Talks About Music, Activism and Her New CD
"Stay Strong"
Interview By: De Fen
Many will remember Debora Iyall from her work with the post punk/new wave band Romeo Void. At that, many will remember Romeo Void for their epic 1981 hit 'Never Say Never' and 1984's 'A Girl In Trouble (is a temporary thing).' From 1981 to 1984 Romeo Void released three full lengths and one EP: 1981's 'It's A Condition,' 1982's 'Benefactor' and the 'Never Say Never' EP, and their final release as a band with 1984's 'Instincts.' All of their recordings showcase their raw, free associative jazzish punk musical arrangements and Iyall's trademark half spoken, sultry lyrical delivery. And the lyrics. It makes a great deal of sense that Romeo Void assembled themselves in a visual arts environment and that their first song was part of a video performance piece. Romeo Void's songs tend to read and listen much like short films in that they each seem to express an entire range of emotions and sensory involvement.

After Romeo Void dissolved in 1985 Iyall released her first solo recording, 'Strange Language' and then sort of skipped off to go make visual art and work as an visual arts instructor until the late 1990s when she began writing and recording with Peter Dunne, formerly of Pearl Harbor and the Explosions. Enter 2010 and out comes the magical concoction brewed of Iyall's vivid lyrical imagery and Dunne's tingling guitars that is 'Stay Strong.'

I recently had a chance to talk to Iyall about the new album, her visual art work, activism, work as an art instructor and more.
PG- I appreciate you taking the time to answer a few questions for the Punk Globe readers. Can you tell us how Romeo Void formed?
Debora Iyall- Romeo Void formed in San Francisco when there were lots of bands playing The Mabuhay Gardens every night and I was in art school. It was summertime and Frank Zincavage and I were both working at the school over the summer. He was working at the gallery setting up shows and I was working in the video lab helping people get their projects done like a technician. So we just started working together. He had a drum machine and a bass. It was a really cool clear, acrylic bass. I had him play bass and I wrote a song to do a video performance piece. After that we quit doing the video performance and just started writing songs. It was fun and we enjoyed it. We recruited Peter Woods on guitar who had been playing with The Mummers and The Poppers, which was another band that was playing The Mabuhay in those days and that I sang back up vocals in. We put some rugs on the walls of our flat to try to dampen the sound a bit and then we started rehearsing.
PG- Do you have any thoughts on how the San Francisco music scene has changed?
Debora Iyall- Well, considering that I live in Sacramento, how can I really say? I was lucky to be there during a really pivotal time. I remember when we used to see bands out of The Deaf Club. Once, we ran into Black Flag on the street because they couldn't find the club. Things were small and people were so enthusiastic. I was somebody who was going to The Mabuhay about fives nights out of the week and I wasn't alone. Many other people were doing the exact same thing. We were just enthralled with what people were doing. We saw a lot of touring great acts at these super small venues. It was a small, but national and even international scene. I also remember seeing The Ramones, Lene Lovich, Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye at The Mabuhay Gardens. I remember when Jello Biafra wasn't even in a band yet. He had just moved up from Santa Cruz and always wore a Peruvian embroidered shirt. That was before he became a punk. Romeo Void didn't start until after the punk scene had been going for a while. We were kind of second wave.
PG- I really like your lyrical imagery. Can you talk about your creative process?
Debora Iyall- I've always liked to shuffle words around in my brain. These days I do it when I'm out walking. A lot of times I'll take my observations and work them around until I like the way they sound together and I've chosen just the right word to express the texture, the scent or the feeling of something. My brain just really likes working with words.

