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Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager
Sep 30, 2021
In this extended cut of our conversation with Marc Ribot for the fall 2021 issue of In Practice, the guitar legend touches on topics from his musical start as a trumpeter to his stint playing backup for R&B greats like Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke. Ribot will perform a solo set at Mershon Auditorium on Sunday, November 14.
My first question for you is, why did you first pick up a guitar and what kind of music were you listening to at the time?
Well, I was a kid and I got a transistor radio for my birthday, and there was all kinds of Beatles and Rolling Stones on it, and Wilson Pickett, and everybody else, and I noticed one thing: they all had guitars. And so I thought it would be a good idea. Now, at the time, I was playing trumpet, but that's what I played when I was a kid. And I was just starting to become aware of music, you know? I was 10, nine or 10.
I was pretty good, but I was taking lessons from a really old-school, classical player, Salvatore Grimaldi. And he didn't know anything about jazz, or rock, or anything, and I played him, like, a Miles Davis record that I bought 'cause I'd heard my friend's older brother play it and I thought it was cool, and I asked him how to play that. He put a copy of "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" sheet music in front of me (laughing) and just said, "Well, you just play it, play the notes, and when you get to the end of every phrase go doo-doo-doo-doo or doo-yeah-yeah, or a trill.”
Somehow I knew right away that I was never gonna play like Miles Davis from listening to Mr. Grimaldi, and so I turned my attention to trying to sound like Keith Richards, and in order to do that I had to play a guitar. The other thing was, I got braces, so I couldn't play trumpet anymore. That helped my interest in guitar along quite a bit, because when you have braces and you play trumpet, it's not pretty. (laughing)
So when I announced to my family that I wanted to learn guitar they decided I should study with Frantz Casseus, because Frantz was a close friend of the family. He lived on the same block as my aunt and uncle in Manhattan, so even though I had no real interest in classical guitar and he was a classical guitarist, I wound up studying with Frantz. That was also part of my interest, to be honest with you, that I knew Frantz from a very young age. His family was in Haiti, but he was in New York, so he would celebrate Thanksgiving and Passover and other things with my family.. I guess he must have been bored, because he would bring his guitar and play, but for me it was the greatest thing in the world. It was, like, the first real music I heard live, you know. And so yeah, I was into the idea, and that's how I became interested in guitar.
Since you were familiar with Frantz's playing from a very young age, did that make it easier to sort of reconcile his style with what you were listening to on the transistor?
But, I never kind of reconciled them. I thought of them as two different worlds, you know? Up until fairly recently.
Frantz wouldn't have felt that he had much to do with the pop world, or rock. I mean, he came to a few of my rock gigs and I said, "Well, what did you think?" And he said, "Well, you know, it's great, but if you listen to that, what is the classical guitar?" By which he meant, you know, when you're half deaf from being blown out by a rock band. It was a different mindset than the more meditative, calmer vibe needed to enjoy classical guitar.
So what changed, in terms of how you look at them as separate versus not separate?
After I studied with Frantz until I was 14, I didn't really go into the classical thing. And I would see Frantz through my family or sometimes go over to his place when I moved down to New York, but I wasn't really involved in his music at all. But then, in the ‘80s, when he was in failing health, I wound up rerecording some of his music. I wanted to do it. I thought it would be fun to do, but also it was to help Frantz out 'cause his own music was out of print. One of the records he made, the company had gone out of business. The other two were on Folkways, which, in the ‘80s, Moses Asch, who ran Folkways, was also old and in poor health, it was very disorganized. Like, you'd pay for a box of records or CDs or whatever, and they would arrive, like, four months later and it would not be what you ordered. So, I wound up getting back into Frantz's music in the ‘80s and eventually, I realized there was something about my own playing that had been influenced by Frantz, by learning Frantz's music early on. Which is that whenever I'm hearing a measure of four beats, I'm always hearing three superimposed on it, or, an alternate counting, which is something that you get in Afrological music. It's, it's very common to hear three against four, four against three, and all kinds of other meters imposed. Haitian music has, in the drums, a rhythm which can be four-four, but one of the drummers might be playing closer to a quintuplet, evenly spaced in the same amount of time. So, I realized I'd kind of absorbed a bit of that from playing Frantz's music early on.
You went fairly quickly from the early training and just getting into playing with bands to playing with Chuck Berry and Wilson Pickett. How did you end up making those rounds?
