Behind the Scenes with Brian Ritchie
The Spirit Of Churaki
You may only know him from that incredible bass line in Blister in the Sun, but the Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie is so much more. On the days when he’s not pairing up with some of the best in Australian music, like his band The Break, full of members of Midnight Oil, Ritchie has lent his time as musical director to a new show on the Gold Coast called The Spirit of Churaki. Churaki was an Aboriginal man, and the first ever LifeSaver, performing daring rescues on the Gold Coast’s southern beaches in the 1900’s. His mostly forgotten story is being brought to life, with Ritchie forming the music with the help of a whole lot of others. We caught up with Brian to hear about the project and learn more about him.
WHAT DREW YOU THIS PROJECT?
I was invited to be the musical director by Bleach Festival and they had already been in discussion about this and done a bunch of work with the communities about which stories can be told to the wider public. So there was already that kind of conceptual framework around the project, but then, to do a musical project, you have to actually have some music, so this is where I come in. I started hanging out with the local musicians. First we started jamming out on rock songs, and country, and blues, which is pretty common language all over the world. Then gradually they started to show me some Aboriginal songs, and these songs would be very old songs, pre-Colonial and sung in their language, so that was really interesting. Suddenly there’s this completely different aspect to the music. Also they write songs about their experiences from a very contemporary viewpoint. Combining these elements together, with some guest musicians I had brought in from pretty much all over Australia, mainly improvising musicians, people from jazz and classical music backgrounds. So, suddenly it became a very in depth project and fascinating
HOW DID THE CHURAKI STORY INSPIRE YOU?
Well, like, probably almost all Australians, and now I am Australian because I’m an Australian citizen, I had no idea about Churaki being the first lifesaver. We were all very familiar with surf life saving clubs and that whole movement, but the fact it was started by the Aboriginal guy who did it as a cultural obligation, that’s really interesting and I didn’t know about it. So it’s inspiring. At the same time its also kind of commentary on the way history is presented in this country. Ironically in his lifetime, Churaki had recognition, he was in newspapers and they gave him a plaque and certificate for his life saving efforts. That kind of recognition in those days would have been really rare. So it’s a strange example of someone getting more recognition, or an Aboriginal person getting recognition in their time, and then kind of getting buried in history.
WHY DID YOU BRING TOGETHER THIS PARTICULAR GROUP OF MUSICIANS?
Well I’ve been listening to a lot of Aboriginal music, and I find certain threads which are pretty common there, but I wanted to emphasise the looseness of the traditional music, and to do that incorporating improvisation was a strategy. Another thing is we’re emphasizing mainly acoustic instruments such as the ukulele which also represents surf culture, violin, I was playing a Japanese bamboo flute, which has a very natural sound, and they responded to it like it was the sounds of nature that are around the Gold Coast. We used a lot of hand percussion instead of drum sets and then it became very communal that way. So we were using these strategies to try and emphasise the communal nature of the project, rather than a series of people taking the lead. There is a little bit of that, a few songs, but musically is all very communal and it’s just basically loops.
WHAT WAS IN LIKE TO BE THE DIRECTOR AND TO PERFORM IN THE SHOW?
My philosophy behind this project was just to get inside the music. Sometimes the musical director comes in with the music and teaches it to everybody and I just didn’t think that was the honest approach to this project, because I was more interested in putting a spotlight on the creativity of the other musicians. The easiest way to do that is to be in there playing with them, and I can subtly influence the music that way. That way we’re all equals, and it’s a much more fluid approach.
HOW DID YOU FIND THE PROCESS OF PAIRING TRADITIONAL ABORIGINAL SONGS WITH CONTEMPORARY MUSIC?
Well one thing that we didn’t want to do was to create something to sound too commercial, or trivialise the traditional melodies so we basically worked on the melodies and then gradually built arrangements around that. Adding only the elements that reinforced the original feeling of the music. So we didn’t change the music at all, we just added to it. Maybe traditionally they would have been just banging on boomerangs and singing, the boomerangs got extended to a lot more percussion than that, and other instruments either harmonizing or reinforcing the vocal melodies, but if you took somebody from 200 or 300 years ago from this area, and played the songs we created, they’d still recognize them. They might be a little surprised by the additions, but they wouldn’t probably think it was inappropriate.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY ABOUT DIRECTING THESE KINDS OF SHOWS AND FESTIVALS?
The creative process is a real joy, so usually when you’re just starting out on a project, I mean that’s where the adrenaline really comes in, and of course in performing. So to develop this project intimately with the musicians and the community as well, because we have a lot of community consultation, that is very interesting. Of course, I also curate a music festival called the FOMA, which is very large scale and complicated, so this is a little more focused on one particular project than I have been, and I loved that opportunity.
HOW IS DIRECTING DIFFERENT TO PERFORMING?
Well, I see everything as being related. Generally, there’s this creative urge that we all have as artists. It comes out in many different ways. Sometimes it’s not even performing, it’s just organizing, but you use the same problem-solving skills and the same intellectual analysis, all that stuff, to try and resolve any kind of issues. I tend to see the similarities between different processes than the differences
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT COLLABORATING WITH OTHER MUSICIANS?
