Bill Frisell

by Marc Ribot

Photo by Jimmy Katz. Courtesy of Nonesuch Records.

Bill Frisell and I have some things in common. We both play guitar differently than other boys and girls. And, before Bill moved to Seattle, we both were “downtown guitarists.” But the occasional unfortunate record producer who called me because Bill Frisell was unavailable soon discovered how little that term described. Frisell has always sounded fluid, graceful, elegant, and most of all, melodic.

None of these things are easy to be on a guitar. It takes effort to bend one note into another. It takes enormous calculation to translate the pianistic harmonies Bill uses onto a six-stringed instrument. And every guitarist who has ever heard Frisell has wondered how he managed to get his guitar to produce notes that swelled in volume as they sustained, like a violinist or horn player, instead of steadily fading, like the notes on everyone else’s guitar. There was talk by the bar of a clever use of compression, echo, or volume pedals. I believed this until I heard him produce the same effect on an acoustic guitar, at which point I gave up trying to understand.

But there’s still the question of why. Why was Bill able to have melody? Even in the early eighties—not distanced by irony, not called into question by Minimalist repetition, not deconstructed or serialized, not overshadowed by formalist concerns, not lacerated by noise or diced into pastiche. Why, although Frisell was aware of and a central downtown music participant (having played with the likes of John Zorn, Marianne Faithful, Elvin Jones, Dave Holland, Elvis Costello, Don Byron, Julius Hemphill, Ginger Baker, Charlie Haden, David Sanborn, and many others) was he also allowed the guilty pleasure of melody without guilt?

I can’t answer this either, other than to think that every once in a great while, someone is granted an exemption from what seem to be the needs and limits of their time just because they sound so beautiful. That must be it.

(Phone rings)

Carole Frisell Hello?

Marc Ribot Hi, is Bill there?

CF Who is calling?

MR It’s Marc Ribot.

CF Hi, Marc. Hold on a second.

Bill Frisell Oh man, I almost messed up. But I’m here.

MR What does messing up mean?

BF No, I kind of forgot. I should have looked.

MR Oh. I thought you were trying to escape. Your wife caught you running out the backdoor. (laughter) So, I’m interviewing you.

BF I just realized that! I thought we were doing a thing together.

MR Oh, then let’s do a thing together. And in the meantime, why don’t we have a discussion. Can I turn on this tape thing?

BF Yeah.

MR So. What do you really think of John Zorn?

BF (laughter)

MR It’s terrifying, the idea of conducting an interview. You’d think I’d have learned something after having sat through so many of them. But, I asked Joey Barron—because I did this gig with Joey not long ago, we played with Ruben Wilson, the organist.

BF Oh, right, that sounded like an amazing thing!

MR It was pretty fun.

BF At Iridium?

MR Yeah, it was shocking playing jazz music in a jazz club with jazz musicians. It gave me a real identity crisis. But I asked Joey, “What should I ask Bill?” And he said, “Why don’t you ask him what he cares about, nobody else has asked him that ever.” So, what do you care about?

BF (laughter) Oh, man! I don’t know, in relation to what?

MR How about, for starters, in relation to music.

BF See, this is good. How many thousands of interviews have you done where you go on automatic pilot?

MR I know, I know.

BF I don’t have a stock answer for that one. What do I care about? I don’t know if this has anything to do with it—but music has always been my social life. That’s what I care about the most, being with the particular people that I choose to be with.

MR You mean in the sense that a band becomes like a family?

BF Not just the band but the musical community. It’s always been this kind of miniaturized world. I keep thinking, Why can’t everyone else be like that?

MR Bands, especially when they’re good ones, can be like families, but unlike biological families—at least unlike my biological family—people in my band listen to each other. Who’s in your band now?

BF Well, I guess I’m not thinking of my band so much.

MR Oh.

BF No, there’s that, I try to surround myself with people that become my best friends, you know? That’s how I get really close to people—by playing music with them. There was this music community in Denver, where I grew up. When I was younger I naively thought, This is the way the world’s supposed to be. Where racial things got sort of worked out and there was this little miniature world that I thought was real. As I get older, I have this faith that it can happen somehow, but—

MR That music transcends the other conflicts?

BF Yeah, once you start playing together, all this stuff breaks down between people. Music can cut through all kinds of preconceptions.

