After an extended break The Violent Femmes released their first recorded material in 15 years in the form of Record Store Day EP Happy New Year in April. With the release made available digitally at the start of this month (3 June) and a US tour starting later this week, Brian Ritchie from the Milwaukee trio explains what kept them from pressing record.
The brain trust here at Violent Femmes Touring Inc and Add It Up Productions Inc seldom deign to elucidate our career objectives or business plans to the general public, much less journalists. Why? Let’s make a game out of it. This is a multiple-choice question. Correct answer at the end of this article!
a. None of your f^0#@ing business. b. We do not want to share the secret of our ability to regenerate the audience with our has-been ‘80’s rock competitors c. We don’t have plans or strategies. d. Rock and Roll will never die but we spend most of our time trying to kill it. No time for self-reflection. e. We are inarticulate. Grunts are difficult to translate into English text. f. All, some or none of the above
But we’re easy. Q Magazine asked us to write an essay on the topic of why the world is ready for more Violent Femmes material in 2015. We decided to pull aside the veil of secrecy and enter the brave new world of TMI. I recently came across a fanzine/graphic novella entitled: The Violent Femmes Colonize Mars. The intro to this venerable tome states:
Everyone thought the Violent Femmes were a one hit wonder band so they voted for them to be sent to Mars. The people who voted figured that if things went wrong and they died, then it wouldn’t really matter because they only had one hit anyway, but if things went well & they became famous for colonizing Mars then the fame would be of a useful kind, because it would be a fame that said, “we can do more stuff than have just one hit”.
I am not making this up. Would you want to go into the recording studio if this is what your fans think about your recordings? We signed our first recording contract with Slash Records in 1982 for an advance of $0 (I am also not making that up). We did not expect to be together as a band in 2015 nor issuing records.
VF recently returned to live performance at the behest of Coachella Festival after a seven-year hiatus (or as we call it since we do it so often, I-hate-us). As a result of the fact that we sounded better than 99 per-cent of the so-called NEW bands (according to Gallup poll) bad things started to happen. We got a virile new teenage drummer named Vig and an even younger saxophonist who is a professional gymnastics instructor named Blaise. We also took on new management (to protect the innocent we’ll use the pseudonym Colonel Tom).
Vig, Blaise, Colonel Tom and the rest of our crew, staff, families and fans started to slap me and Gordon Gano upside the heads and chant at us: GO TO THE STUDIO! GO TO THE STUDIO! We asked Gordon, who has historically been the main songwriter for VF but has been presumed to be in an extended bout of writer’s block: Dude, do you have any new material? Gordon (with laconic drawl): Um, I have about 100 hours of demos of unreleased material. I am also not making that up.
Gordon sent us five of the songs, which we subsequently recorded on New Year’s Eve in Hobart, Tasmania. And we’re releasing them in a package enigmatically titled Happy New Year. Why do it?
1. Despite our reputation as one-hit wonders, we are actually authoritative purveyors of American Music (hence the song) spanning punk, folk, gospel, blues, jazz, country and more. MONA Museum owner David Walsh told me recently: You’d have to see 10 current bands to get as much music as the Femmes.
2. The record industry has collapsed. So long suckers and don’t let the door slam on your way out! Now we can release whatever we want on our own and not deal with the coke-addled machinations of weenie-heads.
3. By standing still while the rest of the music world has fallen prey to auto-tune and computers, we sound natural, musical and tight/loose by comparison.
4. There’s no money in recording. People also don’t listen to music the way they used to, ie in sequence 10 or 13 songs in a row. Thus we are free to release singles, EPs, LPs, cassettes, vinyl, files, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, box sets, 78s, cylinders. And the public can deal with it the way they choose. It’s collaborative, fun and free.
5. We can record new VF material, re-record old VF material, record songs from contemporary songwriters, traditional songs, covers of classics, improvisations, set poetry to music and more.
6. There are two pathways to immortality in recording. The Syd Barrett/Nick Drake model, which is to record a slim repertoire in a specific style, go crazy and/or croak and wait for the world to catch up. Or the Sun Ra/Neil Young model, record massive quantities of varied material and become legends by sheer prolificacy. We are currently stuck in the middle and can’t go backwards. There’s only one way to go.
The Violent Femmes Colonize Mars has a happy ending. To quote the anonymous scribe: We feel good for everyone. Most of all the future of our overpopulated world, which can now ship more people to Mars in the footsteps of this brave band from Milwaukee. Brian Ritchie @violentfemmes
Quiz Answer: F
For more head Vfemmes.com