Marc Ribot: Translating 'Silent Movies' To Music Guitarist and composer Marc Ribot's latest album, Silent Movies, pays tribute to film scores. The creation of the album, he says, allowed him to express his more lyrical side.
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Marc Ribot: Translating 'Silent Movies' To Music

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Marc Ribot: Translating 'Silent Movies' To Music

Marc Ribot: Translating 'Silent Movies' To Music

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(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, composer and guitarist Marc Ribot has many musical identities. He's played with such diverse performers as Wilson Pickett, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and jazz avant-gardist John Zorn. He was featured on the Grammy award-winning album by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, "Raising Sand."

Ribot was a member of John Lurie's Lounge Lizards and he's led several of his own jazz groups, including the Rootless Cosmopolitans, Los Cubanos Postizos, a Latin-tinged band, and Spiritual Unity, an Albert Ayler tribute project.

Ribot's latest CD is a solo recording called "Silent Movies." Some of the music is inspired by his experience accompanying a screening of the Charlie Chaplin silent film "The Kid." Other tracks are pieces originally composed for movie scores, some for films he turned down but found himself writing for anyways. Other tracks are from movies he just imagined.

Let's open with "Delancey Waltz," which he wrote for an as yet unreleased John Malkovich film.

(Soundbite of song, "Delancey Waltz")

GROSS: That's Marc Ribot from his latest CD, "Silent Movies."

Marc Ribot, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've written film scores. Do you think of your music as telling stories and has it been helpful to write music for movies and to need to think of your music as fitting into a narrative?

Mr. MARC RIBOT (Musician): Well, when I wrote for film, I felt I was able to write in a more, like, lyrical way. I kind of permitted myself a kind of freedom to be lyrical that I didn't normally have. You know, I came out of like playing R&B and punk rock and free jazz and free improvised music. And the words lyrical or narrative weren't the first ones most people would've thought to describe my records.

But when I wrote for film, it was a whole different set of concerns and I found out that it was fun. But even beyond being fun, it seemed like at this particular moment I was attracted to doing this.

GROSS: So when you found out that writing for film gave you permission to be lyrical in your composition and playing, did you find, like, lyrical is not a bad thing?

Mr. RIBOT: Well, I don't know if it's a bad thing. I mean, I think there are reasons why not only me but I mean a lot of other people that I came up with seemed to approach certain kind of lyricism with great difficulty. I mean, most of the people on my scene, either they, if they were going to be lyrical it would be - there would be some kind of formalist or, for example, minimalism.

Like a lot of minimalist composers are very lyrical but they just repeat the phrase a thousand times, or it's kind of subsumed beneath this kind of formalist treatment, or other people did away with it entirely and dealt with a lot of noise elements and - or would have like a kind of, could be lyrical, but there would be these kind of quote/unquote, "postmodern" quotation marks around it. So it was cool to be lyrical if it sounded exactly like a piece from the '30s. Or, you know, if it had those kind of historical or quotation concerns. So this felt different somehow.

GROSS: But everything that you've just said is basically that the people you came up with musically thought it was not a good thing to display genuine emotion through music. (Laughing)

Mr. RIBOT: I don't know if - you know something, again, I don't know if we thought it wasn't a good thing, but there seemed to be some kind of difficulty. I don't know if this was because we thought that the way people had done things before wasn't cool, as much as that this was the only way we could do things.

GROSS: So I want to play another track from your latest CD "Silent Movies." And this is a composition that is not an original one. It's the only one that's not an original one. But I think you've thoroughly reimagined the song. And it's a song that Americans know as "Under Paris Skies."

Mr. RIBOT: Yeah.

GROSS: You give the French title, the original title, "Sous le ciel de Paris."

Mr. RIBOT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Is it Edith Piaf who first sang this?

Mr. RIBOT: I don't know who first sang it. I just know I like it. I know Edith Piaf did sing it, yeah.

GROSS: How do you know this song and why did you want to do such a really dark version of it?

Mr. RIBOT: I heard a recording of that piece by the Argentinean guitarist Oscar Aleman. I think he was actually living in Paris when he recorded it. And I liked it a lot and my version doesn't sound anything like his but I just decided to do it, that's all.

GROSS: But it's such a dark version. And it sounds almost like a Western showdown.

Mr. RIBOT: (Laughing) Yeah. Well, that's, you know, I like those guitar sounds. The guitar is somehow linked to Westerns.

GROSS: What were some of your favorite Western movie or TV themes?

Mr. RIBOT: I loved the theme from "Bonanza" and I liked a lot of...

GROSS: That was actually, like, a big hit on the radio.

Mr. RIBOT: Yeah, it was. And I liked a lot of other things that Duane Eddy played on. And I guess I was more drawn towards like surf music than Westerns per se, like The Ventures and The Shadows, they were big heroes and still are. I mean, that kind of - those kind of sounds are just what the guitar, if guitars could vote, you know, they would vote...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: You know, like guitars might vote to play a lot of different things, but all guitars would vote to play surf music.

