Steven Van Zandt didn’t have to look far to find the latest artist on his record label, Wicked Cool. Marc Ribler has spent much of the last five years standing near Van Zandt on stages and recording studios all over the world, as a guitarist and the music director of his Disciples of Soul band.
It’s easy to see why Van Zandt was interested. Ribler’s music (see videos below), like his own, combine music steeped in classic-rock tradition with thoughtful and sometimes topical lyrics. “Who Could Ask for Anything More,” for instance, is a hook-filled, tongue-in-cheek “tribute” to Facebook, “Real Housewives” shows and political chicanery.
Van Zandt co-produced Ribler’s The Whole World Awaits You album, which came out July 16 on Wicked Cool. For more information, or to purchase signed CD or vinyl copies of The Whole World Awaits You, visit marcribler.com.
Ribler, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Jackson, N.J., and has been a longtime mainstay of the Asbury Park music scene, had previously released two solo albums, Life Is but a Dream (2003) and This Life (2008). He also has worked as a guitarist, producer and songwriter for numerous other artists and, in 2012, spearheaded the all-star post-Sandy charity single, “Our Spirit Is Strong.”
I talked to him on July 13.
Q: So I guess the basic scenario is you had written these songs previously, but only got around to recording them during the pandemic. Is that right?
A: No. I recorded the songs after we put Steven’s band (the current version of the Disciples of Soul) together. We did a show in London (in 2016) and then we came back. He decided he wanted to record. He felt like he had this body of work that would be a great record. So we went in and recorded Soulfire in November of ’16 and then we finished it by, like, mid-December. Then he had two months committed to go to Australia with Bruce (Springsteen) and I didn’t think about making a record for a couple of years. I was putting songs together that I felt had a strong thread, and over a few years I would just make mental notes and listen every once in a while and see what really connected.
So I went in with the guys that I hired for Steven’s rhythm section: (bassist) Jack Daley and (drummer) Rich Mercurio and (keyboardist) Andy Burton, who are all friends of mine. We went into Shore Fire studios (in Long Branch) in February of ’17. We went in for like three days and recorded like 15 songs and I brought them to my home studio and finished the overdubs and did some preliminary mixes, and then it got really busy with Steven for three years.
When we’d be home from tour, I would give a listen every now and then. But when the pandemic hit, I realized that I needed a project. Otherwise I was going to jump off the roof. So I started digging into the arrangements and the mixes more. Steven called me a few weeks into the pandemic and asked me what I’d been doing. I said, “Well, I’m finishing up my record.” He goes, “I didn’t know you were making a record. I’d love to hear it.” I said, “Great.”
I sent it to him. The next day, he called. He said, “I’ve got some good news, I’ve got some bad news.” I said, “Okay, give me the bad news.” He said, “Let me give you the good news. I love a lot of these songs.” And he says, “The bad news is, I think some of them could use a little more input, and I’d like to get involved in the production and arrangement on this record.” And I said, “That’s the best news I’ve heard in 20 years.”
I mean, Steven’s brilliant. He’s obviously produced hit records for Bruce and he’s an amazing rock ‘n’ roll historian. So that was just the medicine I needed to get through the pandemic. We spent the next two or three months doing everything virtually. We’d work on the arrangements together. I would record in my studio, send him what I had come up with, and we’d sign off together. Or maybe things needed more work, or he would have an idea for something … let’s say it was a vocal part, I would record all the vocals and then I would have some of my vocalist friends do their vocal parts in their studio.
Q: Obviously, Steven has a great history of being able to enhance other people’s records, whether it’s with Bruce or Southside Johnny or whoever. He really knows how to give everything a rich, full sound.
A: Yeah. We kind of come from the same school. Steven is such a student of Phil Spector. Whenever it’s static, Steven gets bored. It’s a very interesting way to look at it. If there’s an open space in the music, a lot of times he wants to fill it with something that’s going to enhance the arrangement, which is what Spector did. There’s really not a lot of real estate that’s not lived on. But it all has great significance. It’s always there for a purpose.
Q: Yeah, if you think of the Bruce stuff, it’s two keyboards, two guitars, one saxophone, but there’s always a lot going on.
