Indie legend Brian Ritchie of Violent Femmes appears on the latest installment of Gone In 30 Minutes to chat about life on the big, blue(ish) marble. A seminal figure of punk, Ritchie thinks back to his upbringing in Milwaukee, the band’s…let’s say…less-than-ideal deal with Slash Records and the incessant nature of music itself. And Ritchie hasn’t stopped either—in addition to curating for annual music and arts festival MONA FOMA, in his homeland of Tasmania, he’s been broadcasting daily performances so we never lose touch of that “American Music.”
Full Episode Transcription
Tom DeSavia [00:00:03] Hi, I'm your host, Tom DeSavia. Join me as I interview guests from music and entertainment from around the world about what they're up to right now. Stay tuned because we're Gone in 30 Minutes.
Tom DeSavia [00:00:16] Hey, everybody, and welcome to the latest episode of Gone in 30 Minutes. Our very special guest, Mr. Brian Ritchie. The Violent Femmes coming all the way from Melbourne, Australia.
Brian Ritchie [00:00:25] This is actually the first time that I've been outside of Tasmania for over a year. Because I live in Tasmania, so yesterday I flew to Melbourne and it's the first time since I was 18 years old that I stayed in one place for for a year. I've been on the move for decades and decades. So this whole experience that we're having globally has been a huge shift in lifestyle for me.
Tom DeSavia [00:00:57] Now, it's funny, and I've said this to a lot of people myself in a different sort of less chaotic way than yours has been, I said to someone too myself, I've been working in music since I was 19, and this is the first time I've seen seasons change in L.A. and I kind of liked it. Once I got over the feeling like I wasn't driving without a seatbelt, it was all right. I mean, what was that like for you? And just, you know, no one expected the world to stop, but it did.
Brian Ritchie [00:01:30] Well, it didn't stop for me. It contracted. I mean, it's just was a geographical constriction, I guess you could say, but in terms of activity, I've been busy the whole time. Obviously we're not touring. The Femmes are not touring. So that's the first time that we've been involuntarily sidelined. But I got used to it pretty quickly.
Tom DeSavia [00:01:58] It forced me to get a routine for the first time in my life. Did you find, like, personally, that it was it was all right?
Brian Ritchie [00:02:07] Well, just coping with reality is, it's an important thing psychologically. You know, you have to analyze the situation you're in and make the best of it. So there were positive aspects like, for example, sleeping regularly, which is a luxury I haven't had for probably about 40 years. And in a musical sense, there was quite a bit to learn because I have a very, very active musical life in Australia, and I learned. Here's the major thing that I learned. Music is a necessity. Imported music is a luxury, you know, we've gotten used to the idea that musicians are always flying in to wherever we live. Or if you're in L.A., then you have musicians who are actually moving there all the time to participate in something where they think that then they're going to fly around from L.A. to other parts of the world. That's stopped. Does music stop? No, music does not stop. So, it was great because, I mean, I always appreciated the local musicians wherever I have lived and I've lived a lot of places like I've lived in New York, I've lived in Milwaukee, obviously, that's where the band started. I lived in Rome, and I always like the local musicians, but many members of the public just take that for granted. Now, in Tasmania and in Australia, we've been able to have gigs, but mainly local gigs, because we don't actually have the virus. It's been contained. So people had to get used to listening to local musicians, going out to hear the local bands, it's been great.
Tom DeSavia [00:04:05] Well, it's funny. That's something I've been talking I think we actually have talked about with another guest on here, but I talked to my friends a lot. I mean, one of my soapbox preaching always has been that the death of regionalism, sort of from mid 90s on, and the Starbucks culture, and the one thing that's kind of, this is just what you said, I said it's sort of brought back this regionalism because I've been not only forced to, but psychologically, I think so locally now. And it's been a good thing, and it's, and we're all, I think, consciously shopping that way and supporting that way, but it has hit me again. Like when music does start up here, I'm going to be seeing local bands again.
Brian Ritchie [00:04:45] Well, you have a lot of them. So that's, that's good. American music is based on regionalism, as you said. If you look back historically, there's the origins of jazz in New Orleans and you can still hear that music in New Orleans. That's one of the few places that still has it. The Chicago Blues. St. Louis Jazz versus Kansas City Jazz, even Oklahoma had certain kinds of jazz and blues and swing country swing. Texas blues was different than the Mississippi blues. So that's not all going to come back exactly the same way, but I think people are going to be at least focusing on local music more.
