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Violent Femmes: still in the game, rocks at Fox Theater

The legend of the Violent Femmes’ big break is a classic “Kid, I’m gonna make you a star” tale. It’s 1981, and Chrissie Hynde and the late James Honeyman-Scott happen upon the nascent Femmes busking on the street near the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee, where their band, The Pretenders, is playing that night.

The rockstars offer the upstart kids a slot on the big stage. The Femmes, Milwaukee natives, play a dream show in front of a hometown crowd. They kill it, and a record contract, a string of hits and fame and fortune follow soon thereafter. It’s a great story, but it’s only partially true.

“As amazing as that day and that night was—and it was—it led actually to nothing,” Violent Femmes singer, guitarist and songwriter Gordon Gano told the COURIER.

“We didn’t get a record deal related to it. We didn’t get a show related to it. We didn’t get introduced to any managers or agents, and there was no business connection that came from it. There was absolutely nothing that came from it. It was a great thing, but it didn’t lead directly to anything at all.”

Sorry, dear readers, to let the air out of that legend.

“And we still couldn’t get a show or a place to play in Milwaukee. We still had nothing. But we had this amazing experience,” Mr. Gano recalled.

It was more than a year later that their debut album, “Violent Femmes,” was released. Of the record’s 10 tracks, three would go on to be bona fide alternative classics: “Kiss Off,” “Add it Up,” and most famously, “Blister in the Sun.” The collection eventually sold over a million copies, and the band has since released eight more studio albums, including this year’s We Can Do Anything. 

Violent Femmes were on the big stage again at Pomona’s Fox Theater.

The Femmes have carved a unique career over their 35 years together. Borne of the punk explosion, they emerged in 1981 an anomaly. They were three guys from Milwaukee, for one thing, and, perhaps most unusual, they were playing acoustic instruments. MTV “Unplugged,” a show for which the band was actually the direct inspiration, wouldn’t be on the air for another eight years. The trio couldn’t get arrested in Milwaukee. Initially, they took their act to the streets without even knowing the term “busking.”

“The first time we went out it was a nice day,” recalled Mr. Gano, 53. “We were in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and it’s a nice day out, so we don’t want to stay inside. We didn’t even know what it was called.”

That musical street training—having to hold a crowd’s attention with songs, showmanship and charisma, and using dynamics to bring the music up and down—helped shape a sound that is to this day instantly recognizable as Violent Femmes.

“I think we do have a sound collectively as a group, where the constant from day- one was Brian Ritchie on bass guitar and other things, and our original drummer Victor DeLorenzo, who had a way of approaching drumming that was certainly different from any other drummer in rock or any other drummer is music, really with the way he did things.”

The group’s one-of-a-kind folk/rock/ punk/country/gospel hybrid, coupled with Mr. Gano’s ever-youthful, sardonic vocal style and universal lyrical themes of loss, regret and frustration—sexual and otherwise—is a noise that only the Femmes make. And this rapport was apparent from the start.

“The first time I ever played with them, I was playing at a coffee shop,” Mr. Gano recalled. He had met Mr. Ritchie and invited him to the show. Mr. Richie brought along Mr. DeLorenzo, and Mr. Gano invited them both up to play.

“That was the first time they heard a lot of my songs—when they were actually playing them for the first time, sitting in. And many of those songs ended up on the first and second Violent Femmes albums.”

That reciprocal relationship continues to this day. We Can Do Anything, the Femmes’ first full-length in more than 15 years, was recorded in much the same spirit of that first meeting. 

“What you hear on the record is usually the first time we made it through the songs start to finish. There’s an excitement, an on-the-edge quality, and I think that energy does translate when people listen to it. That’s what we were trying to capture, and I think we got a lot of that.”

The band’s long break between records was due primarily to its much-publicized dysfunction. There have been pubic feuds between band members in the music press, hiatuses and solo records. But perhaps most damaging was a 2007 lawsuit, since tabled, in which Mr. Ritchie sued Mr. Gano, claiming he was deprived of credit and royalties for some of the group’s songs and that the band’s brand was being sullied due to Mr. Gano licensing “Blister in the Sun” for use in a Wendy’s TV commercial. With all that baggage, it’s perhaps not surprising it took so long to get the pair into the same room together, let alone into a recording studio.

Mr. Gano was hopeful, albeit guardedly so, when asked what his ideal scenario would be going forward, “I’d think we would have talked about it, although actually that probably wouldn’t work, because we have a hard time agreeing on anything. I think what we’ve done in this last couple of years feels good; We play live and people love it, and I think we’re just playing better than we ever have. And continuing to do that and also putting out new recordings is a good thing also. It’s productive. It’s creative. I guess what we’ve been doing for the last three years, without having it being a stated goal, would seem to me to be pretty ideal.”

And in the meantime, Mr. Gano can enjoy his indie rock elder statesman status and the seeming immortality of “Blister in the Sun.” The song’s by-now instantly recognizable intro—a call-and-response acoustic guitar and snare drum riff—has come a long way from its inception on the streets of Milwaukee: It’s now a staple in ballparks across the country. “It’s amazing. I love it. I never thought of such a thing, ever. And still, it’s an incredible honor. I’ve been at a couple of stadiums where it just started playing. That was amazing.”

Mr. Gano, with charming self-deprecation, recalled a recent experience at Citi Field, home to the New York Mets.

“It was also amazing to see so many people have no reaction whatsoever to it,” he said with a chuckle. “Nobody cares! Nobody reacts or responds, but they’re playing it! It’s amazing to be in a place where so many are completely indifferent to it. One time I was feeling a bit cheeky and I just stood up and nodded and was thanking people and saying, ‘Yep, that’s me. Thank you, thank you!’ They were not impressed.”

—Mick Rhodes