Exclusive: Lee Ranaldo talks life beyond Sonic Youth, his new solo album ‘Electric Trim’ and music in the internet age
Lee Ranaldo may be best known as a founding member of Sonic Youth, the generation-defining New York band that have had possibly the biggest influence on alternative music and culture of all time. As impressive a reputation as this is – it would be unjustified to define him solely by it.He is much more a visual artist, writer, producer, experimentalist and solo artist in his own right. Ranaldo has never slowed down the pace of his creative output even after a 35-year career, with this month seeing the release of his twelfth solo album Electric Trim on Mute Records.
Talking with someone of such prestige can be pretty daunting and often underwhelming. But this was certainly not the case when I spoke with Ranaldo. The reason for this is quite simple, he is a man who is still completely infatuated by his craft. There is no premeditated press release or characterised artistic facade, just the wide-eyed enthusiasm and openness only heard by someone talking about their true passion, or in this case, their lifetime. Hit on the right subject and he will talk in endless detail you can hear the increased pace in his voice as he remembers something new jumping to the next topic, opinion or memory that springs to mind. I spoke to him after he landed back in his adopted native city of New York following a string of shows in Canada to go over the making of his new album, life post-Sonic Youth and his thoughts on the new age of music.
Far Out: It’s been nearly three years since your last album Lee, what have you been up to?
Ranaldo: “A lot of what I have been up to has been working on this record, it took about a year to make and then quite frankly it’s taken about a year to get it released. So it’s been quite a lengthy process since making it, I think the last one was made in 2013 maybe? I toured a lot behind that record, I made this record called Acoustic Dust in Spain in about a week, just like a quickie acoustic record and started working on this one I guess in early 2015.
“It took about a year just because the main guy I was working with Raul Fernandez from Barcelona, he was living there and coming to New York once every six weeks for two or three weeks at a time, so on and off over a year we made the record. It took quite a while to find a good home for it and we finally connected with Mute and realised they wanted to do it.”
How did the relationship with Raoul come about?
“I was on tour in Europe in Spain with The Dust and our Spanish promoters had been trying to encourage us to try some acoustic shows, setting up some shows where they rented acoustic bass’ and that stuff. We did a couple of acoustic shows in small clubs in Spain.We were supposed to play this crazy festival in Morocco that fell through last-minute and ended up having about a week off in Spain. They said why don’t you guys go into the studio and make a record, a quick week-long acoustic record.
“This is just when the people who run that festival Primavera Sound began starting up a label and they were interested in doing something, so they brought Raul in, we had never met before andhe and I just hit it off. At the end of that record Acoustic Dust Raul just sort of looked at me and said I’d love to make a record with you sometime.That sort of set the seedfor it and I just started sending him these kind of very basic crude acoustic demos that I was doing for new songs.”
What kind of influence do you think it had working with him on the record?
“He’s a talented musician and producer he can hear a lot of different instruments and he is pretty great behind the mixing console. He’s very facile with these modern techniques, like drum machines and sampled sounds and stuff like that. So he brought a lot of those techniques to bear on this record.
“He has worked with a couple of very interesting flamenco singers in the last few years and that music is very popular in Spain still. I feel like there’s places where I hear he’s broughtthat influence on the songs in places in terms of rhythm. Butbasically it was a great chance for me to step out-of-the-way that I usually make records.
“It was done in a very sort of studio process way, in terms of adding what each of these songs needed. You know, when we started these songs they were just kind of simple acoustic guitar parts Steve Shelley came in and played drums on a bunch of them so did Kid Millions, with me and Raul. The same with electric guitars, I played some electric guitars so did Raul, Nels Cline and Alan Licht. You know at some point we just started to sift out, like, I like what Nel’s playing here and Steve’s drums here it really didn’t matter who player on which song, it really only mattered what was the right thing for this song. It was super fascinating, It was really a way to explore and utilize the studio in a different way. I’ve always been really fascinated by the records from the 60’s that did that.”
Like a George Martin approach, using the studio as another instrument…
“Definitely more like that, and at the same time Raul and I were crafting the music I usually write my own lyrics but this time I wanted to have a collaborator. So I contacted an old friend of mine, Jonathan Lethem, who is a pretty well established American author. I know he’d done some songwriting collaborations before so he and I worked on a lot of the song lyrics together I was in New York and he was living in California at the time so we were sending things back and forth through email and I have to say it was really exciting to work that way!”
