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Marc Ribot: The Poet of Skronk on Ceramic Dog, Frantz Casseus, Charlie Chaplin and Social Activism

I don't recall exactly where I may have first seen Marc Ribot perform. Was it on stage at the Beacon Theater in New York on Nov. 21, 1985 when he was backing Tom Waits on his Rain Dogs tour? Or did his stint with John Lurie's Lounge Lizards begin before that? His gig with John Zorn's Bar Kokhba might've overlapped in there as well. Hard to say. But at some point, Ribot definitely seemed to be everywhere on the scene as a valued and explosive sideman.

Here's a clip of a young Ribot with The Lounge Lizards from a 1989 episode of NBC's Night Music show, co-hosted by American alto sax great David Sanborn and British keyboardist Jools Holland, whose interminable chatter in introducing tunes was the lone drag on an otherwise revelatory Season 1 of that late, lamented must-see Sunday night program. Check Ribot's skronking solo (at the 3:53 mark) of "Voice of Chunk," the raucous title track of the group's 1988 album.

And what is skronk? The term was initially coined by The Village Voice writer Robert Christgau, dubbed "Dean of American Rock Critics, as an onomatopoeic for raw, ugly, discordant noise made by No Wave band like DNA, and particularly applied to the group's guitarist Arto Lindsay, the Godfather of Skronk.

The term 'skronk' would come to apply to a whole lineage of edgy guitarists who embraced noise as part of their musical palette, including Sonny Sharrock, Robert Quine, Nels Cline, Thurston Moore, Bill Frisell (with John Zorn's Naked City) and, of course, Ribot.

I definitely do recall the moment when I first saw Ribot on stage as a bandleader. It was at the old Knitting Factory (back when Michael Dorf's emporium of all things edgy and hip was located at its original site on Houston Street). Ribot was premiering his new band Rootless Cosmopolitans in the wake of their 1990 self-titled debut on the upstart Island/Antilles label. I'll never forget their decidedly punk, off-kilter rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary" with Ribot fairly sneering the lyrics in a monotone "I don't give a fuck" fashion before unleashing a skronking solo that made my teeth chatter.

I continued to follow Ribot's progress through the years on record and in concert with The Lounge Lizards, Arto Lindsay's Ambitious Lovers, Elvis Costello, John Zorn's The Dreamers, The Jazz Passengers, Marianne Faithfull, Laurie Anderson, Caetano Veloso, Cibo Matto, Chocolate Genius, Medeski Martin & Wood, Marisa Monte, Bill Ware, Dave Douglas, Masada Guitars, Susana Baca, Cassandra Wilson, McCoy Tyner, Allen Toussaint, Joe Henry, Jeff Bridges, Madeleine Peyroux, Kris Davis, Gordon Grdina's Haram and Alison Krauss & Robert Plant, as well as his own bands Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos and The Young Philadelphians. And I got to conduct lengthy interviews with him on two occasions -- once for the 2015 Winter edition of Jazziz and more recently for the September 2023 issue of Downbeat:

JAZZIZ, 2015

With his shock of gray-white hair and spectacles balancing on the end of his nose as he reads down a score on a music stand before him, Marc Ribot, who celebrated his 60th birthday earlier this year, more resembles a venerable professor today than a dangerous downtown gunslinger whose services were retained by the likes of Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull and the Lounge Lizards during the 1980s. On this brisk October morning, Ribot is sitting in his apartmment in Brooklyn's cozy Cobble Hill neighborhood, sipping espressos. As acting president of the Content Creators Coalition, an organization dedicated to addressing the troubling financial concerns of artists in the digital realm, he's been preparing for an upcoming benefit concert and for a demonstration in front of the New York headquarters of Google, which owns You Tube, one of the Coalition's main adversaries.

Taped to the door of Ribot's apartment is a cheery, impressionistic rendering of the guitarist and his daughter Clara, drawn by her 14 years ago when she was 4. A gig poster from Europe of his edgy rock band Ceramic Dog is displayed on one wall of the living room, near a few guitars propped up in their cases. Ribot's main axes -- his trusty '63 Fender Jaguar and a vintage Gibson L-5 -- are at the Manhattan studio where he is currently working with producer Hal Willner on his next album, Map of a Blue City. For the past several years, while continuing to work with Waits and Costello (and with Diana Krall, Costello's wife, on 2012’s Glad Rag Doll ), the guitarist has also been an MVP in several of composer John Zorn’s ensembles, including Electric Masada, Bar Kokhba and The Dreamers.

Ribot debuted as a leader himself in 1990 with Rootless Cosmopolitans, a solid outing that included twisted/cryptic versions af Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary' and George Harrison’s "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." He released his major-label debut on Atlantic Records in 1998 with a self-titled album by his band Los Cubanos Postizos, which specialized in playing the son-based music of legendary Cuban mambo pioneer Arsenio Rodríguez.

