If truth be told, I became mesmerized by Debora Iyall the first time I spied Romeo Void on MTV.
It was well, well after midnight and well, well after my bedtime on a school night. Like any burgeoning pre-adolescent in 1982, MTV provided solace in an unsure world. For my parents, it was an ideal babysitter. I would sit in front of the TV and be transfixed for hours—you know, provided there were snacks.
Why I was up at 1 a.m. on a random Tuesday when I had a fifth-grade spelling bee the next day is anyone’s guess. Regardless, when Iyall and Co. came on screen—complete with that unmistakable opening guitar riff—my ears perked. Then, when Iyall started sneer-singing her way through “Never Say Never,” I became an insta-fan.
Over the years I would follow Iyall’s trajectory from being one of New Wave’s matriarchs to her career as a solo artist to becoming an influential art teacher. Our paths would cross years later in Sacramento over some really good-bad Mexican food.
I was a dorky journalist (uh, still am) who made it my mission to interview celebs and musicians who influenced my pop culture-ific upbringing (uh, still do). Somehow, Iyall and I ended up becoming chummy pals. Our friendship really hit the stratosphere when I decided to get sober and I turned to her for some much-needed advice.
Recently, I had the chance to kibitz with Iyall about all things Romeo Void—including the recent passing of saxophonist extraordinaire Benjamin Bossi of complications from Alzheimer’s, her touring days, and living her best life in New Mexico with her hubs, Patrick. (PS. She loves it.)
M2: Hi, friend. So, New Mexico, huh?
DI: We love it here. It’s truly wonderful. Patrick’s family lives up in Colorado, so we wanted to be close by them, but we didn’t have to be right next to them. And Colorado’s a little pricier. Plus, New Mexico is represented by a Democratic governor—and Democrats in both the House and Senate.
And Raton, this little town here, has basically a 363 days-of-the-year swimming pool—and you know what a nut I am about swimming. And I wanted him to pick somewhere where I can swim, especially now because I’m pretty disabled with arthritis.
I was like, we gotta go somewhere where I can still keep my aerobic fitness and where I can get my swim on. Santa Fe is about a little over two hours away. We’re six miles from the Colorado border.
M2: I’m glad you’re getting settled! Out of the gate, I want to touch base about Benjamin. I’m so incredibly sorry to read that news. Do you have a favorite or fondest memory of Benjamin?
DI: Honestly, just being on stage with him was amazing almost every time—because he and I had a great connection on stage. And the way he would react, you know. He comes from a jazz background. So, he would be spontaneous about reacting to the music with his solos and stuff.
So, I just felt like he would pick up on emotional nuances or whatever from any ol’ evening and just take off with it. I mean, that’s really one of my favorite memories of him—just being on stage and locking eyes and, you know, doing our thing.
M2: He was a big part of your signature sound.
DI: Oh, yeah. Frank posted an essay on RomeoVoid.net that he wrote. And I really agree with what he says in the essay—which is how about how Benjamin elevated us and brought us this sophistication and musicality and a voice—an added voice—that made us a way better band. Without him, Romeo Void wouldn’t have been the same.
M2: Let’s go way, way, way back—as you guys are recording “Never Say Never.” Were you thinking this is going to propel us into the mainstream for years to come?
DI: No! No way! We weren’t even planning on recording that song. We had recorded the other three songs on our EP with Ric Ocasek and had packed up the studio. And we were doing a gig—it was our last night in Boston. And the engineer from the session came to that gig.
We did “Never Say Never” as an encore—because we were still working on it. We didn’t consider it finished. So, it was the kind of thing to play around with during an encore. But we knew it was kind of exciting—I mean, we were enjoying it, but it didn’t have a shape.
But when the engineer heard it, Ian Taylor, he was like, ‘Oh my God, you guys! We have to pack up your stuff and take it back to the studio tonight. I’ve got the keys! Because you’ve got to record this tomorrow before you leave town!’
And we were like, really? And he’s like, ‘Yeah, why didn’t you tell me you have this song?’ And we’re like, well, it’s not really finished. We’d sort of been working on it during soundcheck and stuff. So, he’s the one who heard its potential more than we did.
M2: Was it a collaborative effort? Who were the songwriters?
DI: I think we gave everyone credit on that song. The drum thing was something Larry brought that he felt very strongly about—and we all responded to. And then, of course, Frank and Peter always did the chord changes and that sort of thing, but the sound of the guitar had a lot to do with the success of the song. Of course, Frank’s bass playing is always sort of the root. And then Benjamin playing sax. So, we all shared songwriting on that.
M2: What do you remember about that night after your gig? It sounds like it was spontaneous combustion.