MR Music can be a battleground as well.

BF Right. But it doesn’t hurt people.

MR Exactly. In other words, you can be a good punk rocker and do your best to aesthetically mess up whoever came before you, without actually killing them. In his book, Noise, Jacques Attali says that the origins of music are in the channeling of violence. That music is something that enables people to not commit violence—but only if it’s sufficiently violent itself.

BF This will sound corny—but if everyone played music, I can’t believe all this shit would be going on.

MR You’re talking, I assume, about the shit that’s going on post-9/11?

BF Yeah, and whatever was going on before that, too.

MR How’s that playing out on the West Coast? Or, from your vantage point, have you traveled since then?

BF Yeah, I’ve been traveling a lot. I played at the Vanguard about two weeks after. It was just when people were starting to come out again. I felt really lucky to be able to play in New York right then. Both selfishly, because when it first happened, music seemed so small. It seemed pointless. But pretty quick, I got back to thinking, It’s the only thing I know how to do, it’s the only thing I’ve ever done in my whole life, and I’ve got to just do it.

MR It felt necessary.

BF Yeah. And then to be able to come to New York and play felt really good in all kinds of ways including the way the audience was responding—it was great.

MR Did you play differently, change set lists?

BF Well, I don’t plan any of that stuff anyway. So I just did what I normally do, but certain songs had a new light suddenly shed on them. All these different emotional things came up even when I wasn’t expecting them to. You know, I play “What’s Going On,” and that already has this certain thing about it, but that’s a blatant example.

MR Yeah, I felt lucky myself to be an improvising musician. Like you, I’m famous for never having the ability to write a set list. And if I do write one, I’m guaranteed to break it within the first song. So I felt lucky that I could respond to what was going on around me rather than having some set piece.

BF Did you play pretty soon after—were you in New York when it happened?

MR Yeah, I was. I played a benefit with Marc Anthony Thompson and Vernon Reid and a lot of other musicians on the Sunday immediately following. And then I played with Zorn and John Medeski.

BF Was that the thing at Tonic?

MR Yeah, a benefit for the Red Cross. I had very similar feelings to yours. For a while I considered changing everything I was doing and restarting the band Shrek or something.

BF Oh, wow. (laughter)

MR Fortunately, that idea faded as the smoke cleared. I wanted to ask about something you were saying before, about music connecting people. I’m a fan of your Nashville and American music stuff—can I call it American music, for want of a better name?

BF Sure.

MR What do you call it?

BF Oh, I don’t. But I guess that’s what it is.

MR When I listen to it, I always feel that you’re hip to these strange correspondences between musics that are socially at opposite ends of the spectrum, for example, country music and R&B.

BF Yeah, for me, those are totally the same music.

MR This is something that musicians know, that sometimes I wonder if the fans know. I mean, musicians know it in a deep way. For example, that the Telecaster is the common main guitar of R&B and country music or that 6/8 beats are common to both country and R&B ballads. It sounds nerdy when you say it, but when you hear it, you hear, as you were just saying, that there are deep connections between musics that a lot of people see as opposites. It seems that you’ve managed to find some of those hidden connections in what you’ve done.

BF Yeah, going to Nashville and doing that record—I mean, I’ve always been interested in that—but it stepped up my interest. I got more fascinated with, not so much bluegrass or country music, but in looking at the music that was happening in the ’20s and around the beginning of the century. I started hearing musicians like Blind Willie Johnson or Doc Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb. There are places in the music where you don’t know if it’s black or white. It really gets blurred.

MR Absolutely.

BF Or even Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, which has become this totally white thing, sort of. But it’s just not at all. I’d hear these momentary flashes where, man, it sounds exactly like some recording of Duke Ellington’s band. Just for ten seconds, but it’s exactly the feel, the whole way the instruments are interacting and everything.

MR Is that what you look for when you’re going into that music, the moments when its borders meld?

BF Yeah, where it just transcends all that stuff that’s been put on us by a record company or a writer or somebody analyzing everything after the fact and then categorizing it. Musicians don’t do that when they’re in the midst of playing, that stuff always comes later.

