In 1981, a three-piece folk punk band from Milkwaukee was looking for their big break. The Violent Femmes, as they’d jokingly called themselves, consisted of singer-songwriter Gordon Gano, bass guitarist Brian Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo.
“We were unable to get any shows at nightclubs in Milwaukee so we were just sort of playing out on the sidewalk,” recalls Ritchie. “This was before the era of amplification where people set up their PA. We were just playing guitars, a drum and singing.
“The Pretenders, who were playing that night at the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, heard us playing like that and were so blown away that they invited us to open for them.”
This unexpected windfall gave the band the confidence they needed. “We thought, ‘Well if the Pretenders like us that much, then there’ll be other people in the world who like our music,” says Ritchie. The band recorded an album, started touring and were soon a worldwide success.
Today, Ritchie, as curator of MONA FOMA (Museum of Old and New Art; Festival of Music and Art), has found himself fortuitously able to give other young artists the same kind of break he got. As the man at the helm of Tasmania’s biggest music and arts festival, he is not only responsible for booking the festival’s headlining acts, but also for discovering lesser-known talents.
“My favourite thing about this job is I can give a voice and a platform to a very wide range of artists – we have everything from highly trained classical musicians and jazz musicians to people that I’ve discovered playing in the street,” says Ritchie, who also plays the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute traditionally played by samurai, and the only known musical instrument to also serve as a weapon. “A lot of times, the audience don’t know who the artists are so then they’re exposed to new talent. As a musician, it’s very satisfying to be able to do that.”
Ritchie fell into his job curating MONA FOMA almost by accident. Having emigrated to Tasmania from New York with his entomologist wife, Varuni in 2007 (“We didn’t want to move to another big city”), Ritchie was working in a studio at the Salamanca Arts Studio in Hobart when he was asked to put together a concept for a multi-arts festival.
“I just did it as a kind of intellectual experiment – ‘what would it be like to design a festival?’ But the Tasmanian arts benefactor, David Walsh was very impressed – he wanted to not only finance it but partner with it,” says Ritchie.
“This was three years before David founded his museum, MONA. We did the 2009, 2010 and then 2011 festivals and then the museum opened. Since 2011, they’ve been running side by side.”
MONA FOMA took place in Hobart for nine years, before moving in 2018 to Launceston in the state’s north. “One of the acts I’m most excited about this year is King Ubu. It’s a massive theatrical production– an adaptation of a play into musical format with puppets from the Terrapin Puppet Theatre, performed with Launceston’s Cataract Gorge as backdrop,” says Ritchie. “It’s so ambitious and different from anything we’ve done before.”
Also on Ritchie’s must-see radar is Flying Lotus, an electronic musician from LA who is doing a 3D show. “We’re bringing in a special screen from Europe and we’ll hand out 3D glasses to everybody so between the music and the visuals, it’ll be quite an experience.”
Established musicians like Paul Kelly, Amanda Palmer and Ludovico Einaudi are among 400 artists who’ll be performing at 25 venues across the city, alongside Japanese girl power band Chai and cowboy crooner, Orville Peck. “It’s the most diverse music festival in the world. If you find another one that has more diversity, let me know!” says Ritchie.
Curating the festival is a full-time job for Ritchie but he makes sure there is still time for the group he co-founded almost 40 years ago. “We still have two of the original members – myself and Gordon. Currently our drummer is John Sparrow, who’s also from Milwaukee and was a protégé of our original drummer Victor at one point so it’s a pretty clear line of succession. We also have a saxophone player Blaise Garza – he lives here in Tasmania and works at the museum with me. He’s American and he came down here a few times playing with the band and thought I was onto a good thing – so he stayed.”
Once the festival is over, the Violent Femmes will be heading off on a tour of Australia and New Zealand. So is this Ritchie’s perfect life: the full-time festival job interspersed with gigs from time to time?
“Originally I thought I would only want to be a performer, I actually didn’t really want to do festival curation – I did it just for the sake of trying something new. And then I learnt to love it… so yeah, I wouldn’t want to give up either one of them because they satisfy different urges.”
- MONA FOMA
11–20 January, 2020
- Violent Femmes tour
19–29 March, 2020
Australia & New Zealand