On his subsequent release, 2001's Saints, the Newark native revealed a fondness for the music of free jazz icon Albert Ayler on ‘skronking’ versions of "Witches and Devils" and the title track. Ribot's interest in Ayler's music bloomed fully on 2005's Spiritual Unity, which featured two avant garde icons in bassist Henry Grimes (who had played on several Ayler recordings during the ‘6os) and trumpeter Roy Campbell along with Chicago drummer Chad Taylor. That core trio of Ribot, Grimes and Taylor returned on 2014's recent offering, Live at the Village Vanguard, which documented raw, passionate versions of Ayler's "The Wizard" and “Bells,” along with searing takes of John Coltrane's "Dearly Beloved" and "Sun Ship" and lovely interpretations of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein show tune "Old Man River" and the jazz standard 'I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)."

You're an incredibly versatile musician with eclectic tastes but it's likely that people who have heard you skronking with Zorn or Ceramic Dog or on your Ayler stuff are probably not familiar with your son montuno music with Los Cubanos Postizos or the music that you've performed and recorded by Haitian classical-guitar master Frantz Casseus.

Yeah, in fact I just did a book of transcriptions of Frantz's music. I began by studying guitar with Frantz Casseus when I was 10 years old. I just knew him as a family friend, but I found out much later on that he's considered to be the father of Haitian classical guitar and was also regarded as a great composer.

Wasn't this some kind of serendipitous meeting?

Very serendipitous. Frantz had moved from Haiti to the United States in 1948 to pursue a career as a classical guitar composer, which was a very bold move at the time. Another motivation for coming here was that he wanted to meet Fats Waller, but Fats died the year that Frantz arrived. At the time, my father was interning at Harlem Hospital and a mutual friend of theirs was a doctor who was also a jazz plano player, a guy named Percy Brazil. So my father and Frantz met at a party that Percy Brazil was throwing, and they became lifelong friends. That's how I got introduced to him. Back then, I wanted to learn how to play like Keith Richards, but these fine points on the difference between Keith Richards and Frantz Casseus were lost on my parents. They figured, "Guitar is guitar, Frantz is looking for students. It's a perfect fit!” And so it was settled. My parents were living in South Orange and Frantz was living on the Upper West Side on West 87th Street in Manhattan, so l used to take my little guitar case on the Path train every Sunday and head up there to take lessons with Frantz. I started when I was 10 and was going there by myself when I was 12 or 13. You know, kids used to do that more in those days. They were more independent than kids today. People didn't think twice about it back then.

Most people are probably unaware that you also played with Jack McDuff, Solomon Burke and Wilson Pickett before you had ever met John Zorn or Tom Waits. Can you talk about that whole period?

As a kid growing up on the fringe of Newark, we listened to the radio at night and we'd hear a lot of soul-jazz, which I always thought was cool. By the time I was in my 20s, I was going to jam sessions and trying to play with local players around New York. And I heard through a musician friend of mine, Joe Ravo, who was playing with Stanley Turrentine, that Jack McDuff had an opening for a guitarist. And I thought, "Wow! Why not me? This could be great." So I went up to McDuff's apartment and I auditioned for him and got the gig. And to be honest, I don't think I was that good. I loved the music but Jack McDuff had high standards, having been the very first band leader for George Benson.

Right, there's a whole lineage of great guitarists who came through McDuff's band, including Grant Green and Pat Martino.

Exactly. And I certainly wasn't anywhere near their level. Anyway, at that point I was studying jazz, going to local jam sessions, spending all the time I could playing with other musicians.

And, actually, a few years earlier, when I lived in Maine for a while, I played some gigs with an organ trio led by a guy there named Gene Williams. There weren't many R&B bands in Maine but I managed to find some guys who were playing R&B, too. And I was also playing with rock bands and whatever else I could find

Were you sort of emulating Grant Green's stuff to get by on that McDuff gig?

Yeah, I just did my best to emulate the records. I had memorized some Wes Montgomery solos and listened to a lot of Grant Green records. It was a sound I really liked. I mean, even to this day, Grant Green is one of my favorites. One thing about his playing, and that was true of that whole scene, was that the rhythmic authority was unbelievable. And this was something that I tried very hard to emulate, with not always perfect success. So playing with McDuff was a great education. It was a very hard but good school. We played at places in Newark like Sparky J's and The Key Club. We played the whole B-3 circuit -- Indianapolis, Rochester, New, Baltimore, Gary, Indiana, Harlem -- and it was the best audiences that I ever played for because their level of musical sophistication was so high. It's rare that audiences reward restraint, but these audiences did. If you held back and didn't play a note, people got into it. Whereas, I find that with a certain kind of rock audience, they seem to mistake the guitar for a trumpet. They think that if you play something really high that you're doing something really difficult. So it was a great experience to be playing in that environment for the four months or so that I was in the band. MeDuff was a very tough bandleader, but what could you say? He was Brother Jack McDuff.

Did that gig lead right into your stint with Wilson Pickett?

