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This Is Northern New South Wales

Brian Ritchie, Splendid Think Tank

Interview by Claire Snel

This week I’ve been privileged  to chat with Brian Ritchie – founding member of The Violent Femmes, festival curator, multi-disciplined musician, and all ’round inspirational guy.

Early this August he will be speaking at the “Splendid – Think Tank” , hosted by NORPA at Lismore’s City Hall, August 4th. The Think Tank will be a two day finale event amalgamating contemporary artists with festival representatives from over Australia. There, participants will collaborate to brainstorm innovative new projects and expand the boundaries of public art within the context of festivals. Partnered with NORPA, Lismore Regional Gallery and Splendour In The Grass, Splendid is a wonderful Local initiative.

Q: What was the impetus for your initial move to Australia? It seems such a huge change from living in the states and touring internationally to moving to Hobart. What drew you to Tasmania?

I first came to Australia in 1984 with Violent Femmes and always enjoyed touring here. The natural beauty and easygoing nature of the people are relaxing to me. My wife Varuni is a scientist and was sent in 1996  by the American Museum of Natural History in New York  to Tasmania to collect insects associated with waterfalls. Of course that took us into exquisite landscapes and we decided to move to Tasmania someday. Someday eventually came when we got fed up with the political shenanigans in America. Not that the same stuff doesn’t happen here…..but at least we can go down to the beach and forget about it.

Q-Tell us a little about the writing process for your current band “The Break” with Rob Hirst, Martin Rotsey and Jim Moginie from The Oils…

Songwriting with The Break is a very direct and satisfying process. We go into Jim’s Oceanic Studio in Sydney, set up the gear and start jamming. It’s as simple as that. One of us will kick off a riff or a groove and the others play whatever comes to mind. A few hours later we have a song and usually a recording as well. It’s fun! We have all been making music for too long to do it unless the fun quotient is very high.

Q- With The “surf”/”rock” description slapped loosely on such refreshing, uninhibited – almost psychedelic sounds; how do the songs reveal themselves to you guys in the studio?

We think limitations are good aesthetically but at the same time we are too creative to pigeonhole ourselves. We use old style surf music as a template, which means twangy guitars, rolling drums and thudding bass. We use authentic vintage gear to create this soundscape. But then of course we can’t resist going off into psychedelic terrain or even jazz and flamenco!

Q-What influences musically and otherwise did you draw from as a band while creating “Church Of The Open Sky“?

We wanted to create something that was raw but also almost orchestral in grandeur. The main starting points are Link Wray and Joe Meek, who both pioneered instrumental rock in the 50’s and 60’s. Then of course true surf bands like the Ventures from USA and Australia’s the Atlantics.

Q-What’s on the cards next for The Break?

Our next gig is in the Tiwi Islands then back into the studio for album number two. We’ll probably tour again early next year.

Q- And‚ not least importantly – you obviously have a little bit of salt water in your veins…. What are some of you’re favorite surf breaks?

I probably shouldn’t reveal this but none of us actually surf. I grew up on Lake Michigan where the water is freezing and not buoyant. I asked Rob why he doesn’t surf, apparently he had a few spills on the board which drove his head into the sand. I don’t know about the other guys.


Q- Have you had the pleasure of surfing in Common Ground’s home town, Byron Bay? 

I have not surfed Byron but I have enjoyed snorkeling there several times, playing with the giant turtles and other sea life. Shortly after one of these trips I read in the New York Times about a tourist being munched by a shark at the same spot. But I’ll do it again next time I’m up there.

Q- You certainly look to keep busy and diversifying your skills and time. You are the curator of MONA FOMA, (Museum of Old and New Art Festival of Music) Has visual and theatrical arts always been an interest alongside music?Do you personally dabble in any other creative medium ?

I’ve dabbled a bit in the visual arts and acting, just enough to realize I should stick to music! But similarly to how the average punter is drawn to music that’s the pull visual art, dance, poetry and theatre have on me. Because it’s the stuff that still holds mystery in my imagination. I don’t necessarily know how it works, so it thrills me. I’m very happy to be in the position of curating and being able to put together multi-media collaborations for example. It’s a very creative job.

Q- You’re passion for connecting emerging artists (of all modalities)  with audiences and audiences with new exciting experiences, has led you to be a guest speaker at the Splendid Think Tank event coming up in August.

This “cross pollination” of art forms seems to be a new dimension for festivals. How are initiatives Like Splendid and your own vision for MONA FOMA changing the festival experience for artists and audiences alike?

People are getting bored with cookie cutter festivals trotting out the same format and artists every year. Music festivals need to add other elements to create the element of surprise and wonder. In the distant past there were no barriers between the arts, it was all a Bacchanalian mix of different pleasures and delights. The closer we can come to recreating that kind of rich and varied mix the more we can tap into primal urges and become truly festive. Which is the origin of the word festival. People think they know what they want but they don’t know what they haven’t yet experienced. Good festivals can provide that by grabbing the audience in different ways.

Q- And for all us layman out there, please tell us, what is Shukuhachi, besides a really cool sounding Japanese word- and how did you happen to become a master in it?

I play the shakuhachi which is a Japanese bamboo flute. The music originated in the Zen temples and has a dream-like meditative quality. I play both the traditional music and also jazz and improvised modern music on it. It’s a good balance to all the other loud stuff I play. It strikes a lot of people on a deep level.

To checkout more from Brian Ritchie you’ll have to get along to the Splendid Think Tank | Thursday 4 August 2011 | 10am – 5:30pm | $45 / $25