Like a good little drummer, Victor DeLorenzo knew his role in the Violent Femmes: Stay in the back and keep your mouth shut.
With his ingenious solo album, “Pancake Day” (Almo Sounds), the shoe is on the other foot. People, lots of people, now are talking about him. It’s enough to make DeLorenzo sick to his stomach.
“I never planned to release this, that’s why everything has been a very surprising set of circumstances,” DeLorenzo said recently from his recording studio in Milwaukee. “I’m just fascinated with people actually being able to hear it now and saying nice things about it.
“It’s not that I’m not proud or I don’t think it’s good music that sits in our modern setting, but having always been the kind of musician that has tried to lend support to whomever I’m working with, it’s odd to be in this reverse situation where others are trying to make me look good.”
A humble DeLorenzo sells himself short: “Pancake Day” is one of the best albums so far of 1996, and likely will finish in many critics’ year-end polls. This already from Billboard magazine: “Adept at crafting delicately melodic tunes a la Beat Happening but capable of unleashing rock ‘n’ roll fury like any of the bands he has influenced, DeLorenzo comes across as a songwriter-musician-singer with remarkable depth.”
That depth is evident from the word go: “Peach,” “Blind” and “Noise” are raw and tuneful; “Picture Her Blue” is beautifully sweet, coupled with powerful, Wall-of-Soundlike drumming, and “Only God Knows,” “Audrey” and “Rainwater” (featuring Almo Sounds boss Herb Alpert on trumpet) should feel right at home in alternative rock circles.
That “Pancake Day” was merely a diversion from the Femmes and intended for friends’ ears only makes it even more authentic.
“I didn’t think really of doing anything with it,” DeLorenzo said. “I didn’t want to get a record deal. It was just a collection of songs I put together to maybe play for some people when they were in the mood or whatever.”
Now he calls “Pancake Day” his “happy little accident.”
Far be it for DeLorenzo to compare himself to Brian Wilson, but he does identify with the Beach Boys legend and considers “Pancake Day” his own “Pet Sounds.” In “Picture Her Blue,” he even uses Wilson as a metaphor for self-doubt.
Like Wilson did with the Beach Boys, DeLorenzo needed to break away from the Femmes, a pioneer in alternative rock, because the group was stifling his creativity.
“As songwriters, (bassist) Brian (Ritchie) and I weren’t given our due, and I felt that introducing some of our songs into the band would help,” DeLorenzo said. “I felt that if all we got into a room together and tried to work on songs from nothing till fruition, that it would be a good thing. It would take some pressure off (singer-guitarist) Gordon (Gano).
“When it didn’t go that way, I figured, well, it’s time to make a choice. If I was going to make a break, that was the best time to do it.”
It was manager-lawyer Peter J. Strand who convinced DeLorenzo to test the label waters with “Pancake Day.” Three songs into the demo tape, a stunned Howard Thompson of Almo Sounds called Strand, and when label heads Alpert and Jerry Moss (formerly known as A&M) also expressed interest, the wheels began to spin.
“I tell ya, when it became that serious that fast I was literally sick for like two days,” DeLorenzo said, laughing. “I’ve been through so many contracts with the Femmes and producing other artists, but this just flipped my head totally around.”
During “Pancake Day’s” long odyssey, DeLorenzo lost both of his parents. His mother died unexpectedly in her sleep several years ago, while his father died in April of complications from diabetes.
The most difficult moment came when DeLorenzo’s father was transferred from a hospital to a nursing home for specialized care.
“Looking at it from a sick viewpoint, I guess he wanted our permission to die,” he said. “I had this conversation with him. ‘Hey, Dad, listen … I love you very much, I’m with you in whatever decision you want to make. If you want to die, if you feel it’s the right thing to do and go see Mom, I think that’s the best of all possible worlds for you right now. Just go.’
“He looked at me with this look that I’ve never seen from anyone, then he gave me a thumbs-up and said, ‘No. 1 on the Hit Parade.’ I lost it, I totally lost it.”
A misty-eyed DeLorenzo struggles to compose himself.
“You see, my mom was an actress and always supported me in all the weird things I’ve done over my career,” he said. “My dad, he was there for me, but he kept a little bit of a respective distance in the background, and when he finally said that and gave me the thumbs-up, I just lost it. That’s the kind of man that he was.
“I praise his memory every day. That’s what I’m here for now, not to think I’m going to have a No. 1 song or hit album. I’m going to work so hard to be the best Victor DeLorenzo Jr. I can possibly be.”
BWF (before we forget): The Victor DeLorenzo album discography, with the Violent Femmes – “Violent Femmes” (Slash, 1982); “Hallowed Ground” (1984); “The Blind Leading the Naked” (1986); “3” (1988); “Debacle: The First Decade” (Liberation, 1990); “Why Do Birds Sing?” (Slash, 1991); “Add It Up (1981-1993)” (1993). Solo – “Peter Corey Sent Me” (Dali/Chameleon, 1990); “Pancake Day” (Almo Sounds, 1996).