Marc Ribot by David Krasnow

BOMB 66 Winter 1999
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Marc Ribot. Photo by Lisa Renzler. Courtesy Atlantic Records.

Guitarist Marc Ribot has done his best to skirt stardom, but it may have caught up with him. Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law, which opens with Ribot’s lonesome brittle lead echoing a camera pan across New Orleans blight, could be a Marc Ribot movie, so powerfully did his aesthetic stand for the grainy black-and-white footage. Like a lot of people, I have followed him with curiosity ever since. Playing with Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and other major artists in the 1980s, Ribot became something of a cult figure for rejuvenating the blues-based tradition of Keith Richard and Jimi Hendrix, but as a composer, his music has been denser than rock and roll, strangely textured with dissonance, unusual instrumentalization, long song forms and the antivirtuosic techniques of No Wave. On his latest record, Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos (Atlantic), he covers songs written or performed by Arsenio Rodriguez, innovator of a style called the son montuno that brought horn arrangements to the basic Cuban son. I caught up with Ribot returning from a week on tour in Europe. The French press, he complained, wants its musicians American primitive, non-French-speaking, “Jerry Lewis with a guitar.” Hopefully our conversation does him more justice. Sitting inches from the avenue in a glass-walled coffee shop near his studio, he seemed to have a proprietary aura toward the East Village landscape that nurtured him: local boy makes good. We were wearing the same shirt, something neither of us commented on.

David Krasnow So what’s this Jewish guy from New Jersey doing playing the son montuno?

Marc Ribot No one can accuse me of playing roots music, at least my own roots. That reassures me.

DK Reassures you of what?

MR I like all kinds of music. I think people should play what they enjoy playing, but this task of proving authenticity… It reassures me that I’m not participating in something that revolts me.

DK A lot of your contemporaries have gotten into Jewish music, especially klezmer for various motives—reverent to deconstructive. There are some complex relationships with authenticity out there.

MR I don’t see much deconstruction taking place. There are dozens of projects using juxtaposition, presenting themselves as transgressive: klezmer/punk, sephardic/new music, klezmer/country and Western or whatever. But what exactly is being transgressed? The musical language of signification is left intact and unquestioned. In virtually all these projects, klezmer signifies “Jewish,” while the juxtaposed genre signifies modern, hip, or American. I haven’t heard much that calls this language into question, that forces the listener to question how klezmer, undeniably the music of some Jews in some places at some times, became a signifier; or how country and western, undeniably the music of some Americans in some places at some times, came to signify American more readily than, well, klezmer. Many of these projects succeed as music, but don’t cut it as deconstruction

If I was an anthropologist, looking to discover the music of Jews, I’d find a bunch of Jews and then see what they listen to during their entire life. This enormous gulf between what people actually do of their own unselfconscious volition, and what they do when they’re self-consciously performing their identity is what interests me.

DK Where does that pressure to perform identity come from?

MR The best answer I’ve gotten so far is from the geographer David Harvey’s book The Condition of Postmodernity. He says that people have stopped seeing themselves historically—I’m oversimplifying vastly—and have spatialized their being instead. They don’t see themselves as becoming historically, so the question of who they are, their being, has become all important. We seem to be spatializing into various ethnic and psychogeographical identities. And competition over scarce resources pressures us to further differentiate our little niche of an identity market. Art’s not so different from Kleenex or clothing or cars.

DK Though theological Jewish narrative is deeply historical, in the sense of becoming.

MR Right. I see that gap as philosophical bad faith, because there’s so much emphasis on acting Jewish. And so little emphasis on acting Judaism. I could substitute a lot of other words for “Jewish” here.

DK What kind of identity are you acting out as leader of Los Cubanos Postizos, the prosthetic Cubans?

MR We started by talking about what I’m not doing. What I am doing is goofing off and having fun. Without any claims whatsoever to have any right, ability, or reason to be playing this music other than that I feel like it.

DK How literally were you thinking about the word prosthetic?

MR When you use a prosthetic, it means replacing an organic part with a man-made or constructed artificial part.

DK You’re the artificial part? The American playing Cuban music?

MR But I basically just say, I did it because I liked it.

DK What led you to Cuban music?

MR My daughter Clara, who you just met, was born in England about two years ago. We went over there so that she could be born in Britain.

DK Was that important to her mother?

