Big Noise From Wisconsin
by Robert Lloyd
Big Noise From Wisconsin
by Robert Lloyd
They hail from Milwaukee, in Wisconsin, where they used to sing in the streets. They are three in number: Gordon Gano (b. 1963), Brian Ritchie (b. 1960) and Victor DeLorenzo (b. 1954). Gordon writes the songs, sings them: plays the guitar, Like many other well-known rock personalities - Eric Bur- don, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen and Graham Parker to name but four - he is far from tall.
Brian plays a large amplified Mariachi- type acoustic bass guitar. Sounds a lot like Jack "Jefferson Airplane" Cassidy c. 1968 . He used to have long hair (as seen in the current issue of Rolling Stone - supplemental reading), but now he has short hair.
Victor plays a very small drum kit at which he stands (or hops), but does not sit It features a snare kick drum and a "tranceaphone" (a washtub turned over a floor tom). Victor is the best-dressed Femme (in the classic sense) and the jolliest.
Pet peeve: always being compared to the Velvet Underground or the Modern Lovers. These comparisons are not without some merit, but Femmes music -- a low volume, nervous sort of chained-dog folk rock -- makes its own case very nice- ly, thanks.
They've just received what they claim to be their first-ever bad reviews (Kristine McKenna in the Times, Chris Morris in a cheap rag the name of which temporarily escapes me).
Their album, Violent Femmes, record- ed a year ago "in secret," has just been re- leased on Slash Records, known in cor- porate circles as Warner/Slash. The Femmes will appear at the Music Machine this Saturday, May 21. On vinyl and in person, they are recommended.
They've gotten even more press than the Dream Syndicate (another band often compared to the Velvet Underground), apropos of whom this warning: several humorous pawages in the interview that follows require of the reader some familiarity with the work of the Syndicate and the Underground and its leader, Lou Reed. Fully annotated copies of this inter- view, with all the funny stuff fully expli- cated, are available at a nominal service charge.
Weekly: What's the first music that made
an impression on you?
Ritchie: It was probably something from Mary Poppins. I was really into Mary Pop- pins when I was a little kid; I wanted to marry Junlie Andrews. I forced my parents to buy me the soundtrack album. But the first record I can remember buying on my own was "She's a Woman" and "I Feel Fine," a single by the Beatles, but that was after they'd already split up. I found it at a rummage sale. I said, "The Beatles --I heard about those guys. Maybe I'll check 'em out. Ten cents-- what the hell, I'll listen to it." Then decided I wanted to play guitar.
My parents wouldn't let me learn a
musical instrument when I was a kid be-
cause the teacher advised them that I
didn't have any musical talent whatso-
ever. I wanted to play trumpet. I said,
"Get me a trumpet. I want to play
trumpet!"' And they said, "Brian, we
can't. The teacher said you don't have
any musical talent," So finally I harassed
them enough so that they bought me a
guitar. I was about 13.
Weekly: Why did you switch to bass?
Richie: I was forced to because, as every- one knows, there are tons and tons of guitar players and hardly any bass players. Most guitar players try to play bass, but they're completely baffled by it. You'd think that there was no relation- ship between the two instruments by the way that guitar players try to play bass. But I had a natural talent for it, so I was stuck. Eventually I grew to like it.
Weekly: Gordon First musical impressions?
Gano: I'm not sure exactly, but real early I remember hymns in church, and also my father would listen to country & western music - Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams. And my father and mother would both listen to show music musicals. I remember getting into a few of those. I liked them; I still do. All that music -- the hymns, country music and the show music. I think it's all great.
Weekly: When did you start playing?
Gano: I started just playing some simple chords on guitar -- which is not much dif- ferent from what I do now -- maybe in the 6th grade, and in the 7th grade I started writing my own songs and just kept going since then.
DeLorenzo: What was that song?
Gano: I'm not gonna tell ya.
DeLorenzo: Wasn't it "The Oatmeal Song"?
Gano: No, no, that's not it.
Ritchie: He wrote a song about oatmeal when he was a little kid. His sister told us about it.
Gano: That's not it. It was "Oats."
Ritchie: I'm sure you worked oatmeal in- to it.
Gano: Maybe - you know, a little avant- garde twist...
Ritchie: I'll sing it for you -- his sister taught it to me -- "I love oats, I love oats ..."
Gano: I consider this an insult. He is completely perverting the original "Oats" song.
Weekly: Then you'd better set the record straight.
