Marc Ribot: That's the Way I View It From New York
Guitarist/composer Marc Ribot's played with Elvis Costello, Arto Lindsay, John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Tom Waits, John Lurie, Wilson Pickett, Anthony Coleman, Don Byron and about a million other musicians. As a leader, he's led such groups as Shrek and the Rootless Cosmopolitans and written and performed a wildly varied body of work on his own recordings. His fusion of blues and r&b with improv and punk rock was one of the cornerstones of the Downtown/Knitting Factory sensibility of the 1980s and while some might still think his sound is defined by his brittle, jaunty lead guitar on Tom Waits' "Jockey Full of Bourbon, his playing actually draws upon a wide stylistic and tonal vocabulary. Last year saw the release of Ribot's quartet CD Spiritual Unity, a remarkable and bracing set of pieces by iconic tenor player Albert Ayler. I spoke to Ribot about the Ayler project, his film scoring experience, his solo guitar work, and Chuck Berry. You'll find he has a lot to say.
All About Jazz: Let's talk about Spiritual Unity. This is your group devoted to performing Albert Ayler piecesnot to suggest your approach is about a sort of slavish repertoryand you've recorded an album under the same name. I know you've admired Ayler for a while; you've previously recorded solo guitar versions of Ayler pieces like "Holy Holy Holy and "Saints.
Marc Ribot: Yeah, and we used to cover some Ayler material in my band Shrekwe recorded "Bells.
AAJ: So what attracts you to his work?
MR: Well, you know, more than repertory of the pieces, it's an attempt to get at the process. Ayler's process, I think, is very special and has to do with the ritual uses of music. His own records are not these polished, finished, aesthetic gemsalthough Goin' Home, [the Feb. 24, 1964 session also released as Swing Low, Sweet Spiritual] is certainly, in my view, perhaps the most beautiful record ever recorded [laughing]. This is a grandiose statement. But still, with a lot of it, the recording quality is lousy. What gives it its thing is that it's an artifact of an event. You understand that something happened in that room. It doesn't matter that the recording quality is not great. It doesn't matter that things go off-mike and on-mikethese things, in a way, prove the authenticity of the CD as an artifact, of a ritual event that happened.
AAJ: Sometimes it seems that the crummy sound quality adds to the mystery of what happened.
MR: Yeah. It's like being in the back of the room at some kind of human sacrifice. You don't see exactly what's going on, but you know something is going on.
AAJ: There's that often-used phrase about Ayler dying "under mysterious circumstances, but to me, the mysterious circumstances are the performances. They're really conditions and environments that a player inhabits and participates in as opposed to a set of changes to memorize. That seems to be how you've interacted with them on the Spiritual Unity recording. So how do you approach the music? Is anything allowable? Besides the musical themes, what makes something an Ayler piece? Are there rules?
MR: Yeah! Definitely. Whether or not Ayler is "jazz or not is, in my opinion, up for grabs. He can be productively written into a history of jazz, into a history of wider improvisational music, into a history of punk rock in terms of the intensity of the experienceand also productively written into a history of religious/ritual music. Whether he's jazz or not, I don't know, but he definitely seems to have come out of the free jazz movement. You know, this term fools a lot of people. They seem to think it means, "gosh, now we can do whatever we want. But in fact, every one of the major free jazz players invented a new formal system of improvising. They made formal changes. In other words, because free jazz players by and large threw out bebop-style chord changes as the event that propels the music forwardand in some cases threw out the idea that music needs to be propelled forward...
AAJ: Not the worst idea ever advanced.
MR: But, like all ideas, open to critique. I started getting involved with these ideas while I was guitarist in the Lounge Lizards, and it was a big moment for me when I understood that a solo could be static; it didn't have to be structured in the kind of dramatic arc that a blues solo was. So, yeah, it's an idea that is open to challenge, critique and being played with. Which is what it's all aboutplaying. So Ayler, like Ornette Coleman, did createI don't know if you would call them rulessome techniques and did have some compositional devices that he used to implement them. Among the compositional devices is collective improvising, very interesting and loose forms of counterpoint. For example, if you listen to the tune "Witches and Devils, listen to what Donald Ayler is doing on trumpet on that one. It's a brilliant form of counterpoint. Listen to what Henry Grimes is doing on "Goin' Home a different role for the bassist. So the changing of the traditional roles of instrument, different forms of counterpoint, different kinds of collective improvising. The choices on a bebop record were headyou know, A-A-B-A, blowing, B-A and out.
AAJ: Some breaks, maybe.
MR: Yeah, maybe some breaks, earlier there was some stop-time, maybe trading fours. But you can count the devices more or less on the fingers of a seven-finger hand [laughing]. With Ayler, he expands that quite a bit. There are all the different combinations of collective improvising, which you could call an innovation. Or you could say he was more in touch with New Orleans; he was bringing back some New Orleans things.
