Thursday, December 4, 2014

Marc Ribot interview by Efren del Valle

Marc Ribot is one of the most in-demand guitarists of the New York downtown scene. His impressive list of collaborations includes the likes of Tom Waits, John Zorn, Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke, Brother Jack McDuff, Marianne Faithfull, Medeski Martin & Wood, Caetano Veloso and Hal Willner, among many others. With a mixture of blues and jazz cadences, a punk edge, 60’s surf guitar sound and the heritage of guitarists like Fred Frith and Robert Quine, Ribot has become one of the most versatile musicians of our time. Last December 24th, 2002 I found him in a talkative mood.

You have a tendency to short-life projects like the Rootless Cosmopolitans and Shrek. One of your recent projects is a trio with Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston. What can you tell us about it?

MR: What I’ve really been doing is a project called Mystery Trios and it’s even shorter than the previous ones, because so far it’s been different people every time. I’m in a period of experimenting with different trios, different bass players and drummers. I will do a trio gig with Calvin and Jamaaladeen. I’ve done one with Sim Cain and Melvin Gibbs from the Rollins Band. I’ve done a lot of different variations on the trio. I didn’t have any idea except buy a Les Paul guitar and see what I wanted to do, that’s my idea.

Is it all improvised music?

MR: Some I’ve been writing for. I’ve been using kind of a traditional metal guitar sound, a traditional hard-rock and metal guitar sound. That’s what the trio thing is about.

A power trio?

MR: Yeah, a power trio, exactly.

And then the Crackers is another band you’re working with.

MR: Yes, there’s some overlapping material. That’s with Calvin and I’ve used some different players. Sometimes it’s J.D Foster on bass, most recently, and Marc Anthony Thompson. Sometimes I have two drummers. Dougie Bowne plays second guitar and sometimes drums and Marc Anthony Thompson –a singer/songwriter I know- plays bass and sometimes harmonica and sings.

I read somewhere that Douglas Bowne was no longer playing drums.

MR: Well, he does with me! (laughs)

You have mentioned many musical influences but I’d like to know which guitarists have been specially important to you.

MR: We’re doing a benefit next month for Hubert Sumlin.

I don’t know him.

MR: He’s the former guitarist with Howlin’ Wolf. On most of his classic recordings you can hear Hubert Sumlin playing. He was recently ill, so we’re doing a benefit for him. That’s what happens when you’re ill in America, people do benefits for you. (laughs)

Well, that sounds like a good initiative.

MR: Perhaps for the lack of Health Insurance but we do our best, you know? But anyway, Hubert’s an influence. Most of my influence doesn’t come from guitarists per se. Hubert Sumlin, Django Reindhart, Wes Montgomery and more important than him, Grant Green, Chuck Berry and Keith Richards.


MR: I was a teenager then. I still think Keith Richards is great.

I was watching a Beatles Anthology recently and your sound sometimes reminds me of all those guys from the 60’s, that surf, bluesy guitar sound.

MR: Well, it’s funny because now, when you hear The Beatles, specially since it’s been remastered, they come across much more raw, you hear them more as a rock band, but at the time, in the 60’s, they were heard as this kind of very slick thing as compared to the Rolling Stones, who were more rough-edged in terms of production. And now it’s funny I hear it almost inverted. Keith Richard has these immaculate sort of quotations of various R&B players of the time. The Beatles were a pop group, but when you actually listen to the tracks, they were very rude about the way they went about things.
The standars in pop music have gotten so much more clean and perfectionist. That’s why we love punk-rock. I don’t know what I’m saying. I forgot what I was talking about...

Your guitar influences, The Beatles...

MR: I’m 48, so I heard George Harrison. Influence, people think about it as someone you like but influence is also what you’re revolted by. In fact, often it’s what you’re running away from. I always have a special place for Jimi Hendrix, but immediately what was around me when I was growing up in South Orange, New Jersey, in the mid-60’s, were a million guitarists imitating Eric Clapton and he was very closely influenced by B.B King. Cream was using Marshall amplifiers as opposed to B.B King’s smaller Fenders. That’s one difference. (laugs)

The only one perhaps?

