Title: Violent Femmes’ Brian Ritchie on 30 Years of ‘Why Do Birds Sing?’ and the Femmes’ Legacy
Author: George A. Paul
Publisher: Rock Cellar Magazine
During the 1980s, Violent Femmes created one of alternative rock’s most instantly recognizable intros with “Blister in the Sun,” a song that remains a classic decades later.
Yet longtime fans might be surprised to discover that the Milwaukee folk/punk trio’s signature song — from its classic platinum-selling eponymous debut effort — wasn’t even a single in 1983.
Later, “American Music” would reach No. 2 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart — the group’s highest placement to date. The accompanying 1991 album Why Do Birds Sing? was recently made available as an impressive 30th Anniversary deluxe edition featuring remastered audio, alternate takes, outtakes, and a rousing concert recording from The Boat House in Norfolk, VA previously only offered on the Permanent Record: Live & Otherwise DVD.
Earlier this year, the Add it Up (1981-1993) compilation was also released on vinyl for the first time, as the Violent Femmes are caught up in the midst of celebrating some key releases in the group’s career.
Rock Cellar checked in with founding bassist/backing vocalist Brian Ritchie (who does museum artistic director duty at home in Tasmania) while on tour in America with Flogging Molly.
Rock Cellar: Have you noticed a pent-up energy among the crowds lately at your concerts?
Brian Ritchie: Yeah, and our pent-up energy as well, because we hadn’t played live since February 2020. The band members have been living in different countries. We haven’t been able to get together to record or anything. In fact, the first we saw of [singer] Gordon [Gano] was when he walked onstage. We didn’t rehearse or anything because of COVID.
Rock Cellar: The band typically doesn’t utilize a set list at the gigs. Is it natural for everyone to roll with the punches onstage?
Brian Ritchie: [This is] the 40th Anniversary Tour, so one would assume that we know some of the songs — at least after 40 years. It hasn’t been too problematic.
Rock Cellar: How does that work exactly? If you want to do a certain song and Gordon isn’t up to singing it on a particular night, does he shake you off?
Brian Ritchie: There’s room for that. Sometimes I’ll say a song title and he’ll either negotiate with me for something else or he’ll just start a different song entirely [laughs]. It’s not a strict rule. I’m not dictating the set list, but I’m good at putting together a set list on the fly. I think it makes our shows fresh. Even if it’s just fresh for us.
Rock Cellar: John Sparrow has been your official drummer since 2016. What does he bring to the live shows and rhythm section compared to previous bandmates?
Brian Richie: He started playing with us around 2006. He was playing a cajón, Victor was playing snare and then when Victor left, we got Brian Viglione. John was still there on the cajón, and Brian left. Then we thought, “We don’t really need two drummers. Let’s just have John do it all.” He fits in very well. He’s from Milwaukee and understands the band. He’s got the jazz technique that Victor implied all along. That’s a big part of our sound.
Rock Cellar: The new spruced-up edition of Why Do Birds Sing? is a real treat for die-hard fans. What did you think when you first heard the rarities again?
Brian Ritchie: We found some songs that had not been released, like “Me and You.” It was lost for a long time. I even told Gordon, “You know this song.” I picked up a guitar and sang it to him and he didn’t remember it at all. I was looking around in our archives at the recording studio and couldn’t ever find it. [Then] the record company found it. I was like, “Wow. I’m glad somebody had a copy of it.”
Rock Cellar: What do you remember about the 1991 Boat House club concert included with the album reissue?
Brian Ritchie: It was always a great venue for us to play. And a great crowd – totally off the hook. That night, one of the fans climbed up [the pillars supporting the roof] and was swinging from the PA snake. It was wild and it was also 130 degrees onstage. Crazy.
Rock Cellar: During that summer of ’91, Violent Femmes joined the inaugural Lollapalooza tour. What was the experience like to travel around America with Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Fishbone, and others?
