“I hope you got fat”, Gordon Gano sang, caustically, in 1988, on The Violent Femmes album 3. Eighteen years later and the lyric raises an extra smile as one notes that the Femmes frontman has the signs of a modest middle-age spread himself. These are the ironies that bands with longevity must learn to live with. Ironies that don’t seem to trouble the Femmes following, which, in a feat that would impress the hardiest of agricultural scientists, manages to grow, year after year, consistently replenishing itself with successive generations of disaffected youth.
You know the music of the Violent Femmes. You may not realise it, but you do. Whether it was on a compilation tape passed on by your indie-conscious friend, or a snippet from a hollywood soundtrack (Grosse Point Blank, The Crow, or Super-Size Me,for example). Whether it was on national radio, or perhaps being busked by some scraggly looking street performer, the chances are that you’ve heard at least one Violent Femmes tune. Let’s refresh your memory. How about that song with the simple but brilliant bass introduction that you can’t get out of your head? That would be Blister in the Sun, no doubt. What about that insanely catchy song with lyrics that, politely put, push the envelope (sample “Why can’t I get just one F*%k, Maybe it’s got something to do with luck, but I waited my whole life for just one F*%k”)? Try Add it up from the band’s debut album – the only album, according to Billboard Magazine, to have sold over a million copies without once appearing in their top 200 albums chart.
All this is a round about way of saying that the Violent Femmes are a band that have always been different, following their own rules. Three Monkeys Online was lucky enough to get Brian Ritchie, bassist and, one suspects, band leader, to answer some of our questions.
You are without a doubt the most famous band to come out of Milwaukee. How much do you think place affects the music you write? Could you have come up with The Violent Femmes in a different environment?
We have differing opinions within the band regarding the impact of Milwaukeeism upon the band. Gordon thinks it has no significance, while Victor and I would credit Milwaukee with some part of our musical identity. The fact is, when we arrived there was no scene or sound associated with Milwaukee. The bands all did their own thing, because nobody was paying attention. After we succeeded no bands tried to follow our musical path. It’s probably good to come up in a musical backwater if you have enough drive and originality to create your own sound, because there are no norms to conform to. Another thing is the three of us are not ordinary Milwaukeeans or anything else.
Greil Marcus wrote that “the most interesting American struggle is the struggle to set oneself free from the limits one is born to, and then to learn something of the value of those limits”. It seems to me that this encapsulates something of The Violent Femmes trajectory, from the start when you played a style of music that no-one else played, and sang lyrics that nobody else would dare sing, through to the present day where you’re consistently cited as an influence by hip young bands, and find your songs turning up in Hollywood movies. How have the Violent Femmes changed over the years?
We haven’t changed much, but the times have been catching up to us. We were about 20 or 30 years ahead of the times, so we fit in better now than we did when we came out with our first album. I don’t particularly agree with Marcus here, but I haven’t given much thought to what it means to be an American. I don’t care. I have lived in U.S., Europe, and I’m planning to move to Australia soon. I’ve been married to an Italian and a Sri Lankan. I am a licensed teacher of Japanese music. I never thought I had any limitations and that’s the way I conduct my life.
Let’s talk about this ‘Dorian Grey’ affect with your audience. What is it about the songs that manages to continuously attract kids to shows? Does it ever feel uneasy being on stage singing songs like add it up or kiss off, anthems of disaffected youth, as middle aged men?
Well, Gordon is the one who has to sing those songs, so that’s his cross to bear. Mick Jagger is still singing, Satisfaction and he gets away with it pretty well. Lou Reed still sings Heroin although he is now a geriatric Tai Chi enthusiast. It’s art. The bass parts I play are timeless so I am happy playing them and watching those kids have fun. The lyrics are certainly a gateway into the Femmes trip for a lot of kids. Some people relate to words, and those words touch upon universal adolescent themes. But the music and our performance is the thing that keeps the boat afloat decade after decade.
There’s a hazy period in the late ’80s when the band took a hiatus/split. In either case, what was the impetus that brought you back together?
Gordon’s girlfriend wanted him to quit the Femmes and form a band with her. When that failed Gordon opted to come back to the Femmes. Victor and I were happily engaged with other pursuits, but we thought Femmes had unfinished business and good music to make.