By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Sep 23, 2009 at 8:36 AM

If, in 2009, if you need me to tell you who Gordon Gano is, you need to retake Milwaukee 101 before advancing. While the Violent Femmes are likely permanently kaput due to an ongoing lawsuit, Gano is collaborating with The Ryans and the first result of that is "Under the Sun," a sassy, smart punk / pop record that is the best thing he's done in years.

A few years ago, Andy Tarnoff talked to Gano about the Femmes in a Milwaukee Talks, so for this follow-up we focus on "Under the Sun" -- released by Yep Roc Records -- but you know we can't chat with Gano without the conversation turning to the most successful of all Milwaukee bands at least for a little while.

Enjoy this latest Milwaukee Talks with Gordon Gano. I wanted to talk a bit about the new record, which I think has a really varied sound with the high-energy opener ("Man in the Sand") and the jaunty "Hired Gun." Is this a result of the collaboration, do you think, or more a result of where you are personally at the moment as a songwriter?

Gordon Gano: Well, it's the first one, but then that becomes the second one, right? You see, it is a collaboration -- that's the way it is because of the collaboration, but it is now where I'm at as a songwriter.

OMC: How did the collaboration work in terms of songwriting? Did you guys collaborate on the songs from the get go or did you each of you bring some finished songs?

GG: That is definitely a question I can answer. We had a friendship -- that is we all lived in the same neighborhood and knew we were musicians. I was introduced to them from some other friends -- very casual. Then somehow it was mentioned that they wrote a lot of music and a lot of times not having songs with them or lyrics and it just developed very casual-like. I was interested in hearing stuff -- I said "why don't I hear some things, if you'd like and then I can see if I have some ideas or write something and you can see what you think about it." So the process, basically, was that I would get music -- some was written by Billy Ryan, some by Brendan Ryan, some by both of them, but they just you know whatever they do.

They're brothers and they just have it as their thing together. Billy plays guitar and Brendan plays keyboards so I guess I could figure if there's more keyboards or guitar, or vice versa, I could probably figure who wrote it, but anyway ... they would get me the music and then I would come up with the lyrics.

Sometimes I'd follow melodies that's in their music, sometimes I'd come up with a counter melody or some other music. Then I'd have musical ideas -- sometimes it would be exactly what they did, and sometimes I'd have an idea for putting it in different time signature for example, or radically different feel for a way to approach the song. Then we tried them out and that's the process of how it worked. Sometimes they would have a song where they had something written for it and I didn't even know so I would listen to that or hear that and only hear the instrumental part and other times there wouldn't have been anything written, but they thought of scoring and film work so they would just be writing things as instrumental pieces.

OMC: In the cases where they had lyrics, do you think they kept the lyrics away from you on purpose so as not to ... to give you open space as to not lead you in a certain direction?

GG: I'm not sure who -- if there was anything said from the start -- I'm not sure. But if that was their first thought -- either they said that or I thought that was going on -- I said absolutely I didn't want to hear what they'd come up with. So I don't know who first had the idea or acted upon not having me hear it, but that's definitely been a very fruitful way to work. It would get my mind thinking; then I'd have something already that would be somehow in my head and we would go with a lot of it or reject it, but it's already something. Yeah, something's already there.

OMC: When you guys started talking about it, did you start talking about it casually, or was it the idea from the get-go that you would take it a step further?

GG: First off, it was very casual. Then when I was very excited about what I was writing and they were liking what I was doing, I think at that moment we realized this was something that we should keep pursuing and keep going further and then at a point we started talking about getting in and making a recording and now it's to the point of having a recording come out and start playing more shows. We played occasionally and I got tired of playing a live show and having people really liking the music and responding, and then afterwards in the club, people would say "Where can I get it?" ... and we'd always say, "you can't" or just say "not now -- who knows when."

OMC: Sort of an anti-climax, isn't it?

GG: Yeah, it was a battle always saying it; it was like, "Come on we have to get this stuff out." So, we'll see what happens doing some more shows. We're serious about it now, and have been for quite a while. The seriousness came about from thinking that the work was really good ... this is something that was not just an interesting (or) silly (or) whatever. This is very good.

OMC: Was it recorded over time or did you cherry pick the songs you liked best to record for the CD?

