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In Music

Gordon Gano (center) with his current collaborators, The Ryans. (PHOTO: Chris Cassidy)

Milwaukee Talks: Gordon Gano, 2009

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.

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college_dave | Sept. 25, 2009 at 11:28 a.m. (report)

Nicely done. Gordon is simply one of those way cool Milwaukee cats, man.

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