In the early 1990s, a wide variety of musical genres made the jump from college radio to the mainstream, lumped together as “alternative” music as that then burgeoning radio format went from percolating left of the FM dial in the late 1980s to a ubiquitous national presence just a few years later following the rise of the Seattle grunge scene and the success of acts like Nirvana.
Suddenly, sounds like new wave, punk, electronica and alt country were finding a rapidly developing young audience pre-internet thanks to radio airplay in America and good old fashioned word of mouth.
It led to a strange trajectory for Milwaukee folk punks Violent Femmes, who released their self-titled debut album in 1983 and stand today as one of the most significant acts in the early history of alternative music. The album contained what’s widely considered to be the group’s biggest hit in “Blister in the Sun.” But in 1983 it didn’t chart.
Following release on CD in 1987, the album finally achieved gold status – nearly four years after it came out on vinyl and cassette. Continually finding a larger audience, the record was certified platinum in 1991 and charted for the first time that year, topping out at #191 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
By 1993, Violent Femmes had released five albums. With their label keen on capitalizing on their growing success, the group looked back on its first decade plus with the compilation Add It Up (1981 – 1993).
While it’s hard to call the album a “greatest hits” set, since the group hadn’t technically tallied “hit” songs, the compilation certainly does its best, in typical Violent Femmes fashion, to eschew the general best of record aesthetic.
While the most well-known Violent Femmes numbers are there, they’re occasionally culled from a particularly raucous live set, appearing on the album alongside a hilariously voiced spoken word intro by a former manager, an infamous answering machine message from singer Gordon Gano, who managed to lock himself inside his house, and much more.
“I’d like to acknowledge that Victor DeLorenzo, who’s not in the band anymore, but was in the band up to that point, that he was very significant in putting this compilation together,” said founding Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie of the group’s original drummer. “We did that together, both of us. And he had a lot of the archival material – like all of those obscure recordings that you asked me about. We worked on the flow of the album so it would be a good listening experience. He had quite a bit to do with it.”
I spoke with Brian Ritchie about the punk roots of Violent Femmes, the Add It Up compilation, now available on streaming platforms and on vinyl via Craft Recordings for the first time since its 1993 release, Gano locking himself inside his house and Ritchie’s role at Australia’s Museum of Old and New Art, where he curates the Mona Foma festival. A transcript of our phone conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows below.
It’s kind of fascinating to look at the trajectory of the first Violent Femmes album: released in 1983 but clearly still finding an audience almost a decade later when the Add It Up collection was released. How strange was it experiencing that at the time as your music kind of crossed over from college radio to the mainstream upon the advent of alternative radio?
BRIAN RITCHIE: I think it was a healthy thing. Some people may think, “Oh, it’s a shame that you didn’t have hits.” Because people assume that “Blister in the Sun” was a hit. It wasn’t even released as a single! It just became a popular favorite. It became a standard kind of without ever having had any commercial presence at all – outside of whatever radio stations would just play it of their own free will – which was mainly college radio stations at that time and a few of the more advanced alternative rock or whatever they would call that, new wave, stations.
Mainly, I think the success of it was a matter of people telling their friends about it. And older brothers and sisters giving it to their younger brothers and sisters. Things of that nature. Word of mouth.
Was the release of the Add It Up compilation in 1993 kind of an effort to capitalize on that fact that people were continually still finding the band? Because while it’s not a greatest hits set per se, most of the group’s biggest hits are on it…
BR: I don’t remember what the impetus behind it was. Probably the record company wanted it. I vaguely recall something like the record company wanted to have a greatest hits collection. And we thought that that was kind of corny – and misleading. Because we didn’t really ave any hits. We had some minor hits. Like “Gone Daddy Gone.” Maybe “Children of the Revolution” – which I don’t think is even on this album.
Anyway, we thought it would be more interesting to tell the story of the band up to that point – at that point it was about 10 years of the band – by using archival recordings, a mixture of studio and live recordings. We did basically stick to a regular chronology. And that was about the only conventional thing that we did when we put it together. We knew that we had to include a lot of the signature tunes – but in some cases they were live versions instead of the studio versions.
So it was a much more holistic and organic approach to putting together a compilation than just plucking a number of album tracks and singles and putting them out.
The compilation features several particularly raucous live takes. Anything stand out about the live cuts captured on Add It Up?
BR: To me, the funniest one on the album is “Lies.” I think the song “Lies” is the only one that’s represented from the album 3. But we didn’t even use the whole version.
Halfway through, it segues into a version that we did live with Ashwin Batish on the sitar. Then it goes off into like a psychedelic jam. It’s basically a country song or a folk song – and then it just goes into this other realm because we happen to have a really good friend who’s a sitar player.
So this is a metaphor for the way the Femmes operate. We’re very spontaneous. We’re very open to outside influences. We ourselves have very broad musical tastes. And we’re quite improvisational.
On our studio recordings, there’s a lot of improvising. Even on the first album, which sounds pretty tight, there is quite a bit of improvising there. That’s what the band is all about.
And then we just expanded that across the actual making of the compilation.
I enjoyed how the press released referred to the presence of “interstitial voice recordings.” Even more than two decades two later, whenever this album comes up, people seem to remember those tracks fondly. Who’s voicing the track 1 intro?
BR: That is a guy who, for about three or four minutes, was our manager. His name is Jim Prentice. And I’m not even sure how to spell that. Anyway, this guy was an eccentric who was in Milwaukee. And somehow he had acquired the rights to the Chess catalog – Chess as in one of the most important record labels of all time. If he really had it. He might have just been making it up. But anyway, we thought he had the Chess catalog and he wanted to sign us… that’s how we met him. But things fell apart very quickly.
