"Stop the presses. We're changing the name of the bands to the Nonviolent Femmes," says Brian Ritchie, bassist of the hard-rocking acoustic trio still known as the Violent Femmes. "This is the Violent Femmes party record," deadpans percussionist Victor DeLorenzo. Leave your doom at the door."
And it's true. Their latest and fifth release, WHY DO BIRDS SING?, is quite a lighthearted departure from some of their brilliantly disturbing previous efforts. Like waking up on a sunny morning after a night of colorful yet troubling dreams, the "Nightmares" (off their previous album, 3) seem to be over, at least for the time being.
Granted, a few of their new songs, like "Girl Trouble" and "Flamingo Baby," aren't much to sink your neuroses into, but they are kind of comforting coming from a band that's been known for expressing emotions most of us would like to pretend we don't have. Only trouble is, it's their darkest lyrics that have always been the most powerful, and have had a profound effect on the listeners ever since they played their first gig at an assembly at singer/songwriter Gordon Gano's high school 10 years ago. At that show, based solely on the lyrical content of "Gimme the Car" (a lurid adolescent fantasy about back-seat sex), Gano was suspended from school and kicked out of the National Honor Society.
"It might seem like I write a lot about negative things," says Gano, who stares intently from behind a pair of black, wire-rimmed glasses. "But musically, the way we play things, they end up being more celebrational."
The Violent Femmes 1982 self-titled debut album left critical mouths agape and troubled teenage souls disburdened, astonished that this weird new band had made hopelessness hip. With lyrics like, "You can all just kiss off into the air/Behind my back I can see them stare/They'll hurt me bad, but I won't mind/They'll hurt me bad, they do it all the time" (from "Kiss Off") and "I'm so lonely, feel like I'm gonna crawl away and die" (from "Confessions"), the Femmes gave voice to profound frustrations-mostly sexual-and accompanied them with maniacally-clunky acoustic thrashers. No wonder they immediately became one of the coolest groups to acquire a taste for, and still are. Now, ten years and four albums later, no one's been able to duplicate their sound.
"A band like REM has a lot of imitators because they're so simple to copy," say Ritchie, who looks down at his lap or off into the distance when he speaks, rarely meeting anyone's gaze. "Sex Pistols, the same thing. Anybody can study their instrument for about two, three weeks and sound like the Sex Pistols. The way we play, frankly, most people just don't have it."
Unfortunately, the originality of their sound may haunt them. Critics will undoubtedly say that the Femmes have repeatedly duplicated themselves. "I think every record has its own personality," says Ritchie. "It's not like we've made five records which all have the same vibe, instrumentation, production and songwriting style. But there's a continuity to our work."
It's the spirit of the Violent Femmes' music that's truly unmatched, however: its witty enthusiasm embraces its intellect. What other band could pull off a cover of Culture Club's bubble-gum dance hit, "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me," which they do on WHY DO BIRDS SING? "We had gone into the studio thinking we were going to do a cover song," says Gano. "And that was the most bizarre idea."
"Everybody around the album project except us was excited about the idea,: Ritchie admits. "So we figured, they're professionals. Maybe they know what they're talking about. We really didn't like the song that much, but now we're proud of our arrangement."
Even still, Gano couldn't bring himself to sing Boy George's lyrics, so he re-wrote them. "I changed everything but 'Do you really want to hurt me, do you really want to make me cry,;" he says. "It's interesting that most people, no matter how familiar they are with the song...I mean, I didn't know any of the lyrics to the song."
"Noooo," Ritchie winces.
"No," echoes DeLorenzo.
But it's songs like "Hey Nonny Nonny" that really keep you guessing about where the Femmes heads are at these days. No "County Death Song" (off HALLOWED GROUND) to be sure, the words for "Hey Nonny Nonny" were swiped from an epic 16th- century English poem: "Beauty sat bathing by a spring/Where fairest shades did hide her/The winds blew calm, the birds did sing/The cool streams ran beside her." But then Gano finishes it off with lines like: "Say, man, are you down for doing something positive in the community?" He tries to explain, "It's from a very old little book of English ballads from the 16th century..."
"That's the 1500's for you, teenage reader," Ritchie laughs.
"And I threw in a couple of lines that were inspired, ridiculous, absurd, terrible. They were inspired by Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing," says Gano. "And then the whole structure of that is based on the Johnny Cash thing in 'The Orange Blossom Special' where he does a little rap back and forth. But we'll just leave it at that."
More serious is "Lack of Knowledge," in which Gano warns listeners to educate themselves. "That's Gordy's attempt at Dianetics," says DeLorenzo. "L. Ron Gano."
A very soft-spoken and polite guy, Gano is continually interrupted by his bandmates, especially Ritchie, who's more apt to just talk louder when someone tries to interrupt him. Gano starts to say, "It's fun to put something like 'Lack of Knowledge' on the record that's just so..."
"It's pretty crazy, the arrangement," DeLorenzo interrupts.
"Well, the arrangement," says Gano.
"The pace of the song," adds Ritchie.
"The pace," says Gano.
"And the message is nice, the combination," says DeLorenzo.
"The message," says Gano, "is kind of a neat thing."