Tom DeSavia [00:05:38] It's great. Every place you've mentioned and my favorite my favorite place is Memphis, where I love going to Memphis because everything tastes like Memphis, looks like Memphis. You go to Beale Street and you walk anywhere and you're like, you can't be blindfolded and dropped there and go, where am I? And going back, you said, been doing this for 40 years, and congratulations on a 40-year anniversary, which is certainly
Brian Ritchie [00:06:02] Ironic that we're celebrating our 40th anniversary as a band by doing nothing.
Tom DeSavia [00:06:08] You'll never forget where you were, though, will you?
Brian Ritchie [00:06:09] Ah no, it's interesting. So, yeah, when we start touring again it'll be, I guess, the 41st anniversary tour. So. Tom DeSavia [00:06:18] Which will look cooler on a T-shirt, actually. So it's okay.
Brian Ritchie [00:06:23] Memphis is a, it's it's still alive. I was there when we played with the Femmes recently and I went around to some of the studios and visited Jody Stephens over there, and we played at Graceland and we took a, we had a private tour of Graceland. That's a little eccentric, that place, but it was very much fun. Sun Studio. Stax. All this stuff is still in the culture and the music. They've done a lot at a governmental level there as well to drive grassroots musical activity, and even during covid, they've had special online concerts that the city has presented in Memphis. So this is an example of I mean, we don't usually think of the government helping music, but they have done that in Memphis. I've researched that.
Tom DeSavia [00:07:24] Agreed and you know, like you said it doesn't hurt that the nicest man in rock and roll, Jody Stephens, is sort of there as a magnet and he's the, truly, truly the Jimmy Stewart of rock and roll, the nicest man in the world. When you went through Graceland, what struck me was, one, how small it was, and two, how home shopping network it was.
Brian Ritchie [00:07:46] Very retro.
Tom DeSavia [00:07:48] Yeah, it is.
Brian Ritchie [00:07:51] It looked like a department store display from the past.
Tom DeSavia [00:07:55] Yeah. A lot of shags. It's been years, but there was a room that was completely shag with like porcelain monkeys everywhere, and it was fantastic. I'm going back to if we can go in the time machine back to 40 years ago. What were, you know we're talking about regionalism, and you were, were you born in Wisconsin? Is that where you're from?
Brian Ritchie [00:08:16] Yeah, I'm the, of the Femmes I'm the true born and raised and always lived in Milwaukee person. Gordon was born in New York City, which is interesting, but then eventually he ended up in Milwaukee and then back in New York City, and Victor, the original drummer, he was born in Racine, which is a city that was about halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago when there were cities in between. But now it's just one big strip mall.
Tom DeSavia [00:08:46] Right. Right. What was inspiring to you? Because you guys have gone through so many true punk rock in creations from folk to to soul to jazz, that have infiltrated your music. Was that all there 40 years ago?
Brian Ritchie [00:09:01] Well, we considered ourselves to be an extension or kind of a response to punk. You know, sometimes people say, if I'm doing an interview, they say, "well, you're not a punk band, but what, was it an influence on you?" And actually, we are a punk band. I mean, we just thought that we were doing the next evolution of punk or a different evolution. So the basic music that we were influenced by was the same music that influenced the other punk bands. If you really wanted to analyze the Femmes' sound, it's like a cross between the Velvet Underground and Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps. You know, you just take those two bands, everything that they had is in our sound, and of course, we had many other influences like]Sun Ra and Coltrane. Rolling Stones were a big influence, but basically we wanted to play the music of the Velvet Underground style storytelling that was a precursor to punk mixed with kind of Ramones type energy, but on acoustic instruments, and the idea of doing rock and roll with acoustic instruments like that came from the early rockabilly. Like especially Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps with the brushes on the drums and that kind of jazz approach that they had. So, we consider ourselves traditional rock music, even though people at the time thought that we were very eccentric and coming out of nowhere.
Tom DeSavia [00:10:38] And so did they welcome you locally when you first came out or were you?
Brian Ritchie [00:10:41] No.
Tom DeSavia [00:10:46] What was your first gig? Tell me about your first gig.
Brian Ritchie [00:10:49] Well, when I met Gordon, he was playing in a little coffee house, and that's when I first met him. Our first actual gig that we played together was as a duet. He invited me to come to his high school because he was being inducted into the National Honor Society and they have the National Honor Society talent show. So he wanted me to help him with that, but we did "Gimme the Car" and there was an entire auditorium full of high school kids, and at that time, "Gimme the Car" was a pretty radical statement. You know, it was basically about trying to have sex in the backseat of the car, and so, anyway, the teachers were not too excited. The principal, in particular, was standing on the side of the stage. Stop, stop, stop. The kids were going insane. It was like Beatlemania. So that was our first gig and probably still our best gig. We had some good gigs since then, but that was classic rock and roll.