Brian Ritchie: That was a whole new era of mainstream punk music, which was good for us, good for the listeners and good for the bands. I wish something like that was happening now.
Rock Cellar: Did the recording process for Why Do Birds Sing? with producer Michael Beinhorn end up being a positive one for the band? At the time, he was best known for working with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and then went on to do highly successful albums for Soundgarden and Soul Asylum.
Brian Ritchie: Michael Beinhorn got us to rehearse the songs stripped down. We just had acoustic bass, acoustic guitar and [drummer] Victor [DeLorenzo] was playing a two-inch tape box. We were just sitting in a room playing like that. We stuck with that kind of simple acoustic approach on some songs like “Out the Window” and “He Likes Me.” Even when we expanded to an electric version, we kept some of that spontaneity and simplicity. It was a very focused production and no frills, really. But enough to make it interesting to listen to.
Rock Cellar: It was Michael’s idea for the band to try the Culture Club cover, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” What was your initial approach to it?
Brian Ritchie: We knew that we were going to do our own version musically. Gordon changed some of the words to something that he could relate to or simply found amusing. It’s a very good version. Boy George agrees. He told us it’s his favorite cover that anybody did of his material.
Rock Cellar: During the 80s, alternative rock radio trendsetter KROQ/106.7 FM here in Los Angeles was a regular Violent Femmes supporter – even into the following decade. Was the station key to your burgeoning popularity?
Brian Ritchie: It continues to be. The airplay we got from them in those days continues to resonate commercially for us because we get gigs from it. Our last gig before this tour was at the Microsoft [Theater in LA for ‘80s Weekend] and we were playing with other KROQ [type] artists … I think you can attribute a lot of our continued popularity in Southern California to that support.
Rock Cellar: Although “Nightmares” and “Breakin’ Up” did well for you at alt-radio, “American Music” was the biggest hit. After recording Why Do Birds Sing?, did you have any sense that it was among the best things you’d done up to that point?
Brian Ritchie: We thought it was good. Then Eric “E.T.” Thorngren (Talking Heads, Public Image Limited) mixed it and added extra keyboards. He edited it in some ways that made it more commercial. It became not only a good song, but a good recording as well.
Rock Cellar: How do you feel Why Do Birds Sing? measures up to the rest of your catalog? Do you have any personal favorites on the album?
Brian Ritchie: We continue to play a lot of the songs live. Not every night. “American Music” is every night, for sure. But the other ones get a fair hearing from time to time. That’s usually the measure of a good album – if it yields a number of songs that stay in the repertoire.
Rock Cellar: Your debut album doesn’t sound dated. It could even have been released in 2021.
Brian Ritchie: We were intending to make something durable. We intentionally avoided clichés of the era.
Rock Cellar: When it comes to Violent Femmes’ career longevity, do you attribute it to your unique meshing of folk music, a punk attitude, and a warped sense of lyrical humor?
Brian Ritchie: I think it’s the universality of Gordon’s lyrics. The vulnerability and common touch they have, combined with the timeless aspect of the music. We never tried to fit in with what was happening around us. We consider ourselves part of the American music continuum which actually predated rock ‘n’ roll music. Some of our influences predate rock music and some of it is futuristic. We just think we’re in there with American music but not with any particular era – even if people might want to depict us as being an ‘80s band. That’s more like a matter of when we were emerging, but the music itself spans a much wider range.
Rock Cellar: While looking over old Violent Femmes promo photos, I noticed you always had a unique sense of style. Were you cognizant of fashion trends in the 1980s and ‘90s?
Brian Ritchie: No, we didn’t really pay attention to fashion. We were just weirdos. We were not trying to follow fashion. We just dressed very weird. Now we’re quite minimalistic.
Rock Cellar: How did the new animated lyric video for “Blister in the Sun” done in conjunction with the recently reissued Add it Up compilation on vinyl come about?
