FEMMES’ MYSTIQUE : This Band of Strange Polarities Is One of the Longest-Running Icons in Alternative Rock
Call Brian Ritchie at his home in Milwaukee, and the Violent Femmes’ bassist answers the phone with a rumbling growl that puts one in mind of Linda Blair and pea soup. “This is Satan,” he announces.
A few hours later and half a continent away in New York City, Gordon Gano, the Femmes’ singer-guitarist and main songwriter, reacts like the minister’s son he is when an interviewer compliments him on his violin playing on the band’s latest album, “New Times.”
“God bless you!” exclaims the little rocker, who has dotted Violent Femmes’ repertoire with occasional songs of Christian praise (which are more than balanced by his character studies of warped humanity). Gano’s sincerely beatific tone of voice practically wraps the telephonic signal in a halo.
Obviously, this is a band of strange polarities. The name Violent Femmes, itself constructed from contradictory notions of male aggression and passivity, is only the beginning.
Ritchie, the tall, droll nonbeliever, and Gano, the bantam-sized, frequently chuckling man of faith who once broke with the Femmes to join a punk-gospel band called The Mercy Seat, certainly are a contradictory pair. But they have been playing together since 1981, making their band one of the longest-running icons in alternative rock.
Through six albums (plus a best-of compilation) and just one lineup change--current drummer Guy Hoffman, a former member of the BoDeans, replaced Victor DeLorenzo in 1992--the Femmes have kept at it. They are part of a select peerage of bands--R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Social Distortion and the Meat Puppets among them--that have ridden the Great American Alternative Rock wave for a dozen years or more without a wipeout.
The signature Femmes sound is a loudly amplified racket of acoustic instruments, driven primarily by the throaty engine-gurgle of Ritchie’s hollow-bodied bass guitar. Gano’s whiny, barbed voice makes him sound alternately like the class wise-guy or the inhabitant of a too-pressured, sexually frustrated psyche that’s been brought to the breaking point.
Early in their career, the Femmes (who play at the Coach House on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Los Angeles gigs at the Hollywood Palladium on Feb. 4 and the House of Blues on Feb. 5) drew heavily from the underground rock tradition of the Velvet Underground and the Modern Lovers. But their sound quickly expanded to include country and folk influences.
“New Times” may have been one of the most stylistically skewed albums of 1994. It featured dark garage-rock, a creaky, oompah waltz and a synth-driven techno-rock experiment called “Machine.” Other cuts echoed the European cabaret tradition and “Needles and Pins"-style jangly folk-rock.
There also were several detours into theatrical music that brought to mind Kurt Weill and Gilbert & Sullivan. At one point, Gano imagined himself discovering a new form of futuristic music played in “the Key of 2,” and the album’s overall sense of exploration suggested he just might be serious about it.
Now, as his 15th year as a Violent Femme dawns, Gano is toying facetiously with the idea of at last seizing the opportunity to sell out. In a career of many stylistic left turns, Violent Femmes have a new album in the can that, from Ritchie’s and Gano’s description, may be the most focused they have done since “Violent Femmes,” the career-making, million-selling debut album they recorded in 1982 and released in 1983.
“The next record is kind of a traditional rock ‘n’ roll album,” Ritchie said. “More punk rock and ‘60s rock. It’s not that we turned our back on experimentation, but we were in this mood, so we went for it.”
“My guess is that this one communicates much more superficially to people, so we could have a hit,” Gano begins, before interrupting himself with light laughter, the chuckles coming in telegraphic blips. “It’s much cheaper, doesn’t have a soul.” More chuckles. “I think it’ll be huge.”
Instead of laboring over it at length, as they did with “New Times,” Gano said the Femmes knocked out their as-yet untitled next album in 10 days last month.
“A number of songs were written a day or two before going in,” he said, noting that was an unusual departure for the band. “This one we approached very directly, streamlining everything. I’m very pleased with it.”
Like “New Times,” the upcoming album is the work of musicians unencumbered by corporate overseers. “New Times” was created while Violent Femmes was between record deals, having left its original label, Slash, eventually to sign with Elektra. Ritchie and Gano said management changes at Elektra last year led the Femmes to cut themselves loose in the marketplace once more; they are now seeking another record deal.
