Stan Ridgway has always been a keen observer of modern life. From his days as the frontman of the unusual but always compelling Los Angeles band Wall of Voodoo (you loved “Mexican Radio” and their twisted take on “Ring of Fire”) through a fruitful solo career that has produced a few minor hits (“Camouflage,” “Drive She Said”) and lots of interesting, moody music, Ridgway has shown a knack for capturing the rhythms of both real and imagined lives in small lyric and musical details. A huge fan of movie music, Ridgway creates songs and soundscapes that are highly cinematic-there are noir-ish elements in some pieces; others have the lingering flavors of Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone in them. Ridgway’s latest CD, Anatomy, presents a nice glimpse of his different worlds-offbeat pop tunes, dreamy keyboard-driven instrumentals, odd song sketches and a decidedly off-kilter cover tune: “Sixteen Tons,” done to a hip hop beat.
For the past few years, Ridgway has cut his CDs mostly at Impala Digital, a project studio in his Venice, Calif., apartment. But he has been recording at home much longer than that. “My first ‘studio’ was back when I was 15, and I used two cassette recorders that I would overdub on by running them back and forth,” Ridgway recalls. “I would put my head between the two and play harmonica, sing or play guitar. It was primitive, but that’s what got me into recording and sound. That led me to investigate other ways of doing that after a while, and I found a machine made by Sony called the TC-630, which came with its own set of speakers, and you ping-ponged from one side to the other. It also had a wonderful echo dial on it, and the compression you’d get going back and forth was interesting. It made you commit, because once you ping-ponged for real, you couldn’t go home again, and that was an interesting process for me.”
Long before he formed a band, “I rented an office off Hollywood Boulevard with the idea of doing music for sci-fi movies,” Ridgway says. “It was around 1976, and at that time there weren’t many bands around, and there were no places to play. I had a big metal desk and a rotary phone, and I moved with my TC-630 into that office. I called the company Acme Soundtracks.” Not much soundtrack work came his way, though he did manage to land some music in a Canadian tourist film-“It was bears running through tundra and geese flying south and stuff like that. The music I wrote for it actually kind of sounded like ‘The Passenger’ on the first Wall of Voodoo record a few years later.”
Around this time Ridgway met Brendan Mullen, who had rented the basement of the nearby Pussycat Theater as a band rehearsal hall for their friends. That space soon became The Masque, L.A.’s first great punk music club (where The Germs, X and many other bands got their first significant exposure), and it was there that Ridgway met guitarist Marc Moreland, whom he coaxed into coming over to Acme to work on what Ridgway calls, “horrific soundscapes.” Ridgway was also writing lyrics to go with these soundscapes, “but I couldn’t find a singer for them. Everyone we tried out thought that what I’d written was really stupid, and it was at the time when all the singers were like, ‘Yeah, Iggy! Rock ‘n’ roll,’ which wasn’t exactly what I was doing. So I ended up doing it myself pretty much out of default.” And so Wall of Voodoo was born around Ridgway’s lyric and musical vision and his distinctive spoken/sung vocals.
“All of the initial recordings Wall of Voodoo did before we went into a studio were done on the TC-630,” Ridgway says. “My frustration was that when you went to the larger studios, it seemed to kill the mood.” Nonetheless, the first Wall of Voodoo LP was cut at a small L.A. studio called Wilder Recording. “We went in there in the middle of the night, recorded from about midnight to 6 in the morning. They mostly made tape copies there, but we had a contact who let us work there really cheaply.
“As Wall of Voodoo began its career, we butted heads with a lot of people. They would approach us like this-‘oh no, Stan, you don’t want to record yourself or even put your hands on the console here.’ It’s as if they had a scary voodoo necklace filled with diodes and transistors. They’d kind of shake it in front of you saying, ‘It’s far too complicated for you!’ But I never bought that thinking.
“As the ’80s encroached on us there seemed to be a rule book about how to record, what to do, how to mix and it culminated in an ’80s sound that sounds like the whole band is in a cavern, coming from a very far away planet,” he continues. “It was influenced by the reverbs that were being built at the time, and the popular records of that time-Bruce Springsteen and u2 and all those others, the Steve Lillywhite sound. And because it was popular, that sound filtered down to bands it was completely inappropriate for.”
