Marc Ribot’s Rock Dreams


Ceramic Dog is, from right, Shahzad Ismaily, Ches Smith and Ribot.

(Photo: Ebru Yidiz)

There’s an unrepentant snarl to Marc Ribot’s voice on twisted tunes like “Subsidiary,” “Soldiers In The Army Of Love” and “Heart Attack” from Connection, the fifth release by his punk-edged power trio Ceramic Dog.

The wildly eclectic guitarist, who has recorded and toured with Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson, Susana Baca and Solomon Burke, was a member of the Lounge Lizards and the Jazz Passengers, and is a frequent collaborator on John Zorn projects like Bar Kokhba, Electric Masada, Book of Angels and The Dreamers. He has cut a remarkably wide swath stylistically since the 1980s. His own bands have reflected the depth and scope of his musical engagement, from his son-based Los Cubanos Postizos band to his harmolodic Philly soul group, The Young Philadelphians (with fellow guitarist Mary Halvorson, electric bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, drummer G. Calvin Weston and three-piece string section) to his swinging B-3 trio The Jazz-Bins (with organist Greg Lewis and drummer Chad Taylor) and free-jazz group Spiritual Unity (with trumpeter Roy Campbell, bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Taylor). Ribot has also interpreted the beguiling melodies of his mentor, the Haitian-born guitarist-composer Frantz Casséus. In fact, in 1989 he recorded his Haitian Suite and in 2014 published a collection of newly discovered Casséus compositions with Guitar Works. But his Ceramic Dog has another bark entirely.

A kind of stripped-down, skronkier version of Ribot’s Rootless Cosmopolitans band of the 1990s, this fringe rock trio featuring bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith has maintained a scorched-earth policy since debuting in 2008 with Party Intellectuals. Along the way they’ve also turned in stinging parodies of familiar tunes. For example, on 2013’s Your Turn, there was Paul Desmond’s “Take Five”; on Connection, it’s the Hollywood classic “That’s Entertainment.”

“It’s a rock record, for sure,” said Ribot in a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn, a day before embarking on a European tour with Ceramic Dog. “I’ve always had big affection for No Wave. When I was coming up in New Jersey, playing in my junior high school band Love Gun and just figuring out what I liked, when No Wave came along, I said, ‘OK, this is for me.’ And I see that term No Wave in a larger category that also includes the Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time band, Sonny Sharrock and James Blood Ulmer, as well as groups like Richard Hell & The Voidoids with guitarist Robert Quine or DNA with guitarist Arto Lindsay.

“But it seems like I’ve kind of approached it a little indirectly. Rootless Cosmopolitans was a quasi-New Music but also jazz influenced project that was secretly a rock band. And Los Cubanos Postizos was a son Cubano group that was secretly a punk rock band. So that kind of quasi/secret thing continued through a long line of projects until 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 five records that we’ve done, I feel like it’s gotten more and more focused in that direction.”

While there are some more ambitious compositions on Connection, like the salsa-son informed “Ecstasy” and the cumbia flavored “Crumbia” (with Ribot making a rare appearance on English horn), Ribot goes directly for the jugular on tunes like “Soldiers In The Army Of Love” and the instrumental polytonal rocker “No Name.” As he explained, “The bass line on ‘No Name’ is in one key and the horn lines start to go into unrelated keys. I added a noise element from the sympathetic strings of an electric sitar, and then Anthony Coleman overdubbed Farfisa organ on it. And Anthony was able to really get the concept that I wanted — absolutely straightahead 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.”

Ribot’s love of clever wordplay is apparent on carefully constructed “word salads” like “The Activist” from 2021’s Hope (recorded under strict pandemic protocols at Ismaily’s Brooklyn based Figure 8 studio) and tunes like “Heart Attack” and “Subsidiary” from Connection.

“I’ve always written songs, and some of them have made their way onto these band project records,” he said. “What I feel like I’ve developed more recently is the ability to rant. And I was becoming more and more deranged in my rants until I realized if I wrote them down on paper that they were useful in some way. So now it’s like I’ve kind of developed this ability to speak in tongues. And I have a process that I use. First, I just kind of 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. But a lot of it is sonic. I’m interested in perturbing unconscious associations and sonics.”

As for his aggressive ranting on “Heart Attack,” Ribot explained, “I was interested in the music of cursing in different languages, the sonics of it. You’ll notice when men are cursing in English, they constrict the words in a certain way: ‘Fock! Fuck you, you fockin’ fuck!’ 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. Those little national differences are interesting to me.”

Elsewhere, Ribot’s love of skronk (aided by the sound his Fender Jaguar makes when fed through a distortion pedal and assaulted with wreckless abandon) comes across on the distortion-laced manifesto “Subsidiary,” the free-jazz blowout “Swan” (featuring guest James Brandon Lewis on tenor sax), the ferocious title track and Ceramic Dog’s Sex Pistols-ish take on “That’s Entertainment” (with Coleman providing the mocking Farfisa organ). And his love of Hendrixian chords comes out on his delicate minor-key instrumental “Order Of Protection,” which is reminiscent of Jimi’s “Little Wing” and “Villanova Junction” and also features Ribot’s Jazz-Bins partner Greg Lewis on organ.

Aside from the late Voidoids/Lou Reed sideman Robert Quine, Ribot also points to Fred Frith as an important guitar influence. “I’m a huge Frith fan,” he said. “One of my main introductions to free improvisation was his records with Henry Kaiser, With Friends Like These and Who Needs Enemies? Hearing those albums for the first time was a revelation to me, like, ‘Wow, you can do this?!’ I couldn’t believe it. And it kind of gave me permission, which is the most you can hope to do for other people. But I’ve always told students and other guitarists that if they haven’t seen Fred improvise solo, they must. Just to see him live, it has to be done. It’s one of the wonders of the world. It’s a necessary part of calling yourself a literate guitarist.”

Earlier this year, Ribot unleashed his skronk at the Gucci Men’s Fall Winter 2023 fashion show in Milan, where Ceramic Dog performed an 11-minute live version of its menacing “Lies My Body Told Me” as the models strolled the runway. “It was funny because afterwards, as I was breaking down my equipment, all these famous supermodels that were in the show were hanging around, and all they wanted to know is what kind of distortion pedal I was using. They all have bands, you know. They all play guitar.”

Following Ceramic Dog’s summer tour of Europe, Ribot will return to the States to perform his solo guitar score for Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 silent film The Kid on Sept. 29 at Sacred Heart University Community Theatre in Fairfield, Connecticut. It’s a piece he has showcased several times across the States since its 2010 premiere at New York’s Merkin Hall, though he’s never done it in Europe.

“It’s a little problematical there because, apparently, Charlie Chaplin requested that his film only be performed with his score, a fact which I found out after I’d done the score for that film that was commissioned in 2008 by the New York Guitar Festival. So I’ve done it in the U.S., Canada and Japan, but I can’t do it in Europe. It’s against the law there.” DB

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