Considering the role music has played in politics and social movements throughout the history of this fine country, I believe we now find ourselves at a critical pass in the hopes of moving forward. From Farm Aid to We Are The World and countless other benefits and consciousness-raising events it has always been the artists who show us the way. In the 1960s it was musicians and artists who stood against the Vietnam War, and it was the same artists and musicians who would speak out against segregation and racism. Well today we have a different war, and we may not be fighting slavery, but we are watching the rights given to us in the Constitution vanish, and if you are not scared, then you're just not paying attention.
Election time is not that far away, and as Americans this is our one and only chance to use our voice. Elections are what make America America--and if you are one of those apathetic people who complains but doesn't vote--well then I ask you to please check yourself. Consider what is truly important to you, but not only you, we must also consider what is important to the world at large and act accordingly. In thinking about this and much more I had the opportunity to speak with the remarkable guitar guru Marc Ribot. Marc is very active on the socio-political front, and he just so happens to be one of the nastiest and most versatile players on the scene. From cutting his chops with legends like Jack McDuff and Wilson Pickett to 15 years with Tom Waits, playing on Elvis Costello's Spike, Mighty Like A Rose, and Kojak Variety to the many faces of John Zorn, Trey Anastasio and a plethora of impressive personal projects, Ribot truly stands out as a virtuoso. For a man who doesn't use his voice all that much on stage, Marc Ribot sure has a lot to say... and although he may be talkin' loud, he is most certainly sayin' something.
Kayceman: Part of what sparked this interview, at least at this time, is the upcoming Music For America benefit that you are doing with Medeski Martin & Wood at the Bowery Ballroom [February 28]. I'm curious how you got involved with Music For America.
Marc Ribot: The idea came from Medeski Martin & Wood, who had signed on and were supporters of them. I took a brief look at the website and it seemed like something I could support, and so here I am. And I'm a member of Moveon.org, and various other groups and I support anything that I think will help register voters and encourage people to vote against Bush, so there I'll be.
Kayceman: Fair enough, I'm in your boat. Do you feel that public figures have somewhat of a responsibility to draw attention to certain political or social issues?
Marc Ribot: Well, I think everyone has a responsibility. Now musicians are figures in the public eye, we are not public figures in the sense of politicians in the "public space." So musicians and artists have a responsibility to respond to what moves them. And when political things move us, in either sense--because we like them or they disgust us--then that's part of life and we should respond to it. That does not mean that musicians and artists have to pretend that they are New York Times editorial page writers and make fake boring speeches. We respond as artists, but we respond.
Kayceman: Would you think that it would be irresponsible for somebody to be moved by something and then not to respond, or for you personally not to do a benefit such as this if given the opportunity?
Marc Ribot: Well, I'll give you an answer that may be surprising to those who know me. I'm highly politically active. For years I was a tenant organizer with the Chelsea Coalition on Housing, I have participated in various Union rank and file groups, and other attempts to win justice for musicians. I've been politically active in various capacities my whole life, and I'm currently organizing something called The Musicians Solidarity Database Project, which attempts to connect touring musicians and artists with social justice organizations such as The Social Forum and Greenpeace. It will be a database that will help accomplish that. I participate in a lot of things--and yet, I believe that for some people there is a right to what I would call quietism. So I recognize that some artists are going to have to do nothing. Their work is not engaged, and I believe there is a place for that in the world. What I don't like, however, is what I see more commonly, which is not people who are disengaged, but people who go on... let me put it this way: To be quietist, to live outside the world in that way, is not the same thing as to be living in the world but pretending that none of this matters. There are some people who seem to live outside of this world and all I can say is God bless them. But to go on with business as usual entertainment while there is a serious threat doesn't seem right, and I believe there is a serious threat to democracy. I believe it's not just a question of the war being a particularly bad political judgment, but that the way the judgment was arrived at and enforced is problematic. So for some people political quietism is a respectable option, for me I'm gonna scream and yell while I still can.
Still thinking about politics, how do you feel about government involvement in music, specifically in how it relates to this whole file sharing movement and media consolidation?
