Violent Femmes

Violent Femmes

When Violent Femmes first started playing their strain of jazz- and folk-inspired alternative rock in Milwaukee in the early ’80s, there wasn’t much precedent for the music they were making. No one would give them a gig, so they played on city sidewalks with an acoustic guitar, an acoustic bass, and a drum kit made up of one single tom with a steel washbasin flipped on top of it and a pair of brushes. “People in the punk scene—if they were walking and they saw us up ahead, they'd cross the street and act like they didn't know us,” Gordon Gano, the band’s singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter, tells Apple Music. “We were the opposite of what people thought was cool.” The band’s sound—which mixed the nervy sexual energy of punk with the improv of free jazz and a folk combo’s instruments—wasn’t intended to be a rebuke of what was cool. “We loved punk, so it's not like we were disavowing it,” says bassist/multi-instrumentalist Brian Ritchie. “But it was becoming codified and predictable. And we realized we could hear the words better with acoustic instruments, rather than drowning it out with rock clichés. So we were able to develop a new sound and approach, and still retain the elements of what we considered important about punk music, which was the drive.” Gano was only 18 when Violent Femmes recorded their 1983 self-titled debut album—one which would exist completely outside of the mainstream but would go on to sell millions of copies through word of mouth and the support of an emerging college radio scene. And in a way, it plays like a high schooler's diary: It’s angsty (“Kiss Off”), funny (“Prove My Love”), awkward (“Promise”), sensitive (“Please Do Not Go”), whimsical (“Blister in the Sun”), vengeful (“Confessions”), and horny (“Add It Up”; actually, almost all of them), speaking directly to the insecurities and vulnerabilities of teenagers everywhere, but with a maturity and honesty beyond its years. But what also makes it such a defining document of the burgeoning ’80s indie and alternative scene is its rawness and brevity. “I think there's something magical with the first album,” says Gano. “The song selection and the energy have such a focus.” Here, on the occasion of Violent Femmes’ 40th anniversary, Gano and Ritchie talk through how each of its songs came to be. “Blister in the Sun” Gordon Gano: “This is before Violent Femmes. I met a woman at a poetry reading, and she told me that she was going to form a band, and we exchanged numbers. She said she wanted it to be something like the Plasmatics, and she was having some musicians get together. So I thought it’d be nice to show up with a song. Anyway, that meeting never happened. I never saw her again, never spoke to her again—nothing. Except I had just written this song, which is amazing considering I wrote it thinking a woman was going to sing it. I had this discussion with someone about the song in the ’90s, and they were like, ‘You know what the song's about, you wrote it.’ And I'm like, ‘Yeah, but I'm curious. What do you think it's about?’ Finally he says, ‘Everyone knows that song's about masturbation.’ That was the first time I'd ever heard that.” “Kiss Off” GG: “‘Kiss Off’ certainly came from a real frustration. It seemed like every next day in school, a teacher at some point would say, ‘This is going to go down on your permanent record.’ That was the expression teachers used in the ’70s. I don't know if they still use that—I hope not. But I was getting pretty tired of hearing it. The counting stuff—that goes into fantasy land a bit. When I wrote ‘I forget what eight was for’—that feels like humor or comedy, which is in so many of my songs, if not all of them. It always makes me smile.” “Please Do Not Go” Brian Ritchie: “We generally didn't rehearse songs or think about them, or contrive them. We'd just start playing. So I think that's probably how that one originated. But I would assume that we got to a point in the song where we're like, ‘Oh, something better start happening now,’ and nobody knew what to do. So I started playing a bass solo. And it's one of the rare unaccompanied bass solos in rock music. The song itself is fun and catchy, and has a story to it, but also the reggae groove is so inauthentic, and not really reggae. It just refers to reggae. It's an oblique reference. It's a weird song, in that sense.” “Add It Up” GG: “After we had played it a few times, Brian said, ‘Let's not do this song.’ I was like, ‘Why?’ because I felt like it was one of the strongest. He said, ‘Because it's boring. It's only two chords, back and forth, with no variation for the entire rather long song.’ That is true. That is what it is. But I was just like, ‘I'm going to keep doing it ’cause I think it's that good.’ Many years ago, this came up in a discussion—that forced him to make it interesting and not boring.” BR: “That might have been an initial reaction, but then if you listen to what we do with it, especially what's going on with the rhythm section—we're switching between grooves, a lot of dynamics. We have a Latin feel in there, at certain points a driving punk feel. This stuff is just not supposed to go together, but we made it flow. And now it's probably my favorite song to play.” “Confessions” BR: “Obviously, we thought it resembled ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ by Bob Dylan, but we put a lot more dynamics into it. It was one of our dramatic pieces live, where things would get really quiet. And one of the great things about having Victor [DeLorenzo] playing drums was that he was counterintuitive. He would make things more exciting by getting quieter, whereas 99.999% of rock drummers think the only way to make things more exciting is to make it louder. You can really hear that on that song. It's one of Gordon's epic lyrical works.” “Prove My Love” BR: “That's straight-ahead pop music. And it's one of the few songs that we don't really improvise on that much. Because it's like an A-side. We thought of it like a single from the ’60s.” GG: “The solo developed because of playing out on the street. I thought, if I go to playing single notes with acoustic guitar, it can't possibly be heard, so I'll just try to do a rhythm solo as much as I can, and play as hard as I can. So there's some things that helped shape the way that we're arranging and thinking of the music because of playing acoustic instruments on the street.” “Promise” BR: “This a very straightforward rendition of the song, but we also used to have a sprawling beat-poetry-type version, where the spoken section in the middle was much longer and had a whole other narrative.” “To the Kill” BR: “Musically, this was about trying to get as close to free jazz in a three-minute song as possible—have the song, but have sections that are almost completely free, and yet it snaps back into the song at the right moment.” “Gone Daddy Gone” BR: “Gordon and I were busking one day, and Victor wasn't around. And I had just gotten this xylophone. I'm not really a virtuoso mallet percussionist, so I said, ‘Hey, let's do something in either C major or D minor,’ because that would be basically all the so-called white keys. And he said, ‘I'm working on this thing,’ and started playing a very embryonic version of ‘Gone Daddy Gone.’ And that evolved into what you hear now. I had been doing an improvised solo, but the producer Mark Van Hecke said, ‘Brian, you can't just improvise all the time. You've got to write something here.’ So I just put together a specific xylophone solo.” “Good Feeling” BR: “We thought that it was good to end the album on a soft note. The song is kind of intense; it's about drugs. You hear the violin—that's clearly an homage to John Cale and his viola. There are many pop music references on the first album. We were just that way, because we're just big fans. But basically, it's just a good song. When we would play it live, women would be crying. We knew that it had a purpose to be in the repertoire.”

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