This article originally appeared on Boston Band Crush ).
This blog has been around a little over a year and I’ve gotten the chance to cover and be a part of a lot of awesome things. But what’s topping my list of highlights right now was the opportunity I had on Sunday evening to have a delightful phone call with one of my (and probably yours also) musical idols, Mr. Gordon Gano (of Violent Femmes fame). I have to admit, I was super nervous when I hit ‘dial’ on the phone. However, within a few minutes, we settled in and we were sharing a few laughs. I even had the pleasure of having Gordon school me on not being familiar with Penn and Teller. My goal with the interview was to scratch the surface of Gano as a songwriter and craftsman, and to get the scoop on his new album, Under the Sun, which he worked on with the Ryan Brothers (formerly, and possibly presently, of the The Bogmen). They are on tour with Gano now, and will be appearing at The Middle East Downstairs on Thursday (11/12/09). Opening up the night are two Boston-Band-Crush-recommended local bands, Mascara and Sidewalk Driver. If you can’t make Boston, but you are in Northampton, Gordon Gano and the Ryans are stopping there first on Wednesday 11/11/09, playing at The Ironhorse. Tickets for the Middle East show are available at Ticketmaster or at the box office, or at the door the day of the show.
On to the interview:
Sophia: You are touring on a new record, Under the Sun, which you are backed by the Ryan Brothers, how did you get hooked up with them?
We all lived in the same neighborhood. At a certain point, somebody made an introduction. Must have been a mutual friend, and I feel like it probably started as ‘you don’t know Billy or you don’t know Brendan?’ Like, oh, I thought you knew each other. That would have been probably about 10 years ago. It was at the time when The Bogmen had very recently split up. It was somewhere around then. Of course, now, they play occasionally and get a lot of fans out to see them. That was what was happening and we’d just see each other in the neighborhood and we’d talk about different things – and a lot of music, and yeah, it was good. Then, somebody brought up something about how they were working on music, some music that was used in films and TV and other things like that. The idea came up to see if I’d be interested in hearing some instrumentals and to see if I would come up with lyrics. So that’s how that started. And I’m guessing it was probably Brendan’s idea; maybe it was my idea! I know that sounds like something I’d like to do! …and I have done it! So I don’t know – it was a mutual thing.
Speaking of the neighborhood, I remember the first time there was a hand off, when [Brendan] had a CD of tracks of instrumental music, that for some reason, I don’t know, it was a burning issue. I don’t think we had to do it right then, but something worked out where he was at the laundromat and I went to the laundromat and he handed me the music. I got very inspired by it and wrote stuff and then I’d get that back to them and they liked what I was doing and that was the process. And then I’d have ideas. The music was sometimes very detailed in how it was all written out and other times would just be just one guitar with a guitar riff that would go about 20 seconds. So it would be the full range of incredibly minimal and very little to something that was very, very finished as far as lots of things happening musically. I’d often use the melodies that were there in their tunes and sometimes I came up with a counter melody or some other things, but it’s still all coming from their music. Then we worked on the arrangements together, and I would sometimes have ideas which we’d always try out – sometimes they didn’t work and sometimes they did. This song they wrote as a waltz, but then I think, why don’t we try it, or I’d like to do it as something that’s almost like a punk-rock song that’s in 4 instead of in 3 and really fast instead of really slow, but it’s still their chord changes and their melody. So it’s them with the music, me with the lyrics, but I was very much involved with the music as well.
Sophia: So it just clicked…
Yeah it clicked and we really liked what we were coming up with and after we had a whole bunch of songs, we thought, well let’s go into a studio and record them, and which ones do we want to approach first, and which ones do we want to do and who and how and where we wanna do it. We did all that, then it was like, okay, does anybody want to put this out? …and Yep Roc were very enthusiastic about it.
Sophia: That’s a great label, a lot of good company on that label.
Yeah, I was surprised that I’m not the oldest one on that label! It’s people kind of from my time frame, but even a little earlier!
