Occasionally albums come along that remind us that rock ‘n’ roll is a good thing, not in some intellectual, critic-savvy way but in a manner that firmly grips us by the chakras. And while such albums generally exhibit a high level of craftsmanship and raw talent, they mainly accomplish their rejuvenating feat through a fundamental rightness that sinks into our marrow as they pour from the speakers. And just as cool cannot be manufactured, this eerily evident yet elusive feel comes naturally or it doesn’t come at all. It’s the same musk that Chuck Berry and Elvis gave off. The same nostril flaring stink the MC5 and Sonics exuded. We just know this music is goddamn righteous because of how it infiltrates our bodies and minds.
In 1977, Ivan Julian was a co-architect of one such resounding album, the blistering, high kicking debut from Richard Hell and The Voidoids entitled Blank Generation. Even in an era of numerous landmark records few can claim to have given name to a whole art movement, reflecting the conflicting currents of the time in the music itself, a sharp, angular rush that’s in some ways even more immediate and affecting than Hell’s words, altogether a new kind of streetwise punk poetry. Ivan Julian was one half of the guitar machete team slashing at the world on Blank Generation, and he’s remained a floating figure in rock ever since, producing countless sessions for the likes of The Fleshtones and recent find Hunx & His Punx, putting his shoulder into it in the short-lived but great Outsets, serving as creative foil for Matthew Sweet and Jesse Malin, and generally surfing the deep currents that first swept rock into the world.
It’s vaguely shocking that 2011’s The Naked Flame is Julian’s first album with his own name above the title, but even more surprising is how Julian was hiding an album on par with Blank Generation, hell, an album better and more enjoyable than his Voidoid work. The Naked Flame carries on what Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy and the best work of Television and the Patti Smith Group accomplished, i.e. time-proof rock missives to benefit future generations and the living today. Tangled in Julian’s just-raunchy-enough tales of tight sweaters and young man’s money, blood red moons and wack politicians, lays a giant heart and pleasantly grubby romantic flair, the telltale signs of a man utterly in the throes of rock worship, a servant to the cause seizing whatever fleeting beauty and pain he can forge into song. It’s an album exactly in line with the Impound’s mission statement, and we predict time will show Julian’s solo debut to be an out-of-the-box classic.
We couldn’t be more pleased to present this conversation with Ivan, which ranges through his past and present life on rock’s front lines.
How did this album come about? Why a solo album after all these years?
There was this band Capsula from Spain that came to my studio in New York [City] and wanted me to mix their record. And they kept saying, “You should do your own record.” I told them, “I’m happy here,” and I’d just been offered this tour with a band called Osaka Popstar. But they prompted me to gather some songs – new stuff and old stuff – and I sent it to them. They demoed it in the studio, and I thought, “These guys really get it, really get the urgency of it.” That’s how the whole thing started.
So, the other guitar, bass and drums in my band are this band from Spain. We sent songs back and forth, and eventually they put everything on tape over there and sent the tapes to me here, where I completed the process with guitar, piano, vocals, everything, including harmonium, which I’m very proud of.
You mention laying this down on tape, and there’s a definite mythology about tape and vinyl. Do you think it actually makes a difference? The Naked Flame sure has a feel that sits nicely outside of time.
I have studio in the East Village [N.Y. Hed] and we have tape and Pro-Tools. With tape there are two factors: One is the noise floor – more noise at the bottom – and subliminally we hear that, and the other factor is tape compression. When I sit there and listen to drums recorded on Pro-Tools and drums recorded on tape, the latter just snaps at me, and I love that sound! Sometimes I even record things on Pro-Tools and fly them onto tape and back just to get that sound into the digital world.
Using the tools of today but marrying them to the virtues of the past.
[With The Naked Flame] I would have done the whole thing on tape since it was my record if I had the time, but it’s like how many people does it take to paint a painting? One to paint it and one to take it away from you [laughs].
Had you been stockpiling songs for a long time with the idea of doing a solo record?
In the back of my mind, yes, but I always write. Sometimes I contribute to other people’s stuff, even if my name isn’t always on it. I’m always writing songs or riffs, it’s just part of my mental process. But the answer to your question is yes. I figured someday this or someday that would happen. If I were to say, “I’m going to make a record,” and then sit down to write the songs it doesn’t go as well.
You’ve got this pool of possibilities just waiting for you whenever you choose to take a dip.
