After surviving his bout with cancer, Ivan Julian – Voidoids guitarist, producer, studio owner and all-around good guy – is making as much music as he can
In 2015, legendary Voidoids guitarist and producer Ivan Julian was diagnosed with stage III gastrointestinal cancer. Upon hearing about his diagnosis, a two-day benefit concert was held for him at City Winery in New York City. The musicians involved included Debbie Harry, Richard Hell, Thurston Moore & Lee Ranaldo, Ian Hunter, Lenny Kaye & Tony Shanahan, Matthew Sweet, Al Maddy, The Dictators NYC, Garland Jeffreys, Willie Nile, The Bush Tetras and various special guests. Thanks to his friends, these sold out shows raised enough money to provide Ivan with the proper funds to receive cancer treatments.
Since his doctor declared him cancer-free in 2016, Ivan has set up in his new recording studio Super Giraffe Sound and is back in his element, producing albums and working on records of his own.
I sat down with Ivan in his studio where he discussed his early music endeavors, his transient lifestyle, and how being in a dark place has affected the way he now approaches music.
PKM: A lot of us know that you’ve gone through a bad patch. How are you feeling?
Ivan Julian: Graphically, I’m feeling fine. All the tests say that I’m totally fine, I’m good. There’s no disease in me or anything like that. Energy-wise, I’m almost back there, but I’m feeling better, that’s the thing, and now that it’s warmer, I’m feeling even better.
PKM: That’s great! So are you going to the hospital monthly for checkups?
Ivan Julian: It’s every ninety days, and in between that they send me into some horrible tube MRI scanning machine that makes really loud noises.
PKM: That sounds freaky.
Ivan Julian: It’s just annoying. It’s freaky and annoying because you’re totally enclosed in this tube and it makes this really loud buzzing sound, and your abdomen gets really hot. It’s really weird.
PKM: I’m sorry you have to go through that.
Ivan Julian: Well, you know, it’s better than the alternative, isn’t it? It really is.
PKM: Has being sick and coming out of it affected the way you approach music now?
Ivan Julian: Yes, because I must admit I went through some kind of portal. It was a really dark place and I’m trying to document that in my music. Also, be honest enough, and by honest I mean I’ve always admired really brave honest writers like Howlin’ Wolf, for instance, like [Charles] Bukowski. People who are just brave and honest. So I’m trying to incorporate that into the music, and also I realize that that’s my prime directive, it’s why I’m here. You tend to get distracted living in a city especially like New York when you have to, you know, you just get distracted and you have to do all these dances to make money and things, and it made me realize that the priority is to make music, and as much as I can while I’m here.
PKM: Tell me how your career in music began?
Ivan Julian: It was 1964/65. I had just arrived, so to speak, back in this country from living on a naval base in Cuba, and all of a sudden I started to hear all this wild music on the radio after having been basically locked on this naval base where there was one radio station. I always remember they played Burl Ives’ “On Top of Old Smoky,” which is a folk song, over and over again. I don’t remember much popular music coming in. Then when we went to the States, I heard all this great music coming out of Detroit, Motown, and all this great stuff coming out of England, and what really started it for me was I heard “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and I heard the sound of the snare drum, and it just went completely right through me and made me an addict of rock & roll and then I started to research back and go, “Well, who do the Stones listen to? And who does Bukka White listen to? And who does Howlin’ Wolf listen to?”, and you discover this whole world, this whole history, this whole path of what created the music that was current. So I was really into that and I was debating “Am I really gonna make my life as a musician?” Am I really gonna just take that path and go “No I’m not gonna become a lawyer, no I’m not gonna become a fighter pilot like my father wanted. I’m gonna pick up a guitar and start playing or singing or something.”
Along the way I was being taught classical music and I was playing the bassoon and the saxophone, and I was being lured into these boys’ orchestras and being groomed that way. Then my friend’s brother, when I was 12, took me to see Jimi Hendrix at the Baltimore Civic Center and that did it for me, because here was this guy on stage wearing every color under the sun playing this wild unimaginable guitar, just being free and creative. It was inspiring…it was alien. It was like being visited from another source or another planet, and that was what really made me decide. I can’t help it, it’s got me, like I’m not making a conscious decision, it’s taking me to this place, and every decision I’ve made since then, regarding where I lived and what I would do to travel evolved from that.
PKM: You mentioned Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. What was your gateway band?
Ivan Julian: The Rolling Stones…Keith Richards, I should say. He’s the one who really inspired me. People sometimes make comparisons between me and Hendrix. I mean, I’m flattered but it’s just not that way, because there already is a Jimi Hendrix, and I realized that back then. I was inspired by Keith because Keith wrote songs. He could take a simple chord pattern and turn it into an idea, and based on Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, he was into Chuck Berry as well. People think that’s very simple music but it’s not when you actually try to play it right. As Keith once said himself “What we did was we took your culture that you abandoned and sold it back to you.” You know, that’s basically what they did. So that was the one band, I have to admit, that really opened up everything else.
