Marc Ribot's New York Stories
The guitarist talks about the future of improvised music and more
Guitarist and composer Marc Ribot, best known as a mainstay of New York’s avant-garde scene and for his sideman work with Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Robert Plant and others, leads great bands that are also great ideas for bands. A string of shows in NYC in May, the week before his 60th birthday, hammered that point home. Among the scheduled acts were Ceramic Dog, a noisy, genre-bending avant-rock trio; Los Cubanos Postizos, the party-inciting quintet that douses son music in post-punk vigor; and his free-jazz-inspired trio with drummer Chad Taylor and bassist Henry Grimes, the latter a veteran of groups led by Albert Ayler, one of Ribot’s musical lodestars. Since 2012 that trio has had regular residencies at the Village Vanguard, where they recorded their new Pi label disc, with its expectedly seeking takes on music by Ayler (who recorded with Grimes at the venue in 1966) and John Coltrane.
But that wasn’t all. Ribot also participated in a much-anticipated Round Robin Duets program at the Town Hall and provided live solo acoustic score for the Chaplin classic The Kid at Anthology Film Archives. In an hour-long conversation prior to the Postizos gig at Le Poisson Rouge, he proved a personable and deeply intellectual interview, especially when the subject of the ailing music industry came up. Few, if any, artists have sharper insights related to just compensation in our online age.
In terms of electric guitar sonics, it’s always struck me that the latter ’50s and the first half of the ’60s really inform your sound—Fender reverb, tremolo, those elements.
I kind of moved backwards as time moved on. When I was in junior high school, pretty much all you need to know is that the name of our band was Love Gun. [laughs] I’m kind of proud of that now. I told that to Robert Plant and he thought that was funny. By the time I was in high school I was already in a retro band, the Millburn Grease Band [laughs]—great name, huh?—which played kind of a mix of doo-wop and ’50s tunes and MC5 covers.
I put you alongside players like Bill Frisell, David Lindley, Robert Quine or even Ry Cooder, in that when you do a session I can still tell it’s you. Is that important to you—to retain an identity even when playing on someone else’s record?
No. To the extent that you can tell it’s me I’ve probably failed. What you’re hearing is my limitations. What I think everyone’s ideal should be is to create a separate language for each tune. But it’s hard to create a separate language every day. Imagine if you had to do that in speaking terms.
Do you often find yourself pushing back against producers? As in, “If you want a Nile Rodgers thing, look for someone else.”
From time to time, but if someone said they wanted a Nile Rodgers thing I wouldn’t say no, I’d have a lot of fun trying. [laughs] Nile Rodgers is one of my favorites.
Do you remember when and how you started listening to Albert Ayler?
I think it was [because of keyboardist and collaborator] Anthony Coleman, in the mid- to late ’80s. I was writing these melodies made of guitar harmonics, and Anthony said, “You know, those melodies … you should listen to Albert Ayler. He writes melodies that are a lot like those.” Because when you write off of the overtone series, most of what you can hear at first is a major chord, and Ayler was working a lot off of bugle calls and things like that.
When I listen to your trio’s interpretations of Ayler, those themes come even further into focus. They’re like mantras or psalms in some way, in that they gain importance each time you repeat them.
Mantras are a good reference, because there is a ritual element to it. You feel that very strongly.
Do you see a sonic correlation between the fuzz tone of your guitar and the extended techniques Ayler used on sax?
Like a number of other guitarists have said, sometimes I hear the guitar as a saxophone, like a weird saxophone. I aspire to [playing guitar] as if it’s filled with your breath, with your life.
You both seem to relish imperfection in technique.
Well, I don’t know if I relish it. [laughs] But it seems to happen.
To put it another way, I can hear humanity in the musicianship.
At a certain point in the ritual you break out of a certain kind of self-consciousness, and then things can become a bit imperfect.
What was your relationship with the Village Vanguard like prior to your playing there as a leader?
Not long after I moved to New York I used to go down there, and I didn’t have any bread so I’d sit in the [stairwell] and listen to people like Jim Hall until they kicked me out. A couple times I even paid! [laughs]
How did you come to lead a band there?
Well, that was many years later. I was playing there with Allen Toussaint [in 2009]. You hang out a lot when you play there, because it’s two sets a night. So [Vanguard proprietor] Lorraine Gordon was asking me if I wanted to do a band there. And I was super flattered, but I didn’t think she’d dig any of the projects that I had. I told her I’d call her when I thought I had something appropriate for the place. I didn’t want to step all over what she did and what the Vanguard is about. I have respect for the concept of the club. It’s had a lot of different kinds of music but it’s retained a connection with some kind of tradition.
