This is yet another in a series of 'rescued' articles.
Tangento has used various methods, including caches
and Wayback Machines to combat the ongoing plague
of: 'Dead Link Syndrome'. All text copyright as stated.
All images were guesstimated and/ or scanned.


Breaking down the
Wall of Voodoo

By: Jon Young
Photos: Ann Summa, Paul Natkin, Scans, Pilferings

(Original text, some images) Trouser Press
July 1983
© Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press, Inc
212 Fifth Ave
New York, NY 10010

What a set-up! The leader of a band named Wall of Voodoo should be interviewed in an appropriate spot, right? This must be the place: a tiny room in a scuzzy Manhattan hotel just a knife’s toss from Times Square. This humble, bug-ridden edifice could easily be the setting for an atmospheric Voodoo tune about life on the fringe. But let’s not get carried away, because the Voodoo chief I encounter on a sunny afternoon is clearly not one of the characters in his offbeat songs.
Stanard (call him Stan-everybody else does) Ridgway, 25, turns out to be one of that rare breed devoted to popular, as opposed to art, music.

By the end of our lengthy chat his quick wit and sensible observations have revealed an intelligent and very appealing fellow.

Fortunately for you and me, this interview occurs when Ridgway is at a thought-provoking crossroads. Thanks to the popularity of "Mexican Radio," Wall of Voodoo faces the distinct possibility of commercial success. Not only is that spooky 45 inching up the charts, but the accompanying "Call of the Wild" LP is nestled snugly in the lower regions of the Top 50. That’s a big change for a band whose previous recordings brought only limited recognition.

Stan Ridgway
Probably no one is more surprised than Ridgway. "I'm not used to this," he admits. "Before, when we put out a record, we'd tour for a couple of months, then go back home to make another one or do laundry. This record hasn't gone away, so we we’re out on the road that much longer. It’s getting popular in England and Europe now, and we're playing places in the States that we played four months ago."

The audiences are different this time around. "More diverse crowds are coming out now. It's not just the 150 art monsters anymore, but kids and older people too." Which is just fine: "You don't want to play to a handful of people and a dog. That gets depressing."

People are turning out for Wall of Voodoo on the strength of "Mexican Radio," but what are they coming away with? Ridgway isn’t sure.

"I'm not very good at judging how the band comes off," he explains. "I've always looked at what we do as multileveled. Some of it is completely absurd and some of it is seriously absurd. A kid could like as much as someone older, but in a different way. We're definitely not serious enough to be considered an art band.

"The songs are a bunch of little Twilight Zones strung together."

Although he denies any significance, Stan Ridgway's earliest stab at show business was with a Knucklehead ventriloquist's dummy at age nine. Ventriloquism, you might say, was a more primitive attempt at control than voodoo.

He grew up in Los Angeles, in a house full of country-and-western music. From there Ridgway got into blues, then jazz, then classical. "I went to music school as a guitar player and got totally burned out," he notes.

By the mid - '70s he was committed to bebop. "Charlie Parker was my hero. I wanted to be the Ornette Coleman of guitar. But it got to the point where I didn't want to go in that direction anymore; it had become a question of who's the fastest gun. I wanted to simplify the structures of 'jazz-rock confusion music' and perhaps make songs out of it."

Ridgway's experiments circa 1976 foreshadowed much of what makes Voodoo's music intriguing today. If he sounds like an egghead, this explanation is really very simple:

"I started working with rhythm machines because I wanted to alter the ratio between rhythmic and harmonic elements. In most songs the chords move along very evenly-dum, dum, dum-and so do the drums. I was bored with that orthodox setup.

"I came across the idea of making the rhythm go a different speed than the chords. That sets up a relationship the listener can enjoy whether he's aware of it or not. I wanted to get away from the kind of music where people said, 'He sure plays that diminished scale so groovy over that chord!’ That's so pedantic."

In 1977 Ridgway formed a partnership with guitarist Marc Moreland, who introduced him to the work of Kraftwerk, Eno and kindred spirits. One thing that did not figure in his plans was the rapidly spreading punk movement, which he describes as "three chords, a cloud of dust, and a hearty hi-yo Silver. I enjoyed the aggression, but.. .." (His education is showing.)

Under the name Acme Soundtracks, Ridgway and Moreland pitched camp in a cheap LA office and began hustling their music to filmmakers around town. It wasn't a living, but offered the proverbial good experience. Some of Acme's "soundtracks" - recorded on "a couple of two-track machines in the office" ended up on Wall of Voodoo's recorded debut, a self-titled EP.
"At this point we were editing ourselves down, trying to focus on one particular area," Ridgway explains. Much of his energy went toward defining the kind of material he wanted to write.

