- Title: Brian Ritchie: Violent Femmes never really cared about being famous
- Author: Robert F Coleman
- Publication: The Guardian
- Date: Dec. 28, 2014
Decades ago Brian Ritchie stopped his bike in Milwaukee to pee in a bush. Inside the bush were some cops. “I was arrested under suspicion of being another guy who was a murderer who had the same name, the same physical characteristics, the same birth date,” recalls Ritchie. Fortunately, the Violent Femmes bassist was from the adjacent state to the murder suspect. “I was from Wisconsin, he was from Minnesota – otherwise everything was the same.”
Then there was the time Richie was reading on a beach. When he got up to leave, the person next to him said goodbye. It was Robert Plant. “I was like, wow, of all the 60s rockstars that I meet, why does it have to be somebody from a band I don’t actually like? If it had been Keith Richards I would have liked it a little bit better. Even Jimmy Page, I would have gotten more excited because he played on some Kinks records.”
Urinating on law enforcement and knocking back a Led Zeppelin legend might paint Ritchie as a real piece of work. But this is a man who has been praised by musicians as varied as the late Lou Reed and the popstar Pink. And he is more humble and thoughtful than his choicest anecdotes suggest.
The last time I interviewed him, Ritchie was playing the shakuhachi and I was spewing into his aluminium bin after a lengthy night. That was back in 2010. My dictaphone recording clearly captures both of us in full flow. I rushed through my questions, wiped my mouth on his hand towel, rejected a generous offer to see his band The Break play that night, and made a hasty exit. But my lasting memory of the meeting will always be the smokey intonations of Ritchie’s shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute he’s been mastering for the past 18 years.
“The sound, it connects me to the wind,” he says now on the phone from Hobart, where he’s lived with his wife since 2008. “It’s grounding.” In the 40 years he has been experimenting with instruments, Ritchie has loved them all but says the two he actually “speaks through” are the acoustic bass guitar he plays with the Femmes and the shakuhachi. “And if I was stuck on an island that’s the one I’d want to have with me.”
It’s easy to picture the mellow Ritchie in an island context – long blond hair spewing from beneath a large straw hat, plonked on a rock, connecting with the wind. Indeed, he is no stranger to island life. Ritchie founded – and continues to curate – Australia’s most avant-garde music and arts festival, Mona Foma, in Tasmania.
MoFo, as it is fondly known by locals and regulars, takes over Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) once more in January but not before Violent Femmes join Australian acts Augie March and Ben Salter for the Mofo Sideshow on New Year’s Day.
The band are now in their fourth decade of performing and Ritchie attributes much of that longevity to never taking their effect on people for granted. “The Femmes have always been about the music,” he says. “Gordon (Gano, singer) never really cared about being famous.” And neither did Ritchie: “the key to longevity is to doggedly pursue your ideas to their conclusion.”
MoFo is an example of his obstinate mantra in action. Since 2009, the festival has been a platform for local and international artists to play to crowds that aren’t just waiting to hear a hit.
“People need to go with an open-mind,” says Richie. “And they do.”
Each year, his programming team balance the line-up with one-third Tasmanian artists, one-third from greater Australia and the rest from overseas. In 2015, those acts include Amanda Palmer with the Tasmania Symphony Orchestra, Iceland-based experimentalist Ben Frost and Swans. Support from Mona’s founder David Walsh has been unwavering.
“Originally David had some pretty provocative ideas and I was almost like the voice of reason,” says Ritchie. But now we’re both out of our minds!” Certainly, their joint appetite for experimentation and artists – many of whom approach Ritchie on the street in Hobart to play – has seen crowds grow each year, both in numbers and their curiosity for the new.
This pleases the man known as Big Music. It was Ritchie’s shakuhachi teachers in New York and Japan who decided on the nickname. And while he insists it refers only to his stature and to the volume at which he plays the instrument, it could equally describe his prolific presence in the music industry. Alongside the Femmes and surf rockers The Break (a collaboration with ex-Midnight Oil members), Ritchie has made guest appearances with countless other acts including, recently, accompanying the Sugarman himself, Rodriguez.
We talk about longevity and the need to create your own luck. “They say that in golf too,” says Ritchie, who is a keen player despite not getting out on the green as much as he should at the moment. “The more you practice, the luckier you get.”
Ask him how he creates something as original as MoFo – or indeed his own music – and his answer is uncompromising. “We’re all using the same building blocks. Some people make the mistake of striving for originality. But that just means they haven’t studied enough, because there’s not that many original ideas out there.”
Instead, suggests Ritchie, “you can strive to develop a unique blend of different unoriginal ideas that, when you put ’em all together, embody you or your festival or your museum or your book – or whatever form that project takes. It’s like fried rice.” And with MoFo 2015 only weeks away, Ritchie assures that everything is in place for a remarkable seventh year. “People need to just start swimming ashore, set up their cardboard boxes and start banging on them.”
• MoFo 2015 is at the Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, 14-19 January. Violent Femmes play the MoFo Sideshow on 1 January