Back in 1976, Stan Ridgway never intended to pursue a career in rock and popular music. After all, these were the days when lightweight pop like Kiki Dee’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” ruled the airwaves. Instead, Ridgway opened an office on Hollywood Boulevard and set about creating movie scores for low budget movies. He called his company Wall of Voodoo.
Ridgway ended up doing some work for the Harry Novak Film Company, purveyor of sophisticated drive-in fare like The Sinful Dwarf and Caged Virgins. “The Harry Novak Film Company was a few rungs below [legendary B-movie director] Roger Corman,” Ridgway admits by phone from Los Angeles.
While Ridgway was sitting behind a desk with a rotary phone at his Wall of Voodoo office, the burgeoning punk rock scene was making music exciting and dangerous again right across the street, where a music club called The Masque was hosting bands like X and The Germs.
After Ridgway started jamming with guitarist Marc Moreland at the office, Wall of Voodoo morphed from a film company into a new wave band that started performing at The Masque. Eventually, the four-piece band released a self-titled EP featuring a keyboard-laden version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”
Ridgway had big expectations for his nascent outfit. “The whole idea was to build something different that had never been played before,” he says.
In 1982, Ridgway and his group achieved their goal by recording “Mexican Radio,” a dark but catchy number that stood in stark contrast to sunny hits of the day like Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” and Toni Basil’s “Mickey.” Ridgway says that even the song’s lyrics were born from the band trying to escape the banality of pop radio at the time; the words are about the south of the border stations he and Moreland would seek out on their car radio while driving to their recording studio.
With “Mexican Radio” becoming a radio hit and its accompanying video being broadcast regularly on a new cable television station called MTV, Ridgway says the group started to spiral out of control.
“We were destroying ourselves,” he says. “We were all on drugs. We were rushing down the highway in our vans.”
Eventually, the situation came to a head when Wall of Voodoo performed at 1982’s US Festival, a huge concert organized by Apple Computers co-founder Steve Wozniak in San Bernandino that featured bands like The Police and the Talking Heads. Following their performance, Ridgway says he left the group when one of his bandmates freaked out and squashed a bowl of potato salad on a scantily clad female’s head backstage.
“I was pretty much having a walking nervous breakdown as well as everyone else,” he says of the experience.
After Wall of Voodoo, Ridgway embarked on a solo career, which started to take off when the single “Camouflage” became a hit in Europe. Despite having an ‘80s keyboard dominated sound, the number was a story about a dead soldier that unfolded more like an old blues number or the kind of story song done by country artists like Johnny Cash.
His latest CD, 2004’s Snakebite: Blacktop Ballads & Fugitive Songs, has its fair share of story songs, like “King for a Day,” which slowly divulges information about the narrator, a crack smoking car thief. “I sometimes feel like I’m updating this song and story tradition,” Ridgway says.
Ridgway admits that one common aspect in a great deal of his songs is an unreliable narrator. “When characters start to develop, I let them do what they are going to do,” he says, possibly referring to the narrator of “King for a Day,” who crashes the stolen car he is driving into a house and announces, “Daddy’s home,” at the end of the tune.
To accompany his off-kilter lyrics, Ridgway plays music that evokes country blues artists, Tom Waits and arty electronic bands from the ‘80s. Throughout the album, strange instruments accentuate Ridgway’s surreal stories. On “Into the Sun,” a harp shimmers like a mirage in a desert landscape where “the coyote walks the toad”; meanwhile, a farfisa organ creates the circus freak show sound of “Runnin’ with the Carnival.”
Some songs like “Crow Hollow Blues” meld traditional Americana instruments like banjo with modern contraptions like tape loops. “I like the juxtaposition of putting elements together that don’t seem to mix,” Ridgway says.
For Tuesday night’s show at Monterey Live, Ridgway says he will perform as part of a “gothic folk noir acoustic trio.” The eclectic artist admits that he might play “Mexican Radio,” but he confesses that it would not be a straight take on his biggest hit.
“What we do is deconstruct the old Wall of Voodoo material,” he says.
Stan Ridgway plays Monterey Live, located at 414 Alvarado St. in Monterey, Tuesday at 8pm. $10/advance; $12/at the door. 646-1415.