I must admit I went through some kind of portal. It was a really dark place and I’m trying to document that in my music. Also, be honest enough, and by honest I mean I’ve always admired really brave honest writers like Howlin’ Wolf for instance, like Bukowski. People who are just brave and honest. So I’m trying to incorporate that into the music, and also I realize that that’s my prime directive, it’s why I’m here.
PKM: At the age of 19 you toured the U.K., Switzerland and Yugoslavia as a member of the Foundations. How did that come to be?
Ivan Julian: I was in Washington D.C. and I didn’t see any future there for me because there were no places where you could be an original band. All the bands were cover bands and you had to fit in based on who you looked like and what you could play, and I just didn’t fit into any of that, and I thought, “Well, I’ve got to play music somewhere” so I saved my money from working at this law firm. At one point I had no place to live because I was saving money. I stayed at this guy’s house who had a long ‘70s shag carpet and he smoked so much pot that pot plants were growing out of it, but I thought “Okay, it doesn’t matter, I’ve got to save this money” and then I moved to England. I sold all of my gear in D.C. except for my guitar, and I moved there with the intention of finding some kind of band. I stayed in this youth hostel for a while, and my job every day was to go out to the clubs and find out what was going on, find out who was playing where, just kind of feel the scene out. Whether I felt like it or not, this was what I did every day. I went to this one pub called Town and Country and these women were there and we started talking and they said “Well, what are you doing here?” and I said “Well, I’m trying to find a band.” So they honestly said this, they said “Okay, we’re gonna take you home, we’ll find out where you live” which was 46 Hestercombe Avenue. I don’t know why I remember that.
PKM: That was a rough neighborhood back then.
Ivan Julian: The roughest thing I remember was it was on the route to the soccer pitch, so whenever there was a soccer game there would be riots in the street and people throwing bottles and stuff like that, but it was rough now that I think about it. I didn’t think it then, that’s the first time I’ve ever even given it some thought. New York was rough too but I didn’t consider it that, but it was rough, come to think of it. Whenever we rehearsed, even with The Foundations, we would go to Shepherd’s Bush or somewhere around there because there were empty vacant buildings and lots. It was pretty rough, especially if you went out to the pubs and stuff like that.
PKM: So the ladies took you in…
Ivan Julian: They took me home, came back the next morning at ten o’clock, took me to this place called Manny’s Rehearsal Studio at the end of King’s Road on World’s End. This was basically a rehearsal studio in the middle of London. They introduced me to Manny. Manny sat at the desk and they said “This is Ivan, he’s looking for a band.” And he said, “Okay, well, just sit here and hang out and some band will come through and they’ll need a guitar player.” I said “Okay”, I’ve got nothing else to lose, let’s try that. I was there for one…two…three days, I would go get them scones, just to try and pay my rent there. I couldn’t do much else at that point. So then one night The Foundations came in, and they put their head out and they said “Manny, we need a guitar player,” so Manny said “Go in there, go do it! Go do it!” I didn’t have a guitar with me at the time, actually. I had a saxophone. So I went in and played saxophone with them, and they’re playing me these songs and they go, “We need a guitar player.” I said, “I am a guitar player!” and they said “Well, come back tomorrow with a guitar.” I came back the next day with a guitar and they’re showing me “Build Me Up, Buttercup”. I still have a cassette of this. They’re showing me “Baby Now That I’ve Found You”, all these songs they had. I said “Wait a minute, I thought you guys were from Detroit!” They go “No man, from Barbados, man, Barbados, Jamaica, no Detroit!” I’m like “Wow, really?!” It was wild.
They said, “You have two days to learn 15 songs.” I had a little cassette player with me and made a cassette of us rehearsing and wrote down the chords, stayed up for two nights, and there was no last rehearsal, we just got in a van and we went up the M1 and we just started touring England. It was definitely ‘Musician 101’ because they played a lot. Sometimes they would have it so we would play for three weeks, seven days a week, and then sometimes they would have it so that they’d play two cities in one day where they’d play one city in the afternoon and at night they’d play another city. They’d play everything from small bog clubs, like clubs that were next to a moat. I remember once I was wearing gloves and I had a clear guitar, and it was so cold that the guitar kinda fogged over.
