Think about Milwaukee's Violent Femmes, and chances are you're thinking about junior high school. That seems to be the time and place when the Femmes made their mark on an audience attuned to the their awkward rhythms and vocalist Gordon Gano's nasal confusionfest. "Gone Daddy Gone," "Add It Up," "Blister in the Sun" -- every one a teenage anthem for frustrated kids who could relate to a song demanding Why can't I get just one kiss; kids titillated when, late in the song Gano switched out the last word for "fuck." Yeah, why not anyhow? I mean, besides the fact that I'm a pimply faced kid with a raging hormone problem and zero concept of romance.
Junior high was the time when every would-be bassist in school taught himself to play the bassline to "Blister in the Sun." That plunking four-string, that rudimentary slapping snare work and Gano's maniacally sloppy guitar torture were the sounds of the season, many seasons ago, and the band's 1982 debut Violent Femmes slowly matured into an unlikely back catalog savior, eventually selling platinum.
Of course there were more albums to come. Hallowed Ground, which was okay, but not so compelling, followed by The Blind Leading the Naked, another step toward obscurity, 3 and, finally, 1991's Why Do Birds Sing? Every last one, despite some good work therein, failed to live up to the once-fulfilled promise of that stellar debut. A daytime slot on the original 1991 Lollapalooza tour didn't prove the boon that it turned out to be for fellow travelers like the Rollins Band and the Butthole Surfers, because the Femmes' classic disc was already nine years in the past tense. Ask most anyone today about the Femmes and they'll respond by humming that damned bassline and asking if the band is still together.
Yes, the band is alive and well, thank you, though until the recently released and obviously named New Times -- the Femmes' first recording for the Elektra/Eastwest label after six albums for Slash -- fans had only the two-disc Add It Up [1981-1993] greatest hits package to tide them over since '91's Why Do Birds Sing? There is, explains Gano from his part-time home in New York City, a reason for the long absence.
"One reason that it was three years between studio records, and the reason for the change of labels, is that we were not being allowed to make another recording, and so we had lawyers talk for about two years to keep our situation out of court. It took two years not going to court -- it's kind of scary thinking how long it might have taken if it had gone to court. So basically we needed to get to a label that would let us continue to make music, and eventually that was worked out."
The new label is presumably happy to let the Femmes go their own idiosyncratic way, and Gano sounds rejuvenated by his new situation. "I think the difficulty with Slash is that they've never been very pleased with what we sounded like, and they've always wanted to steer us in some other direction that had to do with who was very popular at the time. At a certain point they wanted us to be the next Talking Heads, because the Heads had been considered a cult band but they had made a big commercial step. Then later they wanted us to be more like U2, and the last one is they wanted us to be more like R.E.M., including having us work with Scott Litt, who's done a lot of the R.E.M. production. He was interested and so we got a tape to him but he decided to pass on it, and that's when everything completely stopped. The attitude was, if Scott Litt doesn't even want to work with the Femmes, then I guess there's no point in them ever doing anything. That's the way it came down. They picked up our option to make another record, but then they said they wouldn't let us make another record. So that's where we had to have the lawyers take over and just try to work it out."
Record company imbroglios weren't the only thing slowing the Femmes down, though. Original drummer Victor DeLorenzo had decided he wanted out, and the Femmes began the search for a replacement long before it was clear whether or not the band would have a chance to record again. The obvious choice was Milwaukee homeboy Guy Hoffman, formerly with the BoDeans.
"There weren't that many musicians in Milwaukee doing the left-of-center kind of rock and roll," Gano says, "so he actually could have been the drummer from the start if things had combined differently. Knowing that, and knowing him as a person, we called him. He had been living for a number of years in a small town in California, and when we called him, he had packed everything up and was moving back to Milwaukee, and in order to pay for the move he had sold his drum set. So it's like okay, when you get here we're going to take you shopping, and if you think you'd like to play in the Femmes, and that's the way it worked."
With Hoffman in place, though still without label support, the Femmes made the decision to go into the studio on their own dollar. It turned out to be a liberating experience.
"After about the first year of the lawyers talking, we figured we need to do what it is that we do and trust that eventually this thing will work itself out, and so we went into the studio and started recording without anyone even knowing that we were doing it. Brian [Ritchie, bassist] and I were working on the production of it. It was really a great pleasure, and there was no pressure. There's no timetable to meet, because there was nobody wanting us to make a record -- there was nobody that was letting us do one to have it released -- so we were just recording and working on things. It was just a great situation artistically and creatively."
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It shows. New Times may be the obvious title for an album by a band with a new record label and a new drummer, but sonically, the disc harks back to the glory days of that first album, in energy, if not in the particulars. The Femmes haven't sounded this perky in years. Gano's adolescence-inspired whine is in full bloom on the lead track "Don't Start Me on the Liquor," and that part of the Femmes that chafes at being instructed to sound more like U2 (what were they thinking?) gets full eccentric expression on "Machine," a mechanically plodding track Gano describes as "techno, but almost anti-techno in going aggressively against a state-of-the-art mentality. If there's a drum machine that sounds more like a machine than a drum, to me that's more interesting, as opposed to a drum machine that keeps trying to sound more and more like a drum. We have drums."
But maybe the best cut is "Breakin' Up," a twisted answer song to Neil Sedaka's saccharine "Breaking Up is Hard to Do." In the Femmes' version, "Dark voices tell me the way it's supposed to be, they said "Breakin' up," they said "It's hard to do," but what they say about breakin' up, y'know it's just not true, breakin' up, it's easy to do ... y'know I break up every time I break up with you." Sounds like classic Femmes to me, and that doesn't bother Gano much.
"No matter what it is that we do, if it's good or somebody likes it then it sort of reminds them of the first album. It might not sound anything like it or have anything to do with it at all. I just think it means that it's communicating, it's getting across to somebody."
The Violent Femmes play at 8 p.m., Wednesday, October 12 at Numbers. Frente! and G. Love and Special Sauce open. Tickets cost $18. Call 629-3700 for info.