Q&A: Stan Ridgway Talks Voodoo, Ethel Merman and Covering "Love Will Keep Us Together"

Categories: Interviews
Stan Ridgeway.jpg
Stan Ridgeway
Stan Ridgway will always be known, for better or worse, as they guy who sings "Mexican Radio."

As the founding member of the legendary new wave act Wall of Voodoo, Ridgway found a musical niche all to himself--some bizarre world where Johnny Cash sang show tunes in the desert.

From 1977 until 1983, Ridgway led Wall of Voodoo to a relatively successful niche in the pop spectrum. But "Mexican Radio" was just one interesting slice of the man's career.

Since 1983, Ridgway has made nearly a dozen solo efforts, each one brimming with originality. Ridgway's most recent album is Neon Mirage, a fairly lush singer-songwriter record that features the nasal twang all so familiar to fans of Wall of Voodoo, but with a maturity that goes along with a guy in his mid 50s.

In anticipation of his stop at Poor David's Pub tonight, Ridgway took some time to speak to DC9 about his new record and the legacy of his former band. Read our Q&A after the jump.

What sets Neon Mirage apart from your other solo efforts and your work with Wall of Voodoo?
Every record is different. I hope I don't sound clichéd saying that. The late Amy Farris is on the record and Dave Alvin produced four tracks and played some guitar. It's like a war making a record. Things happen that you didn't plan--chaos, calamity, things get lost and found again. Things morph into things you didn't even think were going to exist. At the end of the day, it's like that old cliché about herding cats.

When you are making out your current set lists, do you think an artist has an obligation to play those songs that are audience favorites?
I like to play those old songs and they change, you know. I mix it up. Someone has got to sing those songs. I sometimes think of them as cover songs, that I am singing somebody else's tunes. It's not so much of an obligation. When you've been around as long as I have, you sometimes have this pile of stuff. You have to ask yourself, what are we doing tonight? Right now, we are concentrating on the newer stuff and trying to learn how to play that. We'll highlight the new album, but we'll play the "legendary" work of the past as well. It's a fine line that people in music have to balance when you are a creative person. It is very hard to please everybody.

Your singing voice has been described as a mix of Johnny Cash and Ethel Merman. Does that kind of description feel like a mockery of what you do?
Somebody somewhere along the line wrote that and it got used everywhere. I love Ethel Merman and I must have said that somewhere. Merman was a force of nature and I used to listen to her music all the time as a kid.

Do you think that the music of Wall of Voodoo has been stereotyped as cartoonish?
If people do think my music is like a cartoon, that is kind of simplistic. We threw out all kinds of stuff. We wanted to make music from another planet. The influences would be underneath it all. Nobody knew that everything came from "Smokestack Lightning" from Howlin' Wolf. I wanted to make something completely different and original. As I moved along, I knew that I didn't have to make something brand new every time. Back then, I was very into making music that was unheard of.

The heyday of Wall of Voodoo seems to have come at a very important time in popular music. Does it seem that way to you?
That time, the late '70s and early '80s, was a really creative time. There was a lot of momentum in the air to do something original. I remember going down to a punk club and seeing people who wanted to hear original music. I knew that I wanted to give them some. Before that, there wasn't that kind of a scene. It was more of an industry. I was trying to be a working musician. I was in several Top 40 cover bands just in order to live. You haven't lived until you've heard me sing "Love Will Keep Us Together."

Will you do that on this tour?
[Laughs] Oh yes, we will pull that one out.

You've scored several movies. What is it about your music that fits cinema so well?
It's really just part of the whole package. Songs need to be evocative. When you add music to a film, there is a kind of alchemy that takes place. An interesting entity is born from that marriage. Music just by itself can be the language. I am a musician and I enjoy all kinds of music, especially instrumental music.

In some ways, is instrumental music harder to write?
It all has to do with inspiration. And when the inspiration is there, things are not difficult. Creativity really shouldn't be hard work. Creativity shouldn't hurt. It should come from that deep well that we can all pull the water from. It's all there if we can open ourselves up to it. I think writing songs is more difficult. You are juggling the sound of the words. The words might work on the page but they do not work when you sing them.

You've done a kid's album recently. Is there a lot about your music that is childlike?
The music of Wall of Voodoo was very simple, almost nursery rhyme like. When we started out with the idea of making a kids record, we got way too complicated trying to make our own Canterbury Tales. It was a real education to get into that child mindset again. Singing about a blade of grass can be really liberating. We called it Silly Songs for Kids. At the end of the day, it's almost like an art record disguised as a kids' record.

I know you're excited about the new album, but are there any Wall of Voodoo or solo releases that you really enjoy over the others?
No, I can't say that I prefer one over the others because every song is just part of a symphony. I can't really pull one out and say that one is better. They are all snapshots in time. It's a little bit like Polaroid pictures that get snapped while something is moving. Some may be blurry and others are more focused, but they are all what happened. I just try to keep moving.

Stan Ridgway performs tonight at Poor David's Pub.

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