First, it’s the sound of sticky grooves coiling around frantic, acoustic surf-punk chords, then it’s Gordon Gano and Brian Ritchie rocking out like brothers in a bedroom to their 1983 classic, “Blister in the Sun”. Even 33 years after that Violent Femmes song first wafted through the halls of cruddy dorm rooms, the nostalgic ache is unquestionable to anyone who associates American rock music with getting high on a beach. It has relished an afterlife ranging from countless college radio spins to the 1997 John Cusack film Grosse Pointe Blank to a Wendy’s commercial. Despite Ritchie going guns-a-blazing in 2007 against Gano over rights to the song, the tension between the band started way back in 1986 when they announced their first breakup. Their constant fighting seemed merely a necessary reflex of any band avoiding ’80s glam in favor of a messy punk rock alternative.
But happiness be damned! Violent Femmes have always felt like a band with unfinished business. In 2013, armed with a back catalog of eight albums, the band reunited with a slightly different lineup to play Coachella. Selling out shows all over the world with no new material meant Femmes fans weren’t finished with them yet. In 2015, they announced a new album, We Can Do Anything.
“The fact that we managed to be together in a recording studio and record, for us that almost borders on a miracle,” Gano tells me over the phone from New Zealand. “Just to have myself and Brian in the same place at the same time to agree on what we’re going to record is almost impossible. That’s why I liked the title, We Can Do Anything. That we could actually do this thing that for us was almost impossible for us to do, like some incredible magic trick.” While their self-titled debut catapulted the band into car stereos with dizzying speed — fast enough to certify the album platinum — it also shaped an entire genre of music, redefining and reframing pop into a jangly surf-rock milieu. Despite all this, the story of Violent Femmes’ speedy rise and slow demise is often overlooked, gobbled up in the years bookended by that massive single.
For the fans, and the band members too, the prevailing feeling of We Can Do Anything is of a band powering through for the sake of music and proving, as the album’s title suggests, that they can do anything. In anticipation of the release, Gano spoke with relentless honesty to Consequence of Sound about the borderline comic process of reuniting with bandmate Brian Ritchie, relating to songs he wrote when he was 15 years old, and what these songs mean to him now.
What is the time over where you are?
It’s 9:30 a.m. in the morning here in Auckland, and maybe it’s a different morning.
Geez, these time differences, they never cease to amaze me.
I think there’s this guy, Clarke is the last name? I’m not much of a science-fiction buff.
Yes, Arthur C. Clarke?
I think that he has had a lot of things come true, but one prediction is that planet Earth will do away with all these different time zones one day, so there you go.
He has a good idea there. It would mess the world up, but the world needs a bit of a shake, huh?
Anyway, it was nice talking, and now we’ve run out of time.
Noooo! Don’t Arthur C. Clarke this conversation!
You know most people have a common dream, either for school or for work. They dream that they got up and got ready to go to school and then wake up to find they haven’t even got out of bed yet. This is the first time something like this has happened to me. But I had this dream that we already did this interview. It’s very strange. I dreamed that I did the interview and I wake up out of my dream and it’s almost time for you to call.
How did the interview go in the dream?
It went badly.
Well, then, clearly opposites happen in dreams. I can understand the fear, though, like going to work without your clothes on. Interviews can be daunting. Originally, your management said you were happier doing this over email?
Oh no, no, no. That’s not coming from me. No, I don’t want to do that, I prefer talking. I agree with you. Interviews are an artificial structure. It’s just not the way people exchange ideas and talk.
What are you actually doing in Auckland?
We’re just starting a tour, and tonight is our first show. It’s a three-week tour. We have two shows in Auckland. and the rest is in Australia.
I know in the past couple of years, Violent Femmes have played there quite often.
We started coming to Australia and New Zealand from very early in our career. New Zealand is the first place we got a gold record. The numbers of people aren’t high. There’s more sheep than people. And I remember being impressed by that information. It’s interesting; a lot of bands went to Japan and had great success, but we didn’t have the connections when we were getting started. We had people coming out to see us in Tokyo, but it was because of all the Australians living there. The tours were so small that I could probably have learned everybody’s names.
Doesn’t Brian Ritchie, Violent Femmes’ bass player, live in Tasmania?
Yeah, for several years now. I’m still in the US.
How does living apart affect songwriting and band morale?
It’s had no effect at all. Since the early 1980s, for the first one or two years of the group existing, we lived in different cities. It’s not been an issue to us how far apart we live.
Do you think it makes it easier to not be on top of each other and live far away? Does absence make the heart grow fonder?
