If Stan Ridgway's debut album on Geffen Records appears cinematic, as if it were unfolding a story about a certain place with certain characters, that's because it is.
"When I write songs," Ridgway explains, "I start from an emotion, or kind of vague feeling. Sometimes I'll write at the typewriter and fill up a page, and then later look at it and see what strikes me as interesting. During the time of recording Mosquitos, I put together a kind of trashy screenplay to amuse myself, and also to get away from the 'songs' angle of it all."
"As went along, the two started to overlap, the songs and this B-grade story, and an atmosphere of a certain peculiar place struck me. I was attracted to that."
If it sounds like Ridgway, who first came to prominence as the leader of Wall of Voodoo, has taken a decided turn away from his previous musical style, that's because he has -- sort of.
"This record seems different in tone to me than my last (The Big Heat). I found I was inventing more gaps, and not being as detailed in the lyrics as in the past. I liked what was coming out because it seemed to me to be a better balance between words and music."
In each of the songs on Mosquitos -- from one about a threesome ("Peg and Pete and Me") to another inspired by absurdist writer Samuel Beckett ("Dogs") -- Ridgway creates for the listener an intriguing character. Yet unlike his earlier work, on this album Ridgway has, more often than not, opted for feelings over literary or musical cleverness.
"I enjoy things that allow an exchange between the audience and the music. I like to guess at what ought to be filled in as much as the listener."
"For me, songs are little quizzes, little puzzles of emotion,"
The puzzle of Stanard Ridgway began just outside Los Angeles, in the San Gabriel Valley where he grew up. There he first started playing an instrument when he was 10 years old, picking up a banjo. Moving to guitar, he began to listen to Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. When he expanded his horizons to the blues, he lent an ear to Sonny Terry (and so learned the harmonica) and Little Walter.
"I played in a lot of blues bands in high school," he recalls. "That was my identity -- black pants and black coat."
His circuitous musical trail, also including playing piano, later found him indulging in free-form Ornette Coleman-style jazz. For Ridgway, what happened next was a natural climax to his evolution.
"When punk started, I fell into putting all this music into one big bag, and to try and do it in a three or four minute song."
Wall of Voodoo was hatched in 1977 at the legendary punk palace in Hollywood called the Masque, located in the basement of a Pussycat Theatre. There, Ridgway and friends decided to form a company to write soundtrack music for low-budget horror flicks. The name "Wall of Voodoo" was clearly appropriate for the venture. But while that effort quickly went bust, the band it spawned did not.
Ever the unusual, the band's debut the following year took place at unsuspecting Immaculate Heart Girls School. Surprisingly, when Wall of Voodoo appeared months later at a Masque concert on a bill with the Cramps, Dead Boys, Germs and Pure Hell, the reaction was pretty much the same: Who are these guys? What kind of music is this if you can't dance to it? My God, you can hear the words!
Says Ridgway, "The nature of my voice, the diction, doesn't allow me to hide behind the music. I had to be more concerned with the lyrics because there was no way I was going to be misunderstood. And if the lyrics were going to be understood, then they couldn't sound false."
In 1980, Wall of Voodoo was signed to I.R.S. Records and released a self-titled EP. Now a top L.A. band selling major concert venues, it took to the road trudging up and down both coasts. After an appearance in the film URGH! A Music War, the band had its full album debut in August 1981 with Dark Continent. Featuring Ridgway's wit, keen sense of storytelling, unmistakable voice, and intriguing multi-layered music, Wall of Voodoo was a critic's as well as progressive rock fan's favorite.
The summer of 1982 saw the single "Mexican Radio" become an alternative radio hit and the band's second album, Call Of The West, solidify its vanguard reputation. The next year, however, Ridgway exited the group and the original Wall of Voodoo was no more.
The next two years were spent building his own studio to record his solo premiere. He also collaborated with Stewart Copeland on the title track for the 1983 Francis Coppola film Rumblefish, titled "Don't Box Me In".
In 1986, the album The Big Heat was released. The album contained the single "Camouflage", which became a top three hit in England, paving the way for similar chart success throughout Europe. A resounding worldwide success, this first solo album established Ridgway as an artist who had something to say and a very different way of saying it. In 1988, he was signed to Geffen Records by A&R executive Gary Gersh -- which brings us to Mosquitos.
"Yvou know, sometimes people feel very positive about things and then again, as your sense of experience increases, you wonder if human behavior will really ever change," he says, "There's a quote from Orson Welles I like. He'd said that if he'd heard a story that had a happy ending, then he knew that it hadn't ended yet, because most things end sadly."
Talking about these songs with Ridgway, songs that he has grown close to from this specific place that he envisions, is a personal experience -- sometimes an overwhelming one, Already he's thinking about the next place he'd like to go to find characters and stories.
"For the next record," he suggests, "maybe it'll go to outer space, get off this planet completely. Now that would be a different perspective altogether."
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Original text and graphics © Adrian Oates : all else © Stan Ridgway - used with permission
Last update: 27th June 1999.