Gordon Gano and Brian Ritchie don’t really agree on much.
But they make good music.
“We just disagree on, like, anything and everything, except when we play music,” Gano said in a phone interview last month. “When we’re playing the music, it works, and it sounds great.”
As the founding members of the Violent Femmes, Gano, the singer-songwriter-guitarist, and Ritchie, the bassist, along with original drummer Victor DeLorenzo, recorded some of the catchiest tunes of the 1980s, including “Blister in the Sun,” “Gone Daddy Gone” and “Add It Up,” from their self-titled 1983 debut. Their angsty pop-folk-punk sound never found massive chart success, although that debut record did go platinum – it just took eight years to do it. Instead, they were among the early wave of really great ’80s college radio bands, like R.E.M., Hüsker Dü and the Replacements.
This spring Gano and Ritchie came back with “We Can Do Anything” – the first new Violent Femmes album in 16 years. With an album comes a tour, one that stops at the Knitting Factory on Tuesday for a sold-out show. It’s the Femmes’ first Spokane gig since 2005, although they played Sasquatch at the Gorge in 2014.
The release of “We Can Do Anything” is the direct result of the band getting an offer three years ago to play at Coachella, Gano said, an offer that was “completely unsolicited because we had no intention of ever playing together again.”
“That got us talking about playing, and the show went well. We sounded good, we sounded the same, and people loved it. So we started doing some more shows and that led into the discussion about doing some new material.”
They started with a four-song EP, “Happy New Year,” released in 2015. Even that was a proposition fraught with tension.
“We have such disagreements,” Gano said, adding that they decided to get together in the studio for one day to see if it could work.
“And it did,” he said. “And it wasn’t easy. The same is true with the album, although it was easier having that one day experience and having come to some changes in views of how we were going to do this.”
So how bad was it? Neither Gano nor Ritchie seems keen to publicly air the trouble between them. Ritchie sued Gano in 2007 over songwriting credit, money, and Gano allowing Wendy’s to use “Blister in the Sun” in a commercial. They continued performing together for awhile, which was awkward, before officially breaking up in 2009.
Gano summed it up: “For years we hadn’t recorded, not because there weren’t songs, but because the disagreement in the band was very clear. We knew what we were disagreeing about, and the bass player just wouldn’t record any more of my songs.”
“We Can Do Anything,” is, Gano said, “in our stupid little world, it’s like a miracle.”
Some of the songs on “We Can Do Anything” date back decades. “Memory,” for instance, has been around for years but never recorded. Other songs, including “Issues” and “Foothills,” were done as co-writes and date back only a year or two.
They’re joined for this tour by drummer John Sparrow, a longtime member of the Femmes’ backing band the Horns of Dilemma. A couple or three of the new songs will make an appearance on the setlist. Mostly, the Femmes will be diving into the back catalog: “Blister,” “Gone Daddy,” “Add It Up,” along with “Black Girls,” “American Music,” “Jesus Walking on the Water,” among others.
As a songwriter, Gano said it’s gratifying to see fans go bonkers when they play a favorite tune from more than 30 years ago.
“It’s not just the same people” coming to the shows now who saw the band back then. “A majority of the people that come out to hear us play weren’t alive when we put out our first album. It’s very gratifying to see how the music communicates to different generations.”
Coming back to Spokane will be a little bittersweet for Gano. Although he was raised in Wisconsin, his roots in Spokane are deep. His father, Norman, was born and raised here, and he graduated from Whitworth College before pursuing a career as a Baptist minister and actor. As a kid, Gano and his family would come to Spokane to visit a large extended family during the summers, and in 1992 his parents retired to the Spokane Valley home where Norman Gano was raised. The Rev. Gano died in 2012, and Gano’s mother, Fay, has since relocated to the Boston area to be near one of her daughters. He’s not been back to town since he helped his mother downsize to make her cross-country move.
“I’ll be having quite a sizable guest list, because of my family’s roots,” he said of the Spokane show. “My earliest memories are connected with the house and people in Spokane. It’s a special place. There’s nothing else to compare it to in my personal life story.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.