With the 2015 EP Happy New Year and 2016 album We Can Do Anything, Violent Femmes—the toast of Milwaukee, nervous and literate roots-punk, and frat boy fans of “Blister In The Sun”—made their first new music in 15-plus years, a minor miracle considering the dysfunctional tension between singer/guitarist/songwriter Gordon Gano and bassist/cofounder Brian Ritchie. Then again, since their eponymous 1983 debut, Gano and Ritchie never seemed like cuddly bonded types. “That wasn’t us,” says Gano of a distance that gives Femmes songs old and new (“Memory,” “Good At/For Nothing”) their poignancy.
Squash or confirm—that yours and Brian’s first falling out …
That is interesting. I never really thought about what the exact falling out was, and when it was. The very fi rst thing was an illegal activity, so I can talk about not talking about it.
Did Brian really sue you about using “Blister In The Sun” for a Wendy’s commercial?
He did, but that was not the only thing that he ever sued me about or even the prime motivation for that suit.
How do you guys go forward knowing that all this litigation has gone on between you?
The courts eventually threw it out without prejudice because it was all that crazy. We didn’t equally sue each other. It’s not as big of a thing as it might seem, because it’s all done. And, really, it’s always been about the music, and the music has a unique sound, and that happens when he and I get together and have a kind of excitement. It’s something we’ve made a good living from, which has allowed us other things and other music. I can’t speak for him, but I think that he’d agree. It’s fun, sounds good and people love it.
So, the music is the only connection.
Yes. When we try to talk about anything, it doesn’t work. We’ve tried having business meetings and the end result was eight hours and no agreements. We found a way to make it work—we stopped having meetings. We completely and utterly disagree with each other. Everything goes through a manager who talks with us individually. The prime thing is not verbal, not philosophical, not analytical. Just do it. That’s how we make new music—which just happens to sound great.
I didn’t think that you guys were all warm and cozy, but that’s what makes your music intriguing.
There’s no internal turmoil. Some of the things that happened surprised me in a business sense, but not personally. We never had a friendship. We had a relationship through the music. How could you go? It’s easy, because it’s not as if a friend did something bad. Of course, he doesn’t see any of this that way.
Was new music a stipulation of getting back together? I’m not certain how I feel about bands that reunite just to play old material.
Why? I think just that is very good. People can make more money than they once did from their careers, which is good for them and their families. People want to hear the hits, what they grew up with. It’s positive for everyone. Brian, though, believes that a real group should be making new music. That said, at one point, he wouldn’t record any new songs that I wrote for years. I even offered to write with him, split 50/50. Didn’t happen. Now, through our new manager, we found a way to talk to each other in separate rooms. Actually, we live in different parts of the Earth, but I just like the imagery of separate rooms. That’s when the New Year’s Day EP was recorded, although even that had its disagreements. “What microphone? Where do you put it?” I’m not kidding. I suggested we do them a bunch of di erent ways … the most prevalent being where we learn them and just do them at the same time. That’s one thing—we’re very quick together. He knows what to play as he’s hearing them for the first time.
Why didn’t you go further with the Mercy Seat, your gospel/punk act?
That’s nice. There’s a second Mercy Seat record, too, though I have no idea what happened to it. I don’t know where the masters are. That’s when the first real problems with Violent Femmes set in.
When you finally had your one real shot to go solo with Hitting The Ground, you brought in mostly other people to sing your songs—Lou Reed, John Cale. Why?
Yeah, that never really occurred to me until I had a friend tell me, sarcastically, after it came out, “Great job. Like, you’re hardly on the album.” I just never thought of it.
I heard Reed changed some of your lyrics. Was that weird?
No, that was incredible. He had the song for a while, and I never knew if he was ever going to get around to touching it, then one day he called for me to come pick it up; he had fi nished it. As I walked in, he looked at me and said, “I took the liberty of changing some of your lyrics.” It surprised me, but he made it better; made it more him and just made it edgier, with more of a bite. He even changed the structure of the song, where the next line would come in. Absolutely brilliant.
OK, back to the Femmes’ new record. Are you writing songs in the same fashion you once did?
It’s more than similar—it’s exactly the same. I play the song and Brian starts playing along with it immediately. He’s a brilliant musician. We connect and play o each other really well.
One guy I thought you both were connecting with was Brian Vigilone—your ex-Dresden Dolls drummer who had played with the Femmes for the last few years. He just handed in his resignation. What happened?
You think that’s bad, let me tell you what happened with this other guy in 1985. No, he says he wants to do other things, and I believe him. He’s in a band, Red Sails, whose frontperson is his wife, so there’s that. I can’t help but think that our dysfunction—a word that isn’t quite strong or good enough to describe our working environment—comes into play. Oh well.