Why Violent Femmes Are Writing New Material, If Only For Their Own Sanity

3 December 2015 | 1:41 pm | Steve Bell

"The longer a band sticks around the more reduced their profile becomes — it's like they're trying to turn everybody into a one-hit wonder."

It's been 32 years since Milwaukee alt-rock legends Violent Femmes burst into Australian consciousness with their lauded self-titled debut album — a sleeper hit that contained a slew of angst-ridden songs like Blister In The Sun, Kiss Off and Add It Up that quickly became embedded in our national psyche. Now, following a lengthy hiatus due to perennial internal disputes, they're back to tour the country with Hoodoo Gurus, Sunnyboys, Died Pretty and Ratcat for the A Day On The Green franchise.

What's really exciting about these impending shows is that earlier this year they released the Happy New Year EP for Record Store Day — their first substantial collection of new music since 2000's Freak Magnet — meaning that we're going to hear new tunes from them live for the first time in aeons.

"We played with no separation, all in the same room."

"It was unexpected because the band split up obviously for about seven years, but even before that we hadn't released anything for maybe another 10 years or whatever, so I thought — and probably the public would have had reason to think, and maybe even Gordon (Gano — frontman/songwriter) thought — that we would never do anything again," concedes bassist Brian Ritchie. "So I guess it was just an interesting turn of events that we did that, and now we've followed that up. We went into the studio on our last American tour, which was just a few months ago, and we recorded a whole new LP. That will be out by the time we do these gigs, so we'll be working around that."

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Happy New Year had a very live feel, and Ritchie explains that the new album will be following suit.

"We've made all kinds of different records over the years, but the best ones are the ones that sound like the band sounds live," he tells. "So we just decided to skip all of the bullshit and just go into the studio and play live. We played with no separation, all in the same room, and there's select overdubs here and there, if we needed to add something or correct something, but basically it's live."

Ritchie, who these days lives in Tasmania and (amongst other pursuits) has been instrumental in the success of the esteemed Mona Foma festival, admits that it's great having new material in the Femme's set after all this time, even just for their own sanity.

"Originally we reformed to play Coachella Festival and it was just going to be that one-off thing," he explains, "but we had one fun with that and said, 'Okay, do we want to keep this going?' At that point then I thought, 'Well, okay if we're going to accomplish a few things then one of them would be to try and keep things amicable — which we've never been able to do, so if we could do that it would be nice — and the other thing that would be good would be to become creative again, just in order not to have people looking at the Wikipedia page and going, 'Oh, their last record was released 25 years ago' or something like that.

"It's embarrassing because we're very creative people — I'm working on festivals and working on museum stuff and all kinds of different music — and it's ridiculous to have the thing we're most known for be stagnant. So it's good to throw a stone into that pond and watch what the ripples might be."

Has the runaway success of their debut album become something of a millstone, given that everything the Femmes have done since is held up against it?

"I think this happens to every band, even if you think about The Rolling Stones they have Start Me Up at sporting events and then maybe they've got Satisfaction — the longer a band sticks around the more reduced their profile becomes — it's like they're trying to turn everybody into a one-hit wonder," Ritchie ponders. "It's not reasonable, but it's a fact. But it also doesn't change [the fact that] we have all sorts of wonderful songs.

"The same could be said about Lou Reed. Lou really only had one hit, Walk On The Wild Side, and then he had a couple of other songs like Sweet Jane that are classics, but they weren't hits. How many great songs did he write? About a million. How many great songs did Jonathan Richman write? He didn't even have one hit, unless you count Roadrunner, which was more of a classic. But he had so many songs that should have been hits. It's just the way it goes so I don't dwell upon it."