Violent Femmes Won't Be Playing It Safe at Their Upcoming Tempe Show

On Tuesday, May 10, it's tour kick-off time as Violent Femmes take the stage at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe. Gordon Gano, lead vocalist of the seminal folk-punk act, promises “a very lively show.”

Don’t take that guarantee lightly. The Milwaukee-born band has been going strong — minus a couple of breaks — since the 1970s took its last breath. And they always deliver.

Their mix of styles, from stompy front-porch acoustic rock to country to jazz, blended up with an anything-goes, punk rock attitude has resulted in too many addictive singles to count: “American Music,” “Blister in the Sun,” and “Gone Daddy Gone,” are just a few drops in their 40-year-career bucket.

Gano says that at 20, they weren’t thinking about how far they’d make it. He recalls that an initial plan would only keep them together for a very brief time.

“We were playing and calling ourselves Violent Femmes in the summer of 1981. The definite plan was to do so until the fall of 1981. We were going to split after a couple of months because (original lineup) Brian Ritchie (bass) and Victor DeLorenzo (drums) were going to move to Minneapolis to do a band with friends there. That plan didn’t work out, so we just kept going.”

“We’ve had times where we split up, and I thought maybe it was over, but something would happen, and we’d play again, and it would sound so good to us. There’s something special about the way we play together, and that always has brought us together again,” Gano adds.

While the band’s iconic first, self-titled record was full of so much nuance and so many undeniably catchy-as-hell songs that it created a devoted fan base, their drive didn’t stop with that initial adoration.

The Femmes have followed that up with several full-length records that show their interest in a wild mix of instrumentation. Their tunes are peppered with sounds from the likes of clarinets, kazoos, xylophones, horns, and flutes. The group continues to add new followers on this lengthy journey — it is reflected in the attendees at live shows.

“We have had the observation,” Gano says, “that as we started to get older, our audience kept getting younger. It really is a mix. We see people that would have been there when we first toured, to younger people and children if the venue allows for it.”

Humbly, Gano isn’t looking for credit when we bring up the band’s influence on so many bands that came after them. As if to shift the praise, Gano mentions that many legendary acts inspired the Femmes, but with a little prodding, he did come back to acknowledge the effect they’ve had on many musicians.

“It is just an honor to hear that. It is something that feels good, whether someone tells us directly or passes on a quote where someone mentioned our influence. There’s a Portuguese band called Ornatos Violeta, who I learned decided to have a band because the band that all had in common that they could agree on was Violent Femmes. I even ended up singing in Portuguese on one of their albums. It really is amazing making those kinds of connections — it’s wonderful.”

He sometimes notices the band’s sound in the work of these groups that cite the Femmes as important, but his takeaway doesn’t focus on the sonic aspect. “It’s a very specific sound, sure, but what I hear is maybe an influence or inspiration from us, but mostly that they’re doing it their own way, doing their own thing.”

Doing your own thing is what the band has exemplified from the jump. It’s a massive part of what defined them. They didn’t sound like other punk bands of the early '80s. “We certainly had a different orientation,” Gano tells New Times. “Acoustic instruments in rock or punk worlds – there were a lot of people who were initially opposed to it.” They did it, though, making them punk as anyone else by an unwavering devotion to doing what they wanted.

Before COVID, Violent Femmes released Hotel Last Resort, their 10th studio record, which received critical praise. Its depth of sound and crafty lyrics prove the band not only stands the test of time but continues to build on its foundation in new and unpredictable ways. Tom Verlaine — of NYC rock legends Television — appears on this most recent release.

The band got to tour when the record came out, so this current tour won’t be a focus on that release, but some of its songs will surely be in the mix. “We’ll be drawing from the whole catalog — whatever we feel like playing,” Gano tells us.

They may take some fun risks and twists. “Sometimes, I’ll have something in mind that no one’s heard before and think we should play that, and we will. Through the years, we've had some tunes we’d work up just like that – playing it live as we learn the tune. Brian is such an amazing musician; he just makes it sound good from the first time he’s even hearing something. I wanna, like, not play it safe, have a great time, and make sure that everyone has fun. We can’t wait."

Violent Femmes. With Bhi Bhiman. 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 8. Marquee Theatre, 730 North Mill Avenue, Tempe. Tickets are $18.