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Friday, March 14, 2008

Stan Ridgway interview


By George A. Paul

Here is my interview with veteran musician Stan Ridgway, which took place last month via phone. He performs at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano tonight.

Q: You've been doing some shows in the area where you play mostly acoustic. Do you tend to find new nuances in the songs when you strip them down to a bare minimum?
A: Yeah, you kind of stand unadorned on acoustic guitar, a vocal and few other things. It does make the songs stand out a bit more for people if you haven’t heard it that way before. We’ve been doing acoustic stuff like that for awhile now. It started out as a way to get to the next town without having to take so much gear with us. Since all the airplane flights got all tangled up and stuff, with just an acoustic guitar and a few minimal pieces, we were able to hop on a plane and not have to deal with so much baggage. Some shows I do are acoustic and others are electric now with a quartet. I come from both places. There’s a part of me that likes to pull the amp out and cause a riot. There’s another part that’s more introspective. I think both go hand in hand.

Q: Last year, you did gigs where you included most of “Call of the West.” How’d that go over with fans?
A: A lot of people had been asking me to play something like that for awhile. Since it was coming up on the 25th anniversary of the record, I thought it was a good time to pull those songs out and do a show that would act as flypaper, I’d say.

Q: Lately, more acts have been doing shows revolving around one classic album.
A: With the way things are in the music business, it’s always good to remind folks of the album. Everything is so singles oriented now with downloading and stuff. It leads people to discover new things. I’m still an album guy. I may be old fashioned in that regard. I like the concept album. It’s more like a book with chapters in it. All together, the chapters add up to something bigger than its parts.

Q: You did that on the “Snakebite” CD, where you divided it into three acts.
A: I couldn’t help myself. It was actually a deeper experience for me. I don’t know if it just confuses the hell out of everybody else. That’s just the way it goes. I have to involve myself to the point where I have the energy to say, ‘I’m really getting something out of this.’ Certainly, there’s other parts of me that say, ‘Maybe nobody’s really understanding this concept thing.’ I think they do. It’s been very encouraging to do some of these ‘Call of the West’ shows because it brings out a lot of people who maybe haven’t been out of their house in 25 years…maybe they have teenagers now. And music is an exciting thing for them, discovering what’s in their parents’ collection. I think there is a time where you have to camp out for a moment, raise the flashlight in the air and beacon everyone, bring them into the barbeque, give them all a rubdown, plant a flag and we march on into the future. I will tell you this – the ‘Call of the West’ shows have been a combination of all my time in Wall of Voodoo and solo stuff. We don’t play the entire record from front to back like some other groups have done. It seems to make more sense for us to do 6 or 8 and mix them up with the rest. They all kind of hang together anyway like a huge voodoo Britannica.

Q: The reviews for “Snakebite” were very positive.
A: I found myself having more material than I actually needed. I cut it down from where the record is now at 16 tracks. That’s why I divided it into three acts, so you could actually listen to Act 1 and say, ‘that’s enough Stan for me. I think I’ll move along and come back to this later.’ I’m always grateful that music is still a real obsession for me. I’m still very much involved in it. Not a day goes by where I’m not doing something with it. What’s funny about music and playing the older songs – music has a life of its own; it breathes in the air. Sometimes I get the question, ‘Stan, how long have you been singing ‘Mexican Radio?’ Do you ever get tired of it?’ I actually really don’t. I guess I get tired of it when I forget it, which has happened, because my head is filled with a lot of newer things. I don’t get tired of singing it because it is still kind of a puzzle to me. The lyrics were written very quickly by me and the music too. It encapsulated a fun spirit for us at that point. The record is a little dark. We liked it that way; the darker themes. I think anybody that bought that record ‘Call of the West’ back then and were expecting to find nine other ‘Mexican Radios’ on it got more than they bargained for. I always thought it was a good calling card, the album, at that time. It led people to a lot of different things.

Q: About five years later, you also had a good run at alt-rock radio with some solo hits.
A: Those are things, I’ve been lucky over time to have been called out of the cracks every now and then. You’re grateful for that as a writer. Every pair of shoes you make, they go out walking and you’re not really sure where they’re going to end up or who’s going to wear them. Songs and their meanings are very interesting over a period of time like 25 years and what people get out them. I talk with other writers all the time. Friends of mine like Dave Alvin and Peter Case, we always sit back and laugh and go, ‘remember that song I wrote about the dog? This guy came up to me and said, ‘that was a great song you wrote about the cat.’ It’s on that level. It’s so much a part of art and poetry, what people bring to it is as important as what you put into it. That keeps it going.

Q: I remember back when MTV’s “120 Minutes” played your videos often.
A: I was actually talking with Mark Mothersbaugh from Devo awhile back and he said, ‘you know, our bands got in there right when the door cracked open a little and let a lot of things in that probably shouldn’t have been let in.’ There we were, being played alongside Haircut 100 and Duran Duran. I would venture to guess that their appeal was different than ours. There you go. Nowadays, there’s more music around than you could possibly listen to. I think the channels of communication are different. There’s so much to paw through, it gets confusing. Back then, with those shows, you could almost say we had a town meeting. Everybody was watching that for awhile. And we were all plugged into the same tape. It was a real exciting time for creativity. Before things got too nailed down with what was supposed to be what. When MTV started, they didn’t have any videos to play or very few. I said, ‘let’s make one of these and get it to them.’ Seemed like a good idea. I had to really argue and fight with the record company to even get a video made. We finally got about $8,000 in a shoebox and made our “Mexican Radio” video in a tiny office space off Hollywood Blvd. and took a weekend down in Mexico and did the rest of the footage. When I sing ‘Mexican Radio,’ I’m throwing it back into the universe with some gratitude. A song doesn’t always pop out like that.