Sophia: Was this a new way of writing songs for you? Working from the music to write lyrics?
I had had a couple of attempts at it. I wrote some words and sang on a recording, the collection was called No Talking Just Head, which was in essence Talking Heads without David Byrne. The rest of them had all these people contributing, doing the lead vocals and writing songs…writing along with the music that the rest of them had written. Because I had a relationship with Jerry Harrison going back to when he produced the Violent Femmes record in the mid-’80s, called The Blind Leading The Naked. That was another fun thing to find out talking to Billy and Brendan (The Ryans) before we started working together is that The Bogmen had a record produced by Jerry Harrison. That was fun to just laugh about. I know Brendan knew about that. I don’t know, I’ve never asked them if that gave them an idea about [working with me] or not. That was one time where I wrote something to some music that had already existed. I don’t think I had done anything more of that sort, but I’d done it that one time and I think that it was successful enough so that it exists, but I think I’ve gotten in a better place with it.
Sophia: You’ve been writing songs for a long time, how do you find yourself evolving as a songwriter?
I think I care more about detail and, if I can say a fancy word, the craftsmanship of it. Exactly what words, exactly where, and subtle changes that connect in ways which perhaps only give me pleasure (laughs), maybe nobody else! The challenge is then me doing a live show. I go ‘oh man there’s so much to remember!’ It’s not like it goes verse-chorus-verse, the same. There are always these little changes, but they’re good! Now it’s like, ‘oh no, now I’ve got to remember all of it, and deliver it!’ But, so far so good, it’s the performer part of me shaking a fist at the songwriter part of me, or the lyricist part of me going ‘why did you do that! it’s good but why? why?!’
Some of these Ryans’ compositions lent themselves to something that would have more expansiveness, like going on a song journey of sorts so I think it stretched out some of my writing and some of my telling of a story in a song. In some respects, you know, I’ve done that before. I care more about small details.
Sophia: Songwriting by trade then..
Yeah, hopefully, so far so good! (laughs) Another thing, I think it’s the songwriting, I think it’s my voice. Also I’m very happy that I can hit lower notes, which happens usually as you get older, but I can also hit higher notes than before. And I think that goes against what usually happens, so I’m very happy with that. And I definitely hit some higher notes on the record, sometimes with some back-up vocal parts and lower notes, so I’m happy about that, but that wasn’t what I wanted to say! (laughs) Oh it was getting higher, it was getting lower, but that was just a side-point to the real point.
Somebody that I’ve just met in the last 3-4 years said that the person they know sounds like, that’s the person they know on this record (Under the Sun). When they listen to the Violent Femmes, that’s not the person that they know. It’s more me how I am now, even though I’m very proud and happy about all that Violent Femmes stuff. Excepting the sprinkling of songs here and there which sometimes I can cringe or be embarrassed about, but they’re never really the ones most people like – and maybe with good reason! (laughs)
So if somebody knows me from the last few years, that voice and that person [from back then] doesn’t sound so much like me.
Sophia: I’ve been listening to the record, and there’s a religious element. In particular, I’m referring to the name of the record, Under the Sun and the song, “Oholah Oholibah.”
Definitely it has.
Sophia: I mean it’s not new for you.
No, it’s not new at all. There are a couple of songs on Violent Femmes records that I think are gospel songs. In fact one of them was put in – which was an incredible honor – it was printed and put in a church hymn book, “Jesus Walking on the Water“, was the song, which was from the second album called Hallowed Ground.
Sophia: …and you had the Gospel side project, of course.
Yes, that’s right, The Mercy Seat, in the mid ‘80s. Even if it’s just a verse of scripture, I read some bible pretty much everyday, and I think there was something in a song or something might trigger an idea and yes, Under the Sun, interesting. Sometimes when Brendan would hand off some music to me, usually the songs wouldn’t just be ‘untitled no. 1, untitled no. 2, untitled…’ and I’m very glad! So there would be a working title; something. Sometimes I would use that title to use that as a jumping off point to writing things, and sometimes not at all. But I think it’s possible ‘Under the Sun’ – I wonder if he had that written when he handed that off to me, which had the biblical reference, but then really the song isn’t about that. But “Oholah Oholibah”, maybe I just read…it was around the time when I heard that music, but I didn’t grow up knowing the story of Oholah and Oholibah that’s in Ezekiel. I didn’t know that until it was something that I had just read right around the time when I got this music and something really connected for me with that.
