Ahead of the release of Violent Femmes’ 10th studio album, Gordon Gano talks Maria Bocci through nine songs that shaped his adolescence and inspired an enduring pursuit of creating music
Gordon Gano is in Cape Cod, wrapping up Violent Femmes’ upcoming album Hotel Last Resort, when we talk about the songs that reflect his own musical journey. Before we talk about those songs, he has another question in his mind and jokes that whilst the album is finished, could he go back and do something different?
One of the most difficult aspects of planning album number 10 was coordinating with his bandmates - bassist Brian Ritchie lives in Tasmania, drummer John Sparrow lives in Wisconsin and Gano lives in Colorado. Despite the thousands of miles of distance between them all, recording time was scheduled post-tour.
Violent Femmes’ last album, 2016’s We Can Do Anything, was their first in 16 years and Hotel Last Resort came about largely because the band felt it was time for the next one. “We just thought, ‘Would it be time to make another album? And we felt ‘Yeah we’d like to do that.’ It’s good to be creative. It’s always an interesting challenge to have songs take shape and decide which will be the final version,”
Gano grew up surrounded by music from every genre imaginable. His parents were in musical theatre, his father and siblings played guitar and he took up violin at school. “I still love playing violin, not exactly any pure style, but more of a fiddle than a violin,” says Gano. In his teenage years his older brother introduced him to punk, which inspired Gano to write his own music.
Given his musical upbringing, Gano’s listening library is diverse. From Broadway musicals, to American folk, to punk, as a genre agnostic artist, he doesn’t feel there’s any overlap in his tastes and inspiration; they’re equally important to his art. Starting with a keystone of funk music, Gano tells us biographically why these nine songs propelled him into the world of making music.
“I still listen to ‘If You Want Me To Stay’ with great pleasure, it never diminishes. I first heard it when it came out, or close to it; I think I was 9 years old or roughly there. Somebody had the single of it in the neighborhood where I was living, which was Connecticut at the time. I liked it, but then over the years whenever I would hear it I kept liking it more and more and more.
“It was the overall thing, I think it’s his phrasing, it's so wild and so groovy - I’m trying not to say the word 'funky', but it is! It's his vocal delivery and how he’s singing, Sly Stone had these little jumps or big jumps going way up high or dropping way down low. It’s kind of crazy, but it’s all making sense. And that bass line is such a hook, it’s the whole way through. The whole tune starts off with that bass playing a beautiful, very melodic and funky groovy line.
“I love this song. It was probably my first time hearing music like that, and to me it’s still one of the greatest tracks, the bass line on it, just the way he sings it and the song itself. It’s still one that I’ll put on sometimes late at night. I love everything about it.”
“The amazing thing about this song is that I heard this album after I had seen and heard Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers play it live at Max’s Kansas City, and it was basically the same group doing the same songs.
“I think it was 1977 or 1978. I was 15 and I went for an Easter break vacation from high school, it was my first trip by myself; I had an older brother living in New York City and my family was living at Wisconsin at that time. I went and stayed with him and he was into all the punk stuff that was going on. He looked to see what was playing he said ‘Johnny Thunders is great and he’s playing at Max’s Kansas City.’
“It was the most exciting experience I ever had with rock and roll. I think it’s because the music appealed to me, I’d never heard it before, I never heard any recording or anything about this Johnny Thunders, any of the songs or anything. I think it’s also because of the age I was, because being fifteen everything was this great discovery in the world of music for me at that time, particularly with all things of rock and roll.
“Punk music was this thing that just hit me; it hit me in a perfect place, and of course there’s a great variety. That live show is riveting and inspiring in every way. With the music, the sound, guitar and then the attitude, the swagger and the craziness of it. Everything was appealing to me. I felt that this is what I wanted to do, and this confirmed it.”
“I love that whole album, Coney Island Baby, I like the whole way that album was done. It’s got a cooler, very studio thing going on with all these ‘Oohs’ and ‘Ahh’s’ on the vocals all over the place.