When I was playing with McDuff I was also doing freelance stuff, playing with singer-songwriters, playing weddings, doing whatever I could do. McDuff would take a few weeks off and I would try to get gigs during the downtime. That's how it was. That's how it is today. And so, I met some other players who had this group called Brenda and the Real Tones, which was a kind of a white punk R&B band featuring this singer Brenda Bergman. We were playing at CBGBs, doing Sam & Dave-oriented music, but with more of an edge. The band eventually started working outside of just Brenda and started backing up other people. Eventually we became the house band at Tramps, and somehow the band turned into the Uptown Horns band. At the time, in the early 8os, Tramps was having a Stax/Volt revival, so we did week-long runs with Rufus and Carla Thomas, Solomon Burke, Syl Johnson and other R&B artists who would come to town. The drummer in that house band, Crusher Green, got me on the Wilson Pickett gig around ’82. I just did one tour with Pickett. It was supposed to be a month but Wilson got tired of touring so he decided to end the tour, and he did it in a very flamboyant way. He ended the tour by causing a riot in a club in Paris. Booking agents still talk in horror about that gig.

What did he do?

It was a Soul Clan tour, so that meant before we'd play with Wilson, we'd also back up Carla Thomas and then Eddie Flovd. At this one particular gig in Paris, Wilson was supposed to come on, so the band is vamping and playing different things to kill time. Eventually we left the stage because Wilson just wasn't showing up. But the people waited. Wilson finally showed up an hour and a half later and people were going bonkers by this time. The club was packed, something like 600-700 people. So Wilson comes on and he does one tune, and then he leaves! He walked off the stage, right out the back door, into his car and split. And I had the foresight to say, "Man, let's get our stuff. This is gonna go bad." And sure enough, it did. French people can throw a decent riot, I can tell you. We were hiding in the basement and we listened. You could hear chairs and windows breaking, everything getting smashed up there. And somehow we made it out of that place alive.

Sounds like a scene from The Blues Brothers movie.

After that unfortunate event, I went on the road briefly with Solomon Burke and we played a gig in D.C., which is where we recorded that album Soul Alive! in 1983. That whole Stax/Volt sound is still music that's close to my heart and I was very lucky that I was able to get that experience. Normally, to get that kind of experience you'd have to live through some really rough road work. But we'd do these week-long runs at Tramps and be able to sleep in our own beds at night, so that was nice. That whole R&B experience was very rewarding. And I don't think this is exactly a secret, but a lot of the free-jazz players started out in R&B and jump-blues bands. Ornette Coleman, Albert Avler, John Coltrane — they all had experience with really heavily blues-based music.

When did Albert Ayler come into the picture for you?

I started playing with the Lounge Lizards in 1984 and kept that up until 1989. John Lurie was influenced by Albert Ayler and even titled one of his pieces "My Memory of Albert Ayler." So I started to listen a bit then. And the band live would have these really extended improvising sections without the usual kind of bebop chord changes. For all intents and purposes, we were playing free. So I started drawing on Ayler's influence for that. In 1989, I started to do my own band, Rootless Cosmopolitans. Anthony Coleman was the keyboardist in the band, and I was writing certain tunes that sounded kind of like bugle calls because I was writing them based on guitar harmonics. And one day Anthony said, "This stuff sounds like Albert Ayler. You should listen to Bells." So I did, and that was it. That's what rocked my world.

It seems like your solo album 'Saints' was a breakthrough for you in terms of critical acclaim and acceptance on a larger scale than had existed for you before.

Yeah, before that I did a solo record on the Japanese label DIW called Don't Blame Me, which was a kind of forerunner to Saints. I played Ayler's "Ghosts" and a bunch of jazz standards, and critics liked it. But it was an import, so nobody heard it. When I eventually recorded Saints for Atlantic, it did get more notice.

Besides Los Cubanos Postizos, your Albert Ayler free jazz group, your raucous rock trio Ceramic Dog and your Solo Guitar Works of Frantz Casseus, you also recorded a whimsical collection of delicate solo guitar pieces, 'Silent Movies,' which was inspired by Charlie Chaplin's classic film 'The Kid.' It’s hard to grasp that all of this wildly divergent music comes from the same person.

Well, you know, sometimes it's different strokes for the same folks. I don't know. I just sit here in my apartment, and I play. Different things come out and I try to put them together in somewhat cogent projects.

Recording that Ayler music at the Village Vanguard was a great triumph. How did it feel to play on such hallowed ground? Did you feel the ghost of Trane in the room?

Oh, you definitely feel it. Not to mention the ghost of Ayler and many other people. You might

feel it specifically on spiritual or paranormal-activity grounds, but you also hear it in the acoustics of the place. There's something kind of magical about that little triangle-shaped room. When you sit on stage in the room and play, you think, "Wow, we're sounding like those records!" And you realize it's because all those records -- especially certain key ones that were very important for me -- were recorded there.

One thing I read about you that I didn't know is that you're left-handed and you play right-handed.

