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A Conversation With
Brian Ritchie

by
Rayanna Barker
June 22, 2001

Brian Ritchie

Rayanna Barker: Brian, back to the beginning, how did you meet these guys and is there any truth that when you played for the 1st time as the Violent Femmes you and Victor were playing Gordon's song's and hearing them for the 1st time as you played them?

Brian Ritchie: Well, I'm going to give you the full, detailed story for posterity. I don't think it's ever been told, probably because it's boring. I was playing in a band called Ruthless Acoustics with a fellow named Jerry Fortier (4TA). Victor DeLorenzo was a previous member of the band and in fact in my earlier incarnation as a rock journalist I had written a review about them saying Victor was the best thing about it.

So Jerry and I went to a bar in Milwaukee called Harp. Victor was there, we were introduced, and we found out we had a lot of musical tastes in common, like Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, etc. This was in the punk era when sullenness and negativity were the norm. Victor's extroverted and slightly goofy persona were refreshing. So we hit it off and started playing in a number of different bands like The Rhomboids, Hitler's Missing Teste and Trance and Dance. In the meantime I had come up with this name "Violent Femmes". I can see that's your next question so I'll answer about the origin of the name later. Anyway when Victor and I were playing with third parties in impromptu situations or if we were playing as a two piece we called ourselves "Violent Femmes".

Around the same time I met Victor I was approached by the owner of the Metropole Theater in Milwaukee, Robert Soffian. He told me,"There's a guy you should check out, Gordon Gano, he's a pint sized Lou Reed imitator. I think you'll like him."

I asked Robert if this Gordon character did Lou Reed songs. "No, he does his own songs, but he imitates Lou Reed." Being a huge Lou Reed fan I was mildly curious about this, so I went to Gordon's gig at a local coffehouse, Beneath it All. I was impressed by his songs and ability to handle a crowd. Those days he was much more extroverted on stage than he is now. He talked a lot to the audience and some of that was funny. I introduced myself to him. He had heard of me, and was happy that I had come because I was the only one from the adult world there. The rest of the people were kids from his high school.

We made plans to get together. I went over to his parents house and we played some songs. That was the first time I heard "Country Death Song" which blew me away. He had dozens of songs. They have turned up on most of our albums. I didn't know what to do with Gordon, but I gave him a gig opening for the Rhomboids and we kept in touch.

Next stage in our story is when the Oil Tasters played at the Starship in Milwaukee. The Oil Tasters were the hippest band in Milwaukee and included as members Guy Hoffman (our current drummer) and Caleb Alexander (Femmes soundman and sax player). I bumped into Gordon and he invited me to join him the next morning for a performance he was to give at school for the National Honor Society. Gordon was being inducted and they wanted him to perform a song.

The next morning Gordon and his dad picked me up and we went to school, someplace I thought I'd never be again. The contrast between us was ridiculous. Gordon, 5'2" wearing a suit, me 6'1" in torn jeans and and an old paisley smoking jacket. We were supposed to be playing "Good Friend", but in imitation of Elvis Costello, who had recently performed a similar stunt on "Saturday Night Live" we broke into "Gimme the Car" after a few bars. There are some implied obscenities in that song, which were enough in that pre-rap era to cause the audience to explode. The principal was on the side of the stage waving his arms and mouthing the word "Stop!" to no avail. Gordon was expelled from the society.

A few weeks later Gordon was doing another gig at the coffehouse and he invited me to play. I brought Victor along. Curtis Weathers was playing bass, so I played electric banjo. Curtis wanted nothing to do with the name Violent Femmes so we were called "Gordon Gano and the Violent Femmes plus Curtis". Curtis knew the songs already and Victor and I just played along. That's when Victor made up the drum riff for "Blister in the Sun".

Rayanna: Where did the name Violent Femmes come from? Is there a story behind that?

Brian: Jerry Fortier asked me what my brother was like. At the time my brother was working for an insurance company, totally straight. So of course I lied and said, "He's exactly like me, he's a punk and he has his own band!" Jerry asked me what the name of the band was, which put me on the spot. I had to come up with something, so I blurted out, "Uh....Violent Femmes." I then walked over to Victor's house and told him about this episode. We had a good laugh and decided to start using the name.

