Why the Violent Femmes Will Feature Local Avant-Garde Group Animal / object Tonight

Tonight at Red Rocks, Denver avant-garde improv group Animal / object will join Violent Femmes on stage for the improvisational sections of “Black Girls” and “Confessions.” Since the early days of the Femmes, there has been a horn section called Horns of Dilemma, whose membership has included, at various times, John Zorn and Dick Parry, the musician best known for his saxophone parts on Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here.

In 2014, Violent Femmes singer/guitarist/violnist Gordon Gano learned about the avant-garde open mic night that Animal / object and the Denver Avant-Garde Music Society holds the third Monday of every month at Strange Grounds and decided to show up to see what it was about. It appealed to his long-standing interest in the avant-garde and free jazz and, after sitting in with Animal / object now and again, Gano became part of the loose membership of Animal / object, outside the core group of Kurt Bauer, Steven Gordon and David Mead. Bauer and Gordon have long been part of Denver's avant-garde underground going back to the '80s with musical and visual artistic connections to legendary local experimental groups like Thinking Plague and Bruce Odland's Big Band.

When Bauer, Gordon and Mead started Animal / object around three years ago, they didn't necessarily know that their numerous recordings, performances and collaborations, including those at their open mic night, would lead to playing with a well-known musician outside local experimental music circles.

This isn't the first time the trio has been part of Horns of Dilemma, as they were on stage with the Femmes at Riot Fest in 2014. But this will be the first time the expanded line-up of Bauer, Gordon and Mead along with regular collaborators Gordon Pryor, Paul Mimlich, David Britton, Arnie Swenson and Elaine Difalco will take part in the festivities.

“It's only on the bridge of each song,” explains Gordon. “But it's all improv and everyone does whatever they want to do. There's no coaching because everyone else in the band is doing what they want to do.”

“It's really cool because they go from city to city and Gordon goes to weirdo venues and hangs out to meet people and he invites them to be the horn section,” explains Bauer.

“We're like a motorcycle gang with wind instruments,” quips Gordon.

Gano, enthusiastic about the idea of Animal / object playing at Red Rocks at a proper concert sees the improv section as a part of the show that the audience responds to in an overwhelmingly positive manner. But it isn't just that part of the show that accounts for why Violent Femmes, one of the quintessential “college rock” bands of the '80s, continue to enjoy a wide audience.

“I don't think that the avant-garde and experimental music connection has had anything to do to any degree with having new fans in new generations or old fans stay fans,” says Gano. “I think it's the other aspects of the lyrics and being able to sing along and pick up an acoustic guitar and play the songs. But the fact that we can still do it and still have a feeling of freshness when we play live even with songs we've played thousands of times has to do with our attitude about it. And not just the songs with improv and jazz parts. We're not trying to duplicate an ideal performance or execute exactly a certain thing. So the tiny things we do in every song are going to be different every single time we play. That means anything could happen in any song. It usually doesn't happen to an extreme but occasionally it does because of something someone does or something that happens.”

“Which goes right along with the improv section and avant-garde jazz,” elaborates Gano. “That attitude keeps us fresh and the music fresh even when we're playing a three chord rock song. Maybe somebody provokes something and pushes a certain way and sees what the other people do. The aspects of the show that are the complete improvisation are always highlights for me because it's that complete freedom and discovery that's so in that moment.”

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.