Oh, yeah, that's the secret of my so-called style. I remember confronting my teacher Frantz when it became obvious that I was going to be a professional guitarist. I said, "You know I'm left-handed, right? How come you didn't teach me to play left handed?" He said, ”Oh, it was because your mother said you were only pretending to be left-handed to annoy her." And when I told my mother that, she said, "Oh, no, that's not it at all. Frantz was just too lazy to change the strings around on the guitar. He said he figured you'd quit in a few weeks anyways." And when I thought about it, I realized that they were probably both telling the truth.

I wonder if that gives you any kind of advantage or disadvantage on playing the instrument.

Well, it did both. For one thing, it made it very clear that I was not going to be the next George Benson. There was a kind of extreme virtuosity that was just never in the cards for me. At a certain point I really wished it could've been, but then I started realizing that limitations are beautiful. A lot of what I wound up doing came out of that limitation. I mean, I started listening to people who played more slowly. B.B. King, for example, wasn't playing at the same tempos as Joe Pass or Sonny Stitt. He was playing with a lot more economy. And so I gravitated toward players who used a lot of economy. Grant Green can certainly play his ass off but he could also play solos that were very sparse and economical.

Tell me about your involvement with the Content Creators Coalition.

I've been doing a lot of volunteer work with this group, which is attempting to win economic justice in the digital domain for creators, including musicians, writers and artists. We're very involved in issues of digital exploitation. As I began to learn about what's going on, I came to understand that the next 18 months to two years are going to determine for the rest of our working lives whether most music as a recorded art form — beyond the top one percent of commercial artists — is economically viable. It will determine what gets made and who can participate in making it. There are a lot of choices that we're faced with, as individuals and as a group, and we need to act right now. Google, which owns YouTube, and a number of other streaming services are mounting a huge effort to change the legal environment and the economic environment in ways that will make it impossible for the overwhelming majority of working artists to do their work. I should say, the overwhelming majority of working artists who lack trust funds. Obviously, if you can afford to self-finance, you can do whatever you want.

But aren't we becoming a culture right now, particularly with kids, where people expect music to be free?

Kids uploading material to share with their friends is an insignificant percentage of what is actually hurting musicians ability to earn a livelihood from what we do. This is about corporations -- seriously monetized commercial enterprises -- uploading hundreds of thousands of titles of music and film so that they can sell advertising space to the people who visit the site. That music and film is incidental; it's bait for the real commercial enterprise. However, whether it's bait or not, the fact that it's being posted and the fact that if somebody Googles your last record they can get a bunch of sites that come up where they can obtain it for free. That is tremendously damaging to artists. And it's destroyed the economy for recorded music. The industry has collapsed by more than 60 percent. That figure is based on CD and vinyl sales, iTunes and other monetizable forms. And pretty much everyone has agreed that they are not going to exist in three or four years.

Sounds pretty bleak.

People tend to compare streaming services to radio. You could always turn on radio and hear music for free. But it's a bad comparison for two reasons. One is, radio was an analog copy of people's records; it wasn't the records themselves. With digital, it is in fact the record itself. And people can parse the technical differences forever, but the simple fact is this: Radio augmented the sales of records and CDs; streaming services are replacing the sales of records and CDs. And if you replace the sale of something that people got paid for with either the black market, which gives nothing to the creator, or with streaming service rates measured in the thousandth of a penny, from which creators get next to nothing, then it's simply not sustainable. And what I mean by that is this: If you can't make back from a record what it cost you to pay your basic production costs. then most people can't make another record. And so, essentially recorded music, except for the very top commercial acts or those who can afford to self finance, is in the process of being shut down.

Well, you can't take these thoughts to the bandstand when you play music.

No. I may be the band on the Titanic, but goddamn it, I’m gonna give it my all and make the people dance. I'm gonna party like it’s 1999. Ah, the good old days.


The last time I interviewed you was about 10 years ago. It was in your apartment in Brooklyn and I remember there was a drawing of you on your refrigerator that your daughter had done when she was a little kid. s a little kid, and she had some artwork on the refrigerator.

Oh, yeah. Well, now she's 26 and living in L.A. You know, all growed up. And I don't know...I've grown something, but I don't know if it's up.

I read your recent book, 'Unstrung: Rants and Stories of a Noise Guitarist.' I found your writing on our late pal Bob Quine to be very moving and beautiful.

Oh, thank you. That was republished from...I think it was in Bomb originally. It was published at the time that he died. Poor Quine.

I was at that memorial for Quine over at the Carmine Street guitar store when you played a very sick, Ayler-esque solo guitar rendition of "Summertime." That just wiped me out. I was actually in tears.

Oh, right. Quine turned me on to that tune. It's from his album My Name Is Albert Ayler.

Yeah, Quine loved 'sick' guitar. And I was thinking of him as I was listening to your new Ceramic Dog record, Connection. I was like, "Wow, Quine would have loved that song "Subsidiary."

(Laughs) Yeah, I like to think so, too. No, it's a rock record, for sure.

And then I thought, "John Lennon would have loved "Soldiers in the Army of Love.'"

Wow. Well, um, I hope some people who are alive like them, too.

