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By Alan Brostoff

When thinking about which bands define the “college sound," top of the list has got to be Violent Femmes. It's been 40 years since the Femmes' formation, and with offbeat hits such as "Add it Up," "Kiss Off" and "Blister in the Sun" (all featured on their debut full-length record and compiled on 1993's greatest hits package, Add It Up), it’s hard to find a band with a better fit for the alternative rock genre. 

1991's Why Do Birds Sing?, the last album with original drummer Victor DeLorenzo, included other popular songs as "American Music" and the Culture Club cover "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" While this year marks the band's 40th anniversary, it also marks the 30th anniversary of this classic studio album as well.

Gordon Gano, the singer, guitarist and songwriter of Violent Femmes, sat down with us to talk Midwest influences and the re-releases on their catalog.



GOLDMINE: Before we jump into talking about the upcoming Violent Femmes projects, I would like to go back in time to the start and ask where did the name of the band come from? 

GORDON GANO: Well, our bass player Brian Ritchie came up with the name. Boy, I hadn't thought of this in a long time, but it's kind of a funny story. We had to come up with a band name because we were going to play somewhere where we needed to promote who we were. Brian suggested Violent Femmes and after a couple of days we could not think of anything better, so we just used it. If we knew we would be doing this for over 40 years we might have taken more time and thought more about it, but it’s worked out all right. We actually got it as Brian was talking to some of his friends who were asking about his brother and Brian started saying a bunch of stuff that was not true, like that his brother played in a punk band called the Violent Femmes. Brian must have liked the name because that’s how it became our name.

GM: When you started out did you ever think that you would still be playing music for 40 years? 

GG: I don’t think any 18 year old is ever thinking about what they will be doing in 40 years, that would be very strange. So, no, I wasn't thinking anything like that. But no, I was thinking that we would find a way to be successful with our music and have recordings and tour and do what we were dreaming of and what we were planning on. And I know that's the same for... I don't know, maybe a million other people, but certainly we felt confident that was something that we were going to do and we'd find a way to be able to do it.

GM: The compilation Add it Up (1981-1993), this is the first time it’s been available on vinyl since the initial pressing. There are four different vinyl variations, the first of which is already sold out. How involved were you in the decision about the variants? 

GG: I wasn't very involved with that. I would be told about things and then generally give my approval. Brian gets more involved. I'm not sure how involved he was or not with this. Sometimes it's just that these are ideas that are being suggested and we like them so we'll say yes to that. I know we're both very pleased that this collection is coming out. It had come to where people couldn't get it anymore or wouldn't even know about it and it's something that we had felt very good about when we put the collection together back when it was originally released. So that's something that we both feel good about it and he was advocating for quite some time.

GM: This album is not just a best of, it contains some live variations of songs done much differently from the original recording. I know that for years the band has been called a punk band, but your band is unlike any other punk band out there. No one plays a xylophone solo like the Violent Femmes. 

GG: Well, Brian came up with that, that's him playing it. I think someone was throwing away the xylophone or maybe he got it out of the trash heap but Brian was having fun playing it and he was always interested in playing different kinds of instruments and different instrumentation He might have just been wanting to play it because he had just taped it together or made it work and then maybe that was the song that we were just going over playing or maybe he thought, "Well this sounds good on that song." No one would expect something like that would have been considered a punk band coming out of Wisconsin.

GM: Was it different? The fact that you grew up out of the Midwest than what people were experiencing in New York and out in Southern California. 

GG: Well, I think for myself I would say no or not very much. I think Brian and Victor DeLorenzo, the original drummer in the group, might have a little bit of a different view on it. As they were born and raised, and maybe for generations, I'm not sure how far back but in Wisconsin. I moved to Wisconsin with my family when I was 10 years old, so I have a different perspective on it. The music that I heard growing up, which included not only in Wisconsin, but just with my parents’ house. They would listen to lots of kinds of music, such as Johnny Cash or, you know, lots of older kinds of music. With that being said, in Milwaukee, I got to hear more about polka music, probably. Our sound did have something to do with that, but I always had a connection to New York City. That’s where I was born. When I was 15 years old I went there to visit one of my older brothers and he took me to all the punk clubs and took me to see all of the people that he thought I should see. The was a very transformation experience. I felt like I knew that I wanted to play and sing and do my songs because I was already writing, but after that trip I absolutely knew without any doubt that this is what I want to do.

One of Violent Femmes 1991 publicity shots

One of Violent Femmes 1991 publicity shots

GM: Do you remember the first time you heard one of your songs on the radio? 

GG: I should, but I can’t think of the very first time hearing it. I have had a lot of firsts. I can remember and tell you about, but that is not one of them.

GM: What about any favorite current or past record stores you liked to visit? 

GG: When I first started out, we did not have much money so it was a lot of Goodwill, thrift stores, cutouts and albums for 50 cents. I also would get records out of the library. That was big in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. My brother in New York would send me records sometimes. I guess I didn’t have a favorite store that I would go to.

GM: In October you have the 30th Anniversary of Why Do Birds Sing? too.

GG: Well, I think it's good to get all these albums out. A lot of work went into them and when I hear them, usually I cringe at first. I'm just bracing myself, because I don't listen to them regularly at all. I'm was always working on something currently and that kind of took my focus. Even the songs we play, many of them we play live, so then that becomes how we're playing it now, rather than exactly how we did it on the recording. When I do hear the recordings, I'm pre-listening cringe and bracing and then think that I am almost always relieved, and I feel like it's pretty good. I kind of like, I like both. I like it. It sounds good.

GM: Anything else new coming out from the band? 

GG: Due to the situation in the world, we have not been touring and traditionally that's where the topic would come up. Hopefully, we'll start again, soon, and then that would come up at some point. One of us might mention something and I might start talking about when we could work it with our schedules to get into a studio. But so right now there's not currently any plans, but I know Brian Ritchie keeps playing music. I do, too. and I keep writing, so it'll it won't be any issue. We just need to work out schedule-wise and health-wise for everybody and everything, then that would be really great.


Listen to Gordan Gano on the Goldmine Podcast, below