Later, I was on tour with the trio, with Chad Taylor and Henry Grimes, and the music was, if I say so myself, so fucking good. So I called my peeps back in New York and said, “Call Lorraine and tell her to book us.” And I still had no idea if she’d dig it.
How do the implications of the Vanguard affect what you do? Like, how is a set by the trio in that room different than one at the Stone?
There was this YouTube video of the band playing in London, so I said to Lorraine, “Listen, why don’t you check out what we actually do. I don’t want you to be totally surprised.” And she said, “Look, as long as you play the blues and a couple of standards.” And I said, “Well, OK.” We usually end up playing a standard of some type, because it usually goes there, but I didn’t want to promise…
You always seem to be playing at some tradition in your groups: the avant-garde in the trio, son with Los Cubanos Postizos. What tradition does Ceramic Dog fall into? Downtown?
Absolutely. Ceramic Dog is a rock band. And it came about at a moment when I said, “OK, I really need to strip down my intentions here. What can I do that’s honest at this point?”
When you’re acting as a songwriter rather than as a composer—crafting things like Ceramic Dog’s “Masters of the Internet” or “Lies My Body Told Me”—who or what is influencing you in that music-and-lyrics direction?
No matter what I’m working on, every now and then a song comes down the pike. So for a while I thought, “OK, I’m going to get somebody to cover these; I’ll get some rock star to cover these and I’ll make a gazillion dollars.” But then I realized, eh, they’re much too weird, nobody’s going to cover them, so I started doing some of them with Ceramic Dog.
In 2007, you wrote an essay [“The Care and Feeding of a Musical Margin”] that discussed the dire prospects for creative musicians in New York. Has the situation gotten better or worse?
After I wrote that article, some people said, “Oh, that’s a bunch of bullshit. There’s no crisis. The scene is moving to Brooklyn.” And I think that’s true, it largely did. But Brooklyn … the rents are lower there for a reason. It’s a less desirable location. [Artists] generally make less bread [performing there]. And what’s happening is kind of a perfect storm, because at the same time that’s going on, artists are making drastically less money from recording. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the recording industry has collapsed. There’s been something like a 60-percent collapse. And that last 40 percent could be gone within a year when YouTube premieres its listening service.
An endless amount of b.s. gets spilled over this. [Tech companies that facilitate free or pirated music] have big publicity budgets. And no matter how many musicians come forward to speak a critical truth, [the tech companies] can always pay someone to say, “Oh, no, things are wonderful.” But the truth is that for the overwhelming majority of artists now, they can’t make back their production costs. For trust fund kids who have tons of money, that doesn’t matter. But for normal people who actually need to pay their bills, it’s been hard.
And these tech corporate people have an answer for everything. They say, “Oh, don’t worry, you can just go out on the road. You don’t need to make money from records.” I love people who have no experience with this telling us what we can do. I’m no stranger to the road; I’ve spent a significant portion of my life on it. But as the recording industry is crashing, it has not gotten easier on the road, because all kinds of dinosaurs who were in retirement because they figured record royalties would always take care of them, now that that revenue stream is gone, they’re back on the road. There is a glut of artists and studio musicians who once stayed put and played on other people’s records back on the road. So there’s a wide range of bands touring, and it’s depressing wages on the road.
It hasn’t been great for new and experimental music on the road, either, because you find that the middle-level venues, they’re under pressure too by governments. When I talk about “the road” [for new and experimental music], I’m talking largely about Europe, where there are subsidized venues at which people who play jazz, creative and experimental music can actually get paid if they’re critically respected. But a lot of the same political pressures that are here are there too. People are saying that the market should do everything, so even the places that are state-sponsored are saying, “We’re not going to fund you unless you can pack the theater at a good ticket price.”
Some [creative musicians] are hanging out in academia, the ones who can. Other people are just biting the bullet. And other people are just leaving music, or not going into it. It’s kind of sad.
You’ve been in New York since the late ’70s. Could you ever have imagined it would become the place that it is today—specifically Lower Manhattan?
I don’t know that I could have predicted it, but it wasn’t that surprising to me. Because as somebody pointed out, the first “Downtown is dead” article appeared in the Village Voice in the mid-’80s. Sometimes I wonder what that’s about. I’m not nostalgic: There are great musicians around now and there were great musicians around then.
You haven’t abandoned New York; you haven’t jumped ship. Many of your contemporaries have. You’re still a staple here.
