The opening guitar lick and two furious snare blasts of the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” are as classic a riff as “Smoke on the Water,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “You Really Got Me”–riffs that serve as salvos, as calling cards for their respective genres. Add to that the mystique of the Femmes–a trio of snot-nosed, sex-obsessed recent high school grads from Milwaukee, toting acoustic guitars with the revolutionary animus of folk heroes from decades before–and the group’s self-titled 1983 debut, which kicked off with “Blister” (a song that may or may not be about masturbation), was an instant classic. Songs like the frustration declaration “Add It Up,” with its lyric “Why can’t I get just one fuck/ I guess it’s something to do with luck,” spoke to the group’s high-school aged peers, while the yearning “Good Feeling” belied the trio’s age. It’s a perfect record.
Thursday night, the group is planning on playing Violent Femmes in its entirety at Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield. But the fact that they’re playing off the LP’s 30th anniversary isn’t the hook; it’s simply the fact that they’re even playing together at all.
The trio broke up in 2007 bitterly after frontman Gordon Gano licensed “Blister” for use in a Wendy’s commercial, prompting bassist Brian Ritchie to unleash a vehement invective about the roles of art and commerce after which the group disbanded. Now the band has settled its differences enough to play together again, with Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione filling in for original Femme Victor DeLorenzo, who quit the group in 1993.
After this show and a few others, including Riot Fest in Chicago and a run in Australia, where Ritchie now resides, they’re leaving the future open. The bassist says he would consider recording again but since the record industry has collapsed it would be on their terms. To find out just how the reunion happened, we caught up with Gano at his home in Denver and Ritchie, while he was briefly back in Wisconsin prior to the show.
What brought you two back together?
Brian Ritchie: Gordon was the one who initiated it. He probably just wanted to play with the Femmes again. I don’t think Gordon or I have ever really stopped playing the Femmes’ music, so it was inevitable that we would do it again. I knew that all along.
Gordon Gano: For me, it was the offer for us to play Coachella. I guess the promoter has a real passion to get bands back together again. I thought if we’re ever going to play together–ever–which none of us were thinking of at all, we could figure out how to do this.
Was it easy to put the past behind you?
Gano: [Pauses] Apparently not. [Laughs] No. Mmm…yes and no. I think that everybody has succeeded in letting it be in the past to a very good degree, otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible at all. So I think everyone did a good job with that. With that being said, it was still very difficult. And then every other show after has also been very, very difficult.
Did the fact that it was the 30th anniversary of the first album have anything to do with the reunion?
Ritchie: For me it was, I guess. I was well aware of the anniversary.
Gano: I hadn’t thought of that until you just said it. Now that you say it, that’s a very good marketing angle. As a matter of fact, it might stay 30 until one year we say it’s 40.
Ritchie: I thought the anniversary was kind of a milestone. I like that young people are still getting into the music.
What makes the Femmes special in that regard?
Ritchie: Gordon was probably one of the first songwriters to write about these really painful adolescent awkward and really honest feelings without any kind of false bravado. His honesty was remarkable and I think the kids really respond to that because he was saying the things that they wished they could say but couldn’t in such a direct way. They’d be embarrassed to.
You’ve been playing the first album in its entirety. What else should we expect at the New York show?
Gano: We’ll be adding on other songs we know people like a lot. We’ll do a variety of things.
Ritchie: We’ll be having probably a lot of guest musicians as a result of all three of us being New Yorkers from one degree to another. It will be fun. It will be kind of a festive, party-type atmosphere and a jam. The shows have been going really well and it’s been great to see the audiences again. We haven’t really lost any of the energy. In fact it’s probably back a little bit more than it was before.
Since we’re talking about the first album, what does that time in your life mean now?
Gano: I don’t think I’m nostalgic at all. Some people tell me that they think back to times when they were in their teens and involved in a certain scene and that was the best time in their life. I don’t feel like that about any time of my life. Hopefully it’s now. Hopefully it starts tomorrow.
