‘Hotel Last Resort’, the title track from the Violent Femmes’ brand new LP, begins with the line, “I don’t change the chords anymore, the chords change by themselves.” The Wisconsin band’s tenth studio album arrives more than 35 years after their debut, so you’d be justified in wondering whether their songwriting practice has become formulaic. However, bass player Brian Ritchie is quick to rebuff this impression.
“That would make it sound like we’re on auto-pilot,” Ritchie says. “It’s more like we’ve been chiselling away at the same rock for about four decades and constantly refining it.”
The track features additional guitar work from Television’s Tom Verlaine. It’s a curious inclusion – Verlaine’s guitar chops aren’t in doubt, but the Femmes aren’t known for roping in high profile guest guitarists. However, it turns out Verlaine’s playing was just what the track needed.
“What he added is so selfless and seamless,” says Ritchie. “We asked him to participate because there was a lot of space in the track and we thought of doing some Tom Verlaine-style guitar. Well, if you’re going to do that, why not just get Tom himself? So we did. We are grateful to have him on the recording. He is a musical gem.”
Another name that appears in the Hotel Last Resort credits is skateboarder and artist, Stefan Janoski, who adds vocals to an updated version of ‘I’m Nothing’, which originally appeared on 1994’s New Times. The track has never seemed so relevant, underlining how individuals are compelled to stick labels on themselves and others.
“It was something Stefan recognised and interested us in re-recording the song,” Ritchie says. “He wanted a theme for a new gender non-specific shoe and concept. As a huge Femmes fan, ‘I’m Nothing’ came to mind for him. We of course love the song and have had it in our repertoire for a long time although it was not a big hit for us in the past. So putting a spotlight on it again pleases us.”
The record also features ‘I’m Not Gonna Cry’, an English language translation of a song by Greek band, Pyx Lax, who singer Gordon Gano has previously worked with. The Femmes have included covers on the vast majority of their albums, which Ritchie views as a healthy exercise.
“Every good musician does covers of something,” he says. “Bob Dylan is the greatest rock songwriter and makes entire albums of covers. If we like a song, we do a version of it, usually reinterpreting according to our methods. Definitely mixing originals with select covers is a good way of diversifying the offering on an album, but we don’t limit ourselves to covers of famous songs. Sometimes we do songs by unknown writers or simply friends of ours.”
The album closes with an interpretation of Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’. It’s an intriguing choice given that faith and trust in the USA is plummeting around the world, for obvious reasons. But the Femmes offer a heartfelt rendition.
“It’s a straightforward sentiment, no irony or parody intended. American Music is important so we use it as a vehicle for expressing how we feel about being Americans. It’s the greatest thing America has offered the world,” Ritchie scoffs.
The Femmes’ long time touring members, John Sparrow and Blaise Garza, both make prominent contributions to Hotel Last Resort, as they did on 2016’s We Can Do Anything. Garza’s contrabass saxophone is a perfect fit for Violent Femmes and Sparrow has recently been promoted from cajon player to full time drummer.
“John and Blaise are great to play with,” Ritchie says. “They both started as fans and have actually been playing with us off and on for 14-15 years. Multi-generational music making is something the world can use more of. It’s more common in non-Western situations actually.”
Hotel Last Resort comes 36 years after the band’s debut, Violent Femmes, and Ritchie believes it’s their best work since 1984’s sophomore release, Hallowed Ground.
“This has been one of our most productive and also consistent recording periods. It’s great that we are able to produce valid work this far into our trajectory. Also it has been yielding new material, which has been accepted by the audience in the live setting. That is rare. Thus we are a happy band.”
Hotel Last Resort, the new record from Violent Femmes, is out now via [PIAS].