Lee Ranaldo, Sonic Youth‘s guitarist gave us an exclusive interview during his last tour. We have discovered a fascinating and rather talkative person who spoke about many subjects : Teenage years, his last album’s recordings, friends and influences, music industry… We also have heard an important information : The release of an acoustic album.
Musik please : – At live gigs, you often introduce your songs with some explanations. In particular, you have told the songs ‘Xtina As I Knew Her’ and ‘The Rising Tide’ were both based from the discovering of new experiences during your teenage years. Were those times quite particularly moving for you? Is it the reason why you still keep your inspiration intact ?
Lee Ranaldo :
– I guess with those 2 songs in particular there’s a sense of real-life characters creeping in at the edges… They are both about a few people and situations I was around growing up—late teenage years as one is kinda coming into the world, exploring sex and drugs, having to begin making ones own interpretations about the world rather than just listening to what your parents, teachers, etc were telling you. The beginnings of trying to formulate one’s own view of the world, getting ready to be out on one’s own…
I think it’s a very moving time in most people’s lives. It doesn’t ultimately matter whether I’ve fictionalized the events and embellished them, or not; I was lucky enough to have had many close friends during those years – some of whom I am still close with now, more than 40 years after. We had many significant experiences together and many aspects of our personalities were formed in those times.
I guess one thing I have been trying to look at, which comes out in those songs, has to do with a certain sense of wonder and open-ness that we are all born with, and which often seems to get narrower and more closed off as people move into adulthood. For many people the sense of youthful freedom seems to fade as the ‘straight’ world takes over their lives. I’m interested in how that happens, and WHY it happens, and most of all I’m interested in trying to keep a sense of fascination and openness in my own life and the way I interact with the world. So although I am singing about a long-distant period in my own life, in a way I’m using that period as a certain kind of measurement against where my life (and all of our lives, really) is now…
MP :- Listening to the demo CD of your latest album, Last Night On Earth, it sounds that most of the songs were written on the same way with an acoustic guitar. While most of them turned into a more rock sound for the album versions, some songs turned out quite differently like ‘Descent #2’ which has different arrangements from the rest of the album. Can you tell us about this song and why the use of a cembalo?
Lee Ranaldo :
– Yes most of the songs still begin on acoustic guitars, it’s a great pleasure for me these days, after ‘neglecting’ the acoustic guitar for so many years, to come back to it and find it so rich and rewarding. The songs on the record did mostly shift into electric mode once the band began working on them, but I wanted to have one song on the record which had a definitely more acoustic tone to it – as I had a couple on Between The Times And The Tides as well. I had the song kicking around, but wasn’t sure what to do with it. Originally it was just my acoustic guitar and voice. On the demo, I ‘sang’ the lead guitar part, and I ended up liking the effect, so I did it on the final recording as well.
Later I thought to embellish this recording a bit. I asked Steve and Alan to help me out with the middle part of the song, but I wanted to record these new parts in a different, more casual, manner than the rest of the songs, I wanted to add a bit of artifice. The album sessions were over, anyway. In April 2013 we were in Europe, playing the last show of a short tour in the courtyard of a castle in Vallegio, Italy. We rigged up an iPod and headphones for playback, and first Steve and then Alan took some cracks at playing over the recording, right there on the stage in the hot Italian sun after soundcheck. Our sound engineer recorded them on a hand-held digital recorder. Very casual! We layered the parts together and it started to become something, but I still felt there was a missing element.
A couple months later I was in Amsterdam to present my “Hurricane Sandy Transcriptions” – a piece I wrote for a large string ensemble (inspired by wind sounds I recorded during the hurricane in Oct 2012). On the same program that night I heard Berlin-based cembalo player Elina Albach play a Baroque piece with the ensemble. I had been listening obsessively to the Grateful Dead’s “Mountains Of The Moon” which has great harpsichord playing by Tom Constanten on it; I really loved the sound of it. I thought maybe we could add something along those lines to my song. I sent my track to Elina, whom I’d only just met, out of the blue. She wrote back : “I’m really a « baroque » musician and my modern-musical experiences are quasi not existent; I can’t promise to get really a good result, but I will try!” Later she sent me an update saying that her part “will include some elements of Bach‘s 3rd Brandenbourg Concerto (not really, but the idea..)” which sounded good to me! We had to play around with the speed of the track as a cembalo is tuned differently to a piano (A is not 440…). We sharpened our (digital) editing blades, and went to work assembling it. I’m very happy with the result. I know it has a very different feel than the rest of the album but I’m glad of that…
MP : – Last Night On Earth finish with a long track, Blackt Out. Is it an indication for your next album ?