They’d do everything from that to small theatres and supper clubs, but they just worked, and worked, and worked. We used to play union halls which is basically somewhere outside of Manchester, I think, up North, and it’s like a coal town where everybody works at the factory and on Friday night they’d come out and see the band and then they’d all go nuts and start beating the shit out of each other. We had the chicken wire thing that you hear about in legend, they had that up in front. I had read about that from the 1950s and from the Hank Williams days, and I’m thinking “Here it is in real life” and it’s like BOOM! Bottles are coming. It wasn’t so much hostility towards the band, it was just that everyone had to let out their aggression and started fighting. Women were fighting each other; they were kind of the worst, actually. We’d watch them rolling around the floor, and I’m trying to remember the chords and keep my eyes on things.
The Foundations on TV circa 1968:
PKM: So were you kind of relieved when the ‘Punk’ era came around and people only spat at you? It’s better than beer bottles.
Ivan Julian: We’ll get to that, but no. That was a whole different level, ‘cause that’s when the D.C. came out in me, it’s like “You can do lots of things to me, but you don’t spit on me.” I didn’t understand whatever guise was behind it. It was basically just guys being morons. Allegedly it was some kind of political thing. What it was supposed to mean…you know the story, right? To bring the band down to the level of the people so that everyone was equal. So if you spat on them, that meant that you weren’t some rock star, you were on the same level as other people. I don’t think anyone that I saw spitting had this whole algorithm thought out as they were gobbing on us (laughs); that was brutal.
Getting back to this whole thing chronologically, we played Yugoslavia, when Yugoslavia was Yugoslavia, and I think we may have done Switzerland too, as a stopover. I loved it, it was great. It reassured my feeling. It sounds kind of corny, but I would hang out with these guys and we couldn’t speak a word of each other’s language, like not one, and yet we could play together. I would jam with the opening band and they’d show me these songs like “Oh, I know that song” and we could actually communicate that way. It was really great.
PKM: Do you remember the first gig you had with The Foundations?
Ivan Julian: This would have been sometime in late fall, like November / December of 1974. I really can’t remember where it was. I might have it in a diary somewhere. Surprisingly I did write diaries back then before I got distracted by other crap. I know I did for Voidoids tours. I want to say Leeds. It was a supper club, I remember because I was 19 and I wasn’t used to drinking. I remember getting a drink and then going “Whoah! Enough of that until I’m done playing!” So that would have been where it was.
PKM: Earlier on you mentioned growing up on a naval base in Cuba. Where are you from originally?
Ivan Julian: I don’t know. I mean, I was born in Washington D.C., and when I was four years old we left there and moved to Guantanamo. Actually, when I was three we lived in Boston, but I don’t remember any of that, really. When I was four, we moved to Guantanamo and stayed there until I was ten years old. So my formative years were on this military base except for the time we got evacuated during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then we came back to the Washington area and I saw how disturbing America was, to be quite honest. I thought, “There’s no sun, there’s no clear water, and everybody’s killing each other.” My whole time in Washington, it seemed like a rest stop. I don’t have roots there. I have more roots in New York than I have anywhere else, and even in New York I have more roots in Europe and places like that, so I’m just kind of a transient person. All these things have influenced me, living in Washington, of course, influenced me to some degree, especially with what’s happening in the country now, because their international or national news is more like local news. It’s like “The guy down the street is doing this” and you’re like “What?!”
PKM: So your dad was in the Navy? What did he do?
Ivan Julian: He was a cook. Actually, interesting story, he was, I think 14 when he joined during World War II because he grew up in rural Maryland, St. Mary’s County, and he wanted to get out of there really bad, so he lied about his age to get into the Navy. At the time, unless he had some kind of formal education, especially being a minority, all he was going to do was cook. I mean, when there was a ‘gunner’s run,’ as they’d say, he would grab some gun and start shooting it on the ship, but other than that, that was your gig.
PKM: You said he wanted you to follow in his footsteps at one point?
Ivan Julian: Yeah. Maybe when I was very young I considered it, you know, the pomp of the uniform and all that. It’s really ironic and strange actually, because I always said, “No, I don’t want to be in the Navy, I don’t want to do that because I don’t want a job where someone always tells you where to go.” And that’s exactly what kind of job I have (laughs): get on the bus, play the guitar, go here, go here, go there. You also have to consider this was the 1960s. There was a huge cultural revolution going on then, with my generation and the generation that was slightly older than me. Had it been the 1950s, I very well could have ended up in the Navy or something, but there was so much questioning of status quo and all that going on. It didn’t seem right to go over and kill people in Vietnam.
PKM: Before learning to play guitar, you said that you first began playing the bassoon. What drew you to that instrument, or was it a requirement in school?
