• 10 Questions with Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes.
  • Author:
  • Publication: Reflex Magazine
  • Date: 01/17/2007

The indianapolismusic.net community was asked to submit questions to
Violent Femmes Bassist/multi-instrumentalist Brian Ritchie. The questions are italicized and his answers are in bold.

I can remember when I heard my first Violent Femmes album. It’s rare that I can remember exactly where I was the first time I heard an album, and the older I get, the less and less likely it is for me to remember where I was when I first heard an album. I go through so many albums anymore, many while sitting at work, that it’s rare that an album can grab my full attention and have my brain bookmark the occasion. For the Vioelent Femmes, my first listen was in the summer of 1987 and I was driving back on I-70 from the American Association of Students of German convention in St. Louis. I was cruising along the highway in my 1984 maroon Mercury Lynx transporting a few kids from Martinsville back to their homes. One of them popped the Violent Femme’s ponymously titled cassette into the tape deck and I was immediately hooked.

That first album is a landmark album in music history. Here was essentially a punk rock rebellion record but without the slashing guitars and raging vocals. There was no drummer pushing the whole mess forward until everything teeters on the brink of total anarchy. Rather, this was a raw album of acoustic guitars and simple percussion. The vocals were restrained yet carried more passion than most bands I had heard by that time. The songs were catchy yet charged with rebellion and frustration. It was a perfect soundtrack for a 16 year old.

Q: What bands inspired/influenced the early Femmes records?

Brian Ritchie: Our biggest influences are the Velvet Underground, Sun Ra,Johnny Cash, Devo, John Coltrane, Hank Williams Sr., Marcel Duchamp and
Fernando Pessoa.

Q: Do those bands still influence your newer works? Are there other bands that influence you or inspire you more nowadays?

Brian Ritchie: After a certain point music making becomes so natural that you don’t really need to find influences. I would guess at this time we
inspire more people than those who inspire us.

In 1988 I finally got to see the Violent Femmes when they played the Student Union at Indiana University. It was the first concert my older sister and I had gone to together since we saw the Thompson Twins and O.M.D. at the Convention Center in Indianapolis in 1984. It was cool to be standing among the older college kids watching this band perform (once they got over a 10 minute delay whose details I have forgotten). And the live show was phenomenal. If I wasn’t a fan of the Femmes before I saw them live, I most assuredly was now. I mean, they played a freaking alphorn during the show. How awesome is that?

Q: What are your favorite songs to play live?

Brian Ritchie: My favorite song is “Never Tell” because it has many different levels of meaning. Other than that I like “Black Girls”, “Confessions”, “Add It Up” and the other ones we improvise on, because improv keeps us on our toes and fresh. Then I like “Gone Daddy Gone” because it’s just so preposterous and snotty to play a xylophone solo in a rock band.

Q: What songs would you like to play live but don’t?

Brian Ritchie: We don’t use a set list. I call the songs out on stage. Therefore we play exactly the songs I like. If we could figure out a way to do a punk version of Cesar Franck’s “Symphony in D Minor” I would also like that, but I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. Actually I would like to play any new material that’s first class.

Over the years, I’ve taken almost every opportunity to see the Violent Femmes. I saw them once again with my sister at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago in 1998. By this time, they had released several more albums. Their brilliant yet dark second release Hallowed Ground showed that they had way more depth than just a bunch of peckish punk-rock wannabees. This album includes the fantastic song “Black Girls” whose rhythms are undeniable but whose lyrics I’m at a loss to explain. Their next release was the hit-or-miss The Blind Leading the Naked, an album that alternates between classic Violent Femmes songs such as “I Held Her In My Arms” and “Special” while forcing the listener to endure less spectacular songs like “Love & Me Make Three”. I remember buying the album 3 on vinyl while I was at IU. I really, really wanted to like it but in the end I find it to be one of the more forgettable Violent Femmes albums. They rarely play more than one or two songs off of this album during their shows.

Following the release of 3 I had more or less given up on the Femmes. I found the music they released after Hallowed Ground to be more trite than I was looking for. I hesitantly bought their fifth album Why Do Birds Sing and found it to be one of my favorite albums of theirs, right up there with their first two releases. These songs were much more mature and coherent than most anything they had ever released. It is the most well-produced album and has perhaps a bit too much shine and gloss on it, but overall it was a welcome comeback for a band that two years earlier I had written off. After that album, I decided that I would never write them off again. It’s not that Why Do Birds Sing? is such a phenomenal, gernre-defying album because it’s not. Rather, it’s more like a friend with whom you had lost contact with sent you a letter two years later and the letter said something along the lines of”Sorry for being out of touch for so long. I was in a weird place. Let’s get back in touch”.

