Debora Iyall of Romeo Void
by Keith Valcourt
Debora Iyall was the most captivating and original female voice of rock and roll in the 1980s. As lead singer of the San Francisco art collective Romeo Void she ruled the airwaves and MTV with alt rock staples “Never Say Never” and “A Girl In Trouble (Is A Temporary Thing).” Sadly, after 3 brilliant albums and a total lack of support from their record company, the band imploded. A less than successful solo disc followed leading Iyall to leave music behind and return to her first love—art.
In 2010, a reunion show featuring bands from her old label, 415 Records, reignited Debora’s desire to make music and 2012 finds her touring and recording again. West Coast Bureau chief Keith Valcourt caught up with Debora in Hollywood to discuss her legendary band, who the song “Never Say Never” was written for, being angry at Michael Jackson and her new CD, “Stay Strong.”
Rocker: What was the birth of Romeo Void like?
Debora: When I was in art school I was going out to the [San Francisco nightclub] Mabuhay Gardens five or six nights a week. All the punk bands played there. I saw Patti Smith, Lene Lovich, and Television there, plus all the L.A. bands — The Weirdos, The Screamers… All those bands came up from L.A. to play Mabuhay Gardens. One night I saw The Avengers and [their singer] Penelope had gone to the art school I was currently in. Watching her, I thought, “I’ve got something to say. I can do this too.”
I had been performing with a jokey dance band. We thought we could bring the punks to a party and make them dance instead of leaning against the wall. The guitar player from that band, Peter Woods, agreed to play with me. I found our bass player, Frank Zincavage, at art school. He played bass in one of my performance art videos. The three of us started rehearsing in a flat in San Francisco. We went through a couple different drummers and just started playing clubs. We got invited to play at an after-party at a loft for The Go-Gos. Our motto was “You don’t turn anything down,” and that really helped get us out there.
Rocker: Were you influenced by fellow art school rockers Talking Heads?
Debora: Yeah. I was listening to lots of Talking Heads at the time. I loved the lyrics and the funky bass. Awesome rhythms and quirky lyrical content; odd, good stuff. I also really loved Patti Smith of course, Roxy Music, The Pretenders and Siouxsie and The Banshees.
Rocker: Your first label was 415 records…
Debora: 415 founder Howie Klein approached us about doing a single. We said, “No, when we record, we want to do a full album.” They hadn’t singed album deals with anyone yet and we were cocky. Plus we thought “What’s the point of putting out a 45 if you really want to have impact and get your artistic statement out there?” We waited six months and called Howie back to say, “We have enough songs for an album. Come see our show.” He did and we signed. We wanted all our deep thoughts captured. (Laughs)
Rocker: How did you get Ric Ocasek (of The Cars) to produce “Never Say Never?”
Debora: Our road manager got a call when we were in Boston to play at Spit (nightclub). Turns out a roadie for The Cars played our indie EP on their tour bus and Ric loved it. He wanted us to drop by his studio after our gig. We were thrilled that someone from The Cars wanted to meet us. So we met him and then agreed to come back at the end of the tour, a month or so later, to record with him. We had started writing “Never Say Never” on that tour, but it wasn’t one of the songs we played for Ric because we hadn’t finished it. We recorded “Not Safe,” “In The Dark” and “Ventilation” with the idea being to maybe put out a 45. We closed up the studio, said our goodbyes and went to play another gig that night in Boston, and at that show we did “Never Say Never” as an encore. Ric’s engineer, Ian Taylor, came to the gig, and afterwards he came backstage and said, “Why didn’t you play THAT song for us?! I’m calling Ric right now. You’re going to load your equipment back into the studio because we are going to record that song!”
Rocker: That song has a jam feel to it…
Debora: It was a jam. The original tape of “Never Say Never” was thirteen minutes. They cut it down to seven minutes and it lost a lot. The awesome six minute version was cut from the long version. The really short one came when we got signed to Columbia and they needed something that was “Single Length” and “Radio Friendly.” Hence the cymbal crash over the F-word.
Rocker: Who was “Never Say Never” written for?
