Gordon Gano (Violent Femmes) :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview
40 years on, it’s still hard to know how to classify the Violent Femmes. But taking in the recently reissued Add It Up (1981-1993) compilation, which pulls from the band’s genre-blurring first five albums, and Craft Recordings’ expanded 30th anniversary edition of the band’s 1991 fifth lp Why Do Birds Sing?, available October 8th, it’s clear that the spirit driving the Femmes was never about stylistic cohesion, but rather an allegiance to the arcane weirdness that lives at the heart of American music, be it folk, country, rock & roll, or gospel. Bandleader and songwriter Gordon Gano joined Aquarium Drunkard correspondent Andrew Horton for a conversation about the band’s history and unsung influences—including Sun Ra and Prince—and why the band’s never fitting in became a sustaining force.
Aquarium Drunkard: How you doing, Gordon?
Gordon Gano: I’m doing well, how are you?
AD: Good, man, it’s great to talk to you. I’m talking to you today from Norfolk, Virginia, so I thought it was perfect—we’re coming full circle with the fact that you guys used to play here a bunch and you have this Norfolk Boathouse recording on the DVD with this deluxe Why Do Birds Sing?.
Gordon Gano: All right, that’s great. I seem to recall maybe years ago it went into no longer being a place for gatherings. Am I remembering right? That was quite a while back I think.
AD: Yeah it did. I moved away from here in ‘98, and sometime between there and when I moved back to this area a few years ago the Boathouse went into the harbor. One of the hurricanes that came through just wrecked it, I guess.
Gordon Gano: That is so weird because I thought, “Why am I speaking in this strange way? Like it sort of went away.” So, I must’ve heard that back when it happened. It wasn’t like a place just closed and it’s a new thing now.
AD: Yeah, totally. Growing up here as a kid that was like my CBGB. Anyway, the occasion that we’re talking about today is the Why Do Birds Sing? anniversary reissue. So, just recapping: you guys broke through with the self-titled album, then you made the Alt-Gospel Southern Gothic masterpiece Hallowed Ground. After that, you teamed up with Jerry Harrison for the more commercial The Blind Leading the Naked, then you split up for a while. Then you come back with 3 and finally this record. Here’s what I’m wondering: as you guys are making this record, where did you fit into the musical landscape of 1990? I feel like it’s so radically different than ‘82.
Gordon Gano: Unfortunately, you’re talking to me. [Violent Femmes founding member and bassist] Brian Richie, he is great on these kind of questions. He’ll tell you exactly how everything related to everything, what connected and didn’t connect, and things in the larger view of music in the world, and I just haven’t paid a lot of attention to that, really. I think the way that it has always struck me is that we never really fit into anything. We were never the really popular thing of the moment, so that would be true for 1990. It would be true of any time of our career. Sometimes we would become a little more accepted or a little more popular in a larger way, but we were never on the cover of all the magazines in that we were the hottest thing right then. I think this served us well for longevity in that we’re not particularly dated to an exact time. I’ve had people tell me “Oh, you’re the ultimate 80s band,” and have had people say the exact same thing but “90s band” and hopefully that will continue with younger people that keep getting into our music. I just don’t think we have ever really fit in.
There were times like there might have been a little more of a connection, say when we were playing acoustic instruments from the Hallowed Ground album, as you referenced, and a lot of American roots music of all kinds that we’ve loved and always played it, and the people weren’t doing that much then or hardly at all in a rock context. By ’90—I’m not sure when Unplugged became a thing but that became a thing. Brian Richie had observed and commented, “Unplugged, what it really means is that you sit down when you play.” Almost everybody is still plugged into something. But we were playing on the street. Later we found out there is a word for it called “busking.” We were doing that before we ever even had our first record out. It was all acoustic, not plugged into any portable amps or anything. Other than that, we never did Unplugged though it seemed like it was perfect for us. On tours we would go to record stores and we would just play. We would get up on the counters and things like that with nothing plugged in, no mics, nothing. Even when something shifted and it seemed like this is what we have been doing all along, we still weren’t included or invited to any of the parties.
AD: Yeah it’s really funny because there’s this kind of retromania in our culture and it’s fascinating to watch critics and record people try to figure out where to fit the Femmes in. There are people that try to position you guys as being along those Twin-Tone bands, midwestern punk and post-punk things, and I think the Femmes and Hüsker Dü, you guys probably didn’t even know each other, or maybe you did but it just seems like totally different worlds.
