Sacramento resident and new wave artist Debora Iyall survives the record-company machine
It’s been nearly 30 years since Romeo Void’s songs “Never Say Never” and “A Girl in Trouble (Is a Temporary Thing)” hit airwaves, and in the decades since, both tracks still capture the quintessentially sexy, totally danceable essence of new wave music. Today, Romeo Void singer Debora Iyall teaches art and just released a new solo album, Stay Strong. Iyall, who lives in Sacramento and will perform an in-store set at Phono Select on Saturday, sat down to talk about the early days of Romeo Void, making art and surviving the record-company machine.
How did you end up in Sacramento?
My husband got a job here. I’d been working on the Navajo Nation [in Arizona], but there were no jobs for him there, and he really wanted to live in California. [Now] I’m a high-school art teacher; I’ve been working freelance, getting into schools through special-ed programs and working with seniors.
Romeo Void started in San Francisco. How did that come about?
I was attending the San Francisco Art Institute in 1979 and working in [the school] video lab and met Frank Zincavage. I found out that he played bass guitar and had a drum machine, and I’d always loved to sing.
What were the early days like?
It’s like when you’re young and have all the confidence in the world. We went on to big success with an independent label—so much so that the independent label went on to sell us to a major label, and that was kind of beginning of the end. We’d had a huge success with “Never Say Never,” and suddenly we were dealing with Sony records. The day we signed the papers, it was like we could have broken up. I felt helpless. It seemed like we were getting into something that would require us to not be who we were.
What happened then?
The next record we put out, no hits came off it, and [the label] didn’t really push it. We did another album, Instincts, which had “Girl in Trouble” on it, and we got to go on American Bandstand, and we were feeling on top of world. But then we decided to spend our record-company money to make a video, and [the label] decided not to put it out and dropped us—and the album—from priority. All of a sudden things weren’t happening anymore. When they decide you’re done, you’re done.
What did you do next?
I worked at an art gallery in San Francisco. And then I had a part-time job teaching at the [South of Market] Cultural Center, but when I lost my job and the lease on my apartment, I moved to 29 Palms, where I taught art.
When did you start playing music again?
I was living in Arizona and found out that Wire Train and Translator were going to be playing shows at Slim’s [in San Francisco] and the Knitting Factory in L.A., and I wrote to them and [suggested] that maybe I [could] jump up on stage and play a song with them. The booking agent wrote back right away and said, “Why don’t you join the bill?” I was [already] moving back to California, so I asked my friend Peter [Dunne] to help me put a band together, which included Frank from Romeo Void and Peter on guitar. We did a show and I thought, “Why don’t I do this more often?” Then, I convinced Peter to record Stay Strong with me.
Has the Internet made it more feasible to put out a record without the big-label machine behind you?
Yes, because now there’s no gatekeeper.
People are still very enthusiastic about Romeo Void; how do you feel about revisiting the band?
I love it, and playing with new musicians is just an opportunity for them to show me new colors for the songs I already know. It brings back some of the excitement and fear back into the performing thing—it’s not pat, it’s not rote—and I’m not doing anything I don’t believe in.