Ivan Julian: No. What happened was, when I was in junior high school, it was a rough suburban neighborhood. All of D.C. is kind of violent, or at least it was then. The county where I grew up is even more violent now than it was then. Anyway, the school was borderline on this kind of iffy neighborhood and someone broke into the school…which could happen anywhere, actually, and stole a bunch of instruments out of the closet. One of the things they stole was my saxophone. I was devastated, but my instructor, Dr. Shrout, I’ll never forget, without missing a beat, he hands me this case and goes, “You can learn to play this” and he handed me the bassoon. I’m like, “What the fuck is this thing?” You know, it’s like a little tiny pipe and then you’ve got to sit on the strap to hold it, and it plays in a completely different clef, it’s in the bass clef, not the treble clef, which was great, because then I learned the bass clef. But that’s how I started playing the bassoon, and I liked it! I was considering the other day getting one again, but then again, I’ve got to stop buying junk.
PKM: Do you think you’d be able to pick it up and play it, or would you have to brush up on it?
Ivan Julian: Well, it’s the same with the saxophone. It’s weird, because you learn by reading and not so much improvising, you can start reading the music again, and it all comes back to you. But like with anything else, yes, I’d have to brush up. Piano is the one instrument that you really have to practice all the time every day in order to keep yourself at a certain level. Other things like guitar, at least for me, you can go a little while without doing it, but I’d have to brush up on the bassoon. And if you would hear me on saxophone, you would say I’d have to brush up on the saxophone too. (laughs)
PKM: Aside from bassoon, guitar and sax, what other instruments can you play?
Ivan Julian: Piano.
PKM: Did you learn how to play when you were a kid?
Ivan Julian: No, I learned that 20 years ago. Well, first of all, I moved to Brooklyn from the East Village, and I finally had enough space to have things because in the East Village I didn’t have enough space to have anything, and I thought, “You know, I’ve always heard that you can get pianos really cheap.” I was looking around and someone I know worked for Taylor Dayne’s manager, I don’t know if you know who that is…this singer in the 1980s. Her manager had a piano and said “Get it out of here and it’s yours”. So I moved it to my house and I started practicing. I knew music theory from playing classical music, and then I read in an interview with Pete Townshend that he always loved the way Aretha Franklin played the piano, the way she always accompanied herself. I started listening to those records, and it’s really kind of easy to sing and play, and I thought, “That’s the kind of piano player I want to be.” I want to be able to sing and accompany myself on the piano, play simple chords and stuff like that…until 9/11 came along, and then I thought, “You know, fuck it. This could all go down, any day this could all be over, so I’m gonna learn the Moonlight Sonata. It took me two months, but I did it.
I remember walking to CB’s one day and going “This place is going to be really famous. It’s going to be this landmark in the music scene. Just like Birdland was for the jazz crowd in the 1950s, this is gonna be amazing”, and strangely enough it was.
PKM: You studied music theory in high school. Do you feel the training helped shape your style as a guitar player?
Ivan Julian: It has nothing to do with my style as a guitar player, because that’s more training by ear. It’s helped me to be able to figure out things and explain things to other people better because I know the circle of fifths and chords and so forth, and if I’m trying to learn someone else’s music, I know the variables, I know the options, but in terms of my own playing, I’m more of a sonic person, whereas I’ll play a note and the note tells me where it should go next, and if I’m lucky I’ll land my finger and then go “Where do we go next?”, and if I can put all that together, it becomes a guitar part. The theory has nothing to do with my guitar playing. But once again, going back to Keith Richards, the rhythm does. (Robert) Quine and I used to say, “You can teach a chimpanzee to play fast, any chimpanzee you give them a guitar and you give them six months and they go (makes guitar noises) but to play a song, to really play rhythm well is a challenge”, and to really lock it in so it works with the drums and everything.
PKM: In 1976, you became a founding member of Richard Hell and the Voidoids. How did the band come to be? I remember reading something about you or Richard running an ad in the paper.
Ivan Julian: We both did. I had come back from Yugoslavia…I left The Foundations because they were just gonna play all the time, they weren’t gonna make any records. I was young, I was 20 by that point and I wanted to make records. It’s strange when I tell people this, and looking back on it, but I really thought it was going to be the end of the world if I didn’t have a record out by the time I was 21. I couldn’t bear even thinking about it. So in order to do that, I had to leave The Foundations. I was in Yugoslavia and I said, “Hey guys, I’m not going back to England, I’m gonna stay here and try to figure out what to do.” I looked in all the music papers, Melody Maker, the NME, all those papers, Rolling Stone, any paper I could get my hands on, because you could get Rolling Stone there. They were all talking about New York City and the stuff that was going on in New York, and what was happening at Max’s.