Especially when you’re improvising together, this instantaneous thrill that goes on when you start the same notes or find the same groove together, and it’s not as easy as it sounds, but it becomes very easy if you’re on the same wavelength.
WHAT ARE YOUR OPINION ON THE AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE?
Australia’s music is really coming alive now. Obviously, I’m involved with a lot of different aspects of it as a festival curator, so I see a lot of rock music, hip-hop music, classical music, and jazz music and Australia’s hitting heavy in a lot of these different areas. Also, specializing in multi-media presentations, like Spirit of Churaki, there’s quite a bit of activity in that area in Australia, more probably than in America, per capita anyway. It’s a very creative place Australia.
WHAT’S COMING UP FOR THE VIOLENT FEMMES?
We’re going on tour in two weeks. We’ll be touring in the States for a couple of months. We recently completed some shows in Australia with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and that was recorded, so that will be broadcast soon on the ABC and then we’ll put it out as a CD and come back and do more symphony shows. We’ll be recording a new album in November, so we’ve got quite a bit of activity coming up as well.
REUNITING AS A BAND AFTER SO LONG A PART, WAS EVERYTHING THE SAME OR HAD EVERYTHING CHANGED?
The music has always been very natural with the femmes, so even when we stopped playing together for about 7 years and then we got back into it, it was exactly the same. I think something people liked about the Femmes was that it’s always the same, but not the same in a bad way, but the same in a consistent way.
ANYTHING COMING UP FOR THE BREAK?
Well we’re playing in Spirit of Churaki tomorrow as The Break, and it’s a free show, so all you have to do is rock up. So if you like The Break or the Femmes or you like the sound of a collaboration between Aboriginal musicians and outside musicians, it’s a no-brainer.
HOW DID YOU END UP LIVING IN TASMANIA?
Well, that one’s a long process. I started going there in 1989 and I really liked it. My wife, who’s a scientist, was sent to Tasmania in 1996 to collect specimens out in the natural part of Tasmania, and we fell in love with the nature there and we just had to move there. It took us about 10 years to move there. We had to extricate ourselves from various business and family situations in the States, and free ourselves up to get to Australia. We did get around to it, so it’s one of those rare occasions when you’re on a holiday or you’re working and you say, “oh I want to live here” and then you actually do it,
NAME 1 THING YOU LOVE ABOUT IT?
The people are very warm and friendly and they have time for each other. We moved from New York City, where everybody is so busy, and you have the intention of getting together but usually, it wouldn’t happen. I like Tasmania because people have time for each other
WHO INSPIRES YOU MUSICALLY?
Oh, God, that’s difficult because there are so many people. Even just in Australia, there are thousands and thousands of really great musicians, so I can’t really point to anybody particular because I’m constantly discovering new things every day and it’s that process of discovery I like too. I guess a lot of people listen to the same music over and over again, like whatever they listened to when they were teenagers, but I’m not like that. I’m always listening to new stuff.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT WHAT YOU DO?
Well, they say, use or lose it, and I have to use it a lot. Maybe sometimes I use it too much, but my mind and my fingers are kept active by what I do, so it’s great to feel like I can still contribute even after playing music professionally for 4 decades. Its good to still feel like you can be part of the scene.
WHAT’S A TYPICAL DAY FOR YOU?
There is no such thing as a typical day for me, but a good day starts of with cold-water surf in Tasmania, if that happens, then the rest of the day is good. Otherwise, I like to practice my Japanese flute, and I usually end up going to the museum and working. Very frequently I’ll barbeque, but I’ll use wood, I have a wood barbecue.
HOW DO YOU LIKE TO UNWIND?
I like surfing, I like riding my bike, and I like drinking a martini, but if I’m in a healthier mode I drink tea, and just hang out.
WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE EVER BEEN GIVEN?
Someone told me 'Take care of the music, and the music will take care of you'.
WHAT’S ONE THING PEOPLE WOULD BE SURPRISED TO LEARN ABOUT YOU?
I was the first American teenager to study feminism at the high school level. That was most obscure fact I could come up which is actually a fact. I was the only boy in the first feminism course in any high school in the United States.
WHAT’S YOUR GREATEST INDULGENCE?
I like to drink. And smoke cigars.
DEAD OR ALIVE – NAME A MUSICIAN OR MUSICIANS YOU’D LIKE TO COLLABORATE WITH?
I guess the pinnacle of the music world was Johann Sebastian Bach. Not that I would be able to grapple with his ideas, but if I could I would like to get inside his head
ANY PARTING WORDS OF WISDOM?
Words of wisdom? (laughs) I’m too young for that.
The Spirit of Churaki is on at the Home of the Arts in the Gold Coast, on the 26th of May at starting at 6pm and is a FREE concert.
About the Author
You’ll find Lucy either running around with her Border Collie Archer (and always testing the boundaries of no dogs allowed), exploring new bars around Brisbane or baking something that she found on pinterest. She’s a self-confessed craft beer lover, travelled until her bank account stopped her, and hates coffee (yes, really…)