Gano: All right. This is a prestigious paper, right? I should give you the scoop? All right... it's more of a chant. It was like, "Oats, oats/Cows like oats/Horses like oats/People like oats ..." and you could go on for a long time Ritchie: Now if this comes out as a boot- leg, we'll know... the Gordon Gano fans are desperate.
Gano: And I was of course at that time heavily influenced by Jonathan Richman to play those kinds of children's songs.
Weekly: We'll get around to that one later.
Gano: Lou Reed was my babysitter.
Ritchie: We listen to a lot of jazz, Victor and I. It's been a big influence on both of us and on our rhythm section sound. Vic- tor using the brushes is pretty much strict- ly a jazz technique. And I'm just in- terested in improvisation, and in this culture, jazz is its major exponent. We im- provise a lot. Not for a whole song, usu- ally, but during sections of the song or at the end. And we do major improvisations that are totally free - you know, anything can happen. Then there are times when "you might improvise for just a split sec- ond, but still it affects the listener and the band emotionally.
It's a natural part of our vocabulary.
It's not like we set out and said, "Yeah,
let's play rock music, but let's jazz it up."
It's just that we like jazz, we know it, and
can draw upon it when necessary.
DeLorenzo: Particular sections of any given song that are open to improvisation might have a jazz feel one night. maybe a drone type feel to it one night, and other nights it might be handled sort of like a shuffle. So it's hard to say that jazz is real ly that influential, because it's a very hybrid form.
Ritchie: It's the attitude. Something else we take from the jazz tradition is having people sit in with us, bring musicians up onstage to play with us.
DeLorenzo: Most bands would be too frightened to have anyone come up and upset their set list. But we don't work with one, so we don't have to worry about that.
Weekly: Is your instrumental set-up -
the small drum kit, the acoustic bass
guitar, the low volume - premeditated?
Gano: The volume is definitely premedi- tated in that we thought, you know, it's absurd the way you have to play at a cer- tain volume or else it's not rock & roll.
Ritchie: It's gotten to be such a ridiculous, sick thing in rock music - it's completely unnecessary and totally appal- ling. There's no reason for it, and I can- not understand why virtually every rock band I've ever heard conformed to this in- credible volume level.
Weekly: So you don't foresee a time when Victor will use a full kit and you'll play through Marshall amps? Gano: Well, we've played with Victor having a full kit, and I like that, too. And I don't feel in any way that that's like - not "selling out," that's not quite the right words --
Ritchie: Marshall amps probably won't ever happen.
Gano: Awhile back, when we played out on the street, and some people were pick- ing up on the idea of this "acoustic rock band" -- we got billed as that once or twice, "acoustic rock band" -- we still didn't hesitate to go do a gig and play nothing but electric guitars. And people would go, "What, what? We thought you were an acoustic rock band." We don't have to stick to a certain format just so that everybody can be happy and identify with us.
Weekly: Did you play on the streets out of necessity or... perversity? Gano & DeLorenzo: Both.
Ritchie: Partly just because we wanted to, and partly because we thought we could make some spare change.
Gano: But also because we weren't get- ting any gigs, there was no place to play. And we weren't really in it for the money, 'cause there was no money to be made.
Ritchie: We thought maybe there would be...
Gordon: Yeah, but after one tune out we knew -- I mean, we played really hard for about an hour or more and we'd maybe have $1.30.
Ritchie: Oh no, we made $l5 sometimes.
Gano: Whenever Victor wasn't with us.
Rltchie: Yeah, that's right.
Gano: That's the absolute truth. Brian and I could be wealthy men riight now if we'd just stayed playing on the streets and left Victor behind.
DeLorenzo: That bad jazz influence;
Ritchie: Every time that Victor played with us, he fueled it up for us. People looked at him and said, "This guy doesn't need money. Look at him. He's got a leisure suit." I guess that Gordon and I just looked so decrepit that they felt sorry enough to give us money.
Ritchie: The thing is that the music scene
is so small that the punk rockers all will be
talking to the R&B people and the blues
people - it's like there really isn't too
much separation between musicians.
DeLorenzo: Yeah, they all drink the same beer.
Ritchie: There aren't enough musicians around to be picky about it.
Gano: From the shows I've been to it seems that the only people who turn out are members of other groups. There are many more bands than fans.
Ritchie: We've got several really great bands in Milwaukee that have records out - us, Plasticland and the Oil Tasters. Fortunately for us, we're the ones getting the most notice, the best distribution. But those other bands are all right, too.
Weekly: Did you get noticed by getting out of Milwaukee?
Ritchie: Yeah, that's what broke us in Milwaukee, success in other regions. Gano: Every time we played in New York City and came back, then everyone wanted to see us.