CB’s wasn’t so much on the map then, but there was this buzz. David Bowie was hanging out in New York City, everybody was coming here to get some kind of influence, and I thought, “I’m gonna go there.” So, I wrote my friend who lived on 83rd Street and Central Park West (he and I worked at the law firm together in D.C. and he told me “If you ever need a place to stay, let me know”), so I wrote to him from Yugoslavia “Dear Nick, ummm…I need to come to New York and I need a place to stay.” He wrote me back, “Yeah, sure come on.” So I packed my bags, went there. Then I found out what music papers were around, and there was a paper called Musician Classifieds. They had an office on 30th Street where all the other music places were. I put an ad in the paper saying ‘Guitarist: have gear, will travel” and a phone number. Wait…did I even have a phone number?
PKM: The guy’s phone number?
Ivan Julian: It was the guy’s phone number on the Upper West Side, it must have been! So I put that in the paper and I went down to D.C. and I saw my parents for two or three weeks, I hadn’t seen them in almost a year. Then I came back to New York, because I knew the paper took 30 days to come out, and I looked at the paper, and on the front of the paper was a picture of this guy with some weird bass with some weird glasses, and weird everything. Then I go to the back of the paper and my ad’s there. It turns out Anya Phillips, an entrepreneur, scene shaker and all that, she did an article on Richard and I believe took the photo as well, about him being a downtown poet, and forming a band, how different and well-read he was, and in that same issue was my ad. So, they were looking for a guitar player. Richard, Bob and Mark had already formed, and they were auditioning guitar players. Quine was the one who called me and said, “Okay, well we have this band, we’d like you to come down to this rehearsal studio and just play.” So I said “Sure”, and brought my clear guitar down to the rehearsal studio. They had three songs, “Blank Generation” and “Love Comes in Spurts”, and part of “Another World”. “Another World” hadn’t been written yet. I started playing with them and thought that was that, and I went to put my guitar in my case and Bob goes, “Well, how would you like to join the band?” I go “Well, what are you guys doing?” and he said “Well, we have this production deal, we have a salary, the idea is to make a single, and after that we start touring, and then we make an LP. I thought that was a good plan, especially the regular money bit. It wasn’t much, mind you, about 15 dollars a week or something? It must have been more than that, but not much, but it was still money. I had come from Europe with some savings, because I made pretty good money with The Foundations, but I had to make money here somehow. So that’s how the whole thing came about.
PKM: When you left The Foundations, did they understand why you wanted to leave? Were they cool with it?
Ivan Julian: They were cool with it because how I met them was a similar situation. They had just worn one guitar player out, and people in the band were changing. I mean, they had two bass players in the time I was there. Actually, one of the bass players if you want to get into history, his name was Dado Topić and he was actually Yugoslavian and why we went to Yugoslavia, because there he was a national folk hero. He was the first person that defied the Yugoslavian government and said, “I’m not going to war. I’m not gonna join the army.” They tried to lock him up but the people rallied around him and he ended up not going to jail. When we played there, people would gather around our hotel room, hundreds of people and chant his name all night long. Seriously, from the night we got in and were done playing at eleven or whatever until early morning.
PKM: During your time in the Voidoids, what sort of gear were you using? You mentioned your clear guitar, what brand was it?
Ivan Julian: That was a Dan Armstrong Plexiglas and it was clear. Keith (Richards) had one, and I had to have it. I kept it as long as I could, but it was made of this really heavy acrylic fiberglass and the neck was wood so if you turned around, the wood couldn’t handle the weight. It wasn’t really made for playing live. Richard got one too eventually, but so we wouldn’t be twins, he put black tape all over his. With that we had Ampeg V4 cabinets, both Quine and I. V4 Cabinets are cabinets about the size of that 22-inch tape machine, about the size of a washing machine, with four 200-watt speakers in it. So, this is kind of like sticking your ear up against a jet engine, and we had two of them. I don’t know how people would put up with it, but they would just sit in the front row and go “Yeeaaaahhh!” In the beginning we had big amplifiers, everyone used bigger amps back then. We weren’t a Marshall type band, that’s the other thing we could have had, but we ended up having V4s.
PKM: So you had your Dan Armstrong throughout your time in the Voidoids?
Ivan Julian: I had a Gibson SG as well, but the Dan Armstrong was more for the Voidoids sound. Then somehow I got my hands on the ’63 Strat, and I think I may have traded that for the Dan Armstrong. So I would use the Strat and the Gibson SG. That was basically my sound throughout the Voidoids, until I got a Gibson Les Paul Jr. Quine would always play Strats. I used a lot of different kinds of guitars on Blank Generation, I used Teles and everything else, but Quine would always play Strats, so I had to find something that would counter that, otherwise we’d sound really whiny, like this two-Stratocaster band which is kinda hard to do, especially with the kind of music we were playing. That’s why I got the Gibson Les Paul Jr. I sold that to Nick Lowe after an English tour because I was over it. It was a reissue. Les Paul Jr.’s can be great, and this was the one with a single cutaway like a Les Paul, but with one P-90 pickup in it, so those were my guitars in the Voidoids.
