Violent Femmes' Brian Ritchie: 'We Never Use A Setlist'

Violent Femmes swing into Phoenix with X on Tuesday, May 7.
Violent Femmes swing into Phoenix with X on Tuesday, May 7. Ebru Yildiz
If you’re talking about the history of folk-punk, there’s no case imaginable in which you wouldn’t mention Violent Femmes.

The Milwaukee trio started in 1980, dropping their iconic self-titled record just a few years later. It was glorious, snotty punk made edgy via its lyrics, tone, and attitude, offering a different perspective from hardcore and some of the noisier paths punk rock had taken.

Violent Femmes' catchy sass was poppy enough that the mainstream college crowd got their mitts on tracks like “Blister in the Sun,” “Add It Up,” and “Kiss Off,” using them as anthemic singalongs for events from frat parties to sporting events — places where, ironically, punk rockers would most likely take a beating just for showing up.

No matter who fell in love with the band, or why, though, the Femmes continued to follow that initial offering in exceptional, intriguing ways. Their second release, Hallowed Ground, surely made some of those frat kids cry. Dark, rootsy, and peppered with Christian themes, some hated it, while for others, it landed as a “what-the-fuck” moment of weirdo, experimental righteousness. Stark and desolate, cabin-in-the-woods creepy, it still provokes chills.

Just days away from their tour with L.A.'s seminal twangy-punkers, X, Phoenix New Times had a chat with Femmes bassist and vocalist Brian Ritchie about this new road trip and what else the band, also featuring Gordon Gano on guitar and vocals and John Sparrow on drums, are up to.

Phoenix New Times: You’re kicking off the tour in Las Vegas.

Brian Ritchie: Yeah, I just got to San Francisco yesterday. I'm hanging out here for a few days before we head to Las Vegas, which is going to be fun.

Will you get involved in some gaming while you’re there?
No, I don't like gambling, but I’ll do it for about 20 minutes. I’ll always quit if I’m ahead. I take enough gambles and risks in life that I don’t need to do that kind of gambling. I don’t need to force the issue — it’s already happening.

You and X are teaming up for this tour. You were two punk bands tearing it up in the early '80s, but you didn’t play together much back then.
Surprisingly, we have only done two shows together that I can recall: once in Canada, I think, and another show at a festival in California where we also played with the Master Musicians of Joujouka, so that was a great experience. We’ve played together, but they’re not regular associates of ours, so this is going to be especially fun.

You were both some of the first bands to mix punk and country; it’s surprising that you didn't pair up more often.
They are venerable and slightly senior to us — although from this perspective of 2019 it doesn't look like much different — they are a little bit earlier than us. They were also on Slash Records, which was the label that we were initially on, so we do have some things in common, but there were a lot of bands at the time — some you’d think we’d have played with that we never even met. It was an incredibly prolific scene.

After all these years, do you still enjoy hitting the road?

Yeah. There's nothing like popping in a bus and playing for a bunch of happy people town after town. It's a pretty good way to live.

Aside from the Femmes, you make a lot of music.

I live in Australia, and I'm the music curator at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), which is the biggest museum in the Southern Hemisphere. In that context, I run festivals and book a lot of concerts at the museum, which brings me into contact with all kinds of different musicians. I have continuously evolving musical projects happening. I play with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and I’m also in a surf band with some of the guys from Midnight Oil, to name a couple. My musical life is extremely diverse.

When you’re immersed in that world, is it a big adjustment to slip back into your Femmes hat?
Not really. With the Violent Femmes, we don’t really rehearse. We work up new songs very quickly. For example, this new album, we didn’t even have material prepared. We just went into the studio for five days and did the whole thing. We’re fast workers, and it’s the same when we get on stage — we just get up there and start playing, and it is always as if we just did our last gig the day before.

When do we get to hear this new record?
It's coming out in July. It’s called Hotel Last Resort, and it’s a really strong effort from us. It has hallmarks of our early sound, but there are some surprising twists and turns, too.

Would you say it’s reflective of any one record in particular?
Well, anybody who listens to it who already is familiar with our sounds will recognize it immediately. That's the classic kind of Femmes approach — stripped-down, mostly acoustic, very simple and direct. And you know, back when we started, we were doing that kind of as a contrast to a lot of the bands that were happening at that time — when everybody was using drum machines and stuff. And now we're back in that era again, except maybe even more to an extreme. So, by contrast, we probably sound like hillbillies or like some sort of primitive people that live in the woods (laughs). But we're okay with that because we think that's the sound of American music. Right?

Are you doing a standard setlist across the tour or mixing it up each night? Taking shout-out requests from the crowd?
We never use a set list. I always tell the other guys what the next song is. We draw from the entire catalog and yeah, if somebody shouts out a request, it's possible that we'll do it. It’s a very spontaneous approach.

Is there anything you won’t play anymore, whether it’s for personal or social reasons?
Well, if we wanted to redact the material that we have in our catalog that could be considered inappropriate in today's climate, we would have to take out almost the entire catalog. So, we'd be in big trouble. We don't have very many wholesome and healthy songs — most of them are depictions of some sort of mental disorder or inappropriate behavior. So no, we haven't taken anything out of the repertoire for those reasons. The only reason why we wouldn't play a song is if we don't remember it. Gordon has a lot of words to remember. He goes through probably 10,000 words a night, so he can't remember the entire catalog. Otherwise, anything is fair game, and we often get requests in advance, like, “Oh my cousin is coming to the show, and they’d like to hear...” So then, we'll brush up on it and do it.

The band have gone through some breakups over the years. Have you hit a place of smooth sailing after knowing one another so long?

We never really have a plan for the future. We got back together again maybe six years ago to play at Coachella. It was going to be a one-off, but we enjoyed it so much that we just added a few more days. And then we added a few more dates, and then the next thing we knew we were back pretty much on track as a band. And yeah, we've been having a lot of fun. The recordings we’ve done since, we think they are some of our best. There’s a lot of positive stuff going on with the band, and that's not a guarantee that it's going to continue permanently, but there's no indication that it won't.

Any last words?

We are looking ahead to this new release, and we’re very happy to be on tour with X. It’s going to be a loose and very rocking show. Last time we played in Phoenix, it was a gas, so we can’t wait.

Violent Femmes and X. 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, at The Van Buren, 401 West Van Buren Street. Sold out.
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Amy Young is an arts and culture writer who also spends time curating arts-related exhibits and events, and playing drums in local bands French Girls and Sturdy Ladies.
Contact: Amy Young