• Title: Prime Cuts: Violent Femmes Gordon Gano and Brian Ritchie’s Happy Melodies and Heartbreaking Lyrics
  • Author: Robert Burns
  • Publication: Guitar School (p. 12, 134)
  • Date: September 1993

NOBODY, it seems, understands the Violent Femmes. Not their record company, their producers, not even their own drummer. “We’ve always been branded as weirdos,” says Gordon Gano, guitarist, vocalist and principle songwriter.

Eleven years after releasing Violent Femmes, an angst-ridden masterpiece debut, the band has parted ways with Slash Records. Bassist Brian Ritchie thought Slash was wasting the talents of a great band, so the Femmes are now in the studio recording their first album for Elektra – but are producing the record themselves.

“A producer is a good way to flush a lot of money down the toilet,” says Gano. “Producers are a bad subject with us. We get along with Jerry Harrison, [producer of The Blind Leading The Naked], but I can’t say that about all of our producers. We’ve been accused of not being professional enough to work with in the studio.”

The Femmes also recently said good-bye to Victor DeLorenzo, their long-time drummer. “We just went our separate, or different, ways,” says Gano. Former BoDeans drummer Guy Hoffman is now brushing the snare for the band.

It seems that the only people who try to understand the Femmes are the masses of fan who sing along to Gano’s every tortured syllable. Whether or not they can truly see to the bottom of his heart is questionable. Gano’s a complex man, who talents are as numerous and as varied as his opinions. We recently spoke with Gano and Ritchie to shed some light on their enigmatic careers.

Violent Femmes
(Slash, 1982)

“Blister In The Sun”
Gano: This song was done in one take. I came up with the opening riff that goes along with the melody, but Brian has an early demo of this song without the riff. For the rhythm part, sometimes I’m playing just two notes, and other times I’m playing open chords. With this song, and our career in general, part of me is pleased and thrilled about the attention we got from certain radio stations, but I’m also surprised and bitter we haven’t been more popular. [laughs]

“Kiss Off”
Gano: I really wasn’t picked on as a kid as much as the songs make it seem. I was threatened more than anything else. What the counting part in the song means is best left up to the listener, though it implies something of a pharmaceutical nature to me. [laughs]

Ritchie: That’s one of my favorite songs to play live because we get to stretch it out. Many songs from the first album are great live, because they’re ripe for improvisation.

“Please Do Not Go”
Gano: “Please Do Not Go” is one of the few Femmes songs not written specifically about someone. It’s me doing “Tin Pan Alley style,” although it is tied to certain emotions and feelings. What’s interesting about the overall sound of our band is that the lyrics can be very sad, angry or negative, yet the music can be very uplifting – happy melodies with heartbreaking lyrics.

“Add It Up”
Gano: I wrote the music, the vocals and chord changes. Brian does this great bass part in the middle of the song, which shifts around the drum beat and my guitar rhythm. It’s amazing the song is only two chords but goes through all these changes. “Add It Up” is great to play live because it gives us an incredible freedom to improvise and not duplicate what’s on the album.

Hallowed Ground
(Slash, 1984)

“Country Death Song”
Gano: My father was a country music lover, so I grew up listening to old country records, playing guitar and singing. Many of those country artists, like the Carter Family, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, were inspirational to me. People always say, “You’ve got to be kidding,” but that song has warm family feelings for me. [laughs]

“Jesus Walking On The Water”
Gano: I play violin on this, in addition to the guitar parts. I’m a member of New York Chamber Music Associates, and every Wednesday I play violin with them – it’s wonderful. The violin on this song is obviously different from chamber music, though!

The Blind Leading The Naked
(Slash, 1986)

Gano: I really balk at the word “religion.” What do people mean when they say that term? Is it ritual, physical things that can be seen and photographed? It sets up the idea that religion can somehow be separate from life. To me, there’s life, and then you can agree to have religion or not. Actually, the inspiration for the line “I got my faith” came from something I overheard somebody say. [laughs] There is, however, something that I really respond to when I sing that line.

“Breakin’ Hearts”
Gano: I’m playing the acoustic rhythm guitar on this track, but the guitar solo is Brian’s. I think he tried to teach it to me and I said, “Why don’t you play it?”

Ritchie: The solo is based around the melody, but with a goofy twist. When I recorded it I thought about the weird rockabilly dudes that played those mind- bending solos – that Link Wray, Duane Eddy style.

“I Held Her In My Arms”
Gano: We did a demo of this song before we made this record and it sounded so much more natural and better than the album version. We’re hoping to compile an album that will include the demo of this song, some alternate takes, rare stuff like “Dance Motherfucker Dance,” and stuff I wrote for a movie which never came out.

“Good Friend”
Gano: I haven’t listened to that song in so long, but, oh, it’s definitely about one person in particular! A producer talked us into doing the intro separate from the rest of the song and then splice it together. It didn’t come out right to me. There’s this weird lag after the part when I say, “I would’ve been your good friend,” where I’m setting up this rhythm and the music comes down. That part is a nightmare for me!

“Cold Canyon”
Gano: Leo Kottke plays slide guitar on this. His daughter is a fan of our music. He was in town doing a show, so we called him up and he did the track. He opened up for us once at Carnegie Hall.

Why Do Birds Sing?
(Slash, 1991)

“American Music”
Gano: The guitar solo just sounds like old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll to me. I use a Fender Telecaster Thinline Guitar for most of my stuff, but I used a Heritage Eagle for this song. I use a Fender Twin amplifier, but lately Brian’s been making it his business to pick up every strange old amp he can find – things they had to hand-paint the settings on.

“Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?”
Gano: The idea to cover this song came from outside sources. Record companies think that covers are ace-in-the-holes because everybody’s already familiar with them. Of course, we thought it was the worst idea we’d ever heard, and we couldn’t get it to work. Then, all of the sudden, we heard that people were all excited about it. Boy George even offered to do a cameo in the video! So we felt challenged as musicians to find a way to enjoy the song; we ended up really liking it! Brian played bazouki. I didn’t understand Boy George’s lyrics, so I got permission to change the words so they meant something to me. After all that, nobody got behind the song, and we couldn’t find anyone who said it was a good idea in the first place