[Laughs] No, I wouldn’t say that at all. I would say that there were some years when Brian and I were living in New York City, and sometimes we’d run into each other at the same concert because we have similar taste. Brian would be coming out of a movie that I’m waiting to go into. The distance doesn’t make us fonder of each other, but I think there’s something pleasant about it. All the times that we haven’t played together are the times it felt nice to think that he was on the other side of the world.
A lot of bands operate and thrive from being apart. The overwhelming capacity to feel so connected online feels a little overwhelming, so I can see the positives of staying separate.
In our case, I don’t think that would really matter if we were living right next door to each other. Of course there’s email-related business, but I’m not very involved at all with social media, hardly at all.
Did something happen to turn you off?
Some years ago I ran into a friend who had some artwork and I wanted to see it, so she said, “Well, just Facebook.” I did that, but then for years afterwards, there were notifications saying people wanted to be my friend, and I never responded to anything and never did anything and finally I got rid of it.
Thinking of when Violent Femmes reunited in 2013 at Coachella, I can imagine the crowd felt young. Through social media, they were able to find out who you were, and now you can tap into a younger market.
Yeah, and hopefully that happens for us. For the entire time that we’ve played, we’ve always had younger people getting into our group. Even before social media, there were always people making cassette tapes and playing it in their dorm rooms. I think the majority of people found out about our music because somebody had made a tape and played it at a party. I’ve heard that so many times. A few years ago, I had somebody that was a big fan say, “What does your album cover look like? I’ve never seen it because it’s always been on a tape that somebody made.”
When you find bands that were part of the landscape of your youth, in your car stereo or at your school discos, that etches into people’s minds. If you’re thinking about how people got into your music, do you feel like there was a formula in the songs that you wrote 30 years ago?
So many people hear our band for the first time when they’re teenagers. The voice of that person who is singing and saying those words is also a teenager. I was either 17 or 18 when we recorded our first album, and all those songs were written when I was 15, 16, or 17. I think there’s an intuitive, instinctive feeling that people have, the authenticity that it’s not somebody thinking of a formula or writing something that’s youthful. It’s just who they are. There’s also a directness and simplicity to the arrangements. When we recorded it, we weren’t using the modern technology of that time, so it doesn’t sound like something that was typical rock music of the ’80s. On our new album, most of it is recorded live with lots of acoustic instruments. Sometimes that’s considered to be more en vogue. In the ’80s, there weren’t rock bands playing with primarily acoustic instruments, and it’s become much more of a popular thing.
So you intentionally avoided the trappings of your music contemporaries in the ’80s? I suppose people weren’t expecting to hear bluegrass or country on your second album either, but it’s quite something to know now that you wrote songs like “Used to be” and “Good Feeling” when you were 15.
You referenced one song that I absolutely know I wrote when I was 15: “Good Feeling”. When I was 15, I didn’t feel young. I felt fully mature although I still liked to play certain games that were perhaps more childlike. I dunno. We keep playing games. I like playing tennis … that’s a game?
I would never have pictured you as a tennis player.
I played tennis when I was a kid, then on a high school team. To me, there’s no conflict between playing tennis and playing rock and roll. And yet sometimes during my life, when I’ve said I’m going to play tennis, the response is shock, and I’m not really happy about that. Like it’s going against rock and roll.
But really, the concept of rock and roll is totally skewed now. I think it’s eons away from destroying hotel rooms. There is still a sense of pride there, though, needing to prove you’re more than the music. How does this album aim to prove that you guys aren’t just a band from the ’80s with hit singles?
I feel that I have nothing to prove and the band has nothing to prove. It’s music, and we’re trying to do it the best way we can. I suppose from another perspective, I could see how somebody could look at it that way. The fact that we haven’t had a new album in over 16 years. The fact that we have an entire album’s worth of new songs, but new being that some were written many years ago, and some were written recently. The fact that we managed to be together in a recording studio and record — for us that almost borders on a miracle. We have so many disagreements. The disagreements in the group are so extreme that it was incredibly difficult for us to be able to do anything. When we play music together, it sounds good, but just to have us to be able to agree enough to even show up, and have myself and Brian in the same place at the same time to agree on what we’re going to record, is almost impossible. That’s why I liked the title, We Can Do Anything. That we could actually do this thing that for us was almost impossible for us to do, like some incredible magic trick. It should be really easy, it’s a simple thing, but we’re just stupid and can’t figure out how to do it.
Perhaps that’s just the beauty of your process: You need to disagree in order for the cogs to start moving?
Brian Ritchie and myself have this energy that happens when we play music together, and it’s recognizable for people that know it and love it. Maybe I should say something more specific in just how it’s so difficult for us. For example, it doesn’t even have to be about the music. Brian Ritchie can say, and has said at times, that I will only record with one microphone for the entire project. We will only use one microphone, and then by process of negotiation, I try and find out if it’s possible that maybe we could have two microphones.