A: It’s orchestrated. It’s like a rock ‘n’ roll symphony. There’s definitely some of that on this record. Some of the vocal arrangements that we worked on together, some that I did myself, even … I like the interplay of having different vocal sounds, different voices. If it’s a singer-songwriter’s record and he’s the only one singing, it could become linear. Once you bring in other voices for background vocals, it broadens the harmonic spectrum. It just makes it richer.
Q: Finishing this record, at least, during the pandemic … do you think that brought something to it that wouldn’t have been there otherwise?
A: Absolutely. I mean, just channeling the emotion of the planet, our country. Not to get into politics or anything but there’s so much stress and confusion and dissension and division, just so much turmoil in the country. As an artist and a songwriter, I was able to channel all my energy into that and Steven … we’re very much alike in that way. We’re both pretty empathetic. I think he was feeding off the emotion of what was going on. The funny thing is, although these songs were probably written over a 10-year period, a lot of them are very relevant. I guess it’s just kind of … human beings just keep on having the same self-destructive behavior. Constantly undermining.
By the way, the song “Manzanillo,” which is a small town near the Mayan ruins … Steven said, “Why don’t you try writing something a little outside the box as like a palate cleanser on the record? Maybe something influenced by another culture.” And I said, “Great. Let me see what I come up with.” So I wrote “Manzanillo.”
My mother passed, probably six or seven months before the pandemic. That was crazy, just being on tour, and the only time I was able to spend with her was when I was home, obviously. But I was able to incorporate the loss of my mother and, also, it’s like my mother comes to me in a dream and says, “Take a look at the world,” and it’s the same thing that happened to the Roman Empire and the Mayan Empire and the Aztec Empire. That could be this country, where there’s such riches and such overabundance of wealth, and poverty, and greed … if we don’t look at this shit, we could lose it. We have to pay attention to what’s going on.
So that was the last song. That was a total pandemic production and, probably, from start to finish, the most (Van Zandt-influenced), although Steven’s influence is everywhere on the record. But that’s one that I started from scratch with just an acoustic guitar and a vocal. Then I added some percussion: I had Dave Anthony, who’s a Jersey musician, a great percussionist, add percussion. Then Steven said, “Let’s try drums,” you know? And then I came up with this vocal arrangement and (Van Zandt) said, “Let’s try some horns. Let’s put some mariachi trumpets on it.” So I had my friend John Martin, who is a great Jersey musician, in his home studio: Steven and I came up with the mariachi trumpet part and had John record it and send it through and I superimposed it on the mix.
Q: Are you going to be able to do any touring in support of the album?
A: I hope so, man. Right now I’m doing some local gigs. We’re doing Thursdays at the Triumph Brewery in Red Bank, and Wednesdays at this place, Salty’s, in Belmar. And Sundays we do McCann’s, which is at the Spring Meadow Golf Club (in Wall). We do covers and some originals from the new record, just to be able to play. I mean, as far as getting out (on the road) … with the Delta variant and everyone and their sister trying to find venues to tour, there’s such an abundance of that need for infrastructure to play at, and it doesn’t exist. There’s only so many venues.
So we’re kind of in a holding pattern, whether the Disciples of Soul go out … Steven’s waiting on what Bruce is going to decide. We’re waiting on what Steven’s going to decide. My record’s been received well and I hope to be able to do a tour. I think in a couple of months we’ll do album release shows. The record’s coming out now but it’s the middle of the summer. We’re just trying to kind of get back on our feet.
Q: The tribute shows you do, when you do a Who show or a Rolling Stones show or something … do you do that just to have a gig and pay the bills, or is that something that really fulfills you, too, as a musician?
A: Any tributes that I’ve done, there’s a strong affinity and love for the act that we’re doing a tribute to. I feel fortunate … like, Steven calls it the Rock ‘n’ Roll Renaissance. Like ’65 to ’75. It’s like everything came out then. Especially in the late ’60s. When I grew up in Brooklyn, listening to WABC, it would wake me up every morning. It would be Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow” or Norman Greenbaum’s” ‘Spirit in the Sky” or James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” or the Jackson 5. This rich and broad spectrum of all kinds of music.
You know, if I do an Allman Brothers tribute or the Rolling Stones tribute or a George Harrison … whatever it is, The Who … this is in my DNA. And I always try to get musician friends involved that have that same DNA connection that people in our age group tend to have. And that music comes out in my music. There’s no mistaking that we’re influenced by this great renaissance.
