Title: VIOLENT FEMMES’ BRIAN RITCHIE INTERVIEWED (2020): Playing to the gallery
Author: Graham Reid
Publication: Elsewhere Magazine
Ahead of his veteran band Violent Femmes’ return to New Zealand, Brian Ritchie talks about his other life – working at Tasmania’s Mona art gallery.
When Brian Ritchie – bassist in Milwaukee folk-punk band Violent Femmes – moved to Hobart 12 years ago, as the band he founded was in a fractious hiatus, he had no plans to engage with Tasmania’s arts and music scene.
But soon he was playing with local groups and had met art collector David Walsh.
“He was a fan of the Femmes, but the first thing he said was, ‘I hate you because I had to cash my dole cheque to see you play at City Hall.’ He’s not cashing dole cheques any more,” laughs 59-year-old Ritchie from his designer home above Hobart’s River Derwent.
Walsh is the infamous “gambling millionaire” behind Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), an enormous underground gallery space designed to exhibit his idiosyncratic and controversial collection of artworks.
When Ritchie arrived in Hobart, Mona, the state’s chief tourism drawcard since 2011, was a few years from completion. But today, in addition to performing with the reconciled Violent Femmes, who play here in March, he curates Mona Foma, the gallery’s annual Festival of Music and Art (often further shortened to Mofo). Since 2009, Mona Foma – and its mid-year Dark Mofo off-shoot, launched in 2013 – has hosted artists such as Nick Cave, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, PJ Harvey, John Cale and dozens of lesser-known but innovative musicians.
Among those scheduled for the 2020 Mona Foma, at locations around the riverside city of Launceston, are stentorian and militaristic Slovenian group Laibach; American performance artist Amanda Palmer, in a programme of “piano, pain and laughter”; anarchic Japanese punk band Chai; and the anonymous, masked country musician known as Orville Peck.
Mona Foma attracts performers because of its unique location and the reputation Ritchie has established. And, invariably, they also visit Mona in the state capital where Ritchie also programmes more than 100 performances a year.
If Tasmania was intended as downtime from the Violent Femmes – in 2007, Ritchie launched legal proceedings against singer-songwriter Gordon Gano for selling the rights to their hit Blister in the Sun to fast-food chain Wendy’s and demanding co-ownership of the Femmes’ songs – it hasn’t proven so.
In addition to his Mona Foma and Dark Mofo commitments he’s looking forward to the new hotel complex attached to MONA – a rhomboid-shaped building over the Derwent nicknamed “the shopping cart” – because it means three more performance spaces, a separate jazz bar and another outside stage.
“Curating is a big, complex but fun job,” he says and delights in getting Laibach performing in Launceston because “the city has a particular obsession with musicals like Cats and Camelot”.
“Coincidentally Laibach’s new album is them doing The Sound of Music and we thought of them doing it in a city that loves musicals more than any other in Australia.
“It’ll challenge [the audiences’] preconceptions,” he says with masterful understatement.
The 1896 Jarre play King Ubu with a live band and larger-than-life puppets will be performed in a natural amphi-theatre over Cataract Gorge: “It’s a play known to all avant-garde theatre lovers. It constantly gets revived because the subject matter is a despotic buffoon, and there are plenty of them”.
Ironically it was, in a circuitous fashion, MOFO which got Violent Femmes together again. In 2012 a MOFO act dropped out so Ritchie pulled together a supergroup from the programmed artists (including future Femmes drummer Brian Viglione) to recreate the band’s seminal self-titled debut album of 83 which sprung the hits Blister in the Sun and Gone Daddy Gone. It rekindled his interest in their music.
The following year Violent Femmes were invited to the Coachella festival and agreed on the condition it was a one-off. But the experience was enjoyable, hatchets were buried or ignored and the band now makes occasional tours, their last to New Zealand just three years ago, the country which gave them their first gold record: “The first place that recognised us!”
“I look back at the 80s with a certain amount of – I’m not a nostalgic person as you can tell from all I’m doing – but there was a whole underground of musicians thinking along similar lines, for example you had the Clean and the Chills.
“There was a lot of creativity then.”
Perhaps not so much now. This year’s Femmes album Hotel Last Resort was received with indifference by many, aside from a few songs.
Among the exceptions are the brief gospel-style crowd-pleasing singalong Sleepin’ at the Meetin’, their unusual free jazz-cum-bluegrass take on God Bless America (“America is great but we can make it better, and not the way this idiot is claiming, but by reclaiming the culture that makes America great”) and their revisit to their still timely, socio-political I’m Nothing.
Violent Femmes – Ritchie, Gano and new drummer John Sparrow – have separate lives outside of touring and recording, but their brand of acoustic-driven pop-rock rolls on after more than 40, sometimes tetchy, years.
“Having so much improvising keeps it fresh so it’s not like grinding out old tunes for an increasingly aging audience. Young people come to see the band.”
And the oversized acoustic bass he has always played?
“I had an idea there might be some impending Armageddon and it would be necessary for us to play acoustically as the grid failed. Although that hasn’t happened, I’m ready.
“I can just go onto any street corner and make a living as a busker.”