Ivan Julian: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

Ivan Julian Interview

Feature Photo: courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media.

An Interview with Ivan Julian, formerly of Ricard Hell the Voidoids

As a founding member of the Voidoids, guitarist Ivan Julian’s angular yet cerebral approach to the guitar has influenced droves of punk and art rockers throughout NYC.

But Julian’s influence is not confined to the Tri-State area; no, the veteran six-stringer charm via music has enticed would-be axe slingers worldwide to pick up a guitar and strum. Through a complex amalgam of songsmith, visceral musicality, and guttural whimsy, Julian has played a part in the music of The Clash, Matthew Sweet, and many more en route to a storied career.

Still, while it’s evolved, at its core, Julian’s poetry set to music hasn’t changed all that much over the years, nor has his undying desire to create it. To that end, fans will enjoy Julian’s latest and greatest, Swing Your Lanterns, a record that’s as emotionally stirring as it is musically jarring.

As he prepares to support Swing Your Lanterns, Ivan Julian dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to talk new music, his approach to the guitar, along with many of the stops he’s made along the way.

Tell me about your new record, Swing Your Lanterns.

I’m very psyched about this record. I’m touching on some musical influences that I’ve wanted to let be known for some time. We were also able to assemble an amazing group of musicians to bring it to life, and it was recorded on two-inch tape at my studio Supergiraffe Sound!

What was happening in your life that manifested these songs?

My heart was breaking; I was listening to Dylan and reading Ovid.

How did the current state of our society affect the lyrical content? 

The current state of our society is the current state of our society. By that, I mean there’s always something, somewhere, that can act as a catalyst for a song. Admittedly, the past two years have been surreal for most of the world, especially for those that live in cities like New York because we live on top of and so close to one another, regardless of our station in life. Sirens wailing through the night. Ambulances lined up in front of apartment buildings to bring out the unfortunate and the dead. It was absolutely dystopian. “I am Not a Drone (alone)” came to mind on Swing Your Lanterns.

Describe your modern-day approach to songwriting. How has that evolved?

There was a time when I would come up with an idea, then take it to the band and hammer it out. Now, I come up with an idea, then take it to my machines and hammer it out. This gives me a sketch, so to speak, that I can present to the band. I like doing it this way because I have definite views on each song’s instrumentation.

Take me through the production and how the sounds of this record were honed in.

Like most people, I start with the drums. I take great care in getting good, tuned tones on the drums and all of the instruments, for that matter. I’m lucky enough to be able to record to two-inch tape where the drums sound best. I have a theory about this. The air is not quantized to ones and zeros the way it is on digital recordings. I noticed this while listening to the overhead drum mics. that was recorded on tape, and wondering why they sounded so warm and compelling. I A/B’d the overheads with a digital recording and realized it was the air. The air was not being chopped up. It’s more noticeable on these microphones because of their distance from the source.

The story of you burning your Chuck Taylor’s is well known. How meaningful was that event, and how is that rebellious spirit still reflected in your music today?

It was very meaningful. I was very young and living in the suburbs and had just come back from seeing Jimi Hendrix play at Baltimore Civic Centre. This was my very first concert. His performance resonated with a voice in me that said you owe it to yourself to be true to yourself, free from peer pressure and the status quo. I admire courageous songwriters. Lucinda Williams is courageous; Howlin’ Wolf was courageous!

What did you learn from touring as a member of the Foundations that you still carry with you to this day?

I learned work ethic. Those guys worked hard all the time. Sometimes we would have two gigs in two different cities on the same date.

Describe the scene you were privy to when you first arrived in NYC. What were your early impressions?

Cacophonous. Chaos. New York was a wild place in the seventies, and I fed off of that chaos and transmuted it into guitar riffs.

Take me through the formation of the Voidoids. How did you first meet Richard Hell?

I had just arrived from Europe and placed an ad in Musicians Classified magazine that read, “Have Gear, Will Travel.” There was a featured article with him on the front cover. Bob Quine saw the ad and called me up to invite me to an audition at Daily Planet Studios on 30th street. Years later, it was the same room where I auditioned for Shriekback. Anyway, Richard was there with Bob and Marc. They had sketches of three songs and a production deal which fell in with my plan to be able to write.

What are your memories of the recording of Blank Generation? What was your approach to the guitar and songwriting along with Richard?

It was Spring after a long Winter. I was completely psyched that we would record at the legendary Electric Lady Studios. As most know, we recorded the album twice, the second time at Plaza Sound in the Radio City Complex. While listening to the mix of the title song Blank Generation at Plaza, it came to the Oooo’s, and everything went black. The tape and the Oooo’s slowly ground to a halt. We thought we had blown a fuse (again) from listening too loud, thus blowing the amplifiers. In fact, it was the beginning of a regional power blackout in New York City and the surrounding area that lasted for days.

What led to the end of the band, and how do you measure its importance on you and the genre retrospectively?

Richard (Hell) disdained the music industry, and it was hard for him to tour. This made things progressively more difficult. The genre was important because it forced the corporate distributors, i.e., record companies, to take note and stop releasing cookie-cutter bands with no songs and no substance. I’m always amazed when a twenty-year-old today is aware of the Voidoids and the Blank Generation LP. It’s become a rite of passage.

