Interviews
Ivan Julian

An interview with the Voidoids founder

Ivan Julian

Ivan Julian, best known as a member of the pioneering punk ensemble Richard Hell and the Voidoids, has been a fixture on the New York music scene ever since starting that band. He had been a band leader and high profile side man to Shriekback and Matthew Sweet, and in recent years has focused on his recording studio in Brooklyn, Super Giraffe Sound, where he produces music for other artists. In February, Ivan released his second solo album, Swing Your Lanterns on Pravda Records. I spoke to Ivan via Skype about that album as well as his long and varied career in music.

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Bob Pomeroy: You had some interesting experiences before you landed in the New York rock scene. One of the things I found very interesting is that you spent part of your childhood growing up at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. What kind of effect did that have on your development?

Ivan Julian: Well, it was paradise. ‘cause I was a little kid. There were blue skies, the occasional hurricane with houses flying by. It was on a military base, so we were completely isolated. We weren’t allowed to go into Cuba — the Cubans were allowed to come to the base and do menial jobs and stuff like that, but we weren’t allowed to go there.

It was a naval base, so the government completely controlled all the media. So, I mean, as a kid, the only music I remember hearing was Burl Ives and “On Top of Old Smokey.” I liked it, because I was young and I was running around in the jungle and on the beach and stuff.

Bob Pomeroy: But you had to leave Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Ivan Julian: Yeah. And that was quite shocking actually, because we got evacuated within hours of that whole thing going down. I remember being in school and then someone coming into class and whispering to the teacher and the teacher started crying. I thought, hmm, this is interesting. I’ve never seen this before. And then we were directed to get on the bus and go home. When I got home at about 11:30 in the morning, my mother had everything packed. And that was it, pretty much. We were rounded up and taken down to the docks, put onto this boat and sent out of Cuba.

So we were out of Cuba by, I would say, two or three that afternoon. And then the fun part came, which was coming to an America that I’d never experienced before. It’s nothing like being on a naval base, because there were sociopolitical pressures and diversities going on that we just didn’t experience there.

Bob Pomeroy: So how was that culture shock of arriving in the United States? How drastic was that contrast to what you experienced in Cuba?

Ivan Julian: Well, there was no segregation to speak of. The base was segregated, but it was segregated by rank. In other words, all the officers had their area and all the enlisted people had their area. There was no segregation by race. And when I came here, I ended up down in rural Maryland with my father’s family.

So for instance, I went in to go to church with my cousins, and I see an empty church. So I sit down on the right side of the church, and they all grab me hysterically and go, “oh no, you can’t sit there. You have to go to the other side.” I’m like, “what are you talking about?” And they said, “oh, because that’s the white side, and this is the colored side.” And I just thought, this is happening in a church? So that was one thing that really kind of shocked me. People just seemed, I don’t know, more, brutal than what I was used to.

Bob Pomeroy: More brutal?

Ivan Julian: Just more violence-oriented, let’s put it that way.

Bob Pomeroy: That’s it, it’s not the America that we ideally want, but how to go about fixing it? I don’t know.

Ivan Julian: Well, no place is perfect. I’ve lived all over the world, and everybody has their problems. This is a pretty severe problem we’re talking about, but I mean, in any country there’s problems.

I’ve been watching Sky News lately. I don’t know why. ‘Cause I guess I can’t get enough of American problems, so I want to hear about English problems. Big thing over there is where people are just kind of grabbing people and stabbing them, abducting them. I dunno what’s going on. You know, the whole world’s going crazy.

Sam Chen
Ivan Julian

Bob Pomeroy: You mentioned that you’ve lived a lot of different places, and that brings up another thing that I’m curious about. Your first professional experiences were in England, where you worked for a band called the Foundations.

Ivan Julian: Yeah. Foundations. Yeah.

Bob Pomeroy: And that’s a world away from the Voidoids. How did that experience influence your approach to music and your approach to the profession?

Ivan Julian: Well, I look at it like this. I grew up in the Washington D.C. area, and then there were radio stations that played everything. You would hear the Four Tops and then you would hear the Rolling Stones. You would hear the Supremes, and then you’d hear the Kinks. You know, it was all like kind of conglomerate on one radio station. So to me, this is all rock and roll. I went to England looking for a rock and roll band, but I ended up with the Foundations and there wasn’t that much difference, you know? I mean, it was still music and it was still songs. I mean, their song “Build Me Up Buttercup” is as much a rock and roll song as it is a soul song. When I came back to New York and met Richard [Hell], I was playing rock and roll guitar like I did in the Foundations.

Having said that, they did kind of reel me back a bit. The Foundations was like, I was a little bit too wild, so they said no, play more calmly.

Bob Pomeroy: Well, you didn’t have to to do that when you got back to New York. When you were in that New York scene, did you ever think that what you were going through, what you were doing, would be something that people would be talking about and analyzing and emulating 40, 50 years later?

Ivan Julian: Yes, I did think that. CBGB was this tiny room in the Bowery, and I remember just going, it’s just so strange that so many people have gathered from all over the country and sometimes all over the world just to play in this tiny room.

