- Title: Violent Femmes “freak” out on Beyond
- Author: Brian Garrity
- Publication: Billboard
- Date: Feb 12th, 2000
New York – The era in which a Violent Femmes fan first discovered the band can usually be determined by whatever album other than the Femme’s 1983 self-titled debut can be found in someone’s music collection. For a legion of new Femmes lovers just now discovering the band, that album looks to be “Freak Magnet” due March 7 on Beyond Records. The punk/folk trio from Wisconsin is back with its first collection of new material in more than five years, and even by the Femmes’ own quirky standards, the new album is admittedly eclectic.
“The only continuity involved is that [lead singer/guitarist Gordon Gano and drummer Guy Hoffman] and myself play basically everything on the record.” says Femmes bass player Brian Ritchie. He calls the set a compilation from all the albums the band didn’t put out in the second half of the 1990’s.
During that period in which they spent time recording on two continents and for three separate labels, the Femmes dabbled in everything from experimental synth-pop, to setting the works of poets like William Carlos Williams to music, to more straight-ahead forms of punk and folk.
This is not necessarily a problem for a Femmes record. Eccentricity is the calling card of the band, which is still best-known for never-say-die favorites like “Blister In The Sun” and “Add It Up,” both from their debut album.
In Fact Jennifer Popkin, product manager at Beyond, calls “Freak Magnet” a back-to-basics effort for the band. “It’s the closest thing to their first album” she says, “sometimes people don’t want to hear new music, but we want them to know this is the same Violent Femmes [from] 15 years ago.”
Ritchie says that while the material is typically diverse at the core of the album is an exploration of the Femmes’ rock and punk influences that haven’t been as evident since their early albums. “For general rock fans it’s not going to sound that unusual, but for fans of the Femmes, they’ll notice that there are a lot of songs which fall a little bit more into the heavy-rock or hard-rock category than what we usually do,” Ritchie says.. “We thought, ‘Let’s just pretend we’re a grungy garage band and see what it sounds like.'” Adds Ritchie, “It shows that we could have been a conventional rock band if we wanted to, but we chose not to.”
The band has had to fight to release its later work. After being dropped by Elekrtra Records in the wake of its 1994 release, “New Times,” the band landed with Interscope Records, but after three years there it had still not released an album and ultimately left the label in 1998. The Femmes took the sessions from the Interscope years with them and successfully shopped a revamped version, along with a live greatest hits album (1999’s “Viva Wisconsin”), to BMG-distributed Beyond.
While Ritchie says the band was frustrated by its label
difficulties, he says it was able to survive on the strength of its touring.
“Because we have such a great audience, we’re just able to tour whether we
have albums out or not,” he says. “We don’t have to rely upon buzz or
airplay or anything to draw sellout crowds to the venues we usually play.”
The band’s connection with its fan base-especially its college-age audience-will be central to the marketing of “Freak Magnet,” says Popkin.
“The Femmes are kind of synonymous with starting college,” she says. “Everybody’s listening to [a handful of] records over and over again, like ‘Led Zeppelin IV,’ Steve Miller’s ‘Greatest Hits,’ and the Violent Femmes’ first record. “What we’re hoping to do with this record is go to that audience and pass through the rite of passage, but with new material,” she adds. That’s not necessarily an easy thing to do, says Moose Brenner of Wehawken, N.J.-based independent college radio promoter the Music Syndicate.
“It’s hard working with a band where everyone knows one record-especially when that on record is their first album,” he says. However, the Femmes have the advantage of being regarded as what Brenner calls a “heritage artist” within the college radio format. “They are looked at as a band that for whatever reason is cool but kids don’t know why,” he says.
The first single is “Sleepwalkin’“, which shipped to college radio and alternative radio in late January. Ritchie calls the song representative of the band’s attempt at straight-ahead punk “It’s kind of the stuff that influenced us but we didn’t want to do when we started,” he says. Reaction among retailers has been favorable thus far. “[It’s] reminiscent of their best early work without the nauseating ‘Oh, not this song again’ feeling you get from the best, but overplayed, songs from their catalog,” says Rand Foster, president of Lincs Independent Coalition, who calls the album a return to form for the band, with an updated feel.
The band-booked by Frank Riley/Monterey Peninsula in the U.S., Australia, and Japan and by Paul Boswell/Free Trade Agency in Europe-plans to start an extensive U.S. tour in the middle of April. It is expected to run through the summer with heavy focus on college-market venues.
While the band is still in discussions about a video, it will be featured on an upcoming episode of VH1’s “Hard Rock Live” which was taped in early December. Beyond is also planning an extensive Internet marketing effort on music Web sites. Specifics of the campaign have not been finalized but are expected to include promotional downloads, Web chats, and cyber-casts. “This is where these kids are,” says Popkin. “And if we partner up with these Web sites, that’s what’s going to get us out there to the college kids.”
Ritchie says the band is amazed by its enduring popularity with younger fans, “It’s like the picture of Dorian Gray, except we’re the painting.” But the Femmes accept it as a reality. “We’ve done a diverse amount of material, but it seems like the adolescent material is the stuff that still draws new people in,” he says. The Femmes are managed by Jamie Kitman of Hornblow Management. They are published by Alan Skiena.