Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Add it Up – an interview with the elder statesmen of disaffected youth, the Violent Femmes

Ornette Coleman, according to your website trivia, listened to all your music and commented: “The music's great, but the words get in the way”. What do you think? Because the lyrics have often been startlingly original, have they overshadowed the music somewhat?

I don’t think the lyrics overshadow the music. But there are some people who don’t know how to relate to music. They are uneducated. That’s their problem. The lyrics and the music work together to create a knockout punch.

Two of your songs (Country Death Song, and I held her in my arms) were used in a study to determine the effect of exposure to songs with violent lyrics. The effect that popular music/film has on a listener/viewer is a long running debate – what do you think, and have the Violent Femmes ever worried, collectively, about a lyric?

Supposedly a mass murderer or suicide person had Hallowed Ground on their turntable at the time of the crime. I’m hazy on the details. We have never worried about the lyrics of a song in the past. It’s silly. Pop music and especially the audience and media are at least a century behind developments in visual art and literature. Can you imagine someone complaining about violent content in a book? No. That battle has been fought and won. Why should we have to limit ourselves because people outside the band are unimaginative? It has impacted us however because Gordon’s mother doesn’t like some of the songs and that has put a damper on his creativity. Recently Gordon came to me and Victor with a song casting pedophiliac rape and murder in a favorable light and that made us a bit squeamish because we are both parents. Hopefully that one comes out on a Gano solo album.

Australia, in particular, has taken to the Violent Femmes. Why do you think that is?

We were one of the first international bands to visit Australia after the advent of punk and new wave and we have repeatedly toured there to keep the spark alive. It may be as simple as our music is fun and Aussies like to have fun.

It's a given that any American band, these days, gets asked about George W. Bush and American politics when in Europe. The Violent Femmes, though, have written overtly political songs like Old Mother Reagan, and the more recent George Bush Lies. Isn't there a danger mixing music with politics? I'm all in favour of it when it's The Violent Femmes against George Bush, but there's the converse effect of people like Britney Spears using their celebrity to support Bush.

Write or sing about whatever you like and take your lumps if people disagree. Ezra Pound was a fascist. Most creative people are mentally ill, so it doesn’t really matter what their politics are. One of my favorite singers is Robert Wyatt, who is a devout Maoist or Stalinist. It doesn’t bother me if he keeps singing. The musician should take his inspiration from whatever, but that doesn’t mean the listener or viewer must share that inspiration to enjoy it.

In the book Nation of Rebels. Why counterculture became consumer culture by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, they write “Cobain was a graduate of what he called the “Punk Rock 101″ school of life. Much of the punk ethos was based on a rejection of what the hippies had stood for. If they listened to the Lovin’ Spoonful, we punks would listen to Grievous Bodily Harm. They had the Rolling Stones, we had the Violent Femmes”. ‘Counterculture’ is a vague and abstract concept at the best of times, and over the years the Violent Femmes have become a handy symbol for many to illustrate what counterculture, in musical terms, might mean. Is that something you, as a band, have been aware of?

Rolling Stones are one of my favorite bands and I go see them every chance I get. We had a book about the Rolling Stones in the studio when we recorded our first album, which we referred to as ‘the Bible’. That’s why Gone Daddy Gone has xylophone. It’s the Brian Jones influence. So we don’t consider ourselves the antithesis of the Rolling Stones. This is an example of a journalist overreaching. Kurt related to the Femmes because of his own introverted concerns which coincided with ours, not because he considered us emblematic of a larger movement. We are not. We’re not really even a rock band. We are three individuals who function as a rock band and otherwise have nothing in common with each other.

Labels and descriptions are, perhaps, a necessary evil for music journalism. As a former music journalist, how would you describe The Violent Femmes music?

I used to call it “Cubist Blues”.

It’s the band’s twenty-fifth anniversary this year, isn’t it? Any plans – new recordings for example – on the horizon?

We are on the eve of releasing Live in Iceland and we are filming a groovy movie about the Femmes musical impact on the world and the universe. Coming to theaters soon! Victor recently released a new CD with his band ‘Ha Ha Potato’. I have a new CD of Japanese flute music which should be out soon as well.

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