• Title: Violent Femmes Get Back to the Basics that made them cult legends
  • Author: David Rauder, Associated Press
  • Publication: Sunday News Journal
  • Date: July 14, 1991

ALBANY, N.Y.-Today’s hot music coupling: Gordon Gano, the clean-cut king of teen-age angst, and Boy George, whose long, flowing hair and long, flowing gowns didn’t contribute to a long lasting career, They don’t sing together, but Gano’s Violent Femmes covers Culture Club’s signature song, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” on the groups new album. Sort of.

Gano kept the song’s chorus. But, saying he didn’t understand what the verses meant, he rewrote them.

“I don’t think many people would approach doing a song that they didn’t like and felt they couldn’t sing,” he said. “We really are willing to go out and take some big risks. The idea of us doing this song is a pretty funny idea.”

It’s actually a fairly typical move for the Violent Femmes, who have released their fifth album, “Why Do Birds Sing?”

The band, pioneers of what’s best described as acoustic punk, have been a study in contrasts for eight years. The trio generally plays unplugged but nonetheless manages to make a lot of noise. And Gano thinks nothing of mixing gospel and profane lyrics on the same album.

Tales of anxieties of adolescence made the Femmes’ debut album, released in 1983 when Gano was 19, an underground success story that has sold more than 1 million copies despite little radio airplay. He’s been told the record serves as a rite of passage in some high schools.

“It just has a particular energy about it,” he said.

Musically, “Why Do Birds Sing?” sticks pretty close to the approach that so intrigued the Pretender’s Chrissie Hynde that she asked them to open one of her shows after seeing them perform in their native Milwaukee–the band’s first big break.

The Femmes experimented while recording the album by adding a fourth member on many songs, percussionist Michael Blair. But after hearing the results, Gano, Brian Ritchie and Victor DeLorenzo decided to remain a trio.

“It lost maybe a little bit of the unique personality of the band trying to integrate a fourth person,” said Gano. “The sound of the band and the way that we play as three musicians I think is a very unique kind of thing.”

“They’re really some of the most eccentric and individualistic players in rock and pop with their instruments.”

Band members constantly improvise on stage, Gano said. Some parts of certain songs are set aside as “totally free,” giving the individual Femmes a chance to indulge some musical whims.

“We may take a song and turn it into an entirely different song while we’re playing it, without having discussed it,” Gano said.

That unspoken musical communication survived despite a more than two-year layoff that began in 1986. The band publicly said that it was on a break; but to Gano they were broken up. The old excuse “personality difference”– was given.

Gano spent his time recording and performing with the Mercy Seat, a gospel-based band.

“We have three strong personalities and it really to to a place where it blew apart,” he said of the Femmes. “The time we got away from each other, we resolved the difficulties. When I wrote songs, the first people I though about were Brian and Victor.”

After a period of increasing complexity in the Femmes’ music that peaked with the Jerry Harrison produced 1986 album, “The Blind Leading the Naked,” the Femmes have stuck to a stripped-down since their hiatus.

The new album’s lead song, “American Music,” is a good example of Gano’s slightly skewed lyrical approach. Along with American music, he talks a bout a friend who “did too many drugs” and a need for a prom date.

Despite the band’s popularity with a college-age and younger crowd, the 27-year old Gano doesn’t see that as a trap that stunts the Violent Femmes’ growth.

It doesn’t matter to me who’s into our music.” I think its for people.”