“With ‘Crazy Feeling’, I can’t be sure, but I think I heard it on the radio when it first came out. I think I was going to kindergarten somewhere; that was the ‘60s for me! I heard that ‘bum, bum, bum’, that sort of that chiming thing that goes on, and I really liked it and the sound of the guy’s voice singing.
“At this point, it could’ve been a vivid dream that I’m remembering, but I think it actually was that song that I heard that on the radio and mixed in with everything else it caught my ear, at whatever age I was, whenever that song might’ve gotten a couple plays on a radio station. We would’ve been listening to a New York station at that time, living in Connecticut, or a Connecticut station.”
“I would’ve been fourteen or fifteen years old and in Wisconsin when I heard this. I was in high school and there was somebody who had some shared interests and liked certain kinds of music. I'd never heard the Ramones before and he said I had to hear them, so he let me borrow his Ramones album. This would’ve been around ‘78 or ‘79 maybe.
“That’s the strongest memory I have of putting a needle on an album and hearing something I’d never heard before. It was instant and immediate - 'this sounds so good'. I feel like there’s ‘before I heard the Ramones’ and then ‘after I heard the Ramones’ as a point in time for me, because it was the strongest feeling I ever had of hearing something on an album and within a couple of seconds going ‘'Yes, this is amazing.'
“I thought, ‘I’m so late to find out about them’ because they had already been around for three or four years, and ‘Wow, what a shame that I found out about them this late, after they’d been around so long.’ Now, looking back at it, I think I caught them pretty early, so that’s good!”
“I grew up hearing the original Carter Family recording, my Father had it on an album compilation of their recordings. I grew up hearing that from my earliest memories and then he would play the song and sing it, sometimes on the guitar. He even wrote some other lyrics for it once for a family reunion to sing about the different branches of the family.
“Now, whenever I have the chance to I join in with a bluegrass jam session, which always ends every one of their jams. with playing and singing ‘Can The Circle Be Unbroken’ and even ending with everyone singing a capella, which is really a fun experience.
“I’ve always loved the song from when I was a little child and I still sing it and play it. It’s the only thing that would be on the list that I would ever sing and play, or at least regularly sing and play, so it’s part of my life.
"I really like the sentiment of it, especially the chorus. My father isn’t around anymore; he would play and sing it and my older brothers and sisters would play and sing it, so I grew up with that in the family, which is enormous for me. I feel like I’m a continuation of that.”
“I’d known nothing of Serge Gainsbourg until I was co-producing an album by a French group called Louise Attaque. Their first album ended up being the biggest rock album in France, which was an amazing thing. Being with these French people and making this album, myself and my co-producer asked, ‘Well, what music would you recommend for us to listen to, things that we might not know that you could tell us about. What do you like? Because we like your music and what you do, so what is it that you like?’
“This was the first thing that somebody there said, ‘This is what you have to hear, this is great,’ and it just struck me that way.
“We went to a big record store and said to everybody in the band, ‘Why don’t you pick out music for us? What’s the two or three CDs that are the best, or that you think we need to hear?’ We wouldn’t know a lot of this or maybe any of it, and one of them recommended this and everybody agreed, ‘This is something you need to hear.’
“It didn’t sound like anything I’d heard before and I immediately liked it very much, the whole album. And then I found out about Serge Gainsbourg and all the things he did for decades, all different kinds of music. I think he’s really one of the great ones.”
“There’s a lot of albums and a lot of artists. There are bands or individuals in which the body of their work or an entire album would be big for me, but then, trying to think of just one track, I felt there should be something from Dylan, because I think he’s the greatest. That album John Wesley Harding, I might have listened to that more than any other Dylan and I still listen to it occasionally. I love it, and ‘All Along The Watchtower’ in particular.