Well government involvement in music is a very big topic. In France the Les Intermittent Du Spectacle, which roughly translates as "part time and freelance music workers," is on strike and demonstrating every day because the government is ending its involvement in music.
Yes that's right. Most of what we know, at least on the East Coast, most of jazz and new music has been supported by the fact that there has been a big government involvement in music. In subsidizing festivals, venues--I mean jazz exists in the U.S., but its economy has existed because it has toured in Europe, and the same goes for new music. Not just straight-ahead jazz, but John Zorn, a lot of my bands, almost anything that could be called "New York Downtown Music" toured in Europe and that was its economy. And why did it tour in Europe? Because there has been a tradition in Europe of supporting music like that. So it depends on what kind of government involvement in my opinion. Not only in France but in Italy as well there is a group called the Italian Jazz Rebels, who are protesting against the Berlusconi government's dis-involvement in music. So I support both of those groups, and my opinion on file sharing is, well again this is not going to make me particularly popular, well I mean nobody really objects to people who are actually sharing, OK? The problem is that with the technologies for sharing it is very difficult to control the difference between sharing, trading, and selling. And if we want to do away with copyright law lets not start with musicians. I'm all for the great anarchist utopia, but that means my telephone costs should be reduced to nothing because I don't pay for any of those patents, my computer is a bunch of plastic, I should get it for five dollars because I don't pay for any of those patents and this phone line should go down to something very close to free. It just seems ironic as it used to be said about "Just Us"--it was like a black power joke and I saw what they meant by "justice;" it was "Just Us." So when all these people are writing in utopian terms about the brave new world of free stuff, I want there to be a brave new world of free stuff, I just don't want my stuff to be the only stuff in the brave new world. So I'm in favor of copyright protection... Basically let me put it this way: I reject the kind of utopian language of it, and I'm basically aligned with Future of Music Coalition's attempts to find some way in which composers, artists, and side musicians need to get paid. Let me put it bluntly: I see it from a different perspective from consumers; I'm a producer of music and a consumer. I think the arguments that have been made that file sharing has not hurt record sales are a little disingenuous. I mean the industry is down by 30 percent or something like that. And maybe you think, "Oh well 30 percent is not that much." Well it has not fallen on all music equally. When 30 percent was cut out it was not cut out from Madonna's record budget. What happened was all of the majors cut out all of their weird music departments. So it wasn't as if budgets went down 30 percent across the board, no, budgets in the most predictable, most boring music stayed just where they were or went up, and budgets for music that was anything of a risk were gone, simply gone! So I think it sucks, that's what I think. Having said that I'm not sure the tactics or yelling at people and saying, "Don't burn a CD for somebody" are going to work. The tactic that may ultimately work might be making the corporate beneficiaries of the profit from the sale of this technology pay into funds for composers and artists. There may be ways to make it work, I think the problem needs creative thinking, but let's be clear, people will get the culture they pay for and right now they are not paying much.
There is certainly a relationship.
Does that answer the question? (Laughing)
It does, and I appreciate you speaking honestly about it.
Well you know, I'll just add one more thing. I know that a lot of artists speak on this subject and I can tell you that most of them are so full of shit. I mean every time I hear an artist who's dependant on publishing royalties and artist royalties say how totally cool it is that people are downloading their stuff and trading it for free, what I think they are really saying is, "nothing I say is going to stop you from doing it anyways, so if I say that you're cool then you're going to like me. So in other words I'm going to be ripped off anyways, this way you'll like me and maybe come to my concert." So do I take it all at face value, all these very honest sounding, muddle-headed utopian statements from artists? No, I think artists are doing what performers have always done. They are being the modern equivalent of Al Jolson, they're kissing their audiences ass, and I hope they like the taste.
(Laughing) I completely agree. Moving slightly away form politics and going back in time, I'm also interested simply in your music. I wanted to ask you about the beginning of your career, I'm interested in how you came to work with Jack McDuff and Wilson Pickett at the very early stages of your career.
