• Title: Ritchie taking care of Femmes’ business
  • Author: N/A
  • Publication: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
  • Date: Dec. 17, 1999

Local night life traditionally cools during this homestretch into the holidays. Bars and clubs may actually enjoy a bump in business, but there’s typically fewer local and national live-music bookings this and next week.

So we picked up the slack by checking in with one of Milwaukee’s native musical sons gone national, Brian Ritchie, whose Violent Femmes recently completed a European tour in support of their new live album, “Viva Wisconsin.”

The album’s songs and title were culled from six Wisconsin-based concerts the band performed last year in Milwaukee,
Madison, Oshkosh, Wausau, Eau Claire and LaĆ’Crosse.

The Femmes also recently completed a new, all-original studio album, “Freak Magnet,” to be released Feb. 22. The new disc features what Ritchie described as a sound “much more aggressive, and electric-guitar-oriented than what you find on a typical Femmes’ album.”

Among the first of the postmodern wave of pop musicians whose influence still guides today’s scene – the punks, rappers and alternative rockers that first came about in the late ’70s – Ritchie, 39, and others of his place and time, are creating the template for how punk rockers approach middle age.

Typically, Ritchie spends half the year on the road touring with the Femmes. The rest of his time is spent at home in a large apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, a gentrifying neighborhood with a mix of immigrant families, young urban types, and “artsy, supposedly intellectual types, like me and my wife,” added Ritchie, referring to Varuni Kulasekara, a Manhattan entomologist (insect scientist) who works at the American Museum of Natural History. Kulasekara played a key civic role in stemming the rise of West Nile Fever, an encephalitis-like outbreak that had many New York citizens in a panic earlier this year. Ritchie married Kulasekara about a year and a half ago. He was married twice before.

At home, while not tending to more mundane Femmes duties – updating the group’s Web site, creating album covers, and dealing with executives from the band’s record label, Beyond-BMG – Ritchie leads a life probably not too unlike other upper-middle-class Bohemia New Yorkers.

On a typical day, Kulasekara leaves the apartment for the timely commute to the city and Ritchie rises “sometime in midmorning” and then commences his daily practices on shakuhazhi, a Japanese flute made of bamboo. Ritchie took up the instrument because, he said, “it’s the instrument played by Zen monks and is one of the most difficult in the world to learn how to play.”

After that, he may head out for a late lunch at one of the many Jamaican and Dominican restaurants in his neighborhood, before returning home and delving into more band-related chores.

The Femmes’ core members – Ritchie and main singer-songwriter Gordon Gano – remain together; Gano also lives in New York. But Ritchie frequently comes to Milwaukee to visit friends and be with his 14-year-old son, Silas. The band’s current drummer, Milwaukeean Guy Hoffman, replaced original member Victor DeLorenzo in ’93 after the latter left to pursue an acting career and other musical interests.

Creatively, said Ritchie, Hoffman is a full-time member of the Femmes, “but he occupies a lower position in the overall Femmes business organization; Guy’s paid like a junior associate in a law firm, while Gordon and I are paid like senior partners,” said Ritchie.

Asked what he thinks has made for the Femmes’ modest but long-term success, Ritchie said: “We were fortunate in that we found a relatively unique niche and that our first album caught on and became the source for a certain, acoustic style of punk and alternative rock that you can hear in a lot of bands that came after us.

“We’ve never been really big, but even during the time we released our poorest-selling albums, we’ve always maintained a loyal live following that’s been passed along each generation.

“I think we’ve proven ourselves to be the most steady, traditional and reliable band in that way,” he adds, “the IBM of acoustic-punk rock.”