Violent Femmes: Bringing rock to the regions

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Violent Femmes: Bringing rock to the regions

Five years ago the Violent Femmes’ bassist and co-founder, Brian Ritchie, became an Australian citizen and he hasn’t looked back since. He and his wife settled in Hobart in 2008 and he set about establishing himself in the local arts scene. As curator of MONA FOMA Festival, he has a keen eye and a sound ear for what works – what people want and how to make it happen.

“MONA FOMA is really different to other festivals around at the moment. The music is phenomenal of course, but to succeed in Australia every festival needs to be unique, and we are definitely that!” he laughs. “We exceeded the attendance figures we were aiming for as well, so it’s fantastic.”

At 56, and with more than 30 years’ experience in the music industry, you could be forgiven for thinking that these days Ritchie prefers to work behind the scenes rather than on-stage under the lights – but you’d be wrong. Despite lawsuits and line-up changes, the Violent Femmes are as strong as ever, writing new music and touring consistently. “It’s gratifying because it’s not par for the course for veteran bands to get up and play new material and expect people to listen to it, but our new stuff has been received really warmly,” Ritchie says.

We Can Do Anything was the Femmes’ first studio LP since 2000, and many believe it cemented their reputation as one of the finest rock bands of a generation. However, Ritchie sees it as a return to their roots. “Nobody have ever made more rocking music with just acoustic instruments than we have. It’s kind of an unusual approach, but we’ve nailed it and that should be our legacy.

“Rawness is part of our appeal,” Ritchie adds. “I mean, we’re tight but we’re raw. Gordo [Gano, lead vocals and guitar] and I have been playing together now for 36 years, and John [Sparrow, drums] has been with us in some way for twelve years. Blaise [Garza], our saxophone player, has been with us for fourteen years, starting when he was only fourteen years old, so he’s been playing with us for half his life. We definitely know what we’re doing.”

“In fact, right now I’m putting together a double LP of live material, but it’s not ‘Live in Concert’, it’s live at radio stations.” Ritchie explains. “Sometimes we had an audience, sometimes we didn’t. We only used the two studio microphones and it’s all acoustic – we didn’t even use any drums. We just had a BBQ – a Weber BBQ grill. So it’s very stripped down, and it will be like an anthology or retrospective in terms of song selection. I don’t know if it’ll be released in time for the Australian tour, but it will come out this year,” he says.

“It’s pretty radical,” he smiles. “Everybody is going the other way adding more technology, but we’re using less. The beauty of simple music is that you can get right back into it – it’s like riding a bike.

“The other thing that makes us different, is that Gordo was one of the first singer/songwriters who did not try to be cool. Only Gordo, Elvis Costello, David Byrne and a few other people were unafraid to be very dorky!” he jokes. “That made us kind of valuable in a way. Nowadays when we look back and see the mullets or whatever, we may not think it was cool – but trust me they were trying to be cool.”

When & Where: Hamer Hall, Melbourne – March 16 & Costa Hall Deakin University, Geelong – March 17

Written by Natalie Rogers