Ivan Julian Swings Again

With cancer in the rearview, the legendary guitarist unleashes his best solo album yet

Ivan Julian (Image: Pravda Records)

“Welcome to SuperGiraffe,” Ivan Julian says as he strolls through SuperGiraffeSound, his state of the art recording studio in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. 

Settling into a chair in the control room, Julian seems utterly at ease in this space where he has recorded and produced so many songs – including the ones on his latest solo album, Swing Your Lanterns, which is set for release on February 17 via Pravda Records. It is, he says, an album that is meant to express “Hope, despair, joy and pain – life is a roller coaster.” 

Julian certainly knows a thing or two about riding out life’s ups and downs. “I went through a kind of change in life, and after that I decided I was going to devote all my time to writing music and trying to get it out there and not be so sidetracked by other things,” Julian says, referring to his battle with gastrointestinal cancer in 2015, and again in 2020. “Luckily, I emerged and am on extra time.”

Given that, it’s no wonder that Swing Your Lanterns is an emotive, intense batch of songs – though, in truth, this is in line with the uninhibited way Julian has always approached his work during his five-decade career. The album title is “kind of a dystopian political outcry,” Julian says. “It’s a visual metaphor for people holding onto their beliefs.” 

Though Julian is legendary as an innovative guitar player for Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Matthew Sweet and The Clash, among many others, he pushes himself even further when it comes to his own solo albums. “I use all kinds of instruments,” he says. Gesturing around the room, he adds, “You see there’s old organs here. There’s all kinds of stuff that I like the sound of, that I will incorporate into songs. 

Ivan Julian Swing Your Lanterns, Pravda Records 2023

“On this new record, there’s an Indian instrument called the bulbul terang,” he continues, springing up from his chair to find it. Placing it on his lap, he plays it in a fashion that’s somewhat similar to a slide guitar, though the sinewy sounds it makes are utterly unique. Setting it aside, he admits he is self-taught, so isn’t entirely sure he’s playing it the way a trained player would. “Guitar is the one thing I think I do kind of well because I’ve been doing it for so long – but everything else, I definitely have my limitations,” he says. Still, there’s no denying that this unorthodox approach yields wholly original musical results. 

When he was growing up on military bases around the world (his father was a naval officer), Julian was already drawn to music in a way that was unusual. “As a small child, I read this book about Beethoven – I didn’t really understand half the words because I was like eight [years old] or something,” he says. “But I started reading about his life and I thought, ‘I want to have a profession where I am that thing.’ And I wanted to be able to convey emotions into music.”

From there, he began playing the alto saxophone, but then his instrument was stolen and his school band teacher convinced him to take up the bassoon instead. “I actually enjoyed it. It turned me on to the bass clef,” he says of that instrument.

He says he was twelve or thirteen years old when he joined his first group: a Led Zeppelin cover band, for which he was the vocalist – until puberty hit and his voice changed, leading his bandmates to fire him. At the same time, he realized his bassoon playing skills weren’t going to help his rock band ambitious, either: “Nobody wanted to hear or know about it, at least in my circle. So I thought okay, I’ll learn the guitar.”

By this time, his family had relocated to Washington, D.C., and his friend group included Ted Niceley, who would go on to produce Fugazi, The Dead Milkmen, Magnapop and Shudder to Think, and many more. Niceley loaned Julian his guitar, which Julian used until he’d learned enough to get his own.

“My father is the one who bought me my first saxophone, and also bought me my first guitar, but at the same time, he totally dissuaded me from trying to learn it; it was really weird,” Julian says. “He really wanted me to be one of these people flying around in planes with missiles attached to the wings. And if you really know me at all, that’s not a place where I should be. I just couldn’t see that as a future.”

Instead, after high school, Julian moved to Europe, where he could roam around, earning a living as a guitarist for hire. He was in Croatia when he heard about the burgeoning music scene in New York City, and he knew he had to move there. Once he did, he instantly felt at home.

“After I got here and met everybody in the scene, I saw that everybody was from some other place,” he says. “They all gravitated here, somehow, at a certain point in time. It was really kind of magical.”

New York in the 1970s was also quite a dangerous place, but at least the soaring crime rate meant that the rent was cheap. That attracted creative types to the Lower East Side, where CBGBs and other clubs hosted bands that would go on to become legendary, such as The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and Television.


AUDIO: Ivan Julian “Can’t Help Myself”

When Richard Hell left Television and formed Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Julian auditioned to become a member – and immediately knew that it was a good fit for him. “I opened my guitar case to put my guitar away and there was a picture of Keith Richards [in it]. That sold [Robert] Quine,” he says, referring to the band’s other guitarist. “He said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to have this guy in the band.’” Then Richard played the bass line for the song “You Gotta Lose,” and I just went, ‘What is that?’ I thought, ‘This is really cool stuff.’ And besides that, they had a production deal. I thought, ‘I want to write, and I want to go on the road.’ And they had all those things. And I liked them as people.”

That band made Julian famous, and he went on to work with The Clash, Nick Lowe, Shreikback, Sandra Bernhard, Matthew Sweet, The Fleshtones and Vernon Reid of Living Colour, among many others, along with his solo work. It has been a remarkably varied and unpredictable career, which is just the way Julian wants it.

“I’m not a cookie cutter guitar player, and so when you get me, you know that I’ll strive for something,” he says. “I’ll try to find that intrinsic thing that I can contribute to the song. I just do what I do, and hopefully people like it. That’s all I can do.”


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Katherine Yeske Taylor

Katherine Yeske Taylor began her rock critic career in Atlanta in the late '80s, when she interviewed Georgia musical royalty such as the Indigo Girls, R.E.M. and the Black Crowes while she was still a teenager. Since then, she has done hundreds of interviews with a wide range of artists. She has written for dozens of magazines, including The Big Takeover, Aquarian Weekly, Stomp & Stammer, Creative Loafing, Jam Magazine, Color Red, Boston Rock, and many others. She contributed to two books (several entries for The Trouser Press Guide to the '90s, and a chapter for Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A-Rama). Additionally, she has written liner notes and artist bios for several major acts. She currently lives in New York City.  

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