Marc Ribot’s Linguistics of Improvisation
AJ: Did you know that Trey Anastasio played Aqui Como Alla on his solo tour?
MR: (excitedly) Did he really? Oh cool, I had no idea. He’s free to do it too! They’re great tunes, what can I say?
AJ: You worked with Trey on the Surrender to the Air album and concerts. Those shows are legendary among Phish fans. What did you think about the project?
MR: It was a large band. When I put together improv gigs I do not have 12 piece bands. Zorn puts together large ensembles but he always breaks it up into duos and trios. Surrender to the Air was a take no prisoners concert. I was amazed that the fans were willing to go through some hard listening to make it to the very beautiful moments. I was a bit jealous of the Phish’s relationship with their fans. Phish has trained their fans well. I played in the same room a year earlier with my group Shrek. We opened up for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and we played some rude stuff. But nothing ruder than Surrender to the Air. After seven minutes of standing with their mouths open the audience started pelting us with stuff.
May Trey be blessed for bringing Marshall Allen to the project. Marshall is a major improviser of the world. Trey was smart for drawing a connection between downtown improvisers and the Sun Ra guys. It is a natural connection that is not exploited enough. Trey was very wise in who he picked for the project and that is why it was so interesting. It takes a while for a group of musicians to find a language. But there was some amazing improv on stage,
AJ: You recently released “Shoe String Symphonettes,” a collection of music from various film projects. You have also worked with John Zorn on his Filmworks series. How is composing music for movies different than composing for your own bands?
MR: In a band you have to set limits as to what the band will be. You set limits so that it has an identity, a sound and a concept. The limits make a band be what it is. Whereas in film composition the only limit is each individual scene. In one scene you will have country music and another scene might be hip hop. You have a wide pallet to choose from, however you might also have a basic sound for the whole score. It is very powerful writing for a film because sometimes the director doesn’t even know what the key moments are. The music can tell the listener “this is important, remember this.” It can make the listener remember key scenes by recapitulating the music later in the film. It can tie things up that need to be tied.
AJ: I’ve heard that some composers just write the music without even seeing the film. Do you watch these movies as you compose the music for them?
MR: Yes, I’ve seen these movies first. I watch them a lot before I begin writing to make sure I understand the structure and what the films are about. Aletia, Queen of Mars is a Soviet science fiction silent movie from the 20s. I did a live music performance synchronized to the film in England at the Meltdown festival in 95 or 96.
AJ: On “Shoestring Symphonettes” you did not keep all the songs from the same movie together. The songs of each movie are separated and scattered throughout the album. Why did you do that?
MR: I wanted to make the CD listenable in its own right as a piece. In the movies the music is separated by five minutes of dialogue. If you just put the music on a CD as one long piece it is not so pleasant. I wanted the CD to be its own movie.
AJ: Surf guitar is one of your trademark styles. But yet you have never made a surf guitar record. Why is that?
MR: No I never have and I don’t know why. As a matter of fact I was just talking to Medeski about that the other day. It’s definitely not on the horizon – but some day…
AJ: You are an incredibly diverse musician. Are there any genres of music you want to play but haven’t had the chance to yet?
MR: Well, I never got into Hawaiian. It’s always been an ambition to become James Brown in the late 60s.
AJ: All of your projects are drastically different. Is there some sort of common thread in your playing that ties them all together?
MR: When I’m asked to play on a song I just try to make it sound good to me. Sometimes people are grateful to have their stuff trashed because some songs are made that way. All of these things have common elements but style is something that should be after the fact. I just go song by song, one note at a time. I’m in the 12 step music program.
AJ: How would you describe your playing style?
MR: I have a basic contradiction. I’m basically a rocker and yet I am a trained musician. I don’t see the two things as going hand and hand. That war is what you hear.
AJ: The title of your recent CD, “Yo! I Killed Your God” is a bit controversial. What is the meaning of that title?
MR: The title has to do with ideas that later became the known as the Radical Jewish Culture series. (Note – The Radical Jewish Culture is an ongoing series of Jewish inspired albums, concerts and projects organized by John Zorn). In Rootless Cosmopolitans during the late 80s we were talking about what records we were listening to. And the only one we all had in common was Public Enemy’s album Fear of a Black Planet. I wondered whether it was possible to access the same type of creative rage in terms of Jewish issues and that answer is no.
AJ: Do you still tour with famous pop and rock musicians?
MR: If people call, I will tour if I can. I was supposed to do the current Tom Waits tour. But then he changed the schedule and it conflicted with a Postizos tour I had to do. I would have loved to have done it.
AJ: It has always seemed to me that jazz bands don’t stay together as long as rock bands. The lineups of jazz bands are always changing while rock bands more constantly keep the same band members together for long periods of time. Why do you think there is such a difference?
MR: Do you think that is really true? I’m not so sure that it is true. The bands you get to know are rock bands that sell the same numbers of records with every album. There might be a technical reason. Rock bands sign record company contracts as a band. They have to stay together to sell records and complete their contract. On the other hand jazz projects usually follow a leader/sidemen arrangement. Not so many jazz acts are signed as bands. The leader is the one who signs the contract. I think a lot of rock bands would change members more frequently if they could get away with it.