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Violent Femmes: from left, Guy Hoffman, Gordon Gano and Brian Ritchie in 1994. Photo/Getty Images

Playing to the gallery: How a Violent Femme turned arts curator

Ahead of his veteran band’s return to New Zealand, Brian Ritchie talks about his other life – working at Tasmania’s Mona.

When Brian Ritchie – bassist in Milwaukee folk-punk band Violent Femmes – moved to Hobart 12 years ago, as the band he founded was in a fractious hiatus, he had no plans to engage with Tasmania’s arts and music scene.

But soon he was playing with local groups and had met art collector David Walsh.

“He was a fan of the Femmes, but the first thing he said was, ‘I hate you because I had to cash my dole cheque to see you play at City Hall.’ He’s not cashing dole cheques any more,” laughs 59-year-old Ritchie from his designer home above Hobart’s River Derwent.

Walsh is the infamous “gambling millionaire” behind Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), an enormous underground gallery space designed to exhibit his idiosyncratic and controversial collection of artworks.

When Ritchie arrived in Hobart, Mona, the state’s chief tourism drawcard since 2011, was a few years from completion. But today, in addition to performing with the reconciled Violent Femmes, who play here in March, he curates Mona Foma, the gallery’s annual Festival of Music and Art (often further shortened to Mofo). Since 2009, Mona Foma – and its mid-year Dark Mofo off-shoot, launched in 2013 – has hosted artists such as Nick Cave, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, PJ Harvey, John Cale and dozens of lesser-known but innovative musicians.

Among those scheduled for the 2020 Mona Foma, at locations around the riverside city of Launceston, are stentorian and militaristic Slovenian group Laibach; American performance artist Amanda Palmer, in a programme of “piano, pain and laughter”; anarchic Japanese punk band Chai; and the anonymous, masked country musician known as Orville Peck.

Mona: Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art. Photo/Getty Images

Mona Foma attracts performers because of its unique location and the reputation Ritchie has established. And, invariably, they also visit Mona in the state capital where Ritchie also programmes more than 100 performances a year.

If Tasmania was intended as downtime from the Violent Femmes – in 2007, Ritchie launched legal proceedings against singer-songwriter Gordon Gano for selling the rights to their hit Blister in the Sun to fast-food chain Wendy’s and demanding co-ownership of the Femmes’ songs – it hasn’t proven so.

In addition to his Mona Foma and Dark Mofo commitments, he’s looking forward to the completion of a new hotel complex attached to Mona – a rhomboid-shaped building cantilevered 53m over the Derwent, nicknamed “the shopping cart” – because it means three more performance spaces, a separate jazz bar and another outside stage.

Ritchie is particularly excited about securing Laibach for Mona Foma, a band with a reputation for kitsch and sinister interpretations of national anthems, The Beatles, Queen, and The Rolling Stones. “Laibach’s new album is them doing The Sound of Music and we thought of them performing it in a city that loves musicals more than any other in Australia. The city has a particular obsession with Cats and Camelot.

“It’ll challenge [audiences’] preconceptions,” he says with masterful understatement.

And, in a triumph of timely programming, larger-than-life puppet show King Ubu, based on the 1896 play, Ubu Roi, by French symbolist writer Alfred Jarry, will be performed in a natural amphitheatre over Cataract Gorge. “It’s a play known to all avant-garde theatre lovers,” Ritchie says. “It constantly gets revived because the subject matter involves a despotic buffoon, and there are plenty of them.”

Ironically, it was, in circuitous fashion, Mona Foma that got the Violent Femmes together again. In 2012, an act dropped out of the festival, so Ritchie pulled together a supergroup from the programmed artists (including future Femmes drummer Brian Viglione) to recreate the band’s seminal self-titled debut album of 1983, which spawned the hits Blister in the Sun and Gone Daddy Gone. It rekindled his interest in their music.

Still touring: Ritchie in 2016. Photo/Getty Images

The following year, Violent Femmes were invited to the Coachella Festival and agreed on the condition it was a one-off. But the experience was enjoyable, hatchets were buried or ignored and the band now make occasional tours. They last played in New Zealand in 2016, the country that gave them their first gold record, “The first place that recognised us,” says Ritchie.

“I look back at the 80s with a certain amount of … I’m not a nostalgic person as you can tell from all I’m doing, but there was a whole underground of musicians thinking along similar lines. For example, you had The Clean and The Chills. “There was a lot of creativity then.”

Perhaps not so much now. The 2019 Femmes album Hotel Last Resort was received with indifference by many, aside from a few songs such as the brief, gospel-style, crowd-pleasing singalong Sleepin’ at the Meetin’, the free jazz-cum-bluegrass of God Bless America and the sociopolitical I’m Nothing. “America is great, but we can make it better, and not the way this idiot is claiming, but by reclaiming the culture that makes America great,” says Ritchie.

Violent Femmes – Ritchie, Gano and new drummer John Sparrow – have separate lives outside touring and recording, but their brand of acoustic-driven pop-rock rolls on after more than 40, sometimes-tetchy, years. “Having so much improvising keeps it fresh, so it’s not like grinding out old tunes for an increasingly ageing audience. Young people come to see the band.”

And the oversized acoustic bass he has always played? “I had an idea there might be some impending Armageddon and it would be necessary for us to play acoustically as the grid failed. Although that hasn’t happened, I’m ready. I can just go on to any street corner and make a living as a busker.”

Mona Foma is at Launceston, Tasmania, January 10-20. Violent Femmes play the Opera House, Wellington, on March 24 and the Logan Campbell Centre, Auckland, on March 25.

This article was first published in the January 4, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.