Well when I started playing professionally I was living in Maine. I'm not from Maine, it's a long story, I wound up moving there which was a good thing because I was terrible and basically anybody who could play at all could get a gig up there. So the way it looked from up there was that jazz was the music of freedom. Because basically to work you had to play in one kind of cover band or another. And we looked at jazz musicians who didn't have to do that and could just play. And we thought, "Wow this is freedom, you can solo all the time and do all this stuff." So I decided I wanted to be a jazz musician so I came down to New York. I noticed there weren't very many jazz musicians in Maine. There were few actually... anyway. So I came down to New York and pretty early on a friend of mine was working with another band on that circuit and heard through the grapevine that McDuff was looking for a guitarist so I called him up and went up there and I wound up working with him for about four or five months.
Marc Ribot by Cyril Moshkow
And how about Wilson Pickett?
In New York people are always involved in a million projects at the same time. It's not as linear as it might be in other places or it might look from the outside. So I got the Wilson gig when I was working with a band called The Realtones that were kind of like a punk R&B band, and again I heard through a connect. I would freelance sometimes with the drummer from Wilson's band, Crusher Green, and so I heard that Wilson was doing a tour and I got on the tour.
And was that fairly limited? How long did you work with him?
I just worked with Wilson for about a month, our business relations were not very peaceful.
Now you clearly encompass a lot of sounds and types of music. Do you ever find that having such a diverse palate is a hindrance in any way?
It could be... yeah it's a hindrance mostly because I put my back out lugging all these pedals all over the place (laughs). But other than that, yeah, but I don't always use all those facets. Let me put it this way: People sometimes refer to "My Style" but I do my best not to have a style. In my opinion it's the song or the piece, or the composition that should create the sound. Each song, each piece should create its own sound world. So it's up to the musician to be literate about what's there so they can say what they have to say. Having said that, some sound worlds are not supposed to have a variety of sounds. When I did the gig last week with Spiritual Unity with Henry Grimes on bass, Chad Taylor from Chicago Underground Duo on drums, and Roy Campbell Jr. on trumpet, I basically used nothing but a volume pedal and some distortion maybe, that was it, no other pedals, no reverb no nothing. Because that's what was needed by that band. It's good to restrict.
Now how about when you are playing with a band you might not know so well or just jamming with people that you just come upon, do you feel that your playing affects the music more or that the music affects your playing more?
Well I would be a real jerk if I came into a new situation and said like, "This is how it's gonna be." You know jamming or improvising is always an exchange, well at its best it's an exchange, it's a communication, you know. That's what it is, you have to listen.
Right, so you can't go in there and dominate.
(Laughing) Well I mean I could.
Right, but it wouldn't be half as enjoyable for anybody.
Yeah, it should be an exchange.
I know that you've worked extensively with Tom Waits, and he's somebody that's rather fascinating to me, and I'm curious if you have any impressions that you could relate in terms of what it's like to work with him.
Well most people know him as a singer/songwriter, but I know him as a producer as well. And as a producer he is really one of the most creative producers any musician could ever work with. He has absolutely no rules, I mean my god he's recorded things on his driveway! (laughing) You know...
Right, well that's part of why I love him, his willingness to do that.
He's a real experimenter and a real creative producer. And I would say he pushes the people he's with to experiment, and get out of their shtick as well.
I'm also aware that you were involved with Trey Anastasio's Surrender To The Air project. How did that come to be, did he just ask you to come up?
Yeah, that was it. We recorded it before and then did one live gig. I think Trey had been listening to a really wide variety of music including apparently Sun Ra stuff because there were a number of Sun Ra veterans at these jam sessions. And I don't know how he heard of me, but somehow he did, and so we all ended up having a three-day jam session.
Do you have any impressions of Phish, have you ever seen them?
What do you think about them?
I think they're a really good band.
Fair enough. Is there anything currently, either live or studio that has really been turning you on?
Well I'm gonna go this afternoon and do some recording with Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto. And I've been working on some projects of my own. I was very happy with that Spiritual Unity project. The Cubanos Postizos thing has been kind of on ice while I've been rethinking it, but I've been trying to get this collaboration going with this kind of R&B salsa singer from the 70s called Joe Bataan, who's unbelievable. Right on that border of R&B and salsa, the grooves are very, very heavy, so I'm trying to get some kind of collaboration together there.
