Singer, songwriter, actor, studio owner, jingle writer, visual artist, and, yes, drummer for the world’s most likable band, Violent Femmes, Victor DeLorenzo has long been known as a plier of many creative trades.
by Adam Budofsky
Among his current canvases: a fascinating new solo album, Dictionary By/Of Marcel Duchamp, and short but powerful bursts of live action by the recently re-formed original Femmes. MD Online recently checked in with the master of the tranceaphone and the inventor of country-punk stand-up drumming.
MD: So, Victor, what’s your focus at the moment?
Victor: Oh my God, my focus today is getting my laundry done so I can go on the road tomorrow with The Femmes. [laughs]
MD: Where are you off to?
Victor: This trip is going to touch a few locales. We are going to do two nights in San Francisco at the Great American Music Hall. Then we are playing in Santa Clara, and then this big show in San Bernardino, “The Inland Invasion, with all these ’80s English bands like The Psychedelic Furs, Duran Duran, and The Cure. That’s going to be fun. I’m looking forward to hearing The Cure. I’ve never seen them live.
MD: You re-joined The Femmes last May. What’s your activity been like for the past year and a half?
Victor: We’ve mostly been doing week-long jaunts in the United States. The two exceptions were November of last year, when we did about six countries in Europe. And then early this year we went to Australia and played there for about seven weeks. We also did New Zealand – both of the islands – and then we also got down to Tasmania. That was just a fabulous tour. All our shows were sold out, and we did national television and all the major print media and radio. We played a club in Sydney called The Metro for six nights, and we sold out every night.
MD: Rhino recently reissued your classic first album.
Victor: Yes, the whole package contained the first album re-mastered in glorious 20th-century sound. And then we included the four-track demos that we did for the first album, which no one had ever heard before. And then there’s a second disc that contains live performances recorded on various levels of equipment, ranging from a little Panasonic stereo cassette deck that I had, all the way up to a proper radio studio in Madison, Wisconsin. And all that material came from my archives.
MD: Have you been sort of the official band archivist?
Victor: I guess it’s kind of fallen to me over the years, because from early on I was very interested in audio recording. In fact, I got my first tiny 3″ reel-to-reel Aiwa tape recorder when I was about ten years old. My father bought it for me. And ever since then, I’ve graduated to all different kinds of equipment. Right now I’m in the process of selling all my old-school equipment, and just going full-force into the world of digital. Every time I turn the old equipment on it breaks down. If I had the resources I’d love to keep it all tweaked and in spec, but I just can’t afford it. Besides, I’m a firm believer that if the people transmitting the music have it together, and the engineer is experienced, it will translate well to any medium.
MD: Sales-wise, the reissue of the first album did very well.
Victor: The people at Rhino were very encouraged, to the point where we are talking about maybe doing some special editions of some of the other records in our catalog, and possibly doing a DVD, either filming brand new footage or resurrecting a concert that we had done in London around 1986. That only came out in Europe at the time. I believe it was called Now Let’s Start Over. I always thought the concert itself was really good, but the director at that time decided to put his own stamp on the presentation. He got very literal with the visual aspects of it, and when we saw this stuff we were just mortified, because we never were told that this was going to happen. If we go back in and work on this again, we would take out a lot of that stuff and just present the concert in its entirety. It was like a five-camera shoot and it was all recorded multi-track, so we could go back in and quite possibly mix it for 5.1 and also do a real good re-edit of the visual material.
MD: At this point, are you comfortable talking about future plans with The Femmes?
Victor: I do see a future for the band other than just playing live. It does look like all three parties are interested in recording together again.
MD: What were the circumstances of your leaving the band in back in 1993?
Victor: We were a little frustrated not only with one another, but with our record company, and with the direction we each wanted to take this crazy thing called Violent Femmes. We all had personal reasons for splitting up, and I felt that it probably was the best thing for me to do at that time. I became free to investigate all kinds of other things that I wanted to do, whether it was in theater or writing or recording my own music. I also got to spend a lot more time with my family; I got to watch my kids grow up. When I got back together with the band, the impetus was the Rhino reissue of the first record. But I also think we had gotten to the point where enough of the wounds had healed over, and we were willing to take a chance again to see what the monster, once we woke it up, would look like. After having been in the band over a year now, I’d have to say that the experience of getting back together with the guys has been a real healthy one.
MD: You’ve used a standup setup since the beginning of the band.