Gordon Gano: Sometimes things can have a completely different sound but there is still some kind of connection in the sense of how some things are being approached, maybe with a certain sense or freedom or abandon, and seriousness at the same time. Because that can happen, I can see how someone could connect our band to other bands thinking that there was something, maybe, we had in common, even though the music sounds so different. I don’t even know that for sure, I would just think that can happen. For our band, one of the biggest influences right from the start, which people wouldn’t know unless one of us says so, is Sun Ra. I’ve always felt that we are connected with Sun Ra and his Arkestra. Brian Richie went to probably a hundred shows, maybe more, of Sun Ra all over the world at different times, and I made many of those. He was a huge influence on the group right from the very formation of the group. There were times when we would do tours when we would march in playing our instruments and go up on stage, which Sun Ra would always march in and out of his shows, which is what put that idea in our heads. Anyway, I don’t think these critics and people you are speaking of are connecting the Femmes with Sun Ra. That’s how I see it and how we would see it in the band. As well as, of course, I think we are in that list of how many bands would say Velvet Underground would be one of the biggest inspirations.
AD: All of us at Aquarium Drunkard are enormous Sun Ra fans. About an hour ago, just before this conversation, I was listening to a record of Mike Huckaby who is one of these Detroit House Music guys. He did these reel-to-reel edits, almost like disco edits from Sun Ra performances so it is hilarious you say that, because I was jamming that thing about an hour ago before we hopped on. It suddenly makes perfect sense. When I think back seeing the Femmes live, Brian is whipping out a freakin’ didgeridoo on stage and you always had interesting, ad hoc drum kits with random marching band snares. There really is that Heathcliff junkyard band aspect. There is sort of that mutant marching band aspect within the Femmes and Sun Ra.
Gordon Gano: For the last few years we have incorporated, in our drum kit, a barbeque. It has a really interesting sound, and it just happened because we were doing a morning show in Montreal and after us at some point, there was going to be a cooking segment and there was a barbeque there. The snare can be overpowering in certain situations, so we were trying to figure out how we were going to approach things and Brian said, “Why don’t we just play that?” We have now been using a barbeque as part of our drum set, with John Sparrow playing, for a number of years now. Just wanted to catch you up to date.
AD: I have seen at least one video of that on YouTube, where I totally saw the barbeque, and it’s brilliant. I am going to bring it back around to Why Do Birds Sing? for a minute. I feel like there is very much a sentiment that the album was kind of this return to form. You guys worked with Jerry Harrison earlier on and did a bunch of things to stretch out the sound. Then you come back with “American Music” and it sounds like it could’ve been on the first record. It’s that stripped down, busker, campfire version of Femmes. Was that an intentional thing you were going for on this record?
Gordon Gano: I don’t recall that as thinking “let’s get back.” Whenever someone says you were getting back to what you did on your first album, it is always met in the context of they really liked the first album and we are getting back to sounding good, which I have heard people say that about every record we’ve ever done. If someone really likes the record they’ll say, “You went back more to your original sound,” and sometimes I think “maybe” or “a lot,” but I have noticed that. Although, you do mention Jerry Harrison, I can’t recall anyone saying that about that album because, that one, we went more into other kinds of studio things. For the most part, we have always approached all of our records from a live approach and playing mostly live but not being purist about it and augmenting a little bit here and there, but our basic core of doing the song, we’ve always felt like it is the best way to go about life, even in the studio.
AD: [Producer] Michael Beinhorn was coming off of working with Red Hot Chili Peppers and it’s funny because after this record, he kind of goes on to become one of the bigger alt rock producers in the ’90s. He did Soundgarden and all of these really big records and it seemed like you guys really caught him right in that transition. You also had Susan Rogers, Prince’s beloved engineer. Do you have any memories of Susan? As a recording engineer was she a part of any of that creative process or is that lost to time?
Gordon Gano: Well, she was a part of the process on the technical side, completely, which wasn’t my interest. She was very much involved, I just don’t recall any song direction of any kind, I think it was really from the technical point.
AD: A fly on the wall so to speak?
Gordon Gano: Well, yeah, she was. And that makes sense. An engineer, especially when there is a producer, it is always very much a collaboration of what we are thinking and what’s going on with us. But yes, I certainly remember working with her. It was funny, speaking of Prince, that Prince happened to be recording briefly in the same facility, just a different studio, that we were at one point during the making of that record.
