Forty years ago, Gordon Gano, a recent high school graduate, showed a few songs he’d written to a couple of musicians he’d met—bass player Brian Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo. The trio clicked, adopted the name Violent Femmes, and played their indefinable mix of punk, folk, jazz, and country in coffee houses, jazz and folk clubs, and street corners, busking for tips. James Honeyman-Scott, guitarist of The Pretenders, heard them playing for the people lined up to get into a Pretenders show. He brought Chrissie Hynde out to hear them and she invited them to open that night’s concert.
“Our music didn’t fit into a category,” bass player Ritchie says. “We played acoustic instruments and blended too many genres. Clubs wouldn’t book us, so we played on the streets. Getting invited by Hynde to open a show was unexpected. When we went on stage that night, the audience was booing. By the end of our set, half of them were still booing, but half were cheering, so we thought we’d made progress.
That gig led to resentment, fear, jealousy, and further ostracism from the other punk and rock bands, but it gave us confidence. We played house parties, and folk and jazz clubs. The Milwaukee rock clubs wouldn’t book us. Folk and jazz spaces were more in line with the kind of music we were playing.”
The band got signed by Slash Records and went on to international fame. In the last 40 years, they’ve released 10 studio albums, five live sets, 19 singles, and four compilations. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the band’s fifth album, Why Do Birds Sing? It’s being reissued on CD and LP, with a full album of bonus tracks, out by Craft Recordings in November.
“I buy a lot of reissues,” Ritchie says. “So, I understand the interest. Since I buy them, why not sell ours? Some people ask if the title is a reference to the Frankie Lymon hit, ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love?’ It’s actually an English translation of the title of a German book Gordon was reading. We always struggled with album titles, so we thought that was a good question to ask, akin to, ‘Why do musicians make music?’ The answer is different for different people; there’s no one answer to the question.”
Ritchie says the pre-production process took some time.
“We were thinking of expanding the lineup with a percussionist,” he explains. “We did some rehearsals with Michael Blair, who played with Tom Waits and Lou Reed. We got good results, including ‘Color Me Once,’ a song we got onto The Crow [movie] soundtrack. After a few sessions, we decided to stay with the trio format. Then we looked for a producer and found Michael Beinhorn [Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden].
He understood our stripped-down sound and improvisational way of making music. We rehearsed the songs, probably more for his benefit, with Victor playing a two-inch tape box with brushes. The original takes were just the three of us in a room. A lot of the songs were the first complete takes. Michael added some overdubbed keys, but mostly, we aimed for a live trio feel.”
“Some arrangements we’d been playing since our first gigs. ‘Girl Trouble’ was our most popular song when we started gigging. ‘Life Is a Scream’ is also an old song. Gordon brought in some new ones—‘American Music,’ ‘He Likes Me,’ ‘Lack of Knowledge.’ We’d just listen to Gordon play them; then we’d go. We didn’t put much thought into it. We’re not craftsmen. We’re more like feral folkies, or jazz musicians who happen to be playing rock music.”
Ritchie says the album’s success had a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time.
“It was the peak of the alt-rock wave,” he explains. “Nirvana had just happened, and Lollapalooza was big, the apex of a certain kind of music, although we were elder statesmen at that point. Green Day was reinventing punk, and we got in on their coattails. Our music isn’t timely. People tell us they listened to our music in high school, but we hear that from 20-year-olds and 60-year-olds.”
Violent Femmes originally came together through a series of fortunate coincidences.
“I was sitting at the bar in an Irish pub, drinking Guinness,” Ritchie says. “Victor was next to me, and we started talking about jazz—Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler. I was a bass player and music journalist. I’d reviewed a band he was in and said he was the best part of the band. We started talking and decided to collaborate.
After playing as a rhythm section in a few bands, we met Gordon. We were the first people he’d played with, ever. We had great fun from the moment me met. The first song we played together was ‘Blister in the Sun.’ Victor came up with that drum part that everyone still claps along with on the spot. We started playing gigs without any rehearsals. The first time in public was of one of Gordon’s solo gigs. We were accomplished professionals and played along. It was a lot of fun and grew from there.”
The current tour celebrating the reissue is going well.
“It was weird, coming out of hibernation,” Ritchie says. “It was a bit of a culture shock to be in a crowded airport, with people you knew were ticking time bombs. This is our 40th anniversary, which is insane if you think about it. We play the hits from the early days, but incorporate material from the entire catalog. This is a package tour—four bands—with Flogging Molly sharing top billing. We’re all vaxxed and stay masked until we go on stage. Last night, we played 90 minutes, ‘cause some of the Mollys got COVID. Hopefully they’ll be back soon. Fans have to present a vax certificate to get in. Some people wear masks; some don’t. This band has been an adventure. We’ve seen a lot of odd stuff we never anticipated, but we just plowed through it.”
Check out the video for “American Music,” newly restored in HD, here:
Photo courtesy of Violent Femmes and Jay Westcott