GROSS: Because?

Mr. RIBOT: Because that's what guitars like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: That's what they do if you leave them alone.

GROSS: And since this track is on your album "Silent Movies," did you have any kind of narrative or movie scene in mind when you played this?

Mr. RIBOT: This piece in particular?

GROSS: This piece.

Mr. RIBOT: No. I don't think I literally sat there with a scene in mind but I know that certain kinds of reverbs and certain sounds evoke certain ideas of space. So on this piece and the record in general, that was a concern.

GROSS: Okay. So this is Marc Ribot on solo guitar from his latest album "Silent Movies."

(Soundbite of song "Sous le Ciel de Paris")

GROSS: That's Marc Ribot from his latest album "Silent Movies," playing "Sous le ciel de Paris," which is known to Americans as "Under Paris Skies." I think that's great. I really, I'm so glad you recorded that.

Mr. RIBOT: Thanks.

GROSS: What we just heard is very, you know, like, dark and grave-sounding. But, you know, some of your stuff is so different from that. You got started professionally playing in like R&B bands and rock. You backed up a lot of people when you were young, before you started your own bands. Who are some of the names everyone will recognize who you backed up?

Mr. RIBOT: Well, I came to New York in '79 and I worked briefly as a side musician with the late Brother Jack McDuff, a jazz organist. And later on, as part of the band The Realtones, we recorded with Solomon Burke and we backed up a lot of different people, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas and other, some others like Stax recording artists.

I did a short tour with Wilson Pickett and, you know, just a lot of other people. At the same time I was working with a lot of singer-songwriters and people, and rock people as well. And I would say that the America that I saw touring with Brother Jack McDuff was quite different than the one I had grown up in.


GROSS: So, Jack McDuff was an organ player and probably played a lot of lounges.

Mr. RIBOT: Yes, he did. I mean, he worked on what musicians called the chitlin' circuit, which was a kind of soul jazz-oriented black working-class musical circuit. I mean I'm sure it's still out there somewhere.

GROSS: So did you feel out of place?

Mr. RIBOT: Musically, it was the best audience that I had ever played for and have ever played for since. It was the only audience that I ever played for that rewarded restraint.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. RIBOT: Yeah. A lot of people seem to think, mistake the guitar for a trumpet and think it's you're doing something really remarkable if you play high. I mean if you bend really notes high up on the guitar it's actually fairly easy to do, but it's hard to do on a trumpet, of course. People think you're doing something great if you play high and fast. Whereas, I remember that Jack McDuff's audience, if you held back, would actually get more into it.

GROSS: Are there things that you learned playing with R&B bands that you've taken with you over the years in lots of different settings?

Mr. RIBOT: One thing is that I've discovered that there's a kind of a hidden connection a lot of people aren't aware of between R&B and free jazz: the need for that kind of visceral connection with the audience and for something to happen that moves people. It's...

GROSS: And maybe for that honk, for that cry. (Laughing)

Mr. RIBOT: Yeah, for the cry. Exactly.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. RIBOT: I think that maybe beyond just R&B, it's a thing in black music - the moment when the solo builds and builds and then at a certain point, it hits that cry. And knowing when that needs to happen is something that you, you know, that players who come from that tradition seem to have. And I notice that a lot of people, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler and a lot of other people who wound up being part of the free jazz movement started out in R&B or jump bands and then it seems like they were, I don't know, this is just my guess, but people who were trying to get to the same place but by other means.

GROSS: So I want to play a track that's very R&B influenced, but it's a kind of almost avant-garde take on R&B. It's really fun. It's from your album "Party Intellectuals," featuring your band Ceramic Dog and the composition is called "Never Better."

(Soundbite of song, "Never Better")

GROSS: That's from the album "Party Intellectuals," from the band Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog, and Marc Ribot is my guest.

So you grew up in New Jersey. You describe it as a suburban neighborhood. Tell us a little bit about the neighborhood.

Mr. RIBOT: Well, I mean, I was actually born in Newark in what would not be described as a suburban neighborhood, but then my family moved to Orange and East Orange and wound up in South Orange, which is a suburb of New York, I guess, of Newark, borders on Newark.

GROSS: Now I want to quote something that you told an interviewer in 2002 when you were talking about being in high school. You said the people who were imitating Eric Clapton struck me as kind of like the musical version of the high school jocks. So my life as a young artist was by day, I would be beaten up by the high school jocks and by night I would be beaten up by the jocks of music who played these things so perfectly and had all the right equipment. So my aesthetic began to form as a kind of reaction to that. So what was the aesthetic that formed in reaction that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: Well, you're hearing it. All I know is I started listening to people like Hubert Sumlin and trying to deal with a less muscular way of reaching people. Part of what was going on maybe was a little bit of jealousy. Who knows what I - I had like certain technical limitations. I didn't learn to play with a pick until I was like 25 or something. So I wasn't playing as fast as all the boys.