MR: It’s one that I can think of. (laughs) But he made a good choice in choosing B.B King, because he was like a classicist of the blues, a very elegant player. But the people who were imitating Eric Clapton who surrounded me, they struck me as kind of like the musical version of the high-school jocks. So my life as a young artist was, by day I would be beat up by the high-school jocks and by night I would be beat up by the jocks of music, who played these things so perfectly and had all this right equipment. So my aesthetic began to form as a kind of reaction to that. When punk stuff came along I thought "This is pretty cool". In the meantime, I was still trying to be a professional musician and learn all these things, but there was a part of me that always found it very unpleasant. So when I heard punk players I thought "Yeah, this is cool". And when I heard Daniel Johnston... Do you know him?

Yes, I’ve heard some of his stuff.

MR: I thought, "OK". And when I heard Arto Lindsay I thought, "OK, this has some usefulness towards me, this is stuff I can listen to and not be beat up."

And what about Robert Quine?

MR: Yes, I should say definitely Robert Quine. Maybe I should say Robert Quine most of all, because... well, you can’t say inventor, because what he was doing... It’s not like rock and roll was invented by jocks. It’s not like rock was invented by people who were trying to show their great muscularity and how perfect and strong they could be. I’ll tell you a story of Robert Quine. Robert’s a friend of mine and what most people know about Robert Quine is that he, in terms of punk-rock guitar soloing, he could definitely be called the inventor. Rhythm-guitar stuff has to go to the Ramones, but if you’ve listened to his solo on "Waves of Fear" with Lou Reed and then you look at the date on that, then you’ll understand how early he was and how much influence he had later on. And if you look at his work with Richard Hell & the Voidoids, not very many people have listened to them, but it’s a historical fact that after they toured England, I think in 1976 or maybe even before, Malcom McLaren put together the Sex Pistols immediately after hearing them and seeing them. Quine was major in inventing this style of playing music.

Most people who know Quine know that, but what many people don’t know is that he is an insane record collector and that Quine was the kind of guy who was going and buying records in working-class black neighbourhoods in the late 50’s and the early 60’s, buying vintage records. And Quine hit me to a lot of things and I have somewhere a cassette in which Quine recorded for me some guitar solos of Ike Turner. Ike Turner does a guitar solo on the song "Matchbox" and I think it’s from 1954 or 1955. It was from the year that the Stratocaster with its tremolo bar was invented. So it’s like one of the first Stratocaster tremolo bar instruments available and Ike Turner takes this completely insane solo on it, which is basically as punk as anything Robert ever played. He put this solo on there and then stopped the tape and recorded the solo three times in case I missed it! This kind of insane soloing is as old as rock and roll. It’s not like rock and roll was invented by the people who play it right. Rock and roll was invented by lunatics. It belongs at the end of the day to lunatics. It doesn’t belong to people to prove their muscularity.

Sometimes it’s almost like "See what I can do" and that’s all. I’m sure Joe Pass is a great guitarist, but certainly not the kind I like.

MR: It’s a different dynamic. Jazz is a music of great achievements but speed and chops serve a different function in jazz. The fast tempos in jazz, for bad jazz players it serves a function of muscularity. But for good jazz players, uptempos aren’t about saying "See how much I can do", "We’re playing so fast". What they’re about is saying "See how I can keep my cool even though it’s so fast"; "See how I can keep this light touch"; "See how I can remain unconcerned"; "See how I cannot let fear take over"; "See how I cannot let fear of the changes that are coming out make me slip, make me miss a bit". See what I mean? That’s the reason for high tempos (laughs). It’s not to prove how fast you are but how cool you can be when it’s fast.

You mean it’s about adapting yourself to the different musical situations turning up?

MR: To adapt to the rough situations without losing your cool. I’m talking all this but right now I’m involved in John Zorn’s Masada, which is basically a jam band. Electric Masada is basically a kind of a supersession jam band as far as I can see, which has all the kind of supermuscular chop-soloing that I grew up questioning!

You recently did Masada Guitars with Tim Sparks and Bill Frisell.

MR: That’s right. Is that out yet?

No, I think it’s out in late January on Tzadik. Is that the three of you playing in different combinations or just solo pieces?

MR: It’s solo playing. I went into a studio alone and recorded this set of pieces. The other main influence on me was my teacher Frantz Casseus. I learnt on classical guitar and Frantz was a classical guitarist from Haiti. I’m not a really good classical guitarist by any means, but what I learned from this is a way of working very slowly on solo pieces and I enjoyed working on these pieces of John’s. They were not written for solo guitar but a lot of them were easy to adapt.
How important was Zorn’s The Book of Heads to you? It seems to be a regular part of your repertoire.
MR: The Book of Heads is very important for me. I learned a lot from it. I listened to Eugene Chadbourne, Fred Frith, Derek Bailey and the other improv guitarists but this book helped me to learn some of what they were doing. It forced me to work with these ideas. I still perform those pieces.

