In the early Eighties, Violent Femmes helped usher in a bold new form of alternative rock.
They used acoustic guitars and other acoustic-based instruments to create a dynamic blend of folk and punk that was full of passion and energy. Band members Gordon Gano and Brian Ritchie found worldwide success with hits like "Blister in the Sun."
Violent Femmes broke up in 2009 but reunited as a touring force in 2013. For a while, it seemed they might be content leaving it at that. But in the past couple of years, the urge to get back into the studio was strong enough to break down the remaining walls.
Last year they released their Happy New Year EP, the band's first batch of music since 2000's Freak Magnet. On March 4, they'll release a new full-length, We Can Do Anything.
Guitarist Jeff Hamilton, a longtime member of the Femmes' backing band, Horns of Dilemma (and producer of the new album), said he and the rest of the band went in hoping to recapture the Femmes' signature sound.
"I think I succeeded," Hamilton says. "It was as easy as putting the three members of the Violent Femmes in a room with acoustic instruments and letting them do their thing."
"Mostly it was a matter of either the trio or the extended seven-piece lineup with the Horns of Dilemma going for it on the first or second take after learning the song," Ritchie adds. "It’s a dangerous but exhilarating way to work. It gives us a folky and jazzy edge most rock bands don’t have because they’re over-rehearsed and over-produced."
Ritchie has used his Ernie Ball Earthwood acoustic bass exclusively for the band's recent releases, including the new album.
"That’s the sound most people associate with me, and using it brings the other musicians into an acoustic zone, which is most pleasing," he says. "The tones of the instruments in general are more subtle when it’s mainly acoustic."
Hamilton says they used a "cheap" acoustic guitar for Gano, most likely a "beat up" Takamine. They also used a Forties Martin on a few tracks, and Hamilton used whatever acoustic instruments were available at the studios they traveled to while on tour, plus a Gretsch ukulele, a Mexican Tele through his '72 Deluxe, a guit-jo and a Kentucky mandolin.
"The Violent Femmes have an underlying—or not so underlying—punk rock attitude, so I was looking for more edgier tones. A $3,000 custom acoustic sounds too nice," Hamilton adds.
We recently sat down with Ritchie and Hamilton to talk about creating the new Femmes album.
BRIAN RITCHIE: BASS
Are there any bass moments on the new album that you're particularly proud of?
I never play to try to impress other people, least of all the musicians in the band. They already know my abilities and deficiencies. My philosophy is, if you play to make other people sound good, you sound good. If you play to make yourself sound good, you sound bad. So hopefully the other guys sound good. As a bassist I always survey the scene and try to add whatever is missing.
How do you think your playing today compares to the old days?
I’m playing simpler lines with more substitutions. I stay on the same note or move to adjacent notes within the harmonic structure of the song a lot more than I used to. In the past I always played the root note of the chord even if it meant jumping around large intervals.
Many of the songs on the new album come from demos and journal entries from Gordon. Is there a big difference in terms of how old the song idea is and how quickly the band forms the song?
I knew a few of the songs on a cursory level. "Memory" is something Gordon and I did about 20 years ago and I played bass and drums on it. We used that as a blueprint for the version on this record.
Why was it important to have someone on the inside, as in Jeff Hamilton, produce?
Jeff has been with us for a long time so he knows the politics. He’s also a versatile musician and engineer. We had to do some interesting feats of production to create this record. For example, a few songs were built around Gordon’s vocals on demos he had gotten attached to. That meant creating false click tracks and going ass-backwards by overdubbing things in reverse order. Other songs were like live field recordings. We worked on the bus as well as in the studio. Jeff and I spent many hours discussing ambient recording philosophy, mic techniques, instrumentation and arrangements before we even heard the song. We were well prepared to be spontaneous. It was ad-hockery with a purpose.
You played Ernie Ball acoustic basses early in your career. How did that connection come about?
I had a premonition there would be a post-apocalyptic world where musicians would go back to being troubadours because there would be no electricity. But I didn’t want to lug around an upright bass. So first I made my own acoustic bass guitar from my first guitar, which was an Encore. I wish I still had that. Then I researched the acoustic bass guitars, of which there were only a few on the market. I went for the Ernie Ball because it looked like it would have the biggest sound, which it does. Post-apocalyptic didn’t happen, although it still could. In the meantime, by pretending so, it has led to some great music making. My favorite thing is to play totally acoustic, which we still do sometimes at in-stores and radio stations. And you can hear it on this record.
Do you use Ernie Ball strings?
Their acoustic bass guitar bronze strings are great. I also use Martin phosphor bronze. They’re both good. On electric I use Rotosound Swing Bass on my Maton JBIV or DR flatwounds on my P-Bass.
Ernie Ball basses had a limited production run. Have you contacted them to ask about custom basses, or even to resume production of the Earthwood?
Yes, I'e had that discussion with them and so have other manufacturers who wanted to license it to reissue, but they have rebuffed both strategies. In the meantime I have about seven or eight of them spread around Milwaukee, New York, Hobart, Sydney and San Francisco. It's still the best ABG and deserves a reissue.
You also play electric bass live. What brands/models?
Currently for live use with the Femmes, I play a reissue of the Maton JB IV I used in the Eighties and Nineties. When Maton reissued that, they sent me one of the first off the line to compare, and it’s very similar. I also play with the Break, which is a futuristic surf band with Jim Moginie, Martin Rotsey and Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil. For that I use a 1957 Fender P-Bass with flatwounds.
