Title: Milwaukee Talks: Violent Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo
Author: Molly Snyder
Publisher: On Milwaukee
Victor DeLorenzo may be best known for his drumming in the iconic Violent Femmes, but he always has a wide range of other projects in the works.
Yesterday, DeLorenzo released a self-titled album that he spent nine years working on. The experimental record features Femmes’ singer Gordon Gano on the track “Dr.Um,” a play on words and a celebration of drumming. There’s also a disco version of the Femmes’ song “Good Feeling.”
Three is the magic number, it seems, for DeLorenzo, who is also in two other trios: Nineteen Thirteen and Lorenzo Menzerschmidt. He also performs and works with his three children in a variety of ways.
He will also perform in three upcoming events with the Femmes after a five-year hiatus. The Femmes will play the Marcus Amphitheater stage on opening night of Summerfest, Wednesday, June 26.
The show announcement was leaked and the co-headliner remains in question. (It has been rumored to be Wilco, but other sources report this is not true. Stay tuned to OnMilwaukee.com for the news once it breaks.)
Recently, we sat down with DeLorenzo and talked about his new album, his many musical endeavors and the upcoming Summerfest gig. We also reminisced about the Violent Femmes’ history, from unexpected attention from Chrissie Hynde to the strife over the Wendy’s commercial.
OnMilwaukee.com: Are you pleased with your new album?
Victor DeLorenzo: Yes. It was a worthwhile project. It really taught me patience. I’ve been working on it for nine years. The reason it took nine years is because I have always been in the midst of doing other projects, traveling, working as a producer, writer and lecturer. I wanted to make a recording that the whole record would be drums, percussion and voices.
And then I started playing with a bunch of different groups in Milwaukee, including Prestige Atlantic Impulse. They’re on a couple of the cuts. There’s an obscure Zombies B-side, “I Remember When I Loved Her,” and it features all of the members of my family.
Gordon (Gano) and I did a song together, too. I could see it being a single, for lack of a better word.
I also did a cover of (Violent Femmes’) “Good Feeling” with Kim Manning, a singer and keyboard player with George Clinton’s group. It’s a disco version of the song that sounds like one you might hear in Germany in the ’80s. Gordon and I would go to these German discos after playing shows and I wanted to create a song that was in line with that.
OMC: How was the Summerfest show announcement leaked?
VD: Somehow the information got to the person who does the website for Violent Femmes and they inadvertently put it on there even though the news wasn’t officially released yet. I know Summerfest wanted to make the announcement on April 10 and they were preempted and it screws up their selling the tickets. It was an honest mistake made by someone who does not live in the area. A clerical error that went wrong.
OMC: Are you looking forward to the show?
VD: I can’t wait to play in front of a Milwaukee – a Midwest – audience. And to be back at the Marcus Amphitheater after all these years. We had been playing the side stages, but the last time we played the Marcus was maybe ‘86.
OMC: Are the Femmes officially touring?
VD: No, we’re not touring. We’ve agreed to do certain events. We’re doing the Coachella for two nights. We’re doing Bottlerock – a big festival in Napa – and then Summerfest. And that’s all.
None of us want to do a big tour right now. I don’t know about the future, but it’s all baby steps for right now.
OMC: When was the last time the Femmes were together?
VD: The three of us haven’t been in a room together for 5 1/2 years. We’re all gonna meet in Los Angeles on April 11 and rehearse the 11th and 12th and play on the 13th.
Brian (Ritchie) lives in Tasmania, so it’s harder for us to stay in contact. Gordon lives in New York City and we’ve kept more in contact.
OMC: You live in Milwaukee full-time, right? On the East Side?
VD: Yes, I always have. I travel so much and I never felt the need to relocate. By being in Violent Femmes it proves you can take something around the world but you don’t have to leave Milwaukee.
OMC: How did Nineteen Thirteen start?
VD: I had met (cellist) Janet (Schiff) at various improvisational get togethers / recording parties and we played well together. I have an affinity for stringed instruments and players because my daughter, Perry, graduated from the University of Indiana with a violin degree. I like to hear string instruments played. It makes me feel comfortable.
One afternoon Janet called me and told me she was playing at the Circle A Cafe and asked if I wanted to sit in. I said, “Yeah, sure, I’m game.” I like to throw myself into situations where I don’t know what the hell’s going on. And I got down there, and there was (drummer) Scott (Johnson). It was fantastic, really fun. The audience seemed to really like it.
I said I would love to play with them again, and they said they would like that, too. So I asked Scott how long he’s been playing with Janet and he said, “This is my first night, too.”
“Wow,” I’m thinking, “Janet is really adventurous.” That’s what started it.
