Marc Ribot Makes Silent Movies

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.

By Kurt Gottschalk

Ribot piloting Sun Ship: (L to R) Mary Halvorson, Chad Taylor, Jason Ajemian, Ribot.

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.

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 difference?

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.