THE VIOLENT FEMMES ain't no nostalgia band. Or at least that's what Gordon Gano, the trio's primary songwriter, singer and guitarist, says about his band.
Though their band's greatest success, both commercially and critically, was the self-titled debut album released on Slash Records in 1983, the Femmes have persevered through seven releases -- their eighth and ninth are on the way as we speak. The only casualty along the way was the replacement of a drummer -- the band traded in original skins-pounder Victor DeLorenzo for former Bodeans drummer Guy Hoffman a few years back. So what becomes of a band that peaks with its first record, yet doesn't have the sense to hang it up in 1999?
There are several good answers to that question. First off, let it be known that the Violent Femmes sell out nearly every show they play. In 1999.
Second of all, the people buying the tickets may not be who you think they are. "When we play in a town, inevitably a writer will write a little blurb in the local paper saying, 'If you want to relive the '80s, the nostalgia of your youth, go see Violent Femmes on Thursday night...' or whatever," Gano says without a trace of bitterness. "And that's completely not our audience at all. The people that come to see us basically think it's all new, and have no idea how long we've been doing what we're doing. Or they just don't care."
Sooo...your audience is...aliens? "Our audience is primarily teenagers. As we've gotten older, the average age of our fans has gotten younger," Gano says.
And to what do you (I guilelessly ask) attribute that?
"All the songs on the first record are songs I wrote between the ages of 15 and 17," Gano says. "I was 18 years old when we did that record, so there's an authenticity to it. Even the sound of it, the physical limitations of the voice that was singing those songs is very adolescent. It's not someone older writing about that time, or even just singing about it. It's the real thing."
And as time has told us again and again, the real thing never goes out of style. A classic punk rock record created only with an acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, snare drum, and on one track ("Gone Daddy Gone") a vibraphone, the album was unlike anything that had come before it -- or for that matter, since.
Gano is, if anything, being extremely modest. Just as the batch of songs that Jonathan Richman wrote when he was a teenager (that would later appear on the Modern Lovers' first album) reflected the angst of those most painful and confusing years, so did the Femmes' first release. A stunningly accurate snapshot into the head of a teen being flooded with hormones that he doesn't quite know what to do with, Violent Femmes is one of the greatest recorded documents of what teenage angst, latter-day 20th-century-style, is all about.
And while Gano's early songs seem highly influenced by the early Modern Lovers, in fact he had never even heard of Richman until one of his very first public performances. "Before the band started, I played solo where the headliner was Jonathan Richman. While I was performing someone heckled me, which I was surprised by, but I guess is fine. When I was done I walked offstage, and here comes that heckler right backstage. I'm like, 'Oh, great,' but he says, 'Hi, my name is Jonathan, and that was great! You remind me of myself when I was your age.' Which was really nice, but at that stage I had never heard of him. But then I started picking up his records."
The first Violent Femmes record has, in the 16 years since its release, established itself as nothing less than a coming-of-age ritual. It is a race, it seems, to see which one a bewildered teenager will discover first: the first Femmes album or The Catcher in the Rye. Both cover similar subject matter, and both -- at least, so far -- have the resonance that's timeless. There will always be adolescents, and they will always go through the same growing pains teenagers always have.
"I have actually seen three generations so far," Gano recounts. "There was this woman who came to see us play back in '83 or '84, and she had a young daughter at that point. The daughter grew up listening to the music, and now she has a baby. Actually this was two or three years ago, but the last time I saw them it was the grandmother, the mother and the newborn baby who all came to the show."
But ultimately, doesn't he get sick of playing the same songs over and over again?
"Basically, no," Gano says. "Those songs that are the most popular are generally the ones that I haven't gotten tired of. Occasionally at a certain point I'll feel like a certain song just isn't that good, or I'm just sick of it, but those aren't usually the ones people want to hear anyway. And then there's also the energy a crowd brings to (a show) that helps you not get tired of it."
The band has not released an album since 1993's New Times (Elektra). Though the Femmes inked a deal with Interscope a few years back to release the album Freak Magnet, the label and the band parted ways before its release when it was revealed that the label was unwilling to financially back the album. In other words, they would release it, but nobody would even know since there would be no promotion or advertising. Recently though, the band has found a label that's willing to support it.
Beyond Records, the label that earlier this year released the successful Blondie comeback album, is set to release Freak Magnet, with several songs added to the original Interscope version, in early 2000. But before that (November of this year), the label will release a 20-song live compilation culled from a series of acoustic shows the band played last year in Wisconsin. And while Viva Wisconsin! will include a new track or two, the main reason it's being put out is, as Gano puts it, "to let people know we're still around." But the fact of the matter is that even if the Violent Femmes never put out another record, they could still fill the clubs and theaters they still perform in year after year.
That is, long as their set list includes "Kiss Off," "Blister in the Sun" and "Add It Up." And as long as there are still teenagers in the world to listen to them.