"I've always liked mixing somber or melancholy melodies with incongruous elements. If you put happy or positive lyrics on top of sad-sounding music, what emotion do you translate to the listener? Those feelings can be a lot more interesting than just 'Get on down'."

With the addition of Marc's brother Bruce, Wall of Voodoo was ready for its first gig. They opened for a group called the Eyes, which included future Go-Go Charlotte Caffey.

"It was Bruce on synthesizers, me on Farfisa, with the rhythm machine on top of it, and Marc on guitar," Ridgway recalls. "Right before we started playing Marc tripped over the light cord and the whole place went dark, except for the little red lights on the amps. Everyone thought it was high concept, so maybe that's where a lot of the myths and lies began."

There was plenty of conscious intent in the music. "As pretentious as it may sound, we wanted to make our own version of popular music. We were calling it 'Top 40 avant-garde' but we didn't want to be elitist like a lot of the dry art music that was going around. Our approach was decidedly less serious. Some people expected an electronically-derived band to be cold and sterile, and play songs about robots or spaceships. I knew we weren't gonna write about that."

They took the name Wall of Voodoo because, he says, "I've always been interested in Phil Spector and his wall-of-sound approach to recording. And Wall of Voodoo seemed to describe best what we were doing."

The name-meant to signify everyday strangeness rather than traditional supernatural voodoo-has sometimes been a handicap.

"Things probably would have been a lot easier for us over the last three or four years if we'd called ourselves the Dots. We've had opposition from conservative radio stations in the Midwest who might like one of our songs but couldn't play it because of the name. I guess I was pretty naive; I didn't think Wall of Voodoo was so outrageous."

The trio became a quintet in 1979 with the addition of percussionist/drummer Joe Nanini, another refugee from the jazz world, and keyboardist Chas Gray.

Bill Noland, Stan Ridgway, Chas T. Gray, Joe Nanini, Marc Moreland
"It wasn't my intention to be the singer," Ridgway says. "I just wanted to play guitar and be the Lawrence Welk of the group, but we couldn't find anybody who suited our material; everyone wanted to be Iggy. I think my own vocal influences are closer to Ethel Merman than anyone else."
When Wall of Voodoo opened for the Cramps at the Whisky in LA, Miles Copeland of IRS was in the audience.

Smitten, he arranged to distribute the group's EP, released on the Index label, and later signed Voodoo outright.

The six-track Wall of Voodoo laid the groundwork for subsequent LPs. It includes "Long Arm," based on Ridgway’s experience as a moving van dispatcher, snippets from the Acme days and a frightening rendition of Johnny Cash's "Ring, of Fire," so bent out of shape that much of Wall of Voodoo's audience took it for an original.

The EP's mechanized heebie-jeebies compelled many to liken the band to Devo. Ridgway doesn't find the comparison all that far-fetched.

"I first saw Devo right after they'd released their 'Jocko Homo' single, which I thought sounded like Frank Zappa. I was really impressed with their stage show. It was very lean and the volume wasn't really loud; at that point everybody else was turning up the volume to blow the roof off the building. Devo came off like five nerd scientists, as opposed to the way they come off now, which I'm confused about. Now they're clowning; then they were more serious but more absurd at the same time."

"Devo was doing somewhat the same thing we were trying to do: make cliché-free music.

Devo is so tenacious that people have acquired respect for them. Everyone thinks they're assholes, but they're still doing it!"

The two bands have diverged significantly over the last few years. Devo's music has become lighter and more cartoon-like, while Ridgway has continued to pursue simple intricacy - [Huh?-Ed.]

"I've always wanted each part of the song to be essential to the material-to use a '60s term, organic. So if you heard one part by itself you'd be engaged, and all the parts together would create a kaleidoscopic effect."

The EP cover features a strange statuette of a determined-looking dog. It has a place in the grand Voodoo scheme of things, according to Ridgway.

"We needed a voodoo object for the cover, so I bought some cheap Tijuana statuary: a hawk, a little baby, a snake and this dog. I took 'em all home and put 'em on the living room rug. After a while the dog started to work its way out of the crowd. I liked the dog because it was a solitary figure. It didn't look as if it had any opinion one way or the other about its environment; it just looked solid and steady. Then, as well as now, I was orienting the music toward individual concerns rather than tribal or movement Concerns."
(That little critter resurfaces on the Call of the West inner sleeve.)

That EP also has a lyric sheet with fine print soliciting SASE's: "for information on how to obtain 'It's a Dog's Life."' If you applied and never received anything, Ridgway apologizes. He insists a fact-filled "Dog's Life" newsletter will be coming your way one of these days.