Ritchie: Even when we'd go to cities like Madison or Minneapolis we'd get respect, because most bands in Milwaukee are so unadventurous they consider a gig to be out of town if they play somewhere more than 12 blocks from their rehearsal space.
Weekly: I read that Gordon was home-
Gordon: Well, it's very clear --
Ritchie: It was rigged.
Gano: When I was nominated .in my home room --
Ritchie: He blew the whole freshman class, and that's how he got it.
Gano: No, actually, l just gave them all Brian's number and he did it. 'Cause he was older and into punk rock, so they knew he had no morals,
Anyway, for a while that year - but
mostly the year before - every Monday
I'd wear a bathrobe to school. Over my
clothes, but still a bathrobe. And it got a
real, reaction. All of a sudden everybody
knew that kid with the bathrobe and
wanted to ask me why did I wear a bath-
Ritchie: It shows you the intellect of high school students when you get to be the most popular guy in school by wearing a bathrobe to school.
Gano: Anyway -
Ritchie: They didn't make me homecom- ing king when I wore my Sex Pistols T- shirts to school.
DeLorenzo: You weren't new wave enough.
Ritchie: I was too new wave.
Gano: Anyway, a lot of people who are seniors don't want to talk to underclass- men, and I always didn't care at all I'd hang out with freshmen when I was a senior.
Ritchie: 'Cause they were the size. Gano: No, actually, it was the middle schoolers -- I used to hang out with them and beat them up and extort them, you know, I had a racket going.
Ritchie: Is it true you used to have little eighth grade cheerleaders as part of a prostitution ring?
Gano: Well I was never, uh, convicted of it.
Ritchie: Gordon used to grind up the chalk from the blackboard, you know, and sell it to the other kids and say that it was coke. They'd buy it, and then they'd think that they were high and they'd come to him and say that they wanted some poon- tang, so he'd sell them some little cheer- leaders for 35 cents, or whatever lunch money was at that time.
Gano: That's how I financed the band.
Delorenzo: That's why he's the leader.
Gano: Picked these two stooges off the street.
Ritchie: We were a couple of his pimps. He was the grand player - that's pimp talk for a big shot.
DeLorenzo: We were duped into this.
Ritchie: We didn't know what he was up to! He just used to say, "Brian, Victor, we want you to get these cheerleaders to chauffeur these guys around." We'd say, "But they don't have cars." He'd say, "Just get 'em to chauffeur them... Make sure you get their lunch money."
DeLorenzo: And that's why we formed a band.
Gano: Anyway, so I had a lot of friends in the freshman and sophomore and junior classes, and when they saw the ballot and all the names of people that they'd never heard of, all these seniors, in every class they'd say, "Gordon Gano - oh, that's the dude with the bathrobe! Let's all vote for him!" So it was an avalanche. DeLorenzo: So you were just the laughing-stock, and you were made a big fool in front of the whole student body, and you stand in shame to this day.
Ritchie: Just goes to show how wrong you can be.
Gano: Someone was talking to me earlier
and asked, "Are you getting sick of peo-
ple always comparing you to ..." And
there was this pause, and I just knew,
"Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman" -- and I
realized that, yes, I am sick of it. And I
haven't been before. But today I am sick
of it. Which is a breakthrough of sorts. So
I guess now I'll start getting hostile. I
don't know; I always take it as a
Ritchie: I'll tell you one thing. We're starting to hate those bands. We don't even know who those bands are. If some- one wants to give us some copies of their albums for free, we'll listen to them. Until then, we don't want to comment. We haven't heard them. It's nothing to be proud of. We just don't want to talk about something we never heard.
Gano: I try to sound like Steve Wynn. I got early tapes of him a few years back and I've been trying -
Ritchie: He dreamed he was born a thou- sand years ago he was Lou Reed, sail- ing on a ship.
Gano: I dreamed it, I didn't wish it
Ritchie: -He dreamed it, he dreamed he was Lou Reed and --
Gano: And I figured if I can't be Steve Wynn...
DeLorenzo: See, actually Brian is leav- ing the band, and Kendra is going to start playing with us now, because we wanted a more feminine type sound.
Gano: Brian'e too macho.
DeLorenzo: We need a wimpy femme in the band.
Gano: And Victor's not quite wimpy enough.
Ritchie: I wanna join the Blasters and play Jew's harp and nose flute. I'm sick of bass. I wanna play other instruments for awhile. Besides, it's a lot cheaper. My bass is worth maybe $500, but nose flutes only cost 35 cents. The only thing is that pawn shops won't take them in on loan.