It was back in 1982 that Milwaukee three piece The Violent Femmes, originally discovered busking on the streets of their hometown by The Pretenders, released their self-titled debut album, a vigorous and wide-eyed acoustic-punk masterpiece which has since become steeped in musical folklore as one of ‘the’ seminal rites of passage soundtracks for many an angsty adolescent all over the world.
Since that time the band has traversed a sometimes sporadic and rocky journey, re-emerging within the last decade with a renewed vigour off the back of a bunch of studio and live recordings that have kept them relevant to both nostalgic original fans and new converts alike.
On the line with founding bassist, and these days honoury Aussie, Brian Ritchie, who’s been based in Tasmania for a number of years now, I asked him how it came to be that he ended up residing in our part of the world; “My wife and I were touring with The Femmes back in 2005 and we always loved Australia and we thought, ok, if we don’t try to move here now we’re never going to do it and then we’ll be stuck in the USA for the rest of our lives. And as you can see with the way that things have gone in America, we’re better off to be here. I got this thing called a ‘distinguished talent visa’ which they give to sports people and musicians. And that was it.
It’s been a very good move for me creatively. Since we hit the ground we haven’t stopped running. I’ve been involved in so many projects and have had a lot of freedom to express myself and also to create opportunities for other people. I’m very glad we moved to Australia. I’ve been a citizen for eight years now.”
With the band about to play a Gold Coast show (at the Miami Marketta) as part of their Australian tour, I ask Brian about his previous experiences in playing here on the Coast, both as part of The Femmes and also within the context of his other creative outlets. And it turns out that he rates this part of the country highly; “I’ve been on the Gold Coast a lot recently. During the Commonwealth Games, for the Bleach Festival programme, I was there as the musical director of Spirit of Churaki, working with aboriginal musicians from the Gold Coast, and that was a great project. So not only were there some performances there, we played at HOTA and the Commonwealth Games, but also a lot of developmental work went into it. So I spent a lot of time on the Gold Coast and started to realise how great it is. I think most Australians don’t realise it. I think Australia needs to embrace its regionality more and we’ll all be the better for it. I’m coming at it from somewhat of an outsiders perspective, so I get to see all these different places in Australia that people in Sydney and Melbourne malign, including Tasmania. The places I go to, the people are cool and are doing really interesting stuff, so I embrace the diversity of Australia.”
Talk then turns to a gig in the early 90’s that has become, for locals, somewhat steeped in reverential folklore, when the Violent Femmes headlined a show at the now defunct outdoor venue Fishermans Wharf, with their support act being none other than an emerging band from Seattle by the name of Nirvana. Says Brian of the experience; “I remember it clearly. There was some stuff happening backstage with Kurt (Cobain) being ill. He sat right to my side on the stage wrapped up in a blanket watching The Femmes while we were performing. So even though he was basically having withdrawals, he still wanted to listen to our music. Which was sweet..but of course, bitter-sweet, for the way that it turned out for him. We liked the guys and the band and playing with them, and later on they took us to Europe.”
With The Violent Femmes operating these days as a geographically dispersed entity, I ask Brian if this tyranny of distance makes it somewhat challenging for the band to maintain their magic and lock in a schedule. Turns out that’s far from the case; “The magic of The Femmes is that when we get together we play the music live, even in the recording studio. And the chemistry is always there. And we come up with new material very rapidly. The last album (Hotel Last Resort), we recorded that in five days. And that was starting from scratch. We didn’t do any rehearsals beforehand. We have a kind of telepathy that enables us to be apart then get together and immediately there’s electricity. We’re really more like a folk, blues or jazz band that needs to be together and play the music, rather than try and construct something elaborate in the recording studio that we then don’t wanna do live. We don’t want to play with a drum machine live. We wanna play free and be ourselves.”
The title track of their most recent album, Hotel Last Resort, features some evocative guitar work from legendary Television linchpin Tom Verlaine, and I asked Brian how this collaboration came about; “We had cut the track and it was still very sparse and in my mind I was hearing this Tom Verlaine style guitar playing. And I thought maybe we should add some Tome Verlaine style guitar. And then I thought, well actually, why don’t we get Tom Verlaine to pay some Tom Verlaine style guitar haha! So I called him and he said yes. So we sent him the track and he overdubbed his stuff and it turned out to be really elegant and great. Of course he’s one of our heroes and a hero to the entire rock scene ever since he arrived in the 70’s. I met him in 1977. I knew him before I knew Gordon (Gano, Violent Femmes vocalist). It worked out very well and it was very natural.”
The Violent Femmes are about to embark on an Australian tour, which includes a sold out Gold Coast performance at the Miami Marketta on 22 March. Full tour dates are as follows:
Thursday, 19th March
Friday, 20th March
Forum Theatre, Melbourne
Saturday, 21st March
Sandstone Rocks, Sandstone Point
Sunday, 22nd March
Miami Marketta, Gold Coast
Friday, 27th March
Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Saturday, 28th March
Sunday, 29th March
Concert Hall, Perth