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Interview: Marc Ribot - A Rocker in Disguise

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Interview: Marc Ribot - A Rocker in Disguise

Ribot with the 1963 Jaguar that, plugged into a '60s Deluxe Reverb, handled the bulk of the tones on his new album. Photo by Barbara Rigon.

Three chords and the truth. How many times have you heard that simple formula? Playing in a rock band is simple: Just crank it up and go, right? Well, for avant-garde godfather Marc Ribot, it’s a bit more complicated. “Shortly after 2001, I decided to come out of the closet and do a rock band, dammit,” he remembers. “I thought it would be easy because it was all I did during high school and junior high. I tried a bunch of different musicians and it was interesting, but it wasn’t really working.”

It was on a gig that bassist/electronic alchemist Shahzad Ismaily boldly approached Ribot and offered his services. “He came up to me and said, ‘You know, this could be really good but you have the wrong musicians.’ I asked him who he would suggest and he said, ‘Me and [drummer] Ches Smith,’” Ribot explains. “I’m an agreeable sort of guy—so we started a band.” Thus, Ceramic Dog was formed.

When the group’s first album, Party Intellectuals, was released in 2008, Ribot saw his first taste of success with a straight-up rock band. The trio is raw, powerful, and fluid, mixing influences that range from the West Coast “cool” jazz of Dave Brubeck with the take-no-prisoners approach of an amped-up indie rock band trying to make its mark.

On Your Turn [Northern Spy Records], Ceramic Dog’s latest release, the group embraces its experimental side and adds something that most left-of-center collectives seem to forget—groove. With Smith and Ismaily flowing through everything from light swing (“The Kid is Back!”) to Ramones-inspired punk jams (“Ritual Slaughter”), it’s obvious that their roots run deep. Ribot discusses his inspirations (including some of his No Wave influences), why his bands are sometimes in “disguise,” and how technology has affected his music.

I have to say, you come up with some of the coolest band names.

I'm glad to hear what you said about the name because I was kicking myself, thinking, "Man, I think these names are so obscure and now I'm stuck with them." It's good to hear that someone likes them.

Tell me a little about what lead you to Ceramic Dog?

I have always, for years, been doing projects that are essentially rock bands in disguise. Rootless Cosmopolitans was a rock band disguised as a new music band. Los Cubanos Postizos was really a punk rock band disguised as a Cuban music band. A lot of things I’ve done, even the Albert Ayler project [Spiritual Unity]—because it translates to guitar—is some kind of weird punk-rock band disguised as playing the music of Albert Ayler. Although, it's true that the definitions break down somewhere near that border.

You mentioned that several of your previous projects were actually rock-influenced bands in disguise. Why did you feel the need to disguise them?

Saying "disguised" is a little bit of an exaggeration. In other words, I like approaching things indirectly. For example, if I were a saxophone player, I would have never done the Albert Ayler project. Something interesting happens when you try to translate something. I never think in verbal language or musical language, translation simply does not create the original meaning. It creates a new meaning whether you want to or not. But I want it to. I knew that bringing the Ayler material into guitar was going to change it and also change the guitar. I knew in advance so it wasn't entirely an unconscious thing. I wanted to draw some connections. I knew when I played that material on guitar it was going to mess with some people's assumptions about what "jazz" is as well. People who would only listen to a certain type of punk rock would find themselves being moved by an Albert Ayler composition. It wasn't exactly like I had a dirty secret and was trying to hide it. I knew that was where I came from and there's nothing I could or would want to do about that.

With Ceramic Dog did you find that influences from your more formative years surfaced more so than in your other projects?

I have had a lot of formative years [laughs]. I think I'm still having them, hopefully. Yeah, an important time for me was when I started working with the Lounge Lizards and was listening to a lot of No Wave players and musicians in New York.

Like who?

I was listening to DNA, Arto Lindsey. I mean, I’d studied jazz stuff, but what Arto played seemed to me to be closer to the music I liked than what any jazz guitarist was doing. He was playing complete noise. Fred Frith, James "Blood" Ulmer—just a lot of people. I have to also mention Joe Mars, but he was not a big draw on the No Wave circuit, he was someone I was listening to at the time. Basically, the thing about this project is that we just want to rock the house. A lot of earlier influences too, like the MC5. Bands like that.

The vibe you captured on this album is a group just stashed away in a basement somewhere just banging out these tunes. What were some of the difficulties of making this album?

There are two answers to that question. One, this is the second CD and the second CD for any type of band is usually notoriously difficult. We tried a bunch of different directions and they kinda didn't work and we tried some different technologies before we settled on the right format. Most of this record was recorded in Shahzad's basement/recording/rehearsal space. If it sounds like a bunch of people who got together in a basement, that's what it was. Some of it was recorded at a much more professional studio—Brooklyn Recording. It was difficult as a second record because second records always take time [laughs]. Either that or they suck. Or both. I find that pleasure is kind of like the horizon; it keeps disappearing as you approach it. You have to define it. It's not as tangible as it could seem at first. So yeah, it took a while to find the right language.

As great and meaningful as your influences are, they do change you. Do you feel like when you head back towards more of a "beginner's mind," influences could sometimes be a burden?

Like I say, "It's always revealing." [laughs]. I don't think that you can go back per se. The obstructing angel guards the gate of the Garden of Eden and it guards the way back to high school, too. It's not a simple process to become naive again. In other words, I don't think I could be Arto Lindsay. I never thought I could be Arto Lindsay after I’d already learned how to play music. But, what I could be was someone who was smart enough to understand why Arto's playing was great. I could be someone who valued that. Just because I know how to play all of this stuff doesn't mean I have to be a muso.

When you take the mystery out of the technical side of music, it can be difficult to partition that side of your brain when you go to play a style of music that isn't as technically demanding.

I find a lot of unity in some odd places. I find some correspondences that are surprising between different kids of music that’s been constructed as being very different. I found energy in Arsenio Rodr’guez's music that I recall from certain mosh pits at CBGB. I find energy in certain material of Albert Ayler that also feels familiar to me from the best of certain punk-rock moments or certain No Wave moments. It's not accidental that a lot of people on the No Wave scene were into Albert Ayler. He was a jazz musician and I'm sure he was trained in the technique involved in jazz, but that's not what speaks to me in his music. What speaks to me is a certain courage. He had the guts to really go for some big themes and speak in a prophetic voice.

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