Why does he insist on one microphone?
He said he’d never record with two, just one for every single person and instrument and voice. Only one. That’s just to show an example. It’s just amazing that this is the kind of thing that can keep us from recording.
It did keep you from recording all those years, so what inspired you to start again and get the songs that you wrote ages ago out of your system?
It was a progression of things that started with Coachella, which you referenced earlier. That got us back playing together again, and it sounded good. People loved it, and we had fun doing it. We got together on tour in Hobart, Tasmania. We planned for one day where we would have our one-microphone battle and decide on some songs. I know Brian Ritchie has always wanted to do more original recordings. He’s stated that desire for a number of years, but he’s also mentioned he wouldn’t record any songs that I wrote. So, there’s quite a conflict there, which I make mention of because with the Internet, I think it’s been coming from him. The idea got around that I wasn’t writing songs or I wasn’t interested in doing new songs, and that’s just not true at all. It’s fine to go play festivals and play songs that people love to hear. I think that’s fine for older groups. So many people get into us from either a point of nostalgia or younger people who thought they’d never have a chance to see our group. I was also, I suppose, content to just play songs from our catalog, but finally we were able to work out enough of our differences to record new material, and we’re all real happy with it. It’s good to put out new creative work. The process has its rewards, then being able to share it with the world or whoever might be interested.
Having a longstanding 20- to 30-year relationship with someone doesn’t mean things just go away. They just become refined. Was there a certain subject matter you wanted to tackle on this album?
I think the answer to that is probably non-verbal. When we are discussing our different points of views on everything, that ends up being where we won’t be able to do anything. Brian can hear a song that I’ve written or I can just play him a song one time, and then he’s ready to record. He’s that good at immediately grasping something and having strong ideas. The first time we ever played together, I was playing in a coffee house. I had invited him because we had spoken a few times. I think he brought a banjo with him. The actual first time we played music together was him hearing the songs for the first time and playing them for the first time. He has that kind of brilliance as a musician. In asking, “What are we trying to say?” I don’t think in those ways. I think that Brian Ritchie does, and I think that can be a positive thing. For example, he’s justifiably proud about a lot of what we’ve done musically. He has a signature sound in the way that he plays the acoustic bass guitar.
So what is the ultimate scenario?
We had situations while we were recording on tour last June and July, where we had Kevin Hearn from Barenaked Ladies join us for sessions in Nashville to carve out songs. Seven of us in one room recording everything live.
When did you write the song “Traveling Solves Anything”? Was that when you first went on tour?
I wrote that song probably 20 years ago. No, actually, I remember very specifically because I was in a hotel room. I had fled a domestic situation, and I was in a hotel room talking to a friend who now I haven’t had any contact with for years, and her suggestion was, “Well, this is the time in your life now where you could just train and just go anywhere, just travel with no destination, just travel and go.” I thought that was an interesting idea. I didn’t do it, but I wrote a song thinking about it. I also find it interesting because there’s the opposite idea that has truth to it, which is that going someplace solves nothing because you’re there, and you are the problem, and wherever you go, you’re going to be there.
I suppose some of us want to seek out other states of who we are and find new perspectives. Do you feel that traveling is going to solve your problems now?
[Laughs] No, I don’t. I’ve written various songs that are saying things that appeal to me because I like the idea — I may even think this is a bad idea — but I’m having fun finding ways to express it. So there are songs on the new album that I think are pretty poor ideas, but I’m singing and presenting it like it’s a good one.
That’s quite sinister, isn’t it? Which song are you referring to?
You know, I should make you guess, and then you’ll be guessing every song.
Fittingly, the first one that comes to mind is “Issues”. It’s great that you rhyme issues with tissues in that song, I’m happy you kept it.
[Laughs] “Issues” is telling a true story. The song is “Untrue Love”. It’s not a concept that I would promote or support, and yet I kind of am by having the song out there. But it’s just really not my personal belief. I think that it’s nice to have it exist. It’s fun and actually it’s ridiculous.
I mean, most of your songs are, but in a great human way. You’re usually involved in every creative aspect of Violent Femmes, so I wondered about three songs you co-wrote — “Foothills”, “Issues”, and “Holy Ghost” — and how that shaped the interpretation of your ideas.
I don’t feel much of a difference with them as opposed to songs that I wrote on my own. I don’t have any issues in writing with people. Maybe related to that, there is a song that I didn’t write at all on the album, “What You Really Mean”, which was written by my oldest sister.
Wow! Are you and your sister close? Has she always been a songwriter?
