The Violent Femmes' Music Still Sounds Ageless

Few bands have had the power to unify youth the way the Violent Femmes did in the early- and mid-1980s.

The band, which stops by Marquee Theatre in Tempe on Tuesday, May 3, had an extraordinary ability to unify the various cliques found in American high schools and colleges. Putting their first record on at a party was a pretty good way to ease any tension building between the various tribes.

The punks liked the “Femmes,” as they were commonly called by their fans, but so did the jocks, the mods, the stoners, some of the more open-minded hessians (remember that term for heavy metal fans?), the preps, the nerds (now called “hipsters”), and even a good handful of the parents. Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Violent Femmes played a brand of music everyone could identify with, primarily because of their timeless sound and singer/guitar player Gordon Gano’s often biting, yet poignant lyrics that summed up adolescent and young adult angst as well as anyone ever has. There isn’t a teenager out there who hasn’t wondered, “Why can’t I get just one kiss?”

Gano, bassist Brian Ritchie, and original drummer Victor De Lorenzo (who left the band most recently in 2013) began playing their singular brand of countrified folk punk with enormous hooks and even catchier lyrics in 1980. The beauty, though, of the Violent Femmes is their original material is still making new fans every day. The band is so omnipresent that somewhere in the United States, a Violent Femmes song is playing on the radio right now. 
Songs like “Add It Up,” “Good Feeling,” “Gone Daddy Gone,” and “Blister In The Sun,” all off the band’s first record, are staples in the American alternative rock pantheon. But the Violent Femmes have nine full-length LPs under the belt with the release of 2016’s We Can Do Anything, which came after a lengthy period of inactivity for the band.

“The start of us playing music together again was completely unexpected. We weren’t actively doing anything together as the thing called Violent Femmes. It was Coachella (where the band performed in 2013). We played and we were able to resolve enough of our differences to show up at the same time and same place,” Gano says.

The differences Gano referred to spawned from a lawsuit Ritchie filed against Gano in 2007 related to Gano allowing hamburger chain Wendy’s to use “Blister In The Sun” for a commercial, which did not sit well with Ritchie. Luckily, the band was able to overcome these differences, and their 2013 reunion blossomed into a full-fledged reformation of the group.

“We thought, ‘Well, let’s see if we can find a way to record and record some new material.’ We did an EP first and … liked the results, so we started talking about doing a full album,” Gano says when asked how We Can Do Anything came to be.

The 2016 release doesn’t have the feel of a band reaching for nostalgia, either, as the album fits quite nicely into Violent Femmes’ body of work and sounds great. For comparison purposes, fans of the band’s 1984 release Hallowed Ground will probably be most pleased by the overall sound of We Can Do Anything. Gano’s lyrics are still as pointed as ever, questioning everything from the validity of relationships to an older man’s longing for a teenage girl on “Big Car,” which was a song Gano has lobbied to record for a long time.

“That song is a song I wrote approximately 25 years ago, and have tried to have Violent Femmes play the song. This time around, it was a very close call to see if we could record it. There has always been somebody in the band that has objected to it, lyrically. I’ve always thought, 'Really, this one?' So far, we haven’t played it live, even though it would be a great song to do,” Gano shares.
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Tom Reardon has written for Phoenix New Times since 2013. He's been in several notable bands over the last 25 years including Hillbilly Devilspeak, North Side Kings, and the Father Figures.
Contact: Tom Reardon