Ritchie: When we started, Gordon was still in high school. I was just out of high school, basically. Victor was the old man of the band, at 26, which now to me still looks like a kid. And there was just a fresh enthusiasm about doing anything. But then you put on that the fact that the music itself actually was fresh and innovative and original and unique. I don’t mean “original” in the sense that we invented something new, but we probably did put together a combination of elements together in a way that nobody else had ever really done. And I think that that’s proven by the fact that people are still getting into it now.
Gordon, you were in high school when the band formed and your dad was a minister. How did he react to sex-driven songs like “Gimme the Car” or “Black Girls”?
Gano: He was very generally supportive of whatever I would be doing–and then not getting into specifics and details. He would mention things that he found pleasing, like his favorite song was, I think, “Good Feeling.” Of course he loved, “Jesus Walking on the Water.” Actually, there’s a song a lot of people might not know called “Just Like My Father” [on the band’s 1989 album 3] and I remember him telling somebody he really liked that song. And the lyrics go, “I’m just like my father, but I’m much worse / He hurt my mother, I hurt her first.” Things like that. He really got a good chuckle out of that one. [Laughs] He mentioned at some point that he liked “I Held Her in My Arms” around my mom. My parents each had had a previous marriage and maybe other stuff, too. So I always found that a little peculiar. But what do I know? I’m just a kid.
My mom, like a good mom, claims she likes every single thing I’ve done. She loves everything. And she’ll even tell me all the reasons why she thinks it’s so great, except that my vocal isn’t loud enough. We had a soundman for a while and I’d be like, “Ok, my mom’s going to be here on this show.” And he’s like, “OK, ‘Mom mix’: lots of vocals.” [Laughs]
So you’re saying your mom liked “Black Girls”?
Gano: I know one thing my mom didn’t like was there was a very early review that said, “There are songs about this, that and smoking pot with his mom.” Which was somehow drawn from “Add It Up.” It was surprising to me and very disturbing to her. It’s not like that. We knew it wasn’t true. And actually some people do smoke pot with their mom and dad, so I don’t mean to be suggesting that that would not be OK.
Do you have fond memories of playing New York early on?
Ritchie: We came out of the punk era and the best of that music came from New York, so some of our favorite bands were people like Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Ramones, Talking Heads, that whole scene. And that was still relatively recent. New York is the musical capital of the entire world.
The first gig we did was opening for Richard Hell at the Bottom Line and at CBGBs. It was his comeback, sort of. And The New York Times‘ Robert Palmer wrote a review where he basically gave a paragraph to Richard Hell and wrote the whole rest of the article about how great we were. So we felt like that really put us on the map. And after that when we came back, the word had spread and there were people lined up around the block. Even before we had our first album out, there was a buzz on us in New York City.
It really made us feel special, because coming from Milwaukee where everybody takes everything for granted and doesn’t really appreciate the local talent, to go someplace like New York, which is more significant than Milwaukee obviously and achieve acclaim like that, really helped our self-confidence. Gordon moved to New York in 1984, in between the release of the first album and when we recorded Hallowed Ground, and I moved to New York in 1995.
In recent years, Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban have been covering “Blister in the Sun” in concert. Do you think they understand the lyrics?
Gano: I don’t think there’s a whole lot to understand with the lyrics. In fact, it was maybe 10 or 15 years later, when somebody was asking me about that song and said something like, “Well, you know… You know what that song’s about.” I’m like, “No. What are you talking about?” “Well everybody knows. You wrote it.” I’m like, “What?” And they told me the song was about masturbation. I had never thought of that.
So it’s not about masturbation?
Gano: Not to me! [Laughs] But I can see where people could get that idea. I just hadn’t thought of that. [Laughs] I don’t think anybody likes that song because they think the lyrics are deep.
Do you ever get sick of playing “Blister in the Sun”?
Ritchie: When we played Coachella, we could see the panorama of the entire festival. There are a number of different stages, and as soon as we started out the set with “Blister in the Sun,” when that riff hit, it was like a swarm of insects coming towards our stage. They all started running from the other stages. [Laughs] When you can get that kind of reaction–I guess it would be like if the Rolling Stones started playing “Satisfaction”–it really never gets old.