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After 15 years, Violent Femmes are back (but they don’t copy cassettes anymore)

“The strength of our group today is word of mouth.”

Gone Daddy Gone. That’s not just the title to one of Violent Femmes’ best-loved songs covered with a certain panache by Cee-Lo and Gnarls Barkley in 2006, it also describes the legendary post-punk band’s extended absence from the recording studio. So why did it take 15 years for the Femmes to cut their ninth studio album, We Can Do Anything, which is out today via various formats from Add It Up Recordings/PIAS?

The Audiophile: Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes

“It’s because we just disagree within our group, both in quantity and quality,” chuckles Femmes vocalist and guitarist Gordon Gano. “But even though we do disagree so much on so many different things, whenever we play together, it’s right there, and we instantly have that sound.”

That sound is a gutbucket, live-off-the-floor, low-end-driven stomp that was perfected right out of the box on the Violent Femmes’ seminal self-titled 1983 debut. Go ahead, we know you want to sing/scream/spit along with killer coming-of-age party tracks like Blister in the Sun, Kiss Off, and Add It Up — and it’s all over Anything. Just witness the down-low crunch and stacked vocals on Memory, the smoky sax ’n’ guitar interplay on Issues, and the Johnny Cash-like shuffle of the album’s two closing tracks, Untrue Love and I’m Not Done.

Digital Trends called the Femmes frontman before he went down under for the band’s tour of New Zealand and Australia to discuss their unique sonic chemistry, embracing the legacy of such a signature debut, and the modern correlation between home taping and streaming. If we can’t strut our stuff, then you can all just kiss off into the air…

Digital Trends: I can hear that infamous Femmes DNA talking instantly on this album, especially in the way you spit out the “flim flam” and the “shim sham” on Holy Ghost. That’s all you; nobody else does that.

Gordon Gano: Cool, cool. Oh wow, thank you! I’m really glad it’s coming across to you like that, because we think it sounds like that, so that’s nice to hear.

And I just love the giddyup vibe of Traveling Solves Everything. That’s a heavy psychological concept too, if you think about it…

(laughs heartily) It is interesting, right? There was a time in certain circles of history where it was the exact opposite philosophy promoted. There is some truth to the idea that you can’t go someplace else to solve your problems. Wherever you go, you are there. You can’t escape it; you have to face things. Moving to another location is like running away and solving nothing.

I wonder if there’s a correlation between home taping and streaming.

While I definitely think there’s a time and place for that, there’s definitely a time and a place for change of environment — getting that feeling of movement. In fact, when I started writing that song some years ago, I was in the process of a divorce, the early stages of this tremendous upheaval where I was already living in a hotel. And a friend of mine said, “You have an opportunity to travel — why don’t you just get on a train and go across the country, with no particular destination in mind?” Maybe she had that thought for herself at some point.

I didn’t actually do it; I started writing the song, which is another interesting point — how many things do other writers not do, but write about anyway? You’ve thought about it and might have done it, but you just write about it instead, which is also kind of a “freeing” process.

Another good example of that kind of writer is Brian Wilson, who wrote all of those great surfing songs for The Beach Boys, but he was not the surfer in the group at all. He just imagined what it was like.

Exactly! It’s also interesting that there have been discussions within our band that certain songs may be too offensive, or that people will think very badly of the group, or think badly of me. My thought on that, along with every other writer, is: “It’s a story!” When I’m singing “I” in a song, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s me — it could be me, or a part of me, or sometimes not me at all. There’s a story being told by the narrator, and the narrator is saying “I.” That doesn’t mean that I did any of this personally.

That’s like the Randy Newman Short People and Mark Knopfler [of Dire Straits] Money for Nothing controversies. The characters within those songs are saying those potentially offensive things, not the songwriters themselves.

Absolutely! It can also be fun writing a song like that too, of course. It’s funny that you mentioned a couple of things that were enormously successful in the popular consciousness. There are a lot of people where that is the only thing they know of that artist. And then I guess you live with that, as a lot of people know you as “that guy who did that.” I get that too — I’m “that guy who does that song.”

