Some newspapers will tell you that their articles can’t be all things to all people, but we at the Indy think those newspapers just aren’t trying hard enough. That’s why we came up with the “All Things to All People” interview. The master plan was to gather Brian Ritchie from long-running Wisconsin folk-punkers the Violent Femmes, Ben Kaufman from the jammed-out Boulder bluegrass quintet Yonder Mountain String Band and West Coast gangsta rap playa Too $hort and ask them all the same questions. Unfortunately, Too $hort proved unreachable.
Still, as the maxim goes, “Two out of three ain’t bad.” The remaining interviewees present a tale of two acoustic bass players. One of them, Ritchie, is responsible for calling the Femmes’ song choices onstage. The other, Kaufman, plays a likewise integral part of the stripped-down Yonder sound. Each finds himself a member of one of the biggest cult groups in the country—one a veteran touring act with 10-plus studio albums, the other an emerging presence.
When did you know that you wanted to make music for a living?
Brian Ritchie: We’re talking about Milwaukee, Wisc., in the 1970s. At the time, my tastes were to the point where I didn’t think I’d make a living making that kind of music, because it was pretty out there. So it was an artistic path that turned into a career by osmosis.
Ben Kaufman: I knew it since I started playing piano when I was 3. It was the only thing I felt like I was any good at. I put on a suit and went to work for awhile and went to film school. It always came back to music, though.
Do you have a role model, either musically or otherwise?
Ritchie: Sun Ra is one of my favorite musicians, and he was a great composer, instrumentalist and bandleader, and a very original thinker. I really admire the Chieftains because they’re always exploring new regions of music. John Coltrane, you could just look at him as being a mountain to climb.
Kaufman: I never met [bluegrass legend] John Hartford, but I know his music and I know the spirit that I feel when I listen to his music. As for someone that I know that’s doing it the way I hope that I can do it someday, Tim O’Brien, who’s not only the best singer that I know and one of the best mandolin and fiddle players, but also he plays the music he wants to play, and I think that’s the point.
What makes or breaks a live show for you?
Ritchie: The most important thing is the audience and how they’re responding. Sometimes I’ll know that we didn’t really do a very good show, but the kids still come up to me afterwards and say, ‘Oh man, that was the best concert I ever saw.’ A lot of times musicians in that situation say, [mock doofus voice] ‘Well, we weren’t that good, actually.’ I just say thank you because if they like it, then you’re doing your job.
Kaufman: Whether or not everybody is listening to each other. When we’re listening and really in the groove paying attention, then it’s super-tight, and that really gets me off.
How do you pass some of the more monotonous hours on the road?
Ritchie: I practice. I play the shakuhachi, which is a Japanese bamboo flute, because it’s important to balance out your music—if you’re playing the bass guitar as a percussive instrument, then it’s good to play something that has a lot of long tones like the flute. Otherwise, you’re just having a one-dimensional musical statement going on in your life, and that’s not healthy. And luckily the shakuhachi is portable.
Kaufman: We read a lot and we’ve got a Playstation in the back that’s good for those long hours. We try not to watch too much CNN, but that does pass the time, or Sports Center.
What can you tell me about your new album?
Ritchie: We reissued the first album. We didn’t decide it; the record company decided it and said, ‘We want to put bonus tracks on there,’ and we said, ‘Okay, but we want to put this together ourselves.’ We have a pretty good relationship with Rhino [Records] because they did the reissue, but reissuing something that you already know is good is different from dealing with record companies when you’re trying to make something new. A lot of times they say, [another mock doofus voice] ‘This doesn’t sound like your first album’ or, ‘Kid Rock is really popular. Why don’t you do something like that?’ You know, it’s just like, ‘Because we’re not Kid Rock.’
Kaufman: We’ve got an album out with Benny Galloway, who we’ve known since before there was Yonder Mountain, and he’s one of our songwriting heroes. We could’ve just put out a collection of our songs, but what’s the bigger picture? So when we do this album with Benny, because there’s a single songwriter, the concept of the album becomes a little bit clearer. This record, for me, became the sound of Colorado. When I listen to it, I think of home.
Has there been a highlight to your career thus far that you’re particularly proud of?