How did the process actually work, would you write something and he’d modify it, or would you write some and then he would write some?
“Well it kind of worked differently on different songs I sent him a bunch of demos early on when there were no lyrics, or maybe just two or three lines of lyrics and they needed another 35 to be filled. Or I would send him a sheet of typed out paper where I’d numbered the lines from say 1-40, I’d have maybe three of the lines filled in and then maybe the next day he would send me all of the lines filled in. Then you know, I’d cross a bunch of them out and add mine in or he’d cross a bunch of mine out and add what he wrote.
Do you sing on all nine songs or are have you included other vocalists?
“I sing on all of them, the main guest vocalist is Sharon Van Etten who sings on six of them, one of them is kind of duet that we do together and the rest of them she’s singing harmonies or stacked vocals but I’m singing the lead on them. We worked a lot on the vocals on this record, one of the things Raul liked on the acoustic record was the way that I was singing and I think we knew we would concentrate on the vocals and try to make them as good as we could. I think it’s some of the best singing I’ve done, we knew we wanted to have lots of harmonies and that was one reason we invited Sharon to come in and sing.”
Were there any anxieties in becoming the lead singer?
“No, not really I’ve always loved to sing and yeah in Sonic Youth we had to divide out the vocals and Kim and Thurston obviously sang a lot more than I did. But no, that part sort of took care of itself. Through the course of these [solo] records from Between The Times and The Tides through to this onethat I’ve become a stronger singer, but I’ve always been a confident singer so there wasn’t really any anxieties about that. When I was first going out and playing shows with a band behind me it was a little strange for me to be singing every song in the set because it was never the normal thing before but that passed pretty quickly. Especially when it became time to make this record I’ve been – you know – bandleader or whatever for the last few years.”
On the solo records there is a real embrace of acoustic guitar, what influenced the shift from electric?
“Yeah there’s a lot of acoustic guitar on the new record, maybe more than ever before. I’m mostly writing on acoustic guitar these days. I’m playing a lot more shows on acoustic guitar which has just really happened in the last four or five years.
“like five years ago some friends of mine who are promoters in the south of France where putting on a festival and their only criteria was that they wanted me to play acoustic guitars, I hadn’t done that in 20 years or more! They eventually convinced me to do it, I had to figure out what to do, it was right when I started working on the songs for Between the Times and the Tides.
“The last few years I’ve become completely fascinated by acoustic guitars and started buying them, in the way we used to buy electric guitars – buying a lot of them. Somehow it’s easier to focus on acoustic guitar – you know – if you’ve got something and it sounds good right away, it’s not masked by volume or distortion. I mean I still love that too.”
People often ask if you ever thought as Sonic Youth – or as an artist in general – you would get as successful as you are. But as a guitarist, did you ever think you would become as influential as you have become?
“I never really thought about it on that level. Of Course I have been influenced by a lot of guitar players, some of whose work I hold really dear. I don’t know, I don’t know if anybody ever imagines when they’re doing this kind of thing that they are going to be an influence on other people. You know Sonic Youth have been around long enough that people from a bunch of different generations have come up to us and said I started playing guitar because of you.
“We’re definitely aware of the fact that people have been influenced by our work but it’s never something I thought about in terms of ‘oh I wonder if I’ll be an influence on somebody else’, it almost seem preposterous to think along those lines. Because you can’t really plan for that kind of thing to happen. That’s maybe one of the biggest compliments other players can give but it was never an aspiration or anything like that.”
In terms of playing, there’s a big difference between something experimental like ‘Maelstrom From Drift’ and something more song driven like the new record. How do you know which direction an album will take?
“I’ve always had a balance between the two because Sonic Youth has always been focused on songwriting even if some of our songwriting structures were crazy or weird or allowed for open-ended improvisation. So for 30 years that focus on songwriting was something that Sonic Youth fulfilled for me. At the same time for a lot of Sonic Youth’s career, especially the second half of it we were all doing projects on our own. Those projects usually took the shape of experimental or improvised music. But there was always songwriting there.
“By the time it became clear that Thurston and Kim were going to split up and the band were going to stop I had that whole record almost recorded and mixed.”
“It’s kind of funny how, ‘quote/unquote’ the solo career of mine came about, because that first record Between the Times and the Tides which was really the first time I tried to make a record all by myself that record came about in the last year of Sonic Youth’s existence when making The Eternal. By the time it became clear that Thurston and Kim were going to split up and the band were going to stop I had that whole record almost recorded and mixed. I was kind of glad about that because I think it would have been pretty traumatic to first find out that the band was stopping and then feel like I had to force myself to make a record becausemy band wasn’t around anymore. So I was already up and running when Sonic Youth called in quits.”