Lee Ranaldo :
– Blackt Out is one of the songs I wrote during that week after Hurricane Sandy, in a bit of a playful mode. We had no heat, no hot water, no electricity, we were “blacked out” and I was playing my guitar that week, and the song came out of it. I guess I had in mind something of a circular nature, in the mode of a group like Can. We were referencing there ‘Yoo Doo Right’ while working on this one.
With all the touring my band did behind Between The Times And The Tides, we really grew together in our playing. I wasn’t used to playing in any rock combo besides Sonic Youth, in spite of playing lots of ‘abstract music’ with many different improvisers over the years. A band has to achieve a certain balance and shared language to really take off, and it takes some time to get comfortable in a new situation. Especially when treading the delicate line between putting songs across on the one hand, and getting deeply wigged out and adventurious musically on the other. By the time we came together around the songs I’d written for Last Night On Earth, we were growing pretty tight musically, willing to challenge ourselves with some more open-ended playing. I knew I wanted some of the new songs to have some less structured sections, that could shift and change night by night depending on where the music took us. We spent a lot of time on a few songs in the studio — The Rising Tide, By The Window and Blackt Out — waiting for the right moments to happen, pushing and pulling them in different ways over the course of the recording sessions. Some were further edited into the most ‘ideal’ versions. The flexible nature of these tracks is also why we decided to release the double CD of demos and rehearsals (The Rising Tide: Last Night On Earth Demos & Rehearsals). It highlights alternate recordings of some of these songs that went to different places than the album versions did, which were, to us, equally interesting to listen to.
In terms of future songwriting it’s always hard to say in advance how new songs turn out, but yes I’ve been happy opening up the songs to more of this group instrumental work, I’m sure it will continue to evolve in that direction with some of the new songs…
MP : – Your precedent record was very pop, almost folky. Can you explain why ?
Lee Ranaldo :
– In general the songs are written mostly on acoustic instruments—it’s my renewed fascination these days. I’ve always been an acoustic player, but these days I play acoustic guitars much more than in many years. It’s a great love for me that I’ve rediscovered around the songwriting that started with Between The Times And The Tides, although I’ve always played some acoustic guitar through the years.
MP : – You have played a few acoustic set to promote your album. Do you have any plans to make more acoustic songs? Any plans for an acoustic album in the futur
Lee Ranaldo :
– Our sets are normally quite electric, yes, but I like the fact that The Dust can play acoustic music just as easily as electric music. We’ve done quite a few acoustic concerts now with no electric instruments, and that’s been a great deal of fun. In fact in September we will have an entire “Acoustic Dust” album released on the label of the Primavera Sound people. They already did release a 7” single by us a few months ago, and we are just about completing the album now…
MP : – At gigs you often play cover versions. Have you considered playing again that cover of John Lennon’s Isolation? (from the album Amarillo Ramp)
Lee Ranaldo : –
No, we haven’t considered that one at the moment, but we could do it at some point… I sang that song with Sonic Youth two nights in Paris when we performed at a John Lennon tribute in 2005 at Cite de la Musique. It was an unusual song for SonicYouth to cover, worked really well, quite fun. I do love that version on Amarillo Ramp as well.
MP : – The album version of Isolation featured your friend Epic Soundtracks. You have written a piece as a tribute for him entitled ‘How Deep Are Rivers’. Can you tell use more about this work? You also mentioned a couple of years ago you had some plans to release a recording of it, any news on this front?
