As the bass guitarist and founding member for heavily influential punk band Violent Femmes, Milwaukee–born Brian Ritchie has traversed the world’s stages from South Africa to the magnetic North Pole. Then, following a decade-long stint among the music scene in New York, it was his wife, Dr Varuni Kulasekera’s work studying insects that led Brian to move Down Under. Expecting an easy transition into quiet regional life, Brian was — rather unexpectedly — thrust into the robust creative microcosm of Hobart, Australia. Here, he now curates music for the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), including for its genre-bending summer festival Mona Foma. For Brian, life has never been busier. We chat to the prodigious musician about the coalescent creative scene in Hobart, and washing good local music down with one of the island’s world-beating whiskies.
On music taking you to the North Pole
I was in Florence with my wife, and she was speaking at the Palazzo dei Congressi. I got a phone call, like, ‘Hey, they want you to play at the North Pole’. We were already in Italy, and were planning on having a vacation. So I thought: North Pole or Italy? Playing at the North Pole was a once in a lifetime thing, so we got on a plane. It was a very convoluted journey from Florence to Brussels, then to New York. We missed any connecting flights so had a private jet to Ottawa, then to Iqaluit, and then to the magnetic North Pole which was in Resolute Bay at the time. Resolute Bay is a town of about 200, including native Inuit people and some industry. We stayed in a fishing lodge, which apparently hosts Japanese movie stars who go to escape their fans. I remember we were at the magnetic North Pole when Tiger Woods was in Milwaukee playing his first professional tournament. There we were at the North Pole! And we were thinking, if we were in Milwaukee right now, we could be watching Tiger Woods. It was wild.
On your start in the industry
I was born in Milwaukee and pretty much lived there until I was about 35. Although from around 20 it was more of a home base for when I wasn’t touring. It was a good, boring place to grow up. Well, I thought it was boring, but it probably wasn’t. It did mean that I spent most of my time practicing music. And once I decided at 13 to follow music, it was the only thing I wanted to do. I started playing music in public at 14, and I was professional by 16. There was no turning back, and there was no reason to turn back because that’s what I really love to do.
On playing your first gig
The first gig that Gordon Gano and I did was before we were called the Violent Femmes. The National Honor Society was awarding Gordon as one of the top scholars, and I guess the people who won were asked to do a talent thing. I bumped into Gordon in a punk club the night before and he said ‘Hey, I’m playing at my high school early tomorrow morning, do you want to join?’ Gordon and his father came and picked me up and when I walked into the school his music teacher — who was also my music teacher at another school — his face dropped. He knew I was trouble. We were supposed to play a ballad, but instead we played ‘Gimme the Car’, which at the time was considered a risque song. It nearly started a riot. The principal was to the side of stage shouting for us to stop. Diabolically the amplifiers were plugged into the front of the stage, so there was no way they could unplug us without coming in full view of the audience. We just kept playing. There was hysteria, it was like Beatlemania. Gordon got expelled and they took the award away from him. It was one of our greatest moments.
On the start of your global adventure
Once we recorded and released our first album, we started incessantly touring. To put it into context, the band started in 1981. We recorded the album in 1982. It was released in ’83. By the end of ’83 we were touring Europe. By the beginning of ’84, we were touring Australia. At the time, it all seemed really natural. When I look back on it, it seems like a meteoric rise. Although it was a very low rise — when I say touring internationally, we were touring and playing clubs for 100 to 200 people. Seeing the world at that age was a real eye opener. We worked very hard and lived out of a van, or sometimes not even a van. We went for months without staying in hotels, instead crashing on people’s floors or sleeping on the beach. It wasn’t luxurious but it was a lot of fun.
Seeing the world at that age was a real eye opener… We went for months without staying in hotels, instead crashing on people’s floors or sleeping on the beach. It wasn’t luxurious but it was a lot of fun.
On your hit song that historically wasn’t a hit song
Slash Records didn’t think ‘Blister in the Sun’ had single potential because it didn’t have a bass drum. It wasn’t a single until many, many years later and it was never a smash hit. It did become popular, but this was over the course of maybe a decade, and it was a gradual, word of mouth popularity. Which really, is the best kind. I don’t think it’s better than any of our other songs, but it certainly has something that people can really relate to.
On how the music industry has changed over the years
There used to be the incentive to tour so labels could make money from selling records. But that’s gone now. I still play a lot and I also organize festivals — we just had our 13th edition of the Mona Foma Festival. Covid made us come up with a lot of really radical solutions so that we could hold the festival, but the actual festival experience is so good. As nostalgic as I was sounding, I’d say the general art scene, especially for festivals, is more diverse now than it ever has been. There are so many great performers, from bands to electronic artists. The motivation previously was to tour and sell records, the motivation now is to create creativity. People can define themselves any way they want to — there’s far more freedom.
On giving others a platform
As a festival director I like to see the big picture and the end result. But the process of bringing music, performance or art to light and giving it a stage, or a wall to hang on is very satisfying. It’s karmically a good thing to be able to facilitate other people’s work. And we encourage the talent to seek their own identities and cultivate their own uniqueness.
The motivation previously was to tour and sell records, the motivation now is to create creativity. People can define themselves any way they want to — there’s far more freedom.