Debora: The song was written for Frank Zincavage, the bass player of Romeo Void. He never knew until the year 2000. I had to have surgery and they told me I could die and should get everything in order, just in case. I was fretting about telling Frank. I had told [songwriting partner] Peter Dunn, within confidence and he and Frank are good friends. I thought I could not have Peter tell him after I was gone. So I called him and told him, “I’m going for surgery and I have to tell you just in case that I wrote “Never Say Never” about you”. He was shocked. The relationships in the band were very platonic but it was in the back of my mind. The lyrics, “I might like you better if we slept together” is saying in some ways, I really don’t like you all that much. I might come to really appreciate you some more if I was getting some action.
Rocker: Romeo Void always seemed to have two singers with the way your voice and Benjamin’s sax blended. How did that blend happen?
Debora: That is the magic of Benjamin Bossi. What Benjamin heard in our material was a place to really express what I was singing about in the purest emotional musical terms. He said what I couldn’t say, because I was busy in my more detached reporting mode. Even though I was saying things clearly and directly, I wasn’t singing with all that much emotion, so he brought the emotion and definition. Like, “this is what she’s really talking about. This scream here on the sax is what she’s saying.” I always said Benjamin was coloring in my black and white drawings.
Rocker: How did things change for the better/worse once you signed to a major label?
Debora: What a can of worms you have asked me to open! I feel differently about it at different times. I remember when we signed to a major label my mother said, “How is this going to be different?”
We were on college radio at the time, and I said to my mother, “Mom, you know how Rolling Stone magazine publishes somebody’s tour schedule? Well our tour schedule will be in Rolling Stone Magazine now, and there will be an ad for our records in there.” What is funny is I know the tour calendar never happened. What good happened? The video got made. That elevated us incredibly in front of the early MTV watchers. People showed up at our concerts knowing and singing all the words to “Never Say Never.” That really changed everything.
Rocker: Do you remember the first time you saw the video on MTV?
Debora: We were on tour when the video was on MTV but we had never seen MTV, but one of the hotels we stayed at had cable and we sat in one of our rooms for like 6 hours till we saw our video. We were so excited.
Rocker: The negative side would be that the 1980s were all about style over substance. Did the record company try to change you to fit in with their ideas of beauty?
Debora: I don’t know how much they tried. They were hoping they could change me. There is a joke about the music business that says there it’s too bad there has to be content on the discs that they sell. They would just as soon sell blank discs. That’s sort of the joke.
The [label’s] marketing department wasn’t sure about us. Had they had a little bit of vision they would have realized that I already had a lot of fans in the gay world, and that a lot of disaffected youth were relating to me. I had a lot of girls of color, and bigger girls who were embracing me just as I am. That’s why people loved Romeo Void, because I wasn’t a cookie cutter girl singer. I don’t have that in my being to ever be that, and that is a strength people love.
Rocker: Favorite moments from the 80s?
Debora: We got on “American Bandstand” That was something I’m so proud of. Dick Clark just passed away which was sad. He was so cool to everyone. He was Mr. Open. He let rock and roll be whatever you wanted. He had Public Image on “American Bandstand and he had Romeo Void on American Bandstand.
Rocker: When you went into the studio to record “Benefactor” which featured the top 40 hit “A Girl In Trouble,”was there pressure to make hits?
Debora: Not necessarily, but when Peter (Woods) came up with the riff for “Girl In Trouble” on guitar, that arpeggio thing, we thought, “Oh that’s pretty pop.” But we were excited because we were willing to do anything. When I was writing the lyrics I though, “Leave it up to me to take it to an UN-pop area,” but that’s who I am.
Rocker: Was “Girl In Trouble” about a woman’s right to choose?
Debora: At its heart it was always meant as a pep talk. A girl in trouble is typically a pregnant girl, but the song is a pep talk to my friend who we called “Teen Troublemaker.” She was the original actual girl who I’m talking to on the phone. It was also my response to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” I loved that song, danced to it in the clubs, but fuck Michael Jackson. If some woman comes to you and says, “I think you fathered my child.” To respond, “The kid is not my son.” I thought that was really cold so, “Girl In Trouble” is my answer to him.