MR: Polyphony's a very good word to use in connection. But in addition, there were also solos there. Within the solosinternally within the solosthere were all kinds of different strategies being used. Rather than blowing on the changes, some of the soloing is a really dense playing with the motif, which is closer, I think, to what you do in twelve-tone music than anything that preceded it in bebop. You take the motif, you play it backwards, you play it inverted, you chop it into pieces and repeat the pieces, you octave-displace it. I don't know whether, in a linear way, Ayler was accessing [twelve-tone composer Arnold] Schoenberg or whether he simply invented the same things independently. But that's one of the things I hear going on. I also hear a use of noise elements. But the Ayler's main technique, I think, is this: Ayler walked into a world and was bebop-trained. That meant that these people were trained to process information very fast. If you could play "Ornithology or any of these changes at 180 on the metronome, you were processing information at the limit of human possibility. And contrary to the names that were attached, like "Bird, it wasn't just like the flight of a natural bird. People practiced their asses off!
AAJ: If they didn't they got ridiculed and laughed off the bandstand.
MR: Right. So Ayler was drawing from a pool of jazz players; that's who could understand what he was up to. But his technique was to take these players who had been trained and devoted their lives to processing information at high speeds and instead of presenting them with "Ornithology, present them with extremely simple melodies of one or two or three chords at slow tempos. So you present them with "Bells, or "Truth Is Marching In with these extremely slow, simple melodies. And they would lose it! They would completely lose it.
There was a technique involved here; this was a calculated and creative decisionalso, I should add, probably therapeutic. For them to understand that there was music that was other than this pushing. It destabilized the musicians' expectations of what playing music was, and because it destabilized their rote responses, it gave them access to other creative regions. It broke their conditioned responses. In a 23-minute version of "Bells, where for the first seven minutes, you're playing basically some kind of earth funeral march, I think it created a different mental state. And this is what brings it into the world of ritual music, and the world of religious music. That creation of a different mental state, of a different kind of bond among the musicians and with the audience, is something that's missing from the world of commodified music. You can't commodify that experience.
AAJ: Modern commodified music is all about a complete separation between performer and audience.
MR: Right. So you can't commodify that snapping that occurs in somebody's brain when they've been doing nothing but playing the same repetitive melody, slowly building in that way, when they're trained to jump in on the head and do the opposite. That breakdown can't be commodified. That was an artistic decision and a technique.
AAJ: The group Spiritual Unitywho are on the record and whom you're still playing withis yourself, Chad Taylor on drums, Henry Grimes on bass and Roy Campbell on trumpet. Did you pick and choose the players for this band?
MR: I definitely put it together. I had played with Chad up at Symphony Space one day and thought he was greatI had a wonderful experience. I can't say enough things about Chad as a player. He was one of the only people who walked up to me and said, "you started on classical guitar, didn't you? Because it's not really that obvious from what I do, but Chad got that because he did, too. He's got a lot of interesting stuff and he's a really sensitive player. So I met him from that jam. I'd known Roy for a number of years in a number of settings. I'd heard him at some benefit playing with William Parker, and they did "Bells, and I loved what he was doing on thatI felt he had a good feel for the music. And then there's Henry. Henry played bass on my favorite, Goin' Home, which was originally Swing Low, Sweet Spiritual. It's a treat for me to work with the musician who played bass on my favorite recording of all timehow many people are able to say that they're able to do that?
So I've been very lucky. I was writing an email to Dave Douglas because he heard the band the other nighthere it is, I'm quoting from what I sent Dave: "we did a Django Reinhardt gig a few times. Between me and Henry, no one mistook us for Django imitators. But Henry has unbelievable ears and what he plays will always relate to what's going on in some completely unpredictable and beautiful way. It's tempting to write off the density of his playing as just him going off the deep end, but when you listen to it, you hear the melody of the tune you're playing sped up, counter-pointed, harmonized, attacked, distorted, played backwards. He's really a Cecil Taylor of the bass. And he has his own version of playing grooves related to some strain of sixties funky jazz that we think we remember, but we don't. When I play with Henry, it's as if I'd only seen synthetic fabrics my whole life, and I'm confronted with a hand-knitted wool sweater with all its oddities and imperfectionsdifferent, yet infinitely warmer. He's the living embodiment of the difference between groove and metronomic time, which we were all taught were the same thing, right? Wrong.
It's not just that Henry was around then. There are many other players that were around then. It's that he disappeared between then and several years ago.
AAJ: And didn't play during that time.
MR: Yeah. I guess it's a cliché to say it, but the way the United States treats its artists in general, and its jazz artists in particular, is criminal. But what was a personal tragedynot just Henry's, but everybody's lossresulted in something interesting. When you hear Henry play, because he wasn't around during the intervening years, it's kind of like if you could punch a hole in the wall and hear someone practicing in 1967. The things we think we know about those timesa lot of them, through hearing Henry, have been called into question. Henry gigged with a lot of peoplehe was the known walking-bassist who played with a lot of regular jazz and swing people. Didn't he play with Sonny Rollins? You can check. [Yes, on a variety of dates between 1958 and 1963.] But he was a major player on the scene before Albert Ayler. And then, I think he went into a certain thing, and once he went there, he couldn't go back. He didn't want to go back. Henry's a great musician. I'm hoping to do some duo playing with Henry.
AAJ: Let's talk about some of the pieces on Spiritual Unity. I suspect that they can probably change so much from performance to performance that you might not even recall what happened on the recording.