We have a four-song EP and two songs finished for a full-length album that will come out next winter. We are playing at Bastille Days this summer and will release a single, most likely, beforehand.
We play the second Thursday of every month at the Jazz Estate. It’s fun for us to have a home base and a semi-residency so people know where we’re going to be at least once a month.
OMC: All three of your children are into music?
VD: Yes, they all love music. My daughter, Perry, is at WNET in New York. She works there doing fundraising and marketing. My middle child, Toshiko – we call her Kiko – originally played viola but is more of a singer and songwriter now. I’m about 65 percent done with a record I’m doing for her now, too.
My son, Malachi, has been playing and recording music ever since he was a little boy. (He’s currently in the band Langhorne Slim and The Law). Even though I tried to dissuade him from going into it, he wouldn’t listen.
OMC: When did you start drumming?
VD: I started on viola in grade school. Then, to tell you the truth, I wasn’t fascinated by music for the longest time.
I started playing drums as a total fluke.
At the end of high school, I had a job working at a Holiday Inn as a janitor and my cousin called me and said, “Hey, Victor, I know you have a job now and you have some money, so are you interested in buying a drum set?” And I said, “A drum set? Why?” Turns out his friend was going to Vietnam and he asked if maybe I’d want to buy his drum set. So I thought, “Yeah, I do have some money. OK, what the hell, I’ll buy it.”
I brought it home to my parents’ house – they had a ranch house and I had a bedroom in the basement – and for the first week I’d just come back from work and just look at them. I didn’t know how to set them up or anything. I finally had a friend come over and set it up for me. I just started playing around with it, playing along with records, and then I got serious.
I studied jazz drumming at a little conservatory in Racine, reading rhythmic notation, learning the artistry of the brushes in the jazz vein. And then when I got in the Femmes, I totally bastardized the whole system so I could play it in more of a rock / punk kind of fashion.
I first got some notoriety from acting. I had an incredible teacher in high school who suckered me into the world of theater, of performing in general.
OMC: You were a member of the avant-garde theater group Theatre X, right?
VD: Yes. I’m from Racine and I came up here to go to UWM for a couple of years. Then I heard there was an opening at Theater X because Willem Dafoe was leaving the company and moving to New York. They were looking for one man and one woman to join the company. I auditioned with about 35 other men and I got in and the woman’s position went to Debra Clifton. We were the young kids at the time. I did that for quite a few years, even after the Femmes took off.
OMC: So how did the Femmes happen?
VD: The Femmes started a long time after that. I had a mutual friend with Brian named Jerry Fortier – he and his wife, Kathy, owned the resale shop Sweet Doomed Angel across the street from the Oriental (Kathy later ran Survival Revival in the Third Ward) – and he was in the Trance & Dance Band and Ruthless Acoustics. Anyway, he said to me that Brian wanted to meet me. So one day Jerry introduced the two of us and we had a lot in common and started playing together, mostly rehearsing in the basement of an apartment I had on Farwell about a block and a half from the UWM Union. We played a show or two just the two of us and sat in with other bands. We named ourselves the Violent Femmes.
Then one day he said, “Hey, Vic, you gotta hear this guy named Gordon Gano. He’s like a pint-sized Lou Reed imitator.” I was like, “Alright, let’s go see that!” Gordon was playing with his brother Glen, and Brian and I caught them and I thought he was pretty good.
We decided to play together, the three of us, for the summer, and then Brian and I would leave to join a friend’s band in Minneapolis. But things just started happening. It wasn’t like word was getting out about us or anything, it was still in development, but we were growing.
OMC: Where did you play in those early days?
VD: We played the streets a lot. We tried to get gigs in clubs but people didn’t want us because we had this reputation as these crazy buskers from the street. I think we played one show at Starship (a defunct club Downtown), but as an electric band.
That was before we had the stigma of being acoustic. Because it wasn’t always like that. There are electric instruments on the first album and I play sit-down drums, but I think people have mythologized it to the point that we’re these crazy farmers from Wisconsin that play instruments that could hardly be referred to as instruments.
OMC: Where did the Femmes busk?
VD: We liked to play under theater marquees. So we played underneath The Oriental, The Downer and we also played on Brady Street in a few doorways that had a nice sound.
OMC: Did you get hassled by the cops?
VD: No, we never did. A lot of times they would stop. One time one said, “Hey, what’s that song? ‘Girl Trouble?’ What are those lyrics? ‘Girl trouble up the ass?’ I like that one.”
OMC: Did Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders really pull the Femmes in from the street to open a show?