MR I would say musicians don’t do it when they’re playing really well, but I think people play with music as an identity. In other words, musicians probably play the game from time to time as well as anybody else. But the moments when people transcend their genre or their ossified language are the kinds of moments you’re talking about. Or when you look back at history, before these categories were formed, you can certainly find some pretty surprising moments, Charley Patton, for example. Or you were talking about Blind Willie Johnson before. You’ve heard his “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground"?

BF Yeah.

MR What’s that? Somebody tell me what that is. Boy, now I’m starting to sound like an interviewer. I’m doing my job.

BF (laughter)

MR Before we were introduced, when I’d go to hear you play, I’d notice that at the end of the night, that there’d always be a minimum of three, four, five guitarists photographing your pedals.

BF Oh yeah.

MR And I’ve asked myself, How do you make your guitar sound like that? How do you do it? And as I got introduced to you and we did some playing together, behind the, How do you do that? was, How can I do that? I thought I saw you do it on electric guitar and then in other situations you were on an acoustic guitar, and you did it again! You manage to play with such an incredibly light touch, is that part of it?

BF I’m more aware of it from people bringing it to my attention. Everybody has their own sound and their own way of going at the instrument.

MR I probably have one of the clunkiest and hardest touches of any guitarist. I used to go through like a pack of strings a night.

BF (laughter)

MR The strange thing about it is that playing hard is not strength and playing soft is not weakness. For people who don’t play, and don’t know what it means to do that, if you play hard, the string is very close to the fingerboard and the fret; but playing hard doesn’t make it louder, it makes it buzzier. And if you play soft, well, okay, within certain parameters it makes it softer, but hey, we’re playing electric guitar, so you turn the dial and the softest touch can be louder than 500 guitars playing acoustically. So softness and hardness are inverted from their normal meanings.

BF Yeah, right.

MR I always wondered how you describe to people who don’t know how to play what it feels like from the inside?

BF (laughter) Oh, God.

MR Do you know what I’m saying?

BF Yeah, it’s weird, just the amplification in defining these tiny little noises. You play an acoustic guitar and just rub your fingernail on the string, and tiny microscopic sounds turn into these huge things.

MR Yeah. It’s a feeling of power.

BF The electric guitar has qualities that any other acoustic instrument does, you’re still hearing the human part, the flesh on the string is all in there. But the scale of it’s changed drastically.

MR Unlike, for example, piano, you hear your finger itself striking, making the sound.

BF It’s like you are looking through a microscope. Your finger has become a ten-foot long thing.

MR Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

BF Oh, I think it’s incredible. What I love about it, more than any other instrument, is that the guitar has this ability to mimic other instruments. You’re talking about people looking at the pedals, but it’s really what’s in your brain or your imagination that’s making the sound. The guitar is such an incredible mimic, you can hear a string section in your head and that’s the way I play. I hear other sounds and other instruments and just go after it, try to get somewhere close to it.

MR Well, other people might try to do that, but you actually succeed. Two things you just said really struck me. One is the feeling that the guitar can be other voices. My guitar teacher, Frantz Casseus thought the sound of the guitar is the closest of any instrument to the sound of the human voice. Now, this is not true—if it were possible to measure objectively, I’m sure many people would say the flute or the violin—but for him, it was true. He heard the guitar like a human voice. What you’re saying, that you don’t only play the guitar with your fingers, that you play it by imagining what you’re hearing—it struck me the first time I heard you play, that you were playing a different instrument. You just happened to be playing it on guitar. You had imagined a different instrument and in doing so, you were proving something about the power of imagining things. People think, Here’s a guitar, now I have to play it with my fingers, but you also play it with your ears.

BF Yeah, definitely. And so much of the music that has inspired me has nothing to do with guitar. You were talking about this American thing. In the past few years I’ve been listening to actual guitar music more than I ever have. All those people we were just talking about were guitar players.

MR I know. (call waiting tone) I’m sorry, hold on a second. (silence) That was Liz. Well, anyway, what influenced you before you were listening to guitar? I listened mostly to horn players.

BF As I was getting out of high school and starting to get into jazz, the heaviest stuff was piano, saxophone and trumpet players. I could never really get any of it totally but I took stabs at mimicking Bill Evans or Thelonious Monk or Sonny Rollins.

MR You did actually start out on clarinet. I don’t feel like it’s an accident that you chose to translate other instruments onto guitar. That kind of built-in frustration—in other words, if you’d said, Okay, I’m going to learn saxophone so I can sound like saxophone, well, that’s very direct.