On what you enjoy playing now
If you measured the hours I’ve spent playing, you’d see I play more Japanese music than I do any other kind of music. I play the shakuhachi, which is a Japanese bamboo flute associated with meditation and Buddhism. I play it every day. Then I play rock, improvised music and jazz. There’s a lot of music happening at Mona, hundreds of performances a year. Being the music curator means I sometimes get in on those, so it’s a pretty creative lifestyle.
On moving to Hobart
I had played here several times. Then my wife Varuni was being sent to Australia by the American Museum of Natural History in New York to collect insects. I volunteered to come along as her translator! We were going to be going around in nature collecting insects, so that’s why we decided to move to Hobart. Our move here was more based on nature rather than culture. It wasn’t until I arrived that I became inundated with creative endeavors.
On creative life in Hobart
People all want to move to Tasmania and I don’t blame them. It’s a great place to be, especially now there’s lots happening. Sometimes I have trouble finding musicians because they all have gigs. We have a house band at Mona’s restaurant and I occasionally get on stage and play percussion and shakuhachi. There’s also a lot of classical music activity in Hobart. And several really good rock clubs, like the Brisbane Hotel which is home to all of the up-and-coming alternative bands.
You see all of these people hanging out together and it’s not the food scene, the art scene, the music scene. It’s all the same scene. There’s a lot of cross pollination in Hobart.
On finding your community
You see all of these people hanging out together and it’s not the food scene, the art scene, the music scene. It’s all the same scene. There’s a lot of cross pollination in Hobart. Everyone knowing everyone is an exaggeration, you can still meet new people almost every day. But people do all just hang out together and there are certain focal points, like the festivals or regular hangout spots. Mona is a hangout for locals as well as being a massive tourism drawcard. It’s almost like a de facto town square. It’s a good place to go if you want to meet new people or do a spot of people watching.
On moving from a mega metropolis to a regional town
We chose Hobart because we were moving from New York and we thought that if we were to make a change it may as well be a real change. Psychologically we were prepared for it. It’s ironic though that I’m busier in Tasmania than I ever was anywhere in America. I’m doing more gigs, working more, and interacting with more people. I thought I was getting away from it all but I was thrusting myself into the jaws of a beast I didn’t even know existed.
On your favorite thing about Tasmania
The thing that’s special to me is that people really have time for each other. The friendships are deep. At Mona, there are over 450 people who work there. Even if I never saw anybody but Mona staff, there are a lot of intellectual and energetic people to talk with. We didn’t move here for the people, but that’s certainly what’s keeping us.
I thought I was getting away from it all but I was thrusting myself into the jaws of a beast I didn’t even know existed.
On exploring the Tasmanian wilderness
Drive for 20 or 30 minutes and you’re in the middle of raw nature. It’s ideal for swimming, hiking or surfing. It’s cold though. I don’t wear a wetsuit, instead I just do short surfs — in the winter I can manage about 10 minutes. I normally head to Clifton Beach or Goat’s Beach. If there are 10, or even five other people there, you think it’s crowded.
On your favorite spots to grab a meal
We have a really good culinary scene in Hobart. There’s great seafood, incredible vegetables, even the meat is good because it’s all pretty much free range. There’s a restaurant called Templo, which is very small and maybe holds about 20 people. Another one I really like is called Fico, which is Italian. Then of course Mona has great restaurants, which if I’m not playing there I’ll be dining there. If you’ve heard of Cascade Beer, well there’s the Cascade Brewery, which is a classic pub. Then there’s one called Tom McHugo’s that I really love and is kind of a British gastro pub vibe. They also have some very unusual beer there, it’s a great place for a pub meal.
On wetting the whistle
Not only are there incredible wines but the whiskey scene in Tasmania is blowing people’s minds. Our distillers are winning international awards left right and center. A lot of them are high octane because the climate causes the alcohol level to increase, whereas in Scotland it dissipates. Some are bottling up to 72% alcohol. It’s due to the temperature shift between day and night, which also means the whiskey only takes about two to three years to age to a level where it tastes as good as Northern Hemisphere whiskies that are 10 to 15 years old. The first whiskey brand that started the boom is called Lark Distillery. There’s also one called Heartwood, which I find incredible. Tasmanian Independent Bottlers have very limited runs, so you’re lucky if you can taste it. Shene is another good distiller. Lawrenny just released their first whisky during Mona Foma, but they have been producing incredible gins for several years now. Two Metre Tall Man is legendary beer. I like the farm ales and some of it is pretty experimental which I enjoy.
I went to Morocco and India and discovered incredible artists that I would not have found just by jumping on the internet. This talent will then open a whole new world for other talent.
On traveling to find new music
In 2019 I went to Morocco and India and discovered incredible artists that I would not have found just by jumping on the internet. This talent will then open a whole new world for other talent, which will then cross into Pakistan and so on. The world is a beautiful and endless stream of creativity, and travel is a good way to discover it.
On a window or an aisle seat
I like the aisle because I can sprawl out a little more. I’m tall, and it may be psychological, but I feel there’s more room on the aisle.
On Hobart in one word
Gem. It’s a little gem.
food and drink
food and drink
food and drink