MR: You're quite correct about that. I mean, what we were going for was Ayler's process. The pieces are interesting in themselves, but they were meant to trigger a certain kind of improvising. That's what we're looking for. There's the piece and the things that were done with the pieces. One of the techniques that seems to be used is playing the head and then jumping off the deep end. That's one of the processes. Another is repetition. But having said that, the pieces are interesting. For example, if you look at [Ayler's original recording of] "Bells, there's a long melody, a melody that in playing, in the playing of the two A sections, is already longer than the usual recording of the time. It takes them something like six or seven minutes to get through the head.
It's a very slow, beautiful piece. There's different collecting sections, and small improvising things at the end of each A section. Then the piece modulates to a different key. There's a B section and then the B section returns as a jump chorus in between improvisations. Then a third, entirely different melody is introduced. So this is already a much more complicated form than your average bebop head. The other thing you could note right away, the first thing you hear when you hear "Bells, or a lot of these, is that they're based on triads. So the form had to be more complex because he wasn't relying on the trick of making it develop much harmonicallyso it developed formally instead. Mainstream jazz developed harmonically from more or less simple chords to very complicated four-part, five-part, six-part chords.
MR: Well, there were changes with Louis Armstrong and early jazz too. But at most you got a seventh chord. As jazz developed harmonically, you got raised flat ninths, raised eleventhsgenerally it moved towards harmonic complexity. So did Brazilian music, but there's always been music that developed in a different way. For example, Cuban music and Albert Ayler music developed along a line where you get much more complicated forms. Cuban son, let's sayCuban jazz uses jazz chordskept the same basic harmonic repertoire as rock and roll, three-note chords, maybe sometimes a seventh. But its forms developed further. I think there's an inverse relationship and of course some composers use both, but generally music either developed along formal lines or in terms of harmonic complexity.
AAJ: In terms of your actual recording of "Bells, which was done live at Tonic the night before you did the session that produced the other pieces on the albumI'm curious about whether there was any discussion beforehand, whether there's any cueing going on. There's a moment during Roy's trumpet solo where there's a collective quieting down on everyone else's part until he's almost a cappella. This made me wonder just what, if anything is predetermined and whether things are being cued.
MR: I've played in bands where there's a lot of conducting but this isn't one of them. There's a very minimal amount. There are parts in the composition in which we all wait for another part. When we all wind up in a certain place, we all know we're going to hit the next part and so we all look around, listen around before somebody dives in. Very little cueing but there was discussionwe talk about using the full range of the thing, from collective improvising to a cappella. We've talked about trying to get out of the clichés. Any instrument can be the soloist, any instrument can be the rhythm sectionso why not bass soloing over guitarjust trying to get out of the enslavement of the rhythm section. So while that's a general goal, there's very little overt cueing going on. Sometimes, during a soloist, let's say Henry's solo, Roy and I will enter as a group, collectively soloing behind him, and then exit. For that, we'll cue each other; someone will conduct us in and out.
AAJ: For the actual studio recording session that produced most of these piecesthis music is so based upon interplay. It's impossible for me to imagine this music being performed where you couldn't all see each other.
MR: We were all in the same room. It was at Bill Laswell's studio in West Orange [New Jersey]. We definitely had to be in the same room, yep.
AAJ: I think the song "Saints on this record is particularly great. There's a sense of slow, gathering tension and a feeling of potential energy. Of all the pieces on this record, this one acts the least like a clichéd songit doesn't build to any traditional climaxes at all, but it still has a wholeness to it. It's self-contained. Mind you, that's a subjective interpretation.
MR: No, I hear exactly what you're saying. It's a lovely piece and that's nice. There's a tendency in this type of playing to want to build to the screaming, improvised climax on every one and that's a tendency that should be resisted. The object should be to stay in the language of the piecenot that we always realize that goal. Stuff goes where it tends to go, but that's the ideal.
AAJ: The other observation that I could make would be that a song like "Spirits, which is very celebratory to me, is a bit more solo-based than, say, "Invocation, which is about group polyphony.
MR: Yeah. We did sometimes fall into that. And Ayler is not completely devoid of people taking solos. It's like your memory of it is just people always blowing at the same time, but if you actually listen to it, that's not the case. Having said that, we probably fall into the solo format of standard jazz a little more than Ayler did, which is something we're working on.
AAJ: Well, I'm not anti-solo. Are you?
MR: I'm not anti-solo. I'm anti-cliché. I'm pro-solo when that's the right thing to do, but there are default settings for jazz playersit's the thing you do in your sleep that you hadn't thought about. You play the head, then people take turns playing solos, then the drummer solos last, you break it up, play fours with the drummer, and then you play the head again. I think sometimes that default setting works, and sometimes it doesn't. You do a whole night of that, your solos better be really something that's never been done before. The players might be really into it, but me as an audience memberI'm not into it. To see people on the default settings. There are people who are brilliant soloists. Now, whether historically that's what we need right now is another question. And whether it's better than the brilliant soloists I can go out and buy CDs bythat's a whole other question. Anything's possible [laughing].
