Starting out in Milwaukee in the early ‘80s, the Violent Femmes were pioneers of “folk punk.” The band lead by Gordon Gano on guitar and vocals began playing coffee shops and street corners in their hometown until The Pretenders’ Chrissy Hynde invited them on stage to perform a short set as part of their show at the Oriental Theatre. Following their legendary self-titled debut album in 1983, they’ve evolved with consistency, cohesiveness and new members with multi-instrumentalist Blaise Garza and drummer John Sparrow joining Gano and original bassist Brian Ritchie.
On tour to promote the 30th-anniversary deluxe reissue of their fifth album, “Why Do Birds Sing?” the Violent Femmes will be performing at the Wall Street Theater in Norwalk on October 18. Brooklyn retro-pop act Alsarah & The Nubatones will be opening things up at 8 .pm.
Gano and I had an opportunity to talk ahead of the show about the making of Why Do Birds Sing?, what the deluxe reissue has that the original doesn’t, his thoughts on the internet’s relationship with the artist and being terrible at making plans.
RD: Looking back, how would you describe the experience of making Why Do Birds Sing? with co-producer Michael Beinhorn?
GG: Boy, I usually don’t get asked about that. The experience with Michael Beinhorn was a lot of stuff, there were things that we really connected on and it was really positive. There were also some things that we didn’t exactly connect on so it was kind of a mix, but overall I think well of Michael. I haven’t seen him since then so I don’t know anything about him really after, I know there’s a recording that he did of a song that was in a film and I think he was the one who produced it so that was nice that he did that with one of our tunes. Every time we’re in the studio and every time we work with different people there’s always new things that you learn and new things that you experience, usually it’s a little bit of a mix of things.
RD: The album features the hit single “American Music” that since has become a staple of the band’s live shows along with being a fan favorite. What are your thoughts on the growth of the song’s popularity and when you were writing it did you have the sense that it would be a hit or did its success kind of sneak up on you?
GG: It’s like our whole career really in that it’s always been a gradual thing, there’s nothing that hits super big all in a moment but things just grow and spread with people finding out. Brian said once that “We don’t have hits, we have classics”, we have popular songs but none of them have ever been #1 on the charts. They grow over time, they’ve become so popular and “American Music” is definitely one of those songs. When we recorded it, I think every time we’ve had an album for a lot of our career we’ve always thought there was going to become a hit quickly rather than taking years but it never kind of worked out that way. Over time it’s been very gratifying and it’s enabled us to have much more of a career.
People will also find out about a song and get into the song that they didn’t know about when it came out, in a lot of cases people weren’t alive and they hadn’t been born yet but now they’re really into it. That’s been a really great thing for us to see that happen with our music.
RD: It must be very rewarding.
GG: Yeah, absolutely.
RD: Does the deluxe reissue of Why Do Birds Sing? have any special aspects to it or rarities on it or is it just the original songs on the album with a few bonus tracks? As a product, what does the reissue have that the original didn’t have?
GG: We’ve had different reissues of different things put out in the past and this one has an assortment of things including unreleased material, remastered songs, outtakes, alternative takes and new liner notes by our friend Jeff Slate who is also a songwriter and a journalist in his own right. There’s also a complete concert recording we did back in 1991 with the original album being remastered and re-released on vinyl, which we’re excited about. There’s a wide variety of things with some tracks that have disappeared for all these years and we’re glad that we have the opportunity to put it out.
RD: I can totally see why. During the Violent Femmes’ inception, original drummer Victor DeLorenzo, Brian and yourself were very much outliers in popular music while playing fast-paced, rhythmic acoustic-based songs and starting out with busking in a time where heavy metal, arena rock, hip hop and punk rock were all the rage. The band has maintained that individualistic going against the grain approach ever since, so in today’s internet age where someone can literally record a song in their bedroom and make it available to stream on a platform without the assistance of a record label do you think there’s more opportunity for new artistic outliers in music or does it create more imitators?
GG: I would think that it creates more opportunities, but I know that there’s such an unending amount of information that it still doesn’t mean that a listener will find the thing from that person’s bedroom in some other part of the world they would love the most. How does that connection get made and I guess people are working on how to do that in different ways but I think that there’s definitely more opportunity now for people to share their creative works and what they’re doing particularly with music.
RD: It’s been a few years since the Violent Femmes released their most recent album Hotel Last Resort back in 2019, so can we expect any new music in the near future? Do you guys plan on putting out a new album or do you plan on doing what a lot of other bands are doing and just releasing singles for the time being?
GG: We’re terrible at making plans, I don’t know if anyone can be worse than us at it but somehow we’ve survived. There isn’t a plan right now to do any new recordings but that doesn’t mean that next week there might not be something that comes together. Right now there isn’t that plan but you mentioned putting out singles and there was a time where we hadn’t recorded in a number of years, this was a while ago and we had a lot of differences internally in the band. We were able to get together for a couple of days and we made an EP titled Happy New Year which we all really like a lot, there’s a lot of spontaneity on it particularly because everything was just coming together in that moment of recording. It wasn’t set in how to exactly do this song or that song, I don’t know if anyone in the band had even heard them, I had just written them and that got us going again.
Then later we made a full studio album so you mentioned singles which is interesting because maybe the time and the place for the creative work might work out for that even quicker than a full album. Just to have that creative flow of doing a tune one day in a studio rather than a number of days to do a full album might be something worth exploring. Our manager has even suggested it to us at one point so that’s something we might consider but scheduling is difficult. We each live in different parts of the world, I’m in the United States and Brian lives in Tasmania out in Australia so it’s not like we can just decide to pop into the studio because we both feel like it.