New York is my home. The only two places I’ve ever really felt comfortable are New York and Moscow, but I don’t really speak Russian.
I was impressed with that Winter Jazzfest/Undead petition you were a part of in 2011. There was respect and professionalism in the way you went about it. The situation didn’t blow up.
Nobody wanted it to blow up. Everybody wanted the festivals to continue and are happy that they did.
I’m in a funny situation. While I was doing all that [music] stuff in the late ’70s and ’80s, I was involved with tenant organizing. I learned what you do if there’s a problem, how you can organize. You get the people together, you have meetings, you find a friendly lawyer who’s willing to work for cheap or for free. You just do the steps of organizing—starting with the idea that you listen to what’s bothering other people. Even before I moved to New York, when I lived in Maine, I was involved in that.
So when the community of musicians I was a part of felt that something was going south, I would try to say, “OK, we can do this.” And sometimes we actually could. You don’t want to close things down, you want to bring them from point A to point B.
What’s your take on crowdfunding platforms?
They’re great, and they’re also total hype. The industry has collapsed by 16 billion dollars. So [crowdfunding revenue is] a drop in the bucket. It ain’t gonna bring back what’s lost.
Anyway, I’m saying all these things but I’m by no means hopeless. I’ve been very active in something called the Content Creators Coalition. We just incorporated, and it’s beginning to actually get organized nationally. I think there’s a lot of potential to challenge the situation, first of all, by withdrawing the appearance of our consent. The people who are profiting off of these [streaming services and similar ventures], they must care a great deal about making it appear that all this is OK with musicians. So much hype has gone into it, and where there’s hype there’s vulnerability. We’re going to see what happens when that myth is broken.
What do you think about the fan-involvement strategies in crowdfunding? I read recently about one contemporary jazz artist who’d give you an onstage shout-out for X number of dollars—like, “Happy birthday, Phil!”
It is getting weird. Duke Ellington used to say, “We love you madly.” I always loved madly the fact that he said that, because it showed perfectly what he was. You knew that he said it every night, and you knew that it was a huge fat lie and he didn’t even know the people in the audience, much less love them madly. But at the same time it was true, in some weird, abstract way.
But what’s going on now is a very strange thing. [In the past] I’d do an in-store, or I’d go out and sign some records, but now people get really pissed if you’re not out there shaking hands and signing records right after the gig. It’s this human-contact thing and this breaking of the fourth wall.
What have you learned from John Zorn that you’ve brought to your own bandleading?
I’ve learned a lot; he’s a great bandleader. Not that my style of bandleading is exactly the same. Those Masada tunes, each of those tunes fit on a half a page of music. And he’s able, through conduction and arrangement and his choosing of players, to do everything from a 90-second mini-piece to a 15-minute extended piece off a half-page of music.
I use some of his conduction ideas. I don’t use them as much, because he’s found musicians who’ve gotten used to his conduction and aren’t intimidated by it. A lot of people, the more you conduct the less they play.
John has been very generous in paying musicians. That’s one thing to learn: If you want people to be there, that’s a really good idea. And he’s also been a master of economy—it’s one of the reasons he’s survived in this environment. Because he can compose and record so efficiently that he can do a record in a day. Sometimes it takes two days, if he’s getting really deluxe. But often a record is completed in a day; a film score is completed in a day. And he’ll work with no overdubs. When there was analog tape, there were no second takes. In other words, you’d go back over it until you had it right, you record it in sequence, and at the end of the day he had his record in sequence. He’d set the dials, run the tape and he’d have his mix. I can’t work that way—I have a much more difficult process.
Let’s finish with a stupid question. Why the seated playing position?
That’s a good question, actually, but I’m going to give a bad answer. Actually, I’ll give several partly contradictory answers. The first is I’m lazy; the second is I got into it when I started doing the Postizos because I saw that Arsenio Rodríguez sat down. And I had long noticed that Segovia sat down. So I thought, “They play pretty good.” And I figured maybe if I sat down I would play good.
I did notice that there’s a certain security because you’re closer to the floor. So you can get very mentally abandoned and into it without being worried. Because if you fall down you’re almost already on the floor. And at the time I had an idea that it was non-phallic guitar playing if you were sitting down. But, again, that’s probably my rationale for being lazy.
It’s a cool idea for a group like Ceramic Dog—the contrarian element of playing sitting down in a rock band.
Yeah. On the other hand it’s a drag when people can’t see us in the back of the room. You never know, maybe we’ll be even more contrarian and stand up next time.
Originally published in August 2014