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If you’ve ever been to a club, you’ve danced to them; if you’ve ever been to a party, you’ve sung along at the top of your lungs to them. But how much do you actually know about them? Brian Ritchie of Violent Femmes makes James Robinson go wild like a… well, you know the rest.
In today’s glorious musical climate we have “screamo”, “emo” and a whole boatload of angst genres. If people’s musical tastes were a mirror of themselves, you’d be pretty spot on in feeling that everybody had gone just a little crazy. But before Weezer began pining for Asian girls in different countries and Taking Back Sunday musically bored the world with even more tales of getting dumped AGAIN, alienated teenagers were singing along in their bedrooms to the raw acoustic punk angst of this band, a band that rose overnight from street-side performers into the voice of a generation of disenfranchised, broken-hearted youths.
Ladies and Gentleman, please welcome to Orientation 2005 as your headline act – Violent Femmes, one of rock’s original cult hero bands and the godfathers of angst.
1982. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In the midst of Reagan’s grip on America, friends and longtime musical partners Brian Ritchie (bass) and Victor DeLorenzo (drums) are introduced to Gordon Gano (guitars/ vocals) through a local club owner and hit it off. The Violent Femmes are formed- an oxymoron using the word “Femme” (local Milwaukee slang for wimps) – and the band shuns rehearsals from the start, using the adaptability of their acoustic sound to take the band onto the streets, a move that might be considered odd by some but was responsible for setting in place the discovery of this great band. The Pretenders’ James Honeyman-Scott, in town one day for a show, saw the band on the street and that night Violent Femmes opened for the Pretenders. A record contract soon followed, and 1983’s self-titled debut album set the standard for what this band would consistently offer forward. Tracks such as ‘Kiss Off’, ‘Add it Up’, and the now infamous pub classic ‘Blister in the Sun’ have traveled through the ages as classic songs from an album widely heralded as a classic. Though, like many great American bands, they never received the credit due to them in their homeland, Violent Femmes’ debut made them the only band ever to receive platinum status for an album without ever spending a week in the top 200! This was no case of diminishing returns, however, as the Femmes turned out album upon album of introverted, slightly twisted rock. 1984’s Hallowed Ground and 1986’s Blind Leading the Naked saw Gano change his focus from teenage introspection towards his own religious upbringing and the occasional swipe at Reagan’s America (for a great political song look no further than ‘America Is’ with the bitingly catchy chorus line ‘America is the home of the hypocrite’, which will stay in your head for weeks. Kind of hammers home the point of the song eh?). The albums have got less frequent but the tours keep coming, and for any rock fan the prospect of a Femmes show right on our very own campus should bring a smile to the face- anyone who can remember the Femmes’-induced dancing inferno at the Parthenon in 2003 will be breaking out in a run right now to the VUWSA box office.
It’s a hot and considerably sweaty January afternoon and after a few difficulties over the past week I finally have Violent Femmes’ bassist Brian Ritchie on the phone, all the way from Milwaukee – a place that the Violent Femmes still call home. The main difference between our two locations is weather – and as I fan myself, Ritchie has been navigating a lot of snow and sub-zero temperatures, which isn’t affecting him at all. In fact, he’s just been bike-riding… “I went before with a friend and we were both remarking that it was probably a stupid idea.” Never mind, eh?
With a trip down under, a chance to escape similar sub-zero, snow-avoiding bike rides are pretty well received by the band. “We always look forward to coming down under,” enthuses Ritchie, “we really like it down there. This time especially, though, it just happens to be a pretty good time to be coming down!” So any favorite New Zealand places or things? “I’ve probably seen the most of New Zealand out of the whole band – I’ve been to Fiordland and Milford Sound and last time I was here I took in a little of the Coromandel which was wicked. Our first show this time around is in Dunedin, which is like the gateway to all that beautiful down south countryside, which is cool. So I’ll probably come over a week or so early and rent a car.” Ritchie is also the only member of the band to make a trip to New Zealand outside of music, though it was still a business trip of sorts. “My wife was sent here once by the New York Museum of Natural History to collect insects and I came along as a helper. That was a lot of fun.”
