ALTHOUGH IN A way it made sense that they were there, the Violent Femmes still felt a little out of place. In May, the band played the HFStival in D.C. I was there all day -- trying my best to keep cool with way overpriced bottles of water and trying to keep from going crazy after sitting through a succession of derivative metal rock acts on the main stage.
The Violent Femmes played in the middle of the day and offered a tamer, more nuanced take of so-called angst-ridden rock. I dug it, and the older listeners seemed to feel the Femmes. The younger folks, however, looked bored or were otherwise engaged -- passing reefer or talking about nothing.
"Yeah, we stood out a little there," says co-founder and bassist Brian Ritchie, who's calling from a tour stop in St. Paul, Minn. "It was kinda strange."
Performing at Artscape on Saturday night, the Femmes have been doing the geek rock thing for 20 years now. Although the Milwaukee band has put out 12 albums including a gold-selling retrospective, Add It Up, the Femmes are best known for their 1982 self-titled debut, which featured the oddball, minimalist classic "Blister in the Sun." Rhino (I love that label) recently reissued a two-disc deluxe edition of Violent Femmes with remastered sound and 26 bonus tracks.
I came to this album belatedly, and I can understand the reason it's considered a classic. It's fresh, the unorthodox musicianship and bare-bones production sound as if it could have been recorded just two weeks ago. But I wouldn't call myself a Femmes convert. Lead singer Gordon Gano, with his jittery style, is still a taste I haven't really acquired yet. But I can appreciate how daring the group was. Back in the early '80s, it was all about the synthesized noise. New wave had crashed upon pop.
"We have always tried to stay away from jumping on a bandwagon," Ritchie says. "When we recorded the first album, [artists] were tricking people with all the excess and the synthesizers. In the long run, people appreciate the more stripped-down approach."
Ritchie and drummer Victor De Lorenzo formed the Violent Femmes in 1980. A year later, Gano, still in high school, joined. To craft a sound and to earn extra coins, the guys performed on street corners in Milwaukee. One day, they were spotted by Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders. And on the spot the band was invited to open the group's show in town. The crowd, however, booed them. But in '82, the Femmes -- still sticking with their alternative, roots rock-punk hybrid -- scored a record deal with the Los Angeles-based Slash Records. They were just signed, understand. The company gave them no advance. The classic self-titled debut, which was eventually certified platinum in 1991, was recorded on a $10,000 loan De Lorenzo got from his pops.
"In some ways, we haven't evolved at all since the first album," Ritchie says. "We're doing a lot of the same songs but we haven't rearranged them much. We still improvise on stage. We go off on a tangent in the middle [of a song] usually."
But singing tunes about adolescent angst when you're past 40 can seem strange.
"Sometimes it is kind of ridiculous," Ritchie says. "You do a lyric like 'come on, Dad, give me the car,' and that's weird because my son asks me that now. It's a challenge to sing songs like that with the same conviction over the years."
The guys still tour all year long, playing clubs and rock festivals. Gano, the only member with no children, lives in New York, De Lorenzo and Ritchie are at home in Milwaukee.
Ritchie says, "You know, my 19-year-old son told me, 'Dad, I don't why but a lot of the kids at school think your music is really good.' It's not embarrassing for him. If your father is in a band, he might as well be in the Violent Femmes. So many young people are still listening to those records."
The Violent Femmes play the Value City Department Store Stage at Artscape on Saturday night at 8:30. For more on Artscape, see Page 13.