Violent Femmes co-founder Gordon Gano is not only a singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, he also happens to be a Friend of the Denver Folklore Center. We spoke to Gordon on the day of his first live concert since the pandemic began and discussed his relationship with the store, playing live music again, his musical influences and more.
When Harry Met Gordon
Gordon’s visits to the Folklore Center started quite a while ago, when founder Harry Tuft still owned the store. “I go so far back that I’ve picked up CDs there. I talked with Harry - and later saw him play and sing, which I enjoyed very much - and read up on the whole history of the place. What he’s done is just great. At one point Harry had me sign a book, something along the lines of him saying ‘I have no idea who you are, but some people who work here say I should have you sign this book’. It was so honest. I think very nice thoughts of him.”
He says he “loves the store. It’s something that’s special for me. The relaxed feeling, there’s not big pressure, just letting people play and check out instruments and take their time. Not every place is like that. I’ve picked up all kinds of supplies, guitar straps, odds and ends. I explored the different range of banjo picks and talked about them with people at the store and found the ones that worked for me. I saw a ukulele on the wall. It was beautiful and it sounded so nice. I had been thinking about getting a special gift for somebody, so I bought it and it’s still getting played today.”
From Old Country to Punk
Growing up, Gordon was surrounded by different types of music. He listened to everything from country music (like Roger Miller and Johnny Cash and the Carter Family) to gospel (his father was a minister) to Broadway tunes. “My father played guitar and sang, so there was always an acoustic guitar in the corner of the room, leaning up against some books – it’s part of my earliest visual memory. Both my parents were in theater and my mother had been on Broadway in the ‘50s in a musical. When I was little, I could sing ‘Oklahoma’ from start to finish, except when it started spelling - I couldn’t spell, so I’d start saying different letters.”
Later, his siblings introduced him to bands like The Dave Clark 5 and Bob Dylan. “I had older brothers and sisters – some attended Woodstock – and some played guitar and sang. Then one of my brothers was in New York City and got into punk rock. So that stuff started getting to me, which was phenomenal and where I was headed. And mixed in there was a brother who sent me a Van Morrison album – how amazing and great that was!
“Somewhere along the line I heard The Velvet Underground and how that connects with Lou Reed and John Cale. I think we (the Violent Femmes) are in the ranks of who knows how many bands who sound so different, but their collective favorite and most inspiring band for them is the Velvet Underground.”
With all of these influences, it’s no wonder the music of the Violent Femmes has such a distinct sound. “Maybe another part of our sound is that myself and our bass player Brian Ritchie…and I’ve had inklings of this over the years, but he doesn’t follow the same chords I do in many cases, he finds his own way. It’s usually a major/minor difference, but it works for us.”
Gordon is a man of many musical talents. Not only does he write, sing and play guitar, he also plays banjo, fiddle and the piano. He sees the value in taking music lessons as he took (violin) lessons through elementary school - "I’m very grateful for that. It was public school and they still had a music program. I could never improvise with the violin, but maybe 10 years ago, because I had been doing some work with the piano, I thought what if I take this idea and play it on the fiddle. It opened up a whole new world for me!
“So, if you play more than one instrument, you might get some kind of insight or inspiration that you can take to another instrument. That happened to me in a huge way with the piano. And it made it so that the violin is my favorite instrument by far to improvise with. Even to the point where I may have some favorite keys to play in, but I can make some adjustments in terms of patterns rather than every single note. I said to a musician friend (who has seen me learn how to play the violin over time in public) ‘I can just play in any key and it doesn’t matter to me!’ and he said ‘Well, it’s about time’.”
Gordon is a huge fan of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s teaching of the Mikrokosmos. “It’s a lot of things he wrote for children and for learning to play the piano. And for my learning and my ear and how I feel a lot of the dissonance and a lot of the modal writing, which he does from the start for anyone just learning, to the degree where it sounds like it’s wrong. I have to check and see that, yeah, that’s what Bartók wants. It appeals to me as a sound. So however slow I am going, I keep working at it. I really love it.”
Being in the Folklore Center inspired Gordon to take up banjo. “Something about seeing all the instruments hanging there and the great vibe of the place made me think maybe I should learn to play some banjo. I asked about it and the Folklore Center has a rental program. I thought, this deal is amazing! It can go toward the purchase of the instrument. So, I really enjoyed that.”
After renting for a while, Gordon says he “burned” the store when it came time to buy a nicer instrument. “I had already grown fond of my inexpensive banjo. I like the way it feels and plays. It’s very lightweight. I still play some other banjos, but I’m happy with the one I started off with.” (It’s okay – no hard feelings.)
He still plays the banjo in concert with Violent Femmes and has done gigs just playing banjo with different groups like Micrograss.
Start Playing and Just Do Your Best
Gordon has never let being a beginner stop him from playing an instrument on stage. “The key to playing an instrument is to enjoy playing wherever you are. Don’t ever think you’re too old. Just start. It should be fun and enjoyable from the very start. Someone who has seen me play on stage over the years commented how much I’ve improved and ‘how do I do that – get up on stage and just play’. And that’s part of who I am. I’m doing my best.
“I know someone who loves guitar so much and has some expensive guitars but won’t play. And here’s the reason - because they heard someone who played so great and they loved them so much that they thought ‘I’ll never, no matter how much I work at it, I’ll never play like that’. And that made them not want to play. I’m the opposite. I heard someone years ago who said they started playing the fiddle or violin because they looked at me playing and thought, I can do that! I can do better than that! So, I’m inspiring people to play.”
Did you know banjo virtuoso Tony Trischka has played music with the Violent Femmes? “He played on our second album (which goes back to the early 1980s), then recently for a live thing we had put out - he sat in with us on a couple of tunes and has sat in with us many times. I’m sure he can go through his normal life and not get recognized. But I was at the Folklore Center and saw a lot of books with instruction and saw Tony Trischka and said ‘Oh he’s a friend of mine’ and I think somebody who didn’t know the Violent Femmes thought that was a big deal, so that was fun and got me some credit. And he’s always been so nice.”
Now that he’s back on tour, Gordon’s not exactly nervous playing for a live audience again. “I feel an intensity about it. I feel the need to be focused and have been going over a lot of songs. We (Violent Femmes) have never had - unless it’s a special situation where it’s absolutely essential - we don’t ever use a set list. It’s sets up an orientation of spontaneity. I think we go from song to song faster than most bands who do have a set list. But that also means knowing a lot of songs. If we’re going to play twenty, we need to know forty to sixty songs. So not having played live in a year and a half means we have to focus.”
Gordon and his band have countless fans around the world, including other musicians. “I’ve heard from so many people that the Violent Femmes have been an influence for them, which is a great honor, it’s amazing.”
If you’re in Colorado, get ready to see the Violent Femmes as their tour brings them to The Mission Ballroom in Denver on October 20th with Flogging Molly. Get your tickets HERE.
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com - Dan Garcia