I'm Not Done: An Interview with the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano

There’s dysfunction, and then there’s the Violent Femmes.

Speaking with singer-guitarist Gordon Gano, he tells me that the only definite plan the band has ever had was that they would break-up at the end of the summer in 1981, they year they first got together.

“That was like definite plan: We're only playing this first summer and that's it. We didn't well with that plan.”

Plans are perhaps not the Violent Femmes strongest suit. Over the course of a 30-year career, the band has never been one to look to the future. Since their initial success in the early 1980s behind a self-titled debut and its follow-up, Hallowed Ground, the Femmes have gone dormant, re-emerged, broken-up, and reunited.

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They’ve sued one another over Wendy’s commercials, cycled through drummers, and blasted each other in the press. But when they are together, they continue to foster an immediate connection to teenage ears, reaching the innards of their angsty hearts with the lo-fi pop malaise of anthems like “Blister in the Sun” and “Add It Up.” The Femmes have more than once returned from a hiatus only to find new fans desperate to finally see the band live.

“It's this incredible range of people,” confirms Gano. “All ages, and that's great. That's always been the case with us, that we've had people of different generations now that have really gotten into our music.”

The latest revival of the Femmes can be traced back to a performance they gave at Coachella in 2013. Billed as a reunion, it brought Gano back together with bassist Brian Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo. Though DeLorenzo would quit only two months later, it was the Coachella gig and subsequent touring with new drummer Brian Viglione (he’s also since quit) that brought about the Femmes’ first new album since 2000’s Freak Magnet.

We Can Do Anything is so titled in reference to the minor miracle that is the record’s existence. Gano confirms that nothing about the album came easy.

“Well the start and the process is, I think, closer to total dysfunction, in that it might not even happen, then you or anybody I think would even imagine.”

Going back to recording style that was the Femmes’ signature sound on their first two albums, it would start with Gano or Ritchie playing a song for the band. If they liked it, they simply walked next door and laid it down.

“On almost the entire album, the recorded version of each song is the first time we ever played it through and didn't have it fall apart,” he says.

In typical Femmes fashion, they were disagreements over everything, even down to the placement and number of microphones in the studio. When all was said and done, however, the group emerged with an album that expertly mines the sounds of their early days without ever sounding dated.

Gano’s words continue to walk a tightrope between profundity and adolescence, and Ritchie snaps his bass lines like a kid with a fresh pack of Big League Chew. “Big Car” continues the Femmes’ tradition of peppering innuendo into their songs, while “I’m Not Done” closes the album with some bonafide country twang. Yet according to Gano, the path to We Can Do Anything was anything but easy, fraught with the land mines of ego and ambivalence.

“Sometimes we'd have a session, and I wasn't sure if we were going to actually have the session or not. Each one of us had to make that decision ourselves: are we going to stay and record, or is it over?”

It was a dilemma that plagued the Femmes throughout the process, one the was perhaps unanswered until the day the album arrived in shrink-wrap, proof that it truly was real and complete.

“I'm just glad we managed to find our way through and get the record done,” affirms Gano.

Now on tour through the middle of summer, the inevitable question that has defined the Femmes returns: what next? Gano’s answer is the one any fan of the Femmes has come to expect.

“There's been some discussion about what next, but nothing's absolute.”

He says that what’s offered will certainly play a role in what happens next for the band, but that having toured the majority of the U.S. since their Coachella reunion, it’s unclear what the band’s next chapter may be.

“There hasn't been a single word spoken about whether we're ever going to do another album or not,” adds Gano. “That hasn't even been mentioned.”

In a way, it’s comforting to know that some things will never change. The sky is blue, Christmas is on December 25, and the Violent Femmes have no idea what lies ahead. Gano seems to accept this aspect of the group, a band that was meant to last a summer and instead has survived for three decades.

“There's not a lot of long-range plans, but there never has been.”

The Violent Femmes, Tuesday and Wednesday, May 10-11, 8 p.m., at The Fillmore. $39.50; more info here

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