PKM: You were living and playing in New York City during the peak of what historians would deem ‘Punk Rock’. For those of us who weren’t there, what was the music scene like?
Ivan Julian: It was truly amazing. It was like everything I dreamed of because one of my motivations and inspirations for leaving D.C. and coming to a place like New York was this movie Nashville by Robert Altman. It’s all about these people in the Nashville scene, it’s like any other scene, like bebop and jazz in the 1950s, and they’d go out every night and they’d see each other play, they’d go to this show, that show, and that’s what CB’s was like. Every night of the week there was someone different and some different type of music playing.
So like you said, the per se ‘punk scene’, questionably in attitude and things like that, that’s what it was deemed, and that’s how it was documented by Punk magazine as well. They kind of defined the whole thing for the rest of the country and people who were not in New York. People all dressed differently, there was no ‘uniform’ so to speak. The Ramones became the antithesis of what a ‘Punk’ band looks like, you know, leather jackets, ripped jeans and sneakers, but there were bands like Tuff Darts with Robert Gordon, who was a rockabilly guy and dressed like a Rockabilly guy and there was another guy in the band with aviator shades that looked like some kind of 1970s rock guy.
There was the Erasers…everybody had a different thing, and that’s what made it so great. This was kind of a milestone in American music history because so many places in America, if you were a young band, you could not play your own music. No one would hire you, and no one would come see you. And this was a whole scene were people were doing that, so it was really great. Like I did in England, my job was to go out and just hear what other people were doing, to be inspired by it. You would hear The Voidoids, Blondie, Patti [Smith], of course, Television. Those were the main bands in the beginning. Hilly wouldn’t let the Talking Heads play there. You would play Thursday, Friday, Saturday night, two sets a night.
PKM: Why didn’t he want the Talking Heads to play there?
Ivan Julian: There was this line, this border, Houston Street, where bands played places like the Ocean Club. They were all art bands. Hilly’s decisions were erratic sometimes, and they wouldn’t make any sense. At first they tried to play there, and, If I’m not mistaken, he gave them a Tuesday afternoon or something because so many people pressured him to see this band because they were really great. I think it was Anya who took me down to the Ocean Club on Chambers Street, and it was like, people in the art world, the Andy Warhol scene and all that, that’s where they played. So she took me down there and I saw them and I said “They’re really good. They’re great!” So that’s why he wouldn’t let them play at CB’s at first. He eventually caved, I think he gave them one night and eventually they started playing weekends because finally they came to define the CBGB’s scene that way. It was an exciting time and I knew…and this might sound a bit pompous, I remember walking to CB’s one day and going “This place is going to be really famous. It’s going to be this landmark in the music scene. Just like Birdland was for the jazz crowd in the 1950s, this is gonna be amazing”, and strangely enough it was. Like I said, so many different kinds of music were happening there, and it was great.
PKM: Do you think other artists felt the same about CB’s? That it was going to become an institution?
Ivan Julian: No, I basically kept that to myself. I didn’t go around telling people – they would have thought I was out of my mind!
PKM: They would have said “What? This dump?!”
Ivan Julian: Exactly. It wasn’t like I thought it was amazing, I just knew it was going to be legendary. It was a dump. I mean Hilly once asked me, “What can I do to improve this place?” and I said “Buy a broom, Hilly!” (laughs) and he kind of walked away from me. But yeah, it was truly legendary, because of what was happening there, and how it started from kind of nothing. When the Voidoids first played there, there wasn’t the big stage—that came along in later years. It was a tiny…I guess maybe a twelve-inch stage if that, and it was right next to a pool table, so you’re playing and people are playing pool right over there.
PKM: That’s annoying.
Ivan Julian: They were annoyed at us too! They would give us these looks like “Watcha doin’?” It was an old biker bar, and if knowledge serves me right, it’s what I’ve been told because I wasn’t there then, people like Patti and Richard were looking for a place to perform because they started out at St. Mark’s Church doing poetry. They wanted a club to do music in, and Hilly wouldn’t allow that either at first, and then eventually he caved in.
PKM: You were talking about groups like the Ramones who wore leather jackets and skinny jeans. Did the Voidoids have a ‘dress code’ or did you wear whatever you wanted?
Ivan Julian: We tried to stay in synch with each other. Only once did Richard decide that we should all have black corduroy suits. We went to this place called Hudson’s on 3rd Avenue and 12th Street which was kind of a men’s workshop for clothes where you would get Dickies and brands like that. He had us go there so we could get fitted, and I think they were gray and then he dyed them black. So we wore those for a month or so, and then summertime came and it was like “No, man, no corduroy in the summer time.”
