Title: Interview: Brian Ritchie Of Violent Femmes
Author: Chris Cudby
The songs of Violent Femmes have been virtually omnipresent to many growing up in Aotearoa, soundtracking countless suburban house parties and boozy beachside rendezvous. Formed in 1980 around the core team of singer / guitarist Gordon Gano and bassist Brian Ritchie with drummer Victor DeLorenzo in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, their inimitable brand of angsty folk-punk has gifted fans such perfectly formed anthems as ‘Blister In The Sun’, ‘Gone Daddy Gone’, ‘Kiss Off’, ‘Add it Up’ and ‘American Music’, rivalling such perennial faves as The Exponents in singalong-ability.
Heading back our way in March for a pair of North Island headline events following the release of tenth studio album Hotel Last Resort, Chris Cudby had the opportunity to spend some time on the phone with Hobart-based Brian Ritchie, whose musical interests famously stretch far beyond the mainstream – he spends much of his time as music curator for cutting-edge annual festival Mona Foma, along with contributing to its winter Dark Mofo programme. Ritchie reflected on a lifetime in music and more in their conversation below…
Chris Cudby: You’re heading to New Zealand before returning to Hobart to start an Australian tour. What can fans look forward to with your new upcoming shows?
Brian Ritchie: Well the Femmes are very consistent about presenting a variety of material in our sets. We play everything from our first early material, all the classic songs and then we play some stuff from our new recording as well, Hotel Last Resort. We don’t use a set list so… it’s kind of a relationship thing with the audience, where we read the audience and we gauge their reactions and play the songs that we feel like playing at that moment. It’s really up to the moment what’s gonna happen but I can tell you that it’ll be a combination of old and some of the newer material.
The Violent Femmes, you guys released two studio albums in the last three years, Hotel Last Resort and We Can Do Anything, following sixteen years between albums. What has spurred or prompted this recent wave of new material?
There was also another EP and we also put out a double live album, so we’ve got four releases in the last five years. It’s been a very productive period for us, I guess for me personally, because we went for so long without recording. Even when the band was still touring a lot, we hadn’t put out records for a number of years and although the record industry had collapsed, I still felt like we owed it to our fans to put out some new material that was good. Also, people think these last recordings that we’ve been doing have matched up to our earlier recordings in terms of the sound and also energy levels and the fun aspect of it. I feel like we’ve reclaimed that territory as recording artists that we had kind of abandoned for quite some time.
I was impressed with how fresh the new album was sounding. You’ve lived in Hobart for more than a decade, is that right?
Yeah, I’ve been here for twelve years now.
What drew you to move there?
Well, my wife and I, we wanted to get out of the States and we considered a number of different places including Italy, Spain, New Zealand and Australia. We settled upon Australia. One of my friends who’s a prominent bass player in New Zealand asked me not to go there [laughs]. That’s a fact. But now! That New Zealand bass player has move to Milwaukee.
Are you allowed to name names? Well you’re very close to New Zealand anyway, you’re about as close as you can get.
I wish we went there more often. I thought we’d go there a lot once we moved to Australia, but I’ve only been there three or four times since we moved there.
Where’s Gordon based? How do you guys go about coordinating working on your project?
Well the band has been together for now thirty eight years.
We have a kind of telepathy about playing music. We’re not one of these showbiz type acts that needs to rehearse a lot to get our show together, because we’re mostly improvising and playing stuff in a really rough fashion. We get together and we just run together a few songs and if there’s any songs that we might have forgotten, we’ll run through them in the dressing room right before the show. But there’s not a lot of rehearsal that goes on with this band. If we’re playing a song like ‘Kiss Off’ or ‘Blister In The Sun’, if we don’t know that by now, after thirty eight years then we better check ourselves into a clinic or something.
That would be bad news for sure. I was in Hobart recently for the Dark Mofo festival. Are you still responsible for curating the Mona Foma festivals?
Yeah, Mona Foma and all this other stuff that happens on-site at Mona (Museum of Old and New Art). I’m the music curator for Mona.
Does that include the Dark Mofo festival as well?
I do some of the stuff on Dark Mofo, but I do everything for Mona Foma.
I can imagine the research for all of that would be ginormous.
It keeps me busy but it’s also intellectually stimulating to always be in touch with new music, collaborating with people, putting projects together. It’s very satisfying because, I guess it’s similar to New Zealand. Tasmania, at one time didn’t have a lot of people visiting internationally and now we have a lot of it. That groundswell really started when we created Mona Foma.
Me and my partner were there recently and we had a really amazing experience, we loved the diversity of sounds that was on display. We were there for the last weekend of Dark Mofo this year and also found it really educational to learn about the very dark colonial history of Tasmania through the exhibitions. Is there any kind of guiding theme as to how you approach curating each season’s festivals or events?
All our themes emerge in the process of curation. Sometimes we set themes up front and look for things that fit that, but other times what we do is put a few tent posts down, basically, and once you have a few pillars to the programming then you build around that. It’s a very flexible thing. Other times themes go from year to year. I don’t usually like to talk about the themes, because I prefer the public to interpret it in their own way or discover it rather then say “this is what we’re doing now.”
I spotted that you’re programmed to play a morning meditation set at the Mona Foma fest [in January 2020]. What kind of performance would that potentially be?
A morning mediation is a series that we’ve done pretty consistently over the years. It’s probably defined to mean either the music that the musicians consider to be meditation music or music of people to meditate to. But it’s just a way of getting people to listen to acoustic music earlier in the day before all the more high energy performances and louder ones occur. I’ll be doing Japanese traditional music because I play shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute. II’m actually keen to play actual meditation music which originated in the zen temples in Japan so that’s what I’m doing, but the other musicians in that series may have different ideas about what meditation music is, so it’s pretty wide open. It’s also got a little bit of curation to it in the sense that the performer or the audience should be meditating or both of them.
How long have you been playing flute for?
I’ve been playing for over twenty years and they have a kind of a licensing system, like a karate black belt kind of thing. I’m licensed to teach and perform.
I first saw the Violent Femmes play when I was a teenager back in Auckland in 1995. What was it like getting back into touring with the Femmes in 2013? Did you see a fresh wave of younger audience members at your shows?
We’ve always had the ability to attract new young people to the sound. Right now, I’d say that we probably have the widest demographic that we’ve ever had. It used to be that probably eighty or eighty five percent of the people were between twenty and thirty. Now we’ve got people all the way from ten years of age all the way up to seventy or something like that, pretty much evenly dispersed amongst twenties, thirties, forties and fifties people. We see more diversity now then have in the past. Our audience is ageing but it’s not completely. It’s not like when you go to the Stones’ concert and everybody over fifty. It’s a wide range of people who come to our shows.
I’ll bet. The audience reaction we had to the announcement that you’re playing here was pretty amazing and you could definitely see that a wide age group were into it. Is there anything that you’re particularly enjoying listening to at the moment? Old or new?
There’s a band from England that I love called Sons of Khemet. Very very energetic and fun and upbeat. I like them quite a bit.