It was like a pilgrimage or something, or a calling that people had, not knowing really where they were going or why. I thought, people are gonna remember this somehow. Just like they remembered the jazz scene in the early ’50s with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. There’s no way that it won’t be. Having said that, I am always surprised when a 19 year old comes up to me and goes, ‘Hey, Voidoids.” And I’m like, what?

Bob Pomeroy: What was called punk in the ’70s was a feeling you could try anything.

Ivan Julian: It reminded me of this movie by Robert Altman called Nashville. The movie made a very strong impression on me, because after being in the studio all day or performing their gigs, they would all go to clubs and watch each other play, just kind of see what their peers were doing. It was the same at CBGBs. There were so many different styles and genres of music there. That all got put under the umbrella of punk, because it was coming from this same club pretty much. In terms of music styles, exactly, as long as you weren’t obviously corporate, then you were welcome to do whatever.

Think of it, what’s the similarity between Blondie and Television musically? They have guitars? They got put under the umbrella of punk by the media, really.

Bob Pomeroy: We can’t talk about the era without talking specifically about the Voidoids. Not the most prolific band on the scene, but can you tell me a little about what it was like being in that band at that time with those people?

Ivan Julian: Well, we knew 10 songs and we knew ‘em well. With them, I was able to communicate. No, we were not the most prolific band, but I mean, we did have many songs that never came out because of record company difficulties and stuff like that.

Musically, I felt like I was in a place where I needed to be because I was writing. That’s one of the reasons I joined the band. I wasn’t touring as much as I’d like because I’d just come from a band where we were touring nonstop. That was definitely a problem. but musically, I liked it a lot.

Bob Pomeroy: After you left the Voidoids, you had a couple other bands, the Outsets and the Lovelies. I looked online for some of that music, and I couldn’t really find much.

Ivan Julian: Of the Lovelies?

Bob Pomeroy: Yeah, or the Outsets.

Ivan Julian: Oh, Outsets. I don’t know if there’s anything out there. If you look on YouTube, there’s something somewhere, I think. They’re on really small record labels. The Lovelies record label guy told me that they’re not making CDs, because they’re never gonna go do anything, it’s just a trend. So he printed up some LPs and a lot of cassettes. I might release that stuff someday, because it’s not a bad record. It’s me and the lead singer of the Bush Tetra, Cynthia Slay.

Bob Pomeroy: Did you guys get to tour much?

Ivan Julian: With the Voidoids, we did two tours of England. We opened for the Clash on both. We did a couple of Midwestern tours. We got flown out to L.A. to play the Hollywood Palladium, and that didn’t work out too well. We ended up getting the money and getting back on a plane.

Bob Pomeroy: And that led to your involvement with the Clash on Sandanista!?

Ivan Julian: Well, they were friends of mine, and they asked me to come down and say hello. They were recording in New York at Electric Lady Studios. So I went, and we were just chatting around, and then they started playing. I said Joe, gimme your guitar. And then I started playing on this thing that was just a jam at the time. Then about a month later, Mick Jones calls me up and goes, “you gotta go get your check at Columbia.”

I said, why?

He goes, “because that thing we did is the single from the record, ‘The Call Up’.” I went, wow, cool.

Bob Pomeroy: That’s always a nice surprise.”

Ivan Julian: “If Mick hadn’t called me, the check still would be sitting there, I’m sure. Without accruing any interest.

Bob Pomeroy: The Outsets and Lovelies — did you guys get to tour very much?

Ivan Julian: Well, the Outsets toured the northeast a lot and Canada. I tell you, we toured almost more than than the Voidoids did. The Lovelies, we didn’t really tour that much.

Bob Pomeroy: You were involved with some other high profile bands. You were a hired gun for Shriekback and Matthew Sweet. How do you approach your work when you’re playing in somebody else’s band?

Ivan Julian: Well, I do what I do, and hopefully they like it. In both those situations it was a thing where they just kind of said, “okay, the song is in this key, go.” I just played the way I normally play, of course, adhering to the song. Matthew’s formula is, he writes really glistening pop songs, and then he hires people like myself and Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd to come in and play really horrible guitar over the whole thing. That’s how he works, which is great for us and great for him.

Bob Pomeroy: “That’s good that it works out for everybody and keeps things interesting.

Ivan Julian: Absolutely. I played with Sandra Bernhardt for a while, too. That was was fun, because it was at a theater in New York. It was two blocks from my house.

To answer your question, I did rep myself out, because I was getting paid. That’s the antithesis of having your own band and losing money all the time.

Bob Pomeroy: Nice to be able to pay your bills on time and all that. You do a lot of production work these days?

Ivan Julian: Yeah, I have my own studio in Brooklyn called Super Giraffe Sound. I’ve had my own studio since the ’90s. I love producing, because to me it’s all about the music. It’s all about making music. I was always obsessed with the sound of records and the sound of the different instruments and how they came together.

I produced three Fleshtones albums. I produced a band called Hunx and his Punx that were really great. And the band called Marquis from France. I had Vernon Reed come in and play on a tune. It was great.

