Can’t Sit Still
by Will Romano
The pinging, clanging, and thumping noises emanating from his minimalistic setup aren’t the byproduct of mindless thrashing and bashing. They’re the purposeful tones of a seasoned former Femme reclaiming his musical soul.
When most of his peers were flying by the seat of their collective pants, Victor DeLorenzo was standing up to be counted with the legendary Milwaukee-based art-punk folk-rock trio Violent Femmes.
DeLorenzo, an experimental jazzer at heart, subverted the traditional drumkit setup by standing on stage while slapping the skins and employing metal brushes to scratch and swirl around his idiosyncratic and rather minimal assortment of drums. Without the use of a hi-hat or other percussive components that some musicians would deem vital for live performance, DeLorenzo attempted to extract the most sound he could from a single drum—and did so from the front of the stage.
In the commercial rock world of the early 1980s, the notion of a percussionist forgoing a throne and a kick drum, performing on the “front line,” and relying on a low-tech custom device dubbed the tranceaphone, was perceived as being tantamount to career suicide. In reality it proved nothing of the kind. In fact, DeLorenzo fathered one of the most iconic (if simple) drum breaks in all of ’80s pop, in the catchy and ubiquitous ditty “Blister in the Sun.”
With Nineteen Thirteen, a new duo he helped form in recent years with Milwaukee-based cellist Janet Schiff, DeLorenzo continues to challenge the preconceived norms of rock drumming. He forges ahead by applying wire brushes, mallets, and multi-rods to a setup made up of one cymbal, a snare, a bass drum, and two floor toms.
Although often labeled jazz, Nineteen Thirteen plays (largely) instrumental music that perhaps more closely resembles art rock or chamber rock. DeLorenzo hasn’t totally shunned the mainstream music business (he rejoined his on-again-off-again gig with the Femmes for a brief stint in 2013), but is apparently most comfortable exploring the outer edges of pop, grooving to the mechanical mannerisms of Schiff’s Boss RC-300 looping device while performing. “The looper has really developed my intuition and listening ability to lock in with grooves being created at the moment,” DeLorenzo says.
Croaking layered bass lines provide the bedrock foundation of the music, as Schiff bows beautifully eerie lead melodies from her cello, a vintage instrument crafted in Romania in the year 1913, hence the band name. The combined effect shoots shivers down the spine yet provides some measure of comfort for the listener—something akin to whistling past a graveyard at midnight. Equally chilling and effective is the band’s partially improvisational music for the multimedia theatrical project A Woman’s Place, created by Kelly Coffey, which follows the narrative of five women trapped inside a Milwaukee insane asylum.
Ghostly sonic treasures abound. For its 2016 studio album, Music for Time Travel, Nineteen Thirteen repurposed recorded material from 1961 by organist Margy Schiff, Janet’s grandmother, for a spooky cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” (which also features veteran upright bassist Rob Wasserman).
Outside of Nineteen Thirteen, DeLorenzo remains active in a number of endeavors across several disciplines. In addition to performing, painting, producing, engineering, writing, and recording—perhaps most notably a 2013 self-titled solo album largely arranged around voice and drums—he is sketching plans for a one-man theatrical play that would involve drumming performances. As with so many aspects of his professional life, DeLorenzo relishes the many creative options at his disposal.
“It will have something to do with the drums, but not exclusively,” Victor says. “I’ll probably have other instrumental music, lights, and some costuming of sorts when I ‘become’ different people. There are so many possibilities.”
MD: Nineteen Thirteen has used two drummers—you, and on separate occasions Scott Johnson and a fellow by the name of Nez. How did you collaborate with them on stage?
Victor: I didn’t want it to be two drummers playing the same thing simultaneously. There were other times we would disregard the other drummer and just play what we wanted to play—time signature and accent patterns be damned. For some other pieces one drummer started a fill and the other drummer would finish it.
MD: Janet Schiff employs a looping device on her cello in a live setting. How do you navigate layers of cello lines?
Victor: Usually the first pass sets up the rhythmic idea, and she approximates some bass part and I set time with her. Then we go from there. It’s all being handcrafted and delivered live to an audience. [Schiff tells Modern Drummer, “I used to race, run. I was told to look at the gun for the smoke, because the eye is quicker than the ear. So I look to Victor and watch him like a hawk. At the end of a loop Victor and I look at each other and kind of do a ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’ If it works we keep it.”]
MD: How much experience did you have playing with a looping device?
Victor: None. [laughs] Well, none other than playing in a recording studio and sometimes putting drums on last. You’re working with some prerecorded material or corresponding to some time reference, a click or a little percussion instrument, even a melodic instrument. Nineteen Thirteen brought it into a whole other arena of having to do it live. Now I can go with [the created loops]. Even if there’s little ticks or skips in the loops, I can compensate for it. I think it’s made me a better musician and has pinpointed in my mind how I displace or accommodate different rhythms and accent patterns.
MD: There’s a little bit of danger in every performance.
Victor: It was like when I was working as an actor in Amsterdam. The director of the theater, Ritsaert ten Cate, great old Dutch fellow, once watched a run-through of one of the pieces that we were going to perform, and he came to me and said, “Victor, I like what you are doing in the play, but there’s one thing that’s missing.” I said, “What?” He said, “Danger. As a creative artist you must always have one part of your life in jeopardy.” That was something that I carried on in my acting, and it also seeped into my playing.
MD: You recently wrote a column for OnMilwaukee.com about your history of standing while drumming. Others have done it too, of course, like Moe Tucker. But with Nineteen Thirteen you’re seated.
