Violent Femmes/BoDeans interview
by Peter Crigler
In 1993, percussionist Victor DeLorenzo departed from the band he'd help form, the Violent Femmes. In search of a replacement, the remaining duo (singer/guitarist Gordon Gano, bassist Brian Ritchie) fixed in on Guy Hoffman, who'd been the founding drummer of the BoDeans, but departed after their first album due to medical issues. Over the next nine years, Hoffman and the Femmes toured the world, recorded a myriad of music and had some interesting times, including playing Woodstock '94, appearing on the South Park movie soundtrack and guest starring in a famous episode of the teen sitcom classic Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Though his tenure in the band did not end on a positive note, Hoffman agreed to answer a super fan's questions and his insight provides a wonderful look into the inner workings of one of the coolest and most underrated alt rock bands of the last 40+ years.
PSF: How did you become interested in music and percussion?
GH: I can begin to answer this question by saying that "If you get them early enough, you'll have them for life" and so yes, I still have genuine musical interests. I first began to appreciate music when I was about four years old by listening to vinyl records, the radio, and tv theme songs. My dad, Ed, worked for a local Milwaukee distributor called Taylor-Electric Company that exclusively handled RCA products like stereos, televisions, radios, Whirlpool washers and dryers, and LPs and 45s.
Ed became known as 'Mr. 45' because he personally distributed the most 45s for RCA in all of Wisconsin from the late '50's toward 1960. There were certainly a bunch of 45 records and LP's in the collection at home, not as many as one would imagine, and of those only one had to do with rock or blues and that was Elvis Presley's Golden Hits. Once in a while Ed would share stories of musicians and singers whom he assisted to and from their engagements in Milwaukee. Chet Atkins was one. Connie Francis was another. He chaperoned Elvis Presley for a Wisconsin show under contract with RCA.
In addition to the hodgepodge of records at our house in Shorewood, there were also music activities in my grade school at Lake Bluff. As a nine-year-old, I was invited to play the snare drum for the concert orchestra band. I accepted the challenge mainly because the British Invasion bands had found their way to America. Yes, having a snare drum at home was a cool thing, but I knew there was something more going on between me and that drum. So, I continued to practice at home and in school, and studied percussion in the concert band all the way through high school. This proved to be an invaluable experience.
I was gifted a small drum set by my 12th birthday and felt the urge to venture out to neighborhood homes to play rock music with my friends. Those formative bands had guitar, bass, organ, drums & vocals. One of us always had to doubled up on vocals.
PSF: Tell me about how the Oil Tasters came about and what the music scene in Wisconsin was like.
GH: In 1980, in the wake of the new Haskels part 2, Richard (LaValliere) and I had a solid rhythmic connection that kept us moving ahead into the new year. I was tuned into the songs he wrote, both serious and comical, sometimes a combination of both. We also shared an intuitive connection to the pop song structure. You know, with rock music, everyone I ever knew to sing, or play bass, play a guitar or organ, we were all self-taught. So, in terms of rock n roll, Richard was that, as I was too.
In early 1980, we asked Caleb (Lentzner) to play music with us. We became known as Oil Tasters. Sometimes a comrade would inquire if we'd like to add his guitar to the band. John Graham was one, and he would have made a good addition. Downstairs Dan Hansen was another, and he would have been a good addition. Dan and I go back to the mid-'70's East Side music scene, and I was fine to have him join, Dan or John, to make a quartet. However, Richard was convinced that the best thing was to just keep it as a trio, thus staying unique unto itself.
I don't know much about every Wisconsin punk band, but Milwaukee did have a boisterous scene, a growing community between 1978 and 1983. By 1983, a band had to fend for itself because most all of the popular places no longer favored punk and new wave. The scene as we knew it carried on in small clubs, drinking bars, and a hall, The Century Hall, as the old scene morphed into a new scene for new music followers. I heard about the loss of Century Hall, and Presley Haskel for that matter, when I was living in Northern California. For me, those two moments concluded a long chapter for the scene as I once remembered it, or imagined it, on Milwaukee's East Side.
PSF: How did you join the BoDeans?
GH: I had come to know Paul Cebar and Robin Pluer as friends. I enjoyed Rip Tenor and Al Anderson's company too. At the time, they were called The Milwaukeeans. Paul invited me to play easy bongo parts and slap shredded bamboo sticks which sounded like brushes on a drum. Those long sticks were cool. I could hit a table, a bar stool, a drum case, or most any surface, and those sticks sounded great. In 1983, Paul and Robin entered a studio to add their voices to a demo by Kurt and Sam. It was Paul who gave Sam and Kurt my phone number. I answered their call. We met shortly thereafter.
PSF: What was it like recording Love, Hope, Sex...?