MR It was important for people who didn’t have health insurance in America. I didn’t do too much guitar playing after she was born, I had more pressing things on my mind, so when I started again I wanted to do a project that would put my hands back on the guitar. I’d been listening to this Arsenio Rodriguez stuff for about six years, really loved it, and I put together a band with some old friends. I figured we’d book into some obscure bar, a once-a-week gig. But obscure bars are getting harder and harder to find apparently, because on our third gig we got offered a deal by Atlantic.

DK Amazing.

MR It was a benefit at Tramps for a friend of mine who had gotten sick, who a lot of industry people also knew. Arto Lindsay was on the bill, and Yoko Ono.

DK That was the first time I heard the band. It was a big surprise, because it was so different in sensibility, in accessibility, from your more avant-garde bands like Rootless Cosmopolitans and Shrek. What is it? Latin rock? It’s not Cuban music anymore…

MR I’m signed to the jazz department. The live performances have more in common with Chuck Berry than with, I don’t know, who’s a jazz guitarist?

DK I don’t much listen to them. That’s why I like your playing.

MR It’s nice that it winds up in the stores at all. May I say, I’m all in favor of major labels.

DK What inspired you about Rodriguez?

MR As it happens, Anthony Coleman, who plays organ on Los Cubanos, was listening at one point to a lot of Latin music… He gave me a copy of “Como Se Goza en el Barrio.” And I could immediately see that the guy is a neglected, virtuoso genius of the instrument—which is, loosely speaking, my instrument. He played a trés, which is a type of guitar. It has three pairs of strings. Also, Arsenio was an electric player for most of his career. It’s an amplified sound, distorted in a way I particularly like.

DK That was his style rather than a function of the recording technology, right?

MR Everything is a function of the available technology, because it’s hard to conceive of what is completely unavailable.

DK There’s the myth of Ike Turner playing the first rock and roll song when his amp got a tear in it.

MR Yeah, that may explain why he played the first rock and roll song; but it doesn’t explain why he played the second, third and fourth. Like critic Ann Marlowe says, what is essentially rock and roll about Ike Turner is not strictly the sound; it has to do with time. Jazz soloists feel as if they have all the time in the world, Ike Turner feels like he has to get to the end of that solo fast, like somebody has a gun to his head. That’s why it’s rock and roll.

DK I think of you as a rock and roll guitarist, even playing the son montuno.

MR I had just bought this ES25, which has this sort of hot signal—I had a deep desire to overdrive small amplifiers using this guitar, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to do it. There was another thing, I was working against my reputation. You do something that gets well known and people fetishize it. If you go along with that, you let other people determine your musical identity and you can get trapped. I’m proud of the Tom Waits records I did, but people all over the world started fetishizing them.

DK For a lot of people outside the heavy metal camp, you were the first exciting rock and roll guitarist they had heard in years. That was the era of a lot of underplaying. But you can’t get away from that sound. It comes through for example in your playing on John Zorn’s The Circle Maker, that kind of surf-inflected…

MR Zorn insisted on the surf stuff. It’s a cooler vibe than Waits’s in general. Zorn tends to compose very completely, down to a preconceived idea of what the guitar sounds will be. And he knows enough about guitars to get what he wants. It was interesting, but at a certain point I had to hold all that at arms length and not get captured by peoples expectations.

DK Which was when you started writing more experimental music, less virtuosic.

MR Why fight? With Cubanos Postizos, I wanted to go back to the sound I’d been avoiding, not to rehash it, but to pick it apart.

DK What was it made of?

MR For example, some of the musical characters on Waits’s Rain Dogs, like “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” conflated Django Reinhardt, Duane Eddy and Cuban stuff as well. A lot of that record has a Cuban influence—in the production aesthetic, some of the grooves and in my guitar approach. And of course I was a blues player.

DK There was a Cuban influence in your playing even then? Coming from where?

MR Living in New York you hear Latin music. And I picked up the Cuban influence, the son, indirectly through salsa, Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente.

DK You have a very distinctive voice, and yet those elements seem to be the same ones that went into rock and roll in the first place. It’s as though you reinvented the wheel.

MR In going back to all that, what I wanted to do was pick out one element and attribute it to the source. Conflation is tricky. In the opera Carmen, Carmen is supposed to be part Gypsy, Spanish and Jewish—maybe. That is a conflation that could only exist in the mind of a French person, because in fact, the Spaniards don’t mistake themselves for Gypsies, Gypsies don’t mistake themselves for Spaniards, and Jews don’t mistake themselves for Gypsies or Spaniards.

DK But rock and roll actually happened.

