VIOLENT FEMMES The X-Press Interview

Still going strong some 40 years after originally forming in Wisconsin, Violent Femmes will be back on Australian shores later this year. Originally playing Perth in March, they will now play their rescheduled show at Perth Concert Hall on Thursday, December 3. From their rejection for an audition by a local nightclub in 1981, to where they are now, Violent Femmes have one heck of a story. HURB JEPHASUN had a chat with Tasmania-based bass player Brian Ritchie about keeping things fresh after 40 years, the changing world of the music industry, and last year’s album Hotel Last Resort (their second in 20 years). 

Thanks for taking the time out to talk, Brian. Where are you now? Are you out on tour?

No worries. No, I’m in Tasmania.

You’ve been living down there for a while now haven’t you?

12 years (laughs).

So, you’re heading over to Perth to play Perth Concert Hall as part of the new tour. Because you’ve been playing together for so long, how do you manage to keep the band sounding and feeling fresh?

It’s pretty easy for us because we improvise a lot. We function kind of like a jazz band. Obviously, we play Violent Femmes songs but during the course of them we might improvise quite a few of the songs over the night so they’re not exactly the same as they are on the record and some of them just head in unexpected directions. Also, the other way that we keep it fresh is that we don’t use a setlist. We don’t play the same show every night. Like, in Perth, we’ll be at the Concert Hall so that’s going to be a different atmosphere than playing in a pub. We tailor the show to what the venue is like, what the audience is like and also what our mood is like.

When you’re working on new material, how does it work? Do you jam them out together or does someone, probably Gordon, come in with an idea and you just go with that?

Well, for example, when we recorded our new album we had worked on a few of the songs live before but most of them Gordon had just come in with a song, we listened to it, we immediately started playing. Almost always, the first thing that we do, we keep it. Like the first time we get through the song, usually that’s what ends up on the record. We may do multiple takes but it’s almost always the spontaneous version that we choose. So, it’s a very quick process. More like a jazz band or a blues band or a folk group or something like that than your typical studio rock recording process.

How do you find touring these days? You guys have been doing it for a long time now. Do you still enjoy it or would you rather just be at home?

Well, it’s a surprise for us. Y’know we get up on stage, the band’s been together for 40 years, look out there and see a bunch of people who are teenagers or are in their 20 and, of course, mixed in with some of the older fans but just to know that the music is still resonating with young people and getting new fans all the time is gratifying. We really look forward to it. Playing music is fun.

I can remember seeing you guys busking in Sydney around 1990 before the first Big Day Out. Do you still get out and do things like that?

This is kind of related. We made an album, we released it two years ago called Two Mics & The Truth and what we did was, we went around and did radio interviews and sometimes we allowed them to invite an audience. Then we played totally acoustically in the radio stations with only two mics recording it, kind of like an old feel recording and we released that. So, yeah, we still love to play acoustic without amplification and just play for the people who are there in the room or wherever. We don’t do it on the street at much anymore but did it at a bunch of radio stations.

With your current tour, how much time do you usually spend out on the road?

We do it sporadically. We just do it when we feel like it. I’m quite busy with my work at MONA, so we have to fit it around that. Usually, well this is a strategy, we go to the northern hemisphere in the summer, get out of our winter because Tasmania is a little cold sometimes in the winter.

Is there any new material in the works at all?

We just released an album less than a year ago (Hotel Last Resort in July) so we’re still actually promoting that record and touring and playing those songs live, so pretty soon we’ll start thinking about what we want to do next. It’s a weird time in the recording business because there’s the vinyl resurgence, and there’s downloading that’s taken over from CD’s. People don’t consume music the same way they used to and it’s getting back to more like a singles mentality than an album mentality, so I think we have to actually discuss it and say, “what do we want to do now?”

My tendency would be to think that we should release stuff when we feel like it or we have something to say, but not necessarily tie it to album cycles or trying to do things the old way.

You’re coming to Perth to play Perth Concert Hall which is different to a pub, as you said. Do you have any preference to the type of venue you play at?

We play a lot of shows so I like variety. I’ve been to the Concert Hall because I’ve seen WASO play there several times and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s a lovely venue and you can be sure that we’re going to bring out some unusual things that night.

You touched briefly on your involvement with MONA. How are you finding that?

Well, I’ve been working there for… we just did the 12th MONA FOMA (summer music festival). That’s just a great festival to be the Artistic Director of. We always have a really incredible crowd. The musicians come from all over the world, all over Tasmania, all over mainland Australia. We mix them up in a really good way, so I’m very happy with that line of work.