'Give Us an Instrument and That's That': Alan Vega & Ben Vaughn Reflect on 'Cubist Blues'

Liz Lamere and Alan Vega recount the Cubist Blues sessions from their Tribeca apartment.
Liz Lamere and Alan Vega recount the Cubist Blues sessions from their Tribeca apartment.
Lindsey Rhoades for the Village Voice

Though file sharing has increased many a musician’s ability to collaborate over long distances, something has gotten lost in the ether. It’s become increasingly rare to find musicians sitting together in a room, making a record (in every sense of the word) that captures music unfolding in real time; nowadays, each part is recorded separately, sometimes worlds apart. Twenty years ago, Alan Vega, Alex Chilton, and Ben Vaughn couldn’t have foreseen this trend: They were three established musicians operating on very different wavelengths, but they had a common love for the blues and for improvisation. And by some force of destiny, they wound up in the same room together, in the midst of a prolific late-night jam session, with the tape rolling.

The twelve songs they wrote in less than twenty-four hours formed a collection called Cubist Blues, which went virtually unnoticed until Seattle-based reissue imprint Light in the Attic came across it. They’ll re-release this unsung masterpiece on December 4, two decades after Vega recorded “Jukebox Babe,” a rockabilly-fied cover of a Perry Como song that ultimately brought the three of them together to abstract those sounds completely. Recorded at Dessau Studios in Lower Manhattan, Cubist Blues is also a historical reckoning of the city itself. Pre–9-11 and post–bohemian zeitgeist, it somehow inhabits both realities — freewheeling and claustrophobic, enlightened but terrified, reflective and reactionary, fiercely individual but finally united.

“We recorded it in 1994; New York City was a different place for a lot of reasons. It was affordable, for one thing, and it didn’t feel threatened,” remembers Vaughn. “I didn’t listen to it for probably fifteen years, up until I had to approve the master. I listened to the record from top to bottom, which was like an out-of-body experience. It sounds very liquid and uncompromising to me. I was really happy when I heard it again after all these years. It’s like a black-and-white movie.”

Vega, who suffered a stroke in 2012, remembers it less clearly, but both describe the recording session as something of a fever dream. Vega’s career in music began as one-half of experimental duo Suicide with Martin Rev, their harsh electronic squall shaking up punk rock. Vega has had a somewhat contentious relationship with the Village Voice over the years — in Robert Christgau’s long-running Consumer Guide column he gave Suicide’s 1977 debut a C+ rating, saying that “the manic eccentricity of this duo's live performance turns to silliness on record” — so it was with utter graciousness that Vega and longtime partner Liz Lamere welcomed us in to their Tribeca apartment, with its mélange of musical instruments, artworks in progress, and Elvis memorabilia.

By the time Cubist Blues was recorded, Vega had made more than ten studio albums, sometimes solo, sometimes with Lamere, sometimes with Ric Ocasek of the Cars or Ministry’s Al Jourgensen. He and Vaughn booked time at Dessau in the hopes of taking a more instrumental, as opposed to electronic, approach, but had few other ideas about what would take place. “That’s how we always did things in our day,” Vega explains. “That’s the beauty of the thing. Marty and Suicide, Ben Vaughn and Alex Chilton — give us an instrument and that’s that. There was something real in that whole thing.”

“What’s really cool about Ben, he hears in Alan’s vocal the nuances that tie into the blues and rockabilly that came out when he started his solo career,” says Lamere. Vega’s first forays into music were as a trumpet player, and he approached his vocals in the same way one might play a horn, with extended notes and sudden, ecstatic fits.

“I just had it in my mind that Alan should go into the studio and cut a late-night blues album, ’cause he just sounded like a blues singer to me. He thought that was a great idea,” Vaughn says. Vega refused to plan any of the details or write songs ahead of time, wanting the record to take shape spontaneously.

