Brian Ritchie says that he gets asked a certain question often. Maybe somebody sees him with his long blond hair. Or that he’s carrying a guitar case, which precedes this inevitable exchange:
Somebody: You look like a musician. Are you in a band?
Ritchie: Yes, I am.
Somebody: What band?
Ritchie: The Violent Femmes
That’s when Ritchie will scat out the distinctive intro notes or sing a few lines from “Blister in the Sun,” the band’s best-known tune.
Somebody: “Oh, you’re in that band! I remember that song!”
“That song is our calling card. But that’s fine because even Beethoven had a calling card!” Ritchie laughs, before intoning the famed and ingrained “Duh-duh-DUH-DUH” intro to the master’s Fifth Symphony.
“When we started, it wasn’t even our most popular song before we released our first album and were just playing around Milwaukee,” he continues. “But ‘Blister’ became the main song that people know, and that’s from its placement in movies. Or if a radio station plays one song from us, it’s that one. But it’s nice to have a song that’s instantly recognizable to so many people.”
Still, for those who care to explore, the discography of the Violent Femmes is much deeper and surprisingly varied in terms of sound. The band will be playing tunes from across its decades-long life on their current co-headlining tour with Echo and the Bunnymen. The 2018 Violent Femmes lineup includes founding members Ritchie (bass) and Gordon Gano (singer/guitarist), along with current drummer John Sparrow and touring saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist Blaise Garza.
And though on paper it sounds like an unusual mix matching the dreamy, dark, and psychedelic post-punk of Echo with the punk-folk of the Femmes, this is actually the second tour with the pairing.
“There was a lot of crossover audience between the bands, mainly because of a generational thing. And we admire each other’s music,” Ritchie offers. “I understand that Echo’s management gave them a whole list of bands, and we were the only ones they wanted to play with! Ian [McCulloch, Echo’s singer/guitarist] always been highly complimentary of us.”
The Violent Femmes' 1983 debut is one of the most iconic album covers of the '80s. The band paid 3-year-old Billie Jo Campbell's mom $100 for her to pose for the picture.
Formed in 1980 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the original/classic Violent Femmes lineup included Gano, Ritchie, and drummer Victor DeLorenzo. The band took their name as a joke of picking two highly disparate terms.
Their first big break came in the summer of 1981 when they were “discovered” busking outside the city’s Oriental Theatre before a Pretenders show and were spotted by that band’s James Honeyman-Scott. Impressed, the guitarist told Pretenders leader Chrissie Hynde about the trio, and they were actually invited to open the show.
Their 1983 debut Violent Femmes was a classic and easily one of the best debuts of the decade with tunes line “Add It Up,” “Kiss Off,” “Gone Daddy Gone,” and “Blister in the Sun.” It also established an utterly unique sound with Gano’s nasal whine voice, often acoustic arrangements with offbeat instruments, and raw lyrical themes of teen male relationship issues, loneliness, and horniness (the narrator in “Add It Up” asks almost apoplectically ‘Why can’t a I get just one FUCK’”).
With next album Hallowed Ground, the Femmes did a complete turnabout, exploring country and gospel sounds (Gano, the son of preacher, is a devout Baptist) with “Jesus Walking on the Water” and “It’s Gonna Rain” straight out of a revival tent. But the decidedly un-P.C., lusty “Black Girls” and shocking gothic tragedy of “Country Death Song” gave the effort edge. Third record The Blind Leading the Naked returned to a more rock sound, and featured shoulda-been-a-radio-hit “I Held Her in My Arms” and a muscle-bound cover of T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution.”
But even if the audience at a current show is familiar with a deeper cut, Ritchie says that the band will sometimes mess with the arrangement, instrumentation, or just jam.
“The songs which are popular will generate enthusiasm. But when we dip into the catalog, we change things up,” he says. “We have banjo and fiddle and sax and xylophone. And our drummer is playing a portable barbecue with steel brushes! It’s different from conventional rock bands, and we do improvise and change up songs.”
Ritchie adds that he’s definitely seen a “regeneration” of the audience in the past year at shows, where you’ll usually find him after the set at the band’s merch table signing thing and talking to fans.
“It used to be more dramatic where the entire audience changed every few years, but the audience was always in the 20s,” he says. “Now it’s everyone from teens to people older than us. I take that as a sign of healthy engagement with the audience, and that they can relate to the music. And a lot of people coming back to the band now. I guess they went off and had families and got out of the live music scene, but are going to shows again.”
Touring band Blaize Garza, Gordon Gano, Brian Ritchie, and John Sparrow.
Photo courtesy of Big Hassle PR
After a brief split in the ‘80s, the band continued touring and putting out albums into the ‘90s and '00s, though DeLorenzo had left the group. The band broke up in 2009 when Gano sold the rights to “Blister in the Sun” for a Wendy’s TV commercial two years earlier. It angered Ritchie and started off a secession of lawsuits between the two over rights and royalties.
That settled, the original trio reunited in 2013, but DeLorenzo left again purportedly due to business disagreements. The band’s most recent records were 2016’s studio effort We Can Do Anything and last year’s live Two Mics and the Truth: Unplugged and Unhinged.
Ritchie says he’s reached out to DeLorenzo several times about “non-band stuff, like people dying,” but has never heard back. “He’s got his own musical things going that are pretty interesting. But I think he’s just over us and doesn’t want to talk to us,” the bassist says.
One that that dominates the sound of the Violent Femmes is in fact Ritchie’s bass. And while he plays electric, he’s most often plucking the strings on the large acoustic model, giving songs throughout the band’s career a fat, ringing backing tone. He calls it one of the defining aspects of the Femmes’ sound.
“We do have dominant bass approach, and that’s probably a personality thing,” he says. “I think the bass is an instrument that can do anything any other instrument can do.”
As for the future, Ritchie says the Femmes will likely begin work on a new studio album and tour more. They also recorded a live concert earlier this year with a symphony in Australia, where Ritchie makes his home.
And when he’s not with the Femmes, he has a whole other side career at the Music Director of the MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) Museum in Hobart, Tasmania. He oversees and programs scores of music events each year, as well as an outdoor festival. It’s all an extension of his interest in contemporary art, which is why he’s excited for the tour to stop in Houston.
“Houston is one of the great art cities in America with the Rothko Chapel, the Menil Collection, and the Cy Twombly Gallery. It’s amazing,” he says. Though Houston has also has provided one other, less-cultured memory.
“In the early days before GPS, we were driving around the city looking for the club we were playing in, and, uh, let’s say we were clearly not in the right neighborhood,” he recalls. “So we stopped and asked a woman for directions and she said ‘Oh, baby! Y’all WAY off!’” he laughs. “I mean, we were just idiots from
Milwaukee rambling around in the hood!”
Echo and the Bunnymen and the Violent Femmes play July 14, 8 p.m., at the Revention Music Center, 520 Texas. Tickets start at $20. For information, call 713-230-1600 or visit ReventionMusicCenter.com. For more on the Violent Femmes, visit VFemmes.com.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.