Wall of Voodoo released its first LP in 1981. Highlighted by such skin-crawling delights as "Animal Day" and "Back in Flesh," Dark Continent's taut, simmering power lingers like a neurotic afterthought.

Ridgway describes it as "storytelling combined with mood-inducing music that will make that story more vivid in someone's imagination. It's just a matter of taking the listener on a little trip."

However potent, Dark Continent did little to expand Wall of Voodoo's following. There was no spin-off single from the LP, but Ridgway feels the record suffered more from the vagaries of musical fashion.

"New wave disco was coming to the fore then, and we were at a different point entirely. I like to listen to dance music, but I don't think I'm primarily a dance music writer."

Call of the West, in 1982, brought two significant changes to Wall of Voodoo. Bruce Moreland left, to be replaced by Bill Nolan, formerly of LA's Human Hands; and Richard Mazda became the group's producer. The man behind the Cosmetics as well as producer of the Fleshtones, Mazda hit it off with Ridgway before the sessions. When recording began, it was another story.

"Richard and I almost killed each other," Ridgway says. "We argued a whole lot, though never once over ideological matters. I was concerned with wasting time. There's a certain amount of experimenting you can do in the studio, and after that you get totally absurd.

"In retrospect, I see that it was worthwhile. In 'Call of the West,' for example, a lot of little things are going on that at first we thought weren't essential, but later on we saw added to the imagery of the song. That's what I'd wanted to do with the album-make it a picture in your mind. It was almost an excuse for not having made a movie."

Well put. Call of the West has a vividness lacking in previous Wall of Voodoo efforts, with pungent lyrics and colorful melodies fleshing out a picture earlier records only suggested. "Hands of Love" and "Lost Weekend" achieve the elusive state of serious absurdity, making you want to laugh and cry at the same time.

Then there's "Mexican Radio," the giddy, evocative single that's raised the band's profile so dramatically.

"Los Angeles has a lot of Mexican radio stations that bounce off the mountains. Some days they're there, and others you try to find them and they're gone. Before I wrote the song I was thinking about people in LA tuning their car radios to try to find 'real' [English-language] music. I like to listen to sounds or a language I don't understand; you can leave the country without leaving your car. We put the song together with that in mind. 'Mexican Radio' is a romantic tale of ethnic bewilderment, of vanishing urban communications."

Not to mention Wall of Voodoo's ticket to a new and bigger audience. Though he attributes it to luck more than anything else, Ridgway is unequivocably pleased with his band's new popularity.

"Now I know there'll be a larger opportunity to put the animal on its head and give it a good spin," he says, "as opposed to just a certain segment listening to us. It's more exciting, knowing there's a larger audience to write for. Whether like what I do or not isn't as important to me as their hearing it. It's almost like one vast experiment."
Despite the chart action, Ridgway's standard for achievement remains his own judgment, not sales.

"Successful music for me is something that engages you from start to finish. Brian Wilson's music and arrangements still excite me. The guy could barely swim, let alone surf, but through his music he built what later became the California dream-which never existed in the first place. I find that interesting."

Just as Beach Boys fans assumed that group was composed of surfers, Wall of Voodoo fans expect Ridgway to be a real version of one of his songs' imaginary oddballs. He's reluctant to label himself "normal" - why dispel all the mystery? - but he does say, "I don't consider myself weird, but I don't consider myself straight-ahead normal either."

"Most of the songs I write are from a character's point of view. I've always found myself pretty dull; I'm the last person I'd want to write about. I'd rather explore another person's outlook.

Joe Nanini, Stan Ridgway, Chas Gray, Marc Moreland
"Mixing up the persona with the personality used to concern me. In the song 'Factory' [on Call of the West] the character is an incredible monster who slaps his wife around. His only freedom in life is that he has the choice to go to sleep. I used to worry the audience would think that was me.
I'm not that concerned anymore, because if people do get confused there's nothing I can do about it. Maybe it's a testament to how well I'm doing."

Ridgway is discovering that no amount of intellectualizing can explain the strangeness of stardom.

"People want extraordinary things from performers," he remarks. "You do have a responsibility to yourself and to the audience to make your best shot and not be lazy. But why, after all that, do people want to come up to you on the street and feel your tie?

"I guess I'm still more attuned to appreciate music on the jazz level; you never ran after Rashied Ali and tried to cut off his coattail. I'm not saying I don't want that to happen to me. It's interesting."

"Interesting" as in a strange game, that is. Ridgway hasn't lost his sense of perspective on the impermanence of show-business success.

"Sometimes the record business is like dice. This year we happen to be more popular than last year, and hopefully we can be in a better position next year to reach that many more people."

"But if the bottom fell out tomorrow, it wouldn't break my heart."


If NOT in Frames: