By Kurt Gottschalk
MARC RIBOT’S ENIGMATIC PLAYING HAS
earned him live and studio gigs with numerous
major artists ranging from Elvis Costello and Marianne
Faithfull to McCoy Tyner and Jack McDuff to
Tom Waits to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. At
the same time, he’s been a central figure in New
York’s Downtown avant-garde music scene, playing
with the Lounge Lizards, the Jazz Passengers, and
John Zorn among many others. As a bandleader,
Ribot has redefined punk, Cuban music,
free jazz, and party grooves. Two of the
guitarist’s most recent projects—Sun Ship
and Spiritual Unity—are dedicated to the
music of saxophone innovators John Coltrane
and Albert Ayler, respectively—but
with no saxophones in the lineups. In contrast
to Ribot’s noisier and more rambunctious
playing, his latest release, Silent Movies
[Pi Recordings], is an introspective solo
guitar album featuring reworked themes
for existing and imaginary movie scores
performed with great economy, nuance,
and subtlety. And speaking of film music,
Ribot has contributed to soundtracks for
films by Martin Scorcese and various other
luminaries, as well as scoring music himself,
most recently for 2010’s Drunkboat.
|Ribot piloting Sun Ship: (L to R) Mary Halvorson, Chad Taylor, Jason Ajemian, Ribot.|
What prompted Silent Movies?
I do two kinds of writing: I write for my
own bands and sometimes I write for film.
In the past I’ve released the film scores, but
there were a couple that I hadn’t put out. It’s
not always easy to write a score and make
a record at the same time, because sometimes
I’d have a theme I really liked, but the
recording was only 40 seconds long. And
some of the compositions were for larger
ensembles, which wouldn’t be practical to
do these days, at least not on my budget
[laughs]. So, I brought the pieces back as solo
guitar pieces. At the same time, I had a kind
of philosophical idea about the project, as
I’m interested in the question of language.
I’ve found the cliché about music being a
universal language to be false, and I don’t
believe there is a universal language—but
film music is almost a universal language.
People understand the language that comes
from 19th and early 20th Century classical
music and opera. For example, they understand
what it means when the violins come in
and play a long note. If I write a certain thing
on strings, and I make it come in at a certain
point in the narrative, everybody cries. From
the punk rocker that doesn’t have a single
orchestral record to the free jazz guy to the
country and western guy—they all know
exactly what it means. So I thought, “Why
not learn to improvise in that language?”
And that’s what I tried to do throughout the
record, only on acoustic guitar.
The guitar sound on the record is beautiful.
What were you playing?
My 1957 Gibson ES-175 was the primary
guitar. I’ve had it for a couple of years. We
made the record at Brooklyn Recording Studios,
a wonderful place with a great board.
Andy Taub was the recording engineer, and
J. D. Foster was the producer, though I don’t
even know what a producer does when making
a solo guitar album. Solo guitar seems like
such a lonely pursuit.
With Spiritual Unity and Sun Ship you cast
yourself in the role of two great saxophonists.
What made you want to substitute guitar for saxophone
when playing their music?
Well, it’s not just that I’m so blind and
stupid that I wanted to invite self-degrading
comparisons to John Coltrane and Albert
Ayler. The fact that I could work with Ayler’s
former bassist Henry Grimes was the inspiration
for Spiritual Unity. [Drummer] Chad
Taylor and Henry are one hell of a rhythm
section, and [trumpeter, flugelhorn player,
flutist] Roy Campbell, Jr. is the real deal.
But I also wanted to shake up some preconceptions.
A lot of what I’ve done is to challenge
the conception of punk rock as white
music. For example, I was introduced to
Albert Ayler’s music in the late ’80s, when I
was in the Lounge Lizards. The person who
gave me the cassette and said, “You’ve got
to listen to this bass playing,” was [Richard
Hell & the Voidoids guitarist] Robert
Quine, the person who invented the punk
rock guitar solo.
Los Cubanos Postizos was built around Cuban
son music, and more recently you’ve been working
with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. What’s behind
your interest in Hispanic musical styles?
I think about it as “border music,” from
the Mexican idea that the real stuff happens
at the borders. And I’m not only talking about
national borders. For example, you can think
of punk rock existing on the border between
NYU students and Puerto Ricans living in
the Lower East Side. You can get good musical
results if you’re not afraid. Yes, it can be
hard to communicate across cultural borders—
I don’t want to sound like “It’s a Small
World”—but it’s good to reach out to the
people whose music you like without worrying
about whether it’s a familiar situation
or socially comfortable. In Europe, people
seem to think that there’s a bar where Tom
Waits and Tito Puente and Howlin’ Wolf all
hang out and tell jokes.
You’ve played a Harmony Stratotone a lot for
the past few years. What is it about that guitar
that you like so much?
It’s a 1952 or ’53. I started using it about
five years ago when I was touring with Tom
Waits. It is well constructed, with a wood
bridge, and has a very woody sound. It also
has a very wide one-piece neck that goes
all the way through the body, and I’m a fan
of big baseball bat necks, maybe because I
started on classical. Another of my guitars
that I really like was made by Rick Kelly of
Carmine Street Guitars, who sometimes
builds instruments from old wood he finds
at construction sites. It’s an imitation Tele
made from rafters from [filmmaker] Jim Jarmusch’s
old loft. I’m also still partial to my
Gibson HG-00 acoustic.
What gauge strings do you prefer?
I use different sets on different guitars—
sometimes .010s, but lately I’ve been using
.011s. The general answer is the heaviest gauge
I can stand that won’t break the neck.
What are a few of your favorite pedals currently?
I use an old Electro-Harmonix Memory
Man delay, and the Analogman Boss DS-1 is a
thing of beauty, the answer to all my dreams.
I also use a Hilton volume pedal. I’m not a
big equipment guy, but one thing I’ve learned
over the last 30 years is that many pedals
screw up your sound even when they’re off.
A lot of pedals that say they are true bypass
actually aren’t, so I place them into truebypass
loops with a strip of switches. One
effect that degrades the signal path in a good
way is the Boss Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb
pedal, which makes it really useful for recording.
The pedal doesn’t just sound like an old
amp—it sounds like a recording of an old amp.
Nonetheless, I still feel that the most radical
sound is to turn off all of the effects. When
people hear a dry guitar they’re like, “What
the hell is that?”
There’s generally a sort of haphazard quality
in your playing, for lack of a better term, but it’s
not always there in your solo playing. What’s the
When I’m playing in a band situation and
other people are laying down the groove,
then I can mess with that groove. But when
I’m playing solo, I have to build the building
as well as destroy it. That said, I try to
be rhythmically precise in everything I do.
My hero is [James Brown trombonist] Fred
Wesley, who’s all about timing.
It takes a lot of artifice to create the sensation
of haphazardness. And there’s also
historical referencing going on in some of
my playing, including the characteristics of
particular types of instruments and ways of
playing notes by, for instance, blues players
of certain periods. If my intention is to reference
Ike Turner, I’m going to be as crazy
using the tremolo bar as Ike was. And if I’m
going to reference a recording by a player
who couldn’t afford a good instrument and
had to play one constructed using primitive
technology, I’m going to use everything that
results from that, too.