Ritchie: Selling out Carnegie Hall is something that’s a peak moment in any musician’s career, and we did that. We headlined the first day of Woodstock ’94 for 300,000 people, so when you’re in front of 300,000 people that’s a high point.
Kaufman: I could list all the musicians I’ve gotten to play with. Most recently, I got to play with John Popper, and I grew up listening to Blues Traveler. I never thought I’d play with John Popper or that he’d like the music we were making. We only got to play two songs with him during one of our sets, but it was really, really fucking cool.
Conversely, how about a low point?
Ritchie: Well, one of the band members was having a temper tantrum and didn’t show up to the gig. That was a low point.
Kaufman: The first time we got to play Red Rocks, we got out there and none of the gear worked. Imagine being on a stage in front of 4,000 people and feeling like nothing works. That was really embarrassing.
I’m curious to know where you come down on people downloading your music online and then burning CDs.
Ritchie: There are three different sides to that question: the fans, the artists and the record companies. Now, record companies brought this situation upon themselves by charging too much for CDs. At the same time, in our case, we’re making maybe 5 or 10 percent as much money as we used to when people had to buy the goddamn things. I understand why the fans are doing it, but a lot of times these kids say something like, [stoner/skater voice] ‘Hey man, “Blister in the Sun” is their only good song. I’m going to download it and put it on a mix tape and that’s all I need to hear from that band.’ Which is crap, because there are millions of fans out there who used to have to buy our records, maybe because they heard ‘Blister in the Sun,’ but then when they heard the whole thing, they realized there’s lots of other good material.
Kaufman: We’ve always encouraged people to record our shows and to trade them. That said, we are an independent band. When we make a studio record, we take on a huge amount of debt to produce it and distribute it, so if people burn copies of our studio CDs, they’re basically stealing money from us. But we never worry about it and it doesn’t seem like it’s affecting us like Metallica or some of these hip-hop artists.
What’s your favorite movie? What do you like about it?
Ritchie: My favorite director is Fellini, and I guess if I had to choose one of his movies I’d choose Roma, just because I used to live in Rome, so when I watch it, it makes me feel good.
Kaufman: Star Wars. I saw that movie more than any other. My dad took me to see that movie 20 times. He read me the storybook every night for a year.
Do you ever get tired of playing a song like “Blister in the Sun?”
Ritchie: Yeah, I don’t like it very much. In a concert, it tends to make everybody there feel good because they all like that song, so I’ll play it. But I like some of our other hits like ‘Kiss Off,’ ‘Add It Up’ or ‘Gone Daddy Gone.’
What do you think differentiates good bluegrass from bad?
Ritchie: It’s got to have a rustic quality to it. A lot of the modern bluegrass sounds very clinical and it doesn’t sound like it was made by somebody who’s ever smelled hay.
Kaufman: To me, bluegrass is about a beat. It’s about these instruments coming together to make a certain groove happen. Good bluegrass is the Del McCoury Band. And bad bluegrass is people playing bluegrass with drums.
Was growing up in the urban core of Oakland as rough as the media often portrays it? [NOTE: This question was geared specifically toward Too $hort]
Ritchie: Uh, we’re from Wisconsin.
Kaufman: It was intense. I had to learn to survive on the streets. But I think that’s where I got my hip-hop roots.
Aside from making a living, is there anything you hope to accomplish through your music?
Ritchie: Anybody who’s an artist believes in the art, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. It’s not a very easy thing to get involved with and you can see that by the number of people who die or go crazy or something like that. I think by playing music, it’s improving the world and improving myself. Otherwise, I would stop doing it.
Kaufman: I’d like to feel like we, as a group, have contributed something that is new to what is generally considered bluegrass, even if it’s in the underground. By the end of the day, I hope that the music we’ve made will stand up on its own for a long time.
The Wilma Theatre should soon draw crowds comparable to ants charging toward a discarded segment of watermelon, what with the Violent Femmes playing the “Boogieman’s Ball” at 8 PM on Sat., Nov. 1, Too $hort rapping up a storm at 7:30 PM on Sun., Nov. 2, and Yonder Mountain String Band forcing you to question everything you thought you knew about bluegrass at 8:30 PM on Mon., Nov. 3. Tickets available at Rockin Rudy’s, Rainbow’s End and the UC Box Office.