I'll say this about the record. I'm proud of the record and I stand by it. But the story of that record is that we had a tour in Europe last year and we wanted to record in time so the record would be out, so we could sell it on the tour. In one sense, that's kind of a standard strategy; it's what we were supposed to do and we did it. In another sense, by the third night of the tour, we had so far surpassed where we were at the time of the record that, well, let's put it this way: I hope that we can do another one [laughing].
MR: Absolutely. The band has gotten, I think, so good. For a while, we tried rehearsing, but now our latest thing is to just show up and hit. The Knitting Factory gig [that the group had just played] was okay, but this stuff doesn't really lend itself to a 45-minute format. It's like Lacanian therapy; you might go for 45 minutes, you might end up playing for 45 minutes, but you have to know that the runway is clear. You might be able to take off at a hundred yards, but you want the runway to be longer than that, because you never know.
AAJ: So you like knowing you can take a longer set.
MR: A 200-yard runway.
AAJ: You don't necessarily need to use it.
MR: You don't have to use it. You have to know you've got the space to do what you have to do. On the other hand, we did a gig at the StoneI have a recording of it and we've done other gigs, like one I have a recording of at Salzburgwe had people in Salzburg testifying. It was unbelievable.
AAJ: It sounds like you like playing in this band a lot.
MR: Yeah. It's really fun.
AAJ: How many tunes do you have? How many can this band play?
MR: At one time or another, we've probably gone over twenty tunes. Maybe a little more. We draw from an active repertoire of twelve, fifteen. Anybody can start any of them at any time. At the Knitting Factory, Roy was jumping into completely different tunes [laughing] in the middle of tunes that we were doing.
AAJ: I know you're somewhat over the record, since you've sort of surpassed it since its recording.
MR: No, I stand by it; I'm really glad we did it.
AAJ: You're the producer on that session; Francois Lardeau and Bill Mulvey at Tonic were the engineers. You were responsible for the record's sound; it's vital and has that low-end rumble, especially Henry's bass. I like it because it's not all that dryit doesn't sound like a nineties Van Halen record, but it's not strictly dry. I hear some studio wetness that I like. What sort of sound were you going for?
MR: First of all, I was going for an analog sound wherever possible. I forget whether the board was Neve or what. But for me, sound is another element of composition and in a way, the most important one. In listening to the Ayler stuff, one of the things I get out of it is the sound. So I wanted the sound to have the aspect of Ayler where it feels like a live recording, whether it is or not. So there's no overdubbing. We didn't go for absolute separation, which made it hard in the few places we wanted to do edits. You can do edits, but if someone played a clam, it's in there. [Laughing] Usually me.
So we set up a lot of ambient mikes, and that's probably what you're hearing more than studio reverbthose ambient mikes. In all Albert Ayler pieces, there's a lot of dense sound, and it's dense sound often playing on triadson things that produce harmonics. You want to get those harmonics in the room. With complete separation, they would take place in the room of the person listening. But it's a different thing when you record those things in the room where it's occurring. It's a special thing. So we used a lot of ambient mikes and went for that. You're correct in noting that I'm usually a fan of pretty dry production. I didn't try to make it particularly lush, but the feel of being in a roomthat's what I was looking for. Sonically, in terms of equipment, I went for tube technology, Neve-type stuff, because I like it and because it's a link to the sixties. It's a reference to the sound of the original recordings. We did record digitally, I thinkbut there really is no more tape. To me, this is an incredible situation. I question, if this can happen, how much we care about our musical culture. Tape should be an option. It's one thing deciding not to pursue that aesthetic, and another not to be able to.
MR: Yes, Steve Albini had the foresight to stockpile it. Having said that, tape even back in the daythe day being a year agowas expensive and a luxury item not to be had on records of this budget. But you can make sure you've got a good transistor/tube board, tube compressorsthe rest of it can be good. You can master to tape.
AAJ: Let's go back to your 2003 Tzadik Scelsi Morning album. This is a collection of chamber pieces composed by you and performed by a variety of players, from three- to six-piece groups. The title pays tribute to composer Giacinto Scelsi. I think all these tunes were composed for dance pieces by either Wim Vanderkeybus or Yoshiko Chuma. Could you give me an overview of your intentions with this stuff?
MR: Well, they were two very different dance pieces. Yoshiko gave me a very basic conceptual theme and said, "write x number of pieces. I like working that way; it was really fun. And that's what came up with her section of this, and then we performed it live. In Wim Vanderkeybus' case, I was composing to an existing dance, so it was a much more difficult process, and I did a terrible jobso much so that that I ditched the original recording and we went on tour and did some dates with them, then rerecorded the live thing after having worked with it. So I was able to salvage that piece and the results were what you hear on the record. It would be a mistake to say that the whole record is Giacinto Scelsi-influenced. In fact, I would say that one piece is.
AAJ: Just the title track?
MR: Yeah. However, the rest of it is very composedeven though there is room for improvisation, it's more through-composed than most of my other stuff. And I was very happy with that record.
AAJ: Let me ask you about that title piece, which is one of my favorites. There's a sort of anxious loveliness to it, long groans from viola and clarinet against the bass until that melody line appears, which is then passed around by the instruments. I love the instrumental textures of that song.