BF (laughter) Right.

MR But if you’re hearing saxophone and you decide you’re going to get something essential out of it, but you’re going to do it on a bongo, (laughter) well, only a certain type of person does that.

BF Oh, man.

MR So there’s built-in frustration, but you get something out of it in the end.

BF Yeah, all of us have a personal sound that’s coming from our limitations. What makes a sound unique is the inability to do what we’re trying to do. You know that thing about Miles Davis: when he was young and trying to play like Dizzy Gillespie, he said he couldn’t play that high or that fast. If he could have just played like Dizzy Gillespie, then there wouldn’t be any Miles Davis.

MR What you hear in most people who want to play like Dizzy Gillespie and who can’t, are players who in the end, learn to play almost as fast as Dizzy Gillespie, but without a lot of the joy. In other words, what you hear in their playing is fear.

BF Yeah, right.

MR And what you hear in Miles Davis’s playing, you hear a lot of things, but you don’t hear fear. Everybody who stands in front of an audience at some point feels fear, but I don’t hear that in your playing. In order to play as lightly as you do, you must have found some way to short-circuit that normal fear response, which is to grasp the guitar neck and to be nervous. How do you get the calm of your playing?

BF I totally trust people I play with, that’s part of it. I’m lucky to have the experience of getting immersed in the music; I start playing and I don’t know where I am or who is in the audience. Not that that happens all the time, but I try to make that happen every time I play.

MR What happened when you first started to play?

BF Well, I’m trying to think; I played the clarinet from when I was ten years old, but it never crossed my mind to be nervous. You’re playing in a big concert band surrounded by all these other instruments.

MR Wasn’t there one time when they said, “Okay Bill, now stand up for that big cadenza?”

BF Yeah, but I set myself up mentally at a really early age to just get into it and concentrate on what I was doing. But, there could be just one person in the audience that keeps me from getting there. A couple years ago, a friend of mine that I used to play with in high school came, I hadn’t talked to him in 20 years, and I looked down and he’s in the front row. That kind of blew my brains out. That made me nervous.

MR Solo!

BF The first time I played by myself was one of the most horrifying experiences I’ve ever had. Yeah, playing by myself is bad.

MR On a good night, it’s the best thing. But playing on a bad night, there’s no one to rescue you.

BF Totally. When you are playing with other people, there’s this constant: You throw something out there and it goes into this whirlpool of ideas flying around, it gets going and you just go. But when you are by yourself, you put an idea out into the air, and the audience is thinking, Okay, now what else you got? It goes out there but you don’t get the back and forth energy thing happening, you have to keep pumping it up yourself. I remain self-conscious when I’m by myself, it’s harder to get lost in it.

MR How old were you when you started to play guitar?

BF It was gradual, my friend across the street had one and I messed around with his. It was really in the summer before ninth grade, when I got an electric guitar. That feels like the beginning.

MR But you continued to play the clarinet until you were in college at Berklee School of Music?

BF Well, through two years of college in Colorado, I played it. Finally I wanted to put all the energy into the guitar.

MR I’m asking because guitar is an instrument that people sit and play alone for quite a while before they play in a band. Whereas clarinet is more social, you play it in a band. A lot of guitarists have told me, and I include myself in this, that they were social rejects in Junior High School. They weren’t out playing with other kids, they were all sitting back in some dark room saying, I’ll show them!

BF Yeah, that was me, for sure. And the clarinet! Talk about the most uncool instrument you could be playing. My social life with the guitar . . .

MR Were you the guitar hero in your high school?

BF It’s the one little thing that made me okay with some people. But still, I was not comfortable socially. If there was a dance or something like that, I was really shy with girls. And my excuse was—

MR I’m in the band! (laughter) Yeah, I hear you.

BF Clarinet wasn’t really . . .

MR Yeah, not like it was in the ’30s, when clarinets were these big sex symbols; I guess by the time we came along, it was kind of like wearing your grandparents’ clothes. Oh well, you showed them. You became a guitar god. To get back to the “American” music stuff. Do you remember when Hank Roberts, quite a while ago, was also trying to deal with country music from a sort of new music perspective. For those that don’t know, our mutual friend, the cellist Hank Roberts—you were in a band with Hank in the ’80s, right?