The fact that they rarely let him finish a thought makes you wonder what they're like in the studio.
"It's funny for us," says Ritchie, "because we have such a strong teenage following, and it really shocks us when we read in the newspaper that 40% of high school seniors can NOT find the United States on a map of the world. We'd like to think those kids are coming to our shows because they're smart," he laughs. "But when you look out in the audience, you think, 40% of these nods don't even know where America is. So it makes us proud to put a song like 'Lack of Knowledge' on a record."
"Actually," Gano counters, "Lack of Knowledge' is from scripture.
'My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.'"
"I forgot that Gordon rips off all his ideas from other sources, " says Ritchie.
Gano laughs. "Yeah, it's either from Boy George, Spike Lee, the Shepherd Tonie, Johnny Cash...or the Bible."
Don't confuse WHY DO BIRDS SING? - The Femmes album - with "Why do bird suddenly appear?" - The Carpenter's lyrics. Though, when encouraged, DeLorenzo demonstrates an uncanny understanding of Karen Carpenter's life and work (i.e. "All she wanted to do was play the drums; that's what I think got to her"), that's not what they were thinking about when they named the new album.
"Gordon always says that we should wait for something to come along during the recording sessions that catches everyone's imagination," says Ritchie. "He'd been reading this little German book about birds, and one day he said, 'And this last chapter is entitled, WHY DO BIRDS SING?' And we all started going, 'Urgh, urgh, urgh.'" he moans, as if in excruciating pain. "So we called it that."
Spending time with the Violent Femmes is a lot like sitting down at someone else's family dinner table: Sometimes there's more than one conversation going on, and occasionally, their good-natured needling blurs into taunting. That potentially volatile chemistry may fuel their creativity, but it almost caused a breakup a few years back.
Gano hints that the other two members, both talented songwriters who have since put out solo records, felt slighted that their songs weren't included on Femmes albums. "I think around the time of THE BLIND LEADING THE NAKED," he says, speaking about their third album, "there were less outlets for everyone. So I think there was more pressure if Brian or Victor had songs or ideas. You know, 'Give me a little space on this Violent Femmes thing.' But I think it's important to keep a certain focus with Violent Femmes. It's coming from one voice, from one writer, and I think that helps bind it together.
"We did have about a two-and-a-half-year period where we weren't doing anything together," he continues. During the hiatus, Gano played guitar with a gospel-punk group called Mercy Seat. "That was the one time I was seriously thinking about doing a solo record. Someday, I probably will."
The son of a Baptist minister, Gano writes some of his best lyrics about his religious convictions, but didn't include any of these on the band's first album because Ritchie - who's written songs for his solo albums expressing a dissenting opinion - refused to play them. Loosening up a bit by the time they recorded their second album, HALLOWED GROUND, Ritchie agreed to record Gano's classic Christian songs, like "Jesus Walking on the Water" and "It's Gonna Rain," because he realized how good they were. Considering the content of their previous work, however, critics and fans alike assumed these lyrics were sarcastic, when in fact, they were probably the most personal songs Gano had ever written.
The members of the Violent Femmes each have different religious beliefs, but they claim never to argue about religion when they're together. "We discuss it, and expose each other to different viewpoints," says Ritchie, "but I wouldn't say it was arguing. We're tolerant. I disagree with Gordon's religion, but that doesn't mean that I shouldn't tolerate him."
Only minutes later, Ritchie confesses that he's been associated with a disproportionate number of preachers' kids over the years, including, "The son of a black preacher taught me how to play bass."
"A black preacher?" says Gano, smiling slyly.
Ritchie says, "You don't differentiate between black Christianity and white Christianity?"
"Actually, no," says Gano.
"What kind of church do you look for when you go to a town? You look for a black church, don't you?"
"I have," says Gano.
"So then you differentiate."
"There tends to be, musically..."
"So why can't I say it? I've been to black churches. Sure were a lot different than the churches I was brought up in," says Ritchie, raising his voice a little. "They were banging on tambourines and screaming."
Gano laughs. "I just thought I'd try to nail you on something, but it was totally uncalled for."
"You're wrong!" says Ritchie, refusing to let it go. This is a guy that goes into a town and asks the promoter, 'Are there any good black churches around here?'"
Gano goes to church when he's on tour? "I like to," he says, still smiling, "but it's tough if you're in a town where you don't know..."
"Where there aren't any blacks," says Ritchie.
"Sorry, man," says Gano. "I didn't mean to upset you."
So these guys never argue? "No," says Gano, stone-cold seriously.
"This is the first religious argument that we've had," says Ritchie.
Hopefully , the only band in the world that never argues will be touring this summer as scheduled. "Maybe not," joked DeLorenzo.
"Victor and I will be going out," laughs Gano. "We'll be getting some black bass player."
Though he may not be objective, Ritchie adds, "In our band, we think that with just Victor playing on a snare or a box or a garbage can or anything with brushes, Gordon on an acoustic guitar and myself on the acoustic bass, we can create the same kind of powerful energy any other rock band can with all their gear. I think we can lay claim to," he pauses, then lowers his voice another octave or so to the booming monotone of a professional wrestling MC, "Undisputed champions of acoustic rock!"