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Violent Femmes is an American punk rock band from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, initially active from 1980 to 1987 and again from 1988 to 2009. As of 2013, they are active again. The band has performed as a trio, including singer, guitarist and songwriter Gordon Gano, bassist Brian Ritchie, and four drummers: Victor DeLorenzo (1980–1993, 2002–2009 and 2013), Guy Hoffman (1993–2002), Brian Viglione (2013–2016), and John Sparrow (2016-present).
The Violent Femmes have released eight studio albums and fifteen singles during the course of their career. The band found immediate success with the release of their self-titled debut album in early 1983. Featuring many of their well-known songs, including "Blister in the Sun", "Kiss Off", "Add It Up" and "Gone Daddy Gone", Violent Femmes became the band's biggest-selling album and was eventually certified platinum by the RIAA. Violent Femmes went on to become one of the most successful alternative rock bands of the 1980s, selling over 9 million albums by 2005. After the release of their third album The Blind Leading the Naked (1986), the band's future was uncertain and they split up in 1987, when Gano and Ritchie went solo. However, they regrouped a year later, releasing the album 3 (1989). Since then, Violent Femmes' popularity continued to grow, especially in the United States where the songs "Nightmares" and "American Music" cracked the top five on the Modern Rock Tracks chart.
Early years and first album (1981–1983)
Violent Femmes was founded by bassist Brian Ritchie and percussionist Victor DeLorenzo following the demise of the initial wave of American punk rock, and became a full-fledged band upon the arrival of lead vocalist and guitarist Gordon Gano. According to Ritchie, he came up with the name of the group as a fake band name when one of his bandmates questioned his assertion that his brother was also in a band—he and DeLorenzo liked the name, so they used it for the rhythm duo they played in prior to Gano joining the group. In its early days, the band frequently played coffee houses and street corners. They were discovered by James Honeyman-Scott (of The Pretenders) on August 23, 1981, when the band was busking on a street corner in front of the Oriental Theatre, the Milwaukee venue that The Pretenders would be playing later that night. Chrissie Hynde invited them to play a brief acoustic set after the opening act.
Later years and brief split (1984–1992)
After their debut album Violent Femmes, they released Hallowed Ground, which moved the group towards a country music sound and introduced spiritual themes. Again, Van Hecke returned to the studio as producer. Their third album, The Blind Leading the Naked, saw a change in the studio. This time, another fellow Milwaukee native Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads did the producing. It was more mainstream and pop-oriented, resulting in a minor hit with "Children of the Revolution", originally by T.Rex. In 1985, Van Hecke ended his collaboration with the group and became a much sought after composer and producer in the rapidly growing video game industry. The Femmes briefly disbanded, with Gano releasing an album in 1987, the result of a gospel side project Mercy Seat. Ritchie also released several solo LPs. The group came back together in late 1988, releasing 3, a return to the band's earlier, stripped-down sound. Why Do Birds Sing? was released in 1991 after the band signed to Reprise and featured another minor hit, "American Music," which became a concert staple.
Post-DeLorenzo years (1993–1998)
In 1993, DeLorenzo departed the group to act and make solo records. Guy Hoffman, formerly of the Oil Tasters and BoDeans, was brought in to tour what was to become one of their biggest-selling records, the Add It Up (1981–1993) collection. Over the next nine years, Violent Femmes, with Hoffman, recorded five full-length CDs and a handful of one-offs for motion picture soundtracks, such as "I Swear It (I Can Change)" from the South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut soundtrack, "Color Me Once" for the soundtrack to The Crow and other compilation projects. The first full studio album with Hoffman on drums, New Times (Elektra Records), was released in 1994, and the band scored another minor hit with the song "Breaking Up." Rock!!!!! (Mushroom Records) was released in 1995 in Australia only, though it has since become available in the United States of America.
Later years and reunion with DeLorenzo (1999–2006)
Viva Wisconsin, a live album, was released in the United States in 1999 on the independent label Beyond, and was followed by Freak Magnet in 2000. Something's Wrong (2001), an album of unreleased studio tracks, covers, demos, and acoustic live performances was released as an MP3-only album through eMusic. In 2002, Rhino Records repackaged their debut 1983 album along with demos and live tracks to coincide with a 20th anniversary reissue. DeLorenzo asked to rejoin for what was to be a farewell tour, thus reinstating the original lineup.
On the 2002 SpongeBob SquarePants First Complete Season DVD, the Violent Femmes recorded a 34-second cover of the SpongeBob theme. They also recorded a 30-second commercial for Nickelodeon.
2005 saw the release of two collections of past work—a CD called Permanent Record: The Very Best of Violent Femmes on Slash/Rhino and a DVD, Permanent Record – Live & Otherwise from Rhino, which showcases a concert performance from 1991, along with many of the group's videos. The CD is the first record that recognizes all four musicians and their contributions on the same disc.