What is your touring setup these days?
My fave bass head is GK RB800, which is no longer in production. I don’t care what cab it is, but usually 4x10” or 2 x 4x10”.
Have you ever done an instructional video?
I can only teach shakuhachi because I studied that, so I know how it’s taught. I never studied bass and I don’t practice it either. I developed my own style, so all I could teach is a bunch of quirky idiosyncrasies, which wouldn't prepare the unfortunate student for life in the real world. Sometimes I do teach people sound production on acoustic bass guitar, i.e. how to pick, how to mute the strings to good effect and so forth, but it would be a short video if someone made it. Basically bash on the thing. The right hand is essential on this instrument because you’re doing all the work.
You have a very aggressive yet melodic style. Who are your primary bass influences?
My biggest influence was Chris Squire of Yes. From him I learned that the bass could hold its own in any band situation. Other than that, I have mainly been influenced by horn players like Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, John Coltrane and Steve Lacy. But of other bass guitarists I love John Entwistle, Mike Watt, Bill Wyman, John Cale, Monk Montgomery and Carol Kaye, to mention just a few. My favorite upright players are Henry Grimes, Buell Neidlinger, David Izenzon, Mark Peterson, Dave Gelting and Nick Haywood. And I’ve been touring a lot with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, where I sit in the bass section with Maxime Bibeau. I've learned a lot just by being next to him; he’s a great player. We sometimes double upright and acoustic bass guitar, and other times we have autonomous parts.
You have released some solo records wherein you play many different instruments. Do you plan on recording another in the future?
I have recorded on about 40 different instruments, but now the main ones are shakuhachi, bass and gongs. Learning shakuhachi made me back off of dilettantism on various instruments from around the world. Not that it wasn’t fun while it lasted! I have been steadily releasing solo albums, mostly on shakuhachi. I need to resume my label because I have several in the can.
Do you feel being a multi-instrumentalist improves your bass playing?
On one hand I think of all instruments as being the same thing and related. But there are certainly ways playing one family of instruments informs another. To give a specific example, all musicians should learn a wind instrument because it develops phrasing. You have to stop to breathe. If you can adapt that to your bass, piano or other more mechanical instruments, your playing develops space. But I have definitely gone the opposite way as well and play aggressive rock-style shakuhachi, because that’s the way my brain works from bass and guitar. Most of the other instruments I approach from an orchestration point of view. In the end it’s all music making, and the most important thing is to get a good sound and have fun.
JEFF HAMILTON: PRODUCER AND HORNS OF DILEMMA GUITARIST
The band recorded in various cities across the country while they were on tour. How did this approach to recording affect your mindset going into the studio?
It stressed me out! [laughs] The big thing for me was to get into the proper mindset as a performer when the red light came on.
For a band like this that you play with and produce, how does that impact how your approach recording the guitars compared to other projects that you have one job?
I have to take each project individually to suit each band's particular needs. Of course, certain techniques can cross over from project to project.
What was your biggest goal for the album as guitarist?
To stay in tune and come up with good parts that served the songs. This record was done 90 percent live in the studio, including lead vocals, so I learned the chords then had to quickly come up with instrument choice and good riffs.
How do you think John Agnello's mix affects the guitar and bass in the songs?
John is a swinging cat with ears of gold. [laughs] He made the acoustic instruments rock!
What do you like about his approach?
He isn't precious about his thing to the point of being tyrannical as some mixers can be. He has no pretension and is willing to listen to suggestions that, in the end, serve the songs.
What are a few of the moments recording this album as a guitarist you're most proud of?
It was a lot of fun doing these songs so I enjoyed every moment! My favorite track is "I Could Be Anything" because of its complexity in feels, time shifts and grooves. It sounds simple now, but keep in mind Gordon showed us the chords at the studio, then we had to get it down quickly as we were running out of studio time. At one point I suggested we do it in sections the edit them together. Everyone collectively sighed and didn't want to have to do that. We weren't getting through the whole song. After that suggestion/motivational speech, we nailed the take that is on the LP.
Anything you did on guitar that really surprised you?
Because I'm a recording engineer, I had to ensure the proper setup of mics and preamps and placement, etc., then sit at my station and learn and perform the songs. A lot of hat changing. [laughs]
What are some other artists/bands you play in or have played in?
I have been the lead guitarist for Beatallica, the original mashup band, for about eight years. I also have performed/toured with Uriah Heep, Dennis De Young (Styx original singer), Australian singer songwriter Toby and countless regional bands and studio sessions. I also play the role of Scott Gorham in a Thin Lizzy tribute band called Then Lizzy.
How do you think that experience helped you as guitarist with this album?
Being a touring and recording musician and a recording engineer/ producer most of my life gives me a good foundation to get results quickly.
Kevin Hearn of Barenaked Ladies contributed some guitar on a few of the songs. What did he bring to the table as a guitarist?
Also accordion, piano, backing vocals and organ. He is a sweet guy and I think he brought a certain "lightness" to the tracks. Listen to "What You Really Mean." That's him on acoustic, with Gordon and me as well, then he added piano and organ parts that elevated the track, in my opinion.
How do you think your playing compares to the old days?
I'm much more selective in my note choices. I play more simple to serve the song.
Are there things you still do—or things you're doing differently through experience?
Sure. Hopefully as a musician you grow the longer you play. That means throwing things out and refining other things and keeping open to learning new things.