Sometimes music takes on a tribal meaning. That’s the way a few songs by Violent Femmes worked for suburban teenagers in the ‘80s. The nervous, energetic “Add it Up” and “Blister in the Sun” became familiar numbers at the kinds of parties that also offered music by the Smiths and other proudly downbeat groups.
The Femmes have had a complicated career since then, including a 2009 breakup and Coachella reunion four years later. Now they’re back with a new album – “We Can Do Anything”—with the same mix of folky instruments, catchy melodies, and adenoidal vocals as the debut. It’s their first new recording of new material since 2000.
Salon spoke to singer/ guitarist Gordon Gano about past and present. On the phone, Gano – who is now based in Denver and spoke to Salon from New York -- was open and enthusiastic, despite shying away from talking about his personal life. (He also went on a long riff about his love of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.) The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Congratulations on the new record. You’ve got hooky melodies, strummed acoustic guitar, just like the early Violent Femmes stuff. Do you feel like your style has changed since the ‘80s? Did you make an attempt to go back to your roots?
There wasn’t any attempt to go back – the songs are all written spanning about 25 year ago to the last year. So I’ve never consciously written a song thinking, “Let me write it like something I did before.” Other songs are from a long time ago, other songs aren’t. It’s nice that they all work well together, I believe.
As far as the recording, the approach – we recorded… on most of the tracks, with live recordings, live lead vocals. Very much like we did our first album and our second album – very much a live recording though not purists about it.
How do you approach songwriting? Melodies first, lyrics first?
It’s changed some over the years. In the past, an idea came to me with a rhythm, or a rhythmic feel, then I’d grab a guitar, or if I was in a place where I couldn’t I’d jot down lyrics. So they kind of came together. That gave it an organic feel.
Now, in complete contrast the most recent ones are co-writes. My manager said, Are you interested in writing with other people? I had, but with extended projects, or friends… This was, Get on a plane, fly to Los Angeles to write a song. I’d never done anything like that before. We were all very, very happy with the results. In most cases, why they work well with the other songs is that I wrote 95 or 99 percent of the lyrics…
A song like “Holy Ghost” sounds as live as it does, but we were never together playing that. “I Could Be Anything” is entirely live, I think – seven people all in a room, trying to learn it because of all the shifts and changes going on. That was a challenge.
I wonder if country music is an important influence on your songwriting or your playing?
It was right at the very beginning – my father would play guitar and sing old country songs… I can’t remember the first time I heard Johnny Cash or the Carter Family because I just grew up hearing them. As far as songwriting goes, Roger Miller – the cleverness of his writing, he’s incredible, brilliant! – and then Kris Kristofferson. So moving out of the really old, old country into just amazing songwriting. I’d listen to those albums a lot when I was 10, 11, 12 years old. Before having older brothers and sisters get me into Dylan and Lou Reed and all kinds of folks.
I was going to ask you about Lou Reed. What do you value the most about him? What did you learn from his music?
It’s interesting… When you say, What do you value the most, the first thing that came to mind was, “Not anything about the music or his writing.”
I met him, we had a friendship. With me he was the exact opposite of everything that he probably deservedly has a reputation for. He was the most gracious, friendly, just incredibly warm person. (Laughs.) Which is just not at all…! That’s something I value highly because he was an early inspiration with his music, and continued to be.
I remember one time I called him, because there’s one piece called “Like a Possum,” and he’s talking through it, and I said, “This is brilliant! I think people are not going to pay attention to how great this is.” And I think he agreed with me!
It kind of all comes together, there’s so much there. He has such a style, he was such a song stylist!... Where he placed the lines he would sing… Coming in on different part of the bar… I think he’s still not appreciated as a guitar player and a singer – there’s so much musicality…
The Femmes broke up in 2009. What have you been up to since?
Well there’s some personal stuff I’m not gonna get into, but it’s been great! The family stuff. And I have an album called "Gordon Gano and the Ryans," which I’m really happy with…. Around that time I started playing a lot more violin or fiddle. I’ve got a couple of possible musicals in the works.
You’re interested in film, books… What would you have done if you hadn’t become a musician?
I think writing; I could write poems but then I’d have to find something else to do to make a living. But some kind of writing. Or maybe a play, that could be interesting.
Do you follow politics?
A little bit… It can be very entertaining. And also a little scary.
Do you support anyone in the race?
I like a lot of what Sanders is saying, but I’m not 100 percent all in. I like a lot of what he’s saying. I like how he says things as well — there’s an intelligent person speaking here and they’re actually speaking right in the moment. Which is highly contrasted to a lot of the others.
Is religion important to you these days? To your music, to your life?
I don’t really have a relationship to that word – I think I have an idea of what people mean when they say it. I also think when people ask that question… Well, you tell me… Tend not to be so strong themselves… You don’t have to answer that question!... Yeah, answer that question!
Religion is not a big thing for me, but it’s been important for music for a long time. Would we have soul music, gospel, the music of Bach without religion?
That’s a great point… But I don’t think of religion as something separate from life. Almost by asking that question you’re establishing, “There’s life, and everyone’s doing that, and then there’s this other thing, which you can have an opinion about, but it’s not life.” I think that just doesn’t make sense to me. So I just don’t think about it.
So it’s important to you, but woven into your life so you can’t isolate it?
Yeah, I read a little scripture every day. Am I the kind of person who does that? But I like it a lot! (Laughs.) I get something out of it in a big way! That’s why I do it.
You make a great point about music. There’s religious themes that weave in and out of the songs I’ve written, including those that are kind of my go at a gospel song. It makes me feel good when someone has done those in their church service or their Sunday school. My songs “Jesus Walks on Water” is in a hymn book in St. Paul, Minnesota.
There’s a song on the new record, “Holy Ghost,” that’s not about anything you’d expect…. I took in a different direction… A lot of it’s just nonsense rhyming, wordplay… But “Holy Ghost” – it’s all a total fantasy – is the name of a bar-slash-dungeon-sex club… I think it’s really obvious, but probably not at all! (Laughs.) Maybe now the song’s ruined for you.
Do you get tired of playing “Blister in the Sun” or “Add it Up?” Fans won’t let you leave the stage without playing them?
I know a lot of groups that feel that way about their most popular numbers….
Now having played those songs from the first album thousands of times, it’s not a burden! In the moment of playing it, because of the audience, the response from people singing along, the intensity…!