GG: I would say none of the above. There had been a lot of time (spent) writing and then shaping songs to a certain degree. Then we made a selection based on not just what we thought was best but maybe what musical direction we thought some songs were going in and where we thought things might be headed musically. Just to give you the roughest figures, we ended up writing 40 tunes, and then we cut it -- just to make it something manageable going into a studio -- down to about 20. Based on some of them, I thought there might be other directions where we'd like to take certain tunes, and rather than pretty old-fashioned, straight-ahead rock band stuff.

And then we got the musicians that we wanted to play with, and then we had these songs, so we recorded about 20 and then it was picking not what I think are the best, but maybe what should be the first ones out, and maybe they go well together as whole package. So, we still have another -- a lot of songs that I think and hope and expect will come out another time. It was a creative explosion that took over a stretch of time.

OMC: So you're not thinking this is a one-off thing. You already have your eye on another record, too.

GG: Yeah, well we already -- we basically have record No. 2 recorded if we want to keep it as is, and then we have records three and four already written, and there'd be no question that we'd continue being creative and writing. So, yeah, it's really very, very fruitful and I think there's a lot that's really good.

For example, like when people who've heard more of the tunes and want to pick their favorites -- the ones they thought were the best. There's a lot more selection, but I think they're all really good, so it's just what gives a good flow or what seems like -- there are a couple of key ones that I think need to be out first. Like "Under the Sun." I think that's a signature tune for us, and I think it's the best one of them all. So, I guess in that sense, there's the one cherry pick.

OMC: When you said you tried to shape the songs and decide which way to take them and that, did you guys shape them in a rehearsal studio situation or did you do that as home demos? How did they come together in that sense?

GG: Again, that was a little bit of a process, but the three of us -- the two Ryans and myself -- got together on occasions. Well, alright, first I'd have it and then I'd get a tape back to them with my ideas. Then we'd all get together, usually more than once, to try the ideas -- usually in someone's apartment or on a rooftop, not necessarily a recording studio -- and just the three of us -- not the rhythm section. And we worked them out to get it where we wanted it -- just the three of us -- before the rhythm section came in when we went into the studio.

But then doing that, even having a couple of rehearsals before going into the studio, but even there we really got amazing -- and I'm so happy to have it all turn out -- I think every single song or nearly every single song -- the final form and shape of it was decided right before we recorded it in the studio. We had it in a place we liked it, but then the exact final decision were always right before we were recording and there's a bit of flow of how it all came to final form.

OMC: Is that unusual for you to work that way -- when you worked with the Femmes and Mercy Seat or your other solo record? Were your songs a little more codified by the time you walked in the door? Were they less likely to change as much?

GG: Right, yes. Exactly.

OMC: Did you feel like this was a liberating way to work, or not necessarily, just a different way to work?

GG: A different way and, yeah, there was and is a feeling which is a little bit more liberating, you know?

OMC: To be able to walk through the door and say just because we're walking through the door doesn't mean it's set -- there's still a chance to keep thinking how everything can change and get better ...

GG: Yeah. To mention on the other side of things, most of the Violent Femmes things recorded over the years were songs that we had played live for years -- or at least for stretches of time -- and that's another way to work things out -- playing live and making adjustments over some period of time in front of an audience, and then if you feel like this is a really good way of doing it, then you go in a studio with that basic approach, I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

OMC: There was still evolution, it's just that the evolution happened more in advance.

GG: And also key, the evolution in front of people at an actual performance as opposed to this -- I don't know if we -- we might have played once on some of these before we recorded, but it wasn't even related to recording, it was some other special event. It's just different ways of going about it. It felt liberating, but not liberating because the other way is a restrictive, bad way.

It's a different way for me personally and so, yeah, there was something -- it had a great energy to it, even just in the studio. Like I said we'd be making those final changes and like okay and now here we go. But really, really having to be, I guess, at once at best.

OMC: It's been 27 years since the first Femmes record came out. This is a record that's still in people's minds all these years later and it has a sort of cross-generational effect. It's becoming a rite of musical passage to go through that infatuation and obsession with that record. Is it satisfying that it has become a cultural icon or do you sometimes feel like an actor who's been typecast in this type of role that is hard to shake off?

