Low-tech. low volume, tough and tender
By Lynn Van Matre
Pop music critic
By Lynn Van Matre
The name of the band is the Violent Femmes, but don't pigeoehole it as a rowdy female punk group. In- stead. this Milwaukee trio is rela- tively peaceful, aU-male, semi- acoustic-and rapidly building a reputation as one of the most dis- :tinctive bands to come along this year.
On a pop landscape overran with synthesizer-based new wave clones and stylized high-tech haute. the I Femmes are-low-tech, low-volume and at times downright naive, al- thou lead vocalist and songwri- ter Gordon Gano's flat monotone and explicit lyrics can also recall the menacing toughness and odd teaderness of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.
It's a sound made up of diverse influences, everything from the Carter Family to '60s psychedelia and '70s punk, with some folk overtones of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie the way. But the comparisons that come to mind most frequently are early Jonathan Richman and. the Mod- ern Lovers and the Velvet Under- ground, two distinctive cult favor- ites of more than a decade ago. At times, Gano and Femmes Brian Ritchie [bass and vocals] and Vic- 'tor DeLorenzo [percussion] pro- ject a goofy earnestness and near- amateurishness akin to Richman, but are just as apt to reflect the dark desperation so frequently embodied by the Velvets. And like Reed aal Richman, Gano is a vocalist whose sometimes almost- spoken style is of limited range but offbeat appeal.
But while comparisons serve as valid and useful musical þ: shorthand for describing the trio's arresting sound, the Femmes-- currently riding a wave of critical acclaim following the release of: their selt-titled debut album--are no mere imitators, something the 19 year-old Gano takes pains to point out.
"I had never even heard of Jonathan Richman until I war the opening act for one of his shows." maintains the singer, whose list of musical favorites includes the Car- ter Family, Delta bluesman Rob- ert Johnson and Louis Armstrong. "So... these people we're always the same as ours."
And the Velvets? "Who'," re- plies Gano puckishly. "Were they a '60s band. Actually, we are the Velvet Underground. We got back together. No, really, they are our parents ... Actually, they're great, but I would resent it if somebody were to nay that we try to sound like them. They are an influence, but 'it's not 1ike they're our spiritual or artistic - guide. Besides. it seems like every other new band I read about these days is compared to the Velvet Underground."
Like most other "new" bands, tbe Femmes have spent the past few years struggling, but they have been luckier than most. Slash Records, the Los Angeles- based independent label that re- cently increased its musical mus-:. cle through a distribution deal with Warner Bros., signed the trio after hearing a master demo tape. "Some other labels were inter ested, but they wanted to hear more songs or do some re-record- ing and do things differently," says Gano. "Slash wanted to put it out just as it was, which is what we had intended. We had made the record, and we weren't about to change it."
Gano, clearly, is a young man who--right now, anyway--is big on being uncompromising, an attitude that got him drummed out of the National Honor Society two years ago after a performance at Milwaukee's Rufus King High School. Asked to do a song or two at the society's induction ceremo- ny. Gano agreed, but balked when a teacher told him to skip the upbeat, danceable stuff in favor of slow balllads befitting the solemn occasion. Instead, Gano and Ritchie--who had met the night before at a local punk club and decided to perform as a duo-- opened with a slow ballad, but halfway through the song pulled a switch and broke into the forbid- den fast stuff.
"The place went wild," recalls Gano with pleasure. "Everybody loved it except the teachers. I heard that one of them wanted to have me arrested. That was really absurd because I hadn't done any- thing. I even was careful not to say any bad words. Well, the song did include one bad word, but I figured out how to bow to take that er. But, bedides being a minister, my father has been a professional actor and director and been in movies. And my mother has a theatrical background. So they ap- preciate tbe artistic side of things. Almost all of their children are involved in the arts."
Gano has, in fact, done some acting with his dad, "but not much else," he says. "My big claim to fame is that when Robert Redford was going around the country looking for talent for his film, 'Ordinary People,' I got to audition for the role of the boy."
Back on the-musical front, Gano and crew took to playing on Miiwaukee street corners [during one such guerrilla gig, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, in town for a concert, spotted them and asked the band to open tbe Pre- tenders' show that night]. "There were just two clubs that would have our kind of music, and we weren't making any money at all," says Gano, who took a day - job selling encyclopedias door to door.
"But I quit after a couple of weeks of training and making the rounds with another guy," he says. "It finally dawned on me that there was something very unap- pealing about the business. The company was reputable, but the guy I worked with was an absolute con. This man would have ripped off his mother. He would do what- ever it took to make a sale. It was real slimy. After that I got a job making submarine sandwiches.
These days, just being the Vio- lent Femmes is a full-time job. "Our days of getting maybe three or four gigs a month, around the Milwaukee area, are over," says Gano, who will appear with the band June 11 at Tuts. [The trio has appeared twice before in Chicago, including a C.O.D. date that drew what Gano estimates was a crowd of six.] "Now we plan to play all over, and mayber do some things in Europe in the falL."
"Right now, of course, we're a cult band." acknowledges De- Lorenzo, "but I think that pretty soon we are going to be into other areas because we sound very different from most of the bands you hear on the radio, and we are very much entertainers. We don't take ourselves too seri- ously--that's a disease that is run- ning rampant in the music world right now--but we do take what we do seriously."
"In Milwaukee our audience started off small, but it's really grown," adds Gano. "And a friend of ours told us that at one at the record steres there, our record is selling better than any other ex- cept Michael Jackson's. If a simi- lar pattern happens around the rest of the country, we'll be doing all right."