Marc Ribot :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

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On YRU Still Here, the third album from guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Shahzad Ismaily, and drummer Ches Smith’s Ceramic Dog combo, absurdist rage is made explicitly political, and flamenco is transmuted into scathing punk funk. “Subtlety is not my forte,” Ribot says wryly over the phone. No kidding. Opener “Personal Nancy” begins with a howl: “I’ve got a right to say fuck you.”  

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog :: Agnes

Of course, subtlety is perfectly within his wheelhouse. Ribot’s resume is extensive, having played with John Zorn, Tom Waits, the Lounge Lizards, Elvis Costello, Neko Case, Marianne Faithfull, Allen Toussaint, and dozens more high profile artists. But Ceramic Dog gives the guitarist a chance to rage. Teaming with  Shahzad Ismaily, known for his work with  Secret Chiefs 3, Will Oldham, and Ben Frost, and drummer  Ches Smith, who’s worked with  Xiu Xiu and Secret Chiefs 3, Ribot indulges his wildest, most raw impulses.

Ribot joined us to discuss the long-term relationship status of the band and the necessity of making sure good protest music stays fun. YRU Still Here is available now from Northern Spy Records.

Aquarium Drunkard: You got your start playing in garage bands while also studying classical guitar with Frantz Casseus.  What do you imagine that your younger, garage rock-playing self might think of YRU Still Here?

Marc Ribot: I imagine that there’s a pretty direct line. [Laughs] I would say that the main difference between then and now is that then we literally rehearsed in a garage. And now we’ve moved up into a converted industrial space.

AD:  Logistics aside, does the spirit, or even certain musical elements, feel similar to those early days?

Marc Ribot: Yeah, yeah. It’s a rock record, definitely.

AD: You’ve been playing with Ceramic Dog for a little more than a decade now.  There’s obviously no shortage of outlets for your sound, no shortage of high-profile gigs and duo gigs and all sorts of ways that you can get things out into the world. But what does this combo bring to the table that none of the others do?

Marc Ribot: Well, we’re a band, and that is something that I enjoy having. Which for me means that we have a good time working on stuff, we like hanging out, and the music is kind of an expression of the hanging out and [our] personalities. It’s not a bunch of charts, where if either of these guys couldn’t make it, I would call somebody else. I think we sound like a band. On a good night, it’s better than a bad night, but no matter when it is, we always sound like us. [Laughs] At this point, the “us” is kind of, I’d have to say, a LTR, a long-term relationship that has, for most of us, outlasted a whole lot of other long-term relationships. [Laughs]

AD:  At this point, when you get together to make a Ceramic Dog record, do you feel like you have some sense of what it’s going to be before you get started? Or is one of the things that keeps you so interested in this band its fluidity and the idea that a record might incorporate sounds or ideas that you guys have never done?

Marc Ribot:  Making a record is always a process of discovery. Things change and they change up till the last minute. Things that we toured with on the road that were the big rave-up numbers on the road sometimes sound like shit when you record them, or even just when you get into the studio. So yeah, nothing ever turns out–or at least in my case–nothing ever turns out like you plan it. I know that for a lot of composers, like when I work with John Zorn, I feel like when he goes into the studio he wants to realize his composition, whereas for me, a lot of composition occurs within the studio.

The composition, or the art, doesn’t live in the abstract or on a piece of paper or even as a conception. It’s very much dependent on what sounds good over those mics in that room at that moment. Including at that moment in history, by the way. That’s another thing that changed. We had another record about three-quarters finished when Donald Trump was elected. And while I’m not glad Donald Trump was elected, but I am glad that we reconsidered what to put out and re-recorded it.

AD: The record starts off with “Personal Nancy,” which just rages. It’s like an almost indiscriminate, confused rage. When Donald Trump got elected, did you yourself feel sort of confused as to why it could have happened or how it happened?

Marc Ribot: I could, with a little work here,   try to make the sequencing make more sense than it actually does, but really we put that tune on first because I thought it rocked.

AD:  Well, it does.

