Preaching to the choir: The Violent Femmes, including Gordon Gano, center, are set to perform Sept. 7 at the Mystic Theater in Petaluma.
Violent Femmes put career back on track
By Greg Cahill
“WHY CAN’T I get just one fuck?” Gordon Gano pondered on the Violent Femmes’ landmark 1982 self-produced indie single “Add it Up.” The rhetorical answer to that remark: “Guess it’s got something to do with luck.”
Lucky or just plain clever, that angst-ridden comment struck a chord. The song became a staple on the then-fledgling college radio circuit and attracted frustrated teens by the scores. It also launched the career of one of the most original trios–and best live bands–of the ’80s.
Since then, these Milwaukee-based post-punk phenoms have scored plenty and lost more than their share during a roller-coaster ride that until recently had stalled after a major label for four years refused to release any of their new recordings.
Now the Violent Femmes–whose 1983 revenge-of-the-nerds DIY debut album sold a million copies without ever charting or receiving a lick of promotion–have re-emerged on a pair of soundtracks: South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, and Mystery Men, on which the band plays a stellar cover of the Stranglers’ “No More Heroes.”
“We’re a group that plays all the time and goes all around the world,” explains Violent Femmes singer/guitarist/songwriter Gano, during a phone interview from his New York home, “but about once a week I run into somebody who asks, ‘Yeah, so what’s up with you guys? Do you play anymore ever?’
“The answer is, ‘Yeah, that’s what I do.'”
TO SAY that the Violent Femmes–who blend choppy guitars and bare-bones arrangements, punchy riffs, and self-effacing lyrics with often Captain Beefheartesque experimentalism–have had an up-and-down career is an understatement. Gano, the son of a preacher, has flirted with Christian messages in such tunes as “Country Death Song” and “Jesus Walking on the Water,” a seeming contradiction to his penchant for penning teen anthems dealing with masturbation, rebellion, and chicks (“36-24-36”).
Critics often scratched their heads in confusion over the band’s musical direction and issued some quite unkind assessments of Gano’s religious inclinations. “A lot of people have a hard time with different viewpoints or different ideas coming from the same writer,” says Gano, chronicler of a twisted Americana–like Aaron Copland on acid. “In rock, songwriters are supposed to be speaking to you from their heart, meaning what they truly believe. Critics like artists to be simple and straightforward.
“That’s a problem we constantly have with this business.”
Still, the Violent Femmes have had their share of success. Their eponymous 1983 debut LP on Slash/Warner stands as one of the first and most successful alternative rock releases. Its 1984 follow-up, Hallowed Ground, while critically panned, is a post-punk classic. Producer Jerry Harris of the Talking Heads produced the band’s third and most commercially successful album, 1986’s The Blind Leading the Naked, before the band split temporarily, with Gano and bassist Brian Ritchie releasing a series of solo projects. The band regrouped three years later only to crash and burn with 1989’s stylistically jumbled 3 and 1991’s nostalgia-fueled Why Do Birds Sing?, which included an insipid cover of Culture Club’s insipid “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”
A 1993 greatest hits and live rarities compilation, Add it Up (1981-1993), is a strong representation of the band’s most creative output.
AT ELEKTRA RECORDS, the band gained more artistic freedom, releasing a pair of darker discs that died on the racks. A subsequent deal with Interscope Records–home to Primus and Limp Bizkit–looked promising, but for four years the label declined to release any of the band’s tapes.
The Violent Femmes languished in rock-‘n’-roll oblivion.
“We got away from there,” Gano explains. “It wasn’t with any nastiness, which was nice, but it just wasn’t working. And we were able to take the recordings with us.”
Those long silent tapes will finally get an airing in February on the smaller Beyond label. And a live concert CD, Viva Wisconsin, is due out in November.
“If that all works, it will be great,” Gano adds. “It will start to make up for all the years of not having anything come out when we were doing a lot of good work.”
Meanwhile, the vagaries of the music business have done nothing to dim Gano’s enthusiasm for his craft. “From day one, the band had a ‘sound’ that is still recognizable,” he says. “But we are better musicians, and we keep finding more and more ways as a trio to bring more colors and more instruments into the live shows.
“We’re always looking for ways and places to bring in other colors.”
As for what excites Gano after all these years: “The improvisations,” he says without hesitation. “We keep getting better at it. We have sections of certain songs that are set aside for free improvisation, where anything can happen anytime we play it. Hopefully, you play and listen at the same time, and each person is connected to the others, to a degree that you don’t know who’s leading and who’s following.
“And that’s something that is very exciting.”
The Violent Femmes perform Tuesday, Sept. 7, at 9 p.m. at the Mystic Theater, 23 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. Tickets are $24. For info, call 765-2121.
From the September 2-8, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.