MR: Yeah, we had Jill Jaffe on viola and then she later doubled some of her parts on violin. On the basic track, we had Ned Rothenberg playing clarinet and he later added parts on bass clarinet. In addition, there's a rhythmic tension in that piece because there was a guitar part playing a regular arpeggio in time, and they were playing along with it, and then we removed itmixed it out. So the motor is missing; you hear the things that were being driven, but not the driver. That's a technique that's used on a couple other tracks; there's one track in the Yoshiko pieces where I put people through the horror of having to wear headphones and listen to me clicking and counting.
AAJ: I was going to ask you about "Scelsi Morning, because I didn't hear any guitar on that song.
MR: I edited myself out of most of that record.
AAJ: That's an interesting strategy.
MR: I liked it [laughing]. I've already heard me. Sometimes it's better to lay out.
AAJ: I like your solo guitar piece here, though, "And Then She Fell. That's got that sampled sound.
MR: That was a bunch of loops that I did with looping devices. I superimposed them on each othervery simple thing.
AAJ: It's got some fantastic stereo effectsit's the new psychedelia. "Our Daily Bread is one of the Yoshiko Chuma pieces. It's got that violent sampling and Christine Bard's percussion ping-ponging around.
MR: Oh, yeah, that was the one that had the click happening.
AAJ: Right, a robot tempo takes over towards the end. I've had a hard time imagining what dancers would do on that one.
MR: Well, you should come and see one of Yoshiko's pieces. She's a very conceptual dancer but she always does something fabulous. I think they were moving around giant cubes.
AAJ: Let me ask you about your film scoring work, as documented on the 1997 Show String Symphonettes and 2003 Soundtracks II CDs. These collect music you did for a bunch of films from the eighties through the nineties. There's no time to cover it exhaustively, but I will ask how you approach scoring films.
MR: I've used a lot of different approaches, but now I've learned the proper way of scoring films. Step one: shoot the director [laughing]. No, not really; that's illegal.
AAJ: Well, directors do have the tendency to want to be involved in every stage of their films.
MR: Well, involvement can be a good thing because usually, before you see it once, they've seen it a thousand times. Literally. People working in film do not see film the same way as other peopleeven critics. A critic might know the whole history of film, might have seen Casablanca ten times. But I can tell you, the person responsible for the continuity in the film stock saw it 200 times, and the person who edited it saw it a thousand times. The director saw each scene played back hundreds of timesthe composer also sees it hundreds of times. And people who see it like this are organic intellectuals; after all those viewings, the film deconstructs itself. You don't have to have read structuralists to know what's going on.
AAJ: Your toes know it at that point.
MR: Exactly. So I find film very interesting. The idea of composing to an image, as something that makes an image work in a particular wayit's really interesting. John Lurie, I think, is an excellent film composer, as is his brother Evan Luriehe did the score to Stranger Than Paradise and some other Jim Jarmusch pictures and a lot of other things as well. He's a very original film composer. But he once said something interesting. He said that the truth of film composing is that every piece of music works with every piece of film. Butand this is a big butevery piece of music changes every piece of film. So it's this big responsibility because you're not just putting music to it; you're creating meaning.
AAJ: That's the whole, dare I say it, sound/film dialectic.
MR: Yeah. That's right. You are altering the meaning of what's there when you put music to it. That doesn't make it easier; it makes it harderbecause you're responsible. You're responsible for the meaning. There's also a problem in film, which is an interesting one, and that's that it's usually a long-form thing. And a lot of film is ruined by film composers who don't know about thatabout repeating that thing that you did at the beginning at the end. You have to use the tricks of people who compose in long formlike symphony mode. You have to use those tricks or it doesn't work. I think movies are being ruined because a lot of idiots don't understand what a film composer does. They think, "cool! We can afford to buy some pieces of music, and they get a music director, and it winds up seeming like a ninety-minute segment of MTV.
AAJ: Yes. This is probably the worst influence on motion pictures of the last twenty years. Just buying some contemporary rock and rap tunes and throwing them in.
MR: Well, rock and rap can work terrifically in a film. Like in Jarmusch's Ghost Dog.
AAJ: Yes, that was a fantastic soundtrack.
MR: That was a great soundtrack. It's not a question of the group of sounds you decide to put on the film. That's not it; it's a question of the form. A rock set is suite formin other words, you get songs A, B, C, D, E, F, G. And then you play them in whatever order. But in order to tie something together, you need to have A, B, C, A, C, D, E, Athen B [laughing]. You know what I meanyou need to return to themes, you need to link themes to moods, ideas and characters in the film. So unless somebody's brain is really working, it doesn't happen, and a lot of film is crap because of that. You can even have interesting musicians involved, but if they don't get that thematic stuff, it's not great. It's something I'm working on myself; I wouldn't say I'm a master of it. But I'm at least aware of it as a problem.
So those are things that make it interesting. What makes film a drag is that the idea of interacting with this visual thing is a great idea, but unfortunately you never get to interact directly. Your interaction is always mediated, usually by the producer or the director, and in Hollywood stuffI haven't scored any of these, but I've played on severalby a whole other committee of funders whose okay you have to get. It's unbelievable! Let me tell youif things suck, it's for a reason. There are some really smart, good people out there, but directors are often working under contract and if they deviate by one line or one instruction from the script, they don't get paid. They can be sued. And the script has to be approved by the accountants.
