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Violent Femmes' Brian Ritchie tells the story behind 'American Music' and other Milwaukee tales

Thumb-ritchie

Brian Ritchie is a founding member of Violent Femmes. On April 30, 1991 Violent Femmes released their fifth album, "Why Do Birds Sing." It featured "American Music" and "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," which came to be some of the band's most beloved songs. This month, a 30th anniversary reissue of the album was released, featuring a live show and bonus tracks. When asked why it was released with the live show, Ritchie answered, in his deadpan delivery, "Well we didn't want to include it. That was the record company's idea. I guess because they owned it."

Ritchie is a dream interview. He's funny in a way that is dry and deliberate. He's a great story teller. He has incredible recall and fills his stories with small details and funny asides. And most importantly, he's honest.

Here are some interview highlights:

Recalling time spent at 1812 Overture Records & Tapes:

One time I walked into the shop wearing a top hat and trench coat. I think I was wearing paisley pants too. I was dressed pretty weird. This was when I was 16 or 17 years old. And they said, "Oh god, you came here. Now we have a winner." I said, "winner of what?" They said "We're having a costume contest. The winner gets the entire Beatles catalogue. No one has come in yet. You're the first one that has come here dressed in a costume" I said, "This is not a costume. This is the way I'm dressed." But I guess they wanted a winner and so I won and they gave me the entire Beatles catalogue. So that's how I got the Beatles catalogue.

On seeing Elvis Costello on his first tour in Milwaukee:

It was at the Electric Ballroom, which eventually became Palms. Tickets were 93 cents because 93QFM sponsored it. There were about a hundred people there. Fifty of them knew who Elvis Costello was. And 50 thought he was an Elvis Presley impersonator.

He told the club to take the gels out of the lights, so they just had white light pouring over them on the stage. As a result, it was really hot on stage and they were sweating like pigs. Elvis, looking very much like a stock broker or something, with a suit on and his horn rimed glasses and sweating profusely. He was very antagonistic with the audience because the audience didn't really understand what he was doing.

I talked to Elvis Costello about that show because I brought him to Tasmania for a festival that I curated and he remembered it similarly.

On the song "American Music":

Gordon brought it to us. Initially it was very similar to "Kiss Off" or "Add It Up." Straight up Ramones. Basically, what we did was try to sound like the Ramones but acoustic. But Victor thought that Ramones approach wasn't right for the song and said, "Why don't we do it as a shuffle?" He started playing it and that's of course what you hear now.

There is a lot of arranging on that song. We put many, many pop music and rock references into the melody of that song. How it ends was important. It keeps speeding up and speeding up and speeding up. That's a reference to Velvet Underground's "Heroin." There are some specific Beach Boys references in there and some Phil Spector references with the timpani and sleigh bells. So it's basically a straight ahead Gordon Gano song which we added all these little touches to, and it became more than only a song, it's a kind of homage to an entire era of American music.