Yeah, you’re the Blister in the Sun guy. You’re the “this will go down on your permanent record” guy [one of the many classic lines from Kiss Off].

And even further than that, when people hear that signature, distinctive, catchy riff that starts Blister in the Sun — there are people who know that, and don’t even know the name of the song. They just know that they really like it a lot, and they don’t even know the name of the band — and they certainly don’t know me as writing and singing it. But they get real happy when they hear it, and they like it. So, yeah, I’m “that guy who did that thing.” [chuckles]

The first time I heard the Ramones, it was like a color I’d never seen before.

I’ve had people ask me, “Are you upset or frustrated that so many people love your first album, and maybe only really your first album?” I’ve always said, “Not at all!” Most people in this world don’t have a first album that people love! [chuckles]

I just see it in the most positive way. There are some people who know about and love other things we’ve done over the years, but to the majority of people, it’s just that first album. But I think that’s actually amazing.

Technology has changed how we listen to albums these days, so I’m curious how you want people to hear this new record: vinyl, streaming, or…?

I’d like people to hear it with the best sound possible that, maybe in some respects, rewards us rather than some other kinds of music. Particularly with acoustic instruments — there’s “air” around that sound, and subtleties that are part of the beauty of that sound.

That said, my feeling is, if someone is listening to their music in a way that’s losing a lot of that feel, they’d still get enjoyment listening to this album. I don’t feel like getting into a position of scolding people or wanting to change their listening habits. People listen in many different ways, so I would like them to hear it in the mode they’re used to listening to, or the way they find out about different kinds of music. I don’t have a problem with people using any way of accessing our music, or anybody’s music.

Growing up, I made lots of cassette tapes from albums I checked out of my local library in Wisconsin, and I wonder if maybe there’s some correlation between that and streaming. After I checked it out of the library and put it on the cassette tape, I got to listen to that music as much as I wanted, and I never paid for any of it. And yet I feel like it worked out for the people who I ended up loving, because I did buy their albums eventually, sometime after I established that relationship. I’m sure there’s some of that going on today.

I do pay the premium for whatever streaming service I’m using, so I feel somebody’s getting paid for something, at least. I’m voting with my dollars like I did when I bought an album I didn’t know anything about back in the day.

In the old days, you weren’t just voting with your dollars — sometimes, you were gambling with your dollars. [both laugh] Sometimes you were like, “There is something about this that has attracted me.” Or, “I think I really like it,” or “Somebody said I might like it.”

Is there one album from the early days that sticks out as the best investment you ever made?

I don’t feel like scolding people or trying to make them change their listening habits.

The best investment would have been the first time I heard Ramones (1976) — and still, to this day, it’s the biggest moment of hearing a sound I had never heard before, and instantly being excited. It was like a color I’d never seen before. And then I went and bought it.

I think that’s very fitting. Like the Ramones, when you say the name “Violent Femmes,” people know what that sounds like, instantly.

Right, and that’s something we really are proud of, because there is a sound to the group — and there’s a lot of it on the new record, and it’s recognizable to people.

Certain jazz musicians come to mind that, if you’re into that musician, you just know it’s that person playing on somebody else’s sessions. You just know the sound of that musician’s instrument in a way they play and approach it. It’s a distinctive thing you recognize, and we have that with the sound of our group.

And I think you’re right — the Ramones are a great example of that; maybe the biggest. That’s something that we have, and it’s because of the instrumentation of how we started, and it’s still the majority of how we still approach things with the particular instruments, and then the way we play those instruments — as well as my voice, of course. I’ve been told it’s very distinctive. [chuckles]

In the case of Violent Femmes, it was mainly a word of mouth thing. You guys didn’t get much in the way of airplay in those early days. People would tell you personally about that first album as being something you had to get into.

Oh yeah, I’ve heard that from so many people over the years. When people went to college, they heard it being played in the dorm, or their roommate had it on, or their older brother and sister had it, or even their younger brother and sister had it.

The strength of our group today is word of mouth — people saying to somebody else that this was something they felt passionate about and they just loved our music, so they had to let somebody else know about it.