The thing about this Spanish band is they’re people who can play within my ilk, as it were, my field of thought. I know lots of talented people in New York and could have gotten almost anyone to come into the studio and bang these songs out but I don’t think it would have had the same sound. Having said that, when I was here overdubbing and working on everything I incorporated some friends, which was a key factor [Ivan’s friends include N.Y. Hed partner Matt Verta-Ray, NYC mainstay Al Maddy and underrated secret weapon Nick Tremulis]. I was thinking about all the classic albums I’ve loved throughout my life and you look at the liner notes and it’s never just the core band. There’s always someone who came in and played this or that. So, I had people play instruments they don’t normally play, and they weren’t too happy with me [laughs]. They were like, “Why don’t you want me to play guitar on your record?” Because here’s a tambourine, which I was in love with at the time. You listen to a lot of 60s records like The Mamas and The Papas and so on and don’t realize how high in the mix the tambourine is.
Comedian John Oliver recently said, “Democracy is like a tambourine – not everyone can handle it.”
That’s so true! Some people want to put tambourine on their record and I tell them, “It’s harder than you thought, eh?”
There’s a love for classic song production on your record. Each cut is its own world, and then the whole thing builds collective momentum as it rolls.
I believe a song needs care, and everybody, including myself, should be a complete subject and slave of a song. There’s a song called “She’s My Girl” by The Turtles, and I love it because in one of the verses there’s just one guitar hit [Ivan goes, “Banf!”] and that’s it! That’s brilliant, really brilliant. Songs like that kind of thing, when you know what NOT to do.
Knowing where to edit yourself – the wisdom of knowing that just one guitar sting is all that’s needed – is a real earned skill. It only tends to show up with musicians with some real in-the-trenches experience like you. It takes a lifetime to learn that brevity and editing is often where the best stuff emerges.
Like a movie. When you edit yourself it is a developed skill, but sometimes you get lucky, too. You always get lucky if you listen to your inner voice, and you don’t get lucky if you don’t. But I’ve always done that, and that’s what Bob [Robert Quine] and I were all about [in the Voidoids]. We had an agreement that we’d never ever play the same part of the neck, and we’d always try to work within each other’s parts. What we were doing was complimenting each other, and that took editing, where we’d stop and add and remove and move parts.
There’s an impression out there that the music from New York during that 1970s period just happened. It’s so incendiary and immediate that it’s easy to miss all the thinking and work that went into it.
If you went out during that period, CB’s was there, Max’s was there, and everyone was in our neighborhood. It was our local, so to speak, and every night of the week someone was playing, and they’d all be playing a different style or type of music. Blondie was on Tuesday, The Ramones on Wednesday, Talking Heads on Thursday, Television on Friday, and all these bands are vastly different. They all got thrown under a blanket of punk rock or whatever, but everybody had their own thing they were working on. It was a really exciting time. You’d go over just see what they were doing now or what direction they were going. I learned a lot from that time.
There’s different time periods in different locales that seem to possess a creative zeitgeist, Paris in the 1920s, Berlin at various periods and certainly NYC in the 70s. Shit’s just happening, art exploding wherever you look.
I so agree with you! Paris in the 20s, New York in the 50s during the bebop period, even New York in the 60s with the folk thing, and later in Seattle. It was there in San Francisco as well in the 60s, all those bands that came out of there like Jefferson Airplane, Santana, etc.
And it was, as you pointed out, expressed in so many different ways by these bands – the slicker, tighter feel of Sons of Champlin and Moby Grape and the looseness of the Airplane and the Dead. Everyone was drawing water from the same place but the results once they cooked it up were strikingly different.
I think it’s happening now. I’m out of the loop but there’s this whole wave of 20-year-old bands here in New York chasing this, I don’t know, musical abandon [em>laughs]. They’re all kind of different but coming from the same place and excited about what they’re doing, which is great. At this point, they play anywhere – people’s houses, lofts, wherever.
It’s exciting when people are so desperate to make music, to create something of their own, that they’ll do anything to make it happen, anything for an audience. It’s a drive within them and it’s not about the big paycheck or the big stage. It’s about making music and that’s when the best music tends to get made.
I agree. And I wanted to circle back to your opening question about why I hadn’t made a solo record up until this point. Well, I’ve always made music and been happy doing it, producing or playing live with bands. I even wrote some TV commercials! I stopped that because I needed a shower afterwards. The money is great but no thank you!
I had a similar experience after college interviewing with a few ad agencies to write copy, and it was such a gross experience – most of them want to start you on tobacco and alcohol so they know you’re willing to shill anything. I just didn’t have the stomach for it.
You have to realize, “I’m now part of the problem” [laughs].
Everyone has to eat, so there’s decisions along those lines one has to make. But you also have to look at yourself in the mirror each morning. Going back to The Naked Flame, the cover tune choices on this album are superb. You picked two songs that you handled in such a way that many won’t think of them as being by another artist; they’ll just assume they’re yours because you take such possession of them.
