“Musicians need balance,” offers zen bassman Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes. “Group music needs to be balanced by solo work, electric balanced by acoustic, and so on,” he continues. Ritchie’s other rock outfit, the Break, features members of Midnight Oil and plays “surf and space-oriented instrumentals.” Ritchie finds balance with the Australian Chamber Orchestra playing everything from Bach to Nirvana, and by playing the shakuhachi. It’s a Japanese bamboo flute Ritchie performs and records with regularly, playing “traditional Japanese music and improvisation-based contemporary music.”
Is there a sonic connection between your love of the shakuhachi and the acoustic bass guitar?
In the modern world of electronics and amplification, I decided early on to dedicate lots of time to acoustic music, hence the obsession with acoustic bass guitar. I got into shakuhachi as an outgrowth of Buddhist meditation. Shakuhachi is a form of meditation. The rich string buzz of an acoustic bass guitar has a correlation with the fat, windy sounds of a shakuhachi. The harmonics are much more complex than tehy are on most electric instruments.
Do you approach them similarly?
I play every instrument the same—loud and aggressive [laughs]. Human-powered music making is a fun challenge. I never play electric instruments for fun at home. There’s something strangely satisfying about using your own body and a tool like a bass or shakuhachi to saturate a room with sound.
Can you tie that line of thinking to recording with the Violent Femmes?
We recorded the past two CDs without any rehearsal, live in the studio. [Guitarist/singer] Gordon Gano brought in a bunch of songs, and we reacted. My general approach is to always play the lowest version of any given note, look for possible substitutions, and then fill in spaces with leads and fills. But most of it is functional—using bass as the main structural element in a song’s underlying rhythmic and harmonic architecture.
There’s a wide range on tones and styles on the new record. Which track has the most interesting bass story?
I only used one Ernie Ball bass on this record, so every variation is from doing different things with my hands. I used a very retro-Femmes approach on the single “Memory.” As with many classic Femmes songs, there is no bass drum, so the bass guitar must be very percussive with driving eighth-notes propelling the music. I usually lean forward of the beat to create a sense of urgency. It sometimes creates tension with the drums and Gordon’s vocal delivery.
How’d you get the fuzzy, horn-y tones on “Issues,” “I Could Be Anything,” and “Traveling Solves Everything”?
Blaise Garza’s bass sax reinforces my bass on parts of “Issues.” We recorded “I Could Be Anything” in a tiny Nashville studio with a seven-piece version of the band. The hairy sound on the chromatic runs comes from a ridiculous contrabass sax playing in unison with me. “Traveling Solves Everything” features the rumbling sound of the contrabass sax hitting its lowest note along with a miasma of accordion, banjo, cajon, guitar, and percussion.
Any tips for someone considering going down the ABG route?
Get the biggest acoustic bass guitar you can find. Hit it as hard as you can until you develop maximum technique. After that you can reel in the volume and use dynamics. Play in acoustic settings as often as you can. Do not rely upon an amplifier for your sound. The louder you can play the bass acoustically, the less likelihood of feedback once you are amplified. Don’t let those pesky drummers and guitarists push you around, and have fun.
Violent Femmes, We Can Do Anything [Add It Up, 2016], Happy New Year (EP) [Add It Up, 2015]; the Break, Space Farm [Sony, 2013]
Basses Ernie Ball Earth-wood acoustic bass guitars circa ’72–’80; 2013 Maton JB4 reissue (Violent Femmes live); 1957 Fender Precision Bass (the Break)
Effects Dunlop 105Q Cry- Baby Bass Wah, Crowther Audio Prunes & Custard
Rig “I am not fussy. I use a variety of amps, usually with a 4x10 or 8x10 cabinet.”
Strings Earth-wood, Ernie Ball, or Martin Phosphor Bronze (.045–.105); Maton, Rotosound Swing Bass (.045–.105); P-Bass, various flatwounds
Shakuhachi “I aim for a foghorn sound, so I mainly use Mujitsu/Taimu by Ken Lacosse because they are extra wide and long.”
Picks Dunlop Tortex 0.73mm yellow