Ivan Julian at a 1990 gig with Richard Hell at Club Citta in Kawasaki, Japan. Regarding the
pants, Julian says “Jet lag makes you do weird things—but it’s fun!” Photo by Gin Saton

Listen to Julian's "Sticky" and "A Young Man's Money" from The Naked Flame:
You might not recognize Ivan Julian’s name, but there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard him in one context or another. In the mid 1970s, when he was still a teenager, Julian toured the UK with the Foundations, a pop group best known for their hits “Build Me Up Buttercup” and “Baby Now That I Found You.” In the late ’70s, he played in the seminal punk/new wave group Richard Hell & the Voidoids, whose albumBlank Generationis regarded as one of the finest examples of that genre. Julian has also performed and recorded with a list of artists as diverse as the Clash, the Isley Brothers, and Matthew Sweet, and as an engineer and producer he has left his imprint on the music of artists like Jon Spencer.

As wide-ranging as his work has been, it wasn’t until recently that Julian released his first solo album,
The Naked Flame. And he says he wouldn’t have even done so if it weren’t for the members of an Argentinean band called Capsula insisting upon it while he was mixing their 2009 album,Rising Mountains. Fittingly, Capsula joins Julian on his long-overdue solo debut. The music is raw and cathartic and filled with all sorts of fascinatingly multifaceted guitar parts—from the explosive leads of the title track to the funky minor-7th rhythm work on “The Funky Beat in Siamese” to the country-blues inspired octaves of “You Is Dead.” We talked with Julian about how he got these sounds and, more broadly, how he conceives music in general.

I understand you have the distinction of possibly being one of the only guitarists alive who first played the bassoon.

Julian onstage in 2009 with a Lace Sensor-equipped 1989 Fernandes S-style guitar plugged into a silverface Fender Twin Reverb. Photo by Berlén
Yes, but before that I played the alto saxophone, since my father was a big Charlie Parker fan. Then somebody broke into the school and stole my sax. So, the band and music instructor had me switch to the bassoon, which at first I found to be an odd instrument. I came to really love it, but what made me switch to the guitar was that I wanted to create music outside of the structure and hierarchy found in classical music. I didn’t want to just go to a conservatory and then find a job in an orchestra playing the same old compositions.

You also absorbed a bit of theory in high school. Did that shape your approach to the guitar?

It’s more like an analytical thing: I know my scales and my intervals, and I can easily communicate with other musicians. I don’t really think about theory when I play guitar, as you can probably tell from my playing. [Laughs.] To me, it’s more about geometry than anything else—I make triangles, squares, and trapezoids on the fretboard with my fingers and see what happens.

What was it like to make geometric shapes with Richard Hell & the Voidoids as part of the first wave of punk?

It was always interesting [laughs]. Richard Hell got a lot of criticism back in the day for his lack of prowess on bass, but I always defended him. While he wasn’t technically accomplished, he was always coming from a place far from the mundane. He invented these great bass lines that almost sounded illustrated— like cartoon characters—and Bob [Quine] and I would try to fit something around those lines. On the other hand, it could sometimes drive us crazy to work with Richard. Because he wasn’t a “real” bass player, we could spend up to a month rehearsing a song in order for him to get up to speed.

How did you and Quine distribute the guitar responsibilities?

Bob and I agreed we’d never play on the same part of the neck at the same time. I’ve always found that it’s redundant for two guitarists to be playing the same open G chord. One should find something different to play, to make things interesting, and both guitarists needn’t be constantly playing at the same time. Another thing about working with Bob was that he was heavily jazz influenced, and he turned me on to a lot of great music like Albert Ayler records and odd Charlie Parker outtakes—nonstandard stuff that got me to incorporate subtle nuances when soloing and encouraged me to be more adventurous in general.