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Feature: Violent Femmes

| November 1, 2017

Brian Ritchie of Violent Femmes, far right


Folk-punk progenitors Violent Femmes, the Milwaukee-based band defined the genre with their biggest hit, “Blister in the Sun,” from the 1983 self-titled debut album. Enduring a couple of hiatuses throughout their 36-plus year career, the band — original members vocalist/guitarist Gordon Gano and bassist/vocalist/xylophonist Brian Ritchie, along with newly-appointed drummer John Sparrow — have been performing steadily since reuniting again in 2013 for a show at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Since that night the band has played over 100-plus concerts, and according to Ritchie, the band has no intention of stopping now. “We only got back together because they invited us,” Ritchie reflected during a recent phone interview. “We were getting offers all along, but Coachella’s one of the biggest music festivals in the world. So that made us reconsider whether or not we wanted to try it again. Even then, we decided to do Coachella, and that was going to be just a one-off. But we enjoyed it so much we decided to keep going.” During a short October mini-tour, Violent Femmes will be playing Chicago at The Vic with Brett Newski on Oct. 28.

Shortly following the band’s formation in 1980, Violent Femmes were “discovered” by Chrissie Hynde and the late James Honeyman-Scott, when they were invited to play a brief acoustic set before The Pretenders performance at Milwaukee’s Oriental Theatre on Aug. 23, 1981. It was something completely unexpected, which led to the band’s first big break. “We were trying to audition at a nightclub on the East side of Milwaukee,” Ritchie said. “Of course they didn’t even want to listen to us, and they basically kicked us out. We were dejected, so we decided to go play acoustically for the people waiting in line for the Pretenders concert. As we did that, James Honeyman-Scott spotted us and brought the other Pretenders out. While we were playing, we saw them just listening to us. And then Chrissie Hynde asked us to open up the show, which was remarkable. We would have been happy if they just threw a few dollars into our guitar case! But instead, we got the gig!”

A Violent Femmes concert is a raucous good time with a party-like atmosphere. The band admits it goes with the flow each night, especially since they don’t have a confirmed setlist. Therefore, no two shows are ever the same. “The reason for that is we’re not like a Las Vegas show,” Ritchie began. “We’re not trying to compel every audience in the world to have the exact same experience every night. I call the songs similar to how a quarterback might call the plays in a football game; spontaneously. This way, we think that each audience gets their own specially-designed show just for their mood and ambiance.”

Releasing We Can Do Anything last year, its ninth full-length album and first in 15 years, the trio proves it can do anything musically. Most of the songs featured on the new album come from Gano’s vast archives of cassette tape demos and well-worn journals he has kept since he was a teenager. Is must be strange for him to listen to these songs that he wrote 40 years ago, yet that still contain that distinctive Violent Femmes flavor. “It was a way of taking all the songs from our entire history and recording them using a very simple technology, using only two microphones,” Ritchie explained. “And when you put all those songs side-by-side without any artifices, you can hear the breadth of the actual body of work.”

The album’s sole cover, “What You Really Mean,” penned by Gano’s sister, Cynthia Gayneau, fits in nicely with the rest of the material. “We all have the same influences,” Ritchie said. “So I would imagine that Gordon and his sister probably have some of the same influences since they came up in the same family, probably sharing and listening to music together.”

After 30-plus years, Violent Femmes’ unique twist on the folk-punk genre never sounds dated. With elements of polka, Latin, blues and jazz, the band is always crossing musical boundaries. “We never tried to fit into any of the scenes that were happening,” Ritchie said. “Obviously, that’s the key to our longevity. Once you set yourself in a certain time frame, by that time, it’s gone. And all you can look forward to is nostalgia.”

– Kelly Simms

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