GH: How to begin. I will say "I began again!" It was like a crash course in understanding my role as a drummer in a rock band. That's all. We were so into it. T-Bone Burnett and I had a great working relationship in that Hollywood studio. I learned so much during those 3 months, just watching and listening to his crew, and of course putting the tracks down. I learned more in 3 months than I had in 10 years slugging it out back in Wisconsin at different recording places. It felt like I was finally in the right place.
PSF: Did you intend to leave the band permanently or was it just meant to be a hiatus?
GH: Known only to me, I was struggling with pain in my right hip so much so that by 2AM my right toe was always numb from pounding the bass drum. The only time my sciatica did not bother or pester me, was when I was fast asleep. But then I'd wake up again. Some mornings the toe was still numb. Some days it could feel better, but it worried me. Then it would nag me again if I sat too long in one of the seats in the RV while traveling between cities. It was a persistent pain. It had become serious. I got in a head space where I didn't want to tell the band. I just couldn't bring myself to do it. You know when you tell a doctor that "It hurts when I do this," you know to pound a bass drum with your foot and your leg from the hip, the doctor will always tell you to "Stop doing that." The year off was good, but it still bothered me. So, it was time to stop.
PSF: What were you up to musically after leaving the BoDeans?
GH: I applied myself as a musician by playing percussion, standing up! I sat at the drum kit a bit, but it still hurt. Got some Therapy. Got some Acupuncture. Got Deep Tissue Work. Got some Orthonomy. Became a father, changed my diet, and started to heal.
I got involved with accomplished musicians and song writers that lived near to the place on the Pacific Coast Highway where I also lived, that being Little River, California, just a couple miles south of Mendocino. I set myself up with a beautiful Gretsch drum kit to rent at this awesome state of the art recording studio in Comptche. The studio was a 30 minute drive through the woods east of Little River. East of Eden if you will.
The band that I played percussion in were called the ROCK-O-MATICS. We traveled now and then to play some bars and we always rocked the house! That was Rick on a Rhodes piano, Denny on a Telecaster guitar, Joe played real solid Ludwig drums, and Bruce handled the Fender bass. Philo, the guy with the recording studio, became part of our group, and we'd do gigs as PHILO and The ROCK-O's.
I'd sit behind the drum set to play a few songs every night. As great as that made me feel, I loved standing up to play the percussion. It came very naturally for me.
PSF: How did you come to join the Femmes and was there trepidation trying to replace Victor?
GH: By 1993, the three Femmes, the GG, the BR, and the VD, all three had obligations as Violent Femmes to tour the Add It Up collection LP. One of them, the VD, had to put everyone off because he was involved with personal theatrical commitments, and so the two, the GG and the BR, invited me to do this 1993 Spring College Tour as one of the three Violent Femmes. I said 'okay, I can do that.' We played at RFK Stadium. Soon after, that we started to record new drum tracks for New Times. Still, I was always under the assumption that Victor would just come back, and that would be it for me.
PSF: What were the sessions like for New Times and was it exciting to be signing with Elektra?
GH: Reviewing songs for New Times to record my drum parts happened at DV's Recording Studio in Shorewood, Wisconsin. The studio was in a brown brick house that belonged to David Vartanian. David is good. Really, really good. His interest is to make very excellent recordings. On my end, New Times was overdubbing new drum parts over existing tracks. There is one we recorded together. That song is "I Saw You In The Crowd."
I rehearsed my parts in my sister's basement, listening to cassette tapes that the trio had recorded, often without any click tracks. My sister Beth lived in Whitefish Bay. Her husband Dan has this basement room full of Green Bay Packers collectables, Beatles posters, and BoDeans stuff. I may also have slept at my parent's house that spring in Shorewood, knowing I would simply walk the six blocks to work at DV's. I was turning 39 years old then. Walking from the house I grew up in to go to work at DV's home studio was highly satisfying. At the same time, I was in a time warp, as if I were a teenager walking to Shorewood High School every day.
PSF: What was it like playing Woodstock?
GH: Woodstock '94 was amazing. Hundreds of thousands of people. We met Crosby, Stills and Nash! By the late afternoon, with time to kill, I followed the trodden goat paths through the crowd to visit Caleb at the sound board. That was about 100 yards away from the stage. Sheryl Crow was performing, and when I turned around to watch her, she looked so tiny, like a blip on the horizon. This is how I saw myself. I immediately took assessment of what I must do to make the concert memorable. 300 people is a good crowd. 3000 is better. 30,000 is more. There may have been 300,000 that day. During our set, I focused on the stage sound, it was the best way to keep it real. If it wasn't happening on stage, nobody was going to believe us. The following morning, back at our hotel in NYC, our entire show was broadcast on a closed cable network at 5AM. We played especially well and put it out there with authority. It was a real one.
PSF: What happened with Elektra?