But, in the meantime, we did one show… And it was true! We had taken our instruments on the city bus. Because none of us had a car and the gig was on the other side of town – so we just hopped on the city bus and went to this gig. All of the other bands had full sets and keyboard racks and Marshall stacks – and here we were with an acoustic guitar, an acoustic bass and a snare basically.
But that’s what the Femmes were all about. We just basically tried to take our street mode into the rare club appearances that we would have. Because the clubs in Milwaukee didn’t really want us. Once in a while we’d get a gig. And we’d pretend like we were on the street.
Gordon locked inside his house… An answering machine recording I’m assuming. What’s the story on that and how did it wind up included on Add It Up?
BR: That is an actual fact.
When we were recording the demos for the first album, we went to see to Mark Van Hecke, who’s the producer of our first two albums and was also our manager. Victor and I got to Mark’s house and Mark said, “Well… It looks like we’re not going to be able to do the demos because…” And then he played us this message that Gordon had left.
And it’s true. Somehow, his house had the ability to be locked from the outside only. And he didn’t have the key to open it up. Nor the ingenuity, I guess, to climb out a window or find some other solution.
So that’s actually just a sincere message that he left with Mark. Back in those days it was on mini-cassette.
If not in sound certainly in terms of attitude, how influential was the first wave of punk rock on what you guys would soon start together in Violent Femmes?
BR: We consider ourselves a punk band. We were all there when punk became a thing in like 1976 or ‘77. Even Patti Smith, I saw her in concert, and we considered her punk.
The definition of punk has narrowed over the decades and it’s become like a musical style. Whereas, at that time, it was an attitude. It was more like people who make weird music for the love of the music who were not striving for commercial success – because they knew that they would not be likely to have access to that. Which turned out to be wrong. Because, eventually, a lot of us became very successful.
In the early days of punk, really, we thought of everything from the Sex Pistols to Jonathan Richman or Pere Ubu as punk. But, musically, we were very, very much influenced by the Ramones. And I think you can hear that a lot.
But, with Gordon Gano, we have a fantastic lyricist whose words are very strong. So we thought that if we backed it up with acoustic music, the message of the songs would come across a lot more than if we were just pounding away and being super loud like the Ramones or Sex Pistols. And that was the formula basically.
Also, Victor DeLorenzo and I were very much into jazz and folk music and had played a lot of it. So we thought that, in terms of the soundscape, that was a more interesting soundscape to back up Gordon’s songs than just trying to be a rock band.
What did you learn playing festivals around the world, whether it was a vibe or an approach or even behavior to avoid, that you were able to apply when it came to curating your own?
BR: Well, mostly it was a negative influence in the sense that it represents what festivals should be doing – but were not doing. It’s a very interesting festival called Mona Foma – Museum of Old and New Art Festival of Music and Art.
A lot of festivals are geared toward a very narrow demographic. Whereas, we aim for all ages and all segments of the population – mixing different styles of music together and mixing art, music, theater, dance and all of these things in the same context rather than just featuring a bunch of bands that are in the top 40 or whatever one after the other.
There were a few really good festivals that the Femmes played at that were a positive influence – especially some of the Canadian folk festivals: Winnipeg Folk Festival and Toronto Folk Festival. These festivals had very broad programming – workshops, collaborations between various artists and strange collaborations that you wouldn’t normally expect. And that was an influence on me in a positive sense.
The other thing that people need to think about is regional and local music scenes. Because one thing that COVID has taught me is that music is a necessity. People want to hear music. Here in Australia, we can go out. But it’s all local musicians. And guess what? As a result of that, the public has realized, “Wow! These local musicians are great. I’m going to go out and support them. I’m going to go out and listen to the local bands or the local orchestra or whatever.”
There’s no longer this idea that it’s not good enough because it’s not from somewhere else.
Obviously most punk bands aren’t thinking in terms of four decades. It’s certainly not a point most get to. But Violent Femmes have. What’s it like thinking about the group today in those terms?
BR: Well, that’s a very good question you raise here. Because, if you think about it, in 1981 when we started… If you say that rock and roll started with “Rocket 88,” that Ike Turner did in about 1951 or so, rock and roll had only been around for 30 years at the time when we started. Even a band like the Stones had only, at that point, been around for close to 20 years. And we thought that they were decrepit and extremely old – and they were probably in their mid-30s at the time.
But the precedent for rock bands to have been going for that long – we couldn’t have anticipated it. I mean The Beatles obviously split up when they were very young.
At the same time, a lot of the musicians that influenced us the most – let’s say Johnny Cash, Sun Ra, people like that – they had very long and interesting careers. So we admired people who had long musical careers. And we admired our elder musicians as well. We weren’t just being influenced by people that were just a few years older than us. We had a lot of roots music influence from the older musicians. And we respected them.
So I think that as individuals we probably all thought that we would have long careers. But the idea that that particular band would go for 40 years, it wouldn’t have occurred to us. Because nobody had been going that long at that point.
But now you see a lot of them. Blondie is still there. We had Television down here playing at Mona Foma. Bands that are even older than the Femmes are still out there. As long as the music is good, it’s a positive thing. There’s a thin line between just trying to regurgitate something and maintaining an ongoing creative presence. If you see Blondie, they are still kicking ass. They still put out a lot of energy. We just toured with X and they were really, really good. So I don’t see any barriers to older musicians continuing to play in a rock band.
But, yeah… that wasn’t our goal. That was definitely not our goal!