The Violent Femmes come to the Showbox Saturday, May 14, which means fans will get a chance to see this legendary band in intimate confines. The band’s last local appearances were at Marymoor Park and the Sasquatch! Festival, which makes the comparably small Showbox seem like a treat.
Those recent concerts were memorable, but there is no possibility any show this decade could have the same impact on Northwest music as the band’s first few Seattle visits. Those early eighties shows — at long-demolished venues like the Metropolis, Gorilla Gardens and the Norway Center — are still being talked about.
The Femmes’ first Seattle concert was at the Metropolis in 1983. That show is often cited as nearly as influential on the Seattle scene as Black Flag’s first Seattle show.
“Our capacity was 299 at the Metropolis,” recalled promoter Hugo Piottin. “I’m sure we had over 400 people.”
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Many in the audience were musicians soon to start their own bands in what was then a nascent Seattle punk scene. The club was so over-packed Piottin had to continually inspect the basement floor joists since he was afraid they might collapse.
The Femmes drew an eclectic crowd for a Seattle rock show.
“It was crazed,” said Steve Turner, who would later form Mudhoney. “There were lots of people who never would have come out for Mr. Epp [Turner’s then band], the Accused or even the U-Men.”
Chris Ballew of the Presidents of the United States of America, and later Casper Babypants, didn’t attend the Metropolis show, but he did see the Femmes play in Portland. Like many others who grew up in that era, the raw sound of the Femmes’ 1983 debut record helped shape him as a player.
“I was very influenced by how open and airy it sounded, while also being in your face and dense,” he said. “That sound of frustrated dorks digging into their instruments, and pulling out intensity and sexual tension, definitely became part of my songwriting palette and influenced the Presidents sound a bunch.”
What Ballew cites as the “open and airy” nature of the debut album also has a Seattle connection in Glenn Lorbecki, who recorded the Femmes’ debut album in his Milwaukee studio.
Lorbecki hadn’t heard of the band when a call came from Slash Records, asking if he could do a recording on the cheap. Slash had given the Femmes an advance of $3500 — miniscule even for an indie label.
“They asked if we could finish it in three days,” he recalled. “It took six months in the end, on and off.”
One of the secrets to the enduring influence of the Femmes is how that album captured what was both melodic, but also “thin,” without the typical production sheen that mainstream rock was exploring then.
“What you hear on that record is exactly how they sounded in the room,” Lorbecki said. “They all performed at once, making eye contact, and playing off of each other’s energy. They bitched at each other, and threw tantrums, but the energy in the performance was electric.”
One of the unusual sounds on that record is drummer Victor DeLorenzo’s odd instrument called the Trance-A-Phone. Lorbecki had never seen one before the session.
“It was an ash-can upside down on top of a snare drum, played with brushes,” he said. “I put twelve microphones on it.”
When the self-titled record was finally released, it sold poorly at first, but over time went on to sell millions. By 1991, it had gone platinum, and songs like “Blister in the Sun” had made the Femmes stalwarts of alternative radio.
Curator Larry Reid, of the Roscoe Louie gallery, then — and now, Fantagraphics — saw the first Metropolis show, and even went on the road with the band, but thinks that it was the album itself that had a bigger influence on Seattle musicians.
“That first album sort of foreshadowed the American post punk movement that would soon become ubiquitous,” Reid said.
For Lorbecki, the success of the album meant a plum credit on his resume, but it never resulted in a financial windfall.
“Their label never paid our bill,” said Lorbecki, who later sold his studio to move to Seattle.
The Femmes’ album became a worldwide hit, but it’s been a particularly big hit over time in Seattle, says Matt Vaughan, owner of Easy Street Records.
“Other than ‘Darkside of the Moon’ or ‘Are You Experienced,’ there isn’t another record in the history of Easy Street that sells as well year in and year out,” he said. “It is truly a timeless classic.”
The original master tapes to that timeless classic are long gone. Lorbecki tossed them when he moved.
“The tapes to that important album are somewhere in Wisconsin in a dump,” he said.