Interview: Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes
by Angie Ripple
AR: We are super excited to have you coming to Montana, I was wondering if you’ve been here before?
GG: Oh yeah, actually I have family in Montana. We’ve played in Montana, but I have been making family visits for my whole life to Montana. In fact, one time I went to visit one of my brothers and his wife, they’ve raised two children who are grown now, and for decades now they’ve had a small ranch that they’ve been taking care of, raising cattle. There was one time, it was a long time ago now, probably in the 1980’s would be my guess, maybe the 1990’s, where I had all these frequent [flier]miles that were going to expire and I just thought ‘I haven’t seen my brother in Montana in a long time’, and I was in Connecticut or New York at the time and I just thought I would go out and pay a visit. It just happened to timeout when they were rounding up the cows, so everybody’s enlisted to help, so that was my big thing. I was put on a horse that was the oldest, most experienced horse, and basically the horse will do what you need to do. So, you wave and yell at the appropriate times, but get on that horse and the horse will know what to do. That was an amazing experience, its just regular life for a lot of people including my brother, but for me it was an incredible experience. You know, and now that I think of it, it’s kind of like when someone comes on stage and joins in on a song, and you know there’s thousands of people cheering, like that’s an amazing thing for most people, and most people never get that experience, but if someone even does it once they’re going to remember it. But whereas for me that’s just like doin’ my job. That’s my work ya know? And it’s cool, and I’m used to that I guess. I wasn’t used to being on a horse and yellin’ at cows [chuckle].
AR: And it’s been over 15 years since you guys have released an album?
AR: Have you been up to other side projects in the meantime?
GG: Oh sure, we’re all passionate with music. I’ve been doing stuff, there’s an album that’s out on Yep Rock called Gordon Gano and the Ryan’s. It’s called Under the Sun, it’s got a lot of songs that I wrote all the words for and did the music along with the Ryan brothers. I’m very happy with how that turned out, that was a project that we worked on for a while, and then played mostly around the New York area, which is where they’re based, and where I’ve lived most of my life, actually, I’ve lived in New York City. And, that’s a project that comes to mind because it’s actually a thing that exists and you can listen to it on Spotify!
In these more recent years I’ve been doing a lot more sitting in with people and playing live. I’ve been playing a lot more violin, and just loving doing that. Whenever I get a chance to join in with a group called Lost Bayou Ramblers, a Cajun group from Louisiana, anytime I can join them and play it’s just a lot of fun. When I started playing with them they then suggested wanting to do some of my songs, because they loved Violent Femmes, and I just thought ‘Is this gonna work?’ you know, with a band that plays Cajun music, and the people that are at their show, and wow, it worked! It worked incredibly.
Their's a group that I love to play with that’s called Animal Object, and they play completely free improvised music, and I love it, and I play violin. I get excited just thinking about it, and for most people it’s nothing that they would even call music. It like would have zero interest for most of humanity, but I LOVE IT!
So, yes, there are always things that I am doing musically. I’m thinking of another thing, not terribly long ago I played banjo in a church service that was doing a bluegrass liturgy, and that was great, I thought it was wonderful! Most of the things I do aren’t called Violent Femmes and so most of the things that I do no one will ever hear about, unless you just happen to be right there.
AR: I got an advance copy of the new album and I’m curious if you are going to focus on a lot of new music on this tour, or play everything for the fans?
GG: Well we just did a tour in Australia and New Zealand and we ended up playing consistently about three songs on the new album, and I’d hoped to work in a little bit more, but that’s where we had been at. I hope to add to that a little bit, but we play all the songs that most people most want to hear. Blister in the Sun and others and we enjoy doing it, so it’s great, it works out for everybody. It’s fun to do, and I think part of that reason is that we’re not trying to ever exactly copy something. We’re always looking for more little ways we can improvise, or do something a little different, and yet the songs are still completely recognizable and everybody sings along and so yeah, we do a lot of that.
AR: What’s your favorite song off of your new album We Can Do Anything?
GG: Ah, well, the first one that pops in my head I’ll go with that, but how can you choose, really? Ha! I really do like them all, each one is kind of amazing that it’s there, and it’s out. But, the one that just popped in my head is the one song that I didn’t write, or even co-write, that’s because my sister wrote it, What You Really Mean is the title. It’s a song that she wrote over thirty years ago, and I’ve always loved it. I think it’s a beautiful song, and with the arrangement and the way that we’re playing added to with Kevin Hearn, who plays in Barenaked Ladies, and he plays some keyboard and some guitar on it, and sings, and I think that it’s certainly one of, if not the most, beautiful sounding thing we’ve ever recorded. Both the song and the sounds that we were able to get. So today that’s it, that’s my favorite.
AR: Great answer. Can you name off a couple of musicians that have been particularly inspirational to you?
GG: Oh yeah, and that’s just a flood of people that come to mind. There’s just so many. So, I grew up with my father playing country music, and early rock and roll on singles and he had a nice single collection of stuff from the 1950’s and a lot of it was Johnny Cash. Which went from the older country and then including the early rock and roll kinda sound, and the kind of very specific kinda thing that Johnny Cash had going on, but that’s one. Hank Williams, huge. Carter family. A couple people I very rarely would mention with this kind of question, or maybe not think of even as much as I should except when I do, and I think, oh wow! He also had albums by Kris Kristofferson and Roger Miller, to name a couple. Those people could write some amazing songs, and with such a range of emotion, and storytelling, very funny, or very sad and tragic, or all mixed up. And those are people I grew up listening to, so even there I think there would have to be some song writing influence or inspiration. I think sometime I read somewhere that a real inspiration, when it is really in somebody they don’t even really think of it anymore, and I think that is probably the case with a whole lot of stuff that I would be inspired by, from the past in my life, but there are inspirations that are continuing. I just keep listening to more and more music, and I’m always being inspired.
AR: I have a question from a friend of mine, she wanted me to ask you: is Country Death Song based on a true story? And she mentioned that your pain seems palpable in the song.
GG: [chuckle] Well, that’s great for me as a balladeer or troubadour, or singer songwriter. It’s a made up story, except that of course something like that must have happened, and it’s probably happened a number of times. It wasn’t from anything I’ve read. That relates to the early influences of country music, there’s this tradition of folk songs that goes back to songs from England, Ireland, Scotland, Whales. There’s a tradition of a kind of a song that just tell these terrible, horrific stories and so I just felt like writing a song like that. I was giving myself my own song writing assignment. I was in high school, and each class period I just wrote another verse, and then I just assembled them at the end of the day. It was just this idea that I wanted to write a song like that.
AR: Thanks so much Gordon, we can’t wait to see the show at the Wilma in Missoula May 19th!