It still seems shocking that Zorn could have such a command on the guitar extended techniques...

MR: Well, let me just say this. The reason he gets ideas for the guitar and contemporary ideas for the guitar is because he’s a good composer. And all those composers who call themselves "composers" and know in great detail the possibilities of a violin and a cello and don’t know anything, ANYTHING! about extended techniques or even normal techniques and fingering for the guitar, which is one of the main instruments of the 20th century, they’re a bunch of idiots. To be a composer now and not know what a wah-wah pedal or a fuzz-box does, let alone the radical possibilities of the guitar... Zorn knows these things because he’s a real composer. Anthony Coleman knows these things because he’s a real composer. Several other contemporary composers have at least had some interest in guitar. It’s not surprising that a composer learns in detail an instrument. That’s not surprising. That should be the first thing a composer does.

But according to what you’re saying, I assume that’s not the normal process for them...

MR: Yes, and then they moan about how classical music is dying. Let it die!

One of your contributions to the Tzadik label was your album "Yo! I Killed Your God". I’ve had long discussions about the Radical Jewish Culture series on the label. My question is, radical in which sense? I don’t see a real radicalism in most of those records.

MR: I can make a long discussion into a short discussion. If you wanna know what it’s about ask John.
In 1991 I believed that it was a good idea for Jewish musicians who were touring in Europe. I claimed identity as Jewish musicians for political reasons, because most of us were touring in Germany and, at this time, twelve years ago, there was a strong resurgence of Nazism in the places we were touring and part of that was on the music scene. There was part of the punk movement that later became Oi! Bands and things like that. At that time, although it’s difficult to remember, Zorn was still touring with Naked City, Elliot Sharp and other bands used to play some of the same clubs. So I thought it was a good time, a good political move. At that time nobody knew who Jewish musicians were but it seemed like a good idea to make some form of identity to, not exactly protest, but not be quiet of neofascist movements in Germany. So I supported the festival at that time.
Beyond that, I think the concept of Radical New Jewish Music is extremely fuzzy. I think it has its own dangerous tendencies. I put out the record on Tzadik. That will be my last record for the Tzadik label.


MR: I will work with John on other labels. I believe that the concept was useful in 1992 and has now long, long outlived its usefulness. What I put out on the Tzadik label was my music from that time. I think there was some argument during that time. There was some energy during that time for this kind of music. First of all, there was never any agreement among the participants about what "radical" meant. I didn’t wanna call it Radical New Jewish Music. To me these terms can’t be defined or can only be defined in a terrible way. For example, Jewish radicalism is considered an extreme right-wing movement now. I want nothing to do with that, nothing, zero, except possibly, not possibly, definitely to be noted in opposition to it. I wanted to call it "The Loud and Pushy Music Festival".

Well, during those discussions some people made me realize that the adjective "radical" has some different connotations in English.

MR: In the 60’s, "radical" in its normal usage meant "left-wing radical" but in case somebody doesn’t know, it’s not the 60’s. Specially in Jewish issues, "radical" means in common usage "right-wing radical". Now, esthetically what may have been radical for the first festivals was not that the music is radical, nor that it was politically radical in any way, but what was radical to me was framing these musicians whose music was completely secular whithin a Jewish context. To me that was a radical idea of Jewish culture.
They were Jews performing what they normally did. It was a radical expansion of Jewish culture. It did not become that and I want zero to do with it, I want zero to do with the three thousand bands mixing rock or jazz and klezmer scales. It’s fake, it’s people who didn’t grow with klezmer. Klezmer has nothing to do with their life. It’s a form of nostalgia. If there was any value in downtown music is that it hated nostalgia. I hate nostalgia, I want nothing to do with it. I will very likely tour with Zorn’s Electric Masada. It’s a bunch of good players and we get to jam, but the concept I have no concern with.

Going back to your recent projects, are you still working with The Prosthetic Cubans?

MR: Yeah, from time to time. It’s funny because since I’m not gonna do any more records with the Cubanos Postizos, we’re not really working on material, but we’re still gigging from time to time. We’re playing colleges, weddings and strange places, you know? And it’s funny because the after-life of the band is much better than it ever was! (laughs). We’re not learning lots of new material. So yes, we still exist, we still play, but we’ve kind of become our own Buenavista Social Club. You know, people playing songs they’ve known forever.

But much younger!