I like to write from . . . kind of a place. I wrote Flashflood off the Never Say Never LP because I slipped in a puddle at a Cala parking lot. Sometimes a phrase will catch me, like, "a puddle in the market" and it'll just work. I grew up with the beat sense of poetry, free verse. Things don't have to rhyme, though quite a bit of my lyrics actually do rhyme or what's called the close rhyme where the sounds are similar but not exactly the same. I've always loved poetry and poets. I used to take poetry classes even after I . . . well, I quit high school, but then I started going to college where I took poetry classes. That's why when I first heard Patti Smith I really wanted to move to San Francisco. I needed to be where this kind of thing was happening. Actually, Patti Smith was the one who got me started and excited about being a participant in culture in a bigger way.
PG- Do you have any favorite poetry, books or films?
Debora Iyall- I really like plain speech for the choruses, like "never say never" where it almost sounds like people just talking. Film wise, the early Jean Cocteau like "Beauty and the Beast" and Blood of a Poet were really inspirational to me as a twenty something kid. Now, I probably see films less that I ever have and I prefer films that are narrative stories and not so visual. One of my favorite films of the last twenty years is "Whale Rider" which takes place in New Zealand. I like stories about small communities. There's a film called "The Fast Runner" that takes place in Antarctica. I'm interested in a lot of side cultural themes.
PG- Can you tell the readers about your first solo album?
Debora Iyall- Romeo Void had broken up and I wanted to keep going. It didn't work. I mean, it wasn't successful. The record company didn't really like it. We never even played any shows. I wrote the album with the help of a couple of different people and we recorded it and it sunk.

I continued to start bands in San Francisco. I had a band for a little while with Steve DeMartis from Flipper called Abandoned Demand. I'd get bands with people together for a little while and we'd play a couple of times and then they'd just fade. It seemed like my time had come and gone.

I always loved art too so I was easily distracted away from music. I really didn't get back into it again until I started writing with Peter Dunne of Pearl Harbor and the Explosions in the late 1990s. At that time I felt like I had something to say again. I also enjoyed working with him. I felt respected and we could have a good dialog in music, writing songs together. I got re-excited about music.
PG- Do you think maybe a person says all they have to say in one medium and then they move onto another or go back and fourth?
Debora Iyall- Yes. The thing about being an artist or making visual art is that you can do it self contained. I've had very few art shows. I like making art and I like art materials more than I like the art world. I also love teaching art because that's they way I can pass on my enthusiasm and my skills. With music, it's really hard to create without getting a lot of cooperation from people.
PG- What is your favorite Romeo Void song?
Debora Iyall- I don't think I have a favorite. It probably wouldn't be Never Say Never even though I'm really proud of that. It's just that I've been exposed to it so much. I really respect us for what we did. I'm almost baffled that we did that.

Some of our songs that I like the best are the ones that nobody hears and that's partly why I like them. They're my poor neglected babies.
PG- Any songs you want to mention that people should take a closer listen to?
Debora Iyall- Off our first album, I Mean It is one of my favorite songs. Two years ago I was going to play out on the Apache reservation. There's a skateboard company called Apache Skateboards on the Indian reservation in Arizona and they were having a big event with JFA headlining. I was teaching out in Arizona on the Indian reservation for a couple of years, so we did Fear To Fear off that record.
PG- Can you tell the readers about your visual art?
Debora Iyall- I surround myself with plenty of art supplies and I always seem to have free time here and there. I really like to draw, paint and make collages. I like to work with my hands. Depending on where I'm at I either work with figures or landscapes. I lived out in the desert for a long time and grew to love the desert landscape and that big sky. I'm in awe of the power of creation.

I've been sober for fifteen years and I feel like people have to find really positive ways to spend their time. For me that's turned into teaching and making art. You can be just as strange and have just as outrageous opinions as you want without having to wonder what you said the next day. Instead, you get to have those opinions without being drunk, high or whatever and you can stand behind them better.
PG- I remember seeing a thumbnail of this beautiful print you made. I'm pretty sure it was for a fundraiser for People For The American Way. Can you discuss that a bit?
Debora Iyall- That particular piece is a relief print off a linocut. Howie Klein asked me if I wanted to submit art work to benefit People For The American Way. PFTAW deal with issues in the criminal justice system, they're very progressive and liberal. The piece that you're speaking of is an anti-war piece. On the bottom there's broken arrows which basically symbolizes the foundation of our country which was built upon lies, broken promises and certainly plenty of genocide as well. On the right side of the art work there's some missels which I found in a marine book . . . "know your armaments" or something like that. There's also a stack of buffalo head coins and from the coins there's an image of an electrical charge that goes up to images of the book of law and a judge's gavel. So there I'm expressing that money is informing law. The main image of the artwork is a river of blood and death. Standing by are all the supreme court justices at the time who allowed Bush to become president, a marine running across the river of death . . . and then there's villagers with their carts, just like it is in occupied countries. People are on donkeys with their children and their burdens in the middle of a super high tech war.

