The perennially popular folk-punk group celebrates nearly forty years with their tenth studio full-length, powered by a longtime percussionist with a unique setup.
After forming in the early 1980s, the iconic folk-punk group Violent Femmes firmly established their place in modern alternative music’s annals thanks in part to universally recognizable hits such as “Blister in the Sun” and “Gone Daddy Gone.” After building their career busking on the streets of Milwaukee, the band quickly developed a reputation for being one of the loudest acoustic groups to hit a live stage.
In the ensuing decades, though, the band, which was founded by guitarist and songwriter Gordon Gano, bassist Brian Ritchie, and drummer Victor DeLorenzo, would endure a few drum stool changes as well as two brief but rocky hiatuses, one between 1987 and 1988 and another from 2009 to 2013. After regrouping a second time, the Femmes eventually released 2016’s We Can Do Anything, which featured Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione.
Now this past July 26, following another throne shift, the group released their tenth studio effort, Hotel Last Resort, which features drummer John Sparrow. Though Sparrow has been behind the skins officially since 2016, he’s in fact played percussion with them since the mid 2000s.
Sparrow tells MD that he nabbed the Femmes gig somewhat unexpectedly. “In the summer of 2005 I was playing drums in Brian’s band, Shakuhachi Club MKE. One afternoon Brian asked me to come hang out with him at his home. When I arrived, he asked me to sit on a cajon and jam with him. He was playing bass, not shakuhachi [a traditional Japanese bamboo flute], which I thought was strange. We played some basic feels, and then he played Violent Femmes’ first record and asked me to play along.
I was confused, but I went along with it. I’ve known the Femmes’ songs since I was fifteen, so fortunately I had it covered. Afterward he wrote three dates on a piece of paper, handed it to me, and said, ‘You’re going on tour with the Violent Femmes. Call our tour manager, and go work on the rest of the catalog.’ That’s how that went down.” [laughs]
Throughout Hotel Last Resort, Sparrow’s minimalist backbeats growl behind Gano’s unique, cutting croon. The drummer draws a massive drive from a fairly simple setup, which includes a Weber grill and some tasty A&F tubs. Here we check in with Sparrow about the Femmes’ latest effort.
MD: What was the writing process like for Hotel Last Resort?
John: Gordon wrote all the songs and brought them in for us. He played us a few songs in the dressing room [on tour] before going into the studio to record. With the exception of those few songs, the majority of tunes were presented and learned in the studio control room before we tracked them.
MD: What type of input does the band have on your parts?
John: Brian and Gordon suggest feels and fills here and there for sure, but I’m left to interpret the songs on my own.
MD: Considering the unique gear, what was the recording process like in the studio?
John: My setup in the studio was the same as it is live. I use a 4×18 A&F Gun Shot steel snare, a 22″ Weber kettle grill, and a 4×18 A&F Whiskey Maple tom. I use Regal Tip Jeff Hamilton brushes and Joe Calato sticks live, and I stuck with those in the studio as well. And I used my Schlagwerk bass cajon with no snares [engaged] on a few songs.
In the studio we set up and really don’t need to take much time getting sounds. Violent Femmes have a sound of our own, and we just focus on capturing it. We record everything live in the studio, including the vocal take. This approach helps capture our live energy. There were some percussion and vocal harmony overdubs, but what you hear is essentially live.
MD: What do you work on for technique? You seem to have a precise, focused grip, even when you’re playing on a grill.
John: I spent a lot of time on my technique. I used to watch and study Jim Chapin and Joe Morello VHS tapes with my dad over and over. I spent many hours on the practice pad focusing on the Moeller technique. And I developed my own version of Morello’s “Stone Killer” exercise, which I still use before each show. I’ve also been very fond of Power Wrist Builder drumsticks over the past ten years.
MD: What’s your process for adapting another drummer’s parts live?
John: I learn the basic drum beat first. Then I listen for signature fills and use those consistently. The obvious example of this would be on “Blister in the Sun.” If I didn’t play the signature snare hits we all know in that song, it wouldn’t be right. They are a part of the song. I don’t copy every fill note-for-note, and in some cases I might not play a fill that was originally on the recording. I have a healthy amount of freedom to play around with ideas, but the whole band does, too. Violent Femmes is very much like a jazz band in that we improvise within the song each night.
John Sparrow endorses A&F drums, Regal Tip sticks, and Schlagwerk percussion.
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