It's not a really great situation, and the same thing goes for the score. I'm not going to name anything, but I've played on scores where we'd cut a piece and music and they'd have to sit and wait for a whole committee of people who weren't even in the studio were consulted to see if it was okay! The whole committee had to sign offthe money people. We're not talking about literary, musical, critical geniuses here. We're talking about morons! So that's the way it goes.
AAJ: Not the most liberating way to have to work.
MR: No! And it's a bit ironic, because the old studio system was dictatorial in many ways, but directors and composers who'd proven themselves within the limit of it were given a certain amount of freedomwithin its obvious limits. But now, dealing with bankers is not necessarily a more liberating experience than dealing with studio moguls. Getting rid of the studio system didn't get rid of capitalism.
There's a problem in the way that films are usually made. A smart director will cut a composer in on the thing early and get them to compose to the ideas and the mood. Then they'll have a bunch of music there waiting when they edit their film and they can edit to that. Almost nobody does it that way. The usual process is that people shoot a movie. They look back at the rushes every day because they want to see if what they're doing is any good. It sounds like shit. Why? Because there's no music on it and every movie they've seen their whole life has music. So, then they start to edit together a little version of the film, rough cuts, and they edit in music. As they refine and refine it, they zero in on a bunch of music and they edit to this. So during this process, they watch it hundreds of times with this music. So the edits get more and more refined, closer to the finished thing, and they're totally in love with it, and they say, "hey, let's get that music. Then they discover that each ten-second drop is going to cost them five grand and that they don't have that kind of budget for fifty or sixty drops.
AAJ: But now those pieces have influenced the entire composition of the film.
MR: Yes. They're in love with it, they've seen it that way more than you've seen anything, and it feels as natural to them as the air. At that point, they call the composer. But nothing you can do is ever going to live up to the familiarity they've gotten with the temp score. So they usually drive the composer completely crazy, saying, "make it be like that. That's why film, nine times out of ten, can be a frustrating experience. It's not because of dealing with people who aren't experts. I respect the judgment of my friends who are not musicians. There's just a conflict almost built into this process between the temp score and what you're writing. And built into this is usually a lack of trust. And there was not a lack of trust between Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock didn't look over his shoulder at every scene as he was working and say, "it's not as good as that piece we had on the temp score. He didn't do that! And as a consequence, he got great scores. But that's not how it usually sorts out nowadays. There are very few directors who have both that relation with the composer and the restraint to not try to control every aspect of the process.
AAJ: The last thing I'll say about your own soundtrack albums is that I like how you mix together the pieces from individual films on the CDs so they're not grouped together; you sort of shuffle the deck. It should make the records more incoherent, but on Shoe String Symphonettes and Soundtracks II, it works.
MR: Sequencing a record is the hardest part. You can take a great record and screw it up by screwing up the sequence. And you can't predict it in advance. I would say it's not even until the stuff is mixed that you can really say, "oh, this is going to sound good after that. It's hard to do it in advance. And you can create a little narrative there, so you can really change the meaning of the record in the sequencing.
AAJ: You did a CD called Saints for Atlantic Records that came out in 2001. This is a set of solo guitar versions of various people's tunes, including your ownAyler, Zorn, John Lurie, the Beatles. I know you still do live solo gigs.
MR: I've been playing solo since I was eleven years old. I like to do it. The solo stuff for me is in the process of changing. I've started to do more of it on acoustic guitar. It started out aswell, you used the word "dialectic before. I used to juxtapose standards with noise pieces, new music pieces. It started off because I recorded The Book of Heads (1995, Avant) with John Zorn. So I started off trying to juxtapose that kind of very sonic, noise-oriented stuff with standards. The intent was to have the aesthetic of each rub off and bleed into the other, not to make it pastiche, but to make it one thing. And sometimes I got there and sometimes I didn't. I think the person who got there was Derek Bailey. And towards the end of his life, he recorded a record on Tzadik Records called Ballads that, to me, is the most seamless combination of free improvisation and standards that I've ever heard. I have to confess I wrote the liner notes to it, but that's why I wrote the liner notes; I was amazed.
AAJ: That cover you do of "Go Down Moses that's on your Saints album is a favorite of mineI've always thought of it as Derek Bailey meets Tommy Johnson. I also really like your take on Ayler's "Holy Holy Holy on this CD. Best of all is "Somewhere, which is a favorite pop tune of mine in generalit's quite the deconstruction. There are lot of changing effects on the guitar there and a lot of stereo panningwas that done live with separate amps or pickups or after the fact during mixing?
MR: That was done live. Mostly live. You know, it's not really that complicated. What it is is that I used this thing on a lot of those pieces where it's miked directly. Electric guitar, but it's also miked directly. And the things are panned differently. So when I put up my volume pedal and you're just hearing the acoustic soundwait, I can't even rememberwas that an electric guitar?
MR: That would make sense. I don't remember if I was using other effects, but the main effect is using amplified and acoustic and changing the ratio between the two.
AAJ: Is a record like Saints indicative of the sorts of solo performances you do now?
