Since the early 1980s Milwaukee’s Violent Femmes have been challenging convention by blending punk, roots rock, Americana and even polkas into an original blend. The trio composed of Gordon Gano (vocals/guitar,) Brian Ritchie (bass/vocals) and a revolving cast of drummers is best know for their teen angst-filled hits “Blister in the Sun,” “Add It Up,” “Kiss Off” and “Gone Daddy Gone.”
After a breakup and 15-year gap without any new music, the Femmes are back on tour in support of their wonderfully diverse new CD, “We Can Do Anything.” In advance of the group’s District show at The Lincoln Theater Tuesday, I sat down with co-founder and bassist Mr. Ritchie to talked about the breakup, the reunion and why the Femmes will always be punk rock.
Question: Why has it been 15 years since the last Violent Femmes album?
Answer: Well, the band was split up for like seven of those years. Prior to that we were stagnant for a good seven to 10 years.
I think there were a number of different reasons. Mostly Gordon wasn’t really interest in doing stuff. I can’t blame him because there were probably a few discouraging things going on at the time [like] the record industry falling apart.
Even prior to that happening, record companies weren’t really all that supportive of the band. Our first album was the most successful in terms of commercial success. Living in the shadow of that album became a burden.
But now, having survived 35 years of that, we have learned to not give a [expletive]. [laughs]
Q: Is it impossible to follow up a record as successful as that debut?
A: No. We thought, “Let’s make different types of albums.” Our second album, “Hallowed Ground,” was radically different from the first album, although all the material existed in the beginning of the band. We could have made “Hallowed Ground” first, but we chose to have the first album released be this concise, very simple statement. Then “Hallowed Ground” was meant to be a confusing statement. Then we went on from there.
We wanted to be unpredictable.
Q: How do you come back after the breakup?
A: It was really the music that brought us back to a state of being a creative force again. But it was incremental. We were invited by Coachella to perform. We didn’t really know about it then, but one of their gimmicks is to try to get bands that have split up and try to get them back together. Which, actually, if you think about it, is probably not a bad thing for them to want to do.
We thought, “Let’s just do this Coachella stuff and see what we think after that.” We didn’t even consider going forward.
Q: What made you decide to go forward after the one show?
A: We were having fun. We had always got a good response from the audience. We saw that reaction happening again. And I guess, with a little hindsight or retrospective viewpoint, you just say, “OK, we’ve been given this opportunity to entertain people. We have a following. We also have material which is of a nature that it is constantly attracting new people to it.”
If you go see a lot of our contemporaries these days, they won’t have as many people in the crowd as we have, nor the level of enthusiasm from young people. Rock ‘n’ roll is the music of youth. If we can still communicate with young people, we’re still in the game.
Q: What is it that attracts new young fans to your band?
A: Clearly the lyrics. Especially the ones from the first album. They were not necessarily aimed at the adolescent mind frame, but they were certainly sympathetic with it.
You gotta give Gordon credit for being one of the first rock ‘n’ rollers to not only show vulnerability, because that is fairly common, but to show uncoolness. Blatant dorkiness. And then turning that into a cool thing.
Something about the lyrics speaks to the searching mind of the adolescent who is just finding their way in the world. And this goes for the boys and the girls. It’s not just a teenage boy from the ‘80s thing. It’s any teenage boy or girl from any time.
As they grow up, they probably find, as we have found, other things in the songs.
Q: What is the creative relationship like between you and Gordon these days?
A: We just get together and make music. The recording process is he writes the songs, and then we just get in a room and usually record the song in about 10 minutes or so.
There’s a lot of freshness there, and that’s a production choice. We could polish the stuff and try to make it really smooth, but we come from a kind of jazz improvisation mentality.
Q: What does the title of the new album, “We Can Do Anything,” mean to you?
A: It’s our musical philosophy. People think of us as some really simplistic folk band. But we are a repository of a huge array of American musical styles. And we can play all of them: bluegrass, blues, jazz, folk. Of course, various kinds of rock ‘n’ roll. I guess it’s a statement of confidence in ourselves.
Q: I have most often heard the Femmes classified as a punk band. How do you feel about that?
A: We consider ourselves a punk band that looked at the other punks bands around and said, “OK, we gotta do things differently.”
Punk at first was quite a varied style of music as well. At the time we thought of it as any kind of noncommercial, weird music that wasn’t being played on mainstream radio. Punk is like another kind of roots music for us. Like the blues. It’s all part of a continuum in American music. We feel like we are just one of the possible end points.
Violent Femmes play The Lincoln Theater Tuesday.
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