How do you feel you stretched out musically with The Outsets?

I met Georgio Gomelsky, who managed the Yardbirds and the Stones early in their career. He introduced me to Fela Kuti and Ethiopian rock recordings. This opened a world of new rhythms and scales that I absorbed into my music. I no longer felt limited to just drawing from American blues and rock. Also, the drummer Vinny DeNunzio was heavily into Jamaican Dub, which helped.

The music of The Outsets seemed to reflect the early ’80s NY scene. Would you agree? Was that the intention?

If you mean percussion-based, yes, it was intentional. A lot of bands from CBGB were getting booked into large discotheques. I guess it was their attempt to cash in on the East Village scene. I noticed that when we came onstage to play our rock songs to this new audience, they would move away from the stage to the edge of the room. So, armed with my newfound influences, I wrote and rewrote songs to see if I could change this. Having said that, a review in the Village Voice of one of our shows pointed out, “Finally a band that doesn’t play dreary, alienated funk.”    

How did you end up working with the Clash for “Call Up?” Was there ever talk of you joining the band?

I knew them from a tour of England where the Voidoids were the opening band. I met the drummer, Topper [Headon], even before that from my time with The Foundations. So, when they came to N.Y. to record Sandinista, they asked me to stop by and say “hello.” That’s how it started, and it turned into a jam session and then a song. Neither they nor I had any thoughts of me joining The Clash.

Take me through the recording of Mad Orphan. Was it meant to be a one-off, or were more releases planned?

It was totally a one-off. I had just returned from several long tours with Shriekback, and my wife at the time said, “You’re staying in town and making a record with me.” So, I did. I financed the recording with my own money – which I know nearly everyone does these days – and a small label took interest.

Two things I took away from that experience: first was my lifelong collaboration with Al Maddy. He’s played on every solo record I’ve made since then. He’s an amazing talent that collaborated with Joey Ramone on his side projects. Unfortunately for him, even though he’s a great guitarist, I usually cajole him into playing piano or organ. But he does play acoustic guitar on “Tell Me Lies” from the new album. He also played xylophone on The Naked Flame LP.

The second was how to present a recording studio. We did the first demos for Mad Orphan at this studio on Broadway in the village, and it was a mess. The PSUs for the mics were turned over on their side. The carpet was worn down to resemble cheesecloth, and there was cat poop everywhere. I never went back. Years later, I had the opportunity to work at Sear Sound with the great Walter Sear. He told me something I’ll never forget: “People hear with their eyes,” he said as he was cleaning the toilets himself!

How did you become involved with Matthew Sweet? Can you recount your contributions to his Girlfriend record? 

Contrary to popular belief, I didn’t play on Girlfriend. I joined the band just after it was made.

How would you best measure your influence over Matthew Sweet during your time with the band?

I helped him realize that since he had a top-10 record, we shouldn’t be staying in dump motels. My playing style gave the live shows a visceral edge that pushed him harder. We could also do some interesting live covers, like “She Said, She Said” by The Beatles.

You seem to be as influenced by jazz musicians as you are by the likes of Hendrix. How has the sound and ethos of jazz shaped you as a guitarist?

I don’t know if I’m so influenced by Hendrix. He was the first show I saw, so, of course, it left a very strong impression, but this is something that just got copied and pasted by a journalist. It’s an easy shot, but my main influence is Keith Richards and the path that he led me on. Open tunings, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, chord structure. This is how I was educated.

As far as jazz, this is something I discovered later in life. I love the way jazz recordings are not so much produced as they are documented; you set up the mics and let people play. One of my favorites is Albert Ayler. His version of “Summertime” is amazing. Then there’s Charlie Parker’s Dial Records recording of “Lover Man,” that’s guaranteed to break your heart. Max Roach’s “Driver Man” – I could go on and on. As a musician, you can’t help but be affected by such things when you hear them.

Did your recovery from cancer alter your outlook on life and as a musician?

Having come very close to the edge, I now see the fragility of everything. Nothing is promised, so use the gift that was given to you while you can.

What guitars and gear do you use these days and why? Do you have one guitar that means the most to you?

It depends on what the sound calls for. I always go for Gibson guitars when I play acoustic, although I have a few nice Epiphones. They’re cheaper, but they have a lot of spirit. There’s a company out of Chicago called Hanson that makes the best 12-string I’ve ever played, including the Rickenbacker. I’ve also recently found out about Earth Quaker Devices. They make some pretty wild pedals. Then there’s the Bulbul Tarang, an Indian instrument that I like to use for texture.

But my favorite axe is the white Strat that you often see me play. I inherited from the Outsets’ bass player, Danny Hirsch when he died years ago. It was in pieces in his living room, so I put it back together, and it sang like a bird. It’s a weird beast because it has an early ’60s Alder wood body with a ’70s neck. Because of that dysfunctional three-screw arrangement with the slant adjust pin, it was always sliding around on the body, so epoxied I it in place. I believe that it made for better sustainability, as well.

To what do you owe your longevity in music?

The need to keep learning and the need to survive as me.

Ivan Julian: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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