Victor: Throughout the history of band I made it a point to take a different kind of drum system out on the road every time we went. Inevitably there will be some kind of a standup drum system, sometimes with a regular bass drum that I’d play standing up, or a small snare drum connected to a foot pedal. The one that I used to use I called a “Varken” drum, which is the Dutch word for pig. It was a metal 5×14 snare that I bought at a flea market in Amsterdam. It had a ring that was affixed to the hoop, so you could use it as a marching drum. I could also affix a bass drum pedal to it and play it as a bass drum, which was absolutely absurd. It sounded ridiculous. I guess it was a joke on myself and on the audience that I would use that as a bass drum. But once we started playing bigger rooms, I would also take a sit-down drumset. I would set both of those systems up side-by-side so I could go between the two, even in the course of a song. I could start a fill on the standup drumset and then finish it on the sit-down drumset.
MD: Standing up has its advantages, like being a bigger part of the show. Are there disadvantages as well?
Victor: The disadvantage is that you always have a phantom bass drum in your mind, especially in the way I’m playing now, which is just snare drum, floor tom, and one cymbal. But I guess the way that Brian Ritchie and I have figured out our rhythm-section duties is that more times than not the bass drum figures are implied in a shared aspect between what Brian plays and what I play. It was kind of strange re-acclimating myself to that. During the time I was away from the band, I was playing primarily sit-down drums. I really had to think about it again.
MD: And it probably came back with some subtle differences.
Victor: Yes, because of being more steady with the bass drum, playing the set for ten years. The trick is to work in those phantom parts. It’s a feel. It doesn’t affect the time that much, but it does play havoc with how you interpret the feel.
MD: What’s your preferred configuration, or “system,” as you referred to it?
Victor: What I’m touring with now is an old Rodgers snare, circa 1964. It’s a 5×14, kind of yellowed marine pearl. Then I use a 1976 14×14 mahogany Gretsch floor tom. Then I’ve got one of those light DW cymbal stands with the flat base. And I still use the tranceaphone, which is nothing more than a metal bushel basket put over the top of a floor tom. As far as cymbals go, I’m playing a 20″ Avedis Zildjian CIE, which is a formulation of alloys like they used in the ’40s. It’s an absolutely brilliant cymbal, I love it. And then I use one string of antique bells, which hangs from the cymbal stand. And I play primarily brushes, and those are Regal Tip Whiskers.
MD: As somebody who plays so much brushes, you must have pretty strong feelings about them.
Victor: Well, for recording I can use brushes with metal strands, or Blastix, or these Whiskers, which are nylon brushes. But it used to kill my hands playing the old Regal Tip jazz brushes live, because I was playing like a maniac. I had this bastardized version of the jazz way of playing brushes, and the rubber handles used to just rip my hands apart. The Whiskers’ clear plastic coating don’t give as much, so consequently my hands are still alive. And as far as drumsticks go, I just use any kind of a good 5A.
MD: Did playing your stripped-down setup come naturally to you?
Victor: It was based on a specific sound we had in mind – Brian and I in particular, before we met Gordon. We were really into what was happening with the early Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps recordings. The drummer in that band played a very small drumset, and sometimes he would just play a snare drum. That was the sound we wanted to go after, something very small yet powerful. And Brian was into the acoustic mariachi bass guitar. That also dictated that I would go with a smaller sound, which would be just the snare drum or this tranceaphone device that Brian and I came up with. It was all based on this idea of trying to come up with something different, something that you weren’t hearing on the radio or seeing in the clubs at that time, circa the early 1980s.
MD: So did that present you with any difficulties?
Victor: After we had worked with it for a while it didn’t really present difficulties to us. But it certainly presented difficulties to the listeners, because they were accustomed to hearing the big bass drum and not necessarily hearing the drums being interpreted in a jazz fashion in that kind of a punk-rock style. That was something that no one had done before. People wanted to see and hear “big.” And there was the tradition in rock of the drumset/electric bass/electric guitar setup. We just kind of turned that all upside down and tried to incorporate what we thought were the good things about early rock ‘n’ roll, whether it be Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, or The Velvet Underground with my good friend Moe Tucker. She would play a snare drum and then a bass drum turned on its side. She would play bass drum figures on it, but certainly there was no foot action.
MD: Do you feel that you are as outside the mainstream now as you were back in the early days?