I like art work that tells a story and has a point of view as well. Although, I also like more fun stuff too. I have a piece where coyotes got all the desert animals together and they're holding a council.
PG- Right on. Can you talk about your activism?
Debora Iyall- A lot of my activism now is socially orientated, working one on one with people. I'm currently writing a grant to work with American Indians in recovery. I've also participated in a program called White Bison which goes through the twelve steps from a Native American spirituality process. I want to encourage people to express their journey in life and tell the world their story with their art. I believe that marginalized people need to get their stories out there. It's empowering to people to tell their stories and I believe that people need to know what really happens to marginalized people.

That's also why I teach kids because I want them to become culture creators. Our culture spends a lot of time telling people to consume and we are all very good consumers. You have to constantly hold yourself against consumption. The message is that if you buy, buy, buy you'll be happier, prettier . . . That somehow everything will be better if you just own more stuff. I want to encourage kids to use material things to tell the world their story and to share your vision and tell the world what it should be like.

In the past I've been active in both supporting AIDS organizations and American Indian projects. I was on Alcatraz Island when I was sixteen for Christmas vacation and I wanted to show my solidarity. This suburban kid from Fresno. My mom let me do it, which was amazing of her. We were anti-war in our house and went out on a lot of the marches against the Vietnam war when I was really young. I always felt like you need to develop a point of view and then share it.
PG- Do you have any thoughts on negotiating art and politics?
Debora Iyall- It's always good to be fearless and to be honest with yourself. I feel that the strongest activists are ones who are activists out of personal necessity. I have experienced people who are trend of the moment activists and I don't think that's the way to go about it. You have to believe that you're in this life for your whole life and your activism can change depending upon your age and what you're able to give at any particular time. Stay in it for the long-haul.

I'm going to be the grand marshall of the Sacramento Mermaid Parade which is just starting this year. I was interviewed and asked what people might see at the Mermaid Parade. The little activist in me responded, "We're going to see all ages, nationalities and genders at the Mermaid Parade." I'm doing this fun, sort of silly thing, yet I can still promote things that I believe in.

Towards the end of that interview I was asked what I would tell any aspiring mermaids or mermen. I responded, "Love your body." Loving your body is radical. Accepting all sizes of people is radical too. I'm a big woman. I've always been fat. Ever since I was a little kid. Biggest brownie in the troupe, biggest rock star on the stage. I've always been known for my size and I don't shy away from it. It's unfortunate that society still bullies fat people. It's the last acceptable thing to joke about in ways that actually can be very hurtful. I kind of think that Michelle Obama is getting kind of bully-ish about her war on obesity. I think it's misinformed. You can be fat and fit. I'm an example of that. I have great blood pressure and I'm very physically active. There's a haze or veil that we see weight issues through. Everyone is really worried about our health, right? Well, no their not. It's very aesthetically orientated and classist. The upper classes tend to be thin while the underclasses tend to be fat.

