• Title: Violent Femmes went around the world just to play the Brat Stop
  • Author: Erik Ernst
  • Publication: The Journal Times
  • Date: Dec 16, 2005

When Victor De Lorenzo began drumming as a teenager in Racine, he dreamed of performing at Kenosha’s Brat Stop with the other bands that made the bar and grill a favorite regional hot spot.

On Saturday night, after a couple of decades of performing in some of the world’s most esteemed venues with the Violent Femmes, De Lorenzo’s dream will finally come true.

“It’s pretty funny,” the drummer said, laughing, from his Milwaukee home. “Because when I was 16, I thought, if one of my bands ever made it big, we’d get to play at the Brat Stop. I’ve played in front of full houses at Carnegie Hall and even the Royal Albert Hall in London, but now, I’m finally getting the chance to fulfill my childhood dream.”

That Midwestern humility, music about everlasting themes and a good dose of Wisconsin humor have been main ingredients in the continuing success of the Violent Femmes – singer /guitarist Gordon Gano, bassist Brian Ritchie and De Lorenzo on drums – as Wisconsin’s leading rock ‘n’ roll ambassadors since their self-titled debut was released in 1982.

“We’re so different from anything else that is out there,” De Lorenzo said, explaining the band’s staying power. “The main thing we had going for us when we started was that we were so unique. Add the lyrics that Gordon Gano wrote for us, which created songs which were very powerful for the adolescent mind, and you’ve got a band that was able to remain relevant no matter what the time.

“People were impressed that we could go out and play a real live show and have an effect on the audience,” he said. “The subjects of the songs are mostly topics that remain true for anyone who has gone through puberty, so the music is never dated. In that way, I think Gordon is a really astute chronicler of the social personality.

“We also have an undying need to improvise. And, we’ve been able to stick around because of that.”

The group, which was founded by De Lorenzo and bassist Brian Ritchie, always tried to be different from the beginning. De Lorenzo, who attended Sacred Heart School and St. Catherine’s High School in Racine, said that his early drum lessons from teacher and jazz and big band drummer Joe Pulice taught him how to be different in a musical landscape.

“Joe enlightened me to the world of jazz drumming,” De Lorenzo said. “When you’re drumming in country music, rock `n’ roll or even classical, the music defines the parameters for the drummer. In jazz, you really play the drums. Joe taught me how to use brushes in a rock `n’ roll fashion, which was unheard of.”

De Lorenzo moved to Milwaukee in the mid-1970s to study at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and begin an acting career. After a few years of acting in Milwaukee’s Theater X, he and Ritchie formed the rhythm section of a band which would soon add the eclectic voice and introspective mind of vocalist and guitarist Gano. Instead of rehearsing in a practice facility, the band set up on the streets of Milwaukee to collect experience and a bit of spare change.

When it came time to record their first album, De Lorenzo’s father, a Racine barber, lent the band $10,000 for financing. That cheaply produced album’s popularity grew through word of mouth, as it became the only platinum-classified album to never break into Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart.

With hits like “Blister in the Sun” and “Add It Up” from that first album still heard in college dorms today, the Femmes hit a lasting nerve with Wisconsin fans, as well as music lovers around the world.

The little trio that found its niche by playing passionate acoustic rock, all lined up along the front of the stage with a drummer playing a minimalist set of a snare, a cymbal and a modified metal bushel barrel, moved quickly from the streets of Milwaukee to international touring and more than a dozen successful record releases – a feat De Lorenzo attributed to a the band’s gracious home base.

“From my history in Wisconsin, I have found that the people here are always willing to give you a chance,” he said. “It doesn’t exactly fit with the usual perception of folks in the Midwest, but no matter how unorthodox your approach to music, arts or even politics, the people in Wisconsin seem to always be interested in giving something new an opportunity to make it.”

Unlike his two band mates, who moved to New York – Ritchie moved back to Milwaukee a few years ago – De Lorenzo has remained in the area and has kept himself busy experimenting with projects on his own. He spent about nine years away from the band, but rejoined in 2002 when Rhino Records reissued the band’s debut album.

Each of the band members has been busy with their own work. Gano writes, composes and has released a solo album. Ritchie has studied and recorded on the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute. And De Lorenzo has produced albums, released solo music and plays in three Wisconsin bands – Ash Can School, Ha Ha Potato and A Free Society.

The trio doesn’t tour as hard as they did in their earlier years, but they still play a good number of single dates each year. They are always a big draw at Summerfest, but their international appeal hasn’t waned either. Their recent first trip to South Africa resulted in two sold-out shows in a 10,000-seat arena.

With such appeal, they have become Wisconsin’s biggest rock export. And while De Lorenzo isn’t sure why other promising groups haven’t been able to break out on as large a scale, he appreciates his band’s place in the rock `n’ roll world.

“A lot of other groups from the area have tried to make it by sounding like other bands,” he said. “We always went our own way. We have a different sound and our shows are always personality driven.

“We didn’t have a master plan and never guessed we’d find this level of success, and that made us unique and has definitely added to our longevity.”