Victor: Yeah, because you have to understand that our whole style was bent on entertaining danger, putting ourselves in musical jeopardy, so to speak, and really celebrating the art of the improviser. Even though we work in the context of three-chord, three-minute songs, some of the improvisational passages can go way beyond that time limit. That’s something that we certainly borrowed from all the great things that we love about jazz. And the songwriting was definitely a bow to early rock ‘n’ roll, and also to country music. It all was kind of mixed up in this strange Midwestern stew. We were the three farmers with the ladles, spinning it up and trying to come up with some kind of a brew that kept us excited. I guess it was to our great fortune that other people liked what we were doing and could appreciate it as something different from the norm but still, in their minds, rock ‘n’ roll.
MD: Along those lines, your new record is so musically colorful. You obviously have a very strong will to paint vibrant pictures with sound.
Victor: Well, it’s funny you used painting terms, because as you know, a lot of people think of Marcel Duchamp, in the beginning at least, as a painter. Later he became known as a great theorist and prankster. But the way that album came about was almost as though it crept up on me. I didn’t really set out to make that album. It had a gestation period of about five years, and in that five years I would do little experiments with different musician friends of mine here in Milwaukee. Then I would add onto it myself or bring other people in. Other pieces were generated solely by myself. Some of the things were done with my son, Malachi. Other pieces were thought out to a certain extent in advance, and I brought in the players that I wanted to feature on those pieces. After about four years, I figured, Oh my God, maybe this is the Duchamp record that I’ve always thought about making, my homage to him through the world of audio. I guess the tying point between those two is that what Duchamp always wanted to do was bring any kind of artistic endeavor into the service of the mind. So it’s not just that you are hearing music and enjoying that music for its own sake; it’s designed to inspire you to think about other things.
MD: It seems that you took good advantage of digital recording techniques on this album.
Victor: The record was actually recorded in a hybrid fashion. Some of the initial tracks – the rhythm tracks or however you want to refer to them – were done on the 2″ machine. But then I’d transfer them into either Pro Tools or onto my Yamaha 4416, and then add tracks and sweeten from there. Final mixes were done either on the 4416 or in Pro Tools.
MD: I remember you were literally working on the album in your hotel room the last time we saw each other in New York.
Victor: Right, exactly. Pro Tools is such a standard worldwide now that it affords you that liberty to take it wherever you want to go.
Once all the audio was done, then I put together bits and pieces of artwork for the album. There are a multitude of inside jokes in there for anybody who’s a Duchampian, which I won’t bore our drumset readers with.[laughs] But, for instance, the font that I used is based on manuscripts of little doodles and instructions to his musicians from John Cage. That’s what I love about Marcel Duchamp: Looking at one of his pieces leads you to many different paths of exploration.
MD: You display a great amount of courage in your career choices. How might a drummer start thinking about himself differently, as a musician who makes a unique statement, rather than just following the path.
Victor: Well, to give you the concise, cocky answer, it’s three words: Ditch the fear. That’s what it comes down to. Being able to believe in yourself enough that you can take yourself places that you never thought you would go. Putting yourself in musical jeopardy, trying to transcend the tradition of the drumset.
MD: But I need to make money.
Victor: You do need to make money. But how do you feed your soul? If you want to just make money, well, yeah, then you go about it in a certain fashion, whether it’s growing your hair real long and wearing a lot of hot pink and becoming a heavy metal drummer, or, if you want to be a jazz drummer, wearing a two-piece suit with a nice skinny tie. All I can tell you for myself is that I just took chances, which is an inherent result of me starting off in this world of entertainment as an actor, where my study was based on breaking down all kinds of barriers that one sets up for oneself, especially in interpreting your feelings. But it’s still about adhering to and paying tribute to tradition. I love the artistry of playing the brushes. That’s what really got me when I stated to learn. With brushes, you can incorporate what you can do with the sticks, but it doesn’t go the other way around.
MD: Looking back over the past few years, what sorts of changes in drumming have you noticed?
Victor: The biggest change that I’ve noticed is that it’s acceptable now to the casual listener to hear many different polyrhythmic figures occurring at the same time. It wasn’t always that way. Just think of a band like Tool. Danny Carey is laying rhythm over rhythm over rhythm. I think in the old days people would maybe classify that as being too busy, whereas now people welcome that. I think their ears are more refined to hearing that, just as people are accustomed to hearing good time on recordings now, which I applaud wholeheartedly. I’d like to get into more of that in future recordings that I create.