TALKING to Marc Ribot is quite a daunting experience. Born in New Jersey in 1954, he’s worked with countless acclaimed artists, such as T Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello, Norah Jones and Robert Plant, recorded a couple of albums with his Cuban/Latin ‘dance band’ Los Cubanos Postizos, and fronts a more straight-up rock band, Ceramic Dogs, who are two albums into their career.
He’s also an accomplished solo performer, and will display as such at De Barra’s on January 29, the first in what is a planned series of ‘Clonakilty International Guitar Festival Presents…’ shows.
Oh and he helped redefine Tom Waits’ career through his work on 1985’s seminal Rain Dogs and five subsequent albums.
But just try telling Ribot, who is recording a country album with Tift Merritt in LA as we speak over the phone, that he’s one of the most influential and innovative guitarists out there. “I see myself as more of a miner than an inventor. I’m just kind of digging stuff up that’s already there,” he says, dripping in self-deprecation. “There’s some interesting stuff that’s buried.”
I put his work with Waits to him as just one sign of his influence. “OK yeah, the stuff on Rain Dogs is innovative, but my innovation came from listening to Django Reinhardt, Duane Eddy, and Arsenio Rodríguez and applying that. All people, with the exception of Duane Eddy, most of the records [that influenced Ribot] came out in the ’50s or ’40s or ’30s. And that’s true both sonically as well as in terms of note choices. So was that an act of invention? I guess it was an act of synthesis, maybe.”
Does that idea stretch to all music nowadays, that everything has been done before? “I hope not. It’s not like I’m against new things or a dyed-in-the-wool postmodernist who only believes in quotation. I think the process of creating the new is best when it’s unconscious... Invention is best when it’s a failed attempt at memory or a flawed attempt at memory.”
As well as Rain Dogs, Ribot also played on Tom Waits albums such as Franks Wild Years (1987) and Mule Variations (1999). What was it about the singer and storyteller that had Ribot coming back again and again?
“Waits gives a lot of freedom to the musicians. He doesn’t tell people what to play. He serves more like an editor. So if it’s going with the concept, it’s good, and if not, he’ll ask you to play something else. But he doesn’t usually get in there and say, ‘Play this.’ It’s important to him to pick people that he gets along with.”
Ribot shies away from describing himself as influential but he’s not hesitant in ascribing such to his frequent collaborator: “Tom is very creative as a producer. If you have a strange idea, he’ll try to run with it —and if he has a strange idea, he’ll run with it.
“And not just in terms of what to play but in terms of how to record. Like, I wasn’t on this record, but I think for some tracks for Bone Machine , they took all the amps and everything and put them on the driveway of wherever they were recording and recorded outside. This is like, I don’t know, it’s revolutionary. It seems like such a simple idea but nobody else did it.”
The show in De Barra’s, Ribot’s only gig in the UK or Ireland as part of a European tour, promises to be a special event — “I haven’t played in Ireland anywhere near enough”— so what should we expect?
“It is a bit stream-of-consciousness so it could be anything.”
It could even be influential. Just don’t tell Ribot that.