“Stan Ridgway’s post-Wall of Voodoo output has cemented his neo-noir rep as one of American music’s great storytellers, the wild and wily Steinbeck of sad whiskey railroads and rusted, ramshackle American dreams.” - AUSTIN CHRONICLE
“Music is more than just chords and notes to me, it has the ability to make pictures in the mind,” says noir troubadour and sound alchemist Stan Ridgway. “My records are designed to be seen as well as heard.”
A mad scientist of sound and vision, Ridgway possesses a style unparalleled, at least in our known universe. Making his musical pictures for 30 years now, the singer-songwriter and guitarist has emerged as a singular voice in contemporary song.
“It’s a hybrid of all the music I’ve loved and admired,” he says. “There are no boundaries on art and no rules to follow in music. A song is really just a strong point of view.”
Ridgway works in his own unique form of aural tradition, chronicling all that lies beneath the safe and sane surface. He craftily sets his dark materials to off-kilter and eerie melodies that echo the uneasy action of a cast of characters on the brink. His tales often take place in the microcosmic miasma of L.A. and its outer desert, where his creations try to wrest meaning from the beautiful catastrophe of their lives. The combination makes for a stunning stew of universal provocations.
“Mystery and irony are attractive to me but that said, I have no problem with entertainment,” he says. “Orson Welles was a magician as well as a Shakespearean actor. There’s a certain brilliance to that.”
Ridgway has soaked himself in European soundtrack music, American folk tradition, primitive rock 'n' roll, blues, psychedelia, free jazz and all that is avant-garde. All of it has seeped into his musical vocabulary.
“Life is absurd. But that doesn’t mean it has to be meaningless,” he says. “From an early age music centered me in a chaotic world that didn’t make sense.”
Ridgway's uncanny ability for brushing Old World charm against contemporary disturbances and oddities just might define the disjointed landscape of 21st century life. In a further stunning feat of beatnik burlesque, Ridgway's inimitable vocal style carries listeners to the edge of their seats, while perfectly balancing his sometimes-untrustworthy narrator's voice from the twilight zone.
“I’ve always liked tall tales, urban myths and ghost stories,” he says. “I like a strong protagonist, as well as a story that unfolds with drama, color and detail. A song should take you away for awhile and into another world.” Sounds like the definition of a Stan Ridgway song…
Raised in L.A., Ridgway began his love affair with Southwestern gothic 30 years ago as front man of vanguard electro-art punks Wall of Voodoo, who originally formed with the intention of scoring low-budget horror films. Ridgway sang on the band's debut EP and first two albums, Dark Continent and Call of the West (which included the accidental MTV hit “Mexican Radio”).
It's been 25 years since Ridgway first told his stories of the numb and narcoleptic workingman in “Factory” and the suburban couple of “Lost Weekend” (adrift in a loser's Las Vegas). These early snapshots left an indelible impression on a decade more often remembered for its musical frivolity than for its depth: As it happens, “Mexican Radio” is enjoying a hit run once again with a version cut by Mexican super-rockers Kinky.
As he takes to the road, Ridgway is staging a series of retrospective shows in honor of over 25 years of musical mystery from the House of Ridgway. He'll be screening his vivid stories starring his classic cast of anti-heroes, dreamers and schemers lost in the darkened drive-in theater of America. The jungle-bound soldier from “Camouflage” (a surprise Top 5 Hit in Europe from Ridgway's 1986 solo debut The Big Heat), the runaway driver of “King for a Day” (from his most recent offering Snakebite: Blacktop Ballads and Fugitive Songs), and the frustrated outsider in “Don't Box Me In” (written with Stewart Copeland of the Police for the Francis Ford Coppola film Rumblefish) are but three of Ridgway's creations that persist, long after the song is over and the curtain has dropped.
Pulling numbers from Wall of Voodoo's revolutionary past and moving into his own honed, sardonic style of present, Ridgway will be accompanied at the shows by Pietra Wexstun on keyboards, electronics and vocals; Rick King on guitar, bass and vocals; and Joe Berardi on drums and percussion. Wexstun and Ridgway have lived and worked in tandem for more than 30 years; her keyboard and vocal sounds are perfectly in tune with his not-so-typical stories of proverbial American tragedy and triumph.
Ridgway's flair for concise character portraits was first noted by uber critic Greil Marcus, who called The Big Heat “probably the most compelling portrait of American social life to appear on a rock 'n' roll record since Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska." Author Mikal Gilmore said it was “the best L.A.-founded record of that year.” Ridgway followed with the existential-humanist Mosquitoes (featuring the anthemic “Mission in Life,” and the Euro-hit, “Calling Out to Carol”). Partyball (1991) explored the outer-limits of Ridgway's unique world, while 2002's Black Diamond was a more Spartan and personal statement on love and loss.
“I sometimes use songs as a way to figure out the puzzle of how things fit or don't. When the balance is right, what the listener brings to it is just as important as what I bring to it,” he says.
”I’ve always thought of songs like films in the mind really, except I’m the actor and the director, the lighting and prop person and DP too. When it’s working, you should be able to see the song as well as hear it.”
Ridgway is often compared to his cinematic counterparts David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino and hard-boiled literary types like Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson. The San Francisco Chronicle said, “He conjures “Burroughs, Bukowski and Brecht,” while his hometown LA Weekly called him “the Nathaniel West of rock.”
His sonic innovations and explosive performances have made Ridgway a favorite repeat collaborator among his fellow visionaries. His diverse credits include shaping soundtracks as well as writing and orchestrating music for the surrealist paintings of Mark Ryden (along with co-composer Wexstun). He's an occasional contributor to Wexstun's group Hecate's Angels; the pair collaborated most recently with guitarist Rick King for Barbeque Babylon, the third excursion by their electro-experimental-noise combo Drywall. And he is frequently called on to collaborate with celebrated producer Hal Willner, contributing to Lost in the Stars: The Songs of Kurt Weil, the live performance piece Shock and Awe: The Songs of Randy Newman, and, most recently, the Johnny Depp-commissioned Rogues Gallery, Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys.
Whether it's confronting the cruelty of the sea or contradictions on land, Ridgway is a rare performer and songmaker whose enduring sketches nail the human condition down cold while his characterizations of life remain absolutely fresh and alive. The primal urges that drive his creations--whether they're searching for a home in “Underneath the Big Green Tree,” or acknowledging our collective heritage in his electronic reworking of Johnny Cash's “Ring of Fire”-- see Ridgway finding humanity in all stripes, as he celebrates the circus of our lives.
“At the end of the day I really consider myself just an inventor, or like a link in a chain,” the artist says. Music and songs and recording are an obsession for me — sound. It’s all in there, the art, ideas and things that influenced me. To see it and tell it your own way is the challenge. That’s the last true, honest place to be. It might even be the new frontier right now.”
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“Stan Ridgway is equal parts Raymond Chandler and John Huston, Johnny Cash and Rod Serling. An Indie alt-country punk pioneer with songs from a desert twilight zone. “ - NME
“Singer/songwriter Stan Ridgway’s eighth solo album is a glorious hard-boiled Hollywood road movie for the ears. “ - THE WIRE
“Ridgway has become his own wireless theater. Spanning nearly 30 years in song, master storyteller Ridgway pulls out new and old work to dazzling effect. “ - MUSICMUSE