Interview:
Gordon Gano

Violently Happy To Be Hitting The Ground

Some time ago I was excited to hear that I was to be granted an interview with the frontman of one of my all time favourite bands – Violent Femmes, by email admittedly, but this was just as exciting to me as any other way. Then I discovered that Gordon Gano has “Internetophobia” or whatever fear of the internet is called. As a result, it was a wait of several weeks before my questions were answered, and, taking PR to a new level, Joolz at Cooking Vinyl typed up his handwritten replies for me. Thanks Joolz, it was worth the wait, as here is the complete interview for our readers’ delectation.

AD: “Violent Femmes” (the album) will be 20 in 2003, and you personally will be celebrating your 40th birthday. What festivities are you planning to mark the occasion?

GG: No celebrations for VF. It is a self hating organisation. I will do something small and quiet for my birthday. Sometimes I take a bath.

AD: On your excellent “Hitting The Ground” album, you have worked with a glut of outstanding performers that would make other artists green with envy. If you had to pick one standout track, which would it be and why? Also, did you give each artist a guideline for how you wanted the tracks to come out, or is it totally their own interpretation?

GG: Thank you for enjoying ‘Hitting The Ground’. There isn’t one track that’s most special to me. I could make an argument for each one. For example ‘Run’. When I heard Frank Black sing this I thought, and still do, that this is one of my favourite lead vocals of all time. With some artists we discussed how to approach the song and with others nothing was discussed except here’s the song and do you want to do it. Anyone that likes any of these artists I believe will really like what they do on this record. In sports lingo: they are all “on top of their game” or “in the zone”.

AD: What was it that drew you into wanting to be involved with the film in the first place?

GG: I was asked and I had never worked with a director on a film before. I thought it would be a good, new and learning experience – and it was. I also liked the script when I read it.

AD: Your eponymous debut album with the Femmes is nearing triple  platinum status, bizarrely having never really dented theUSBillboard Chart. Even more strangely, you have never had a hit single in theUK, yet practically everybody I have ever met seems to know who you are. How do you explain the phenomenon of Violent Femmes?

GG: The phenomenon of the Violent Femmes … how can a band be so popular and so unpopular at the same time? Popular: a lot of people have felt a connection with some of the songs and we are a  good live band. Unpopular: the industry, the music business never put any real support (money) behind the group. Conspiracy theories are possible as well as other strange ideas. We sold out the Royal Albert Hall – years ago – and the record company couldn’t believe it. We sound out the Carnegie Hall – years ago – and I don’t remember the label being there.

 AD: There is a largely religious stance on several Violent Femmes albums,  and you had a brief sojourn in a gospel band called The Mercy Seat. Given that your debut album was so successful, did you have any misgivings about releasing a second one that was so heavily laden with celestial themes? I always thought the difference between the two albums was refreshingly immense both musically and lyrically, although I have often wondered whether the “big hands” you referred to in “Blister In The Sun” was actually metaphorically pointing to God. Was it?

GG: The “big hands” in ‘Blister In The Sun’ referring to God … that’s great. I never heard or thought of that before. But now I might sometimes when I am singing it. Thanks. Also I like “refreshingly immense”. Our first record was successful but not a ‘hit’ record or so successful as it’s become over the years, but our second record, ‘Hallowed Ground’ was still met with a lot of resistance by our label. Some years later it was admitted to us that they deliberately made the record fail commercially in order to teach us a lesson (for making the kind of music we did and then refusing to change it when they asked us to) – go figure! As another point, we were playing all the songs that became our second record in    our live show at the time of recording our first record. We decided to keep the first record stream lined in material and approach and then we expanded with the second. I/we never had any regrets about the way we did this.

AD: On the same subject, from what I can gather Brian Ritchie is a devout atheist. Has this ever had an adverse effect on your relationship within   the band?

GG: I’ve never enjoyed hearing Brian Ritchie’s views on religion but he seems to enjoy expressing them. It’s never affected the music and that’s what the band is about. Only one comment of possible interest: when we first started playing together, he refused to play my gospel songs and I was fine with that because I thought that I had so many songs anyway and the ones not played now would be played some other time and place. But soon after that he said ‘Let’s do your gospel songs, they’re some of your best songs’, and that by playing them in a punk rock club context we would do more “punk” than if we only played more or less “punk” material.

AD: You must have achieved most of your ambitions by now. Have you got  any more aspirations as a solo artist?

GG: As a starting point for ambitions as a solo artist, I think it would be interesting to do a record in which I sing all the songs – has that been done before? (This of course is in contrast to my first “solo” record ‘Hitting The Ground’.)

AD: Occasionally with Violent Femmes, I get the impression that while you’re recording, you suddenly decide to go off on a totally different tangent and end up having a full on jam! How much of that stuff WAS actually improvised, and (if I am indeed correct in presuming that some was), what do you think it brings to the music in general?

GG: I don’t listen to our past recordings. I don’t think any of us do. But I recall sometimes having “jams” develop in the studio, but mostly – or perhaps always – they were planned, as in: we’ll improvise for some length of time between this and that part of the song. Or: at the end we’ll play something until we feel like it’s done – or the tape runs out as it did one cut I remember (‘Fool In The Full Moon’). What does it bring to the music? It is the music. What does it bring to the song? Ahh … an aliveness, fun.

AD: A lot of your wonderfully poetic lyrics on each one of your albums (both with the band and on your “solo”) are littered with what could be interpreted as rather controversial content. Which ones have caused you the most grief where the media are concerned? “Country Death Song” must have pushed the boundaries a little, surely?

GG: The media has never given me any grief about anything because  mostly I’m ignored. Maybe that works out ok for both of us. As far as I know I/we’ve never had a sticker on a record/tape/disc saying “Warning: adult content, blah, blah, blah”. Why not? Everyone else gets a sticker. Why can’t we? One of my sisters wouldn’t allow ‘Country Death Song’ to be played in her house (she had children) and my mother felt that ‘Out Of The Window’ went too far, too many young people kill themselves, and was not convinced by my argument that the song is not suggesting that. The only lyric content grief that I can recall from the media was in the form of praise. When the ‘Hallowed Ground’ record came out it was commended by more than one journalist in theUKfor its tongue in cheek gospel songs, down to the detail of an out of tune fiddle. (I wrote, sang and played the best I could however.) One more thought, not about the lyrics but the voice. In the Rolling Stone review of ‘Hallowed Ground’ (years ago they quit reviewing our/my records) – I’m quite proud of this – ‘Country Death Song’ begins that record, that’s why I thought of this. It begins: ‘Gordon Gano’s voice will clear out a room faster than a methane explosion.” Or at least that’s what I remember it saying. A great opening line.

AD: Still on the lyric theme, I’m fascinated with the lyrics to “Machine” on  “New Times”. What are you trying to say with that song exactly?

GG: ‘Machine’ is a fun song. It makes me laugh, or did. There’s something playful about it. And something about it now – because I never think about it – it makes me smile. What exactly are you trying to ask when you ask what are you trying to say with that song exactly? (The song says exactly what it says.)

AD: Is there anything else you would like to talk about (forthcoming releases, tours, musicals etc)?

GG: No Thank god but thanks for asking. Final note: I’d much rather have a coffee with you than do this – whoever you are.

Well, normally I’d add something at the end of an interview, but that last quote from Gordon was so great I think I’ll just let him have the final say!

Interview and transcript by Tone E

 

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