- Title: Gordon Gano on “Blister in the Sun” and 40 Years With the Band
- Author: Jake Uitti
- Publication: Under The Radar
- Date: May 24, 2021
As soon as the bouncy guitar riff from Violent Femmes’ enduring pop hit, “Blister in the Sun,” comes on the stereo, likely you’re immediately boosted into a good mood. Then the childlike snare drums clap and the helium-like singing voice of the band’s frontman, Gordon Gano, comes in and the melody-induced grin on your face is complete. But how did that song come about? Why did Gano first write it?
That question is answered below, along with a handful of others. We caught up with Gano to talk to him about the origins of his music career, the beginnings of Violent Femmes, and of their popular 1983 single. Gano talked with us to help celebrate and spread the word about the band’s new reissue of its LP, Add It Up. The 23-track album, which features hits and never before released songs, came out last Friday. The band was formed in 1981 by Gano (vocals, guitar), Brian Ritchie (bass), and Victor DeLorenzo (percussion).
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you first find music?
Gordon Gano: Well, it was always in my world in a significant way. Really, I can’t think of a time without music. I would make up songs and sing them when I was three and four years old. I started playing some instruments when I was around 10 years old. But it was always in my family and always around me. My father would play guitar and sing old country songs. I grew up with music being played and sung around me and also being played on records.
Then I had the whole punk thing explode for me when I was about 15. That was a whole other thing. I have older brothers and sisters who were then into other kinds of music. Two of them were at the original Woodstock. So it’s that vintage. I would hear music from them. So, music has always been in my life.
Was this mostly all in Wisconsin?
My family, we moved to Wisconsin when I was around 10 years old. Before then, I was born in New York City but we moved out when I was about one year old and we lived in Connecticut in different places until I was about 10 and then we went out to Wisconsin. It’s interesting—the band, Violent Femmes, being from Wisconsin and from Milwaukee. In that sense, I’m always from Wisconsin.
But my whole time living there, just because of how I spoke, people would say very friendly, “You’re not from here. Where are you from?” Yet, now my whole adult life, that’s where I’m from. But when I was there, everyone knew I wasn’t from there! Like, “where you’re from!?”
What does it feel like to revisit the early stuff from Violent Femmes for this reissue—the hits, rarities, B-sides? Anything newly stand out?
I don’t go back and listen to things. I hope that is because I’m really so in the now and in the present. The songs don’t have any nostalgia for me because most of them the band and I have played trough the years. So, I don’t think of when I wrote them, it doesn’t connect me to a past time. Whenever I happen to hear recordings, I’m usually pleased, which is a great thing.
I’m always cringing before I hear it, a pre-cringe, bracing myself. Then I usually kind of like it. Sometimes I think it’s really good! Like, “This could be one of my favorite bands!” So, that’s great. Also, this Add It Up collection, I know the band has always felt that it’s one we’ve really liked a lot. I’m glad we’re adding these other tracks too because we put some things on the album [originally] and did put others on. But we maybe like different songs better now. So, it’s a chance for people to hear some other tracks that we maybe made a wrong decision by not putting on an album at a certain point. But for other people to hear them now, is great. And we added some other little oddities, which are fun and give the spirit of the group, I think.
Can you talk about the writing process for “Blister in the Sun”—what was the song’s genesis?
I can give an attempt! It does have a certain story, which is unlike anything else that I wrote in that the genesis of it is that I had gone to a poetry reading and had somehow met somebody and exchanged numbers. And I got a call from this woman who said that she wanted to put a band together and wanted it to be something like The Plasmatics. And I had never played in a band but I guess she knew that I played. So, I thought, I’m going to go and join whoever is there and we’ll make some music. But I wanted to come and be able to offer a song if someone maybe wanted to sing. So, that’s when I wrote “Blister in the Sun,” because I thought I was going to have this woman be able to sing this song in this band that she was putting together that she was going to front.
But something—there was a call, something happened, and the meet-up never occurred. And I never saw her again. No connection whatsoever. I did hear from somebody, just to give a little end to it, who had heard she had joined a cult and moved to Canada. [Laughs] But that’s why I wrote the song! The riff was just something I was playing on the guitar and I liked it. Then the words just came and flowed and came together pretty quickly and I liked it and I still like it!
