Interview: Andy Prieboy
Eloquent, arrogant, underrated. Andy Prieboy has been wringing songs of rare grace and lyrical flair out of his piano for over 30 years. In 1983 he filled the spot vacated by Stan Ridgeway in LA band Wall of Voodoo, breathing new life into the group and recording the classic Seven Days in Sammystown LP. After WOV disbanded he enjoyed considerable success as a solo artist, scoring a notable hit in ‘Tomorrow Wendy’, his duet with Jeanette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde.
Since that time he has penned both the musical White Trash Wins Lotto, and the novel The Psycho Ex Game (with Merrill Markoe), all the while continuing a prolific string of DIY releases that are eagerly awaited by old school fans and newcomers alike. Collide asked Andy to put pen to paper and scribble us some musings.
Almost 30 years on, your work with Wall of Voodoo still really resonates with a lot of people. What was it like joining an established act like that and how did you feel about the Ridgeway comparisons?
On the road with Wall of Voodoo, at a Mc Donald’s, I saw a woman look at us and whisper "Jesus, what a bunch of spooks!”. I would mutter that to myself many, many times over the next 6 years.
When I was invited to join I had only been in LA a year, so I was awed by the collective ghost of their past. Wall of Voodoo was deeply rooted in the original LA Punk scene. The Moreland brothers and Chas T. Gray were some of the first punk rock fish to crawl onto dry land in the 70's. Thus, a legion of previous bands, friends, friend’s bands, scene makers, taste makers, journalists, writers, ex’s , photographers, artists, freaks, fuck ups , simpletons, drunks , poets, addicts, degenerates, record label feebs, dweebs, lick spittles and do-nothings that they had known , loved, fucked, hated or threw beer cans at seemed to inhabit the space around them.
Accompanying all that was the ghost of the first Wall of Voodoo: it’s anti band origin as a sound track company, then WOV as art band, then WOV as local favourites which became WOV as Indie band. That became Voodoo slogging it out on the road and, at last, Voodoo with a minor top 40 hit born of an incredible album. Finally, the Wall of Voodoo that falls apart at the pinnacle of success.
What a tomb! What history! What ghosts! And what a soundtrack! Again, remember, I was new in town and had just a few friends from my retail job. I was awed but at the same time I was also thrilled beyond words. Destiny and her beau, Dumb Luck, had led me to a near impossible Everest and said ‘go to.’
There were also giants stomping around Voodoo: Danny Elfman and Stewart Copeland. There was the manager of The Police, Voodoo’s manager and owner of our record label, Miles Copeland II. There were Go Go’s, the beautiful Bangles, and the spidery distant Cramps. And like the Holy Ghost hovering over all, there was Sting: the reason why there was an IRS Records, and why there was money for dinky bands to make albums. I could pay my shitty rent, buy hair dye and wear stretchy black jeans because, somewhere down that twisting river of money, beautiful St. Sting wrote a string of miraculous hits. I’d show friends my pack of cigarettes and say "Hey! Look! Sting just bought these for me!"
With all that, and adding even more ghosts to the Voodoo Tomb, was the fact that our label presidents father, Miles Copeland the 1st, helped organize the OSS (The Office of Strategic Services). I could sense the dead of Normandy Beach when Miles Copeland II screamed at us “You can’t dance to ‘Dance, You Fucker’s!”
But, in time, Voodoo II created our own dense history. The experiences added up and we forged a language and a boozy brotherhood. We built Sammystown on top of the old ruins and for a while, it flourished. Incrementally our struggles, disappointments, our filthy jokes and our idiotic road songs contributed to the grim little mosaic. Our wars with our label and managers, our secret lovers and messy private lives, stalkers, nervous breakdowns, money, poverty, bulimia, anorexia. The drug addition and egomania, claustrophobia, hopes raised and then dashed. Great reviews, bad reviews, good sales, bad sales. A hit in Australia and a flop in the States. Fantastic shows in London followed by the ever-predictable hatchet job in the London press. Wonderful victories and heartbreaking disasters. A lovely drunken mess. And nobody funnier than Voodoo when no one was around.
More than anything, I regret we never got to record that one last album. When we were friends. When we really knew and loved one another.
The Stan comparisons were part of the job. When you are invited to replace the singer and lyricist in the best band in LA,some people will be outraged. Today, I’m pleasantly amused that the debate continues. I enjoy watching embittered rock spinsters and dotards re-fight the old war while their dentures clack.
A few years ago Stan and I got to know each other. We’d talk on the phone for hours, exploring Logic Pro. We got together here at my studio and sang a few times around my piano. It was a delight to hear our voices blend, and they do so nicely. I went and saw him live and was quite touched when he dedicated Mexican Radio "to all my brothers in Voodoo.” That meant a great deal to me.
As with any guest of honor in my studio, I asked him to scratch his name into my piano. He did.
Your work has displayed quite a varied musical palette, drawing on everything from Americana to Vaudeville and Musical Theatre. What were your primary influences when you were growing up?
In 1960 when I was five, my father, the cop, bought a massive stereo system; a new technological wonder. Dad always had the right priorities: music first, taxes last.
We lived in a tiny basement apartment. The speakers were the size of two bank vaults and took up a third of the room. Officer Andy Prieboy would blast music. Fucking blast it. Nobody blasted music in 1960, not in our dirty steel mill town - nobody except Officer Andy Prieboy. You could hear our apartment blocks away. My dad would blast the original Broadway cast recording of 'The Music Man', LOUD! Painfully loud. I loved being enveloped in sound and harmony and words! He’d blast Mariachi bands, which was sheer joy. He’d blast folk music, cheesy banjo strumming shit, Sonny and Cher, Trini Lopez, music from Africa and Italy, Shirley Temple singing ‘The Good Ship Lollypop.’