“At that time, I hadn’t heard Jimi Hendrix do it or any other people do it, it was just this song. There’s something so dreamlike about it, something about it that feels mystical, even before I might have known the word mystical. It’s almost like the song is over without anything having happened. Or did it? I don’t know. I still don’t know. Did something happen? Did nothing happen?
“Of course, there’s the chord change and the sound of it. I love the whole album, how stripped down it all is, but with this song it’s the lyrics which really got me. It’s almost like remembering some words or images from a dream and it’s strongly felt, but then it can’t really be interpreted in the waking light.
“I was either at home or at a friend’s house when I first heard it and this probably adds to the magic of it. The album was really old and had been played so much when myself and one of the brothers closest to my age got it. To listen to it, there’s so many crackles and pops, it was almost like a fireplace is going. As I was listening to the music through all these crackling and pops and static, it was like listening to some really old thing that’s somehow getting transmitted to you.”
“This is from Rock 'n' Roll Animal, which I don’t listen to anymore and haven’t for years. I prefer to listen to - and really enjoy - other versions of ‘Sweet Jane’ much more. This has the big dual-electric guitar thing going on, and a long intro before he comes onstage. You can hear the audience respond after it’s gone on for several minutes and gone through all this sort of classic rock sounding stuff, which I liked a little bit when I first heard it, but now it doesn’t really speak to me.
“I’m remembering it because he’s coming onstage and the way he starts singing. I think this was first album that I had, or got out of a library, that I was able to listen to a bunch of times. I listened to it a lot of times and I really liked the song.
“Shortly after that, the brother I stayed with in New York City, who took me to the Johnny Thunders show, had actually been at the concert that they recorded Lou Reed’s Rock 'n' Roll Animal. He and friends were there, they were way in the back. They did two shows, two sets, with two audiences. For the next one they didn’t have all the seats filled in the front, so my brother and his friends got invited to be up front for the second show, so one of those crowd people screaming or yelling could have been him. He was there at the show and that was a little extra or bonus I found out after the fact.
“Speaking of that, it’s possible that I got a lot of stuff out of a library and kept checking things out, he would give me some albums for Christmas or a birthday, so it’s possible that that one came from him as well - which sort of makes sense if he was there at that concert!”
“My Mother and Father were both in theatre and in some movies. My Mother was on Broadway in the ‘50s before I was around, in a musical, I think she was in it for two or three years. They always did things together, they were always getting the Broadway musicals and listening to them and getting into records.
“Broadway musical cast albums are part of my earliest memories. I’ve been told that I would - as children can often do - absorb them and memorise it all, so on a family trip somewhere I would start singing them the whole way through. All of he songs in this musical or that musical, or whatever one they’ve been playing a lot of, or whichever one I maybe liked more and asked to keep hearing.
“That’s been a big part of my writing; to have a storytelling aspect, a certain variety, a certain sense of those characters. It’s not all autobiographical, that’s often mixed in when I write and perform - to have that sense of playing or acting and storytelling.
“This song is from Man of La Mancha. which was one of my favorites, that was one of the ones I could sing all the way through, and was one stayed with me more. Occasionally I would listen to it even when I was older than six years old, there’s something about a lot of those songs that connected with me.
“With ‘Dulcinea’ in particular it’s the heartfeltness and the melody of it. And then it’s actually sung by other people with a different beat, a different groove and a different attitude, the same words are sung in a mocking and taunting way.
“I was recently thinking of this - and I didn’t realise at the time - but to learn as a child that a song can be done in such different ways. The same song, the same words, the same chorus, the same melody, can be done as a sincere, heartfelt love, and then also could be done as absolute mocking, taunting and a violent aspect to it, instead of the most tender. It’s the same thing, but a different way and a different attitude. I think there’s something about it that I probably had taken in a very natural way, because I was hearing it.
“Actually, from very, very early on, there was a Violent Femmes show or two that I sang a little bit of that song as a little intro to some other song that we did, because it seemed like it would be fun to do or it was in my head to do it. So it even made it to a Violent Femmes concert once or twice in the very early years of our band.”