Published Mar 03, 2016Violent Femmes have a new album, their first since 2000's Freak Magnet — and it's good. The record hearkens back to the live, stripped-down sound that helped make the trio's ubiquitous 1983 self-titled debut and its folkier follow-up, 1984's Hallowed Ground, classics, but with new guests and surprises.
Out Friday (March 4) on PIAS America/Sony, We Can Do Anything captures on tape some of the raw excitement and glee characteristic of the band's recent live appearances. Apparently the band — Gordon Gano and Brian Ritchie are the sole remaining original members — are getting along "probably better than ever," but the future (and present) of the band hardly always looked so good.
"Our bass player [Ritchie], decided that he didn't want to record any more songs that I wrote," singer, guitarist and banjo player Gano tells Exclaim!, summarizing the band's years of notorious conflict. "So that was that. But now he's okay with it again."
What brought the Femmes back from extinction was most certainly an offer too good to refuse, to play Coachella in 2013. "It was an enormous offer for us," Gano says. "It was all-time, beyond anything, ever. That made it so we started communicating again."
Coachella has a history of getting bands back together — "They were the ones who got the original Stooges, who were all alive at that time, back playing together," says Gano — and they can now add Violent Femmes to their list.
The Femmes returned last year with a four-song Record Store Day EP called Happy New Year, recorded on New Year's Eve 2014 in Tasmania, with then-drummer Brian Viglione, who recorded We Can Do Anything before announcing his resignation in January.
"He's decided he wants to do other things, so that's fine," says Gano. "It was great playing with him."
This time, the band have solved their perennial drummer issue (four drummers have swapped out five different times) by "promoting from within," moving cajon player John Sparrow, who's been part of the band's auxiliary band Horns of Dilemma for over a decade, onto drums (and charcoal grill).
The classic sound of the new album isn't an accident. "It was driven very strongly by Brian Ritchie's perspective of wanting to record mostly live and acoustic," says Gano, "which we'd done a lot of through the years, but more on our earlier albums than on later ones."
By live, Gano really means live, including his lead vocals: "We did 'I Could Be Anything,' 'Traveling Solves Everything' and 'What You Really Mean' all in one afternoon while we were on tour in Nashville. That was just getting everybody in the room and barely learning these songs and then recording them all together."
The three exceptions were co-writes, products of Gano's recent experiment with blind-date style co-writing, that the band built up track-by-track from demos initially not created with the Femmes in mind: "Foothills," "Holy Ghost" and "Issues."
"My manager asked 'Would you like to write songs with other people?'" says Gano, "and I have, but always with projects that were ongoing, or with friends. In this case, it was get on a plane, fly to Los Angeles, and your schedule says you'll meet so-and-so in this place and you're gonna write a song. And it worked."
Another reason We Can Do Anything sounds like vintage Femmes is that it partly kind of is — "Memory" is 20 years old, and there are a couple of other songs that were written about 25 years ago. The old songs aren't necessarily the ones that you'd guess: jaunty kids song "I Could Be Anything," about knights and kings and dragons, happens to be one.
"It hung out on a cassette tape for 25 years and I totally forgot about it," says Gano. "Actually it was hearing another group called Breathe Owl Breathe, from Michigan — their live show was just great — [that reminded me] I have a song like that."
Yet "Memory" and "Big Car" sound classic, the latter in particular careens out of the band's past with Blaise Garza's huge contrabass sax, Ritchie's thudding bass and Gano's urgent guitar and unmistakable vocals.
"That one was very controversial," Gano says of the song, a surprise teenaged murder song steeped in creepy charisma. "We've had it for years, and played it live a little bit. There's always been somebody in the band that didn't want to do it, because they found the lyrics so objectionable. Which is interesting, because, really? That's the song you picked to object to? But that's the one.
"I finally made a case for it this time: I said, 'well, you better not be enjoying any Coen Brothers films, you better not be listening to any Lou Reed' — I'm not saying it's a good thing to be creepy and driving around high schools and trying to get girls and then [killing them] [yet] all those songs with the guy who takes her out for a walk and leaves her, that's the tradition, and those are the songs that I grew up hearing, so I probably just fall into continuing [it] because that's just kind of the genre."
But why is it always young women being killed? "I think that's a great point," Gano says. "There's gotta be — are there any woman that you know that are writing songs about killing men?"
On the other end of the spectrum, the Femmes include a melodic love ballad the likes of which you've probably never heard from them before, called "What You Really Mean," written by Cynthia Gayneau, Gano's oldest sister, and originally recorded by her about 30 years ago.
"I didn't tell anybody it was her song until it came time for putting the album credits together," says Gano. It was Toronto songwriter Kevin Hearn's favourite. (Hearn, who met the band while they were on tour with Barenaked Ladies, contributes accordion, guitar, piano, organ and backup vocals to the album, as well as artwork.)
"He thought it was the best-written one," says Gano. "And I don't disagree. So I said, 'thank you,' and I'm thinking to myself 'on behalf of my sister,' cause you're saying my best song is actually the one I didn't write!"
Check out the band's upcoming North American tour plans here and listen to We Can Do Anything over here.