In the midst of an incredible comeback, we pick the brains of the legendary Violent Femmes

violent femmes
Illustration by the talented Martin Conway aka A Fistful of Dinosaurs.

Following a recent stint around Australia with a new record up their sleeves, the legendary Violent Femmes are feeling once again at the top of their game. We got to chat with them about playing Stephen Colbert, improvised set lists and which Aussie bands are doing it for them right now.

HAPPY: We want to talk about the album, but first and foremost; Stephen Colbert, what was it like doing that performance with him on the show?

VIOLENT FEMMES: We did not speak with Colbert before we did it. We invited him to sing backup on Blister In The Sun through his minders. When the show happened he came up to the mic and the rest of his part was totally improvised. It bordered on jazz scat vocalising. Obviously he was familiar with the tune. We were very impressed. A lot of people like to sing Blister in the shower but he got to do it for millions on TV.

HAPPY: Some of the first new material you recorded in 15 years was was done over NYE in Tasmania in 2014. Can you tell us what that time was like? I’d imagine it would be a big turning point that led to We Can Do Anything.

VIOLENT FEMMES: It was natural to go into the studio and run through the songs in the same room, live and with minimal or no overdubs. We wanted to approach it as a jazz or folk recording rather than an auto-tuned contemporary recording. We had enough fun with that to want to repeat it with a full LP. From my perspective the recordings were made the same way with almost the same team, so I see them as a body of work.

HAPPY: We Can Do Anything is your first full-length album in over a decade. Beyond the themes of the album, what does the album represent to you?

VIOLENT FEMMES: The album and preceding EP represent the rebirth of the band as a creative entity. We’ve always been a well-oiled live machine but it’s great to flex our recording muscles and come up with material worthy of our legacy. The songs have also been going over well live, so it renews the show as well. We’ve also been acting as our own record label, using larger labels to distribute. There’s a lot of freedom there, we have nobody but ourselves to answer to.

HAPPY: Did you work with a producer, or was it a self-recorded effort?

VIOLENT FEMMES: Jeff Hamilton plays with The Horns of Dilemma, our ancillary sidemen coterie, but he’s a great engineer and producer. So we turned the reins over to him, but not before discussing the desired aesthetic ad infinitum. All band members are reputable producers so there’s input from everybody into the finished product.

HAPPY: What was a typical day in the studio like for the band?

VIOLENT FEMMES: We didn’t have a typical day per se due to the divergent methods we used to record. In Brooklyn we spent 2 days in BC Studios which is a huge basement. Those tracks were recorded as a trio with only a few overdubs. In Nashville we had 7 people in a small room for one day, including the Femmes, Horns of Dilemma and Kevin Hearn from Barenaked Ladies. That had more of a jug-band feel to it. The other stuff was pieced together in Milwaukee, LA and Denver. In a few cases Gordon had made solo recordings and gotten attached to his vocal so we overdubbed the other instruments on top of that. This is backwards methodology but somehow we pulled it off seamlessly.

HAPPY: You just wrapped up your Aussie tour, how was that?

VIOLENT FEMMES: We did 16 sold out Antipodean shows (including NZ) to a variety of audiences. Four Day on the Green shows were with Hoodoo Gurus, Sunnyboys, Died Pretty and Ratcat so it was a retro crowd. Golden Plains was the camping kiddie crowd and the rest were headline shows in clubs and theatres. That’s the Femmes crowd which is now spanning from about 15-60. It’s a very healthy demographic range, which is not too far off from the range within the band itself at this point. We have always had a close relationship with the Aussie crowd dating back to 1984. There are now multi-generational families of Femmes fans here.

HAPPY: Do you feel a need to make each live show different from the last?

VIOLENT FEMMES: We do not use a setlist. I call the songs on stage. If you come to one of your shows, you can see the other guys looking to me after each song. It’s like a sports captain. This has always been our method because we believe each audience and setting is different and deserves consideration. Some audiences may be more of a listening crowd or moshing crowd for example. That doesn’t mean you simply pander to the crowd. A lot of it has to do with psychology, trying to lead the crowd in a certain direction culminating with peaks and leaving them satisfied.

HAPPY: You’re currently in Australia, are there any Aussie bands that have caught your eye?

VIOLENT FEMMES: I’m an Australian citizen. I’m the Music Curator at Mona (Museum of Old and New Art) in Tasmania. In that job I encounter hundreds or probably thousands of talented artists. One band I like and sometimes play with is Australian Chamber Orchestra. My favourite local band is Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. In fact I’m going to see them perform Brahms and Beethoven today. Then I also like national artists ranging from pop singers like Ngaiire, Paris Wells and Sophie Brous to contemporary composers like Robin Fox, Anthony Pateras and Lawrence English. Michael Kieran Harvey and Gabriella Smart are great proponents of Australian composers. I work in the desert as a mentor for indigenous bands from remote areas such as Rayella and Tjintu Desert Band. There is much great indigenous talent in Australia. Most goes under-recognised. I’m also involved in the improvised music scene with Australian Art Orchestra and their related projects. That’s a good mob. Then there are super artists relating to the immigrant experience such as Joseph Tawadros and Bombay Royale. In all these examples they are only the tip of the iceberg. Australia has a very healthy and active music scene.

HAPPY: We always talk about what makes us happy at Happy, so what makes you happy?

VIOLENT FEMMES: I am happy that I’m able to work in music as a performer and organiser. To work on something you love is an honour.

We Can Do Anything is out now!