After touring in promotion of Freak Magnet, primary songwriter Gano decided that they would no longer make new music, but the band would continue to play shows when booked. On New Year's Eve of 2005, and for one show in January 2006, all four Violent Femmes members played together.
Lawsuit and disbanding (2007–2009)
In 2007, Gano angered Ritchie by selling advertising rights for the classic "Blister in the Sun" to Wendy's.
Although nearly all of the band's songs, including "Blister in the Sun," credit Gano as the sole songwriter, Ritchie responded to the use of the song in the commercial by saying:
"For the fans who rightfully are complaining about the Wendy's burger advertisement featuring "Blister in the Sun," Gordon Gano is the publisher of the song and Warners is the record company. When they agree to use it there's nothing the rest of the band can do about it, because we don't own the song or the recording. That's showbiz. Therefore when you see dubious or in this case disgusting uses of our music you can thank the greed, insensitivity and poor taste of Gordon Gano, it is his karma that he lost his songwriting ability many years ago, probably due to his own lack of self-respect as his willingness to prostitute our songs demonstrates. Neither Gordon (vegetarian) nor me (gourmet) eat garbage like Wendy's burgers. I can't endorse them because I disagree with corporate food on culinary, political, health, economic and environmental grounds. However, I see my life's work trivialized at the hands of my business partner over and over again, although I have raised my objections numerous times. As disgusted as you are I am more so."
Ritchie filed a lawsuit against Gano in August 2007, seeking half ownership of Violent Femmes' music and access to royalty accounting. Many speculated this would lead to the band's breakup. However, on June 17, 2008 the band released a cover of "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley who had previously covered "Gone Daddy Gone".
The band disbanded in 2009 as a result of Ritchie's lawsuit against Gano.
In January 2013, it was announced that the Violent Femmes would be reuniting and performing at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in April. They performed there, the Bottlerock Napa Valley in May and Milwaukee's Summerfest in June. The band is also on the bill for Riot Fest, which will take place in Chicago in September.
Drummer Victor DeLorenzo said that he would be open to recording new material with the Violent Femmes, but on July 15, 2013, it was announced that Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione would be replacing DeLorenzo as the band's drummer. In a statement, DeLorenzo said "It's always hard to write a eulogy for a lost loved one. In this case, I sadly lament the loss of a dream and an ideal that was once Violent Femmes."
The Violent Femmes played three shows as part of the 2013/2014 Falls Festival, performing at Marion Bay on 30 December, Lorne on 31 December and Byron Bay on 2 January. On May 11, 2014, they performed at the Shaky Knees music festival in Atlanta, GA.
The band played several shows in Australia around New Year of 2015, including the Woodford Folk Festival, the Sydney Opera House and MONA FOMA festival. In the midst of them, they recorded their first new material in fifteen years on New Year's Eve 2014 in Hobart, Tasmania. These four songs will be released on an exclusive four-song EP on clear 180-gram vinyl on April 18, 2015 for Record Store Day. The band then joined Barenaked Ladies and Colin Hay on a two-month tour in the summer of 2015.
In January 2016, Viglione announced via his Facebook page that he had "handed in his resignation" to the band; adding that he was "grateful to have had the experience."
Later that month, the band announced that their first album in sixteen years, We Can Do Anything would be released on March 22, 2016. Viglione is credited as the drummer on the album.
Drummer John Sparrow, who previously played cajón in the Femmes' backing band, the Horns of Dilemma, joined the band as their new drummer after Viglione's exit. On February 23, 2016, he appeared with the band on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" to promote We Can Do Anything.
Horns of Dilemma
In their shows, the Femmes employ a horn section called the Horns of Dilemma. For many years, it consisted of Peter Balestrieri, and Steve MacKay on saxophones and Sigmund Snopek III on keyboards and other instruments. It was augmented by whatever musicians the band invited to play with them on a particular night. The band now uses local acquaintances, famous or otherwise, friends, relatives, or associates of the band. Instrumentation varies widely and includes saxophones, trumpets, trombones, sousaphone, flute, clarinet, antique hunting horn, kazoo, and percussion. When the band plays "Black Girls" or "Confessions" the only instructions given to the players are to play as freely and wildly as possible. The group doesn't back up the band in the way that a traditional horn section would; they provide a free-form noise jam. Famous members have included John Zorn, Dick Parry, Blaise Garza and The Dresden Dolls. Longtime band associates and employees who have played with the Horns include soundman, Caleb Alexander, and Manager, Darren Brown.
In addition to the horn section itself, members include any additional musicians playing with the band. Additional Horns of Dilemma include John Sparrow who plays cajón box, and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Hamilton on guitar, bass, mandolin, bass trumpet and harmonica. Various bassists stand in for Ritchie during "Gone Daddy Gone," when he plays xylophone.
The Violent Femmes