MR It’s definitely true that all of those elements fed into rock and roll. Cuban music developed towards rocking rhythms and great arrangements, but didn’t develop towards complex harmonic things, like jazz. Or Brazilian music—Jobim’s “Desafinado,” big chords and lots of them. Cuban music kept more or less the same chords as rock and roll and was very influential in early rock and roll, the famous example being “Louie-Louie”—a cha-cha.

DK Until the rock era hit, Latin music had a huge popular audience here. That was the height of the mambo craze.

MR There was a lot of cross-pollination.

DK Do you have any intention of pursuing some of those other strands? Would you revisit the rockabilly of Duane Eddy?

MR I’ve been trying to talk Robert Quine, a great guitarist, into doing a Duane Eddy tribute. Duane Eddy, Hubert Sumlin…most of my favorite guitarists are still alive.

DK Sumlin really defined Howlin’ Wolf’s music. I had a feeling you liked him. He has a similar sense of overdrive, using distortion to push an emotional angle.

MR Hubert Sumlin is major, but he hasn’t found the proper setting for his playing since Howlin’ Wolf died.

DK Rock listeners were grateful to you for bringing the blues influence back into rock and roll. You won a poll in Rolling Stone

MR Some kind of critic’s poll, yeah.

DK You were on the verge of entering the rock pantheon as an official guitar hero. A lot of people would have capitalized on that, gone for the platinum albums, posters in kids’ rooms…

MR I did!

DK Rootless Cosmopolitans was a bid for stardom?

MR What can I say? I’m slightly deluded, but I did my best.

DK Those long, noisy free-blowing episodes on the bass clarinet, totally guaranteed to piss off the listener who might have grooved to a funky rocker like “The Cocktail Party.”

MR Yes, I’ve been a brave resister of popularity. I only care about truth and love and pure music—I’m a hustler, too. I’m 44, when I show up in Europe and get a decent hotel room I’m not going to complain about it. No, in terms of the records, this may sound stupid, but I wasn’t really thinking that much about how they would be received. You can only try to do something that rocks your own world. Rootless Cosmopolitans was the first record I had real control over. It’s a walking tour through all these different styles that had meant something to me emotionally as a side musician.

DK Such as?

MR “Nature Abhors a Vacuum Cleaner” has to do with organ jazz. “Shortly Before Take-Off” was rockabilly. All of them were sort of tortured versions of those styles. They were all deeply fucked up. On the next record, Requiem for What’s His Name, the focus moved towards composition. It’s almost impossible to get hold of it. I was interested in Balkan music at the time, certain ritual music. Then I made Shrek, which was finally a hit. It was the most purely compositional record I had made. It’s quasi-unlistenable.

DK Really? I think it’s beautiful. I listen to it.

MR I never knew how many Shrek fans there were till I did Cubanos. They’re coming out of the woodwork.

DK Shoe String Symphonettes is also very much about composition. It has five film scores, four recent films and one 1928 silent.

MR A lot of what I wrote was source music. In films, you write the score, but there’s also source music. For example, if a scene takes place in a disco and the filmmaker doesn’t want to shell out for rights to a disco hit, you write some disco. “Montuno” is a salsa tune. Jacob Burkhardt, the director, needed something that established a backyard on the Lower East Side.

DK The record is so varied. Part is atmospheric, almost industrially textured. Then there’s salsa, retro jazz, some stuff in the classical ballpark. What puzzles me is that the three or four tracks from each score do not appear in order. They’re scrambled. It takes away not only from the listener imagining a film narrative, but also from the listener hearing the coherence of your composition.

MR It really wasn’t my decision. I gave it to the producer, J.D. Foster, to sequence, but I’m happy with the way he did it. I think it made the record as a whole more listenable. “Aelita” is pretty rough going; I chopped up the score into three suites. I don’t mind mixing things up in that way. It’s like making a salad, things rub off on each other. In my live solo sets I mix up pieces I played on Zorn’s Book of Heads, which are rigorous free-prov composition—composed, using free-prov sounds—that’s a contradiction. I put those next to jazz standards. You play a jazz standard differently and listen to it differently, after you’ve been through five minutes of listening to a nail file scrape on the strings.

DK You recorded a set of standards on Don’t Blame Me. But you just now disavowed being a jazz guitarist.

MR That’s my favorite out of the batch. First, I like doing cover tunes. But those are standards with a secret agenda: they were all covered before me by Thelonius Monk or Albert Ayler. “Old Man River” was covered by Albert Ayler, “Don’t Blame Me” and Ellington’s “In My Solitude” were recorded by Thelonius Monk on his solo records. What every musician does, whether they know it or not, is arrange their own history. So I’m a rock musician, but in my history of rock I would include, not all jazz musicians per se, but Monk and Ayler, and Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time.