It was hard at times to stay in touch. New Times, their follow-up to Why Do Birds Sing?, was a real hit or miss record (akin to The Blind Leading the Naked). Their 1998 release “Rock!!!” was originally released only in Australia until someone decided to release it in the US five years later. Their last proper release was in 2000 with Freak Magnet an album that was consistently good throughout.

All of their albums since their first have some extremely great songs on them, but for understandable reason, people want the Femmes to play the songs off their first album which was released almost 23 years ago. I’ve seen the Violent Femmes five or six times now, and each show is better than the last. They mix their hits with their more obscure album tracks so well that people who don’t know those buried songs still dance and clap as if those buried gems were their favorites. The Violent Femmes excel on stage. The live experience is truly the best place to experience their music.

Q: Are you tired of playing the old stuff?

Brian Ritchie: No because the audience is always fresh. Yul Brynner did “The King and I” for 40 years. If you are a professional you summon the inspiration or quit. In recent times, the Violent Femmes have been a bit less active.

They haven’t released a new album in 6 years, though they have released their first DVD which captures a performance of them in 1991. Of late, lead singer Gordon Gano has released a solo album (pairing himself up with performs such as Lou Reed, PJ Harvey, and Frank Black) while Brian Ritchie has devoted his talents to mastering the shakuhachi, which is a traditional Japanese bamboo flute.

Q: How is the shakuhachi playing coming along?

Brian Ritchie: Thanks for asking about that. I am continuing to play the shakuhachi internationally. I have a concert in Oslo in a few weeks. I will be teaching at the European Shakuhachi Festival in London in July. And I recorded a new shakuhachi CD which is the history of Japanese music from 7th to 21st Centuries. That will be out later this year. I think I will put it out on my own label. The older I get, the more I am into being self sufficient and DIY. I don’t know why. Probably should be the other way around.

The Femmes have also explored modern media, having released a b-sides and outtakes album in 2001 via the emusic.com music service. Something’s Wrong features tracks not released on the live compilation Viva Wisconsin as well as various demos recorded in 1995 and 1996.

Q: You were an early adopter of releasing music digitally. How has that worked out? What are your feelings regarding digital music distribution?

Brian Ritchie: Digital distribution is the answer to so many problems including reducing packaging and ease of distribution. But if people are stealing music that hurts us and other musicians. We don’t sell as many units as we used to. Actually it’s good for the fans because it forces us to stay out on the road to make a living. On the other hand with little prospect of selling records there is also little incentive to record. I record solo albums to keep my creativity flowing, but a Femmes album is a big project.

The Violent Femmes have also shown up on various Soundtracks and TV shows including an appearance on the completely forgettable “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”.

Q: What made you do the episode of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” that you appeared on?

Brian Ritchie: Melissa was told the plot involved meeting up with a rock band. Her first concert was VF at the Beacon Theater in NYC and had some sort of emotional significance. We did it because we tend to do anything we are invited to do, especially if it’s new, weird or a challenge. Also it’s a good way of reaching out to people who would never come to a rock concert.

There is a long tradition of rockers making cameos in lightweight sitcoms.The Femmes also have a very active fan forum at www.vfemmes.com. One of the recent posts said A French fashion magazine called “Violent Femmes D’Aujourdhui” has successfully won a lawsuit against the Violent Femmes. One of the unfortunate results of this judgement is that the Femmes have to change their band name or face massive fines and penalties. The posting seemed dubious as various Google searches turned up no imformation about either the magazine or the lawsuit. So it was time to get a straight answer directly from the band.

Q: Do you really have to change your band name, as is mentioned on the vfemmes.com forum?

Brian Ritchie: That was a hacker who hacked into our website and posted some bogus messages. We haven’t figured out how to delete it. We are computer illiterate.

The Violent Femmes are a band who have stood the test of time. They have released a truly seminal album and several others extremely listenable and enjoyable album. The band counterpoints their quirky sense of humor with songs that are deadly serious. When the songs take an obvious Christian angle, it seems more good natured and fun than someone beating you over the head with the Gospel. The Violent Femmes are masters of their trade having stood the test of time. They still pack a punch on stage and are a “not to be missed” concert any time they come to town.

Q: Why?

Brian Ritchie: Because Sun Ra died and The Byrds split up.?