The name ‘Voidoids’ Richard told me (and I was opposed to the name when I first heard it), means ‘nothing’. ‘Void’ means ‘nothing’ and ‘oid’ means ‘like’, ‘nothing like’. That’s what it’s supposed to mean. So we were not like each other either. We just kind of wore what we wore.
By the way, remember when I told you I met the Foundations at Manny’s Rehearsal Studio? So, a year and a half goes by, and we (The Voidoids) get flown to England to open for the Clash. When we’re doing pre-production in London, this guy drives up and it’s Manny and his gig is now supplying tour support, and supplying bands with amps and drum sets and stuff like that. Also, at the studio while I was waiting to meet a band, which would have been the Foundations, there was this guy there who was playing with this Canadian guitar player Gary Moore, and his name was Topper. So Topper and I met in Manny’s rehearsal studio before he was in the Clash, and before I was in the Voidoids.
PKM: Speaking of the Clash, how did you begin working on Sandinista?
Ivan Julian: They basically came into town and set up shop at Electric Lady Studios, and they would park there for a month or two. They called me up and said “Just come by and say hello” so I said, “Yeah sure, I’d love to see you guys.” So I came in, we were talking, and then they start playing the groove from “The Call Up”. I said, “Somebody give me a guitar, now!” So Joe gives me his Tele, and I start playing that, he starts playing this grand piano, and we just start jamming on it and then going to the other part, and with “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe,” it was the same thing, ‘cause that was when I told him the story about Studio 54. So I thought “That was a jam, it was really great to see you guys, see you later” and then six months later the record comes out. Mick calls me up and he goes, “You know, we’ve got a check for you, for playing on the single.” And I’m like “That’s nice” so that’s really how it happened.
The name ‘Voidoids’ Richard told me (and I was opposed to the name when I first heard it), means ‘nothing’. ‘Void’ means ‘nothing’ and ‘oid’ means ‘like’, ‘nothing like’. That’s what it’s supposed to mean. So we were not like each other either.
PKM: You credit Nick Lowe as being a sort of mentor to you. Was it Lowe who influenced you in terms of engineering and producing?
Ivan Julian: Yes, the way he conducts himself in the studio. I think he’s a great songwriter as well, but I would watch the way he would work with a band and mold a band into getting what he wanted by doing virtually nothing but doing everything, and getting a certain sound. For this one single, “Kid with the Replaceable Head,” he did the impossible and turned the Voidoids into a pop band. I just watched him do it by saying “Get the drum beat…okay, Ivan you do that, Ivan, you do that again” and he just built the song without ruffling anybody’s feathers, and did an amazing job at it. I like the sounds he gets, too. The overall sound, the atmosphere he creates within a song is great.
PKM: When did you get into recording and engineering?
Ivan Julian: I had always done it at home, I even had a hand in some of the recording aspects of Blank Generation. I love, like I said the snare drum in “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. I love the idea of going into a studio and making this atmosphere…not just the playing, but the sound of it. So I’ve always recorded at home, I had a 4-track. I used to have two cassette players and I would play one into the other to get them to do sound on sound to overdub. I’ve always loved it. Eventually, people started coming to me in the eighties to produce them. The real answer to your questions is this: working with the Voidoids and working with other bands since then, and when I started doing my own albums, I would say “Well why can’t we do this?” And the engineer would say “We can’t do that” and I’d say “Well, why can’t we do that?” he’d say “Well, we just can’t do it.” So I said “Okay, I’m gonna learn everything, so that if I want something to happen in the studio, it’s gonna happen. So what really motivated me was being told “No”.
“I said “Okay, I’m gonna learn everything, so that if I want something to happen in the studio, it’s gonna happen. So what really motivated me was being told “No”.”
PKM: What is a favorite production of your own? Or at least one of your top five?
Ivan Julian: I think the Fleshtones’ “Take a Good Look” is my favorite so far. I got a great crispy drum sound and the band was well rehearsed. The song is compelling and well written. Andrew Loog Oldham even sent me an e-mail commending me on the job. That meant a lot to me.
I also like the Hunx and His Punx record Too Young to Be in Love; that one comes to mind because I love how I kind of visited the Shangri-Las and that whole period and I had this gay guy who was the lead singer and a bunch of women who were behind him playing the instruments and singing backup amazingly. I loved that period of records, that whole Tin Pan Alley period of making a single and then having it out on the streets by five o’clock that afternoon.
PKM: You had mentioned earlier that you like classical music. Who are some of your favorite classical composers?
