Note: This interview originally appeared in September 2021.
The Violent Femmes are just three gigs into their first live shows since the pandemic started. And singer/guitarist Gordon Gano is pretty much just picking up from where he left off.
“Well, the stage is the place to be after 40 years of us doing it! In the past, we’ve not played for stretches because of internal reasons. But this time, it’s because of the world,” he says.
“I have a friend who said ‘You must be excited to be playing live again because of the energy and intensity.’ And I hadn’t really thought about it. But I have to say, after getting onstage for the first show, she had a point! It’s a real, positive thing to have that presence from the audience.”
Last fall tour was with Flogging Molly, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes and THICK. And while the Femmes have had no previous connection or relationship to the raucous Irish rocking Mollies, Gano hopes to win over some of their fans.
“We’ve gone out with Barenaked Ladies and Echo and the Bunnymen before, and it’s kind of fun to play to a different audience who might not be there for us,” he says.
“I’ll look out and see people in a Flogging Molly T-shirt. And even if they’re not intense into what we’re doing, I can see they’re enjoying it. And that feels great.” The current lineup includes founding members Gano and Brian Ritchie (bass/vocals), along with John Sparrow (drums) and Blaise Garza (saxophone).
Other Femmes News includes an upcoming 30th anniversary reissue of the band’s 1991 release, Why Do Birds Sing? (Craft Recordings). In addition to the original album remastered, the 2CD package includes alternate takes and demos, an unreleased song from the sessions (“Me and You”), a raucous fan favorite with a lead “vocal” by Ritchie (“Dance, Motherfucker, Dance!”) and a complete 1991 live show. There’s also a single LP straight reissue. Both feature the original lineup of Gano, Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo.
Why Do Birds Sing? came out at a pivotal time in the band’s history. The critical acclaim and impact from their first three releases (1983’s folk punk classic Violent Femmes, 1984’s roots/Americana-heavy Hallowed Ground and 1986’s more experimental The Blind Leading the Naked) had faded a bit. The band had actually broken up before reconvening for 1988’s 3, but its reception and production were a bit underwhelming.
With Michael Beinhorn co-producing with the band and an armful of new material from Gano, Why Do Birds Sing? brought out the stripped-down power of the trio. It would be the last time the original lineup recorded together with DeLorenzo’s departure.
The record’s best-known tune—still a crucial part of the band’s set list today—is “American Music.” It was inspired by a double (or triple) album that Gano had come across in a library (or a thrift store) that was a 1960’s (or 1970’s) compilation of previously-released songs by artists ranging from Johnny Cash to John Cage.
“That song really connects with people, and it gets a popular response in a way unlike anything except those songs from our first album,” Gano offers. Songs there would include their biggest hit, “Blister in the Sun,” along with standards “Kiss Off,” “Add It Up,” “Gone Daddy Gone” and “Good Feeling.”
Gano’s lyrics and the almost sing-songy melody of “American Music” surprisingly expressed his sincere love for it, even if the lines about taking drugs and needing a date to the prom came from humor and personal experience respectively. Originally played faster, the reissue’s new liner notes by music journo Jeff Slate note that it was Ritchie who suggested the pace be slowed for most of the song, before shifting into a more punk sound at the end.
When told that given the general course of the band’s material that it’s surprising there’s no punchline or twist or irony to the lyrics, he considers the implication.
“Oh! I can see how people would think that!” Gano laughs. “But we have a way of doing that [straightforward] as a band and from the songs themselves. I remember with our gospel-type songs, people said ‘Where the twist?’”
To that point, he says that when Hallowed Ground came out with songs “Jesus Walking on the Water” and “It’s Gonna Rain,” some of the UK press actually congratulated the band on their religious satire and making fun of American gospel and country music. Even down to noting the “squeaky, out of tune” instruments. Gano—a devout Baptist—says that was not the real case at all.
In terms of Gano’s lyrics, especially during the ‘80s and ‘90s, one would be hard pressed to find someone who so expertly wrote about teenage male social awkwardness, sexual frustrations, and wanting revenge at school bullies. One of his most famous choruses in “Add It Up” goes thusly: “Why can’t I get just one fuck?/Why can’t I get just one fuck?/I guess it’s got something to do with luck/But I waited my whole life for just one…”
On “More Money Tonight” from Why Do Birds Sing?, Gano offers “Sometimes in school people pick on me/In the gym locker room or in the hallway/Cruel things people do and say/Wait a minute wait a minute/I’ll make more money tonight than you ever dreamed of/You thought I was strange well just look at me now/If you are lucky I’ll play in your city.”
So, do many of his fans just assume songs like these are completely autobiographical? “That’s a good question. And I’ve done that myself, like thinking Bob Dylan is saying exactly what happened to him,” Gano ponders.
“But in a sense of writing a song, it creates its own world and has its own truths. Something like ‘Country Death Song’ is completely made up, but the there’s others that are what exactly happened to me. Usually, it’s a combination.”
In the case of “More Money Tonight,” Gano continues. “Yeah, there’s a lot of autobiography in that, and people did pick on me a lot in junior high school. My first two years in high school, the vibe was ‘We want to beat you up, but we’re not sure why, so we’ll keep our eye on you.’ Then in the last two years when I moved to a different school, it completely changed. It was like ‘You’re different, and we like you.’”
The record also includes a cover of Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” featuring a more much sinister vocal by Gano, who also rewrote some of the lyrics. According to the liner notes, Ritchie ran into Boy George at a hotel bar where the Karmic Chameleon proclaimed it the best cover of any of his band’s songs.
The Violent Femmes are technically “from” Milwaukee, Wisconsin, even though Gano was born in New York and has lived there most of his life. And while he notes that Ritchie and DeLorenzo have both said that the Cream City/Brew City impacted and influenced their music, he argues in the negative.
“They thought it made a difference and that we sounded different than if we had been anywhere else, and I completely disagree,” he says. “My family moved to Wisconsin when I was 10, and people always said to me ‘You’re not from here. Where you from?’ My influence was more from my family, what kinds of records my parents would play, and my father singing old country songs and my brothers and sisters who were at Woodstock or got into punk music. But I do like Wisconsin a lot.”
Finally, in terms of geography, Gano’s most omnipresent thought about Houston is not a particular gig or venue or gem of a restaurant, it’s found in one of the city’s greatest musical exports: blues man Lightnin’ Hopkins.
“I feel affinity for the people of Houston because of the floods and all the terrible things that happen. But going back, the biggest thing I think about is him. My older sister got me a Lightnin’ Hopkins tape when I was 14 or 15,” he says.
“And then there’s that documentary by Les Blank [1969’s The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins]. I must have watched that thing 30 or 40 times in the ‘80s! I just loved it. I can remember certain lines and certain shots. It felt like something profound. And it was!”
This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com