I've been listening to the previous Ceramic Dog records, beginning with 2008's Party Intellectuals and continuing with 2018's YRU Still Here? and 2021's Hope. And I'm seeing a continuum from Rootless Cosmopolitans to the present.

Well, yes. I mean, definitely. Starting with Rootless Cosmopolitans, I've always had like big affection for No Wave. When I was old enough to figure out what I liked and when that came along, I said, "OK, this is it. This is what I like." And I see it in a larger category that also includes the Ornette Coleman's Prime Time band and Sonny Sharrock and Blood Ulmer, too. I see it all as basically the same same music.

Quine with the Voidoids. Arto with DNA.

Yeah, definitely. Alrto with DNA and Arto post-DNA. But that said, it seems like I've kind of approached it a little indirectly. I mean, Rootless Cosmopolitans was a quasi-new music/jazz influenced project that was secretly a rock band. And the Cubanos Positvos was a son Cubano that was secretly a punk rock band. And etc., etc.. through a long line of projects. Eventually I just said, "Fuck it, I'm just going to do a rock band." And that's what Ceramic Dog is. And in the records we've done, I feel like it's gotten more and more focused in that direction.

When I'm talking about a continuum from Rootless Cosmopolitans, I'm thinking of that sort of No Wave version you did of "Wind Cries Mary" on that record. And drawing the connecting point right up to your kind of punk version of "That's Entertainment" on the new Ceramic Dog record.

Yeah, definitely. And that Hendrix tune also appeared on (1999's) Yo, I Killed your God. That also has a some common lines. Great, I'm glad you can hear a continuum, because I kind of called the band Rootless Cosmopolitans in order to defend myself in advance from accusations of being all over the place. So it's good to know there's some continuity there.

One thing that really comes out in this band, Ceramic Dog, and that I admire, is this great love of words that you have; this very clever wordplay that's been a thing with this band for a while. Where does that come from for you?

Well, you know, my aunt was a lyricist, a Brill Building songwriter, no less. So I think the first words that I learned, somewhere between 'mommy' and 'milk,' were "Where's the hook?" What can I say? I like words. I occasionally even speak them sometimes when I'm not playing music. It's hard to say where it comes from. I mean, I've always been writing tunes. Since the beginning, songs have been part of my band projects, even Cubanos Postizos. In fact, in Cubanos Postizos I ventured to write a song in Spanish, "Las Lomas de New Jersey," or "The Hills of New Jersey," which was dedicated to these garbage dumps that we used to drive past when we were on our way to Brooklyn to visit my grandparents. So I've always written songs and some of them have made their way onto these band project records. What I feel like I've developed more recently is somehow I've developed the ability to rant. I mean, I've always ranted, but it took me a while to realize that I was getting more and more deranged in my rants. And I finally realized if I wrote them down on paper that they were useful in some way. Yeah, I've kind of developed this ability to speak in tongues.

Like on "Heart Attack" or "The Activist," where you're stringing together words that are clever, that create a new third meaning from two words together...this sort of thing.

Well, I have a I have a process that I use in doing that. First, I just kind of basically rant the lyrics, and then I carefully comb through them to see if there's anything that suggests a narrative or makes sense. And I edit that out. (Laughs)

It's definitely focusing on the sound of the words.

Yeah, a lot of it is sonic. I'm very interested in perturbing unconscious associations and sonics. In fact, that's about all I'm interested in, as far as words go. What "Heart Attack" concerns...I was interested in the music of cursing in different languages, the sonics of it. Like you notice when men are cursing in English, they constrict the words in a certain way: "Fock! Fuck you, you fuckin fock!!" And there's a certain rhythm to it. So I was interested in that. And then I made the B section cursing in Italian. Because there's also a certain rhythm, a different rhythm, to cursing in Italian. All of these little national differences are interesting to me.

The K sound is very effective in cursing.

Yeah, yeah, exactly. Those sharp sounds: "You motherfucking cocksucker!" But not just saying 'em like that, but constricting it in a certain way. It's all in the delivery: "Fuck you, you fucking fuck! You fucking face-fucking motherfucker!!"

There's a couple of instrumentals on Connection. One of them, "No Name," triggered a memory of Fred Frith's "Dancing in the Street," if you remember that Martha & the Vandellas tune he covered on his 1980 album, Gravity.

You know what? I'm a huge fan of Fred Frith. I've always told students and other guitarists that if they haven't seen Fred improvise solo, it's one of the wonders of the world. It's a necessary part of calling yourself a literate guitarist. One of my main introductions to, I guess for want of a better word, 'free improvisation', was his pair of records with Henry Kaiser, With Friends Like These and Who Needs Enemies. Those were records that kind of gave me permission, which is the most you can hope to do for other people. I was like, "Wow, you can do this?!" I couldn't believe it. But I don't think I've heard that tune you mentioned. You're giving me a lot of good stuff to listen to.

Frith's instrumental cover of "Dancing in the Street" was sort of avant garde but still had a beat, a groove.