Sophia: I really love your last record, Hitting the Ground, which has a lot of people that provide guest vocals, some of my favorites – people like PJ Harvey, Lou Reed and John Cale. Did you hand pick these people to sing your songs?
I picked people, definitely. Everybody you named are people I really like. Although the man I co-produced it with, Warren Bruleigh, who also co-produced Under The Sun , who I’ve done a lot of records with over the years, he’s great to work with; I think that he had suggested PJ, which was a great suggestion. So he had input in it, because we were working on it together. I know that I thought of John Cale. [“Don’t Pretend”] is one of the few pieces that I wrote on piano and I wrote trying to play like John Cale and sound like John Cale, which I succeeded enough then to get John Cale to do it! I’ll tell ya, I had the chord changes, I had the melody, I had the words, what I didn’t have was that left hand, and he just worked that out just right on the spot in the studio; the bass line and left hand, and I was just like oh great, great! That was just wonderful to do that. And also with Lou, I love his guitar playing on that. And with Lou, I got it to him and he said he was busy and he didn’t know if he’d be able to get to it or do it, and even in the meantime then because enough time had gone by that I asked somebody else who said no. There were a lot of people that said no (laughs); usually very politely, like, I love your work, but this just isn’t for me. I got my sister, Cynthia Gayneau singing “Merry Christmas, Brother” on the record, and I love it. And she said one time, ‘you have to thank Joan for me sometime when you see her again that she said no,’ because I first asked Joan Baez – who we’ve actually written a song together – but she said she wouldn’t sing it. She’d only sing back-up if I sang it. But it was her words and I did music – so anyway, I had a very nice connection with Joan and I haven’t spoken to her in years now, but she didn’t want to be on the project. There’s a list of amazing people that said no, but I’m really, really glad about everyone that said no because I’m so happy – like everybody that’s on there, I think how could that not have been the first and only person that I would have asked?
But with Lou, the extra thing with him is that – then he called me to tell me that it was done and I came over to where he was and then just as we’re going in to listen to it he says, great line, he said, “I took the liberty of changing some of your lyrics.” And I am happy, he did make them better! He actually, he got in a little more bite, so that’s the co-write there. He kept a few of the lyrics – some of the stuff that gets a little like ‘what did he say?!’ That’s him! Like ‘did he say what I think he said?!’ Yes, yes he did. Yeah, that’s him!
Sophia: This record was for a movie. Did you read the script first? How did that work?
I read the script and worked with the director and I wrote instrumental pieces, which were in the film scoring; very simple stuff. It started off, there was going to be a song in the beginning and end and one in the middle and then he’d find, like what about this scene… For example, the Merry Christmas scene: somebody’s having a flashback to remembering a Christmas when they were a kid. Well, what about a Christmas song? Do you want to write a Christmas song? So it was a great catalyst for focusing on writing songs, but I wanted to write songs that were good songs, independent from the movie. One time somebody asked me, why’d you write a song called Allison (“Darling Allison”), because there’s that Elvis Costello song? I’m like, because that was the name of the girl in the movie that the man was falling in love with, so I had to use it.
…Or about “Catch ‘Em In the Act” – the song that Lou sings – that’s about a guy that’s going around and taking pictures of everything and everybody and he happens to take a picture with somebody killing themselves by jumping out a dorm room window and falling to their death, and that’s a major part of the film.