Oh yeah, very close. I think she’s been writing songs for 30 years. This song may be from almost 30 years ago. I always loved it, and when we started recording, I thought it was a great time to do this song. I didn’t want people to think differently of it, either positively or negatively, so I didn’t tell anybody. We just recorded it. It wasn’t until putting the album credits together that I said, “By the way, I didn’t write the song.” I didn’t tell my sister, but I first made sure all the publishing info was right, and then I got her a copy to listen to.
What was her reaction?
I wish I had been there. Her husband told me that her face was really something to see. They were just listening to the album, and then this track came on. She told me how happy she was with it. One huge risk I took was not going back and listening to her original recording. This is my memory of what that songs sounds like. I thought that would give it my own flavor rather than copy how she did it. I hope I’ve done justice to the song. It’s the most beautiful thing we’ve done in Violent Femmes because it doesn’t sound typically like us. We’re rougher usually. Many years ago, my sister went back to the original spelling of our surname: Gayneau.
There are other moments you tipped your hat to people you love. In the credits, the album is “In Memoriam: Steve Mackay.” The late saxophonist appeared on the Stooges’ 1970 LP Fun House and played with you during the “Horns of Dilemma” series.
We first met him when he played with us on our very first tour in Europe, when we were recording our second album, Hollowed Ground, in 1984. Through the decades, he would often be with us on tour. Everybody had a great relationship with Steve. He was such an enjoyable person to be around and a great musician who we loved playing music with. It’s a real sadness and loss to not have him around. It’s still hard to believe.
That’s incredibly difficult. I’m so sorry. Can you explain “Horns of Dilemma” for someone who has never seen that?
“Horns of Dilemma” is a concept that Brian Ritchie had right from the start. The idea is free improvisation. We would have people join in with us on certain songs with jazz sections. It’s not so much featured on recordings, but mostly live. The idea is that everyone plays at the back and behind the one soloist. There’s this type of chaos, which to Brian and me, we think is a beautiful and exciting thing. It’s very clever with Ritchie’s title for it.
It’s always been you and Brian, but now you have a brand-new drummer, John Sparrow. Does having had three different drummers affect your dynamic at all?
It’s something that we are familiar with. We had a new drummer almost two years ago, so it’s fairly recent that we’ve had a change. I don’t believe it changes how Brian and I play music together. Each drummer has a different feel or style. John has been playing with us easily for over 10 or 15 years, so we have a great familiarity with him.
Why do you think the drummers keep rotating?
The rotation is accelerating because we had our original drummer for 10 years, Victor DeLorenzo, who is huge with the original sound of the group, and that’s something that we’ve kept all these years. We have the drummers now play with brushes and different kinds of drums, with a lot of jazz aspects thrown in. Then we had Guy [Hoffman] for another 10 years, then it came back to Victor, and then Brian [Viglione], and now John for the live shows. For the first 20 years, we only had two people, so it hasn’t been so constant, but it is accelerating. I’ve enjoyed playing music with Brian for two years — the drummer on the new album. He just wants to dedicate himself to a new project, which is fine. It has to be the two of us to call this thing Violent Femmes. Maybe if one of us quit or fired the other, then that would have happened many times. Maybe the question is not, why is the drummer changing? The question should be, why aren’t we?
It’s amazing. You have the best working love-hate relationship I’ve ever seen. Love happens when you’re making music, and the dark side comes when you aren’t.
I think you’re right. The music is something we feel passionate about and care about deeply. And yet everything else is a problem [Laughs].
One question you haven’t asked, which seems to tie in here, a question that I have been asked a lot is, “Don’t you get tired of, or aren’t you sick of playing ‘Blister in the Sun’?”
You know, I assumed you were tired of talking about it.
I think it’s about what we’re talking about here, though, and I know that Brian Ritchie and I feel the same way even though we’ve played the song thousands of times. We’re not tired of doing it, and the moment of playing it for an audience, finding people so happy and singing along is always fresh, and it’s always, in a way, new in that moment. Aside from that, both he and I never want to hear, play, or think about it. But it’s not a burden.
I suppose it’s up to the band to differentiate between those two modes.
It’s a nice thing to be able to have that happiness and excitement from people that come to see the show. If we can do it, then we should make an effort. I remember going to see somebody and hoping they would play the song I wanted them to, and they didn’t. Even if I enjoyed the whole concert, there was that little disappointment.
Is there a moment in that song that you love?
We have a time in the song where we trade back and forth with the drums, bass, and guitar. That’s always interesting because I don’t know what I’m going to play exactly until I’m doing it, and that’s fun. But thank you, this conversation was so enjoyable.
So, it wasn’t like your dream?
I just thought of that. No, it was the complete opposite of my dream.