You’ve got quite a diverse group of musicians on the new album, are there any newer acts that have caught your attention?
“There are always new people who are interesting sounding and make my ears perk up. I really love this woman called Haley Fohr from Chicago who records as Circuit Des Yeux she’s got a weird voice and it’s really cool. I also got infatuated with that record Matador released by Car Seat Headrest I think a lot of people picked up on that record, I really loved that record. The stripped down trio performance kind of reminded me of what I was reacting to years and years ago when I was listening to Elvis Costello and the Attractions first records, very precise writing and playing.
“There’s a guy who plays finger style acoustic guitar called Anthony Pasquarosa who records on a label called VDSQ which is an all acoustic guitar label he put out a record last year called Morning Meditations. I’d never really heard about him before but it’s kind of like listening to a Ravi Shankar record like raga for acoustic guitar.”
It’s great when you find something to rekindle your enthusiasm…
“Sometimes it’s new artists and sometimes it’s rediscovering older music. For example, about seven or eight years ago I got insanely into Fairport Convention after always knowing about them and having heard some of their music but without it ever blasting me away. But then one day I heard something and thought this is the most amazing thing ever! The same thing happened to me recently with Van Morrison, Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman. You know, it doesn’t always have to be new people it’s sometimes the old artists that you didn’t pick up on in their time, they’re still there waiting for you.”
I had the same thing with Scott Walker recently.
“Yeah – I remember when that happened to me, with Scott Walker too! His records had been coming out for a long time, but then there was this one point when I said I’m going to listen to all of these records, totally absorb them and be knocked out by them.”
With new artists, there’s an idea that with cities like London and New York it’s kind of past the point where they can thrive without some corporate backing because the cost of living is just so high…
“There’s no doubt that New York is a more difficult place to live in, especially financially. But I tend to disagree because I still find that young people manage to figure out how to move here and afford to live here because this place is just such a magnetic nexus for people who want to be creative and I’m sure London is very similar. When I moved here in the late seventies it was an expensive city then. It does not seem like it is as expensive as it is now but for me as a young person right out of university it was just as expensive and I had to figure it out just as much. It does seem like in the last decade New York got so crazily expensive but I think what really happened is it has gotten really hard for a young person to move to Manhattan, because it’s off the charts expensive. So what’s happened is young people have moved to Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island, young people are swarming in and finding ways to make it work.
“But in this day and age with access to the internet it’s a big selling point for all of these smaller cities around the US and probably around the UK and the world, whether it’s Athens, Georgia or Akron Ohio there are a million places where you can live so much cheaper. For some people they need the crazy energy of New York where there’s a million like-minded people, some people who can go into the woods and shack up Bon Iver style and do their thing without needing that input from other people. So it depends on what you need.”
Do you think because people are making music and art in very small and compact places like bedrooms it is having an effect?
“I definitely think so and that started back when people were getting hold of four and eight tracks recorders, even cassette recorders. Those early Daniel Johnston records that he was making in the Eighties on a shitty cassette recorder are phenomenal. These days people have Pro Tools or Garage Band on their computer they make records in little tiny spaces. It’s great that this can happen and I still make a lot of recordings on my iPhone or a walkman.
“I think it’s amazing that people have those options now. One of the biggest bummers about trying to get your music heard used to be having to pay $70 or $100 an hour for some studio time, you have to slave away for money and then you’d go in for a day, it would cost you $800 and you had to be perfect on queue because the clock was ticking. It was such a grinding way to work, that was one of the big revelations for Sonic Youth. Early on we bought our own tape recorder, later on we bought high-end gear and we were able to take ourselves off the clock and say yeah if it takes five months to record then we’ve got our place, we’ve got our gear, we will just keep going until it’s ready and that changed the process a lot.
“I love certain recordings which are full of hiss and crap and are recorded on a cheap cassette deck just as much as I love high-tech studio stuff”
“I guess the only other kinds of artist who have that position are huge artists like Springsteen or Taylor Swift [because] it doesn’t matter how long their records take to make as they’ll make the money back. It got more and more difficult so being able to do that stuff at home is like a god send. But having said that, on the one hand people are making records in their bedrooms using cheap microphones and digital media on their computer and then releasing it as MP3’s and listening to it on computer speakers so the whole process from beginning to end is just a real lo-fi thing. Or people like Taylor Swift, Kendrick or Kanye, they’re working in million dollar studios a lot of the time but people are listening to that music on laptop speakers there’s something funny about that in a way.