BF Yeah, he was in my first band. I’ve known him since 1975 or something.

MR He was trying to approach country music through this deeply personal history. It was very tortured because it involved family history—is he from Missouri?

BF Well, Indiana, but it’s Southern, it’s right at the edge of where it starts to be Tennessee.

MR Right, and he was not only dealing with country music but also with his hometown’s Klan history. Now, for some reason at this point, 12 years later, people can access country music without carrying that social baggage. I wonder why.

BF You mean without it having to be attached to all this racial history?

MR Yeah, I mean, I don’t know if it was necessary then. But Hank was the only downtown musician I can remember who was trying to do bluegrass-related music. And he felt the need, at that time, to go through some of that social history as well. Why was country music considered to have negative racial overtones then? And now, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which was produced by T-Bone Burnett, is going to sell millions this year to people who previously wouldn’t have found it accessible. What’s changed between then and now?

BF I don’t know. I really get scared, when I see all the American flags everywhere and that kind of shit. It’s different from the late ’60s when my hair was down to my shoulders, and being in Colorado, when you saw an American flag, it meant that you were going to get your ass kicked.

MR I wonder about the relation of getting into the country stuff for you, and getting into the Jewish stuff for me, and Zorn and some other musicians you had worked with. At a certain moment at the beginning of the ’90s, there was a lot of music based on identity. For example, queer core and riot grrl music, and not long after there was radical new Jewish music, and of course hip-hop was very black identity-oriented.

BF Part of it, for me, doesn’t go that deep. I was fascinated with the notes and the rhythms. But it’s also about figuring out where I come from, looking at my own roots. I grew up in Colorado and country-western music, which I hated, was everywhere. But I was hearing it in the background all the time. And then my mother’s side of the family is all from western Maryland and Virginia, where it starts to get into country. My parents moved when I got out of high school—to New Jersey, right close to you, actually, South Orange.

MR Oh, wow.

BF But then they moved back south to North Carolina and even though I didn’t live there, it’s 25 years that they’ve been down there.

MR So it feels familiar.

BF Yeah, because my mother’s side of the family is all from down there. The idea started growing on me to try to figure it out—and it’s sort of a natural rock-n-roll kind of music, that’s what I started to hear. So it felt like I needed to patch up the foundations.

MR That’s a really good description, patching up the foundations. I can relate to that. What people don’t understand is that musicians swim backwards up the stream. You have what you like and then you want to see where it came from. Country music is definitely one of the sources.

BF And it takes time to figure it out. If you have some kind of audience, it’s weird to force them to come along. It’s like, I have to check this thing out, and it’s going to take me a minute or more. And the audience is like, Oh, God.

MR (laughter) Well, I think a lot of the people were happy to go along for the ride, Bill Frisell. I didn’t hear too many people complaining.

BF It’s breaking wide open now. That’s what’s really flipping me out, some of the connections to Africa and this hillbilly stuff. It’s the same thing. I finally can get through one of these old hillbilly tunes and now I’m playing with this percussionist guy from Mali, and the whole beat and everything, it’s the same stuff.

MR Yeah, two levels of connection. One is in the origins of black music in the United States and slave music in early American music, and another level is that I’m sure musicians in Africa like Ali Farka Toure are pretty well versed in the blues and American music from records.

BF Yeah, an overly simplified way of saying it is that the music in Africa came over to the States and then there was the blues, and now that’s influencing African music. There is so much back and forth, records here were going over there at the beginning of the century, they were listening to those hillbilly records. It’s an amazing and weird back and forth.


—Marc Ribot is a guitarist, composer, and an integral member of New York’s experimental New Music scene, and has collaborated with the likes of Arto Lindsay, Chocolate Genius, and John Zorn. More recently, Ribot composed the score for the dance piece, As Much As Life Is Borrowed, by choreographer Wim Vandekeybus, and has continued his musical excursions with the acclaimed ensemble Los Cubanos Postizos. His latest album, Saints (Atlantic Records, 2001), imagines a history that includes Derek Bailey, Thelonius Monk, Albert Ayler, John Lee Hooker and Daniel Johnston.

September 11
Rhythm and blues
Country music
American culture
Spring 2002
The cover of BOMB 79