And as if frequently touring and travelling our fair lands wasn’t enough – Violent Femmes are huge fans of the New Zealand music scene. When I quiz Ritchie on his favourite artists of recent time he admits to being a huge fan of Bic Runga and The Mutton Birds. “I think if you checked on my I-pod they’d be at the top of my most played list. New Zealand music is very popular with me and I think that New Zealand rock in particular is very good. Most of the people, I think, have had a lot more training than the Americans and I think it comes out in a better sense of melody.” And speaking of The Mutton Birds – wasn’t it The Mutton Birds’ guitarist David Long I saw joining Violent Femmes on stage back in 2003? How did that come about? “Well, The Mutton Birds opened for us in New Zealand and Australia quite a while back and we always thought that they were just a really great band – and just always kept up with them over the years. I play on a track off Don McGlashan’s new album which I think comes out soon and Alan Grieg’s new band Marshmallow have opened for us in the UK. David Long- he’s just one of my most favourite guitarists in the whole world. When he played with us last time I think he had so much fun he hurt himself!” Can we expect a repeat appearance? “I hope so, he’s great. Just a very cool guy… When we come to Wellington we usually just end up hanging out with him the whole time so we’ll see what happens.”
23 years in music is a very long time. Violent Femmes have ridden out an era or two and, some may say, have created an era of their own. Given their unique spin on punk and rock, it is somewhat surprising that their influences read as something of a MUSIC 101 textbook, a typical listing of musical touchstones for the majority of bands and rock fans alike. “The Velvet Underground is probably one we are all influenced by greatly,” says Ritchie. “Gordon is a great fan of the song writing style of Lou Reed, and John Cale has had a big influence on me as a superb multi-instrumentalist. Maureen Tucker is one of the great minimalist drummers of the 20th Century, as is Victor, and Victor was hugely influenced by her. And then there is all the other usual stuff which influenced us – the Beatles, the Kinks and the Stones. The punk stuff such as Television and the Ramones really kicked our ass into believing that we could do it. We just tried to put a unique spin on things and we saw no one was doing what we really wanted to do, which was combine punk and rock with an acoustic sound. Which really came about from Gordon’s lyrics being so great we didn’t want to drown them out.”
They’ve seen the punk movement fizzle into post-punk. They’ve stood watching while grunge exploded on the scene and faded from sight with equal speed. They’ve seen punk revivals and garage revivals, witnessed the onset of the musical sodomy that is nu-metal and even survived the “guitars are for bogans” hysteria of the late ‘90s dance craze. They’ve seen their fair share of fads come and go and still come out the same band with the same line up – 23 years later. So what has changed in the industry? “Well to me, I see the corporate mentality as being a lot stronger now. Back in the ‘80s there was still a bit of the DIY energy left over from the punk movement. Now it’s just got so corporate. You’ve got things like American Idol cropping up all over the place and it’s just not very healthy.”
One major advent in the Femme’s time has been the ever-growing beast that is the internet – a tool that they see has having some potential. 1999’s ‘Something’s Wrong’ was released exclusively on emusic.com and was the most successful release in that label’s history. “I think that in an ideal utopian musical climate, all music would be available only on the internet,” says Ritchie. “There’d be no record stores and nothing would be out of print. Record stores only stock what is popular and if something isn’t popular it’s pretty hard to find. With the internet things like hard to find jazz, classical or ethnic releases would always be able to be found.”
Some things never change, though, and after almost a quarter of a century Violent Femmes still find themselves bumping into the same old people. “Well many years after [the Pretenders] plucked us off the street and got us to open for them we played a show with them,” Ritchie recalls. “I went up to Chrissie Hynde and said ‘Hi, I’m Brian Ritchie from the Violent Femmes’, and she just stared me down and said ‘Oh, you’re still around.’ It was quite funny.” So what was the original appeal of playing on the street anyway? “It’s so much better than rehearsing, because it is an actual performance and performing you have to be good.” Even the advent of world-wide fame wasn’t enough to coerce the band into regular rehearsals. Ritchie: “No – we never rehearse. Well, actually we have done a few rehearsals for this tour because we have been brushing up on some older songs – we can now play songs off every album.” Is it strange standing up and playing material that is over 20 years old? “It’s not really weird at all, it’s actually pretty awesome! It’s what we are all about. Songs like ‘Add it Up’ are just terrific songs to play, when the rhythm kicks in it’s just a really great song to play. I guess we are lucky that some of our most well known songs are also pretty good songs in themselves.”
After traversing the world and living in “rock ‘n roll chaos” for so long, I assume, Violent Femmes must have seen some pretty crazy stuff. Ritchie obligies with anecdotes: “Well, probably the craziest thing that’s happened was when we were playing in Scandinavia this one time. An announcement came over the speakers in Swedish and everyone turned and ran out of the hall. We really had no idea what was going on but we thought we should probably leave anyway. Later on that evening we found out that it was a bomb threat!”