DK Do you see yourself as part of their lineage?

MR As part of a lineage of people who want to regress.

DK Regress towards what?

MR I’ll let you know when I find it. Something about Thelonius Monk has a backwards motion. When Thelonius Monk was playing really slow ballads, there was this two-bar phrase that fueled me for about ten years. It’s on “I Should Care”—the lyrics there are important too—he begins the tune: (sings) “Baaah. Bah. Bah.” There’s so much space between the first notes and the second notes. It’s like a child playing. You have to understand that was occurring against the context of bebop, when people were playing ever faster, ever more complex. There was a backwards movement to his development.

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Marc Ribot. Photo by Lisa Rinzler. Courtesy Atlantic Records.

ADK You play beautiful, tasteful classical on Evan Lurie’s first record, Selling Water by the Side of the River, one of my favorites.

MR Okay. I do play classical guitar. I started on trumpet but when I was 11, I noticed that there weren’t many trumpets in Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones. I also noticed that I had gotten braces and it hurt like fuck to play. I asked my teacher to teach me to play like Miles Davis and he said to play every note a little lower or higher than it is, and “embellish.” I tried that and said, Man, this is not how you learn to play Miles Davis. Fuck it, I’m going to learn how to play guitar—sound more like Bob Dylan, get more girlfriends. My parents called my aunt, a songwriter, and their consultant on musical matters. She said I should study with Frantz. Her pal Frantz needed students and it was decided that every aspiring rock guitarist should learn how to play classical first.

DK For the chops, right? Frantz Casseus was not just a teacher but a composer.

MR Frantz was Haitian, and he was trying to develop a Haitian classical repertoire, using folk idioms, for the twentieth century. He dedicated his life to this tremendous task. And that made me aware, I think, as a white male, of my class and generation, and as a musician, of an absence of purpose. Of a pointlessness that is my historical moment. Whatever reasons they had me study with him may have been bullshit but now I’m happy that’s how it happened. The direct route is not always the best. I didn’t learn to play with a pick until I was 25.

DK You went on to back up all the great soul artists who came though New York. You were suddenly in contact with very famous…

MR Nah, its not like that. I took any gig I possibly could to make money, a little R&B on the side. I was doing some gigs with a drummer, Crusher Green, who got me on tour with Wilson Pickett. This was after I had been working with the Real Tones for a while, which was basically a soul revival band.

DK You played as a side musician for many years, sometimes in another artist’s style, sometimes in your particular voice. Then, you compose music that may not involve you as a player. Those are hefty, and maybe conflicting, demands on an artist.

MR They’re not as radically different as they seem. Being a good side musician, you learn to lose yourself in somebody else’s aesthetic. It helps. You have to be able to disappear to a certain degree. You treat a text as sacred. But the soul revival started to bother me. It was the music that meant the most to me, but there was a big contradiction. We were backing all black artists—Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Solomon Burke—for all white audiences, virtually none of whom would have sat for a second through any contemporary black performance. I started thinking, What’s really going on with this? Why can these audiences only get into soul music from twenty years ago? What’s being bought and sold here? What’s our complicity in this? And no matter how much a sideman I thought I was, in fact I wasn’t disappearing, and I wasn’t playing the soul music of 1954, I was writing the revival of the ‘80s. Once I realized that, in all the recording I did, whether it was for other people or me doing cover tunes, I was aware that as a side musician you alter the meaning of what you play. If you use a processing, for example, that couldn’t have existed on the original, you alter the meaning. There’s not such a big difference between that type of side musician and a composer. And there’s not that much difference between covering something and writing it. In fact, I’ve given up writing stuff. Don’t Blame Me was almost all cover tunes, except for two total noise segments.

DK The Cubanos record is all covers, except your “Postizo.” You also played with the Lounge Lizards, who were accused of creating “fake jazz,” cynically repackaging older jazz as exotica for punks.

MR When I first heard the Lounge Lizards, it was clearly fake jazz, it was clearly cynical, and it was better than almost any real jazz that I was hearing at the time. I had been dutifully going home and trying to learn how to be a jazz guitarist and Arto Lindsay, who couldn’t play jazz, was clearly kicking my butt.

DK He still likes to say he doesn’t play guitar.

MR He doesn’t even know how to tune it.

DK That’s true?