Thank you! “The Beat” [by Alejandro Escovedo in his old punkish rock outfit The Nuns] was a single I had sitting on my shelf for years. For years, I’ve been surprised that people didn’t know about the song, so I decided long ago that one day I was going to cover it on an album. And with the Lucinda Williams song [“Broken Butterflies”], I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to pull it off. Those are songs that needed to heard in the way I did them. With the Lucinda Williams song, I thought, “What would this be like if a man sang it?”
When you can switch the gender of a song effectively it shifts perspectives instantly. You found some corridors in that song that weren’t apparent before. What attracted you to that tune because it is such a beautiful song?
That – its beauty – and I thought, “What if it had thorns like a rose?” The lyrics are really piercing but I wondered if it could be more haunting. That’s about as much thought as I gave it. I did it right here at my house on 8-track, sitting on the floor with a harmonium, and singing here as well. I tried to do it at the studio and it came out too polished. So, I decided to use the home version with all its noise and fucked-up-ness, and I like the way it came out.
It does put thorns on it. A natural roughness gets picked up on tape when musicians record at home. It suits you.
“You Is Dead” was also done at my house. I just set up two mics and a chair, and I have this Epiphone Bluesmaster guitar that’s like the Robert Johnson guitar. It sounds like a pine box. There’s nothing charming about it except that! I just sat here and did the song, including all the back-up vocals. I didn’t even attempt “You Is Dead” in the studio because I knew I’d never be able to reproduce the same quality. It’s my favorite song to do live.
The way the album sweeps to the end creates a unified flow. This is really an album and not just a bunch of songs hanging out in the same place. The sequencing on The Naked Flame really takes the listener on a trip.
The best albums do that, and I’ve always tried to do that. It’s a book, basically, so it should take you somewhere. It was written as such. There were other songs I had that didn’t go on the album because they disrupted things. It’s like a bad sound in a movie. You’re getting really into the story and all of the sudden this shotgun mic drops down and there’s all this wind sputtering. You need to keep the reader, as it were, involved. For better or for worse, whatever albums I make I like to think I always do that.
Now that you’ve made this album do you have the bug to make more with these guys?
Definitely, definitely! And the record company is up for it as well. We’re already throwing songs at the wall, but first I need to get out and tour with this one.
This music is ready-made for sweaty, hot nights in clubs
Yes! Now I just need to convince a booking agent of that! Record companies these days aren’t giving out huge advances – which is kind of great actually – so the way you make money is selling records on the road. The record is like a calling card to perform it live.
This is music is meant to be experienced in the flesh, where people can raise their hands in the air, hair plastered to their faces with sweat, the volume up high and the lights down low.
Exactly. I could have made any kind of record in my studio but I tried to keep that element. This is produced but it’s music being played actually.
Your passion for rock comes through right from the start on this album, where you can see the waves on the radio. You tap into that thing in rock that lights a lot of us up.
Music, especially rock ‘n’ roll, has become so insular, introverted almost. No one is projecting, and that’s a prerequisite for me. If you make a record, when you get up onstage I want you to preach it to me, even if you whisper it. Make me feel like you’re there and you believe it, and then I’ll believe it, as opposed to staring at your shoe [laughs].
I feel like I’m eavesdropping on someone’s journal entries with a lot of modern rock. And it’s not always a comfortable feeling. I still return to the rock that got me excited about this music in the first place, things like Patti Smith singing, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine!” as guitars roar in like hungry hounds. You can hear the crowd around her and it’s out there for everyone to respond to, good or bad.
That’s totally true, and another person who did that was Little Richard on some of those Specialty records. There’s a single called “Going To Kansas City,” and on the flipside is “Hey Hey Hey,” where he just screams incessantly at the top of his lungs for three minutes. Whenever I hear that I think, “If this was 1956 and I heard this I’d burn my house down.” It’s scary shit!
I’m always a bit surprised at how potent that early rock stuff remains, but it really was dangerous at the time of its release and that carries over.
A lot of that is in the recording, which was brash and close. You can hear the bass in the songs pumping.
There’s a reason everyone still covers “Not Fade Away.” There’s no archness or slyness to it. It’s all right there in your lap. Those early Jerry Lee Lewis singles feel like he’s rifling around in your pockets, and he ain’t looking for change!
[Laughs loudly] From what I’ve heard that’s probably not far from the truth. That energy, that vibe, is part of why I keep doing this.
For more with Ivan check out Impound regular Ron Hart’s boffo interview with Julian over here!