Americana Highways had an opportunity to talk with Marc Ribler recently. In addition to being a solo artist, Marc Ribler is a member of the band Disciples of Soul with Little Steven, who just produced Marc Ribler’s new album The Whole World Awaits You.
Americana Highways: Can you point to a specific moment in your life growing up when you knew you wanted to be a musician?
Marc Ribler: It’s interesting that you ask about me “pointing at it.” It’s more that it pointed at me. It was almost like a divine occurrence. All of sudden in the corner of the room was this holy grail and it was a guitar.
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. I lived in Brooklyn until I was 10. I lived in the projects and all my friends were black and Hispanic and Jewish and Irish and German and Italian. It was a real melting pot. And the radio station that I grew up listening to was WABC in New York and that was a melting pot of the greatest pop songs of all time. Stevie Van Zander calls it the Renaissance of rock and roll.
That really encapsulates what it is. I grew up on all these great melodies and it was everything. It was the Jackson Five. It was the Rolling Stones. It was Donovan. It was Norman Greenbaum, Spirit in the Sky. It was this incredible arc of everything, you know. And Neil Young and James Brown and the Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix. So I grew up first with my albums and singles just singing along with records but never even thinking this is something you could do. I’m talking about like seven, eight, nine, 10 years old.
When I was 11 we moved to New Jersey and we were visiting my cousin. He was a couple of years older and I looked up to him. I went to his apartment in Brooklyn with my family and he had his guitar out in the room. It’s like the guitar was like pointing at me. It’s like, “Hey man, we got some business to take care of.”
And that was it. I never looked back from 11. My cousin just kind of did it as a hobby his whole life, but from that day forward I asked my parents if I could get a guitar and I got a couple of lessons from this local music store, and then I just spent a lot of time wanting to really become great at the instrument. So that was the first thing. The guitar with the catalyst for everything. It called out to me. It was like, “We got some shit to take care of.”
AH: I talk to friends now who are a lot younger than me and I tell them that that back then everything was played on the same station. And now the industry is compartmentalized.
MR: Corporate and compartmentalized.
AH: One of my interviewees recently said that genres was created by the corporations, by the industry because they want to separate it so that they can do-
MR: — target marketing.
AH: Yes, target marketing, and they think whatever they think it is that you’re going to listen to if you’re from here. What gets lost in that is the origins of rock and roll and popular music. For example, it’s not a white thing or a black thing. It was both. And country music has black roots. Blues has white roots. Bluegrass music has black roots. A lot of that gets lost.
When I say the word music, what does that mean to you?
Marc Ribler: Life, really. It’s every part of life’s resonance. It’s such an integral part of my being and the thing that has kept me alive and thing that has gotten me through really challenging, trying times. Losing my mom, the health crisis, you’re losing dear friends. Even it transcends all of that, you know? So, to me, music is life and it’s food, it’s air, it’s water, it’s spirit, it’s God, you know.
AH: How would you describe your personal songwriting process and what inspires you as a songwriter?
MR: Well, it’s really about how everyone goes through pain, everyone goes through joy, everyone goes through if they have tortured experiences, things that raise them up. Things that squash them into the ground.
And for me it’s always been when when I get to a place where I maybe have some clarity or I’m praying for clarity, whether you break up with somebody or you’re going through a challenging time personally or professionally. It’s the thing that I always go to for answers. It could be something that’s cohesive and coherent and connected to your life experience.
As I get older I realize that you always have to get out of the way of yourself because you’ve gotta be careful not to engage your intellect, not to engage your mind too soon because this vital information is coming through. We’re just channels. You put up your antenna. This information is coming in from the source and its truth is coming through. It’s sort of a whole abstract experience. But in some way you have to figure out how to get out of the way of yourself so you allow this purity to take form into whether if you’re a painter if the painting is your art in that sense or if it’s dance or if it’s performance or if it’s… But the song it’ll tell you what it wants to be and at some point it’ll make sense even if when it’s coming in you have no idea what it’s telling you. At some point you’ll go, “Oh f*ck man, that is it, that’s completely it.
And the best songs happen when I was able on that particular day or that particular period to get out of the way of myself and just let it be.
It’s just the magic of it. Through a lot of the pandemic my schedule got completely flipped around. Like me and my girlfriend would go to sleep at like 8:30-9:00 at night. I was waking up at 2:30 in the morning and it was because I had to write and there was so much turmoil going on in our country the likes of which we really never experienced aside from the pandemic.
And I guess my soul is screaming out for answers, but I would wake up every morning like 2:30 and I would drive from my girlfriend’s house to my house. Usually by the time I got to my house, a song was already forming if not completely formed and I would finish writing it to where I can record it. And I doing that for months and months and just writing and just, it was the thing that helps heal. I don’t even know if healing is the word, but come to grips with or just find some peace in this incredible storm that was happening. Like, what the fuck is this.
