"I've got girl trouble up the ass!" Gordon Gano laments on the Violent Femmes' terrific new record, "Why Do Birds Sing?" And that's a statement that pretty much sums up the Femmes thematic content throughout their career. Oh, sure, there's been the occasional political rant like "Mother Reagan", but, thanks to its reference to dear old mom, even that title relates to the sexual neurosis that's more often than not been the Femmes' major calling card.
Of course, sexual frustration has also long been a central theme in rock itself. And Gano, who was all of 20 when the Femmes first burst on the scene with their eponymous 1983 debut, seemed to be the perfect chronicler of adolescent anguish for a new generation suffering from teen psychosis. Using a backdrop built around Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers' mad approach to music (which inevitably meant a little Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground as well), Gano created psycho-sexual epics like "Add It Up" (complete with more of those Freudian mom references) that are simultaneously scary, witty, exciting and absolutely irresistible.
The only problem is some people began to think this kind of stuff was beginning to sound a little less funny and a little more creepy as the Femmes continued to make records. "Country Death Song" was, after all, treading into Brett Easton Ellis territory. Surely, the lead singer of this band had to be playing a maladjusted character, right? "I'm aware of a sense of character," Gano says. "But I don't think I've ever written a song that I wasn't incredibly connected to, and somehow related to me. Now, 'Country Death Song' was more of a story, which I don't write often. But I still relate to it on an emotional level. I don't think in terms of a 'character.' I don't sit down and say, 'I wanna write this kind of song.' So it comes from some emotional pulses somewhere."
Likewise, Gano claims the trio, which also features bassist Brian Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo, didn't have any "return-to-the-roots" game plan in mind when they entered the studio to record the new record, even though critics and fans alike are hailing it as the Femmes' best work since the aforementioned classic debut. Gano acknowledges that three of the tracks from the new record, "Girl Trouble," "Flamingo Baby" and "License to Scream," date back to before that first album was recorded. "One [other] thing that relates to the first album," he says, "is that Brian and Victor sang background vocals on every song. That happened less and less with each record. I love all our records, and I never listen to them, but, for some reason, I did put on the first album before we recorded this one. That's when I realized that those background vocals were a groovy part of the band's sound."
And those backing vocals provide an interesting element to "American Music," the album's kickoff track, first single and homage to what it is the Femmes play. "Brian came up with a good quote," says Gano. "It was from Virgil Thomas, a premiere American music critic and musician during the early 1800s, who said, 'It's very easy to make American music. Be American, and make any kind of music you want.' That's probably the best description of it there is, because then you can tap into country and folk. Even though you can trace those back to Europe, America changed it to something different--jazz and blues. It's a very rich heritage and we feel very connected to all that stuff. There's a lot of free association of different things in that song. And there's a lot that's ironic and playful in it. I prefer irony to cynicism or sarcasm. That sounds so bitter, and I'm not like that at all."
Of course, some people might be led to believe otherwise based on the song's best line: "Did you do too many drugs?/I did too many drugs." On the other hand, the line does encapsulate a lot of the elements in the history of American music. "The history of American music," agrees Gano, "and also the history of people--someone told me they thought that line spoke for a generation. I feel like maybe I'm still in touch with the last of that generation."
Drummer DeLorenzo, who arranged the song, has an especially interesting take on it, relating both to the backing vocals and the drug line. "It's a little love letter to Brian Wilson, saying, 'Get well soon,'" he says. "I moved it away from a thrash Johnny Thunders feel, which is how Gordon wrote it, and turned it into a shuffle. In fact, the 'drug' line is Gordon's own little homage to Johnny Thunders. Nobody's going to get that, but that's what we talked about. But a lot of American music for me comes down to the Beach Boys, and that's why we had to have the sleigh bells, the background vocals, the timpani, the keyboards. We even quote 'I Can Hear Music' at the end of the song. It's pretty wet. There's a lot of surf in that song!"
The Femmes quote from a variety of other sources on the new record as well, including the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" on "Hey Nonny Nonny," and Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene," the melody of which is tacked onto the end of the wonderful "Look Like That." But for a truly strange twist, the band also covers Culture Club's early-'80s blue-eyed soul-pop hit, "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me."
"We went into this project wanting to experiment with a cover, as we'd done once before with [T. Rex's] 'Children of the Revolution,'" explains Gano. "Of all the suggestions we got, 'Do You Really Want to Hurt Me' was the most bizarre, and then it became the most intriguing. It was unthinkable, and, at first, it was unplayable because we couldn't come up with an arrangement. But there were other people who kept encouraging us. None of us really liked the song, yet we thought 'Let's challenge ourselves, and see if we can do it in a way we like.' When I first read the lyrics, I honestly didn't know what Boy George was talking about, so it took the song out of the realm of 'good writing' or 'bad writing.' I included a few of the key words, and changed it around so it meant something to me. I'm very glad that he and his people gave us permission, because we changed it around a lot!"
Contrary to the woeful tone of so much of the Violent Femmes' catalog, the trio actually has a lot to be happy about these days. They have a mass cult following, both here and abroad, as well as a ton of side projects to keep them busy. All have released solo albums (shades of KISS!), DeLorenzo has produced numerous records for others at his studio back in their native Milwaukee (though Gano lives in Connecticut these days), and both the drummer and bassist recently joined former Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker for her forthcoming record, an album that'll feature a Velvets reunion of sorts (Tucker got Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison to contribute different parts to a track).
Adding further to the Femmes/Velvet association, DeLorenzo admits that Gano was originally described as a pint-sized Lou Reed imitator. "I wouldn't admit it back during our early days," the frontman explains, "because they were comparing everyone to the Velvet Underground back then to the point that I got sick of it. But now I can admit it. [The Velvets] were definitely an influence."
In light of such comparisons, one tends to wonder the same thing about Gano that interviewers have long wondered about Uncle Lou: Is he happy? "I'm still wondering about the 'happy' part," says Gano. "I have a hard time with that term. A lot of times, I feel that's not even important. And how do you define it? Is it about having fun? Or is it how do you feel? So I swim around a bit with this 'happy' issue. But, then, a part of me thinks 'Well, that's not even the issue!'"
Special thanks to Luann Vodder for transcribing this article.