In cultures where there's not a huge discrimination, disdain or even hate for fat people, their fat people don't have the same kind of health issues that ours do. The stress of being against the grain of the entire society every time you step out the door ads many other issues to your health. Whereas if people were to accept, or even revere you . . .
PG- Interesting. The social responses to body size have changed throughout time and particular cultures. I remember reading about tribes that revered bigger people for their connections to dream worlds. And then, in the mid 1900s and maybe even beyond pretty much all of the leading sex symbols would be considered fat by todays standards.
Debora Iyall- And our society is the complete opposite of that. If you happen to be boney as hell you have a much better chance of getting on the cover of magazines. It's upside down . . . Well, it's sideways. Also, for instance, really skinny men get a lot of hell in our society. I believe we need to get into a mode of size accepting variety and expanding our perimeters a bit.
PG- I completely agree.
Debora Iyall- What kind of blew my mind when I first thought of it was . . . You know how when you're a kid and you think really cosmically? Like, when you're out laying on the lawn or something? Well, I remember thinking that it's only a matter of diameter. I'm fat only because of my diameter. Why should it make so much difference? Do we chop down trees when they get "too big" like the redwoods?
PG- It just happened so it's on my mind and I have to ask: Do you have any thoughts on the assisination of Osama Bin Laden? What meaning that might have?
Debora Iyall- I just have to wait and see. I'm not one who feels that it lifts us up as a nation. Does it really raise us ("us" as in us as a nation)? He probably was the mastermind of mass death, but don't we usually try to take those people to trial?

Our nation was built on many wrongheaded philosophies and until we really come to terms with that our society isn't going to be able to do many positive things. If we had come to America and said, "Look at how these people live in harmony with the earth, use nature for medicine, they're excellent hunters and they take care of the land . . ." Had we come here with that idea things would be a lot different. Rather, the people who settled here were concerned with what they could take and how they could get rich. It was the spoils from America that really fueled the imperialism of the European nations around the rest of the world.
PG- Again, I agree and appreciate you speaking out. I should probably apologize for asking all these non music questions, but have really enjoyed the discourse. Ha. So yeah. You have a new album out. I had a chance to listen to Stay Strong over the weekend and really dug all the layers. Can you tell the readers about this new recording on Dottie Records?
Debora Iyall- Peter Dunne and I wrote 'Stay Strong' together. We've been working together on and off since the mid 1990s. We had written an album together before I moved away from San Francisco in the year 2000. So I moved away and then I came back for a big anti war concert at The Cock Tavern Theater in 2002. Peter and I had written a song together at that time called Wait Out The Storm. We had also written a song called Fine Black Dust which is the last song on the record after a close friend of mine had passed away from AIDS in '95.

When I got back to California in 2009 I just wanted to work with him again. I was finally back in California after being a bit tossed in the wind here and there. I had been doing many different things including teaching on the Navajo Nation and living in Portland, Oregon and getting my credentials and masters degree. So I was back in California and really looking forward to hanging out with old musician friends. Peter and I just started working together all the time. I'm an art teacher, credentialed in three states, but I'm not employed as an art teacher full time because of what's going on with our education system and funding. I'm only working about one or two days a week so I have plenty of time on my hands. It's like the recession helped me write my record. Not only because of the circumstances it put me in which influenced what I was writing about, but also because I had the time. I wanted to do something positive with my time so I started writing and recording with Peter. And that's the album Stay Strong.
PG- Right on. Do you have any tours planned?
Debora Iyall- We're mostly playing locally. I just put a band together to support the record. Our first big show here was a benefit for the AIDS organizations here in Sacramento. I have a show coming up at The Make Out Room in San Francisco on June 15th. After that we're playing in Sacramento's Concerts in the Park on June 17th. We're back in San Francisco on June 31st at The Bottom of the Hill. I'm hoping to get to L.A. this summer. We don't have anything worked out yet, but we're hoping to do a four day weekend and play a few shows around L.A. I'd like to get out to Orange County and Fullerton too. I'm friends with the people from Burger Records. Burger Records is garage-psychedelia-beauty out of Fullerton. I wouldn't mind going out to my stomping grounds above Yucca Valley and playing Pappy and Harriets, which is a really great venue up in Pioneer Town. We'll see what happens.
PG- Do you have any links you'd like to share?
PG- Do you have any parting words for the Punk Globe readers?
Debora Iyall- Love your body and be a culture creator yourself!