VD: Yes, it’s absolutely true. We had just come from Century Hall and tried to get a spot playing inside the club. We had been in the office of the fellow who did the tape-taking to see if they would hire you or not and he asked for a tape and we said we don’t have a tape, but we’re here with our instruments and we could just play for you right now. And he said, “Oh, no, no, no. I gotta have a cassette.” We had been going through this so much. We were like, “C’mon, just give us a chance, we just want to play.” But we weren’t having any luck. So we left Century Hall, walked down the block and set up in front of the Oriental.
At the same time, The Pretenders were having a sound check. We don’t even know who The Pretenders are. A guy comes out and he’s listening for a while, and he asks us if we know this band The Stray Cats and we said “no” and he said, “They’re big in England and they’re kind of like you.” So he went inside – turns out that was James Honeyman-Scott (The Pretenders’ guitarist at the time) – and then the door opens again and Chrissie and the whole band come out and they lean up against a car and start listening to us. When we got to “Girl Trouble” she came over and said, “Listen, we want you to play with us tonight.”
And that was it. The next day we were back on the street and nothing really happened.
OMC: So what was the Femmes’ big break?
VD: It wasn’t until later that year when we went to New York and opened up for Richard Hell at The Bottom Line. The story with The Pretenders is part of the mythology but it didn’t do much for us. But playing in New York and having Robert Christgau write one paragraph about Richard and seven or eight about us – that was the big break.
OMC: You’re such a creative, experimental musician. Did you get sick of playing the same songs?
VD: One of things that helps us is the way Gordon wrote and the way we arranged. The songs have structured systems, but a lot times there are pockets of improv space built in. On any given night, depending on how we’re feeling, we might expand a section and take it in different directions. We never were just a play-the-song-they-way-it-is every night kind of band. I think that’s what saved us.
You play these songs and you hope people like them and then they like them and why do you want to stop playing them? I mean boo hoo hoo. Thank God you have a hit.
OMC: Who’s the little girl on the cover of the first record?
VD: Her mother was an acquaintance of our manager at the time, Mark Van Hecke. We had different ideas at first and we had Jeff Worman – Stinky as he was lovingly referred to, he owned Flipville records – he had designed a cover for us, which Slash Records did not use. He did our original black-and-white Violent Femmes logo.
(The little girl is now 33-year-old Billie Jo Campbell.)
OMC: How did you get beyond the fence of Mary Nohl’s property and shoot the cover of “Hallowed Ground”?
VD: I’m the diplomat of the group, so I went and met Mary and I asked her if it was possible if we could use her yard to take some photos with her creations. At first she was skeptical but then I think she appreciated that we were a music group and we liked what she did. She came around to it.
OMC: How did the Femmes get away with juxtaposing lyrics like “Why can’t I get just one (expletive)” and then songs about Jesus?
VD: Because people are divided. They are not just one vessel. They’re all different things happening inside a person. Look at anyone from Johnny Cash to the Beatles and there’s always a little bit of a battle at play. That’s what creates good art, some sort of a conflict.
OMC: How did you feel about “Blister In the Sun” being in a Wendy’s commercial?
VD: My particular story is not what you want to hear maybe, but I’ll tell you anyway. My father was a barber for quite some time, and he turned out to be a vice president of a company in Oak Creek that had to do with public relations. He came home from one of his trips to Detroit and said, “Hey there’s a new hamburger place called Wendy’s. Their catch thing is the hamburgers are square.” He went on to tell me about Dave Thomas (Wendy’s founder) and these things he was doing for orphaned children and what a great humanitarian he was. He said he was very good to his employees, just a nice man.
Fast forward years later, and this whole skirmish starts to develop and I remember my father telling me about Dave. So that’s where I came from. But I don’t like hamburgers that much.
However, I will say this: For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen different people promoting different products, whether they were actors, painters, musicians, writers, whatever. It wasn’t such a poo-pooed thing in the past. But then it became “that’s not cool” and “you’re selling your soul to advertising, to the man.” Now, I think most of the young bands are dying to get some tie-in with a product because that’s what allows them to live, to make music, to travel.
OMC: How long were you out of the Femmes?
VD: I was out of the band for nine years, when Guy Hoffman was in. I came back when we were starting to promote the compilation on Rhino.
OMC: What else are you working on these days?
VD: One of the things I’m really excited about in my production realm is I finished producing a record for Astrid Young, Neil Young’s sister. Astrid has worked with her brother quite a bit, and she’s an incredible musician in her own right.
As I mentioned, I’m also doing a record with my daughter, Kiko. And Nineteen Thirteen has a single coming out in June, and a full-length hopefully this winter.
I’m also in a blues trio called Lorenzo Menzerschmidt. And there are a few other things I’m working on that I can’t mention yet.