• Title: Story time with Gordon Gano
  • Author: Aaron R. Conklin
  • Publication: ISTHMUS
  • Date: 10-19-17

The Femmes are back. The band, which formed in Milwaukee in the 1980s, is currenting reprising its Viva Wisconsin Tour, which took them to the state’s smaller cities way back in 1998. Lead singer Gordon Gano is pumped to reconnect with Wisconsin fans. “The smaller the audience, the more fun it is,” he told Isthmus. In advance of the band’s Oct. 24 show at the Barrymore Theatre, we talked to Gano about the backstory behind some of the Femmes’ famous and lesser-known songs.

“When Everybody’s Happy,” New Times, 1994

All musicians hope their music will touch their fans, but few have a story like this: Earlier this year, during the Femmes’ U.S. tour with Echo and the Bunnymen, they met a woman at a show who had become deaf after undergoing an operation. She told them the Femmes were her favorite band, and that she’d played their melancholy ode — the chorus is “when everybody’s happy but me” immediately prior to her surgery.

“That was the sound she was listening to when they wheeled her into the operating room,” says Gano. “The last thing she’s choosing to hear is a song by the Violent Femmes.”

Gano’s also struck by the hint of irony in her choice. “That song is on one of our least-known albums. And we’ve got a few albums that are in competition for that distinction.”

“Blister in the Sun,” Violent Femmes, 1983

The band’s biggest and most ubiquitous hit was also the one the very nearly broke them up for good. In 2007, Gano agreed to sell the song’s rights to — WTF? — the Wendy’s fast-food chain, a development that caused a massive rift (and a lawsuit) between Gano and Ritchie. (The two have obviously reconciled.) The song later appeared on the ‘80s-inspired soundtrack for the film Grosse Point Blank and a 2012 TV commercial for Hewlett-Packard. Today, fans routinely hear it at sports stadiums. “That really makes me smile,” says Gano.

“Used to Be,” Why Do Birds Sing?, 1991

This wistful number holds a close place in Gano’s heart, but not because of the song’s pretty arrangement or sentiment. It’s because Pyx Lax, a popular Greek rock band, covered and recorded it, adjusting few of the lyrics and switching the name of the song to “Happiness.”

“I’ve occasionally sung it in Greek,” Gano admits. “I think it actually sounds better.”

“Add it Up,” Violent Femmes, 1983

It’s tough to even contemplate, but one of the most essential songs from the band’s essential debut album came perilously close to being banished to the dustbin. The trio was prepping to play a gig in a coffee shop, well before the album was recorded.

“Brian looked at me and said, ‘Let’s not do that song,’” Gano recalls. “I was really surprised. He was like, ‘It’s boring.’ I said ‘Why?’ and he responded, “It’s just two chords.’”

Ritchie had a point — while the song’s lyrics are unforgettable, its structure isn’t exactly complex. Luckily for us, Gano stood firm. “I said, ‘Man, no, we’re still going to play that song. And I still don’t think it’s boring.”

“Jesus Walking on the Water,” The Blind Leading the Blind, 1986

It was a bit of a whiplash moment, after soaking in the rough, angst-meets-menace mix of the Femmes’ first album, to see Gano flash his religious side on the band’s second and third discs. But Gano is deeply spiritual; he’s the son of a minister who reads scripture daily.

“The song’s kind of evangelistic, and I’ve always kind of liked that about it,” he says. “But I also like the idea that it’s open to questioning.” One of the lines from the chorus is “What if it was true?”

Ironically, Gano says that line irritated some of the band’s Christian fans, who labeled the song anti-belief.

“Country Death Song,” Hallowed Ground, 1984

It’s still one of the creepiest songs the Violent Femmes ever recorded — the tale of an overwhelmed rural father who pushes his youngest daughter into a bottomless well. Gano blames his own minister father, who used to play old country songs for his kids.

“What’s prevalent in these songs is the worst, most terrible things happening,” says Gano. “I wanted to write a song like that.”

Mission accomplished. Still, not everyone’s a fan of the shocking subject matter. Gano’s sister, who has two kids of her own, refused to let him play it in her house.

Gano’s amused by the reaction — particularly because for more than two decades, his bandmates balked at recording “Big Car,” a song that ends in its own shocking oh-no-he-didn’t plot twist. It finally made it onto last year’s album We Can Do Anything.

‘I’m like, really, this is where you draw the line?” says Gano incredulously. “It finally made it past the censors.”