I wasn't particularly musically hip when I was a kid. Other than listening to Frantz, I listened to what was on the radio. But what was on the radio in the area of Newark, New Jersey in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, was pretty interesting. I'm talking about even before I started tracking down FM radio, listening to WFMU and cool stations that were in the area. What was on commercial pop radio was Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett. There was a lot of Sly and the Family Stone, a lot of great Black music being played at that time. So, I didn't just listen. My first junior high school band, we played a lot of what was standard at the time, basic hippy music. But we also played Booker T and the MGs, and Wilson Pickett. And also, when I was learning to drive, we would listen to the radio stations out of Newark, and there would be a lot of Grant Green and Bob Dylan, and soul jazz. Let’s put it this way: we thought it was cool. We meaning, like, the coterie of pot-smoking Columbia High School proto-hipsters, you know. So, we'd drive around, nearly smashing into things, and listen to good music. So, I had an affection for jazz and for R&B. It came from that time. But, I will confess that my junior high band, we learned the Vanilla Fudge's version of “Keep Me Hanging On.” Not The Supremes' version, OK? (laughing) The drummer thought that was really cool, you know. So that is to draw a more complete picture.
The first gig I got in New York was somebody who had actually put out records, Brother Jack McDuff, in 1979. I toured with him, and around the same time I got in a band called Brenda and the Realtones. It was [led by] this amazing woman, Brenda Bergman, who was really funny as hell, a great comedienne. She's still around, miraculously, given what we were into at the time. (laughing) But she also had a fanatical dedication to R&B music, and her boyfriend at the time—a white guy who referred to himself by the name of Johnny Soul-Boy (laughing)—was also a fanatical record collector. So we were doing what we thought was R&B revival, and we were playing at CBGB's. There was starting to be a Stax/Volt and R&B revival at the time, and the Realtones started to back up visiting soul and R&B singers, and earlier rock performers like Chuck Berry. Eventually, the rhythm and horn section of the Realtones morphed into a band called The Uptown Horns, and for a while we were the backup band of choice in New York City if anyone was coming to town. It was a series at this club called Tramps. We backed up Solomon Burke and Rufus Thomas, and Carla Thomas, and a bunch of other people. They were coming to town for one-week runs, and I have to say, it was the best education that you could possibly have, not only 'cause we were getting paid for it, but normally, if you wanted to acquire that knowledge, you'd have to go on the road with those acts. It was just much easier for us than a lot of musicians who came up. I mean, we did repeat engagements with Solomon Burke and Rufus Thomas. We wound up doing a record called Soul Alive! with Solomon Burke and The Realtones. It was just super lucky to get those gigs.
And during that time, it's wasn’t just during the gigs, we all became really obsessed. The other thing was that when those gigs would be arranged, basically everybody would show up in town on the day of the gig and we'd do a rehearsal in the afternoon. So we'd have to know the tunes before, and I did a lot of the arranging. I would get the records from Johnny Soul-Boy and do a lot of transcribing, so I got deep into learning the horn parts and really, really focusing on the guitar parts and the details.
It sounds like everything that you had done in music up to the point where you started working with The Lounge Lizards was kind of perfect for setting you up to get involved in that kind of sonic melange.
It was good training as a musician, you know, beyond any one band. The other element that was happening in New York at the time, we were playing some of the same venues as The Lounge Lizards, and I remember going to hear The Lounge Lizards and being completely blown away. Because, at the same time, I was trying to play jazz, which was kind of, like, the language of communication among young musicians who were trying to work in New York City. No matter what else you were playing, if you were trying to work as a studio musician it was… Let’s put it this way: it was an aspiration.
(Laughing) That you rose to.
Well, that depends who you ask. (laughing) That really depends on how you define jazz and who you ask. If you'd asked Jack McDuff, he was not impressed with my jazz playing. Much of our conversation consisted of him reminding me of the ways I compared unfavorably to George Benson, who had also played in his band at a younger stage of his career.
Well, it's true that you are no George Benson.
It is true. And you know what? At a certain point I would have given my foot to be George Benson, and you could still probably talk me into a toe or two.
(Laughing) Yes, that was no slight on George Benson. He’s just not you.
Well, I mean, to be honest with you, I have huge admiration for George Benson. But the main person who I still listen to regularly is Grant Green. So I still have huge affection for soul jazz and funky jazz. But, what I was gonna say is the other element that was going on, if you paid attention to jazz at that point—we’re talking about late ‘70s, early ‘80s—you would also have to be aware of when there was a big split on the jazz scene. People who were into Jack McDuff were not generally into Ornette Coleman. In McDuff's own words, when there would inevitably be a John Coltrane tune or two on the jukebox in the places that we would play, he’d say, "You know why people like that here?" He was talking about "Favorite Things," you know. He said, "People like it because, because he's got soul." In other words, don't go thinking that people are into this 'cause it's avant garde. People don't give a shit that he's playing polytonally, or any of that. People like it 'cause he's got soul, and you know what? I think that that's true if you listen very, very closely to almost all the free jazz players. They started off in R&B or mostly jump blues bands. I think that that's true of Ornette, and that's definitely true of Albert Ayler. It was a kind of way of getting the intensity of R&B and soul performance by other means. Bringing that intensity, or reviving that intensity, within jazz, I think, was part of the agenda there.
