If you were a high school student in 1983, Violent Femmes would have been a part of your life, whether you liked it or not. The spindly acoustic riff that prefaces “Blister in the Sun” was like a clarion call for a generation of kids dealing with angst, bad relationships, and borderline delinquency. The Femmes summed up the experience of being a teenager in America in the early ’80s in one succinct broadside — their debut record Violent Femmes.
What makes it all the more surprising is how it was expressed: no glossy synthesizers or overly processed guitar noise for these boys. Just an upturned bushel basket hit with brushes, a frantically strummed acoustic guitar, and a huge acoustic bass, all played with equal parts abandon and accuracy.
Forty years have passed since the band first convened in Milwaukee. Band members have come and gone. Lawsuits have been filed and settlements made. There have been reunions, and there has been acrimony, but the band continue. They’re currently on a comprehensive tour of the US and the Antipodes, which celebrates their 40th year of existence, as well as the timely reissue of their career-spanning compilation, Add It Up, and 1991’s Why Do Birds Sing?
Bassist Brian Ritchie spoke to PopMatters from a hotel room in Detroit about cover versions, longevity, and how to appeal to the pre-teenage market without even trying.
You’re in the middle of one of the most extensive tours you’ve ever done.
The middle would be an exaggeration: we’ve done three gigs out of 38, so let’s just say we’re shaking off the cobwebs and getting back into the swing of things. The reason why we’re touring like this is that I live in Australia, and Australia is in lockdown mode. I’m an Australian citizen, so I had to ask permission from the government to leave and do this tour. I can’t fly back and forth from Australia and America regularly; it’s just not possible, so we decided to put together a big tour.
What’s the format of the band this time around? Are you a back-to-basics three-piece again, or have you expanded the lineup?
It’s the three-piece with Blaise Garza, a sax player who’s played on our last three-to-four albums and an EP. He started playing with us when he was 14, and now, he’s 30-something. We have John Sparrow on drums, who’s been with us for about 15 years. Initially, he was on Cajon, but now he’s on drums as well, so although they’re relatively new members, they have still been associated with us for well over a decade. We have a couple of guys on the crew who fulfill the roles of the ‘Horns of Dilemma’ [an ad hoc musical group who play alongside the Femmes during their live performances], which is usually a very spontaneous thing. We might meet somebody playing on the street and ask them to come and play with us, but we can’t do that on these shows because the tour has strict access rules about who can come backstage because of this Covid thing.
You can’t pull someone out of the audience and get them onstage anymore.
Exactly. Springsteen wouldn’t be able to grab that girl out of the crowd and get her on stage for “Dancing in the Dark”. It wouldn’t happen!
Is the tour based around the reissue of the Why Do Birds Sing? album?
It’s good that Why Do Birds Sing? has been reissued now, but we’ve also recently reissued the Add It Up compilation album. It’s the first time that it’s been available on vinyl because that was one of the albums that came right when the music industry stopped making vinyl. Both of those reissues came out this year, so it’s good timing as it coincides with the 40th anniversary of the band, so we probably look at it more as a 40th-anniversary tour than necessarily promoting these albums, but the tour is doing both those things.
Why Do Birds Sing? is an important album for the Femmes as it seemed to re-energize you and lift you to another level.
Yeah, I think it was artistically a very focused album; almost a throwback to the first album in a sense. Certainly, more than any of the intervening albums had been. But it also coincided with the maturity of what was called alternative rock at the time. Although, we would think of it as punk or punk-derived music. It was finally getting into the mainstream.
MTV hardly existed when we put out the first album, So, when we had an MTV hit with “American Music”, MTV was achieving prominence around that point. And big festivals like Lollapalooza started happening around that time, so suddenly, the live opportunities, the opportunity for commercial airplay, and the opportunity for big video play all happened around the time we released Why Do Birds Sing? So it was a happy convergence of a good album, good songs, videos, and touring opportunities. They all conspired to bring us into the mainstream at that point.
What struck me when I listened to your version of Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” on Why do Birds Sing? is how much it sounds like a Gordon Gano composition.