Tom DeSavia [00:11:51] How long did it take before you ventured out? When did you tour, after getting the other, was it pretty soon after?
Brian Ritchie [00:11:59] Well we started playing on the street a lot, because we couldn't get any gigs in the clubs and while we were playing on the street, The Pretenders spotted us and asked us to open up the show for them. That gave us a lot of confidence. So then we went into a studio. We used our own investment. We invested our own money in studio time, which at that time was, it's not like now where you can just buy, you know, buy something like this size and record on it in your bedroom. We went into a proper studio and recorded the first album, which we sent to about 100 record labels, and there was only one label that was interested, which was Slash Records in L.A. and they gave us the worst record contract that anybody has ever been given. You know, like a lot of people, you know, they are nostalgic about the Slash era and sure, there were a lot of great bands, but we had a very bad record deal from them.
Tom DeSavia [00:13:09] You can say shitty on the podcast. It's OK.
Brian Ritchie [00:13:11] I was going to say that. It's like, yeah, we did that. We signed with them and then we were off, off to the races because despite their ethical flaws, they did get the album into the hands of a lot radio programmers, especially at college radio, and at that time that was a market, and we just. It was only the band started in 1981 and by 1983 we were already had an album out and we were already touring internationally and even by 1984, early 1984, we were touring here in Australia where I live now. So it's pretty, at the time it seemed normal, but now when I look back at it it appears to have been a very meteoric rise to a very small level of success, you know, like we were, we were touring around the world and playing for a hundred people everywhere.
Tom DeSavia [00:14:15] It is pretty incredible as someone who got that record shortly after it came out or within a year of it coming out. I mean, its just the, I'm sorry for the cheesiness of this question. Please forgive me, but did you have any idea, like in any way that this would endure as much as it did?
Brian Ritchie [00:14:35] None of us wanted to do anything else but play music. So I think we would have all suspected that we were still musicians 40 years later, but very unlikely that we would be in the same band because no bands had been together for 40 years at that point, outside of Sun Ra's band or the Master Musicians of Jajouka non-rock bands. In 1981, the Stones had not been together for 40 years. They had only been together for about 18 years.
Tom DeSavia [00:15:06] And a buddy and I had this conversation recently where we were going through. There's another band that I work with, I've worked with for years, who have been the same four members for 25 years, which is pretty incredible, and we started to go through that like what bands? And I think we got stuck at ZZ Top and Hall & Oates. You know, what bands have actually been like together and original members? Which is no small feat. I mean, assuredly you guys went through years of wanting to kill each other, I mean assuredly you went through years of wanting to go off in different ways, but you didn't. And it's, it's pretty remarkable.
Brian Ritchie [00:15:43] Well, we have split up a few times, which, you know, now in this context of covid, it's weird because the world is sidelining us, but we sidelined ourselves a few times. But I think that's par for the course for many bands. Like we're personal friends with members of bands that haven't gotten back together, like, for example, the Talking Heads, Velvet Underground were apart for, they got back together very briefly. The Kinks, you know, they haven't done anything really for over 20 years. So, yeah, we've kept it together, relatively speaking.
Tom DeSavia [00:16:26] Has this made you appreciate it that much more, the year off?
Brian Ritchie [00:16:30] I'm looking forward to touring with the Femmes again, but on the other hand, I have an incredibly active musical life here, performing almost every week or whenever I want to, really. I miss the fans. I miss the other guys. I miss touring. I talk to other musicians who are actually depressed about it because they're not with their band. They're not doing what they're used to. But I'm pretty adaptable.
Tom DeSavia What is your music year like, like outside of the Femmes? Like what? What does Brian do? Where are the gigs? What do you.
