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After releasing two critically acclaimed tributes to Cuban roots music with a band called Los Cubanos Postizos ("the Prosthetic Cubans"), downtown/experimental-guitar legend Marc Ribot had a choice to make: "I loved doing that band," he says. "But it either had to stop being 'Postizo,' and I had to go to Cuba and spend 10 years really doing it, or I had to say, 'Well, this is a project, and it did what I wanted it to do.' " We're sitting across from each other at his kitchen table, having spent the first 45 minutes of our time together talking about the future of the music industry, which Ribot has observed and enriched on numerous sides: his recent work with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss; his contributions to most of Tom Waits's major work of the last 20 years; collaborations with John Zorn, Elvis Costello, the Black Keys, the Lounge Lizards.
As Los Cubanos would suggest, Ribot's solo projects reveal his rather schizophrenic approach to genre. He has an ability to exist effortlessly in hybridized worlds, as evinced by his latest adventure, Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog, apparently born out of a quasi-freakout regarding his sudden need to rock. "It was one of those blinding, post-9/11 revelations of: 'Oh my God—I'm going to die someday, and I haven't directly tried to do a rock band,' " he recalls. "And as with many of those blinding revelations, it turned out to be partly valid and partly bullshit." He laughs.
For Ribot, "rock" is interpreted loosely, the way Deerhoof might consider the term. After toying around with different lineups under the name Mystery Trio, Ribot chose to work with bassist Shahzad Ismaily (Jolie Holland, Will Oldham, Carla Bozulich) and drummer Ches Smith (Xiu Xiu, Secret Chiefs 3), calling the new collective Ceramic Dog. Their debut, Party Intellectuals, goes heavy into electro- experimentation at times, but nestles into funk grooves at others. At the risk of labeling a guy who can't and shouldn't be labeled, it's digi-punk: middle finger raised high, yet anchored in layers of rhythms and noise and brash, overt tones.
No surprise, Ribot's versatility as a guitarist is the main draw here. Ribot is wild and loose on "Digital Handshake," yet after a 10-minute onslaught of moog-backed fiddling, the track gives way to a dark, haunting sound during "Bateau." Latin influences spring up on "For Malena," yet full-on rock 'n' roll progressions anchor the opener, "Break On Through"—yes, the classic Doors song. "I thought: 'Wouldn't it be cool to do a version of 'Break On Through' that actually breaks on through?' " Ribot says.
And yet, as diverse as I'm making this sound—and Intellectuals does have an air of academic rigor to it—Ribot's existence in multiple worlds has left him with a rather simple view of his own work. It's probably best to leave it at that, rather than trying to force some kind of deconstruction, especially since Ribot speaks warily of the E-word: "As far as it being 'eclectic'?" he says. "Well, I prefer to worry about 'Is it pleasurable?' or 'Is it good?' I like to think it makes some kind of sense."Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dogs play the Prospect Park Bandshell on June 19 and the Stone on June 21