MR It’s only partly untrue, because he moves the tuning pegs until it creates some sound that satisfies him, but he couldn’t tune it up like my guitar if he had a gun to his head. It was more effective than what I was trying to do. Let me put it this way: irony is self-limiting, but so is everything else.

DK As self-limiting as authenticity?

MR As authenticity or integrity or whatever. Its dialectical. Ironic distance sooner or later forces the question, Could you play something else with less distance? Going forward through ironic distance is at some point the only way you can go forward: the posturing of heroic modernist explorers. My first record with the Lounge Lizards was Big Heart: Live in Tokyo, and the music was already moving beyond car-crash jazz. It was no longer just a question of doing “Harlem Nocturne” with a bunch of noise in the background. John Lurie was becoming aware of the limits of irony that appeared to everybody around that time, I’m talking about ’85, ’86.

DK How did you think about irony and distance with the new record? You’re picking up a vintage music, it’s not the Cuban pop of today or yesterday. Son montuno came together in the ’40s, the era of “Harlem Nocturne.”

MR Let me ask you. What does it sound like?

DK When you sing “La Vida Es un Sueno,” life is a dream, “After knowing treason in life… you must realize that everything is a lie,” it’s so tragic, over the top, it borders on melodrama. And you recite it deadpan, completely flat.

MR Right. Before this record, I have never succeeded—except maybe on Shrek, in terms of ritual music, like “Human Sacrifice” in finding stuff I could do without ironic distance. For example, on Requiem for What’s His Name, I covered “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child,” one of the sadder songs in the world. I couldn’t do it without distance, but I wanted to make that distance painful, bring it to some kind of breaking point. So while I can’t sing “La Vida Es un Sueno” without distance, I hope I didn’t do it only as satire. What I’m aiming for is where it’s both things at once. The distance is obvious, but the original lyric comes through. I want to leave it at that point. Let people make up their own minds.

I once saw this show by the late Ethyl Eichelberger, a great drag actor. It was his version of Hamlet, called Hamlette or something, where the actors all run away, and the extremely queer hairdressers and backstage personnel put on the play. And I thought, Aw, this is going to be some nice, campy thing. In fact it knocked me over, because that complete distance allowed the words to stand on their own and they were even more powerful.

DK What seems the least distant on that record is the joy, the exhilaration. In ecstatic passages like the long solo in “Como Se Goza en el Barrio,” delirious but very controlled at the same time.

MR It’s strange how much the lyrics influence me, even though I do that number instrumentally, because I had found my own reading. How we enjoy ourselves in the ghetto is a title I can really relate to.

DK On what level?

MR When I use that title, it means something totally different than what Arsenio would have meant. I’m talking about a different ghetto in a different time and place: an East Village ghetto, a Warsaw ghetto—and how we enjoy ourselves can mean a lot of different things too. That allows me to live in the tune, find my own reading. Like the opening ballad, “Aurora en PekIn,” that’s Alfredo Boloña, who was an earlier trés player. Dawn in Peking.

DK On what level?

DK Probably not something that Boloña had experienced.

MR No no, I doubt it. But on the other hand, there are all these Chinese Cubans.

DK Is what you’ve done with Rodriguez’s music of interest to fans of Latin music per se?

MR I got called to play on a Spanish-language Gatorade commercial. That really made my day. Somebody wanted an Arsenio-type thing and I got called to play it.

DK Did you take it?

MR Of course! What I’ve heard is that Cubanos Postizos is of interest, but not to son players. Some rockers from Cuba or Mexico who have heard it are interested. We played at the Texaco Jazz Festival on a Cuban bill. I think a certain portion of the Cuban musicians in the audience said, Oh, fuck this! A bunch of others hung around and laughed their heads off. Most of these songs are immediately recognizable but the cultural divide is still huge. I can’t imagine how it would seem to a Cuban: like a band of pygmies playing the Beatles. Robert Rodriguez, who plays percussion in the band, is Cuban, and his father, a trumpet player, still gigs down in Miami. His father said it sounded raw, “street.” Maybe he was being diplomatic.

DK How hard was it to learn the clavé? Cuban rhythms are pretty different from what you had done.

MR I learn music by playing it. I don’t know to what extent I learned it and to what extent I rewrote it as what I wanted or was limited to. I transcribed a large number of recordings and would try to learn them as solo pieces, radically reducing them. Learning something for a twelve-piece band on solo guitar, you mutate it. If I could do that, then I’d go back and teach it to the band. I have not gone on to start gigging regularly on the Latin scene, I would probably end up turning around the clavé—God help me.