Blaring. Booming. Screeching. He’d blast great stuff. He’d blast shit. He’d blast pure evil. His records would be piled up and thrown all over the place. My mom would want to spit in his eye, yet on he’d blast. So, at five, I was made aware of two truths: That human expression is limitless, and that everything sounds great loud.
You've recently released a series of new one-off singles continuing a prolific patch of the past few years with releases such as The Questionable Profits of Pure Novelty and Every Lady Gets a Song. Can you give us some insight into your song writing process these days? Is yours a fickle muse?
First of all, dear reader, if you are looking for tips on how to write Solid Rock Gold, leave now. Go take a class from Jimmy Shits Who Writes the Hits. Do not listen to a word I say. However, if you enjoy long stretches of poverty and obscurity, you have come to the right place. Best of all, my lessons are free.
So, to answer your question: my muse is very generous. But that’s because I show up for work. Everyday. After years, writing comes easy to me. Writing well, on the other hand, is the hard part.
I use the basics: pencil, paper, piano. Nothing else. I play hard, I play long, I sing loud. I make lots of mistakes and sing bad lines until they are right. I love rewriting, perfecting. trimming. I like to edit lyrics first thing in the morning when my mind is still pliable and somewhere between dream and consciousness. I have Roget’s thesaurus open and take great pleasure in looking for the right word.
At noon, it’s an anorexic lunch, and back to work, this time at the piano.It’s imperative a new song have a beginning, middle and end by the end of its first day on earth.
I have no patience with songwriters who have been carrying their golden, God given, miraculous three lines and a partial chorus for 10 years. It’s like having half a baby swinging between your legs. Finish the fucking job, mommy. Anyway, once I have a working sketch, I make a quick recording of it, just vocal and piano. If it doesn’t work at that level, no amount of electronic sugar frosting is going to save it later. Now, move on to other songs.
My advice: If you don’t end the month with 25 ideas that are just horrible, that means you are not taking risks. And if you are not taking risks, you are not playing or performing to the edge of your abilities. If you are not doing that, then you are just Jimmy Shits Who Writes the Hits. However, if you do take risks, you will end the month with about three really solid ideas.
Lastly: The muse is never fickle. There is no fickle muse. There are, on the other hand, countless fickle musicians who feel the muse’s assignments are beneath them.
There’s an abiding melancholy about most of your work but there’s also wry humor in abundance, even on dark confessional tracks like ‘Bands’. This tragicomic dichotomy is prevalent in most of my favorite works in all mediums.
There is logic and then there is intuition. Lyrics are the logical processing of an experience. The music expresses the emotions of that experience. Humor is just one of logic’s many tools. It feeds on a rich mulch of blood, loss, rage, conflict, shame and regret.
In your musical White Trash Wins Lotto you skewered the archetypal starry eyed rise of 80’s hair metallers. By all accounts it was really well received. What's the tale behind its inception and have you considered revisiting the show or perhaps telling a different tale in a similar format?
I skewered them all. Goths, Punks, Synth Bands, Glam, Metal Dudes, Strippers. I skewered all early 80’s subgroups vying to musically define the decade. I danced on the grave of my own aspirations and laughed.
With Axl as a stick, I whacked record label fiends and their lower level imps. I skewered bitchin rock nick-names and music store clerks. I skewered rock junkies. I skewered the endless migration of hopeful hicks to Los Angles. I made fun of rock’s excesses, its self-pity, self-importance and its maudlin cult of a youthful death. I skewered the rock pilgrimage to Jim Morrison’s grave and had him rise like the Commendatore from Don Giovanni and beckon Axl to die beautiful, young, perfect, and thus immortal. Axl refuses.
I was inspired by Danny Sugarman’s inadvertently funny, Appetite for Destruction: a ponderous, amateur Jungian treatise of Axl Rose-as-Dionysius. Musically, I drew from Verdi, Mozart, Meredith Wilson, W.S.Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. I had a ball. With the music business, and rock in particular, there were simply millions of fucking assholes to write about!
You recently did of run of shows at the Steve Allen theatre, even reuniting briefly with Bruce Moreland to do some old Wall Of Voodoo tracks. How did that come about and how did it feel revisiting that material?
This was no reunion. We won’t do a Voodoo reunion without Marc. So, until he shows up, sorry, no reunion. I simply thought to do ‘Business of Love” for an old friend who was coming to the show. Then, as long as we were opening crypts, why not also do ‘Far Side’ and ‘Room with a View’?
Bruce had been coming to my shows, so why not ask him up? So I invited him to do his version of Marc’s 'Beggar Blue Sky' and, well, what the heck, while we’re at it lets also do 'Tragic Vaudeville'. Fun, but hardly a reunion. We were not re-unified. We played some songs.
Revising some of the material was interesting. 'Elvis Bought Dora a Cadillac' and 'This Business of Love' made better laments than the rollicking boot stomps that appeared on the albums. I felt the new treatments told the stories more effectively. The arrangement of ‘Far Side of Crazy’ stood up very, very well. Marc’s guitar line was wonderful to hear live again.
Thankyou Andy, any final thoughts?
I have said it before and I will say it again: you must destroy your music collection every ten years. If you are listening to music you liked when you were twenty, you are no better than your grandparents stuck in their overrated and largely imagined past. Listen to music you don’t understand and when your head screams stop, scream right back: "Shut the fuck up, brain. You don’t know everything.”