MR: Well, not that much younger! (laughs) A little younger, yes. Finally it sounds like it’s supposed to sound because of this. That music is happier the thousandth time you’ve played it. That’s the Cubanos Postizos.

Not so long ago your recorded "Inasmuch As Life is Borrowed". How was the experience of writing for a dance company like Ultima Vez?

MR: I learnt a lot. The relation of composers with coreographers is always difficult and what I’ve learnt is next time do the music first! (laughs). But I think he’s a great coreographer and in the end it came out well. I made a mistake because I recorded the music first. What you heard was towards the end of the process. But it’s much better after we worked with them live. To tell you the truth, you know what I’ve really been working on the last couple of years? I did that, I did a film score I put a lot of work into; I haven’t released it as record yet. I’m rethinking things. I haven’t put out that much.

My favorite album of yours is also a collection of music for films, "Shoe String Symphonettes" (Tzadik).

MR: Yes, I’m happy with that one too! I like writing for film but it depends very much on the director. Some of the best stuff on that was a project where the director was dead. (laughs). There are two types of directors: The ones who are dead and the ones you’d like to kill. (laughs). Good is the director who lets you do what you have to do. I composed for a 1924 film by the director Protazanov, Aelita Queen of Mars. It was just me writing for the film, it was a silent film that I rescored and performed live at the London Meltdown Festival.
I have a lot of stuff I have not released, recent stuff for film. I did a film by Joe Brewster that it’s not out yet. It’s called The Killing Zone.

It would be great if you put that out.

MR: Yes, I should put out that stuff. You know, you just do films and then I don’t think about them. With that record that you like was "It’s time to clean my closet" (laughs). So I went back to the old tapes and found this stuff. It’s time to clean my closet again.

Sounds like a good idea.

MR: Oh! This is not relevant to what we’re talking about now but I should mention another thing that I’ve been doing in the last couple of years. I’ve been editing a printbook of sheet music of the complete works for guitar of Frantz Casseus. This will be available on Tuscany Publications based in Florida. They’re issuing a book that’s coming out soon that I’ve edited of Frantz’ work.

He doesn’t seem to be a recognized composer...

MR: It’s not been available but I’m hoping now that the sheet music becomes available... He’s for Haitian music what Villalobos was for Brazilian music.

Was his intention to create some sort of Haitian folk style?
MR: No, not to create a folk music, not exactly. I think what Frantz’ intention was, similar to Villalobos, was to use the folk element of his native country as a basis for writing music for the classical guitar. It’s through-composed. It has to do more with Villalobos, like I said, than it does with traditional Haitian music.

Among your dozens of collaborations, there’s one I’d like you to confirm: Sheryl Crow!

MR: Sheryl Crow?... Yeah, I played one piece with her that was on a film. We did a Beatles piece. I forgot the name of the film even. It was that film in which Sean Penn plays a mentally retarded man.

All I know the character is called Sam.

MR: I Am Sam or something?

Yes, "I Am Sam"! Pretty easy.

MR: We did a piece together, that was nice.

To see Allen Ginsberg in a musical environment was also a nice surprise.

MR: He’s been in musical collaborations for a long time and in understanding music. One of the records I’m most proud of is The Lion For Real (Antilles). That was a very early thing that I did.

You’ve also worked with many Brazilian musicians.

MR: Cyro Baptista.

Well, and Arto Lindsay...

MR: Oh, yes, that’s right! Actually I did a project with Arto just the other day with some French rap artist and Arto and me making noise. It’s the next big thing, you know? We’re gonna be richer than Puff Daddy, at least it’s what Arto tells me.

Another one is the Peruvian singer Susana Baca.

MR: Susana is great. I tell you, I don’t know how they mike it, but on stage her band is one of the most rocking bands I have ever heard or worked with. Peruvian music rythmically is based around the "cajón", this box.

Just like Flamenco.

MR: Yes. But this is not a modern instrument. Modern instruments were designed to throw sound all in one direction. The cajón is throwing sound in all directions. The way they mike it, when you’re in the audience you hear this little click that the guy makes from hitting it but really on stage he gets every sound "gordito". He gets every sound from the drumkit out of that sound, strong. The way it’s miked usually sounds like a folkloric group but rythmically, that band is the funkiest one I’ve ever worked with. It took me a long time to figure out the way the Peruvians were hearing it.

Marc, where’s John Lurie?

MR: I don’t know! I haven’t heard from him in a while either. If you hear from him say hello! (laughs).

And I’d love to.

©Efrén del Valle, 2003