DI: Yeah, it was a really great night and we had a great show. Boston was a really good audience for us. The radio DJ around that area played us on a commercial station. He was just a huge fan—I remembered his name was Oedipus. I’m sure there were probably others in the station that liked us, but he was a big supporter. So, we felt awesome.
“Never Say Never” probably sounded really, really good because we had said such a good show—and we probably poured a lot into it to impress Ian with.
Of course, we were thrilled to be working at Ric Ocasek’s studio in the first place. That was this great score of ours that happened. The reason that Ric Ocasek knew about us is because one of his roadies played our It’s A Condition album to him on The Cars tour bus. And then he called to talk to us about recording.
We were on a tour, so we were going to other towns, but he arranged—because of his interest in us coming back to record—we made it so that we had when had one more gig in Boston. You’re always trying to pay your bills on the road, so, if you can come back to town, you better get another gig. And then we scheduled a few days off to work with Ric in his studio.
He called and at first, we didn’t believe Ric from The Cars wanted to produce Romeo Void?! He was like, ‘Yeah, I want to do whatever I can. I like your band. I like the sound.’ So, we hopped to it and made it happen. And we swung back through Boston before we returned to the West Coast.
M2: That night as you sang-snarled your way through that song, would you ever have guessed that 40 years later that would be like your calling card?
DI: No, no. Well, we were worried because it’s got the F-bomb in it, right? But we weren’t going to not record that because you know how we are. We’re artists—and this is the word.
We did agree that when it came out as a video and they wanted to put a single out that they can put a big snare hit over that word, but we never did record it without the word or with a different word.
M2: What has it been featured in?
DI: It was in “Reckless” with Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah. And the cool story about that is Aidan Quinn requested that song because he used to dance to it in clubs in Chicago.
So, the scene where he and Daryl are dancing and he’s doing his wild dance to it was because that’s what he wanted to dance to in that scene. It was by his request, so we were really thrilled with that.
And then another movie it’s been in is “Dodgeball.” It’s the music that’s played when the roller team comes out from San Francisco and they’re wearing black leather lederhosen with studs on it. So, we loved being associated with San Francisco and the gay scene and the black leather roller team—so that was kind of funny and fun.
And then the other movie it was used in was Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street.” So, honestly, I was disappointed with how it was featured. But you know how we are as artists. We sometimes think very highly of our choices—and to me, the song was about economic disparity, right? “They slump by the courthouse with windburn skin … as you walk by, randy as a goat … he’d be warm in your coat.”
So, I thought, Oh, it’s in this movie called “Wolf of Wall Street”—they’re gonna, you know, somehow associate it with that idea of economic disparity and income disparity or whatever. I’m thinking Scorsese gets me—and he gets the lyrics.
Well, when the movie comes out, it’s like a party where that one actor is, like, jerking off during the playing of my song. Okay, it’s in a party. It’s a party song. I don’t think (Scorsese) even used any of the verse. It’s all just the chorus.
M2: So, the next year, 1983, is when you guys head back into the studio, right? Because didn’t Benefactor come out in 1984-ish?
DI: We went back home for a while. And then we came back, Ric Ocasek wasn’t available to produce us. We would’ve had Ric produce it if we could have—Benefactor. But his engineer was available, Ian Taylor, so we managed to convince the record label that the engineer could do it. I think it might have been his first production credit.
M2: I remember that someone semi-famous directed your “Girl In Trouble” video. What do you remember about that whole shoot?
DI: Okay, Julia Hayward is a super well-respected video artist, like video as an art form. And she recently had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I met her when she was doing a guest professorship in San Francisco—and I just loved her work.
She did “Burning Down the House” for Talking Heads. That scene where there are projections on the house, so it looks like it’s burning, and also the face that’s projected on the road—those were not effects that were easy back then. That was her genius, being able to figure out how to make these effects. So, she’s pretty cool. We’ve kept in touch over the years.
M2: I could literally tell you what I was wearing when I saw that video for the first time. Time stopped for me. What do you remember about shooting it and the visuals and everything that went into it?
DI: By the time it came time to record that song with her—the video—she was working at CalArts which is a big art college in Valencia, California. It was owned by Disney. And, so we used the students as all the tech people on our shoot.
It was originally banned on MTV because of the guns. That was considered very controversial. They were like why the hell did you do that? But we just went along with her vision. But, originally, they were like, ‘You’re gonna have to change the video or whatever.’ But then we said, well, no, we’re not gonna do that.
M2: And then next thing you know you’re suddenly on “American Bandstand.” What’s the story there?
DI: It was so fun. And you know, we were on with New Edition. And New Edition, they were so young—like 16-year-old boys or something when they were on with us on “American Bandstand.”