“The making of the ‘New Times’ record and the one we just did both felt very free, making the music we felt at the time,” Gano said. “In both situations we were free agents, and both times we’ve come up with a very different-sounding thing.”
Ritchie, 34, said the Femmes haven’t been very calculating when it comes to positioning their music for the marketplace, with the lone exception coming at the very start.
When the band recorded its now-canonical debut album, he said, “we were trying to make some sort of consistent product, which is something we never tried to do again. We wanted to establish ourselves. Yeah, it was a commercial move. We considered (the album) commercial in a sort of fantasy world we were living in. We created a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
As prophecy goes, it was rather unhurried in fulfilling itself. Three years after its release, “Violent Femmes” had sold 175,000 copies, according to a 1986 Musician magazine profile of the band. But even that relatively modest total was considered a noteworthy success at a time when alternative rock truly was outside the mainstream.
“In our minds it was a hit” from the very start, recalls Gano. “It got us known across the country and was a big hit with college radio stations. And it’s certainly grown from there.”
In the early 1990s, Jane’s Addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana broke alternative rock into the commercial big-time. “Violent Femmes,” chugging away like a little train that could, benefited from the same broadening of mass-market tastes. In 1992, the album was certified platinum--1 million copies sold. Ritchie said that at last report, sales had reached 1.8 million.
Written by the then-teen-aged Gano, the songs on “Violent Femmes” tapped the teen-angst vein persuasively enough to appeal to succeeding generational cohorts of adolescents. Its songs of sexual frustration (including “Add It Up,” voted last year as the all-time favorite of KROQ’s listeners), alienation, and suicidal musings vent steam in ways alternately scary and hilarious. The musical style is a rough-hewn, untutored acoustic-punk sound that proved highly influential in its time and, in the “Unplugged” era, remains quite current.
No subsequent Violent Femmes release has reached even the gold-album sales mark of 500,000. But Gano said that doesn’t sour his feelings for the debut album, which remains a staple of the Femmes’ concert repertoire.
“People ask, ‘Are you sick of (the album’s) success? Is it a burden on you?”’ Gano said. “Not at all. A bigger burden would be if it wasn’t successful. People are still finding out about it as if it was just released, not as something nostalgic. People are always just finding out about the band, and that’s a great and exciting thing. I would guess the average Femmes fan now is high school age. I just picked up a nice copy of ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray.’ There may be things in there about my life. As I get older (he is 31 now), the people listening to my music keep getting younger.”
The Femmes got their start when Ritchie, who had a New Wave band called the Rhomboids on the Milwaukee rock scene, was tipped off about Gano, who was first described to him as “a pint-sized Lou Reed imitator.” Their first gig together was as an acoustic duo, playing an assembly at Gano’s high school. Ritchie recalls that “we caused a near-riot” by playing a characteristically edgy teen-rebellion song called “Gimme the Car.” That seemed like a sufficiently promising basis from which to launch a band.
Ritchie was less taken with Gano’s spiritual songs.
“In the beginning of the band, I didn’t want to play Christian songs. I just thought it was silly; I think that Christianity is silly. But as long ago as ‘Hallowed Ground’ (the band’s second album, released in 1984), I had a change of heart. I realized a lot of things I like in the world were created out of a religious mentality.”
Ritchie said his initial refusal to play the religious material created “no difficulty at all. When I didn’t want to do those songs, (Gano) said, ‘Well, that’s all right, I’ll just do them in church.’ And when I agreed (to play them), it was fine, too. People think there was some sort of huge controversy between me and Gordon because he’s Christian and I’m not. That’s preposterous.
“If you want to live in a world where everybody is the same as you, you have to move to a certain country where there is no variety. There’s plenty of variety in this country, and I think it’s great.”
A serious rift did develop between Gano and Ritchie after they had been working together about five years.
“In my mind, we split up, but in Brian’s mind we hadn’t,” Gano recalled. “There were two years (during 1986-88) when we didn’t have anything to do with each other.”