Well, on Connection -- even though I'm kind of quiet about it -- there's still a couple of ambitious compositional things. And one of them ("No Name") is that I wanted to do this absolutely straight eighth-note rock tune but that was polytonal. So this is completely polytonal. The bass line is in one key and the horn lines start to go into unrelated keys. The tune wasn't working at all. I mean, that was a concept that I really tried to realize it, but the tune wasn't working at all until I did two things. I added a noise element from the sympathetic strings of this electric sitar. But mostly Anthony Coleman overdubbed on it. Because I had some other people try to overdub before and they couldn't get it. But Anthony was able to really get the concept that I wanted: absolutely straight ahead soul-jazz comping, but polytonal. I wanted complete cliches in terms of the phrases but they had to be bridging the gap. So Anthony's keyboard functions as a kind of glue between these other unrelated keys. So I think polytonal rock tunes are going to be the next big thing.

Wasn't Anthony on 'Rootless Cosmopolitans'? There's another connection!

Yes, that's true. I think Anthony's the only person who bridged that entire span of my weird bands. Other tunes where I went for some kind of formal experiment -- the astute listener may notice on "Connection," the title track, that the tune is in 3/4 but the drums are in 4/4. So I tried a little of the old polyrhythm in a rock tune on that one.

That tune, not that it sounds like it, but just the name triggered my memory of that Rolling Stones tune "Connection," which had sort of a punk vibe to it. It was on Between the Buttons in '67. So that's like ten years before punk but it definitely had a snarling, kind of edgy punk vibe to it.

Well, I'll confess that that was a record I had as a kid, on vinyl. That and High Tide and Green Grass. I had most of the Stones albums.

What about Their Satanic Majesties Request?

Yes, the one with the psychedelic 3-D cover.

I did an interview with Keith Richards in1988 when he released his first solo album, Talk Is Cheap. I asked him about Their Satanic Majesties Request and he said, "That record was rubbish." He said it was all Mick's idea of trying to keep up with the Beatles' pyschedelic phase.


You touch on so many different vibes on this album. I'm getting a little Hendrix vibe on "Order of Protection," which has the sort of "Villanova Junction"/"Little Wing" kind of chords that he liked to play.

Yeah! OK, cool. I like Hendrix. I love Hendrix.

And "Swan" felt like Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" with the rubato drums wailing in the background. But then the use of James Brandon Lewis' tenor sax on there really brings this sort of Alyeresque free jazz vibe to it.

Well, you know, it's pretty clear that that's what Jimi was doing there, if your lens is a little wider than just the other bands that played at Woodstock.

Yeah, just check out the drummer. He's playing totally free. It could be Sonny Murray or Rashied Ali playing with Jimi on that tune.

Right. That's a good point. You know, I actually kind of dimly heard that live. It's something I always kick myself for but I actually went to Woodstock. Me and Sol, the drummer from my 15-year-old junior high school band Love Gun. We went to Woodstock. But unfortunately, for better or worse, of course, the first thing we did was take the brown acid. And so, we lost our sleeping bags and wandered around a daze for three days. By the morning of the third day, I just figured -- you know, I was like a big Hendrix fan but I figured if I want to hear Jimi Hendrix live at Woodstock I'll just get a bucket of mud, piss in it, put Hendrix on the box and put my head in the bucket. I didn't know he was going to die. So a little aside is, I heard that. And as we were walking away I could hear dimly in the background those first notes of "Star Spangled Banner" in the distance.

I actually got to see him in 1970 in Milwaukee, where I grew up. I think it was April and then he passed in September.

So that would have been with Band of Gypsys, right?

It was with Mitch Mitchell, who had replaced Buddy Miles shortly after that Fillmore East gig on New Year's day that year that was documented as Band of Gypsys.

Oh, interesting.

You mentioned earlier that your aunt was a songwriter. Is that the aunt who lived in the building with Frantz Casseus?

She lived on the same block as Frantz, different building. Her name was Rhoda Unger and she wrote under the name of Rhoda Roberts. She had tunes that were covered by Ella Fitzgerald ("Swingin' Shepard Blues" from her 1958 Verve single) and Frank Sinatra ("Golden Moment" from 1965's My Kind of Broadway). And I think The Big Bopper covered another one of her tunes. She wasn't as successful a songwriter as, say, Ellie Greenwich or somebody like that. But she did enough to stay in the game. And over the years she did a lot of stuff.

Coincidence. Last year the great Chicago-based guitarist Fareed Haque asked me to do liner notes for his Frantz Casseus tribute recording. And he talked about how you turned him on to his music.

Well, I'm so happy when people perform Frantz's music. We published a book of his music, and it really took years to put together in just combining from a lot of sources and checking it against his manuscript. Because there were a lot of mistakes in the original publications. So I checked it against his manuscript and his notebooks, reconciling the difference between the printed versions and what he recorded. So I got very nerdy about it. But I'm actively encouraging people to get to know Frantz's music.

And how do you actually pronounce his last name? Is it CA-see-us?

