Violent Femmes’ Healed Blisters Make Way for a Valiant Return

Photo: Ebru Yildiz

by Yasmine Shemesh

Published in print and online in the May 2016 issue of BeatRoute Magazine

Slaying a dragon, marrying a princess, and becoming king. It’s stuff storybooks are made of and also, metaphorically, Violent Femmes. The longstanding band recite this fantastical tale in “I Could Be Anything” on their new album, We Can Do Anything, but beneath the song’s childlike facade, folk-drunk instrumentals, and Gordon Gano’s playful sneer lays something more — an optimistic declaration of sorts. For bassist Brian Ritchie, it affirms the fearless attitude of the Femmes when they make music.

The Milwaukee post-punks found immediate success in 1982 with their self-titled debut that produced iconic stomps like “Blister In The Sun” and “Add It Up.” We Can Do Anythingis their first full-length in 16 years, following a number of makeups and breakups that came to a head when Ritchie famously sued Gano for selling advertising rights to Wendy’s. After reuniting in 2013 at Coachella for an intended one-off performance, they soon found themselves back on the road and in the studio. For the record, Ritchie and Gano are getting along “just fine.”

“There’s something about the band that you start out with that you can never really shake,” Ritchie says. “That’s like the defining moment. People always associate you with that band. They look at the other things as subsequent musical projects, but on an emotional level, you’re always associated with that band. This is probably one of the reasons bands continue and one of the reasons bands reform.”

It’s not the warmth of nostalgia, however, that makes Violent Femmes’ return a triumphant one, but the magic that happens when the talents of Ritchie and Gano combine. Ritchie acknowledges that it can only be truly captured with the two side-by-side and much of the essence has to do with the spontaneous spirit that arises from their collaboration — something rooted in never succumbing to contemporary music trends.

“When we recorded the first album, we made a conscious decision to avoid any kind of production methodology that was current at that time — which was 1982 — so that the album would be able to be interpreted as having come from the past or the future,” he explains. That ethos has been carried throughout their catalogue and again with We Can Do Anything, on which the rambunctious blend of folk, punk, jazz, and blues is highlighted through contributions from freestyle section Horns of Dilemma, drummer Brian Viglione, and Barenaked Ladies’ multi-instrumentalist Kevin Hearne.

They recorded live off the floor — a method utilized often in the band’s earlier days (“It’s an earthier way of recording,” Ritchie maintains) — and dipped into Gano’s songwriting archives, some material spanning over 20 years. “I [wouldn’t] be surprised if every album had songs that were written before the band even started,” Ritchie says. “And considering the band has been around for 35 years, that’s saying something.” Since the new effort wasn’t exclusively written as a body of work, the Femmes cultivated a sonic flow to create a cohesive experience. “Then,” Ritchie continues, “the question becomes ‘what angle are we working, what do we want to do, what kind of statement are we making as a whole?’”

Beyond the title’s blatancy, the statement We Can Do Anything makes is about perseverance. It’s something that resonates with the Femmes, both in personal relations and from a musical standpoint. “People have this idea that we came out with two really strong albums and after that it was a little bit shaky and I wouldn’t entirely disagree with that,” Ritchie says. Following works that are considered masterpieces can be nerve-wracking, he admits, but “you just have to put on your ‘I don’t give a shit’ hat and go ahead and do it anyway.”

After all, Violent Femmes have always done whatever they’ve wanted — an approach that reflects what they themselves respect in music: integrity, endurance, and unabashed boldness. “The more we put that into our own music,” Ritchie says, “the more legitimate our music is.”