MR: That's indicative of the kind of solo performances I have done for the last eight years. I'm in the process of changing, and I'm working with a bunch of pieces that I've written myself that are kind of setups for improvising. I want to publish them as a written exercise book. They're called Exercises in Futility and they teach guitarists how to play with and in spite of futility.
AAJ: The Well-Tempered Guitar?
MR: Yeah. Something like that. The Mean-Tempered Guitar.
AAJ: I know you have a new band, Ceramic Dog. I haven't heard a note. Tell me about it.
MR: It's a rock band. I decided to have a rock band because I did all these projects in which I've kind of rewritten stuff by [Cuban bandleader] Arsenio Rodriguez and other things as punk rock. I thought, why not just have a punk rock band? So I'm trying that. And it's really fun. I have two great musiciansShazad Ismailly on bass and Ches Smith on drums. Ches is a West Coast guy. They both have a different set of influences than me. Ches comes out of playing in post-punk rock bands, but he's also a great musician. He's not a naïf; he knows how to play. Shazad has a lot of experience in that, but also in electronica, ambient sounds. They're bringing things into the mix that frankly, I wouldn't know how to bring into the mix. So it's good.
AAJ: Do you write the tunes?
MR: I've been doing most of the writing, yeah. The group is actually a banda real, collective group. We laughing divvy up the bread. I mean, usually when it's not a collective group, I get less [laughing]. It's an actual band where we rehearse even if we don't have gigs and everybody's into it.
AAJ: Are you going to record?
MR: I sure hope so. The label scene is dismal!
AAJ: It's very bad for rock. I just think it's a bad time to be in a rock band, in terms of recording.
MR: What's up with that? Aren't we supposed to be in the middle of the new utopia?
AAJ: I do think there are also less decent rock bands than there used to be.
MR: There's great bands! There's great things all over. The only thing you can't do is get paid. And this is the new utopiathe internet is "creating a level playing field, and blah blah blah. The only question those "new utopia fuckers never want to answer is who's supposed to pay you to live while you're spending two months making a record? Who pays for your rehearsal studio and your recording studio? I keep hearing about home studios. Yeah, that's cool if you don't need a drummer! And people say "home studio as if that falls from the sky too. Mine cost five grand; I don't know what yours cost. And it has to be constantly updated. Another situation with an incredible amount of hype, and the reality at the end of the day is just a form of violence against those that aren't independently wealthy. [Laughing, and with a high-pitched, prissy voice] That's the way I view it from New York!
AAJ: Tell me about your MusicMobe website.
MR: I'll say that musicians who are touring now in Europe should check it out. It's at http://www.musicmobe.org. The intent was to connect touring musicians with peace, environmental, and social justice organizations that are local to where they are touring. If, for example, you want to create a connection with Greenpeace while you're on tour in Holland, you could hook up with them through this if you type in your tour schedule. It gets posted on the website. It's not available to the whole world, but it's available to those organizations that have signed on. Basically, we took it from dating service software; that was the prototype. Except the dates that are being arranged are between touring musicians and those organizations. And like dating, it's a personal nightmare for the artist to have his personal email number out there on the web for everyone to see, use, clog up.
The meetings and messages here all take place in the website. I would really encourage artists who are touring to sign up and to use it. We're still in the beginning stages and need to get a lot more artists up there, which will enable us to get a lot more organizations up there. There's no obligation hereposting your tour dates doesn't mean you have to accept a single thing. There are things that could be accepted if you feel it's appropriate. You could allow an organization to set up a table at your gig, you could give them merchandizing space, you could play a tune or speak at a demo.
We came up with this when I was on tour in Europe during the Gulf War and as people who tour in Europe might know, there's been almost complete political breakdown between the U.S. and most of the rest of the world. So it's up to civil society to take over the function of if we want there to be a continued relationship here. In other words, if you want to keep going over there and gigging, you're going to have to convince them you're not a fascist! And if you think that's done automatically because you play a loud guitar, you'd better think again.
They read the papers too; they look at who we collectively elected. They see us collectively say that torture is cool and warrantless searches are just groovy. They hear what's said by our political leaders. They see the effects of global warming there. And they're pissed. I've spent three months a year since 1982 touring in Europe. I have a lot of friends and contacts there and it's where I've done a lot of my work. And I'm giving you the message: there is a breakdown and you can't expect the benefit of the doubt just because you're young or play weird music. Or even not-so-weird music.
AAJ: You've played with a lot of remarkable musicians. But I'm not going to ask you about John Zorn or Tom Waits, great though they are. I want you to tell me about your experience in one of Chuck Berry's pickup bands.
MR: [Laughing] Okay, good call. I was in a band called the Realtones, and we were called a number of timesI don't know, five, sixto back up Chuck Berry when he came to town. I was very honored and nervous because Chuck Berry has a reputationyou know, he gets a lot of, I guess, not-great pickup bands. He leaves it to the local promoter to set up a pickup band, and usually, promoters being what promoters are, they try to save themselves a little bread [laughing]. We took it very seriously; the horn players learned the horn lines, we learned the parts.