He rewrote it. That song was the idea of [producer] Michael Beinhorn. Every time we go in to make an album, we’ll at least attempt a cover. Often, it’s just for an experiment. Usually, we would do it in our own way. Michael chose that song, and we just decided to experiment with it, although Gordon wasn’t really into the song, so he rewrote some of the lyrics. Then we changed the music a little bit.
We’ve bumped into Boy George on a couple of different occasions. We played a gig with him maybe two years ago, but even before that, he told us that that was his favorite cover version of any of his songs. He probably appreciated that we didn’t just copy it, and we did our own thing with it.
Many years ago, at a venue in the UK, I saw you play a crazy version of the Smiths’ “This Charming Man”.
Oh yeah — we love those guys! That was a spoof: did we take our clothes off during that line, “I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear?”
I can’t remember that… maybe it was too traumatizing! Still, on the subject of covers, is it true that Prince offered you a song for Why Do Birds Sing? but you turned it down?
Yeah, we probably made a mistake there by not recording the song – it’s called something like “you have a fabulous ass” (“Wonderful Ass”) or something like that. We just thought it was kind of dumb, so we didn’t do it, but now in retrospect, we should have done it… probably.
Why Do Birds Sing? was produced by Michael Beinhorn, which seems to be a bold and unusual choice, given that he made his name working with bands like Material and The Red Hot Chili Peppers?
We met with a number of producers at the time, and he just seemed like he was the guy most on our wavelength. He came from a jazz background and worked in the improvised music scene a lot in New York, and although that’s not readily apparent in our music, we improvise a lot. He recognized that and was also into our instrumental approach. Usually, producers would listen to us and say, “Well, these songs are pretty good, but you should use a normal drum set and play an electric bass.” They would try and conventionalize us. He didn’t want to do that. He wanted to emphasize our acoustic sound and our very minimal approach. It was a good match.
Did you ever think you’d last this long?
Why would anybody think in such absurd terms! We started in 1981, so if you say that rock and roll started around 1951-52 with “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner, that’s 30 years. So, rock and roll itself hadn’t even been around for 30 years when we started. Another way of looking at it is the Stones had only been together for 20 years when we made our first album, so for us to aspire to last twice as long as the Stones had lasted up to that point would have been inconceivable! I knew that I’d still be doing music, but I didn’t know that we’d still be talking about the same basic concept in 2021- that shows how durable the band has been.
Do you think that because most of your records are devoid of the keyboard sounds or production tricks of the day, it gives them longevity?
Absolutely. Even with the first album, we specifically avoided anything that would remind people that it was 1983. We wanted it to sound like it could have been recorded in the ’50s or ’60s — or the future! And that’s the reason why people are still listening to it now, now that we are in the future! People are still getting into it. I played a jazz gig recently, and there was a ten-year-old girl there with her parents, and she came up to me and said, “Are you really in the Violent Femmes? Well, I first heard you about two months ago and now I listen to you every day. You’re pretty good. You’re almost as good as The Doors.”
As men in their 50s and 60s, do you find it hard to play the songs Gordon wrote in his mid-teens and still mean it?
We talk about this sometimes, and Gordon considers it to be like an acting gig. Even when he’s singing something utterly preposterous like, “Come on dad, gimme that car” or “Why can’t I get just one fuck?” he addresses the microphone, and he takes on a role. And, of course, the music part of it is timeless. I don’t look at my hands and go; “These are teeny bopper basslines.” To me, they’re still valid.
Can you hear your influence on any contemporary artists?
I know it’s there because so many people have covered our material. Keith Urban and Blues Traveler have done “Blister in the Sun”. And of course, Gnarls Berkely did “Gone Daddy Gone”. That was great because that version got our sound; they didn’t really change the feel very much. It got our song to a completely different and much bigger audience. I think we’re an inspiration to a lot of people. Duff McKagan told me that he was really inspired to form Guns N’ Roses by us. I mean, they don’t sound like us, but inspiration, yeah!
Maybe if Duff, Axel, and the boys had embraced the Femmes’ acoustic ethos, “The Most Dangerous Band in the World” would still be dangerous, but there’d be a lot more banjo playing on their records. One thing’s for sure, though — they’d have turned down “Wonderful Ass” too.