Wall of Voodoo managed to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of many young bands by retaining some control in the studio and by working with sympathetic engineers. “Then, after my first solo record came out [in 1985], I had a pretty sizable hit in Europe with ‘Camouflage,'” Ridgway says. “That gave me a lot of confidence, and people were excited about what I was going to do next. And I thought now is the time, I’m going to open my own studio. I’m going to lease a building on Burbank Boulevard in North Hollywood, and I’m going to open a new studio: a creative place for musicians and other people to work. I used partial amounts of my recording budget to buy an MTR-90 and an old Allen & Heath board that I got from Stewart Copeland; it was actually the board that the early Police stuff had been recorded on. What happened, though, is that I found I didn’t enjoy running a commercial studio. And I found that the anxiety it produced in me made it almost impossible for me to relax at night or even in my own studio-I was worrying about the overhead and ‘Did I turn that burglar alarm on?’
“I found I wanted to dump the whole thing and move it back into my house so I could run around my bedroom in my slippers and decide when I wanted to sing; and maybe not even get dressed to do it. So I moved the MTR-90 up into the bedroom like it was an old washing machine or something.” And he’s been recording at home happily ever since.
The Allen & Heath board and MTR-90 are long gone. “I’m all-digital now,” he says. “I use Cubase audio-the VST full-blown 24 program. I even used that sequencer back when it was called Pro 24. I hard disk record on a Macintosh. I also have two ADATs and a Tascam DA-98, which I use for films, but most of the time if I’m making my own stuff I do it in the computer, and I spit it out either directly as a CD master, or I go through a Lightpipe to a DAT player. I do all my mixing and panning and EQ’ing within the domain of the panels of Cubase.” Ridgway currently uses a Mackie 24o8 console but says he’s seriously considering buying a digital board in the near future. “I recently purchased a Kurzweil K2500 and maxed that out with all the memory and sound blocks and the sampler. I like that a lot, especially for soundtracks and orchestral textures. I also have two Roland 770s that I use for sampling. I’m pretty lean and mean here.”
Ridgway is hardly an equipment junkie, but he does make an effort to keep his system up to date, and he likes to experiment with new plug-ins: “When there are new tools, what’s fun is…well, if you pick up this new tool called a hammer, you may use the wrong end and get the job done by some other method. Somebody walks in and says, ‘Hey, that’s not the way you use that! But it sounds good.’ That’s what’s fun about new things.
“I think there’s a tendency in people who are putting together their own studios to buy too much equipment at the same time, and then they find out it’s not all compatible,” he continues. “I always suggest getting one piece at a time, and try not to let the hype of technology influence you. At the same time, though, I do believe in using good microphones; that really is important. I like Neumanns and the [AKG] 414 and the Shure Beta series mics. The Shure 81 is great on guitars and cymbals. I usually do my vocals on an SM58. If I want something sharper I sing through a 414.”
Of his new album, Anatomy, Ridgway says, “It was made over a year and a half, two years. out of the 12 cuts that are on there, there are 20 that are still here on the shelf. When I put together a record, I like to make it all of one mood, more or less. I like the idea that this record seemed to be in no particular rush to get anywhere. I look at the record as a sort of slow waddle into middle age. It’s my middle passage. Half of it are things that happened to me; the other half are things I make up.” Ridgway’s wife, Pietra Wextsun, played some keyboards on the project, and a number of other musician friends helped out here and there on what is still, mostly, a solo album.
Clearly, Ridgway likes both the freedom and solitude having his own studio offers. In recent months, he’s worked on music for a pair of Hollywood films-Speedway Junkie, with Darryl Hannah, and Error in Judgment, which stars Joe Mantegna. Ridgway and his friend Stewart Copeland (who has his own studio in Culver City) also have a song in the new Sharon Stone-Nick Nolte-Jeff Bridges film Simpatico. “I work on three or four film cues a week whether I’m working on a film or not,” Ridgway says. It all gets stirred around in the pot at Impala Digital, the eventual destination to be determined later. A film? Another solo album? A commercial? It will probably turn up somewhere, and wherever it is, it will probably be interesting.