Gordon Gano, decked out in baggy plaid Bermudas and a white baseball cap, sits sipping a soda on a picnic bench outside Mesa Amphitheatre, looking every inch the Baptist preacher's son that he is. The apple- cheeked Violent Femmes lead singer-songwriter-guitarist downs a Pepsi (you were expecting Jack Daniel's, maybe?) and chirps on about how "nice" the sweltering, mid-afternoon rays feel. Can this friendly, down-to-earth, even wholesome guy be the same randy adolescent who groaned about how he "stained his sheets" in "Blister in the Sun" or the psychotic who spewed pure hate for his fellow man on "Mother of a Girl"? The utterly believable outcasts, neurotics and all-around fuck-ups that Gano has unleashed on past records spurred one critic to write, "Gano conveys maladjustment more convincingly than any other songwriter." To the relatively well-adjusted Gano, this is heady praise.
The singer, for one, digs the dichotomy of the real-life Gordon "regular kind of guy" Gano and his twisted lyrical persona. Gano is explaining the obvious when he states that the unbalanced characters he conjures up on the Femmes' LPs are pretty far removed from the singer himself.
"Somebody saying that, as a songwriter, you've expressed something convincingly, well, I think that's a real compliment," reflects Gano. "Now if somebody was to say Gordon Gano expresses maladjustment convincingly so, therefore, he is the most maladjusted songwriter or person around, that would be kind of hard to take."
If Gano claims to be just as mentally fit as any 25-year-old who's spent nearly the last decade of his life in a rock band, why is psychosis consistently his favorite subject matter? "Writing those kind of darker songs is a release," explains the guitarist. "If I'm feeling frustrated or there's something that I can't deal with, finding an expression in a song will help me. I had someone ask me just a couple of days ago if my songs were a form of therapy, and I thought, well, yeah, that's very likely true."
Something that's just as therapeutic to the Femme as his cathartic songwriting is religion--specifically, a quasi-New Age sect that he subscribes to. Gano's fascination with the King of Kings--no, we're not talking Elvis here--dates back to the feverish sermons he heard as a kid in the Baptist church. But the singer has also been influenced by the low-key approach of Unity, a "new thought" church, which his mother is a member of. "I don't feel like I'm in just one camp," notes brother Gordon of his religious affiliation.
It was the Baptist church's gut-bustin' gospel music that continued to draw Gano back to the pews as a child, and, by twelve or thirteen, he was writing his own hallelujah numbers. So it only seemed natural that when the singer hooked up with drummer Victor DeLorenzo and bassist Brian Ritchie to form the Femmes, the band would showcase some of Gano's butt-shaking spirituals. Trouble was, Ritchie didn't want to have anything to do with these hard-core hymns.
"At the time, Brian was very aggressively anti-anything Christian," recalls Gano. "He said he didn't want to be playing in a band that was expressing something that he felt so vehemently against." In order not to create a rift in the fledgling trio, Gano agreed to put his religious rave-ups on hold for a while. "I figured they'd find their expression sometime later," shrugs the vocalist.
The band's 1982 eponymous debut was stocked with songs of unbridled horniness and sociopathic paranoia--hardly gospel fodder. When it came time to record a follow-up, it was Ritchie who suggested that the Femmes change direction and commit some of Gano's punk-gospel numbers to vinyl. Not that holy roller Gano had made a convert out of Ritchie or anything. It's just that the bassist had come to admire Gano's thrashed-out spirituals musically --regardless of their "Jesus saves" sentiments.
Gano's shown off his Bible belting on the band's last three albums, Hallowed Ground ("Jesus Walking On The Water"), The Blind Leading the Naked ("Faith") and the latest record, 3 ("See My Ships"). Together with the lovely and leggy Zena Von Heppinstall, Gano has also put together a thrash-spiritual side project, Mercy Seat. "It's funny," reflects the vocalist. "Brian now says that my Christian songs are some of my best numbers."
Gano includes a couple of his supercharged psalms during the near-sellout Mesa Amphitheatre show last Saturday. Still, the biggest crowd-pleasers are songs from the debut like "Blister in the Sun" and, especially, "Add It Up," which quickly degenerated into an audience singalong. (Favorite mass chant: "Why can't I get just one fuck?")
Cuts like "Add It Up" continue to chalk up loads of club and alternative radio play a full seven years after the release of the band's debut. While he sometimes grows weary of wailing these older tunes, the singer says he will never go the route of rock veterans who snottily refuse to play their classic material in concert.
"A lot of people have a thing where they say, `Oh, I don't play those songs anymore' or `I hate those songs now,'" notes Gano before the show. "But with our concert we focus on songs from the new record as well as playing most of the first LP. I mean, we still kinda like those songs."
The singer stays true to his word and runs through half a dozen older cuts before getting to a song from 3. Throughout much of the show, the band remains disappointingly sedate, except for cut-up DeLorenzo, who occasionally breaks into a wild watusi while flailing away. A few local scenesters whine that, overall, the concert lacks the muscle and intensity of the band's Mad Gardens gig of way back when. Could it be that the ferocious Femmes are mellowing a bit?
"Certainly, musically I don't think we're playing anything safer," assures the guitarist. "As far as our performances go, the thing we try to cultivate is not knowing what's going to happen next. But from gig to gig, things change. Some people might say we've mellowed, but that will depend on the night. It will depend on how we're feeling. That's been the case from the time we first started doing shows."
Mellower maybe, but on a good night, a Femmes show can still be as spiritually bracing as a dunk in a baptismal pond. Even though most of its material delves into life's darkest side, Gano maintains that there's often something downright invigorating about his band's gigs.
"The one thing that I think people respond to is that there is a real underlying sense of hope, even in the songs that seem the most down," reasons Gano. "I think that when people come to a Violent Femmes show, they feel a sense of celebration, a sense of excitement--something up.
"Geez," the singer laughs, "I at least hope it's not a feeling like we're all going to come together and get really, really depressed."