DK You are very much a part of another community, though, the new music scene in New York. The Texaco Jazz Festival became somewhat controversial when you played there. There was a bit of an imbroglio over artists’ pay, and you took a prominent role in that.

MR I’ve been active for the last four years in the Noise Action Coalition, a bunch of musicians from downtown, indie rock, new music, to stop what we see as the erosion of working pay and working conditions. Younger musicians coming on the club scene don’t get paid what the Real Tones got 17 years ago. There were always tiny, marginal clubs featuring free-prov where people got paid next to nothing, but now its common for medium to fairly large venues to pay nothing. When it comes to recording, a lot of people don’t even know union scale exists anymore. A number of us decided to start asking what musicians thought was fair, rather than just accepting whatever the industry dished out. Arlene’s Grocery and some other clubs had adopted a no-pay policy and we walked picket lines. It was an informational picket—we didn’t tell people not to go in, out of respect for the bands that were playing. There were a number of issues at stake at the Jazz Festival. Noise Action Coalition was contacted by people booked there who felt that the minimum rates of pay were too low for a major festival. So we organized a petition drive and asked for collective bargaining. Michael Dorf, to his credit, negotiated in good faith and ended up doubling the minimum rate. This didn’t affect my pay by the way, I was getting well over the minimum. But several hundred musicians were getting the minimum. I was very happy it worked out.

DK It seems like an example, beyond a wage dispute, of the new music scene here asserting itself as more than a fringe movement or arty marginalia, but as a mainstay of New York cultural life.

MR It wasn’t only the regulars from the old Knitting Factory though. I’ve talked to a lot of musicians and all of us have played at marginal, tiny venues, and not made any money. But there’s a consensus that when money is being made, or when major corporate sponsorship is involved, then there has to be decent pay.

As for what’s marginal, if you include not only those indies distributed by real indie distributors, but indies distributed by the majors, and indies secretly owned by majors, we’re talking over fifty percent of the market share. Billions of dollars. Downtown New York City new music isn’t selling those kind of figures, of course, but the indie world, of which the downtown scene is a subset, can no longer be called marginal. It’s taken a while for the union, for example, to understand. Indie is usually thought of as an aesthetic movement, but in fact it’s also an industry restructuring; it’s out-sourcing. Labels are no longer owned by those corporations for the same reason auto makers farm out parts. Outsourcing is done because the least predictable and riskiest part of the operation, the one that deals with labor, is the least profitable to own. Distribution is still predominantly done by corporations. So, capital holds on to the profit and lets us little sucker musicians think we’re getting a bone because, Wow, we’re independent, that’s good, isn’t it? We’re independent to record what we can on one-tenth of the budget we would have gotten 20 years ago.

DK But you have your total creative control.

MR Perfect. If that’s independence, you can keep it. The East Village is a giant warehouse of signifiers and gestures of resistance, but it’s hard to find any tangible acts of resistance against the industry. That’s why I’m very proud of what happened. Some musicians drew a line somewhere.

DK Do you define yourself as a Downtown artist, with a capital “D?” People ask, What kind of music is that? And I usually end up with that term.

MR It’s been in critical use, but what does it really mean? Well, I don’t come from Texas.

DK What I do like about it is that it refers to a creative milieu, not an aesthetic. And I think that expresses what makes this scene compelling. A cosmopolitanism.

MR I’ll buy it. You’ve got to be skeptical about all these terms. It may be cosmopolitan, but this is a specific place. I’m not from everywhere. I’m from here.

Cachao by Jorge Socarrás
Cachao 01 Body
Craig Leon by Scott Davis
Craig Leon

Interplanetary folk music, the production tricks behind the Ramones’ success, and how to produce a classic song.

Rêve Parisien by Zach Layton
​Rêve Parisien by Rhys Chatham

After the massive wall of overtones created with 400 guitars in A Crimson Grail (2007) and the hypnotic downtown anthemic rhythms of Guitar Trio (1977), Rhys Chatham has returned to the trumpet.

Les Filles de Illighadad’s At Pioneer Works by Nina Katchadourian
Three women (two carrying guitars) and one man walking through an empty square

Les Filles de Illighadad’s music is driven by three guitars but remains free from the “tyranny of the solo.”

Originally published in

BOMB 66, Winter 1999

Featuring interviews with Janine Antoni, Yayoi Kusama, Jenny Diski, Michael Cunningham, Simon Ortiz, Petuuche Gilbert, Simon Winchester, Gary Sinise, Thomas Vinterberg, and Marc Ribot.

Read the issue
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