Brian Ritchie [00:17:04] Well, I'm the music curator at a museum called Mona, Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, and I have a festival called Mona Foma, which is Museum of Old and New Art Festival of Music and Art. That's been going for 13 years. So in January, we put on a festival in two cities, Hobart and Launceston, which are the two biggest cities in Tasmania, but they're not big cities by any means. It's about total population of Tasmania has five hundred thousand people. So we had 58 venues, and we had a full program of almost all Tasmanian artists because we couldn't there was no traveling even between the different states in Australia, and it was a success. We had 30,000 attendances to our events, no event was more than 800 people. So it was like a blueprint for really how to do a festival in covid, because now festivals, big festivals are trying to come back and and they're miserable because they can't come back. But we decided to make a an expansive festival, but that had just a lot of small events. It worked perfectly. So then as far as my musical career, like for over a year now, I've been playing. We have a restaurant at the museum and we have a band there. The restaurant is called Faro, so it's called the Faro ensemble and it's there's about 15 or 20 musicians and about five or six performers and performers, I mean, dancers, actors and stuff. And we use varying configurations of those performers and we deliver shows every week in the restaurant. So that's really improvised and creative. I also play a lot of jazz. I've been, haven't been playing much rock music. And I play shakuhachi, which is Japanese bamboo flute. So I've been, I've been studying that. Well, I have been playing it for 25 years now and I teach it, but I also continue to study it with people in Japan and I play jazz on that instrument. And I have a whole bunch of musicians I play with at local pubs, at the cathedral, at at the museum itself and wherever I want to. I also have been doing a video concert every day since covid started. So I'm up over four hundred concerts. So I put on Facebook live and you know like it, it is different interactions with whoever happens to be around. At first it was just solo because we were in lockdown. So I wanted to prove that even if it was just me, I could still make all kinds of music. So I was doing multi instrumental extravaganza extravaganzas and I have just having fun with it. But then I found that a lot of people were writing to me saying that it was inspiring them or that it was giving them peace of mind, because I have friends all over the world and a lot of them were in much worse conditions than me, you know, like the people in Europe, people in parts of the states. So then I just did it not only for myself, but for other people. So it's been it hasn't slowed me down at all.
Tom DeSavia [00:20:47] It's like we're living parallel lives, Brian, except I spent six months staring at my foot.
Brian Ritchie [00:20:56] We're all in charge of our own reality.
Tom DeSavia [00:21:01] Going back to when you were saying when you picked up and forgive me, what's the instrument name again? The flute?
Brian Ritchie [00:21:05] Shakuhachi.
Tom DeSavia [00:21:05] Did you pick that up on tour or is that something that you, how did you discover or have the wants to go that way?
Brian Ritchie [00:21:15] It's associated with Zen Buddhism. So I was I was doing meditation and then I heard about this instrument, which is a kind of sound meditation, and I thought, that's for me. I'm a musician. This is good for me, so I started playing that when I was living in New York.
Tom DeSavia [00:21:34] And what brought you again, going back to did you how did you end up in Tasmania? Was it just going through, were you touring there and going like, I want to live here someday or?
Tom DeSavia [00:21:44] I toured here many times, and also my wife, Varuni, she was working for the the American Museum of Natural History, and they sent her to Tasmania to collect insects, and I came along because I had already been to Tasmania many times, that we just decided to move to Tasmania because it was beautiful. Fantastic. This was during the Bush era. So there was certain political unease living in the United States, and we thought.
Tom DeSavia [00:22:16] Say no more.
Brian Ritchie [00:22:17] Yeah, so we I was able to get what's called a distinguished talent visa. I was nominated for this visa by Midnight Oil, you know, the most important band in Australia. So. Government gave me this visa and we just thought, OK, this enables us not to be compelled to live in the United States during the Bush era, so we moved and we just haven't moved back. And why?
Tom DeSavia [00:22:47] I was going to say, bonus.
Brian Ritchie [00:22:52] Yeah. Except for this year, I usually get back to the states to tour with the Femmes anyway, so it's not like I'm not renouncing American citizenship or any of that or the culture, but. Yeah, living in Australia is good and considering that nightmare that the United States has just gone through politically also with this medical issue. I mean, I have a certain amount of survivor's guilt because my relatives and friends are suffering more than than we are, but
Tom DeSavia [00:23:25] What do you miss about American culture? Is there anything that you're that you ever go like "I wish" or you're ever just like I want a cheeseburger. I mean, what is the thing that.
Brian Ritchie [00:23:34] Cheeseburger. Yeah, they do weird things with the burgers here. They put beet root and eggs on the burgers.
Tom DeSavia [00:23:42] Say what?
Brian Ritchie [00:23:45] Yeah yeah, that's Australian. But yeah, we make our own cheeseburgers if we if we need an American style burger. I miss the Black American people. You know, that's the cornerstone of American culture as far as I'm concerned. Like for me, jazz is the most important thing that America ever produced, and that's African-American music and everything else stems from everything that I like in music stems from blues and jazz, including rock and roll came out of that. So I miss I miss African-Americans, you know, I miss being around them.
Tom DeSavia [00:24:25] We just marked an anniversary of Why Do Birds Sing? and Add It Up is now rereleased and finally on the DSPs, I guess, where it has not been for a while. It never ceases to amaze me how in Los Angeles specifically, the band has not only endured and the songs endured, but it's not seeped in nostalgia. It's it's being passed on from generation to generation. I was coming up and through my friend's kids, that the Femmes had become one of those bands. So they've been a rite of passage band.