But yeah, I started to gravitate towards people who could, who had a certain amount of economy, partly because I liked it and partly because I couldn't do the other thing anyways. So it was a great relief to me when I finally started to, like, when punk rock and no wave came along, I thought, ah-ha.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: All of those people who were doing it wrong, now we've got our own club.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: I mean, when I heard Robert Quine play, I thought, okay, this is something I can get into. Robert Quine played with Richard Hell & The Voidoids and before that with Lou Reed. But yeah, he didn't sound like the shredders or the fusion guys or the, you know, no one would have ever accused him of having immaculate technique.


GROSS: Now, Hendrix was an influence. Jimi Hendrix was an influence on you and you do a Hendrix song on your Rootless - one of your Rootless Cosmopolitans albums. It's "The Wind Cries Mary." This is hardly a note for note reproduction or imitation of what he does. It's a bit of a reimagining of it. Do you want to talk about what you did with the song and why you did it?

Mr. RIBOT: Well, you know, I, you know, like all the other pimply adolescents in the late '60s, I listened to and loved Jimi Hendrix. And, you know, of course, he was an amazing virtuoso on the guitar. But what seemed to me, when I later thought about him, really, the most important thing about Hendrix was that he was a poet in terms of what he said and what he played. And that's something that all of the many guitarists who are directly working in the Hendrix tradition, it's what so few of them seem to get, that it seemed to be something that surrounded the music that made it be great.

So I never felt like I could approach Hendrix directly, and so as you'll hear if you listen to that track, I approached him very indirectly.

GROSS: What do you mean by that?

Mr. RIBOT: Well, my version of "The Wind Cries Mary" basically doesn't use any of the music, just the lyrics.

GROSS: And I never paid any attention to the lyrics before. (Laughing) Outside of the title line.

Mr. RIBOT: Well...

GROSS: Obviously it really hits - they really struck you.

Mr. RIBOT: Well, they struck me but also like the idea of, like, indirectness strikes me. You know, the idea of covering a tune but throwing out the tune.

GROSS: Right. Okay. Sounds like a Zen koan or something when you put it that way. (Laughing)

Mr. RIBOT: Well, maybe it is, you never know.

GROSS: So this is Marc Ribot's version of "The Wind Cries Mary," the Jimi Hendrix song, from Marc Ribot's album, "Rootless Cosmopolitans."

(Soundbite of song "The Wind Cries Mary")

Mr. RIBOT: (Singing) After all the jacks are in their boxes and the clowns have all gone to bed, you can hear happiness staggering on down the street, footprints dressed in red. And the wind cries Mary. And the wind cries, Mary.

A broom is drearily sweeping up the broken pieces of yesterday's life. Somewhere a queen is weeping. Somewhere a king has no wife. And the wind cries Mary. And the wind cries Mary. And the wind cries, Mary.

GROSS: That's Marc Ribot from his 1990 album "Rootless Cosmopolitans."

Now you grew up in New Jersey and you have a song that I think is both really pretty and really funny called "The Hills of New Jersey." And this was a song that you wrote during a period when you were doing Latin music, Cuban music.

Mr. RIBOT: Yeah, I was in a band called Los Cubanos Postizos, The Prosthetic Cubans. And the title of the tune is actually "Las Lomas de New Jersey." And I started to get into - interested in Cuban music, like, around 1990. A lot of recordings of classic Cuban songs started to be released. I think what happened was, you know, when the Berlin Wall came down, a lot of the great stuff had been on - recorded by or owned by East German or Eastern European record labels and started to become available here.

And when I was listening to those, you know, classic Cuban recordings, there's a lot about distance and exile and wanting to return home, you know, the lost home. And I thought, wow, I wish I could write that song but, you know, New Jersey is right across the river. And so I said, well, I'll write a long lost home song about not being able to go back to New Jersey for some mysterious reason. And the hill in question, the hills of New Jersey refer to a memory of mine.

My grandparents lived in Coney Island, in Brighton Beach, actually. And we used to commute in from New Jersey. Every weekend we'd go visit them out there. And at the outskirts of Newark, before you got to the Holland Tunnel, there were these garbage dumps.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: And like, so we drove past them on the way to the Holland Tunnel. And over the years, you know, they filled up and then they covered them over and planted grass on them and built houses. And, you know, people grew up in those houses and I thought, wow, those kids that grew up in those houses on the garbage dump, like, that's what they're going to call home. That's what they are going to be nostalgic for. So I wanted to write a song of nostalgia for a garbage dump.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is "The Hills of New Jersey" from Marc Ribot's album "Muy Divertido!" Did I say that right?

Mr. RIBOT: "Muy Divertido!"

GROSS: "Muy Divertido!"

Mr. RIBOT: I probably said it wrong, too.

GROSS: Okay. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. RIBOT: Oh, my pleasure.

GROSS: Okay. So here we go.

(Soundbite of song "Las Lomas de New Jersey")

GROSS: You can hear tracks from Marc Ribot's latest CD "Silent Movies," on our website,

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