Victor: Right. There are some times I’ll stand up and play a snare or a whole little drum system, but for the most part with Nineteen Thirteen it has a better look if we’re sitting.
MD: You had a minimal setup with the Femmes. It fit with the group’s arty but accessible approach, and in recent years we’ve witnessed the ascendance of nontraditional percussion in the mainstream worlds of rock, art-pop, and EDM.
Victor: Sometimes I wondered if it was the right thing to do. Obviously it was, because it gave the Femmes a unique sound and remains unique to this day, I would think. I don’t mean to take credit in an obnoxious way, but looking at Modern Drummer and watching different shows on television, whether it be Saturday Night Live or something on Palladia [now MTV Live], it appears to be totally acceptable for someone to be playing just a snare drum and a floor tom. No bass drum.
When I was doing that it was heresy. I got all kinds of guff from the record company and even the other two guys in my band, who later said, “Maybe you should start using the bass drum, and maybe we can have some more commercial value.”
Of course, I did [play a kit] on the recordings, but live I wanted to get a hell of a lot of sound out of a small setup, which is my trademark. We were playing big festivals and I’d just show up with a snare, the tranceaphone, and a cymbal or two. I’d set up my stuff and all the roadies and sound guys would say, “You’re just waiting for all the other stuff to arrive?” I’d say, “No, this is what I play.”
They’d say, “You get that much sound out of this?” I’d say, “Yeah. I’m a drummer.”
MD: You’ve used the tranceaphone with Nineteen Thirteen, but what was it originally designed to do?
Victor: It’s a 14″ floor tom with the bottom head removed. I placed a metallic bushel basket over the tom, the kind you would use to stoke coal furnaces in the old days. Then I mounted it on a snare drum stand and I’d play it with metal brushes, so you would get kind of a pinging sound. You would also get a more deep-throated sound if you hit the center of the bushel basket, which would activate the head of the floor tom underneath it. That would produce a thud. You could also play the side of the metal bushel basket and it gave you a clanging sound. So you had a ping, a clang, and a thump. Then, if you used the circle on the bottom of the brush handle, you could rub that along the ribbed edges on the top for something like [makes whirring noises]. It isn’t just a crazy-looking folk-art object. It really does have some musical value.
MD: The Femmes returned a few years ago and performed festival shows.
Victor: When Gordon [Gano, vocalist/guitarist] told me that he had these offers for the Femmes to play, I said to him, “I’ll come back and work with you guys, but I can’t just pick up where it left off—misery and despair. I want to see the band grow and hopefully consider doing new music.” That was one of the things Gordon had taken away: writing new music for the band. As a creative, living and breathing musician, you want to work on new music and keep yourself current.
When I was doing the last bit of touring with them, the last four shows I did, the business aspects were interfering with the music to the extent that every night when it came time to play our biggest hit, “Blister in the Sun,” Brian [Ritchie, bassist/multi-instrumentalist] would leave the stage due to arguments with Gordon over publishing. It would just be Gordon and me playing “Blister in the Sun,” which was totally absurd. Believe you me, we would get earfuls from the promoters when we would come off the stage. It was a nice paycheck, but at the same time I already sold my soul in regards to these guys. What little bit I had regained after being apart from them I felt was going to slip. I made the decision to not go on.
MD: That’s an iconic drum pattern in “Blister in the Sun.”
Victor: It’s just staggered [hums flams], kind of like handicapped flams. I am proud of that, even in its simplicity. A lot of times I will be watching a sporting event on television and they’ll play the riff from “Blister in the Sun.” The audience reacts by clapping along to the drum part. It didn’t exist when Brian first played the riff. You can get into that whole discussion of songwriting and what constitutes the writing of a song.
MD: The fewest people get credit in the liner notes, to project an image of the genius sole songwriter.
Victor: I hate that phenomenon, and I’ve seen it over and over and over again in show business—and in other endeavors involving humans. [laughs] If I look at the two other people who have come into Violent Femmes to play my role, I thought they could play my role but they could never play my part. I was the eccentric proponent. I provided the Keith Moon stand-up-comedy drumming. When we first started playing, even when we’d set up on the lip of the stage, I was always downstage center. Gordon would be on my left or right and Brian would be on the other side. That was totally different from what anybody else was doing in the early 1980s.
MD: Nineteen Thirteen is likely different.
Victor: I’m looking forward to expanding on the recordings and being able to play some other instruments besides drums, and to think more about what music means to me at this point in my life. There’s a sweet combination of nostalgia and also a real hunger for something modern and something unbeknown to me. Hopefully Nineteen Thirteen is the vehicle that will help me discover what those two things mean to me.
DeLorenzo’s Nineteen Thirteen Setup
Victor’s current “drum system,” including the original tranceaphone featured on the Violent Femmes’ iconic debut album.
The multidisciplinary DeLorenzo painted the art on his front bass drum head, which he named “After Pharmacy, for Him,” as well as the cover to Nineteen Thirteen’s Music for Time Travel.
Drums: Ludwig Classic Maple in black galaxy finish
A. 5×14 Acrolite snare (black galaxy sparkle “Blacrolite”)
B. 14×14 floor tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 14×18 bass drum
Cymbal: A Zildjian
1. 19″ Armand Beautiful Baby ride
Heads: Ludwig Weather Master coated batters and clear bottoms, Remo Coated Ambassador bass drum front head with original artwork
Sticks: Regal Tip Whiskers brushes (plastic); Promark Hot Rods, Broomsticks, brushes (metal), and Elvin Jones Jazz sticks; Vic Firth T6 Custom General mallets
Hardware: DW 6000 series stands, Sonor bass drum pedal with Vater Vintage Bomber beater