AH: How would you best describe what it’s like been working with Steven over the years?
MR: It’s been one of the most enlightening experiences of my life in that this cat knows so much about the history and really the deep inside aspects of the arrangements and what’s going on musically. And I’ve been doing this my whole life even years before I met Steven I was writing songs and producing. And yet with Steven it’s a whole other experience. Steven is master class. When you work with Steven you’ve got to pay attention because there is vital primal information being bought forth for you to reflect on, consume, learn from and he’s an incredibly powerful force of knowledge and wisdom and experience. And it’s been pretty steady now for about seven years.
I view my relationship with Steven as a very high blessing. There’s so much common ground and there was so much before we met.
You cannot stay out of the wake of the Springsteen thing and the Southside thing.
Bruce and Steven were really the beacons. And to be able to spend all that time with Steven working in the trenches, finding him the best musicians I felt for his music. But because of my familiarity and we have so many common friends. There was already so much common ground it was like, cellular.
It was just a perfect thing that happened. In your life perfection, of course, doesn’t exist but it was one of the most important meetings of my life.
AH: So, the basic tracks for The Whole World Awaits were actually laid down four years ago. Is that correct?
MR: That’s right. I was working with Darlene Love. Steven appointed me our musical director to make sure her arrangements were played properly and make sure that she was comfortable with all the musicians. So then he called me to do this blues festival and then Steven decided we needed to record Soul Fire. So we did that. And he had two months committed with Bruce in early 2017.
So I went in with my guys that I hired for Steven. Rich Mercurio and Jack Daley (Iggy Pop) and Andy Burton (John Mayer). We went into Shorefire studios in Longbranch and recorded 15 songs in like three days. I did some preliminary mixes, kind of finished off the arrangements just to kind of have something to listen to and reflect on while we were on the road. And then I got so busy with Steven for three years that I didn’t get back to actually mixing it until pretty much at the pandemic. Just before the pandemic started.
Steven and I were on the phone one day. It was about maybe two or three weeks into the lockdown and Steven said, “So what you been doing, man?” I said, “Well, I’ve been finishing this record that I recorded three years ago.” He goes, “Man, send me that. I want to hear that. I didn’t know you were making a record.” So I sent it him and he listens and calls me back. He goes, “I got some good news and I got some bad news.” I said, “Okay.” I said, “Give me the bad news first.” He goes, “Well, I’m going to give you the good news.” He said, “I love a lot of these songs and the bad news is I think they need a little more work in the arrangements and the production. And I’d like to co-produce them with you.”
I was very ecstatic that he was interested in finishing my record with me, and I said to myself. “The bad news is the fucking best news of all.”
AH: How is that bad news?
MR: I get to work with the guru, man. But I literally recorded everything three years before that and then Steven saying that was really just what I needed to get through the pandemic and to feel inspired. It’s hard to stay inspired. When there’s nothing going on and you think it’s Armageddon, a zombie apocalypse, it’s like, this is it, man.
AH: I work in a hospital, and one night it was like three o’clock in the morning and I had to deliver a piece of equipment to the nurses on the COVID floor and I get on the floor and I looked down at the end of the hallway and there’s 15 nurses decked out in the hazmat, the fricking suits to help them breathe which means they’re treating COVID patients. And I’ve got to walk from where I’m at when I got off the elevator all the way down to the end of this hallway and I’m passing, like I said, 15 different nurses who have on the breathing shit. All I have on, I have been supplied with the N-95. And I’m like, this is it right here. This is it right here. My brother recently passed from it a couple months ago down in Florida. Which to tie it back into that’s why I believe people like yourself and Steven are so important to all of us man, because of the music that you give to the world. What’s gotten me through is listening to this stuff.
MR: Exactly man, exactly. That’s it in a nutshell.
AH: With the 12 songs on the album, would you say that they have a unifying theme or a common theme?
MR: Well, the songs wanted to be together. The muse directs you. So out of the 15 or 16 songs that I recorded, a couple of them didn’t make the cut. But there are certainly threads in that it’s how I look at the world philosophically. It is my life experience, how it relates to how other people connect and draw from the same experiences. I have to look at things with a certain amount of comedy. You have to be able to laugh at yourself.
You can only take things so seriously, but there are songs on the record that have very serious themes. Like there’s a song called “The War on Peace” which is a song I wrote about 15 years ago, but I really felt like it tied in because it’s how I look at things. This song was just laying around. And for Steven to feel as strongly about it when I played it for him as I felt it, meant that it should be on the record. It was great having that validation. He felt as strongly about it being on the record as I did.
There are songs about love and loss and how ridiculous human beings are and how destructive we are and self-destructive. And the potential we have for healing and growth and looking at ourselves and laughing.