“This one time Dennis Rodman hired us for a party he was throwing. He’s probably not the biggest celebrity we’ve ever met but definitely the weirdest person. He was having a birthday party and he was just so drugged up it was crazy. He gave us heaps of booze, which was fun, but he came up on stage and wanted to sing with us. Started taking his clothes off and everything.”
David Long, Chrissie Hynde, Dennis Rodman. Hmmm. Is there such thing as a typical Violent Femmes fan? “Most fans think that they are the only one who has heard of the band and so when you get 2000 of them in the same room, it’s often like ‘WOW!’’ I think our music also appeals to loners a lot.” The appeal seems fairly universal, too. “We get a pretty similar response everywhere we go. It kind of freaks me out! Like someone in New Zealand would come up to me and say ‘that must have been one of the best damn responses you’ve ever seen for a show’. And I’ll just say, ‘Well… Yes, but tied for first with almost every other show we’ve ever done. We recently went to Turkey for the first time and everyone was just going nuts and singing along. It was amazing, almost like a religious experience!”
These are troubled times for parts of the world, and the Violent Femmes come overseas as Americans, with a victorious George W. Bush and his unpopular wars at the fore front of many minds. The stage seems set for animosity, but it’s “not as bad as you might think,” according to Ritchie. “You go to Europe and people are obviously not happy about it [America’s foreign policy] but they don’t take it out on you. I think people are smart enough to realize that there is a difference between America and Americans. I mean the last two elections were pretty bloody close so I think people can identify that half the country doesn’t feel the same way.” But don’t expect to see Violent Femmes performing stand side by side with Bonos and Chris Martin in the name of political change any time soon. “We are not a very political band – we are just entertainers. We are not U2. There are some bands who do that sort of thing very well, just not us. We had some political songs in the ‘80s but on the whole we just feel like we have so much more to sing about.”
Asked for personal opinion on George W. Bush, Ritchie doesn’t hold back. “He’s an idiot. His version of English is also very embarrassing. He also had a lot of potential which he has blown. I mean, post 9/11 a lot of people felt sorry for America but he took that sentiment and turned it into anger.” Ritchie himself was a resident of New York on 9/11, an experience which unsurprisingly is not recounted fondly. “It was depressing and scary, everyone got depressed and just started doing drugs and drinking alcohol and eating a lot of steak. Everyone maintained that they weren’t depressed at the time but looking back on it everyone was just really down.”
On Boxing Day, 2004, the horrific news of the Tsunami in South East Asia came through, news that was just a little too close to home for Ritchie whose wife is Sri Lankan. Ritchie himself was supposed to be in Sri Lanka before last minute touring plans saw him elsewhere. Violent Femmes have subsequently played a Tsunami benefit in Wisconsin; how gratifying is it to be able to use your stature as a musician to help others? “It is kinda, but I am very fortunate. I think everyone in a wealthy country is in the same boat as me being able to help. These people in Sri Lanka had so little and were already living so close to the edge, and we are just doing what we can to help them out. But I think if you look at it people all over the world are also helping out pretty generously too.”
So with the Violent Femmes heading back down to New Zealand again – where should the adoring fan camp out to get a glimpse of their idols? “Well we only have a day in Wellington so as I said before we’ll probably just hang out with David Long. We usually try and see the city – I like my art and my museums. For some reason we always spend most of our time here in Auckland and Christchurch. Christchurch is kind of like those small English University Towns, ha?” I agree wholeheartedly, I say. I like this man even more, Christchurch is quite a silly place. I attempt to fill him in about Te Papa as an alternative for his time in town – he doesn’t sound to interested at all. I give up. After all, I’m trying to sell him a museum over hanging out with the insatiable David Long. Tough ask…
The end of the interview is approaching and we start talking shop- discussing the live show, the concept of which Violent Femmes keep obviously casual. “Well we often get asked by interviewers what people can expect from a show. But the truth is we don’t really have setlists and just kind of feed off the energy of the crowd and go where it takes us. So a crowd really gets as good as they give! But hopefully we’ll have a few guests and just have a great time.” After so long, how hard is it to keep getting motivated for tours? “For me it’s good. I like to travel, and I like some of the inconveniences of it – it keeps you on your toes. Musically, it’s what we exist for, you get up on stage at night and give it your all – and just think, if a brick hit me on the head and killed me tomorrow, I’m doing what I love.”
Could he sell the Violent Femmes to me in 4 words? “Of course. Crazy. Hillbilly. Jazz. Freaks.” This is a once-in-a-lifetime. Go see this show.