Although, I’ll tell you another thing about the song that’s funny. Sometime in the ’90s, years after the song had been out, I was talking to somebody that I had just met and they were talking about the song and eventually said, “Well, you know what the song is about, you wrote it!” I was like, “What do you mean?” They were like, “Oh, come on, you know! You know what it’s about?” I said again, “What are you talking about?”
They wouldn’t say. But then finally they were like, “Well, the song is about masturbation!” And that was the first time I had ever heard that. Now, I have come to the realization that there’s a large percentage of people who think that about the song. But I had never thought of that!
To be honest, that never crossed my mind either, though now I’ll probably hear it over and over!
Well, I’m glad. I have this thought, “Does everybody think that about the song?” So, that’s very nice. Thank you for volunteering that!
What do you remember most about the band’s early days and the burgeoning chemistry in rehearsals or on stage—or, what was it like to be a rock star?
Well, early times of the group, there was no rock star part to it. Except that we had absolutely confidence that what we were doing was good. We really thought that what we were doing was good and I was sure that it would find its audience at some point. Even though initially they would tell us we’re no good and we couldn’t get a place to let us play. Most of the reaction that we got was very negative but it didn’t shake us at all.
The other thing that was interesting was that when we started playing in 1981, the plan was the have the group split up. We were going to play just one summer and then because Brian Ritchie and Victor DeLorenzo, bass and drums, they were planning—and they even kind of warned me in the beginning—like, “Don’t get too attached to this because we’ve already planned. We’re moving to Minneapolis.”
They were going to play with some friends of theirs in a band there. Then something fell through, it didn’t work out. And we really liked what we were doing, so it continued. But initially it was going to be just a very temporary thing. Also, as far as chemistry in the group, through all these years, Brian Ritchie and myself are just so different in so many ways. There’s always been some kind of friction going on.
Yet, it comes out in the music and [we] create something that has a special sound and energy that has its own thing, which would be different if it wasn’t the two of us doing it. Then with Victor, with his whole approach with drums and percussion and different kinds of instruments and different ways of playing them, that’s just created this overall band sound. There’s a real focus on improvisation and free improvisation at times where there’s nothing set but it’s in the context of a song.
What is the status of and your relationship with the band today?
Well, I’m in the band! [Laughs] I think that’s pretty set. Yeah, it would be great to get out and be able to play again. That will be an amazing feeling. There have been some times and long stretches when we haven’t played together and we thought maybe we wouldn’t ever again. That all came from internal disagreements, whereas this is from something that’s in the whole world.
But it’s interesting, I’m just thinking of this for the first time now, but we’ve had the experience before of not playing for a couple of years and then playing again. It was always very exciting. So, I’m looking forward to it. All the songs will be refreshed. I don’t listen to them, I don’t play them. I play other things and listen to other things. But I think they’re going to come out really fresh again. They never lost the freshness to me but they’ll be extra revitalized, I think!
What do you love most about music?
Oh, I think what I love most about music would be something that couldn’t be—I mean, so many people have tried to define music with wonderful quotes. But I think maybe it is that it can’t be something other than what it is, it can’t be put into words, there’s just something about it, which is such aliveness. So, I love listening, I love playing, I love everything about it. Music—there isn’t life without music. Life is vibration and vibration creates music on some level. So, everything is music. I’d have to think of non-existence to try and get to a point of thinking about no music.
I did think of something actually that you might find amusing. When I saw these interviews saying promoting the 40th anniversary reissues—my actual first reaction, which, I think, came just because I’m so into today—was 40th anniversary? Of what? It doesn’t say on my computer! Then, of course, I realized, “Oh, the band, Violent Femmes! I guess it is 40 years go!” [Laughs]
After the ’90s, time became something different once 2000 hit. It’s all just a blur of web sites.
Time is such a subjective thing. Everybody has a different sense of it. I agree with that. But that goes into another fun conversation, talking about time. But I don’t think I have time for that right now! [Laughs]