Ca-SAY-oos is probably more correct. But after being in New York he got used to people saying Cássius.

And what about your name? I've herad it pronounced different ways.

Well, those who know are no longer with us. It's REE-bo.

That's how Quine pronounced it. That's how I always pronounced it. But now I'm hearing a lot of people saying rih-BO.

Well, that's because they're educated people who went to school and learned French. But my French origins are very much in doubt. The family was Russian, Polish, Ukranian, Galician, also Hungarian Jewish. I'd like to think I was descended from the famous artists of Barcelona or the famous pre-Freudian psychologists of Paris. But it's hard to explain how that side of the family decided to convert to Judaism and move to Poland. It seems like a bad move. So my origins are in question.

Indeed. Tell me about this last track on the new Ceramic Dog album, "Crumbia." Is that a cumbia?

Yes, it is. I would say it's definitely a copy. Although E.J. Rodriguez [former percussionist with The Lounge Lizards and The Jazz Passangers and currently in Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos] got very mad at me and said, "Ribot! All the stops are in the wrong places." So it's a cumbia with the wrong stops, which at least one cumbia dancing person I know had criticisms of. But yeah, it's definitely a cumbia.

I looked in the credits and I'm hearing trombone but I don't see anyone listed.

Ah, that can only mean one thing, that I left myself off the credits, that I omitted my own E-flat horn playing.

Oh, so that's you? I thought it was trombone.

Well, then I'm very happy that I fooled you. You know, an E flat horn doesn't have a slide but it is in the trombone range. But it's more frequently found in Salvation Army bands or Italian religious festival marching bands.

I was wondering, "Is that Curtis Fowlkes? Who is that? What's going on there?"

Wow. You have no idea how much you're making my day with that. If I was mistaken for Curtis Fowlkes then...well, you are a very astute listener there, Bill.

That's a good party-time way to end the album, too. With farfisa organ, no less. Lovely touch.

Well, what's funny about this record is that the basic sessions were kind of a disaster. I can't say why. I think I was obsessing with pulling the record together so much that I didn't notice that my guitars were no longer functioning. You know, there was just little weird things that made the basic sessions problematical. So a lot of this was done in a one-day make up session and then overdubbing sessions after the fact. I think there was something about like, "Oh my God, this is a disaster" that pushed an alarm button. So I started cranking out good tunes. And then we recorded them. So "We are Soldiers in the Army of Love" and "Connection" were finished after the basic track, or partly constructed from pieces of the basic track. A lot of that was going on. And "Crumbia" was one of those tunes that came out after the basics. And all I can say is, we were in rescue-the-record mode, but it came out OK and I feel really good about it. I feel like this is the strongest record that Ceramic Dog has ever made. For me, anyway.

What about "Ecstasy"? Is that a calypso?

It doesn't fit neatly into a calypso formula. The guitar part is more salsa son. But the bass part is not strictly tumbao. It's just whatever Shahzad [Ceramic Dog bassist Shahzad Ismaily] came up with. It's definitely son influenced but it's not strictly speaking a son. It doesn't fit directly into that. What all of these things are -- maybe what everything I've ever done is -- is a kind of broader New York sound that includes all these things. It's Greater New York. That's the genre.

Start spreading the news!


I saw that clip of Ceramic Dog performing "Lies My Body Told Me" at the Gucci fashion in Italy. What was that like?

Well, I signed a fucking NDA, so I can't discuss it. But yeah, it was a lot of fun. I recomposed it for that event so instead of it being the four-minute version that is on (2013's) Your Turn, it's a 12-minute version. So we did a whole thing with a rave-up at the end and all that. And it was funny because all these famous supermodels that were in the show were hanging around afterwards when I was breaking down my equipment. And all they wanted to know was what kind of distortion pedal I was using. They all have bands, you know. They all play guitar.

Speaking of distortion, there was a nice chapter in your book called "Lies and Distortion" about your attitude towards using distortion. (

That was also a republication of something I wrote quite a while ago. Glad you dug it.

I like how you make that connection between your own use of distortion and Hubert Sumlin's. Because "Lies My Body Told Me" sounds an awful lot like "Wang Dang Doodle" to me.

Wow, you are really making my day, you know? To to be compared to Curtis Fowlkes and Hubert Sumlin in the same day...I can barely contain myself. I can rest easy now.