“Back when I was a teenager it was all about having the best possible system you could with huge ass speakers which sounded fantastic and people don’t care about that stuff anymore. There’s not really a qualitative judgement thing I don’t judge things on how it sounds, I love certain recordings which are full of hiss and crap and are recorded on a cheap cassette deck just as much as I love high-tech studio stuff. It’s nice that some people out there are still taking care to make records that sound as good as possible even if it seems most of the listening audience doesn’t give a shit about that.”
I find it funny when famous artists do use super high-end studios with amazing gear and basically use it as a glorified laptop stand.
“Those are the tools that people are using the most these days so that’s how it all ends up.”
It’s a culture of quick demand and instant gratification…
“That’s one of the other things I was saying we worked on this record for a year – who works on a record for a year anymore? We worked on it for a year and then waited another year to put it out and then it has a week or two’s life span in the press – baring some nutty thing where a song takes off or something like that. Then the next week, whatever. Pitchfork release twenty-five new albums that come out that week and the next week, twenty-five more! Everybody just hops from one to the other. I still find that once in a while there’s still a record where for a few months I go back to it and I guess everybody does that with records they’re interested in. But it does feel like there’s this really crazy turn over these days, there’s so much new music these days that people go through it fast.”
There doesn’t seem to be the same cherishment of records anymore.
“When I was growing up records were cheaper than they are today but they still cost money to buy and if you could buy one record a week or a month you would listen to that record every day for the next month. Dig into the liner notes and lyrics and try to find out who all these people were, and it might take you months. You might listen to After the Gold Rush by Neil Young and it might say orchestrations by Jack Nitzsche and you might go who the hell is this guy? And you couldn’t look him up on the internet. You would spend a lot of time with any given record because you didn’t have that many, and now there are twenty records a day coming out. People are more distracted.
“I wonder if at some point there will be a shift, I wonder how that will work. It all is what it is these days, people can approach it the way they want and the way they need to.”
There will be a generation of adults soon who might not have owned a physical release which, is a scary thought.
“It is and it isn’t? You can open up your computer now and it’s like a library, you have access to practically any music ever created, it’s kind of insane. It’s really great if I’m ever reading a music related book, or review and wonder what that song sounds like I can just open my computer and listen to it. Last year I worked as a music producer on this TV show Vinyl, we were having to recreate music for say, the Velvet Underground or Alice Cooper and we were being asked about historical references, it was amazing to just open the computer and see what Lou Reed’s first solo band looked like, what guitars they were playing.
“The internet is amazing for stuff like that, sometimes it gets too easy and people get, I don’t know, they lose the magic of what’s there because they spend hours just hopping from one thing to the next, there’s so much content out there and everybody’s so scared of missing something.”
How do you think Sonic Youth would have done if they had come out now?
“I really don’t know, I think one of the great advantages we had is that it’s hard for a group to have the kind of isolation you need for development these days. When we started we made a whole bunch of records before we really knew what we were doing, living in Manhattan back in the late seventies early eighties there was no music press, there was no record labels, there was no nothing. You didn’t tour or anything like that, you just played in your local clubs, hung out with your local friends. We recorded our first record then started working on the songs for the next one.
“These days you put out your first record or just your first track and the internet is all over it and everybody’s got a judgement on it and there’s this whole baggage behind it before you’re even going full steam. I think that’s really detrimental these days. In the period after Nirvana blew up all the record labels were signing new bands, then these young bands would put out these records that didn’t do any business and they would get dropped and go back to oblivion. It really damaged a lot of bands, some of which might have had an amazing career behind them, people’s willingness to let something develop is just not there in the same way.”
Cheers Lee, it’s been a real pleasure.
Electric Trim is available via Mute Records on Friday the 15th of September. You can catch him live at Rough Trade East, London on the 2nd of October and on a North American tour throughout the month, with European and UK dates from February.
Catch the trailer to HELLO HELLO HELLO : LEE RANALDO : ELECTRIC TRIM a documentary by Fred Riedel and Jerry Fried on the making of the new album below, the full-length documentary will be premiering in the UK between the 2nd and the 18th of November at the Doc’n Roll Film and Music Festival in London. Check out Lee’s site for further info on tour and screening dates.