Nearly seven years ago, Milwaukee native and founding member of the Violent Femmes, Victor DeLorenzo, left the group to pursue a solo career. The Femmes went on to release three albums of new material, a live CD, and a greatest hits collection. To casual fans around the world, the group is still the "ultimate live band," as DeLorenzo describes it. To fans who have followed the group for the last two decades, the Violent Femmes practically ceased to exist when Vic left the band, and rumors now swirl that the band's future is in a state of flux.
DeLorenzo, who still lives in Milwaukee and runs a recording studio from his family's first home on the East Side, may just be the luckiest member the original trio. He continues to record, both as a solo artist and in collaboration with others. He performs in the theater and in films, most recently with a cameo in a movie called "Expecting Mercy." His works have continued to expand, and his newest material is among the finest he has ever produced.
Recently, DeLorenzo also wrote, performed and produced the theme song for the Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District, Milwaukee Downtown, entitled "Get Down, Downtown."
"Tim Brady from Ellingson and Brady approached me to write a song for Downtown Milwaukee," says DeLorenzo. "They said other cities had great success promoting their downtown areas by getting people involved from the music scenes. So he asked me to write a piece that would just be kind of a background for whatever would be put on top of it. In working on it, I came up with a couple of strictly instrumental pieces and some tags. I was sitting here one afternoon with the guitar, and I looked at a bunch of little phrases that Tim had come up with to use on placards or billboards. I thought some of these are kinda nice, and I wondered if I could do something with them."
Listening to the spot, now playing on Milwaukee radio, the song doesn't sound like your typical commercial jingle. Instead, it stands on its own with its catchy homespun lyrics. Says Victor, "I liked the idea of 'get down, get downtown.' Something about that alliteration of was interesting. Something a little bit more folky."
He recalls, "I almost put it down as sort of a joke. I thought I'd crack Tim up with it. I played him the rough demo, and he said, 'That's what I want!' Then I went, 'oh, okay.' So I had to produce the finished master, and my son and I worked on it together."
Victor's son is Mal, a high school senior, and he frequently collaborates with his dad. He's a great source of pride to the elder DeLorenzo, who began his career around the same time in his life.
"He actually helps me out with a lot of things," says Vic. "That's him yelling in the background. (On the track) it's just my son and me. I played one of the guitars, and then I sang it, played drums and did some of the percussion. Then Mal did some of the keyboard stuff, played the other guitar on it and played bass."
Mal also plays on Vic's newest album, "The Blessed Faustina," which came out last December. "It's wonderful. He's 17 years old, and he's so excited and propelled about the idea of making music. That's what he wants to do."
Adds DeLorenzo, "He's also a critic whose ears I look to. I listen to him, and he's a collaborator, and it's a great added benefit that he's my son. And also he shares a lot of the same musical interests that I do. He's got his own band, and they released a record last year."
The Band That Made Milwaukee Famous
Those who are familiar with DeLorenzo may point out the downtown jingle is a tune reminiscent of the work of DeLorenzo's former group, but he's neither ashamed nor annoyed to talk about the Femmes, the band that made this Milwaukeean famous.
"That will always be the case, because I'm one of the original members of the Violent Femmes," explains Victor. "And everything we did, and all though our career together, we greatly influenced one another -- in a lot of very subconscious ways. One of the first things I hear from people when the hear one of my solo albums is 'Yeah, it kinda sounds like the Femmes, but this over here doesn't sound like the Femmes at all.' That's because this is what I do. It's what I've always done, before I was in the Femmes."
Despite a less than amicable break up, DeLorenzo takes pride in his achievements with the Violent Femmes.
"I'm very proud of what I did with the Femmes, and I never have a sense of nostalgia about it. It always feels current to me because for so many people, that's their frame of reference to me. And I don't mind it being that, because being part of the Femmes has afforded me all kinds of other entrees into many different worlds that I would have never have expected to be able to work in."
Those open doors have come in the way of a number of new arenas for DeLorenzo, but he especially appreciates the opportunity he has had to grow as a musician.
"I never really got too snooty about trying to protect that aspect of musicians' lives where they say 'I devote myself 100% to this music and I'm not going to be dissuaded to do anything else that would impinge on my credibility.' Well, I think being a great musician means not only being able to play all different kinds of music, but hopefully to try and write in different styles and have it come across as being believable. I've always been a chameleon. I've always wanted to work in theater, film, literature, television, everything. I liked it all. That's a big part (of) me."