Bob Pomeroy: Your new record, Swing Your Lanterns is out now. So how long did it take you to put that record together?

Ivan Julian: I dunno, 30 years? I’m joking. It happened over the past couple of years, and of course it was interrupted by the whole pandemic and all that. It took about two years to actually put together.

Bob Pomeroy: Well, I’ve been listening to it a lot. I read you referred to it as a novel. You can follow the characters and story throughout the record.

Ivan Julian: Yeah, another analogy could be a good record. People have asked me, what’s your favorite record? A good record is like a tour of a house. It’s like they are all in the same house, but every room has its own fun function and its own attraction, but it’s part of the house. That’s another analogy for it as well.

Bob Pomeroy: You covered quite a range of emotion on this record, from hopelessly in love to the hopelessly jaded. I wouldn’t say hopelessly jaded, but you don’t get a love song like “Tell Me Lies” coming along that often.

Ivan Julian: Yeah, that’s really kinda laying yourself bare. I’m a huge fan of, and I aspire to be one of the brave writers, people that are really brave and not afraid to say things that expose part of themselves. Howlin’ Wolf comes to mind. He’s a really brave writer.

So is Dylan. Even though he’s supposed to be very private. If you listen to his lyrics, like songs off of Blood On The Tracks, he’s just completely letting himself bare all. It’s great. I admire songs and writers like that.

Bob Pomeroy: The title track is one that you didn’t write yourself. What about that song made it the title track? What made you want to do that song?

Ivan Julian: Well, I played on that song with a friend/client of mine and actually produced his version of it. I liked the political message that it had. Just the vibe of the whole thing. When I was making this record, Will Croxton goes, “you should rerecord ‘Swing Your Lanterns’ because you really sang it great.”

And I thought, okay. And I did it, and it just became the statement for the record. At first I was gonna call it “I Am Not a Drone Alone.” Even though it’s written by my good friend Will Croxton, I thought this is gonna be the title cut. I thought, well, Frank Sinatra released “My Way” and he didn’t write that, so that’s fine.

Bob Pomeroy: Well, it does touch on the dark side on the record. “Drone Alone” is also kind of in that mode. Do you feel that some of the songs can almost feel like a dystopian novel?

Ivan Julian: Well, exactly. You exactly hit it right on the head. Especially “I’m Not A Drone Alone,” it’s totally dystopian. Not apocalyptic, but dystopian. It came from a lot of dystopian images that I’d witnessed, and even movies like the movie Rollerball. You know the scene from Rollerball, and the elites are standing on a ridge taking flame throwers and blowing up trees?

I just thought, this is pertinent and it makes sense now. Another influence for that was if you’ve ever been to Detroit, if you drive just north of the city, near where all the auto factories were. There’s still these glowing pile and piles of coke, the stuff they used to make steel. And it’s just glowing there and smoldering forever. That had a really strong impression on me as well, and helped me write that song.

Bob Pomeroy: On the optimistic side, you’ve got “Love is Good,” which kind of is a reminder not to give up.

Ivan Julian: Exactly. Exactly. Because in the end, you have to remember that love is good. It’s good to have in your life now. I don’t just mean sexual love. I mean love in general. Love as an emotion is a good thing to carry with you. And somewhere there’s someone else that feels the same way. We’re all bonded together with that. So, yes, that’s what I feel about that.

Bob Pomeroy: I wish this record came out a little bit earlier, so that my radio friends could be playing “Voodoo Christmas” for the holiday season. That one kind of makes me think of the Gris Gris album by Dr. John.

Ivan Julian: I saw him play once. There was some kind of weird casino thing they had in a loft for charity. They hired him to play blues piano. So he is sitting at this grand piano playing blues. God, he was really, really, really great.

I talked to the label about releasing it as a single. “Voodoo Christmas” is really about having a bad day. It’s like, oh, this is a Voodoo Christmas. It’s just a phrase I came up with. So it can be any time of the year that you’re having a Voodoo Christmas.

Bob Pomeroy: So you can have your Voodoo Christmas anytime.

Ivan Julian: Yeah. I also wanted to address the fact that there’s always this kind of forced sardonic smile we’re all supposed to have at Christmas time. Some people just don’t feel it at Christmas.I figured these people need a song of their own as well. They need their own Christmas song, as opposed to Jack Frost nipping at your nose.

Bob Pomeroy: Yep.We definitely do need our own kinda Christmas song.

Ivan Julian: That’s my one kind of musical kryptonite. When I go into a store around Christmas time and this stuff dangling in my ear. It almost sends me into convulsions.

Bob Pomeroy: So do you have any plans to be touring in support of this album?

Ivan Julian: Yes. We’re looking for a booking agent right now. As a matter of fact. If you know anyone, I’m happy to hear about them. I do love touring and I especially want to get this record out there and play it live in front of people.

I have a band together in New York I call the Magnificent Six, because I thought this is what they are. It takes a lot of people to play this live on stage. Even though, if I tour, I’ll probably only take four, because you know, finances. But yeah, I’m really looking forward to trying to get this out and on the road. ◼

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