Brian Ritchie: That was just something we did because lyric videos are popular. It’s a good way of getting airplay and people like them. That song is almost like a haiku. We should have a lyric video for “Add it Up” because that’s epic, whereas “Blister in the Sun” is like four lines or something. Still, people like it and it’s fun. We couldn’t get together to make any videos because we haven’t even been in the same country during this whole COVID experience.
Rock Cellar: What is your take on the resurgence of vinyl over the past 10 years or so?
Brian Ritchie: I got back into vinyl during COVID because I was finally moving at a little slower pace simply because I couldn’t do stuff because of lockdown. I relaxed and listened to my whole vinyl [collection]. The sound quality is better if it’s mastered properly.
The recording industry is at a standstill because of many suicidal moves. The vinyl resurgence is good, but at the same time, vinyl costs 10 times as much as it used to. It’s got pluses and minuses, but generally speaking, I’m listening to a lot of vinyl.
Rock Cellar: RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars winner Trixie Mattel recently recorded a version of “Blister in the Sun.”
Brian Ritchie: She’s from Milwaukee as well. I think that was the impetus behind that. I posted it on the Violent Femmes Facebook page and half the people were saying, ‘Oh this is fantastic!’ and half the people were saying, ‘It’s sacrilege! It’s not as good as the original.’ Which is not the point. The point is her version was different than the original in some ways, but still had a lot of the same spirit.
Rock Cellar: Do you have any favorite covers of your songs that other artists have done in the past?
Brian Ritchie: Gnarls Barkley [“Gone Daddy Gone”] was gratifying because it showed that musical ideas we have actually translate to the general public. But it took somebody else to get it to the public.
Rock Cellar: The band released Hotel Last Resort in 2019. Are there plans to put out more studio albums in the future?
Brian Ritchie: We haven’t been able to do it during COVID because we’re not one of these bands that sends files around to each other. We have done it on occasion, but it’s not our best stuff. We’re really more like a folk band or a jazz band that needs to be in a room working together in the moment. Once we can do that, then we’ll be doing more recordings.
Rock Cellar: In the past, you’ve cited bands like Television and Ramones as early influences. Were you happy to get Television’s Tom Verlaine to guest on guitar for the title track of Hotel Last Resort?
Brian Ritchie: That is one of the few tracks that we constructed in a normal studio fashion. We used a very old drum machine from the 1940s as the basis of it. Then we built on top of that. There was still some space there. Gordon and I were talking about how it would really sound good to have Tom Verlaine-style guitar on it. He said, “Why don’t you try it?” I said, “Why don’t we just get Tom to try it?” I called Tom and he was up for it. It was very cool.
Normally, if we get an idea, we just do it ourselves. It seemed like since we were planning to imitate Tom anyway, why not get him to do it? I think Television is both mine and Gordon’s favorite band, period. Or at least of the bands that came out after the ‘60s.
Rock Cellar:You have put out a dozen solo projects since 1987. I really enjoyed The Break, your 2010s instrumental surf band with members of Midnight Oil. How did that happen?
Brian Ritchie: We’ve known each other for 30 or more years and we’re friends. Sometimes Violent Femmes and Midnight Oil have done gigs together. For example, we played the 1991 Earth Day in Boston at Foxboro Stadium with them and The Kinks, if you can believe that. What a bill! I think Robyn Hitchcock was there too.
When I moved to Australia, they were at a loss what to do because [singer] Peter Garrett went into politics. They said, ‘Let’s form a band.’ Weirdly, Bones [Hillman, their deceased bass player], had moved to Milwaukee and married a girl from there. There were a lot of cosmic things going on.
Midnight Oil is so specific about what they sing about and what their image is. Peter wasn’t going to be singing, so we tried a number of singers out. Then we thought, “Let’s just be an instrumental band and express ourselves this way,” because everybody in The Break are top players. It’s a very good project. At the time we started The Break, both the Femmes and Midnight Oil were split up. [Now] the bands are back together; we don’t have as much spare time anymore.