I think the last time I saw you play was the Young Philadelphians gig at 2016 Newport Jazz Festival (

Yeah, I remember that being a fun gig. I love playing with that band. If you can hear the string section, it's fantastic. And the longer we did that band, the better it sounded. We haven't done anything since COVID, though. We did a gig shortly before that. It's a hard band to book because it's seven pieces. But working with Jamal (Philly electric bass marvel Jamaaladeen Tacuma) and (Philly-born drummer ) Calvin Weston, it's always fantastic. I'm proud of that project because I wanted to see that manifest. What I tend to do is swim upstream. When I hear something I like, I want to see what it was made of, what led to it. For instance, a lot of people liked what Waits did on Rain Dogs, but I was interested in what made those sounds, what made those grooves? That led me to Arsenio Rodriguez. And I've always loved Jamal's and Calvin's playing with Ornette Coleman's Prime Time know, Ornette hired Jamal and Calvin when they were teenagers. And what those guys were coming out of was funk and Philadelphia soul, so I wanted to kind of make an ur-Prime Time band that went back and found that common language that later morphed into Prime Time. Also, I just wanted to jam with Calvin and Jamal. You know what I mean? I'm not an academic, so what I did with that album was I copied all the string arrangements from these popular Philly soul tunes from the '70s. But I couldn't afford to bring string players on the road, so I'd work with a different string player in each region we toured. So I had my American string players but there were also German ones when we toured Germany, and then I had a different Italian string section when we toured Italy. I'd arrive early that day or maybe the day before the concert, do a rehearsal with just the string players and then the next night we'd hit. But the deeper we got into it, we started to slice up the string parts and break them up into different motifs, and do some conduction with them, a la Zorn or Butch Morris...a combination of those systems. And so it started to get pretty crazy the more we worked with it.

Another band that you've been playing with lately is The Jazz-Bins, an organ group. Is that a connection to your McDuff days for you?

Yeah, that's it. Do you know Greg Lewis's playing?

Oh, yeah, I know his Organ Monk stuff that he's done.

Yeah. I'm responsible for dragging Greg Lewis backwards musically. I'm a bad influence on Greg Lewis. You know, McDuff basically kind of hated my playing, and it was traumatic. You can's the 23-year-old me and this is my first real band with a name artist, and all he does is give me dirty looks on the gig. McDuff was famous for his kind of death ray stare. I'd be trying to do a solo and he'd be glaring at me from the other side of the stage. I always had huge affection for the music, but it became clear to me, and it was certainly clear to McDuff, that I was never going to be George Benson. And in fact, McDuff reminded me quite regularly of the many ways in which I was not George Benson. And I would have given my left foot to be George Benson at that time. I would still give a couple of toes, you know. But anyways, I've always had huge affection for the organ soul-jazz groups of the '50s and '60s. And Brother Jack's evaluation of my playing aside, It was a great experience to play that circuit. One day I was over at Zorn's and I asked him to make me a compilation tape-- and he has the record collection of doom -- of some rare groove organ stuff from that classic period. So I got it and I transcribed it. And I've been doing gigs over the last many years -- every now and then, just for fun -- of that same material under the name Jazz-Bins. At first it was with whoever I could find, but when I met Greg Lewis, he became the regular because I think he's just an astounding organist. Also, amazingly, he's willing to lug a real Hammond B3 organ and Leslie cabinets to whatever joint I booked a gig in. That's a big plus too. So I always thought of it as a gig that I would do around town for fun, like if nothing else was happening, just so I could remember how to play guitar, you know? And that's kind of how it was for a while. But then we were having so much fun doing it that I started to tour with it. And we had a complete blast. So we're going to keep it going.

And Greg Lewis plays organ on a couple of tracks from 'Connection.'

Yes, that's right. And I've played on one of his records as well (2017's Organ Monk Blue). I adore Greg's playing. He's somebody who is so underrated as a talent. I was very happy to be introducing him to a lot of European audiences, and I hope his own projects take off. If his own projects do well as a result, I'd be very happy with that.

Are you still performing concerts of the Charlie Chaplin film music?

Oh, yes, whenever I get a call to do it. It's a little problematical because I can't do it in Europe because there are different rules there. Apparently, Chaplin requested that his films only be performed with his score; a fact which I found out after I'd already done a score for his film, The Kid, which was commissioned by the New York Guitar Festiva in 2008. Anyways, that's enforced by law in Europe and not in the United States and elsewhere, so I've done it in the U.S., Canada and Japan. I'd like to think that Charlie Chaplin wouldn't have minded my score.

And I felt that the film had something to say to contemporary audiences that my score brought out, which the original score, as much as I like it, did not. When you see it with the original score, it's very much stuck in its time. It's a film that documents something of the 1920s or 30s but when I looked at it without the score in 2008 during the market crash here, I heard it differently than Chaplin did. Also something interesting about that film is that the set was designed from Charlie Chaplin's own home street. It was designed to be exactly like the places he grew up in East London. And when you see the extreme poverty which that set and that film convey, it triggered different music for me than what Chaplin conceived for the film. The subject of that film is a woman who abandons a child because she doesn't have the money to raise it. Then a vagrant, played by Chaplin, takes in the child and the story becomes how they make money by breaking windows and then offering to fix them. You know, everything's a scam and it's about their survival. That didn't happen on another planet. It happened right in a major western city. And it could happen again. That's what I wanted to convey. By giving it a contemporary score, I wanted to underline that these were contemporary issues. In fact, not only could happen again, it is happening again.

As we speak.

Yes, to different people in different parts of the world, and to some people in our own city. So that's why I took it upon myself to respectfully ignore Charlie Chaplin's score.

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