Lee Ranaldo :
– Yes I wrote that piece for a NYC ensemble, Bang On A Can Orchestra. It was dedicated to Epic, who was a good friend. He played on a few tracks on that Amarillo Ramp album. The piece is abstract but while I was creating it I had Epic in mind; in some regards it is a memorial piece to him. He left us too early, for sure…
MP : – Let’s talk about another of your friends: at La Maroquinerie in Paris, 2012, you said hello to free-jazz guitarist Jean-François Pauvros who was in the audience. Please tell us more about your friendship with him, and what you know and think about his music.
Lee Ranaldo :
– I mostly know about Jean-Francois’s music from playing with him on a few occastions when he did guest spots with Sonic Youth. At this point we have been friends for quite some years. I know some of his recordings. I would love to play with him again sometime…
Lee Ranaldo :
– Well, sure, they are both influences! I’m not sure how directly you can hear them in my songs. I personally wouldn’t think that Hammer Blows is influenced by Nick Drake, but I do love his music a lot. So much great music, so many influences. In part my whole new ‘solo career’ is an attempt to make sense of some of these folk and acoustic guitar influences from my past – people like Drake and John Fahey, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, etc etc
MP : – How do you feel being the front man ?
Lee Ranaldo :
– I enjoy singing a lot, and at this point it feels very good, I’ve gotten comfortable and have been enjoying it. At first I wasn’t used to singing a whole set, and audiences were not used to hearing me do so. But I have confidence in the songs, I’m quite committed to them, and that makes the whole thing much easier. I’m the songwriter in this band, as opposed to the group-writing process that Sonic Youth had, so that makes things different as well. I’m bringing in the music and the lyrics. The band is helping to arrange them and develop them. The vocals are an important part of these new songs. Lyric writing is always a challenge, I always try to give it my best shot and keep the lyrics as honest as I can…
MP : – If Sonic Youth wasn’t in a breaktime, did we have the chance to ear all these new songs ?
Lee Ranaldo :
– Well, it’s hard to say but maybe not… For me to make these solo records, it’s taken a lot of time and energy. When Sonic Youth was active, I was always happy to throw my full energy into the band, and really there wouldn’t have been time left over to create records such as these. Although it had long been my ambition to make some personal, solo records like these, it just wouldn’t have been possible while Sonic Youth was active. Sonic Youth was a very special band, not every band can have the kind of relationship that the 4 of us had together, or make music as special as ours was. So it would never have occurred to me to break off in order to do records like these. Actually, I began Between The Times and The Tides during a slow point in Sonic Youth activities, and it was basically fully finished before I heard about Kim & Thurston’s troubles together. So in a way I did find the time to make that first solo record while Sonic Youth was existing, but just barely, at the end of the band’s life, as it turned out…
MP : – During your entire career you have been defending the indie music market: independent labels, physical records, etc… However on one of your guitars you have an Apple Corp. sticker. Don’t you think there’s a bit of a paradox since iTunes or Amazon are killing in some way the independent music market?
Lee Ranaldo :
– Oh I don’t know – it’s a big question. Certainly music does not occupy the place in people’s lives today that it did when I was much younger. There is no longer any mystery or need to search – everything is a few clicks away, which in some ways makes it much less special. I know that songs and sometimes an entire album still make an effect on people, but there are so many other distractions today… Music plays less of a role in people’s lives today in some ways… But just as we in Sonic Youth championed the independent/underground scene, we also made it clear that we loved certain very mainstream, commercial music as well. It’s nice to exist on both sides on the line, and that is the same for me. I use Apple products etc, as well as still using cheap electronics made decades ago by small companies. It all depends on what you do with the means at hand, the outcome is what’s important. We live in a culture that is more and more corporate, there’s no escaping it. We can attempt to fight against the cynical powers and destructive companies, yes; it’s a continual struggle…
MP : – And to finish in an humoristic way, In Lecce, Leaving you sing “Weʼre making noise tonight” while most of rock’n’roll bands would have sung “making love tonight”. Would your slogan be “Make noise not war” rather than “Make love not war”?
Lee Ranaldo :
– I don’t think I would leave out “love” for “noise” but, as above, it’s nice to be on both sides of the line!