Back to Bohemia: New Romanticism for Romeo Void? : Pop music: The reunited ‘80s cult favorite, performing at the Coach House tonight, now softens its brooding cynicism with humor. ‘Cynics and romantics are not very far apart,’ says lead singer Debora Iyall.
Angry, arty, brooding, Bohemian. During its relatively brief existence in the early ‘80s, Bay Area rock group Romeo Void cultivated a stance of indignant withdrawal from the hypocritical niceties of love.
Lead singer Debora Iyall hissed her material with unvarnished contempt for the world around her and the people who populated it. It was the heyday of new wave, and underground music was experiencing an unprecedented renaissance.
Perhaps the music’s most popular group during this era was New York’s Blondie, fronted by the provocatively glamorous image of Deborah Harry. Romeo Void played yin to Blondie’s yang--where Harry projected the impression of a flirtatious but empty-headed blonde bombshell, Iyall was defiantly street-smart, full of acid wit and more than a bit overweight.
A cult favorite that garnered precious little mainstream success, Romeo Void crashed and burned in 1985 amid inter-band squabbles and lack of direction.
Last year, Iyall and company reunited to play a benefit for a friend who was suffering from AIDS. That performance prompted the group members to consider resurrecting their careers. A re-formed Romeo Void appears tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.
“Looking back, I’d have to say that we weren’t ready to handle the pressures, and we weren’t mature enough to figure out our own relationships in the band,” Iyall said in a recent phone interview.
“We were tired, and we’d probably toured a little too much. Plus, we felt we’d made a really good album with ‘Instincts’ (the group’s swan song), and creatively, we didn’t know if we could go through that process again. We needed a break.”
For the seven years that Romeo Void was disbanded, Iyall, 39, tried her hand at printmaking, acting in plays and fronting other bands. But when she got together with her old band mates last year, Iyall found that the creative spark was still there.
“We had a great time playing together again,” she said. “Frank and I started to talk about trying it again,” she said, referring to Frank Zincavage, Romeo Void’s bassist. “We decided we’d only do it if we could write some new material. So we did, and when we found that we were still excited about what we were coming up with, we asked the other guys if they wanted to get back together, and they did.”
The sole holdout on Romeo Void’s reunion is sax player Benjamin Bossi, who developed a chronic ringing in his ears that precludes him from performing. He has been replaced by Klaudia Promessi, formerly with Blazing Redheads.
Iyall said that the group’s new material features more modern rhythms, and perhaps a softer take on the themes of bitterness and lost love that hallmarked her earlier lyrics.
“I’m a little more sarcastic now instead of just dripping with venom,” she said, laughing. “I think I’ve developed more of a sense of humor, although I’m still fueled in part by anger and cynicism. But cynics and romantics are not very far apart.”
Childhood promiscuity and a disenchantment with the Bay Area hippie scene contributed to Iyall’s jaded outlook on love and life.
“I was a pretty precocious kid,” she said. “I was very sexually active at a really young age, in my early teens. I hate to use a cliche, but my self-esteem was not very high. I grew up in the free-love time, and I was very disappointed in a lot of the insincerity I saw.”
In the mid-'70s, Iyall latched onto the sound of early punk bands including Television, Patti Smith and Siouxsie & the Banshees--groups that spoke to her sense of anger and disillusionment.
“When I started hearing the voices of people who seemed to be more realistic, I wanted to hear more,” she said. “I wanted to hear people who were more critical.”
Romeo Void was founded in 1979. The group worked much of its material off of rumbling, ominous-sounding bass hooks, staccato sax punctuations and wet, reverb-laden song mixes. Iyall’s snarling, half-spoken vocals and indignant lyrics gave perfect voice to the group’s sullen vibe.
Although Romeo Void’s sole charting single was the uncharacteristically poppy “A Girl in Trouble,” its legacy lies with the darker “Never Say Never,” a Ric Ocasek-produced dance hit in which Iyall’s double-tracked voice repeatedly spits the immortal line “I might like you better if we slept together” with unbridled bile.
“That’s the signature song, definitely,” she said. “I hear it now, and it still has lot of fire and bite. To me, it’s held up. It doesn’t sound like, ‘Oh God, we were so naive then.’ I don’t get embarrassed by any of the lyrics or excitement or anything. I like it.”
The group is in the midst of performing a handful of dates to gauge audience response to its new songs. If the feedback is favorable, Iyall said she’d be seeking a new record deal.
“Our trip down to the Southland is to try this material in a live situation, and to try to reconnect with our fans,” she said. “Up here, we’ve been really successful at that. People are glad to have us back playing new songs. So we’re hoping this turns into our next record.”
* Romeo Void and Trip the Light Fantastic perform tonight at 9 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $10. (714) 496-8930.