Violent Femme becomes Mellow Dude

By Jimi Kritzler

In strange twist of fate, Brian Ritchie (former bassist of Violent Femmes whose hit “Blister in the Sun” served as the soundtrack to many an early 90s finger-bang) is now living in Tasmania, running a tea shop, playing in a surf-rock band with guys from Midnight Oil, and working as a curator. Brian has headed the MONA FOMA festival alongside gambling entrepreneur, read: insanely wealthy yet eccentric businessman and MONA owner, David Walsh since it first kicked off four years ago. We spoke on the phone about the festival, moving to the cold end of nowhere, and Kurt Cobain.

VICE: Hey Brian. So the obvious questions is “why the fuck did you move to Tasmania?”. You know it’s technically not Australia.
Brian Ritchie: My mother feels the same way. She said, "Why are you moving to Tasmania, I thought you were moving to Australia?" She also said, "Why would you move to a place that has jumping spiders that bite you?" I came here first with the Femmes in 1992 to much skepticism from the promoters, who warned me when I requested the date that the people have two heads and other stereotypes. But it was a sold out and rocking show. A few years later I came back with my wife Varuni when she was sent by the American Museum of Natural History in New York to collect insects. We fell in love with the place and decided to move here but it took about ten years. 

And how did your involvement with David Walsh and MONA begin?
I had a studio at Salamanca Arts Centre in Hobart and they asked me to put together an arts festival for them. I came up with a brief similar to the eventual MOFO and we presented it to David for sponsorship. He was so enthusiastic he wanted to come on board as a partner and make it part of MONA's marketing. Action marketing instead of hype. The museum didn't open until we had already done three MOFO's so I guess you could say MOFO was the first big art project MONA did and now it's a regular part of the museum's strategy. 

David Byrne’s playing this year, probably the biggest act you’ve had at MONA FOMA so far. How did you go about getting him to tour?
David Walsh and I went to San Francisco a few years back to meet David. I was already acquainted with him from the US rock scene and the Femmes. We went to the show with Jerry Harrison from Talking Heads. We explained MONA and MOFO to him and of course since he's an art and music person he understood. But it took a few years for it to happen. We got together with Sydney Festival and made an offer for David Byrne and St. Vincent. 

Last year you actually played the festival. It was kind of an all-star Femmes’ cover band, right?
We had the band Death Grips drop out at the last minute. Amanda Palmer was in the festival and I knew she is always good for an idea so I asked her if she'd like to fill in the slot. She said “sure, let's do the first Femmes album”. That was not at the top of my list but I could not refuse under the circumstances so we got Brian from Dresden Dolls on drums and Mick Harvey and John Parish from PJ Harvey on guitars, rehearsed for about 2 hours and rocked the house. It was the high point of the festival and sold a lot of tickets. This year Death Grips is coming back to do their make-up date. 

Violet Femmes toured Australia five times. What do you remember about your first Australian tour with Nirvana? I heard Kurt refused to go onstage until he could score and your tour manager had to give him Tylenol, saying it was heavy opiates.
Nirvana was the support on our 1992 tour but did not make it to Tassie. They played some of the gigs but missed some due to his bad condition. It's true that we gave him placebos to get him on stage. The band was still great and we loved playing with them, but it was difficult to see a young talent like that suffer. 

To see a bunch of talent that may or may not be suffering, including David Byrne & St. Vincent, Death Grips, and Soda_Jerk, and Neil Gaiman, head to Tasmania this January. Tickets and details here.

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