GG: I feel the first one, and I think it's a real honor -- it's miraculous and it's something that I'm pleased and proud and thankful about. Just all positive things and I don't feel even ... perhaps a lot of people would think that about me, but I don't feel that way at all trapped in any kind of persona of the impression of that first record or who I was as a performer, writer and / or person at that time in my life. I don't feel that at all.

OMC: Does the record hold up for you personally when you hear it?

GG: I never listen to it, but the occasions over the last several years where I hear a song here or there -- I think there was one time in the last 10 years where I -- for no particular reason -- listened through and I think it's really good. I think it has something, and I think it's proven by what you just said. It's a great honor to think that young people embrace it as their own and it definitely has now gone to a different generation and that's a very rare thing, and that's great.

But to me, it has a sound -- the overall sound of it has an energy -- you know? Just how it hits and comes across in a certain zone and stays there from start to finish. It's got a lot of excitement to it and it doesn't sound like other things and it's really -- yeah, I'm really pleased with it.

OMC: You don't look back at it and see all the flaws and wonder who that kid was?

GG: Well, mentioning that, it's remarkable how out of tune some things are or out of time, but that's how music used to be, actually.

OMC: The fact that that record was so beloved for what it was and there are those (mistakes) that most people probably couldn't point out to you but that are there, is just proof that people pay too much attention these days to erasing those (mistakes) off records.

GG: I agree with that completely. I absolutely agree with that. There's the rawness of it -- and rawness means that there are things about it that aren't quite right, but overall, it's good that those things are there.

OMC: As I'm sitting here looking out my window at the Oriental Theatre and where Oriental Drugs used to be, and I picture those three skinny guys playing on the corner there, could you guys have imagined -- even when you were making the record, did you have any sense that you would have that kind of impact, or was that way beyond where your minds were at the time?

GG: Not the way that it's played out of the amazing, incredible -- is what had happened with the first album, but then comparatively nothing at all like that with all of the other records we did. That kind discrepancy. One thing which we -- Brian Ritchie and I -- have an incredible disagreement about things, but one thing which I remember was said a long time ago which I agreed with was that he and I -- and I don't know about Victor DeLorenzo's opinion -- when asked this question years ago, we both thought we would be much less popular and successful or much more.

The reasoning on that being our frames of reference essentially were punk rock -- like for me I loved Johnny Thunders. There are people all over the world in big cities that love Johnny Thunders, maybe a hundred of them. Or thinking of the punk rock scene and, OK, so maybe if you become really successful -- Richard Hell.

Richard Hell would -- and the Voidoids, which was his first group, who were all so great -- play small punk clubs and make a tour (and) be able to put out records. That was a huge success -- that was making it. Then the other point of references are the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, The Kinks, you know? That kind of massive success. So, it kind of felt like "succeeding" would be one of those two things, and it ended up being something in between -- not really either one.

OMC: Nestled somewhere in that big ocean over there.

GG: Yeah, yeah. I think we weren't really conscious or aware of there even being that ocean when we were starting out.

OMC: I think when you're a musician and starting out, obviously, you know there's a difference between Richard Hell and the Beatles, but maybe you're just happy to have success. Not necessarily how big you're going to be but the ability to just do what you want to do is enough.

GG: Oh yeah. I'm still aware of that and feel it. To be able to follow what one's passion to do -- whatever that might be but in this sense of something creative, something in the arts or with music and to be able to make a living from that is the amount -- the percentage of people that are able to do that must be like insanely small.

OMC: Do you feel pressure to repeat what you've done?

GG: I've never felt that and I don't think -- if anyone was trying to get me to feel that -- they weren't quite blunt enough.

OMC: Can I ask you about the Femmes?

GG: Real quick, mentioning that Brian and I having differences, the Femmes ended about two years ago because he -- Brian Ritchie -- sued me in a federal court and it's still ongoing. So, I'd like to, but I can't discuss the case or say things about it.

The one thing is that he's made claims about things that are not true and so I have to go through the legal process to defend myself. At some point it will have an end and when that does that will be great, and then also I can feel like I can say a couple more things about it, if anyone cares.

OMC: Is this basically the end -- is there no going back at this point?

GG: I think I shouldn't say anything about that either.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.