Rayanna: How much of what you play is improvisation?

Brian: The best parts! Actually some of the songs have very little improvisation. Others have sections where the entire band is improvising, which goes against the norm for rock music. In most bands nobody improvises, and then once in a while the guitarist improvises over a static rhythm section. The songs which we do group improvs on include "Black Girls", "Kiss Off", "Confessions", "Gimme the Car", "Add It Up", "Never Tell" and a bunch of others.

Brian Ritchie

Rayanna: How many instruments do you own and do you still play your Earthwood Acoustic Bass or after 20+ years has that been put to rest?

Brian: I probably have over a hundred instuments including acoustic basses, bouzouki, didgeridoo, soprano sax, xylophone, nose flute, shakuhachi, and a spate of percussion, keyboards and guitar. All of which I've used on Femmes recordings. I am still using Ernie Ball Earthwood acoustic bass, although the original one is now being saved for a museum. I have some others for recording and touring. I wish they'd start making them again.

Rayanna: Have you ever considered playing or have you played a standup bass? Your sound reminds me a lot of what you would hear from a standup but yet I have never seen you play one live.

Brian: I played it on about half of the "New Times" record and used it on that tour. But the longer I play the more I realize that it's my destiny to play the acoustic bass guitar.

Rayanna: Who are the most colorful people that you have performed with over the years? And do you have any good stories you can share?

Brian: Definitely the most colorful person who has played with the band is Dennis Rodman. He invited us to play at a benefit concert he was putting on and he sat in on drums (OK) bass (bad) and vocals (ridiculous). By the end of the night he had fallen down, pushed wheelchair victims around on the stage while screaming at the audience, "Who says I don't have a heart?", poured a beer on Gordon's head and he was on the verge of exposing himself to the audience when he was hauled off the stage by his own bodyguards.

Rayanna: Do you guys all still live in different cities and if so does that make it hard to tour?

Brian: Gordon and I live in New York, Guy in L.A. We have not had all three in the same town since '84, although the configuration is always shifting.

Rayanna: Who are some of your musical influences?

Brian: Our main influences are Velvet Underground, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, Ramones, Sun Ra, Johnny Cash, Pink Floyd, Television, Hank Williams Sr., John Coltrane and about two million other people.

Rayanna: Are you involved in any side projects?

Brian: I have mainly been studying shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute for the last five years. I will be making a CD of it soon. I produced and played on a record for El Destroyo, out of San Francisco. http://www.eldestroyo.com .That should be out in a few months. Gordon's nephew John Bisagna is quite a talented musician and we are in the process of making a CD together. In August I will be touring with a strange band consisting of Spencer P. Jones, who is a great rock and roll guitarist/singer from Australia, Rat Scabies, drummer for the pioneering British punk band, The Damned, and myself. http://www.spookyrecords.com/ I am always available to do interesting projects.

Rayanna: Does your son have any interest in performing or would he rather steer clear of the music industry?

Brian: He told me, "Dad, I hope you don't take this wrong. Listening to music is cool, but playing it is stupid."

Rayanna: Are there any plans for another new album any time soon?

Brian: We have released three albums in the last 18 months. "Viva Wisconsin" which is a live album. "Freak Magnet", studio. 'Something's Wrong" which is an internet only release on http://www.emusic.com/. I don't want to speculate about future plans.

Rayanna: What was it like remaking "Spongebob Squarepants" ? And how did that come about? Was it for Nickelodeon or just something you guys decided to do?

Brian: Nickelodeon wanted us to do a commercial for them because they are moving "Spongebob Squarepants" to prime time and they needed a fun campaign. So basically we did a couple of 30 second spots for them which you can see on Nick. It was very easy.

Rayanna: Is there anything that you would like to add?

Brian: I am against the death penalty. We can't trust the government to do a good job anywhere else, why would we assume they will excersise matters of life and death with any skill or fairness?

Who cares if Bush's daughters are trying to do underage drinking? Civilized countries don't have drinking age limits. Change the laws!

I hope the Packers make it to the Super Bowl this year.

Regards,

Brian Ritchie

Rayanna Barker is Head Of Contacts and a Contributing Writer. Contact her at suma@rockzone.com.

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