Ivan Julian: I love Bartók, Chopin’s sonatas. I think Chopin is like Jimi Hendrix, if you listen to some of his sonatas; he’s just wailing and having fun, you can feel this surge in his playing, it’s so incredibly great. Beethoven, of course, undeniably he’s great, Rachmaninoff, I love his sonatas as well. I must admit, who I go to when I’m listening to classical music is generally Chopin.
PKM: How would you describe the process in which you compose a song?
Ivan Julian: Usually it involves hearing a sound, or imagining a sound in my head. And then the words come to the sound. A sound will make me imagine a certain scenario to write words to, that’s usually how it is. A good example is there’s a song on Blank Generation called “Liars Beware” and that came to me that (hums a few bars of the song) because I was very new to New York and I was coming up the subway at 8th Street and Broadway where the pizza place is, it was summertime and it was just chaos on the street, like 1970s chaos. Cops chasing guys down the street, more cop cars here, fire engines there, and it was just this cacophony of all these sounds that just hit me. I almost ran home and started playing the guitar. Richard asked me, “Well, what do you want the song to be about?” and I said, “Well…Fuck you, fuck it, fuck this, fuck them.”
PKM: And he was like “Okay, we’ll get that down.”
Ivan Julian: Oh yeah, that’s not a problem. (laughs)
PKM: Your most recent album, The Naked Flame, was released in 2009. What are a few of your favorite tracks?
Ivan Julian: I like the funky beat in “Siamese”, “The Naked Flame,” I like “Constricted,” I like them all for different reasons. “The Naked Flame,” I like how it’s really a funk song, but it’s played like a rock song. It’s really constricted, it’s a halted groove, you know? “Constricted” I like because it’s just so stupid, just blurring out chords, not trying to prove anything.
PKM: What are your plans for the upcoming year? Are you working on an album?
Ivan Julian: I’m working on two albums right now, actually. I’m writing songs and recording them and seeing where they fall. One is going to be kind of a funk record, cause I’ve never really done that, and the other one’s gonna be an acoustic record. Some songs might be on both records, and two different versions depending on how they are, because you can take any song and depending on how you mix it and what’s prevalent make it into this or that.
PKM: Are they still in the early stages of production?
Ivan Julian: They’re in the late stages of production and writing. Put it this way, I’m at the point right now where I’m putting vocals on everything, which is always the test for me, like “Can I live with this?” Sometimes, surprisingly, I can and sometimes I can’t. So that’s where I am right now.
PKM: Have you considered writing a book, or is that not your thing?
Ivan Julian: I have, especially when I was sick because when I thought my life was over I realized that I had lived a pretty fascinating life, and when I tell people about it, about living in Cuba, going to Yugoslavia, living in New York and growing up in D.C., it’s a story. I even have a title for it, it’s called Working Without a Net. I think it’s a famous movie about the Flying Wallenda brothers. It’s a black and white movie, and at one point he goes “He’s working without a net!” and I think he falls. I have to see this movie again at some point. Because that is kind of what I’ve done, kind of working without a net.
PKM: Readers would definitely be interested in your journey, and how you got back on track after your illness.
Ivan Julian: It’s just a matter of finding time to do it. At first I thought, “As soon as I get better I’m gonna fucking write this fucking book” but I just haven’t been able to do it. It’s not very wise to put it off, but I plan to, I really do.
Usually it involves hearing a sound, or imagining a sound in my head. And then the words come to the sound. A sound will make me imagine a certain scenario to write words to, that’s usually how it is.
PKM: Have you been touring at all?
Ivan Julian: In Spring of 2017, I did an acoustic tour with Tommy Keene. He’s also from D.C. We kind of knew each other vaguely back in the day before I left. After I got better, he goes “Okay, I want you to come out on tour with me” because he goes out on tour all the time, and I said “Tommy I can’t leap around right now. I need some time” he goes “No, just acoustic. Just you and I, no band, I’ll play songs, you’ll play songs” and we did it. We did part of the East Coast and the Midwest. It was fun actually, because I’d played acoustic guitar and sang in front of people before, but never a whole set. I did Voidoids songs, I did all kinds of songs, I mean new songs, unheard songs. Someone came up to me and said “You can write lyrics!” I’m like “Yeah…” he said “Well we’ve never heard them before!” (laughs) it’s true. [Editor’s note: Sadly, Tommy Keene died at age 59 on Nov. 22, 2017].
Here are Tommy Keene and Ivan Julian doing a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper”:
PKM: How long were you guys on the road for?
Ivan Julian: About a month. We also did a one off out in LA as well, we played McCabe’s guitar store.
PKM: I love that place. The last question I have for you is, what bands are you listening to these days?
Ivan Julian: Not enough, I can tell you that much, ‘cause I’ve been too busy in the studio. I’ve always loved Lucinda Williams. I listen to Sediment Club, my son’s band. I’m not just pitching, because they are really great.