GH: Elektra 'cleaned house.' Cleaning house in the record business means turning the company upside down to shake out, to let go of, to release - that's funny because they release your album, meanwhile the company has plans to release your band from their roster! Record companies will do this- they'll clean house to rid themselves of all the music groups that just don't make for the bucks. The dead weights that don't make a profit. Elektra hung on to The Doors, for example. The Doors still sell LP's, CD's, DVD's, t-shirts and underpants. The Doors have become known as a mystical life style! What will they think of next? There are certainly a lot of oversized Doors coffee table books. New Times was not bringing the returns that Elektra once thought the Violent Femmes could magically bring forth. It wasn't long before Elektra lost interest in us.
PSF: What was the impetus behind the Rock album?
GH: The impulse was we've got to have a new album so that promoters will book us for an Australian tour and we've got to do it in one weekend. That's why the Rock album was made. Okay, so the pressure to get it done fast started to take over the vibe in the studio. The tempos were hard to hold back. I was always asking Brian and Gordon to bring the tempos down a pinch for some of the songs. But there was this time restraint. Yes, there are some really fine songs, and others not as outstanding. That's Rock!!!!!
PSF: What was it like reuniting with Sam Llanas in Absinthe?
GH: Well, if you have the CD, it credits Sam, Jim and Guy as the band, and Gary Tanin who produced/engineered. Gary added a synthetic cello to a couple of tracks, while we had a real cellist perform on another song. There were various Milwaukee guest musicians that Sam had invited. I played all the drums on every track. Reggie B. added tom drums to "A Little Bit Of Hell" and Nick K. added a galloping tom to "Still Alone." As Sam plugged away with BoDeans, I pushed along with Violent Femmes.
Both of us, including Sigmond Snopek among other musicians, each of us rented our own apartments inside The Shorecrest Hotel on Prospect Avenue. This was when you could waltz down to Snug's and have a drink at the bar. Sam and Jim and I played a few times down in Snug's while we charted a course to begin sessions for Sam's first solo album, A Good Day To Die.
We'd practice quietly in my sparse apartment on the 6th floor, as I would often do with a make-shift kit in preparation for Femmes recording dates. According to the Balistreri's, my landlord, the older folk who lived beneath my apartment was clinically deaf, and so we never had any noise complaints. I felt in honor to be with Sam again because of the success we had together as BoDeans. We have an affiliation that runs deep. I also was excited to be in Jim's company because up to that point, neither of us had played together in any band, being members of different group clicks going back to Zak's in 1978. We drew production ideas from CD's like Wrecking Ball by Emmylou Harris, Acadie by Daniel Lanois, and other influences that ranged from Neil Young to Chris Isaak to Mazzy Star. You know, Sam is a pretty quiet guy, and as silly and flippant as I can be, I'm also a very quiet guy. Jim has a quiet edge too. So, based on the fact that everyone's got a moody side, we put our moody sides forward. Being adventurous, Sam went to make two demo songs with Malcolm Burn in New Orleans. Malcolm was Daniel Lanois' right hand man. That guy, he wanted twenty thousand dollars per song. So, at Jim's suggestion, Sam spoke with Gary. Jim knew Gary quite well and had only great things to say about him. I also met Gary going back to 1983 through his sister Maria. So, the four of us proceeded to prepare the studio to record about 16 songs, twelve of which were put toward the Absinthe CD. It has a tremendous mood, one of the two best records I ever made. We did not use a click track to record any song. We kept it organic in such a way. Every song just seems to grow as it plays through. Jim and I were highly focused on keeping our parts stripped back in support of Sam's story telling. Sam too had the minimal attitude. This method, maximized and made more real a great mood.
PSF: Tell me about the Femmes' Freak Magnet debacle, from Interscope to Beyond. Are you pleased with how it turned out?
GH: The Freak Magnet sessions began in NYC during October 1996. We went after five songs, and captured five songs. "Freak Magnet," I'm Bad," "Sleepwalkin'," "At Your Feet" and "I Wanna See You Again." To capture a song is not the same as to realize a song. To realize a song, is when one begins to understand their part, and thus plays for the song, in support of the story. I was fortunate to have had a rough demo of many songs, so that I could practice my parts, and come to the studio with what I felt were my best drum parts. So yes, I practiced before the session, and realized my role as a drummer by doing so.
Now, to capture a song is when the recording is so stellar, that everyone involved is excited and is in agreement that it sounds incredible, that the message has been put across. For example, "I Danced" from the ROCK! album was, for me, not captured as well as our second recording of it for the Freak Magnet sessions. That's just my opinion. I played better drums. The tempo was slower. It allowed for a better feel.
Sometime in 1997, the second Freak Magnet session took place in NYC again with the same producer at the same studio. We attempted as many as seven or eight songs. A third session involved finishing "All I Want" and recording cover songs for lack of a hit song. Interscope wanted to hear from us what they thought a 'hit song' should sound like. In complicity, our LA management sided with Interscope, and that was not right.