Marc Ribot: It starts off in a rage. I’m pretty good at this shit, so I could probably work up a narrative about how that relates to political rage, but that was actually about being mad at an ex-girlfriend. The nice thing about songwriting is that you don’t have to be the person, so it’s not even my rage. In fact, let me take that back. It’s not about being angry at an ex-girlfriend. It’s about wanting to process something that happened by being the ex-girlfriend. Songwriting isn’t arguing, necessarily. You can do amazing things. You can be other people. To say that that song is in a rage,  that only begins to unpack it. It’s not simply a rage, but the person who’s in a rage is completely out of their mind. [Laughs] What I like is that when it works itself up to its most fevered insanity, what I yell out is “drum solo,” which is the most insane thing anyone could possibly say, so I like that trajectory. For the careful observer, you’ll see that the song is based on the song “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues.”

AD: I completely missed that.

Marc Ribot: Aha!

AD: That’s true. [Laughs] So, while that song is maybe more case study in losing one’s mind, the record is pretty politically driven, obviously.  “Pennsylvania 6 6666” hits on the theme of white supremacy. Who wrote the lyrics to that one?

Marc Ribot: That one came about in a really interesting process. We  were sitting in our rehearsal space, and Shahzad [Ismaily] came up with the lyrics for the chorus, where we were playing over a groove. Shahzad came up with the title…we stopped playing, and he started talking about what growing up in Pennsylvania was like when you’re a Pakistani kid, who was a little strange to begin with, in [a place like] Danville, Pennsylvania. To the best of my ability, I just kind of rhymed and put into meter what he was saying as a narrative. I took some poetic license, but we did it right there on the spot and put it over the groove and then that kind of took place like a planet-forming out of a cloud. It just kind of solidified from that.

AD:  One of the things that I really like about the record is just how bold it is. A song like “Muslim Jewish Resistance,” there’s no mistaking what you’re talking about there.

Marc Ribot: [Laughs] Not too subtle.

AD: Right. Same with “Fuck La Migra.” I feel like a lot of people, especially leftists, have found themselves sort of considering the tone and the way it’s best to convey values in this current climate.  You settled on one that’s fairly abrasive and intense. Who do you imagine listening to this and really getting the most out of it? Or is it even possible for an artist to take those things into consideration?

Marc Ribot: Well, like with every aspect of the music, I hope people will listen to it. I hope people will get something out of it, but really, I think I write for myself. We write for ourselves. All I can do is hope that I’m not so terminally weird — that if it means something for me, it’ll mean something for other people as well. But I can’t second-guess where other people are coming from. I felt a couple of things in terms of how to deal with the current political environment. In one way, on a very simple level, I don’t think there’s anything left to lose by not saying directly and immediately what you’re thinking. I come from a tradition of rock music and punk-jazz, so I don’t mind putting it in people’s faces. I’m not a politician. I’m not making any pretense. I’m not delivering a policy statement or a legislative proposal. I’m expressing my own and my community’s pissed-offedness.

In some ways, the idea of “Muslim Jewish Resistance” is maybe a smaller, even imaginary, community. But that came out of my hope that there would be realignments and that people would get together in some kind of united front, a popular front, to deal with what’s going on now. “Fuck La Migra,” well, I’ll tell you honestly, there was internal debate in the band because…okay, I’ll say it overtly, nobody’s urging violence against border police, but at the same time, I did some benefits for groups that are trying to stop the ICE raids. There’s real rage at the idea that these people come into our communities and take our neighbors away. It’s not okay. We don’t like it, if we could stop it, we would. As long as that’s happening, as long as people are being targeted for this and dumped into an unaccountable…

AD:  …System, without any real oversight?

Marc Ribot: Yeah. I think they’re building the infrastructure of a police state. So as long as that’s going on, I’m going to do what I can do to best express the rage in my community.

AD: As much as you are exploring these heavy topics, it does sound like you guys are having a blast playing on this record.

Marc Ribot: Yeah, well like I say, these are songs. They’re not legislative proposals. Part of that is that they’re also funny. In my opinion, at least. With “Pennsylvania 6 6666,” it’s a joke if you’ve heard Glenn Miller’s “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” a super famous pop song in the ’40s. There are all these different currents going, just like, “I’ve got a right to sing like an idiot” was derived from “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues,” and in a way problematizes the culture of the idea of rights and complaint.

AD: What you are saying — no matter how critical — is matched by the joyfulness in the music. Do you think that’s sort of a key ingredient to good resistance?

Marc Ribot: In the words of Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance, you can keep your revolution.”  We’ve got a party. words/j woodbury