Brian Ritchie [00:25:00] Yeah. I recently had a maybe 12-year-old girl come up to me and say, you're in the Violent Femmes, right? Yeah. I just started listening to your music three weeks ago and I listen to it every day now. It's pretty good. So it's like when you're reaching a 12 year old. Well, I mean, that's that's a great feeling. It's great that young people are still getting into it, and so when we do a concert, I mean, it used to be that we always had the audience, you know we continued to get older, but the audience stayed the same, like teenagers up until about 30. But now we have teenagers up until about 60. So it's like it's really interesting demographic, and maybe the old people are on the back of the room, but we still get the kids.
Tom DeSavia [00:25:57] And it's so, like compilation records are you know such an oddity because they are these moments just frozen in time. How do you take a song like that and play it every night? And is it just do you find like that original joy in it or you reinventing it every night?
Brian Ritchie [00:26:14] Oh, we definitely reinvent the music every night, and you can even hear that like on the Add It Up compilation album that there's a live version of Add It Up there, which is different, and then there's a live version of Lies, which actually starts with the studio version and then segues into an insane sitar driven jam with Ashwin Batish. This is an example of our spontaneity as a band, and that's the only thing that's allowed us to survive for 40 years because we have songs, but we consider that like the springboard for improvising and reinterpreting and we'll just go anywhere. We don't we don't use a setlist. I just tell the guys what what's the next song to play, and usually they go along with that like I'm the quarterback and it's a lot of fun, and we respond to the audience in the moment. So that's that's what we're all about. And you can hear that distinctly on the Add It Up compilation album and even on some of the songs on Why Do Birds Sing? There's quite a bit of freedom there.
Tom DeSavia [00:27:18] It's funny, whenever I've been asked, what's the first punk rock song you think you heard, it's always it's always Helter Skelter and now it's just like I look back at it as one of the greatest experiences of my life because it had that that thing that punk rock does, which it scares you. It bothers you. It it throws you off balance a little bit and then it doesn't leave your consciousness, and just to see a band like you go through Zorn and go through these things and make it happen was all part of like, I didn't know it at the time, but was all part of my punk experience.
Brian Ritchie [00:27:52] I got into Ornette at the same time that punk emerged in the, the mid 70s, and I even climbed up on a billboard in Milwaukee that was for Coleman lanterns and stoves, like camping stoves, and I wrote “Ornette." Some of my friends were like, Brian, did you climb up on a billboard recently? And eventually I met Ornette and actually met him a few times and even played with him. Wonderful man, and he liked like the Femmes. He told me that he, well, the first time I met him was after we released The Blind Leading the Naked, and he said he had listened to all three of our albums in succession in their entirety and that he really liked the music.
Tom DeSavia [00:28:42] That's got to be, so you had the capper on your career like 30 years ago. That's incredible.
Brian Ritchie [00:28:48] Yeah, and then years later I met him again and played with him at his house. First we played billiards and then we played music. Great man.
Tom DeSavia [00:28:57] Wow, that's incredible.
Brian Ritchie [00:28:59] We just toured with X, and we played in Memphis actually. That was, that was a good experience and they're very jazzy, and Billy Zoom and he was playing jazz before rock and roll even happened, like he played saxophone with Stan Kenton.
Tom DeSavia [00:29:18] Yeah.
Brian Ritchie [00:29:20] He's been playing rock and roll since basically since it started. So that's, that's roots.
Tom DeSavia [00:29:24] And that will bring us to our last question because we're just about gone. Can you give us, give us one thing that we should be listening to. Tell people what they should be listening to while they're locked up.
Brian Ritchie [00:29:34] There's a band I really like in England, they're called Sons of Kemet, K-E-M-E-T, and it's tuba, drums and saxophone, and it sounds like the earliest New Orleans music mixed with like Hip-Hop and electronic music of the present, so it's it's very solid stuff. I like them.
Tom DeSavia [00:29:58] Boom. That's great. Brian, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I know it's really early where you are, and this isn't what you want to see first thing in the morning. I know that. So I thank you so much.
Brian Ritchie [00:30:08] It was fun. It was fun chatting, and, you know, it's not easy to talk about 40 years in 30 minutes, but we did it.
Tom DeSavia [00:30:15] We did it, and I look forward to seeing you in 3D soon on our shores. Thank you, everybody. Thank you, Brian. Everybody, we're Gone in 30 Minutes. We'll see you next time. Say good night Brian, or good morning Brian. This show was presented by Craft Recordings. Thanks for joining us for Gone in 30 Minutes, produced by Laura Saez. I'm your host Tom, and we'll catch you next time.