I was pleased with the results of most of those songs. Still, I was wanting, expecting to hear some continuity from one write to another, threads of written thoughts that were common between songs, kind of like reading a book as one chapter rolls into the next. Gordon liked to write one-offs, that is to say, he'd play us a rough song, and what do we think? 'Oh, and here's another song,' and 'how's this one for you?' 'Ah, you want a Pop song! Sorry, but I don't write pop songs' 'Okay, you want something that rocks. Well, we could speed this one up.' So, Freak Magnet is an album with a lot of one-offs. There's nothing wrong with that. Most record albums are put together in this way.
PSF: At what point did the band decide to stop recording and just focus on touring?
GH: The new year 2000 saw us supporting a live album called Viva Wisconsin, and a Los Angeles record company called Beyond released Freak Magnet later that year. Younger people, nice folks. Mixed reviews, poor sales. The end of 2000 did not see us perform on New Year's Eve into 2001. This was not a good sign in the locker room. Gordon was in the mind set to cease touring all together, to just disappear. He told me he'd been doing this for almost 20 years, so I could understand the need for a break.
A few months later in March 2001, the record company put it to Gordon and Brian that they were obligated by contract to perform numerous concerts to support the Freak Magnet album beginning in April all the way through August. Darren Brown, our tour manager, with the crew and I, all of us would frequently discuss that this may be the real finish line. Upon reviewing my requests by way of a new contract in October, Gordon and Brian stopped considering me as an option they wished to afford.
PSF: How were you told that Victor was coming back and how did you feel about it?
GH: How was I told: In March 2002, the management called to inform me that GG and BR had agreed to play a bunch of shows. On the telephone, the management sounded very excited for themselves, as usual, and I agreed to do the scheduled dates. They asked what city I wished to fly out from to meet the tour. So, I was very optimistic. The next day, they called me back to apologize that they were supposed to have contacted Victor to play the shows, not me. That's when I got really steamed at the whole damn thing. Since then, neither the corporate duo or their management has made any real effort to give me a call on the phone. It was Darren that made it possible to have me play just a handful of shows in Southern California in 2005-2006, when John Sparrow was playing the cajon box, and Victor was back at the helm, at front stage.
How did I feel about it? I felt they should've stuck with me by bringing me deeper into their business. They simply did not want to share too much with me. With anybody for that matter. Their position was that I should work for less than them, and that this is what it meant to be loyal to Violent Femmes. In a sense, they walked away from me.
PSF: Was there hope when the band reunited that they'd give you a call?
GH: Hope is the last thing to die.
PSF: Are you on good terms with the Femmes?
GH: No, not on any terms really. Sometimes, (drummer) John Sparrow calls me if they are coming to Los Angeles, but I never show up. John and I are friends. We understand one another. Once a year, I will talk to (Femmes soundman) Caleb Lentzner on the phone in Milwaukee, to say "Hello" and "How ya doin'?" Occasionally, I am in the company of (Femmes horn player) Darren Brown and his wife Julie.
PSF: What are you currently up to? Tell me about your newer projects.
GH: The latest finished project I contributed to is a motion picture called Night Rain (2020) by the company known as Seasons & a Muse. My wife Jeanne (Spicuzza) is the driving force behind her company. Both original score and soundtrack music were needed for the movie., and I gave it a shot. The old song "I Ain't Got Nobody" (Mills Brothers, 1930's) was used in several different ways, and some variations were recorded with a clarinet and trumpet live at the mic. Jeanne coached me for one specific scene, and she is credited with that. All the rest of the score is edited from my own compositions.
Five years ago, I prepared some music for Jeanne's movie The Scarapist (2015). There is some degree of creativity involved in using music software, to compose music for pictures that move. It's all done this way now. It's the way of the world. The word manufacturing comes to mind. That's not a bad word, but of the tens of thousands of sounds right under my fingertips, I've found that electric guitars, a real feel on a piano, wind instruments, and percussions, these sounds require real player performances.
Okay, so three pieces of my music found their way into The Scarapist. One is "Woodman," a car chase segment that my trio recorded the old-fashioned way using guitars, a bass, and drums - very Violent Femmes style with brushes on a snare, that sound. Another piece "PTSD" was for a scene right after the car chase, and that's all percussives, some live and some programmed. There is the end credits music, "Alright, Bye-Bye," which I prepared, using an Alesis keyboard to write the entire piece.
PSF: What do you hope the fans remember about your time in the Femmes?
GH: Hopefully, the fans were fascinated watching me play drums on stage in the context of Violent Femmes performances, that I'm remembered as the guy they felt comfortable with talking to after the show, and lastly, that my autograph is somewhat legible.
Also see Pete Crigler's blog page
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