DeLorenzo has been prolific of late, both as a producer and as a musician. "I just did a record for a band called The Danglers. Great group of kids in their early 20s. Violin, stand up bass and a drum set. Just incredible musicianship. Really wild stuff."
He also released his most recent album in December, though it came out with "little or no fanfare." Says Vic, "I figured after I did these projects, some time like about now I'd get around to start to promote my album. I've already had it reviewed in RollingStone.com and Modern Drummer. I'm getting really good reviews on it."
In terms of other artistic outlets, DeLorenzo has been away from theater for a few years. "I haven't had time, thankfully, because I've been too busy with this music stuff. I'm definitely looking to do some performing in front of the camera again, probably this fall. I've been asked by a friend of mine who had great success with a film he did called "Chump Change." He was a big fan of the Femmes, so we started talking. He didn't realize I was an actor, and he said 'Oh my God, I've got a new script that I'm just finishing up and you've got to be in it.' So I'm looking to maybe start doing something with him this fall. And I did another cameo in a film by a Milwaukee filmmaker, her name is Rebecca Banks. It's called "Still Life." I think they just finished a rough edit of it, they're still working on it."
Looking to the future
Perhaps DeLorenzo's most intriguing (at least to long-time Femmes fans) recent endeavor, came on a project that doesn't even bear his name.
"This is something that probably most people don't realize," explains Victor, "but on the Femmes web site there is a song called 'Y2K.' Well, it's not even really a song. It more of a jam with us screaming some lyrics over the top. But that was done last December at DV (Dave Vartanian's) Studio.
"Brian (Ritchie, the Femmes' bassist) came to my show when I was playing at the Hi-Hat with A Bucket of Balls. We sat around and talked, and the next day we got together and he said, "Hey what are you doing later on? Why don't you come over to DV and let's record something." So it was us, Sigmund Snopek and Brian's son Silas, and we made this Violent Femmes song. That's the way it's listed: 'Welcome to the New Millennium.' With no Gordon, and no Guy (Hoffman, the Femmes current drummer)."
How did it feel to play with his old colleague? "I was really kind of tickled, because when we first started, the Violent Femmes were just Brian and me. We worked as a rhythm section and called ourselves the Violent Femmes, a name that Brian came up with. We worked with whoever wanted to work with. So here we are in December 1999, working on the song, and it was him and me again. It did feel good. There are no credits listed, and it was our own way of coming full circle."
For a drummer who has traveled the world playing to sold-out venues, Vic has surprisingly little interest in gaining notoriety back home.
"I think if I wanted to change the situation, I could do a lot more with publicity," admits DeLorenzo. "But I'm not overly concerned about it, because I was always more interested in the music. I was never so hung up on the fame part of it. I wanted to support my family and I wanted to indulge myself artistically."
Explains Vic, "For the most part, I enjoy the anonymity. My great mentor is Marcel Duchamp, and his idea of the perfect creative life was to work constantly at what you wanted to do, but never really feel the need to push it on anyone else. If people want to find it, they will find it sooner or later. I'll let other people sort it out after I'm gone."
That said, it's easy to understand why DeLorenzo has chosen to remain in his hometown. "I love Milwaukee. I could live anywhere, but I love having a family and living in Milwaukee because there are so many things at half the cost of other cities. It's been proven by myself and the Femmes that you don't need to live in a big music Mecca to have an international reputation. We always rehearsed and did our work here in town and then took it out on the road."
These last few years have been good to DeLorenzo, who is just about where he'd like to be in his career and in his life. "I'm very happy. It seems over the course of the last three years, it's getting better and better and better. I would consider going back to the Femmes for one, if they asked me; and if we decided to embark on what we decided here in this room (20 years ago), which was we were going to work on writing together and see where the next phase of the Femmes would take us."
But is there any chance of that happening? "I don't know," admits DeLorenzo. "One thing that being in show business has taught me is that you never know what is going to happen. But once it does, either be ready to use it to your advantage or disavow it."
DeLorenzo's new album, "The Blessed Faustina," is available at Exclusive Company and on his web site, victordelorenzo.com.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.