Rocker: At some point your record company gave up on the band.
Debora: We were out on our last tour and we got halfway across the country when Columbia said, “We’re pulling support on the album.” We were in Cleveland. They didn’t drop us. They dropped support for the record. The very next town we went to there was we no one from the record company setting up interviews. No local retailers coming backstage. When we got to New York 3 to 4 weeks later all the walls of the stores, clubs and record company offices were covered with (Columbia label mate) Patty Smyth (of Scandal) posters, because she was “The Warrior.” (Laughs) I have nothing against Patty Smyth, she’s got tons of talent and is as cute as a button too, but the record companies just decide one day and then you’re done. That was pretty heartbreaking for us. We were not so successful. When we were off the road we weren’t just counting our money. I was working at a lunch spot in downtown San Francisco making sandwiches to keep my rent paid and food in the house. You just start feeling pissed off and disrespected, disenchanted and disemboweled.
Looking back though, we felt like we did our job as band. Came out strong. Had an unique artistic vision. Nobody since has sounded like Romeo Void.
Rocker: Why did you leave music behind?
Debora: After all that disenchantment with the music business happened I had to move on. I have always been an artist, and I started taking printmaking classes and I fell in love with it. I ended up buying a press and started teaching, then I ended up doing artists residencies in continuation high schools. That path has been going since the early nineties.
Rocker: What brings you back to recording and touring?
Debora: Sometime in the mid-90s I started writing songs with Peter Dunne who used to be in Pearl Harbor. That started the possibility of making music. I heard that Translator and Wire Train were going to do this reunion show in California so I wrote to Steve Barton and Larry Decker from Translator and asked if I could put a band together and open for them and they said, “Sure that will be awesome.” That show inspired me to make music again.
I love being on stage. I thought, “This is the most unique thing I do,” and the audience was so digging it. I felt the sensation again of having something to say, reaching out to the audience and sharing that emotion. I tell my art students, “Do the most unique thing you have and emphasize that. Keep going with whatever works.” For a while music wasn’t working for me, but then I thought, “Maybe it could?” Six weeks after the show I called Peter and we started writing “Stay Strong.”
Rocker: What did you discover when you re-recorded “Girl In Trouble” on your new CD
Debora: I guess I’ve become more grateful. I wrote a third verse that comes from all these years of experience. There is a line “She has more riches than she can spend.” Psychically and financially I’ve never had riches. But yet in my heart I know I do have more riches than I could ever spend.
Rocker: How has your music evolved?
Debora: I see it as a continuum. There is still the arty, poetic sensibility. Probably less horniness! There is some attraction and sexuality but more tempered, less overt. Maybe it’s that you don’t see things in such high contrast as you get older, but I haven’t completely lost my edge.
Rocker: Are you ever tempted to put together a band, call it Romeo Void and hit the nostalgia circuit?
Debora: No. Because I’m not Romeo Void. Romeo Void was a band and we did some great things. I even redesigned my logo so it clearly says “From Romeo Void.”
Rocker: Are there any younger singers who cite you as an influence? Maybe Beth Ditto from The Gossip?
Debora: I’ve never read anything in an interview where she says she’s been influenced by me, but I would love to share a stage with Beth Ditto. She’s a powerhouse. I do get email and fan things from young bands who say, “I’m in a band now because of you.” But nobody as big as Beth Ditto! Honestly though Shirley Manson from Garbage owes me tons. For some of my lyrics, she’s just this side of having to give me songwriting credit. I love Garbage. I follow her on Facebook. Someone wrote on her page. “Wow don’t people ever ask you about the similarity in Garbage’s lyrics and Romeo Void?” I wrote, “Yeah I’d love to know that too because people always ask me that.” And she never answered. I love her and wish them all the best.
Rocker: What’s next?
Debora: I think the next thing is recording a new record this fall with my new band. Working on more new material. Getting out there with a band playing the clubs. I feel like I have something to share. I can do it, so I will.
Debora Iyall’s Stay Strong is available at CD Babyor on iTunes and Amazon
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