So, to talk about going into The Lounge Lizards, I had started to become aware of some of that music, more recent people like The Art Ensemble, what was going on in the loft scene, you know. I wasn't deeply into it, but I started to become aware. And that had some kind of common border with what was happening in The Lounge Lizards and the No Wave scene.
Obviously you have a very long, diverse, and impressive list of people that you've worked with. In terms of working with other artists, do you have a set approach to doing that? If so, what does that entail, and if not, how do you prepare to work with others?
To be honest with you I don’t. I try not to prepare. I mean, if they have demos, I might listen to them and think what guitars might sound good. I've got a bunch of guitars and I try to bring ones which might be interesting sonically. But my approach, if I have one, is one: show up; two: listen to the lyrics; three: try to make the lyrics make some kind of sense that I like, which doesn't always mean if the lyric is sad, play a sad note. Sometimes you have to contradict the lyric, you know?
And sometimes the singer doesn't always agree that you have to contradict the lyric (laughing). But there's a lot you can do. You have a lot of power as a side musician. It's not exactly like working on a chain gang where you have to do what they tell you to do. It's not like working most jobs—which, by the way, makes me think that most jobs should be more like being a side musician or a member of the band, because I'll bet you people who do most jobs have creative ideas about what they do, how what they do all day could be made more fun or better. But as a side musician I've been very lucky, and I've gotten to carry that out. I get to listen to a lyric and, and then think about how it could be made better, or how it could be made to mean something. And you see, that's very complicated,'cause first of all, to mean something people have to hear it, which means you have to find a sonic space on the guitar, whatever instrument you're playing, so that the vocal can be heard. And second of all, it means framing the meaning in a different way, 'cause I can frame it as jazz, as punk rock, as a lot of different genres. I can make it more psychoacoustically intense by playing more treble-y, or by playing denser, atonal chords, or I can make it more psychoacoustically easy by playing more consonant harmonies, or, or less treble-y, um, sounds. I can place it historically in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘90s, or the far future. So there's a lot of choice that you exercise. Sometimes I get into what mics are used, what amps are used, what pedals are used, you know. In a way, guitarists usually don't get called to sit and just read a note and play one thing. Studio side musicians get called for their imagination as arrangers and composers on their instrument.
So, way too many people that you've worked with for us to cover in the time we have, but there are a few I do want to ask about—your working relationship and how you connected. The first one would be Tom Waits, considering that you started working with him in the ‘80s and you've been working with him within the past few years. How did that partnership start and what it is about that chemistry that keeps you coming back?
Well, I think Tom came down and heard me play. I know he was in the audience once or twice with Brenda and the Realtones. I think he sat in once. And he also came down a couple times when we played with The Lounge Lizards. I know he definitely sat in. He sang “Auld Lang Syne” one New Year's Eve at a particularly twisted performance. So he heard me play at those things, and I was one of a number of guitarists that he called to play on Rain Dogs. Keith Richards played some stuff on that, and so did Robert Quine, and there were some other guitarists, as well. But you know, we hit it off, and he called me for the tour, and we just always got along.
I've said this in a number of interviews, but people think of Tom as a character and as a voice, but when you work with him in the studio he's also a producer. He's like a music director. And he's super creative as a producer. He's made a bunch of records and he's learned, OK, if this isn't sounding right, say no. He's not the technical kind of director who's going to dig into this mic versus that mic versus that pre-amp. Although maybe he does this at this point. But he really has a good ear, not just for this note or that note, but for understanding how the sound is framing the lyric. What decade is it, what continent is it on, what kind of room is it in? If the conversation is supposed to be taking place in an intimate bar, well then it shouldn't sound like it's taking place in an arena. Just because some engineer thinks that their large-room reverb sounds beautiful doesn't mean that that's what that lyric needs, you know? When we speak to each other, we speak to each other in rooms or outdoors. I wasn't on that record, but Tom on Bone Machine had them bring the recording gear onto the driveway and record on the driveway, because we were all fans of the UNESCO Pygmy recordings. Like, those weren't made in recording studios. That's what you would call a radical production technique, and so I greatly admire Tom for caring about how stuff sounds and having the guts to fight with everybody until it sounds that way. And in terms of the musical choices, Tom works as kind of like an editor. He's not dictating what you play. He creates a vibe on the guitar, or on whatever. On a tumba drum. He creates a vibe. And then we try to fit in with the vibe, and if it's not working, he says, "Try something else." But he gives a lot of freedom to the musicians. He picks the musicians who understand what he's going for and once that's done, it's a very open vibe.