Gano, who spent his early childhood in Connecticut (and lives there now), had moved to New York City soon after the Femmes became established, while his band mates stayed in Milwaukee. He says the geographical separation has never posed a problem; his temporary break with Ritchie had to do with differing conceptions of how committed each member should be to Violent Femmes.
“He viewed it as ‘Everything’s got to be for the good of the band and we’ve got to put aside (some personal needs).’ I felt you’ve got to have individuals and individual needs as priorities.” For a time, Gano made The Mercy Seat his musical priority, playing guitar and singing backups behind a statuesque gospel singer named Zena Von Heppinstall. Ritchie busied himself with the first of his three solo albums.
“After we had our differences, the thing that brought it back together was the music,” Gano said. “I felt I wanted to do my songs in a rock band, and I first thought of Brian because it works. He and I are completely dedicated to what we’re doing, and there’s a real respect from that.”
Gano’s new sidelight is musical theater. Over the past four years, he said, he has composed three musicals, which have been presented at the Knitting Factory, an avant-garde performance space in New York.
The first was a setting of lyrics by 1930s Dadaist Walter Mehring. Two songs from it, “Agamemnon” and “New Times,” wound up on the last Femmes album. Gano also was enlisted to write the score for a musical based on a play by Pablo Picasso, “Desire Caught by the Tail,” and has written both the story and the music for a work of his own, “Carmen, the First Two Chapters.” It’s based on the same French novel that spawned the famous opera by Georges Bizet, except that Gano focuses on the novel’s narrator, who got cut out of Bizet’s streamlined telling of the hot-blooded tale.
Also in the works are the songs and score for an independent film called “Hitting the Ground,” in which the action begins with a suicidal leap inadvertently captured by an amateur photographer. Gano said he was intrigued by the unpredictable turns of the script and the moral ambiguities of the main characters.
As for that improved violin playing, Gano, who took lessons as a schoolboy, says he has been honing his chops in recent years playing Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in weekly amateur soirees sponsored by a venerable New York City group called the Chamber Music Associates.
“When I’m around and can make it on a Wednesday night, I play for a couple of hours. I always want the second violin part, not the first. I think I’ve gotten better because of that.”
Gano, not previously known for any particular instrumental prowess, says he has even landed his first invitation to appear as a session pro, fiddling for a band called 16 Horse Power.
As a band, Ritchie reports, Violent Femmes will be featured as the backup unit on one track of an upcoming album by Elliott Murphy, a veteran East Coast folk-rocker.
“Our contribution will overshadow that of Bruce Springsteen, who is also on the album,” the bassist boasts, half-jokingly.
More than a few alternative-rock fans would say they already have.
* What: Violent Femmes.
* When: Tuesday, Jan. 31, and Wednesday, Feb. 1, at 8 p.m.
* Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.
* Whereabouts: Take Interstate 5 to the San Juan Creek Road exit and turn left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza, on the right.
* Wherewithal: $26.50.
* Where to call: (714) 496-8930.
IN LAGUNA NIGUEL: GILLETTE and MANGSEN
A key figure on the ‘60s Orange County folk scene, Gillette now lives in Vermont and tours with his wife, Mangsen, an established Northeastern folkie. Their periodic shows at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, including one Saturday, Jan. 28, are varied, well-played affairs. (714) 364-5270.
IN COSTA MESA: CLAW HAMMER
A slash-and-burn twin-lead guitar attack, coupled with unrestrained, but not untuneful yowling, gives you Claw Hammer. The veteran Southern California band, which is not-quite-blues and not-quite-punk, headlines at Our House on Saturday, Jan. 28. (714) 650-7221.
IN SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO: ROBERT FRIPP
A King Crimson reunion looms, but for now the band’s donnish leader, Robert Fripp, is playing electronically enhanced solo-guitar performances. Fripp may get some help from opening act California Guitar Trio. He plays at the Coach House on Saturday, Jan. 28. (714) 496-8930.
Hear the Violent Femmes
* To hear a sample of the album “New Times,” call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press *5560.