When the organizers of Coachella reached out to the Violent Femmes to play this summer’s event, it had been six years since the much beloved indie-rock trio had performed a show, in part because of intra-band tensions.
“It was an offer that came to us through our booking agent,” singer-guitarist Gordon Gano tells EW. “I think he said in a communication, ‘I know there’s no chance in hell but I’ve got to let you know that there’s this going on.’ But we thought, ‘Yeah, alright, let’s see if we can get together and do this.’”
The band’s Coachella sets have led to more dates and on Thursday, Gano, bassist Brian Ritchie, and newbie drummer Brian Viglione — who is replacing recently departed founder member Victor DeLorenzo — will perform at Central Park SummerStage in New York (the trio are also playing Riot Fest in Chicago, September 14). Below, the trio ruminate about the reunion, recall making their now 30-year-old classic debut album, and explain why their band is basically just a piece of balsa wood drifting on the sea of life.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: As a British person, I’m not allowed to attend Coachella in case I burst into flames. But how was that experience for you?
BRIAN RITCHIE: It was hot but it was great. As soon as we started playing “Blister in the Sun” it was pretty amazing. As soon as that song started we just saw the people descending like insects, as if someone had dropped some honey and the ants started moving towards it. You know, the Femmes’ music is relatively simple and direct, and then we have this other member of the band which is called the audience which helps us out quite a bit with the background vocals and always makes us feel comfortable. So it’s been easy to move back into the performing territory.
What was the rehearsal period like?
BRIAN RITCHIE: Minimal. [Laughs.] We usually don’t rehearse but since we had six or seven years off we thought maybe we should a little bit.
GORDON GANO: Like Brian said, it was completely natural. I think we all did a little review, just reacquainting ourselves with the songs, listening to it or thinking about it for a moment or two. And so when we got together there was just that flow that’s always been there.
BRIAN RITCHIE: It’s been great. We got together in the studio with Brian and that was also a good experience, just kind of goofing around, part of the getting-acquainted process. We haven’t done any live shows with him yet. That’s going to be his debut in Central Park, which is appropriate considering that Brian lives basically overlooking Central Park.
Other Brian, you have a regular gig as one half of the Dresden Dolls, alongside singer Amanda Palmer. How did you get involved with the Violent Femmes?
BRIAN VIGLIONE: The Dresden Dolls did a tour in Australia in January in 2012. On a day off in Perth, Amanda and I decided to text Brian, who lives in Australia, and ask if he would be interested in performing the first Femmes record. He did and then we asked Mick Harvey from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and John Parish, who plays with PJ Harvey amongst other things, if they would be interested in playing guitar. So we did a performance of the first Femmes record and it went over great. The following April, I got a call from Brian.
It sounds like this was all some absurdly elaborate attempt to audition for the band.
BRIAN VIGLIONE: Yeah, basically. It started of as just sort of a whim and lo and behold, it led to this.
BRIAN RITCHIE: That was totally spontaneous. There was no plan as usual. That’s been the history of Violent Femmes. No plan! It’s just kind of a balsa-wood raft on the ocean going wherever the winds blow it.
This tour also commemorates the 30th anniversary of the first, self-titled Violent Femmes album. What do you remember about recording that?
BRIAN RITCHIE: Yeah, it does coincidentally commemorate that and it’s a good synchronicity and at least in my case that was part of my decision to go along with doing these shows. These numbers are arbitrary, I suppose, but when you get decades on with an album and people are still living the contents of that album, it’s probably good to commemorate it. What was it like to record the album? That happened at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, actually.
Wait, you recorded it by Lake Geneva?
GORDON GANO: Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. [Both Gano and Ritchie crack up]
BRIAN RITCHIE: We recorded onto multitrack but there’s no evidence of that anymore, because the studio went out of business and they put the tapes into a landfill site. [Laughs] So when they wanted to remix it they couldn’t get the multitracks. That was an interesting little thing.
Sorry, I’m still recovering from the thought of you being in a Playboy Club by the other, more famous, Lake Geneva, recording the album while sipping from flutes of champagne.
BRIAN RITCHIE: It wasn’t like that.
Gordon Gano: No. And actually the Playboy Club was on its way out or almost done or was done, I thought. That image that you first got was about as wrong as it could be. [Laughs]
BRIAN RITCHIE: That was a time when it wasn’t very easy to record. You had two-inch tape, it was a big deal, and we were investing in it ourselves so we were acutely aware of the time passing. Luckily, the band was really tight because we were doing a lot of shows.
Do you regard this as a temporary reunion? Do you have any plans to record or carry on past this year?
BRIAN RITCHIE: We’re playing it by ear, seeing how things go. We don’t have any plans not to continue. We’ll continue as long as it makes sense.
Other Brian, have you been the victim of any “new drummer” hazing?
BRIAN VIGLIONE: No, but I’m looking forward to the hazing period. That’s always the most exciting part about joining a new group, you never know what kind of pie-in-the face you’re going to get.
GORDON GANO: I wasn’t even thinking about that — but now you gave me something to think about.