Talking about lyricism and the back and forth between what you do and the songwriter's words, I have to ask about Elvis Costello. You can hear that back and forth in the work you did on Spike and the other records.
I was a fan of his music before I worked with him because he's been consistently the leader of kick-ass rock bands. Elvis and The Attractions were and are, when they get back together, a great band. He’s a rocker at heart, and like me, he's a rocker who has a lot of affection for different kinds of jazz, and for R&B. He’s listened to a lot. His dad was a big-band leader, so they were sending him records to cover, and all the kinds of music that [Elvis] heard when he was a kid made a big dent.
I have a couple more. One is John Zorn.
He's set himself the task of writing music unlike any music that's ever been written before. Yeah, he's one of the major composers of my generation so I'm really lucky to have been able to work for him. Also, I'll say this: He's one of the few composers of any generation that knows how to write for electric guitar. I mean, he knows the difference between a wah wah pedal and a fuzz box. Here's a great secret: John Zorn actually has played guitar, or he played guitar. He knows all this stuff because he did it. So, when he writes for guitar he writes like an insider. Let me put it this way: if you've tried to play contemporary music or any kind of classical music, guitar scores, there's some by people who really play guitar or made it their business to understand it. But… it's pretty lame, what's out there. (laughing) So John writes beautifully for electric guitar, for... well, for any kind of guitar. And some pretty interesting guitarists have gravitated toward working with him.
John is a really gifted musician. His level of chops as a composer is really beyond anything I've seen. I mean, I do film scores from time to time, and when I do a film score I like to have the finished thing a month or two months in advance. I usually agonize over it for weeks and then stay up late every night for a week before frantically trying to finish some charts and map out what we're gonna do. When John gets a film score, he wakes up, eh, maybe an hour, hour and a half early the day of the recording session and writes the score while he's listening to another record and watching some video. (laughing) And it comes out great. He's written fantastic film music.(laughing) So what can you say about someone like that? He's got the chops and he's been protean, as they say, in his output. I think John wants to break the tyranny of the beast. Beethoven, Brahms... he wants there to be a plaster bust of Zorn, too, and who knows? Maybe he'll get it. I wish him the best. (laughing)
I’d like to see a plaster bust of John Zorn.
You gotta pity the piano that that plaster bust is on top of, because you know it's gonna be well-tortured.
(Laughing) So, because I'm calling from Ohio, I have to ask, any thoughts about working with the Black Keys?
Oh yeah, wonderful thoughts. It was really fun. Tell them to call me again. (laughing) Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, what's interesting is that both are related to people I know, both of whom are no longer here. Dan’s related to Robert Quine and Patrick is a nephew of my late friend, Ralph Carney, who played sax with Waits and was a close friend. But anyway, about the Black Keys themselves, they’re great musicians and really did their homework, in terms of, of listening to some great R&B.
There's a certain motif that you may be noticing here among the projects that I like. You know, people who bring a certain punk energy to an R&B set. I don't know whether it's a punk energy to an R&B sensibility, or an R&B energy to a punk sensibility
That's interesting that you bring up that punk element to the people you've worked with. That’s obviously a pretty strong component in your new album, Hope, as well. I've looked at some of your activism work on the political front and your advocacy work for musicians, and it's, it's interesting to me how there's a certain earnestness in activism but there's an irreverence in punk, and you manage to bring them together. How does Hope reflect your perspective, in terms of the activism work that you've been doing. Or does it?
The graphic on Hope is this tiny, blurry dot that is probably the planet Earth, and it looks like it's receding in a sea of black space. And I'll be honest with you, the original title was Better Luck Next Time. (laughing) But I just didn't have the heart to be such a downer. I mean, we just got rid of Trump and there seemed to be a cure for COVID, so I thought, You know, we've gotta celebrate while we can. So let's rename it Hope.
(Laughing) I was wondering about that.
But don't worry, the other title will be badass. That's probably the next one.
As far as earnestness, I try to avoid it as a sentiment, but on the other hand, I don't. I mean, basically, I've witnessed musicians getting really screwed. And I don't like it. I’ve been around long enough that I can kind of see what's going on with it. It's not only the question of the digital thing. I'll just say, basically, the union never really got around to organizing people on the scenes that I was playing. There's complicated structural reasons for that. Let’s just say, if people wanna know what the political thing is about, I'm involved with a group called Music Workers Alliance. We’re organizing indie musicians and DJs. And, uh, solidarity forever (laughing).
Top of page: Marc Ribot image courtesy of the artist