Vaughn had never done a completely improvised session, and Chilton, known for his work in the Box Tops and Big Star, was not originally supposed to be a part of the project. But when Vaughn told him he was going to New York to record with Alan Vega, Chilton insisted on coming along. “I was a big fan of Suicide — I saw them perform and it was one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen in my life. Alan would come into the audience and pick fights with people. I actually avoided meeting Alan for years because I assumed he was as psychotic as he seemed onstage,” Vaughn remembers. “I got to know Alex Chilton a few years later, and Alex was sort of amazed that I knew Alan. It was probably the only time I ever saw Alex starstruck.”

Chilton and Vaughn spent the day before the session sourcing equipment, including a Roland bass synth that shows up most notably on “Freedom,” where it undulates throughout the track like pulled taffy. “We came to the decision that we would just play all the instruments and make it a more intimate, intense project. And then we got together and pushed record,” says Vaughn. That intimacy is one of the things that makes Cubist Blues so compelling. There’s a sense of being a fly on the wall of Dessau, observing the three musicians hash out concepts and ideas, buffeted by the vibrations. The three react to one another, shifting gears at a moment’s notice; on “Fly Away,” for instance, the embers of guitar begin to die down just before Vega barks out another imperative (“Take my hand! Now! Now!” he shouts), igniting another scorch of distortion.

“Nothing was verbalized, as I recall,” Vaughn says. “Alex was a man of few words, and Alan really had no patience for over-explaining anything. He works on a very deep, visceral level, so we really didn’t discuss much.” The language they spoke was completely musical. On the first song they recorded, “Fat City,” which opens the record, Vega can be heard saying, “Cool, Alex,” in approval, before musing, “I’m gonna call this ‘Fat City.’ ” The song actually develops as the trio play on. “Alan brought to the project complete immediacy, which inspired us. Both Alex and I knew a lot about music, but we basically followed Alan’s lead,” says Vaughn. “There’s no holding back when he sings, and his choices are so unique.”

Alan Vega, Alex Chilton, and Ben Vaughn live at the Trans Musicales Festival, December 7, 1996
Alan Vega, Alex Chilton, and Ben Vaughn live at the Trans Musicales Festival, December 7, 1996
Photo by Philippe Remond

“I didn’t envision anything. It started out as two songs that we knew we were gonna do. I had prepared one line I wrote down on a magazine or something,” Vega says. (Lamere reminds him that it was a copy of the New York Post.) For the second song they recorded, “Sister,” Vega perched like a gargoyle from the window of the studio, narrating what he saw in the street below. “We had two songs, and I thought that was the end of it,” Vega says. “Little did I know [we would end up recording] twelve songs. We went from one to another to another to another and just said, ‘[Let’s] do another.’ I thought I was going to explode, really. I don’t think I could’ve done any more.”

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Vaughn, Chilton, and Vega performed the record live only twice, once at the Mercury Lounge and once in France. For both shows, Vega improvised entirely new lyrics; in France, he threatened to fight a heckler who called him a “dinosaur.” Vega regrets not having resurrected the material sooner; Chilton passed away unexpectedly in 2010, and playing Cubist Blues without him is impossible. “He still had a long time ahead of him. It’s a shame, it really is,” says Vega. “He missed all the insanity!” Vega’s been recording with Vaughn again; they’ve completed a batch of songs that Vega is extremely excited about. But for most modern musicians, it’s difficult to capture the energy that oozes throughout Cubist Blues. “It’s beautiful when there’s something that kind of got lost coming to light, and there’s something real there — there’s a story. Something magic happened, it’s not just rehash,” adds Lamere. “It’s pretty rare these days to let yourself go and have no expectations and no plans.”

“It was sort of like three guys went into the subconscious together at the same time and then resurfaced at the end,” Vaughn says. “It really was an unspoken, unconscious session. It was like our impulses, done below consciousness.”

Cubist Blues will be reissued by Light in the Attic on December 4.

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