There's a reductionist idea that Chuck Berry is this one riff. But in fact, each part is composed; each tune differs in terms of its guitar part, in terms of feel, in terms of a lot of things. It's all about the specifics. Run 'em together and you've got to take it seriously as composition. Chuck Berry's a great guitarist; he has this thing, this absolute rhythmic authority. His solos are magnetic. You can look out at the audience and as he plays a note, you almost see a ripple go out through them. It's really something to see from the stage. He's a great player who invented a lot of what we do.
Having said that, to be the second guitarist when Chuck Berry's the guitarist can be a difficult role. I suspect that a lot of guitarists who jam with Chuck Berry fall into two mistakes. One is that you need to pay tribute without doing an insulting form of imitation and mimicry. He's Chuck Berry, you're not. He doesn't need to hear you play like him. On the other hand, it's his gig and it would be stupid to be on stage with Chuck Berry without giving a nod to the fact that I, and almost every other electric guitarist who ever played rock, have taken a lot from what he does!
The second thing is that I suspect some people don't get it and say, "well, Chuck Berry, he's great but he probably doesn't practice that much. I'm going to cut him. He does his thing, but I'm going to play really good. That's dumb. Playing faster than Chuck Berry will not mean playing better than Chuck Berry. He'll have every right to be pissed off. So I'm very proud to say that Chuck Berry liked my blues playing. I was very proud that I didn't get kicked off the stage and that he could hear what I was doing. You know, there are certain playersChuck Berry, Arsenio Rodriguez, Grant Greenwho have this absolute rhythmic authority and their every note is just the law. I don't knowthey don't teach that at Berklee, that's all I can say.
John Zorn, Filmworks XVIII (Tzadik, 2006)
Marc Ribot, Spiritual Unity (Pi Recordings, 2005)
John Zorn, Best of Filmworks: 20 Years of Soundtrack Music (Tzadik, 2005)
John Zorn/Electric Masada, At the Mountains of Madness (Tzadik, 2005)
Bar Kokhba Sextet, 50th Birthday Celebration, Vol. 11 (Tzadik, 2005)
Tom Waits, Real Gone (Anti, 2004)
Rob Wasserman, Trilogy (Rounder, 2004)
Wadada Leo Smith, Lake Biwa (Tzadik, 2004)
Medeski Martin & Wood, End of the World Party (Just in Case) (Blue Note, 2004)
Marc Ribot, Soundtracks, Vol. 2 (Tzadik, 2003)
John Zorn, Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone (Tzadik, original release 1984, reissue with bonus material 2000)
John Zorn, Masada Guitars (Tzadik, 2003)
Dave Douglas, Freak In (RCA, 2003)
Marc Ribot, Scelsi Morning (Tzadik, 2003)
Elvis Costello, When I Was Cruel (Universal, 2002)
John Zorn, Filmworks XIII: Invitation to a Suicide (Tzadik, 2002)
David Sylvian, Camphor (Virgin, 2002)
Cyro Baptista, Beat the Donkey (Tzadik, 2002)
Marc Ribot, Saints (Atlantic, 2001)
Sam Phillips, Fan Dance (Nonesuch, 2001)
Marc Ribot, Muy Divertido! (Atlantic, 2000)
James Carter, Layin' in the Cut (Atlantic, 2000)
Medeski Martin & Wood, Dropper (Blue Note, 2000)
Marc Ribot, A Yo I Killed Your God (Tzadik, 1999)
Marty Ehrlich's Dark Wood Ensemble, Sojourn (Tzadik, 1999)
John Lurie, Down By Law/Variety (Intuition, 1999)
David Sylvian, Dead Bees on a Cake (Virgin, 1999)
Marc Ribot, The Prosthetic Cubans (Atlantic, 1998)
John Zorn, The Circle Maker (Tzadik, 1998)
Marc Ribot, Shoe String Symphonettes (Tzadik, 1997)
Mike Patton, Pranzo Oltranzista (Tzadik, 1997)
John Zorn, Filmworks IV: S&M (Tzadik, 1997)
Arto Lindsay, Subtle Body (Bar None, 1996)
Jazz Passengers, Individually Twisted (32 Jazz, 1996)
Madeleine Peyroux, Dreamland (Atlantic, 1996)
Marc Ribot, Don't Blame Me (DIW, 1995)
Rough Assemblage, Construction & Demolition (Avant, 1995)
Marc Ribot, Shrek (Avant, 1994)
David Shea, The Prisoner (Sub Rosa, 1994)
John Zorn, Krystalnacht (Tzadik, 1993)
Medeski Martin & Wood, It's a Jungle in Here (Gramavision, 1993)
T-Bone Burnett, (The Criminal Under My Own Hat (Columbia, 1992)
Elvis Costello, Mighty Like a Rose (Warner Bros., 1991)
David Sanborn, Another Hand (Elektra, 1991)
Marianne Faithful, Blazing Away (Island, 1990)
Stan Ridgeway, Mosquitos (Geffen, 1989)
Elvis Costello, Spike (Warner Bros., 1989)
The Lounge Lizards, Voice of Chunk (Agharta, 1989)
Tom Waits, Big Time (Island, 1988)
The Lounge Lizards, Big Heart: Live Tokyo (Antilles, 1986)
Related Article: A Fireside Chat with Marc Ribot (Interview, 2004)