The film never got a release, and when I was looking at getting it out, everybody from any record label didn’t want to have any connection with a movie that never even came out or put it in a soundtrack category for a film that no one even knows. But also, it’s been sometimes referred to as a solo record. Well, it’s my name, but it’s a solo record because there’s almost nothing else to call it. There was a friend of mine – who liked the record – that said afterwards, ‘Congratulations you really blew it, you completely blew it, because after all these years after the Violent Femmes you have your first solo record and you almost don’t sing on it at all, so you blew it.’
Sophia: Well I think having all of these great people doing your songs let your craft as a songwriter really stand out…
Oh great, well thank you, that’s great. Thank you very much. Well it’s still a record, that for whatever reason most people don’t know even exists.
Sophia: Yeah, I found it at a used record store.
(Laughs) I just had a conversation about two weeks ago about how to approach this and maybe there could be a Hitting the Ground Vol. 2 or it could be something to repackage and get it out, do a little promo to let people know it exists, which is a good idea. So hopefully someday people will know about it and you can be like ‘I knew about that so long ago.’
Sophia: I definitely like that! Gnarls Barkley had a hit with “Gone Daddy Gone” and you did a marimba cover of “Crazy”. Was this just for fun or were you approached to do that?
The label asked us to do that, and it’s clever. It’s a clever idea. We did that.
Sophia: This is a Boston blog. How has your experience been with playing Boston? I imagine we’re a receptive town.
I love playing Boston, definitely. I’ve got a family connection. My sister’s lived in Boston since 1980 or something like that, so I’ve visited her all these years in different places in Boston and yeah, I like Boston a lot.
Sophia: My last question, which I’m sure you get asked all the time, do you now remember what 8 was for?
(Laughs) I don’t think anybody’s ever asked me that. My answer may be disappointing and though maybe because it might be disappointing, I shouldn’t answer, I should just refuse?
Sophia: 8 doesn’t mean anything, right?
I wrote it like that. No, but maybe not. I could see like I had 8 and it just came out that way one time live and maybe I liked that better.
This is really name-drop category. I’m sure you don’t mind. It was Penn Jillette, Penn and Teller, Penn’s the one that talks. The magicians?
(Gordon’s getting silence from me, I tell him, I’m sure my readers will know!)
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s a very bad name-drop!
Sophia: I’ve heard the name, I’m not familiar with them.
Ah, okay, wow, okay, something about pop culture you don’t know…
Okay, well it just takes everything out of the story! Okay, how about this, there’s this guy that’s a really big celebrity – you haven’t heard of him – he’s huge, everybody knows him, okay? And he said, I met him one time in a social situation and he said he liked Violent Femmes. This was before he went out to Las Vegas, which I’m sure you know all about his move out to Las Vegas and like getting into one of the big Casino/hotels out there for one of his magic shows. Anyway, the song “Kiss Off” he mentioned it, he said, “I forget what 8 was for,” that was the perfect spot for it, and then he named other – which I now forget who he named, but he starts naming names, which I can’t relate because I don’t even remember; He was naming other well-known comedians and saying like, so and so would have said, I forget what 5 was for, and that would have been the wrong spot, and the other guy would have said I forget what 10 was for- and that’s too late. It’s too early or it’s too late. He was naming people and what numbers they would have picked because they’re really not that good and this one would have been too early and this one would have been too late, but that  was the right place for it.
I’ve never told anyone that story, ever. You’re gonna find somebody that’ll know who this guy is. Anyway, I just saw this guy on the street, he was just kind of a guy living on the street and he just told me this, that was it. Yeah, so I like to tell the story saying he was a celebrity.
I thank Gordon for his time and tell him that I’m really excited to see the show on Thurday. An hour and fifteen minutes later, my phone starts ringing, it’s Gordon. He’s calling to confirm that it was Penn Jillette that he had this conversation with. I tell Gordon that my husband laughed at me when I told that I didn’t know who Penn was. This information seems to inspire confidence in Gordon, and he laughs and tells me that it happens to him all the time that he doesn’t know who people are talking about. And one last time, he asks, to just be safe, that I’m all set with the name for the story – Penn Jillette. I am.
Here is the video for the lead single off of the new album, called “Man in the Sand”