Alternative music's elder statesmen
The morning of their second sell-out gig in Dublin in only a few months, The Violent Femmes' Brian Ritchie took a call at the truly immoral time of 11am.
To the casual observer, it seemed very strange. This band, The Violent Femmes, appeared out of the mists of time to a huge demand for concert tickets. Granted, 'Blister in the Sun' and 'Add It Up' (probably better known as 'Just One Fuck') are indie nightclub standards, but who would have guessed they'd fill a Dublin venue on their first trip here? In fact, they've done it twice, first, in Vicar Street and when they returned to somewhere bigger, they sold out the Olympia too - the tickets were gone in no time at all and there was still more demand. Brian, though, didn't seem all that surprised by all this, crediting it to the fact that they'd never been here before.
"I've met Irish people over the years and they were shocked and disgusted to hear we weren't playing Ireland. But it wasn't up to us, the promoters weren't interested. I knew the interest was here though."
In fact the interest so far outstripped demand that they are considering returning again in the summer. This live success is backed up by a rejuvenation of their recording career. They escaped a restrictive deal with Interscope last year to sign with Cooking Vinyl, who have already released 2 albums for them - the live "Viva Wisconsin" last October and "Freak Magnet" at the end of February. The band is adopting a "wait and see" attitude towards the label.
"So far relations have been good. They're putting out the two records, we'll see how well they do. Then we'll evaluate the situation."
As one of the most well-known survivors of the pre-Nirvana alternative music scene, The Violent Femmes have seen a lot of changes over the years. Brian isn't impressed by what he's seen recently.
"For bands like The Throwing Muses, The Femmes, The Pixies, alternative music was an attitude to creativity, not a style of music. Recently, new bands just try to sound like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and the worst thing is, they're successful. What do you blame it on? The media? The public? The bands? They're the ones who are recording this stuff."
He's also seen the difference this change has made to the business as well, both good and bad. The pressure on bands is a lot less, because it's so much easier to put out records. There's no longer the same kind of desperation to get a record deal as there was when they were starting out, because bands can now do it on their own. As a result, the labels are giving a lot better deals and there's greater competition among the increasing number of labels. On the negative side, 'though, he pointed out that there is still a lot of corruption in the industry and, because it's so easy to release records, there's a glut of material coming out, with nobody filtering it out. He does have high hopes for the impact of the Internet on the business.
"I hope it will level the playing field. Bands with very little commercial appeal, who don't get their records into the shops, will be able to distribute their material, or give it away free as MP3s, to anybody in the world. I think it will take the emphasis away from recording and bring it back to live performance."
The band does have, what could be regarded as a major millstone about their necks in the form of the enduring popularity of 'Add It Up' and 'Blister in the Sun'. These two songs appeared on their debut album nearly 20 years ago, yet they remain by far their most popular songs. Brian, however, is philosophical about this situation.
"Every band has a classic - Pink Floyd always get asked for 'Dark Side of the Moon', Paul McCartney always has to play some Beatles songs. But, we've been trying out some new material and it's going over very well. Record sales are a challenge, but it's not our challenge, it's up to the record company. We've always accepted that the early stuff are classic, but people are also willing to hear new stuff, except for a few superficial people who think it's enough just to have one record by a band."
Brian said that the band now intends to concentrate on consolidating their status as 'elder statesmen'. He points out that they "the kids" are still into the band and that, even after 20 years, the kids are still listening to their music. Of the other bands from the same era, the Femmes are one of the few survivors.
"U2 and REM are still around, but we have a higher percentage of young people, we're still shaping public opinion. We're not like the Beatles or the Stones, we're more like the Kinks, we've lasted a long time, we're eccentric, so we've got a smaller audience."
In a time when "alternative music" is becoming more and more meaningless, a band that sticks by the independent spirit that created such great music has got to be admired. Here's to another 20 years!
by Donnacha DeLong