Q: What did you think of Kinky’s new version of the song?
A: I like it. “South Park Mexican,” I’m not sure about that [lyric]. It’s in the chorus and he raps around it. The Kinky guys called me up and I said, ‘Great. What a wonderful anniversary gift. They asked me to be in the video too. I’m in there for about 15 seconds. I play a Mexican border cop who stops the bus. I do a pratfall and get out of the way. I’ve got glasses on and a fake beard.
Q: Johnny Cash was one of your influences, correct?
A: He was a big part of my youth. My father and I both bonded a lot over him. Luther Perkins invented a whole style of guitar playing. What was that old saying? Luther may not play a lot of notes, but he plays the right ones. You’re not going to find those people again like Johnny Cash. I think the thing that made him different – of course he was a great songwriter, vocalist and a persona. What he really did was take a lot of chances with mainstream America on his television show. He introduced people to a lot of artists who probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day on TV. All of Cash’s concepts too. He was an incredibly intelligent man. I met him once in Scotland about 1982. I was up in Edinburgh with Wall of Voodoo and we were staying at the same hotel as Johnny, June and Carleen. They were doing Christmas in Scotland from the castle. I was down in the bar and there was June, nice friendly and fun. And Carlene was there. She knew us and I asked, ‘what do you think your father thinks of us doing ‘Ring of Fire?’ She turned to me and said, ‘Stan, my father’s a strange man’…Carlene said he liked other people doing his songs. The song came about in an interesting way. I’d always played the song in bar bands before Wall of Voodoo. One day we were screwing up with electronics, trying to blow ‘em up and plug ‘em in backwards, out came this sound. From there, I thought, ‘I’ve got to think of a three chord song right away to remember this.’ That turned out to be ‘Ring of Fire.’ There were electronic groups that had a drone; others had more of a twang. I always thought Wall of Voodoo was more like dwang. That’s kind of what we brought.

Q: The last Drywall CD was the third in a trilogy. Will there be more?
A: I don’t think it’s going to be the end of old Drywall yet. I think people will always be able to use Drywall, but we’re in a housing crisis right now. Construction has virtually stopped and we’re storing the drywall here in my closet of chaos…we’re going to have to wait until after the election and see if the interest rate gets lowered.

Q: Speaking of the election, I thought the hidden track, where you spiced together dialogue from a Bush State of the Union speech, was pure comedy. Do you save your more bizarre stuff to Drywall?
A: It seems to lean more in that direction now, although sometime I don’t know what the difference is between a Drywall record and a solo record. I do involve Pietra and Rick more. Things get wilder. It all has to go someplace. As opposed to sprinkling it on some other meal, we might as well make it a spicy firecracker bowl of dynamite and people can know what they’re getting.

Q: “Crooning the Classics” came out in 1998, but it’s now back in print.

A: That’s my mother’s favorite record. She 83 and carries it in her purse. When asked about me, she pulls it out and says, ‘see, my son can sing.’ I really enjoyed doing it. I may do another one soon. It serves two purposes – I love to keep those songs alive for me and my audience and for a singer, it’s like going to school. It’s really an obstacle course of tone and pitch. If you get good at singing those, you can do almost anything. It’s a combination of singing and acting. Sinatra really did lay down the road for those kinds of performances. After I did that record, I tried to find a home for it, but nobody wanted to put it out. So I put it out myself. It’s still a rarity.

Q: You did it before the standards revival.
A: There you go. What’s the old saying? Genius starts the revolution and thieves carry it out. Who said that? Kafka? Lenin?

Q: Since you were on I.R.S. Records and have collaborated with Stewart Copeland, have you caught any of the Police shows?
A: No, I want to when they come back around.

Q: Some people complained about how they tweaked the arrangements here and there.
A: The bigger something gets, the more conservative it can become sometimes. People want their memories in a certain way, bagged and tagged.

Q: As an artist, you want to keep things fresh.
A: You’ve got to let it breathe. Some things are good just the way they are and other things, it depends on your mood. I don’t know. I say more power to them. Otherwise, they just become a jukebox.

Q: Since you were born in Barstow, do you have any memories of the area you can share?
A: I moved out of there when I was about 5 or 6. All I really remember is big expanses of nothing. My eye would travel for lots of miles…I do remember my dad going in and out of the house a lot because he was pretty stressed out. There were a lot of job issues going on. A lot of musicians make art out of scar tissue. You can think you want to choose your influences, but sometimes it’s not that easy; you’re influences choose you. I still feel there’s a little of bit of Barstow in me. I’m still trying to sort out a lot of the things and people I saw back then even before I knew what was going on. There were a lot of people doing curious things for curious reasons and not everything was revealed. I imagine I’m still trying to investigate that condition in people and the difference between a promise and a promise unfulfilled. I don’t know, that’s a lot of American literature. I’m a big fan of the Beat Generation poetry. I think good art is ironic; at the same time, I think it’s something you have to have an examining eye for. I’ve never been one for autobiographical expression. It doesn’t suit me well. I’d rather walk in somebody else’s shoes and imagine what they’re seeing.

Q: What’s next for you in 2008?
A: Hopefully, a new record out this year. Pietra and I might move to a bigger place in L.A., where we can record more.

Thanks to Stan and Cary Baker over at Conqueroo PR for setting everything up. Go to http://www.stanridgway.com/ to purchase any of the CDs mentioned in the interview, plus a lot more.


2 comments:

idafanida said...

What a great interview with Stan! I regret that I had to miss both recent chances to see him locally due to conflicts ... but I saw him last year at McCabes and am now 'hooked' on his live shows. I'm going to forward to review to other fans.

Robert Kinsler said...

Great interview! I've seen him before and he is a strong performer armed with a wealth of wonderful tunes!