- Title: This is what happens when a Violent Femme calls
- Author: Andrew Dansby
- Publication: Houston Chronicle
- Date: July 12, 2018
I suppose one could find parallels between Milwaukee, the working class Wisconsin town that provided much of America with beer, and Liverpool, the working class British town that provided much of the world with the Beatles. But easy similarities are difficult to come by for the Violent Femmes, Milwaukee’s three-piece acoustic punk band that created ageless anthems about teen angst, and Echo and the Bunnymen, Liverpool’s post-punk band that made dark fare seem effortlessly cool.
Both thrived in the ’80s. That’s probably the greatest similarity. That and 30-plus years later, both are still on the road making music. And they’re on tour together, stopping at Revention Music Center Saturday.
I was told I’d receive a call Monday from Ian McCulloch, Echo’s singer, or Will Sergeant, its guitarist. Instead I picked up the phone and heard, “Hi, this is Brian Ritchie.” Ritchie is the stand-up bassist for the Femmes, along with singer-songwriter-guitarist Gordon Gano and drummer John Sparrow. Here’s what we talked about.
Q: Um, hello. So I’m very pleased to be talking to you, because your band has soundtracked pretty much the entirety of my life. That said, I was told this was an Echo and the Bunnymen interview.
A: (Laughs.) That’s funny because I’ve had something like 20 emails about this interview telling me not to miss it. But I’m a very experienced interview subject. So I can do it if you can. Even if you ask my favorite color. I’ve got this.
Q: Then let’s do it. So while I try to think of some questions, what’s your favorite color?
A: (Laughs.) Orange. Orange is the color of positive energy. I mean, my real favorite is black. I think that’s everybody’s, though.
Q: I’ve had arguments with my daughter about that. Am I right in thinking black is the absence of color?
A: Yeah, that’s a sticking point. And it’s why I answer orange.
Q: There you go. So I always find it interesting when a band has a long arc with the rudiments that were there when it started. You all have made some varied albums. But the essential sound was there from go.
A: Yeah, no matter how much you experiment, you end up reverting to the same song you used to play on the street. That’s our best song and our most uniquely identifying characteristic as a band. There are plenty of great rock bands, but nobody can do what we do better than we do it. And I like it. You make some concessions. I wouldn’t plug into an amp for the rest of my life if I thought I could get away with it. But the demand outstripped our ability to supply strictly acoustic music.
Q: Since you brought up playing on the street, rock is full of myths that get taken as fact over time. Is the story about the Pretenders and James Honeyman-Scott finding you playing on the street pure? Or has that evolved over time?
A: That is correct. And that story codified in an era before people talked about “fake news” and before people made stuff up out of a complete sense of B.S. It’s true. We were kicked out of a nightclub where we’d tried to audition acoustically. They refused to listen to us. We were rejected. Later, that club burned down. This is a long, complicated story. Jonathan Richman and I were the last performers there before it burned down. Later on I was driving past with my father and he pointed out the burned remnants. And he said, “You used to live there. That’s the apartment we lived in when you were born.” So I lived there when I was born, and Jonathan Richman and I were the last people to play there before it burned down. And it’s where we were discovered by the Pretenders.
Q: That’s circle-of-life stuff there.
A: It’s a power spot in Milwaukee. But that’s a digression. We had been kicked out of this place, so we set up there before this Pretenders gig. James Honeyman-Scott (Pretenders guitarist) heard us playing, and he went and got the rest of the band. All of them: Pete (Farndon) and Martin (Chambers) and Chrissie (Hynde). They were all listening to us, and they loved it. And Chrissie said, “Hi, I’m Chris. We’re from England.” And we thought, “Yeah, right.” She said, “We have a similar band in the UK called the Stray Cats, but you guys are better.” They asked if we’d like to open the show that night.
Q: So your busking days were limited?
A: Well, we kept on for a while. We still do it once in a while, but it’s not honest. We’re not busking out of necessity. It’s more like a stunt or a special event.
Q: In the early ’80s, an acoustic trio stripped down that way … was that just making do with what you had at hand? Or did you set out to do something bracing and minimal? Did you hear this sound that wasn’t out there?
A: Victor (DeLorenzo), our original drummer, he and I did a lot of busking. We played with an actual railway hobo. One of the last ones left. Doorway Dave. He believed in setting up in doorways, because they projected the sound better — which is true. And we drove bar to bar and played out front with him, which is something we were into. Then we formed a band with Gordon. We did some gigs as a conventional rock band with a full drum kit and electric bass and guitar. But we weren’t getting many gigs. It was summertime and we thought it was depressing to sit around and rehearse with all this gear. So we tried something different. We didn’t even know the word “busk” at the time. We just called it “playing on the street.” And it made us distinctive. We made more spare change being different. What started as a lark became a sound. And we quickly realized it was an excellent sound, because Gordon’s lyrics became this important part of the whole approach. He was telling stories people could relate to, especially teenagers. And playing acoustically gave his voice more prominence than if the sound was inundated with a bunch of shrieking and pounding stuff.
Q: I know a few people who adore “Hallowed Ground.” But it didn’t quite get the same affection.
A: People hated it. They hated it because there were a few Christian songs on there. Gordon’s father was a minister. So that was something he was into. Vic and I weren’t religious, but we thought it was funny to play those songs for a punk crowd and rub them the wrong way. To me, it’s more punk to defy your audience than to play what they want to hear. But we lost our audience that way. Ironically, we had the material for both albums. We could’ve put out a double or put “Hallowed Ground” first and then the first album. We chose to make the first one a pop album and chose to make “Hallowed Ground” this sprawling exploration of American roots music. We’re not considered in the Americana category … .
Q: But you totally belong there. There are huge gaps in the history of roots music. Mike Nesmith is one that bothers me. That guy gets no credit for fusing country and rock.
A: And Tom Waits, obviously. The Blasters. But yeah. We had as much to do with that music as anybody else did. We weren’t progenitors of it, but among self-conscious bands choosing to reflect entirely this American music history, we were there. And I think we were one of the first punk bands to really do it.
Q: Gordon’s lyrics also set the sound apart. Did they strike you as wildly different at the time?
A: Gordon’s defiant and unapologetic dorkiness set a prototype. Before him, rock singers always thought they had to be cool. There are just a few people who weren’t that way. David Byrne is another one. People who would sing about embarrassing stuff. I don’t think Gordon gets credit for creating that archetype.
Q: Songs under one minute: “Old Mother Reagan” is a standout. Do you have a favorite?
A: (Laughs.) We did another one, “Dahmer’s Dead,” that one was 60 seconds. But “Old Mother Reagan” is 30 seconds. It’s still a classic and we love to play it live. It might seem like the topic is dated, but we love to play it.
Q: I don’t know. I feel like you can sub other names for Reagan and it’s ageless.
A: Yeah, a protest song about bad governance. I suppose it’s always relevant.