Like, when we do the George Harrison tribute, I feel as connected to a lot of those songs as I feel to my own. The Who is a little more of an aggressive expression of rock ‘n’ roll, on a lot of it. There’s more emotional songs, also, but that’s a little more of, like, just get it out of your body, shake it out of your body. Where Harrison is … it’s the spiritual connection, it’s emotional. A song like “Give Me Love” is like the purest song to God, or the woman you love. You feel complete doing a song like that.
Q: When you’re touring with the Disciples of Soul as the music director, what does that mean exactly? I always envisioned Steven as being pretty much in control of everything.
A: Well, first and foremost, Steven called me to put a band together — to me, I’m honored with that job description. So the first thing is finding the right musicians to serve the music. Steven’s trusting that whoever I bring is going to understand and be able to convey the musical message. The other role … Steven is such a hands-on arranger … sometimes the musical director (for another artist) would do more arranging, but for Steven, it’s really making sure everyone has the parts that he’s hearing. That everyone’s doing their homework. If we have a soundcheck rehearsal before the show for a new song, I have to make sure everyone has that music. I let (horn director) Eddie (Manion) know that, “Okay, Bruce is going to be with us tonight and we’re going to do ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,’ ” so Eddie will get the horn charts together. Or if it’s a new song, Eddie will chart the structure of the song, and then once we get to soundcheck rehearsal, Steven will refine the parts or come up with new parts.
I’m like the communications center to convey everything that Steven needs to make his show happen every day, from the musical end.
Q: Like what he is to the E Street Band.
A: Absolutely. You know, he’s the guy that Bruce turns to. It’s like, if they’re about to play at the Super Bowl and they’re doing … I forget which song it was: “Born in the USA” or “Born to Run.” There was a song that needed to be cut down to four minutes, and not that I would necessarily do that for Steven, but Steven was the guy that edited the song to make it work on the TV show.
Q: You first met Steven by working for Darlene Love, right?
A: That’s right. I was called to play on the Darlene record (2015’s Introducing Darlene Love, which Van Zandt produced), and the first day we met, it was supposed to be like a two- or three-hour session, and he had me there all day doing guitar overdubs, and we really connected. Then two months later, he called me to put Darlene’s band together for her album release shows, and then to do a tour with her. I did that for a couple of years. Then he called me to put the band together for the Disciples of Soul shows.
Q: Are you still working with Darlene Love at all?
A: The last time I worked with Darlene, the Disciples of Soul were in the first “Christmas Chronicles” (2018), the Chris Columbus movie on Netflix. We actually acted in it and recorded a song with Kurt Russell. And the second “Christmas Chronicles” … Steven wrote a song for Darlene to sing in “Christmas Chronicles 2.” I was the musical director and got all the musicians together when we recorded. We stay in touch. Then I saw her … we had virtual birthday party for Steven last year, so I had her on Zoom with us. Steven absolutely loves Darlene. She’s phenomenal.
Q: How is she as a boss, compared to Steven?
A: Totally different job description. Steven had a much more advanced crew of people handling different areas of the tour, where Darlene was a little more home-grown, so there was a lot more responsibility, even with talking to venues before going in, sending stage plots and stuff like that. And making sure she has the right musicians, and that there’s no drama. Just like with Steven: No matter how great you are as a musician, if there’s any drama, it’s not going to work.
Q: Were you not able to continue as her music director because you started working with Steven?
A: My whole connection with Darlene was because of Steven. He appointed me her musical director and he had me do all of that. I love Darlene and I have an allegiance to her. But Steven is my guy. So when I got called to put the (Disciples of Soul) band together for the London Blues Festival, just the one-off at Bill Wyman’s birthday party, I had a gig with Darlene. So I got a sub. And I got them up to speed. I actually had one of her former musical directors, Bette Sussman, be the musical director, filling in for me. And we got a guitar player to sub for me. People that Darlene had worked with and I knew she’d be comfortable with.
So I did that and then came back. And while I was working on Soulfire, Darlene was doing her Christmas tour. So I was running out, doing shows with Darlene, and then coming back to do Soulfire with Steven. But after he decided he wanted to go out (on tour) … I was able to stay with her until about February and then we needed to find someone else to take over that role as I was getting busier with Steven. It would be impossible to do both. And now she’s kind of settled in with some new people.
Q: So it all worked out.
For more on Ribler, visit marcribler.com.
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