From Big Day Out to Mona Foma: How Violent Femmes’ Brian Ritchie heralded a new model for Australian festivals

From Big Day Out to Mona Foma: How Violent Femmes’ Brian Ritchie heralded a new model for Australian festivals


Mona Foma is not the first festival that Brian Ritchie has helped start in Australia.

As the bassist for The Violent Femmes, the band’s 1992 Sydney concert turned into the first Big Day Out when other bands, including Nirvana, were added to the bill. Having been festival director of Tasmania’s Mona Foma since its inception in 2009, he can see the similarities. “Both of them heralded new models of festivals in Australia,” says Ritchie.

“Big Day Out was the first festival to bring together a whole bunch of alternative bands just as the youth market was shifting to that kind of music, and it spawned countless imitators,” he says.

Mona Foma 2023 Launceston, February 17 to 19 nipaluna / Hobart, February 24 to 26 Bon Iver, Angel Olsen, Soccer Mommy, Kae Tempest, Perturbator, The Chills, Pavement, Bikini Kill, Peaches, Jockstrap, Vieux Farka Toure and more For the full line-up and to get tickets go here

Keep up to date with the latest music news, features, festivals, interviews and reviews here.

“When [Mona Foma] came out with a mixture of pop music and then a lot of art music, classical music, jazz, all different styles of music, and then mixed it with other art forms … including theater, dance, visual art [and] lights. Nobody has really done it in Australia in the same way,” says Ritchie.

The Wisconsin native became fascinated with Tasmania before he became a musician when he read the autobiography of Tasmanian-born Hollywood actor Errol Flynn. When the opportunity presented itself to travel there with his band, he took it. “It was difficult to get to Tasmania and expensive, but I insisted on doing a gig here,” Ritchie recalls. “Then my wife worked for the American Museum of Natural History in New York and they sent her to Tasmania to collect insects … and we fell in love with each other and decided to move.”

When Mona owner David Walsh heard that Ritchie had moved, he arranged a meeting. “It wasn’t a museum then, he intended to open a museum,” says Ritchie. “We started talking about creative ideas and a festival was one of them, and even though I had no experience doing a festival, he seemed to think I could do it, and I think he was right .”

Playing many festivals with The Violent Femmes, Ritchie prepared for the role. “I would always be able to see what could be done better, and then I could do it here [at Mona Foma],” he says. “Taking what I knew as a musician and then in a fantasy sense creating that reality here in Tasmania was a learning process, but I probably wouldn’t have been as innovative if I had experienced to enter it.”

No more FOMO for Mona Foma: Tasmania’s summer festival of art and performance is back

Ritchie says Mona Foma changes every year. “We don’t have a model, we don’t have the same three stages every year, we don’t even live in the same city,” he laughs. “We’re one of the only festivals that started in one city and then moved to another city, and now it’s happening in both Hobart and Launceston.”

“We also did it because of circumstances. When Covid happened, many people just folded up their tent… but we had to adapt to the circumstances and hold an everyday festival, and a festival in smaller venues or smaller capacities. We have always adapted to either the environment or our own desires or different stimuli.”

Mona Foma moved to Launceston in 2017. “We felt that Hobart was overserved in the arts sector and we thought we could maybe make an impact on Launceston, and also bring some of the ideas to another place,” explains Ritchie.

“Launceston actually has an incredible infrastructure in the city in terms of the venues, the walkability [and] its beauty. [There’s] the gorge, which is unique in the world as far as I know, and we were able to use it as a venue for various artworks and events every year. We did discover that we missed Hobart and that we wanted to do it there and Launceston.”

This year the festival boasts an impressive line-up including recently reformed indie rock band Pavement and seminal riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. The Violent Femmes never toured with either band, but Ritchie is excited to see them again. “Both of those bands, believe it or not, are a bit younger than us,” he laughs.

“We’ve played festivals with them, I’ve seen both bands of course, and it’s great that they’re back. It’s an interesting thing that bands can go on indefinitely now, as long as they stay alive and can play. I think that’s a good thing.”

Ritchie is especially looking forward to the Old Tafe Sessions in Launceston. “We’ve taken over a whole building, which used to be the Tafe … and it will be an incredible abundance of art and music.”

Things will also get going in Hobart with The Party. “It’s in the old Mercury building, which was the offices of the Mercury Newspaper when it was still printing on the premises,” explains Ritchie. “It’s a remarkable space, and it’s going to be an insane place for a party.”

The New York composer Nico Muhly also does a residency through the festival. “We’ve been talking to him for a few years, but then it got derailed by Covid, so we can finally offer it,” says Ritchie. “He will be performing not only with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Choir, but also in Launceston with Nicholas Tolputt, who is a local countertenor.”

Chloe Kim will attempt to solo drum for an astonishing 100 hours throughout the festival. “She moved here from Korea and she studies jazz at the Sydney Conservatorium, [and] she’s a fantastic artist,” says Ritchie. “I think it’s just as big an undertaking to play the drums for 10 hours a day for the whole festival in different places.”

Ritchie says most of his work is done. “My curation and stuff has already happened, so I’m basically just waiting for it all to unfold, and most of the other people do the heavy lifting,” he laughs. “I don’t want to stress during the festival, I just want to sit back and be the number one bettor.”

Mona Foma runs from February 17-19 in Launceston and from February 24-26 in Hobart. For the full lineup and to get tickets, go here.

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