Violent Femmes Found Inspiration in Sun Ra and His Arkestra

Violent Femmes
Violent Femmes Ebru Yildiz
The Violent Femmes may be best known for college and mainstream radio hits like "Blister in the Sun," "Add It Up," and "American Music," but at heart, the act is fundamentally experimental.

During their set co-headlining the Fillmore Auditorium this Wednesday, July 26, the Femmes will bring in local musicians, including the avant-garde improvisational band Animal / object and experimental songwriter and guitarist Ava Mendoza, to perform as the Horns of Dilemma. With help from that act, the Femmes will turn the noisier sections of the songs “Black Girls” and “Confessions” into something truly demented and inspired, whipping the crowd into fits of excitement.

Currently led by saxophonist Blaise Garza, the Horns of Dilemma has included friends of the band, famous or not, opening bands and various acquaintances the act has made during its nearly forty years of existence. A nod to the Violent Femmes' roots in free jazz, the Horns have been a part of the group's live shows almost since the beginning of its existence, in Milwaukee in the early 1980s. Original Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo would hip his bandmate, lead singer Gordon Gano, to the best of the artists coming through the Jazz Gallery, a jazz club in that city.

“I knew nothing,” admits Gano now. “I was all about rock and roll and punk, and that was it. I grew up with country and stuff you'd probably assume or know. So Victor would tell me, 'So-and-so is playing tonight, and you should really check them out.'”

“'There's a drummer, Art Blakey, and you just have to be here tonight,'” Gano recalls Garza saying. “Art Blakey was a revelation to me, because he was the first drummer that I ever heard in jazz, or anything, where I could hear his groove and his beats, and it swung. I'd never heard anyone keeping time in that way. Of course, I'd only heard three or four other people before that, but that transformed it for me.”

The artist that had the greatest impact on the kind of band the Femmes would become – a kind of hybrid of folk, country, punk and jazz – was Pennsylvania-based avant-garde jazz legend Sun Ra and his Akrestra. Sun Ra, who often conducted his band like a master wizard, tossing around glitter in a ritualistic way while provoking some of the most cutting-edge music of his time, was himself a true innovator on the piano. He contributed to free improvisational composition and modal jazz, and expanded the usual bounds of the genre across his long career. The Femmes saw the Arkestra numerous times live and took many cues from Sun Ra and company for their own performances.

“At some point they would walk through the club, so we would do that sort of thing, too,” says Gano. “Before the show or at the end of the show, we would go off the stage and walk out into the parking lot and have people follow us. All aspects of the performance were such an inspiration to us. For me, it was this other world of sound and music that I had not been exposed to, so it was incredibly exciting.”

Gano first became aware of Animal / object in 2014, when he was in town and read in Westword about the band's Denver Avant Garde Music Society Solos and Duos open-mic night at the now-defunct Strange Grounds coffeehouse (currently the event is held on the third Monday of the month at Syntax Physic Opera). Having spent a great deal of time in Denver during the previous several years for various reasons, Gano became involved in the open-mic night and even went on to play as a member of Animal / object when time and opportunity permitted. Thus it was natural that the group has become a local staple of the Horns of Dilemma.

While Animal / object won't be joining the Violent Femmes for the tour, you can see one of Denver's own helping the Femmes keep things weird.

Violent Femmes and Echo & The Bunnymen, 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 26, Fillmore Auditorium, 303-837-0360, $39.75, 16+.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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.