Marc Ribot by Bruce Moore
Have you bought any CDs or been turned onto to anything recently that's sort of new to you?
I like this band Lightning Bolt, they're really strange. I gotta say that guy in the The White Stripes, he's got a kind of interesting approach. And an Italian guitarist named Marco Capelli did something really interesting. So far he's only done it live, but I think it's going to end up being a CD, and watch for it when it does. He wanted to take kind of like a musical snapshot of downtown New York, and in order to do that he commissioned pieces by a bunch of downtown composers--myself included, a little disclaimer here--and then he learned them. He's a serious classical guitarist, but his classical guitar is also amplified and he has a set of ten not-regular classical guitar strings that kind of somehow fit under the other strings, but cross perpendicular to them. So he gets all these other amazing sounds, and he encouraged people to write for him in this what he calls his "extreme guitar." And the project is called The Extreme Guitar Project. They played at a place called Issue Project Room a few weeks ago, and I just have to say that was one of my big musical events for the year.
Cool, I'll have to look into that. I wanted to ask you a little about your equipment. I read a while back where you said you were considering, or maybe you were using heavy gauge flat wound strings...
Yeah I have different guitars for different projects. And with the Postizos I do half of it on either a 12 string or a tres, mostly a 12 string that I try to make sound like a tres and the other half on a jazz guitar, an ES 225. Which has a couple of P-90 pickups in it. And I like to use flat wound strings. I mean the truth is the bigger the strings the better they sound.
And it would also seem--and I think you may have even said this in the interview I was reading--that it sort of helps you in your desire to sort of struggle with the instrument per se. So it seems like the heavy strings would be applicable to your style.
Considering the manner in which you use the guitar, do you find that your guitars take a pretty serious beating?
Yeah I would say so... unfortunately.
When you tour heavily do you go through more than one guitar a tour?
No, I don't tour that long anymore. I got a kid so I try not to stay on the road for too long. But yeah, I'm not the nicest person to my equipment.
And in looking at Saints and Don't Blame Me you seem to have an interest in playing almost toy guitars, I don't know what else to call them really.
Yeah that's right. There is a particular guitar. But I don't only use that to be masochistic; I actually like the way it sounds. That guitar was given to me, or maybe it was leant, I have to ask him, but by Mark Anthony Thompson [aka Chocolate Genius], and it's an Audition, I've never seen another one like it before or since, but I really like it. What I do with that guitar, I tune the whole thing down to somewhere between a major third and perfect fourth, so I tune it all very low so the strings are almost flopping around. It's great, that way even if I have no chops I can just play. But the guitar down in that range is very beautiful.
I'm curious what you have in store for the future. Any more movie scores perhaps, and just sort of where you are going to focus your attention for the next big project?
Yeah a couple possible film things are in the works. Well there's one film that is premiering this weekend in Berlin, I didn't do the whole score, I just had some music on it. It's a film called The Time We Killed by Jennifer Reeves. And Jennifer is a young experimental filmmaker. And initially when she called me she was like, "Oh well there's not much money in it." So I said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, just send me a videotape of it and I'll look at it." And she said, "No you gotta come down and see it because I'm using two projectors at the same time." And I said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I've known people who have done that, I've seen it." But she kept being persistent so I said, "OK, it's not far away I'll go take a look." And I was all pissed off thinking, "Why is she putting me through this bullshit?" So I went down and I looked, and I was really blown away. She is really good. So that's a new project that's coming out on film. A collaboration with dancer Keeley Garfield coming up, and I don't know, a couple little things. And I also have a trio called The Mystery Trio, which has actually become a quintet right now. I added DJ Mutamassik and the guitarist Morgan Kraft, and that's my big plans for the summer. And they just had a baby together, so we are going to do some kind of tour this summer but I want them to bring the baby. And it will be the new improvising parameter that anybody is allowed to stop playing in order to take care of the baby. We're going to be pioneers of baby-friendly touring. It will be a new random element.
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