AD: Didn’t he offer you guys a song?
Gordon Gano: Yes he did, but I don’t know where that song went to or where it is. Maybe Victor DeLorenzo, who is our original drummer and our drummer at the time, has it somewhere. But that would be interesting to hear after so many years. We didn’t do anything but now, I think “I don’t care what it sounded like, we could have done something with it!” It couldn’t be that bad and it could’ve been something really good. I think we were deep in what we were doing and to have this, and, yeah, it’s strange. Or was there a reason he was passing it on to us? Maybe he didn’t want a thing to do with it.
AD: These days, they are really plumbing the Prince archive and so much of that stuff from his vault is coming out, so I hope one day we can, perhaps, make a comparison there. It’s interesting because you guys did have that history of covering other people. You did the “Children of the Revolution” cover earlier on. Then on this one you have the “Do You Really Wanna Hurt Me,” the Boy George/Culture Club classic.
Gordon Gano: There’s a Prince song that I had a lot of inspiration from, which—I don’t think anybody would put this together. I had gone to a concert and saw Prince when I was 16 or 17 and it was amazing. This would have been around ’79 or ’80 and I wrote a song that I know had an inspiration from Prince, maybe a lot. The song is “Gimme the Car.” I don’t think anybody else would ever think that except me because I know that was the inspiration of that song. If you ever hear that song or play it, think of me thinking that I am Prince or something. It is definitely there for me.
AD: That is absolutely killing me, and I am never going to be able to listen to it again without hearing that, but in the best way.
Gordon Gano: I thought you were just going to stop and say you are never going to be able to listen to that again. Period.
AD: No! It makes so much sense, Gordon. I never would have stumbled upon it on my own, but it makes perfect freakin’ sense, I love it.
Gordon Gano: Yeah, even the groove. Even the basic groove of it is out of most of the stuff that I was writing, and we were playing. It puts it in different way with its groove. To your thing about doing the covers, there was just a bizarre story as I recall, that we were asked to do that [“Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”], and we were like, “This is so strange.” We took it as a challenge to see what we could do with it. I either didn’t understand and or didn’t care for the lyrics and so I decided that I could keep a lot of the main words, such as some nouns. Every line I wanted to keep some of the words the same but change some of the others to make it different, and to make it something, for me, that was fun or something that I felt connected to. Of course, that needs permission, so Boy George gave his permission for all of that and volunteered to make a cameo if we did a video. It was absolutely great. Everything coming from him was all positive and free and open. He was like “Yeah! Change a bunch of words if you want, it’s okay with me.”
Then, there was going to nothing done for it. No video, nothing. When we tried to figure out who’s idea was this, it couldn’t be found. Like who is the person from the label that said, “This is what we should do.” It came through management, came through the label, and starts to go through enough moving around. Maybe someone knows they are the one and just didn’t like at all what we did with the song. Maybe they didn’t want to put it on the album. We had fun making it. There is some bouzouki or bağlama that was doing some of that fast tremolo on the strings. Those are Greek instruments and Brian and I picked up a couple of those when we were in Greece. We had been in Greece and we met to do the first show and we saw that both of us had picked up the same instrument, maybe from the same shop.
AD: I think New Times and Rock!!!!! are phenomenal records. Is there any chance in hell we will ever see any sort of reissue of them? Especially Rock!!!!! which isn’t even on streaming. At least New Times is out there on Spotify, but I wonder. I know Rock!!!!! only came out in Australia and it was an expensive import.
Gordon Gano: [Laughing] I’m getting a pen and writing down your request. We would love to have everything available, and I kind of always assume incorrectly that things are available, and then find out they haven’t been available for a long time now. It is nice of you to mention those because we put ourselves into every record, and every record that we have done has been a thought of, “Maybe this record will be more popular than the last.” I think there are some very interesting songs on those records and very good ones. They have just become unknown. Part of that is by just not being available. So, I appreciate you mentioning those. I’ll ask about those, sometimes it gets complicated with what record company has it and where they sold it. There’s these things to be dealt with.
AD: Fair enough. I will be your first order if either of those get the deluxe reissue treatment. I just want to say thanks again for your time today, and Marshall Allen is still alive, so there is still hope for the Violent Femmes and the Sun Ra Orchestra to be on the same stage. They’re still going, man!
Gordon Gano: I think it might be easier to get those albums you mentioned reissued than the last idea you just had. But that is great. It has been a pleasure talking with you.