And the arc of all of that is something that Steven and I both felt was a very strong thread. Even the last song… Steven suggested now the B side for the first single was a song called “Hand Me Down” which is one of my favorite songs that I’ve recorded for the record, but we couldn’t fit it into the sequencing. It just wasn’t fitting for some reason. And it became the B side of the first single “Shattered.”
And actually it’s one of my favorite songs.
Another time Steven said, “How do you feel about writing some kind of an ethics. Something a little different.” He calls it a palate cleanser if you’re listening to a record. So I wrote this song which is “Manzanillo.” It’s a Latin song and it was the last thing written. The song’s meaning is multi-leveled in that my mom passed away in the summer of 2019. She was very sick, but we were on the road with Steve and I was actually in Warsaw, Poland when I heard.
I spent three weeks with her because of Steven. We were able to hub from home on a Northeastern U.S. tour. And I spent every day with her and I processed. We talked about everything. We were both at peace. If it’s possible, I think I was at peace with her passing. And then I was in Warsaw, Poland, which I found out afterwards was 75 miles from where my grandfather was born.
AH: Oh, wow.
MR: When my mom passed it kind of was like it made sense, but it also was kind of freaky.
Really the last song I wrote for the record, “Manzanillo,” was about my mom passing and also what we’re doing to the planet. And that this is like the Roman Empire and Aztec and Mayan ruins. It’s Mayan civilization all over again.
We just repeat what we don’t learn from history, right.
AH: Right. And it’s those people and those entities didn’t think that they would ever fall either.
MR: In “Manzanillo” I was able to encapsulate my experience with my mom and kind of like what we were just talking about. Just seeing the world as fragile, realizing how this could fade away in a flash. Aside from a nuke taking it out, just ourselves just taking it out.
AH: What would you like a listener who listens to The Whole World Awaits You for the first time to walk away with? What would you like for them to be feeling?
Marc Ribler: I want everyone to interpret it as they it pertains to their experience. But really just that it’s our humanity. This is what we go through and I want you to laugh. If you cry, that’s beautiful. I just want you to feel, hopefully feel the depth of what I feel and can somehow create something to hear and make you think about what our life experience is all about. So take away anything any sort of emotional or spiritual experiences. Just knowing that I could be somehow part of that for someone. That’s all I could ask for.
AH: You do a weekly show at McCann’s?
MR: Yes, every Sunday. We did it through the whole winter, man. We played outside in the snow.
28 degrees with half gloves on.
Social distance, you know, we play at least three hours straight because I’m not hugging anybody. I take care of my 88 year old dad. I’m not touching anybody. But thank God man, that’s really helped us get through the winter.
AH: What is your favorite thing about playing live?
MR: The connection. The connection of connecting to other people. The shared experience of music is so heightened and so immediate in performance because it’s a visceral response. It’s an exchange. It’s like here, take that. And it’s like yeah, well you just brought me that and here, take some of that. It’s a conversation. It’s an exchange of energy. And it’s immediate.
AH: You had a Who tribute concert in June?
MR: Yeah. We’ve been doing that for a bunch of years. It’s actually the Disciples of Soul.
It’s me, Jack Daly on bass, Rich Mercurio on drums and Andy Burton on keyboards. And this friend of ours, this guy, Dale Toth, he sings like Daltry sang in 1975. Like Daltry in his prime. And me and Andy sing a couple of songs as well, but Dale really gets the Daltry, just the pure rock, primal screaming of it. And he’s fine singer so it’s not just about screaming. So we did that June 25th and we did a George Harrison tribute this past spring which was the first time we played indoors. We’re all vaccinated. It was weird as shit being indoors.
I want to play, I want to bring my album and play it. Bring it to people and at the same time we want to get back out with Steven and do a Soul tour. And we want to get back to it and hopefully that’s going to be possible. It’s so unpredictable.
Also, I’m doing a side project. I wrote my next album, my next artist album. And I wrote a bunch of these more primal rock songs, for a power trio thing that I’m doing with Jack Daly on bass and my son, Charlie Drayton. Charlie was with the X-Pensive Winos, a great drummer. We recorded an album too.
It’s like they were mad because there was so much anger or frustration about what was going on. People say that my voice is a little more Americana like Roger McGuinn. This has more of an edge.
AH: Do you have a video you’d like people to focus on?
MR: I have a video for “Who Can Ask For Anything More.” Check out the first verse about Chris Christie and the GW Bridge incident. “I’m sitting in a monster traffic jam on the GWB.”
AH: And the album itself came out July 16th. Is that correct?
AH: All right, Marc. Well, it’s been wonderful talking to you, my brother. It’s such an honor, such a pleasure, man. The world needs your passion. The world needs your music, man.
MR: A true pleasure brother. A true pleasure.