena but in my opinion, Suicide’s musical vision trumped everyone. I believe that in the long run Suicide will be properly recognized and that’s where it counts. In fact it’s already happening. Suicide are more popular now than they’ve ever been.

DICK:What are your thoughts on the current music scene? Do you think that it seems anodyne compared to the frontier days of the Mercer Arts Centre? What groups/artists are currently hogging your sound system?

MARTY:I’m a fan with multiple tastes. I like young rock ’n’ roll bands like Vampire Weekend, MGMT and Matt & Kim, but most of the music hugging my sound system dates back to my younger years – artists like John Lennon, Bob Marley, Otis Redding, B-52’s, Chet Baker, Annie Lennox, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. But I also dig Lady Gaga, Leonard Cohen and Diana Krall.

DICK:You've played a key part in breaking some of the most exciting bands of all time, have you never been approached about putting together a film or book based on your experiences? Is this something that would interest you?

MARTY:It’s not like I’m a household name but if there’s anyone out there willing to give me a chunk of money for my story I’m a good listener. I’m currently completing my autobiography. Been writing it for close to six or seven years. It’s called, Keeping The Rock ‘n’ Roll Dream Alive (The Red Star Chronicles).

DICK:In your long career in the industry, what achievement has given you the most satisfaction?

MARTY:The fact that I’m still in the business is my greatest source of satisfaction and achievement. That says I must have been doing something right. Most of my contemporaries are long gone. I just might be the oldest punk in the biz today.

DICK:Many of our readers will know you primarily from your work with the Dolls, Suicide and the Ramones throughout the 1970s. Is this a period you look back upon with fondness? Are there any particular moments that made a special impact upon you?

MARTY:Receiving a gold record for promoting ‘96 Tears’ stands out in my mind. My days as one of the industry’s leading promotion executives in the late ‘60s at Buddah Records were unreal, too. We (the late Neil Bogart, Cecil Holmes and me) had hit after hit for three to four years in a row – big hits like ‘Its Your Thing’, ‘Oh Happy Day’, ‘Yummy, Yummy, Yummy’ and ‘Green Tambourine.’ I have 15 gold records from those days hanging on my wall. But the ‘70s Mercer Art Center and CBGB days were the ones I’m most fond of. They were the most memorable days of my career. I was fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time. I witnessed rock ‘n’ roll history in the making and was able to work with the Dolls and the Ramones and Blondie and Suicide and Richard Hell in various creative and business capacities. These artists were the first voices of what was to become known as the Blank Generation.

DICK:How do you feel about David Johansen and Syl Sylvain reforming the Dolls with new personnel and turning them into a working band once more?

MARTY:I’m pleased because it validates my early belief in them. I’m looking forward to the day when the Dolls are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They certainly deserve the recognition and should it happen, I’ll have the last laugh for all the abuse and spiteful ridicule the Dolls and I endured.

DICK:Who, to you, was the most significant talent that you have worked with, and why?

MARTY:I would say that David Johansen, Joey Ramone, Alan Vega, Martin Rev, John Cale, and Debbie Harry top my list of significantly talented artists that I’ve worked with. They were all tough and smart and never bought into the rock star myth. Their heads were screwed on properly and that stability stood them in good stead. Richard Hell was brilliant too, but, unfortunately, back in the day drugs did him in. These days, from what I read and hear, he is very together now.

Photo: David Johansen, Muddy Waters & Marty

DICK:If you could have your time over again, is there anything that you would go back and change, or are you a person that moves relentlessly forward, with no regrets?

MARTY:No one can reach my age with their eyes even partly open and not have dozens of regrets. I’m the first to admit that I didn’t handle any number of personal relationships and business opportunities with greater finesse but hey, what the hell did I know back then? We all have regrets – the ones I have I’ve learned to live with. But although I lived in the fast lane, I was functional. I made a lot of money and blew a lot of it, too – but I did have a great time.

DICK:You've been a part of the music industry since the early 1960s. How have you maintained your enthusiasm for such an extended period? Was there any point at which you became disenchanted with rock 'n' roll?

MARTY:I’ve had my likes and dislikes, I’ve never been disenchanted with any form of music, but I have been greatly disenchanted with the music business. It’s corrupt, greedy, one-sided and too smug and pompous for its own good, or maybe I should say that’s the way it used to be because that’s all changing now thanks to the computer revolution. The days of an artist as indentured slaves forced to kowtow to unconscious major record company assholes are almost over. The playing field is levelling off and what we are witnessing today is a changing of the guard.

DICK:What's next for Marty Thau? What do you have planned for the next year or so?

MARTY:I’m really too old to look too far into the future. For me the future is now.

For more information on Red Star Digital Music, go to www.redstardigitalmusic.com

Interview by Dick Porter 16/02/10
Photos supplied by Marty - credits to Adrian Boot (Suicide photo) - Bob Gruen (Muddy Waters, David Johansen,Marty & The Dolls photos) - Leslie Bernard (Marty top) - Marcia Resnick (Marty in jacket)