And Dick Clark was super gracious and came around to the dressing room before the taping. A lot of times you go to a taping and whoever the host is, you just get to see him on stage for the first time. But he came around and said hello to everyone. He made sure he knew how to say everyone’s name and got a little bit of background and was very gracious. Super gracious.
And it just goes to show how much you know did much Dick Clark embraced all kinds of music. New Edition and Romeo Void—who would think you put those two together on the same show? But you would if you’re Dick Clark.
M2: Were you nervous on “American Bandstand?”
DI: Oh, yeah. Oh, I was having fun—but I always have fun. But we were a little bit embarrassed because you’re lip-synching. You’re not playing live, but you’re hooked up to instruments so you’re pretending like you are. So that’s why I did that thing where I turned away from the mic. If you’ll notice, if you watch it again—I turn away from the mic at one point to sing to either Frank or Benjamin because I’m gonna show people that—yeah, we know we’re not live.
M2: Whatever happened to that splash-painted gray jacket you wore in the video and on Bandstand?
DI: Unfortunately, the roof leaked in a closet of mine in San Francisco without me knowing it for like a couple of months. And so, mine got ruined by mold.
M2: What has been your best concert performance—the one where you guys just brought the house down?
DI: Wow. I wish I could remember the year. It might have been 1983. But it was on New Year’s Eve in Seattle, Washington—and I wish I could remember the name of the theater but it escapes me now. But it was this big ol’ beautiful, super drafty, cold theater on a night when it snowed. (Editor’s note: Seattle Arena.) But the audience was there. It was sweaty as heck.
And I don’t remember who opened for us, but it was just a great crowd and it was sold out. It was just one of those gigs that was like, ‘This is once-in-a-lifetime and it’s happening, so let’s go for it.’ And I don’t remember anything real specific about it except it was just on fire. And we all just loved it.
M2: You and I got to know each other because of VH1’s “Band’s Reunited.” I just remember they chased you down in the middle of your art studio. Was that a weird renaissance you guys didn’t expect?
DI: Yeah, they sort of led me on that it was going to be somebody who was doing background—because they were thinking of including us. So, I got the impression someone was gonna show—like a writer—and just talk to me over lunch.
And then for some reason, they were late. So, it was decided, okay, well, we’re not going to meet where we thought we were going to meet. We’re just gonna meet over at my studio. So, I still thought it was one person who was gonna drive up and I was gonna have a conversation.
So that’s why we were super surprised. What’s this crew doing here? Why are we being filmed? Because they don’t want you to know that that’s happening. But I sure agreed to it pretty quickly.
M2: Yes, queen—you did.
DI: Well, I’ve been meaning to watch that episode of “Bands Reunited” since Benjamin passed. But I haven’t yet because I know I’ll break down and cry. Because the footage they caught of us seeing each other again—it was just so obvious how much affection and connection Benjamin and I had—and always will.
Through a friend of a friend, I met Benjamin at the New York Deli. We were like let’s go over there and hang out. So, as soon as we got our food, and they start cleaning up the kitchen, Benjamin just came over and sat with us. And that’s when I found out he was a sax player.
And we had been playing with another sax player, Bobby. But he was much more of a Junior Walker-type sax player. And Benjamin was obviously a jazz sax player. Benjamin was playing with another band.
Anyway, long story short—Benjamin and Bobby traded bands. And Benjamin joined our band. And Bobby joined the band Benjamin had been in—and everyone was happy. We found a more suitable fit musically—and artistically.
M2: You’re going on how many years of sobriety, my friend?
DI: 27 years in 2023.
M2: Good on you, girl. Well, you probably don’t know this, but you’ve been very instrumental in my sobriety. We had that heartfelt talk in your car when things with me were really dicey. Back then, the advice you gave me was paramount.
DI: Well, I’m glad I said something that helped you. They always just tell you just be a model for sobriety.
If you had one thing to look back on your gigantic, epic 40+ year legacy with Romeo Void, what would you tell people or what would you want fans to know?
DI: That it was just a pleasure. You know, we enjoyed what we were doing. We had our kind of artistic foundation and even though we were growing, we stuck to our foundation and the key to our success is we didn’t turn down gigs at the beginning. We would just say yes and show up whether it was a warehouse party or whatever.
We enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to make all that music and be a group and collaborate.
It wasn’t always fun, I guarantee that. Certainly, there were times there was conflict and challenges on tour, but in the end, it was our pleasure.
M2: What a nice note to end on. Well, I love you and you know that. I just don’t have enough good things to say about you. And I feel so blessed and highly favored that you and I have become friends over the years.
Interview gently edited for content and clarity.