Lee Ranaldo: On the Crest of a New Wave

Lee Ranaldo Interview

Lee Ranaldo – founding member of Sonic Youth and 33rd greatest guitarist of all time, according to Rolling Stone – is set to release his first proper solo album, ‘Between The Times and the Tides’ on the 20th March via Matador Records, forming the Lee Ranaldo band in the process.

In our brief chat, Ranaldo offers up his opinion on the industry at its current state, and further explains his impetus and the process behind this solo release—finally answering the question on everyone’s mind—is Sonic Youth really over?

What was the creative process for the new record, and how did it begin for you?
I was invited to do this performance in the South of France in May of 2010, and they requested that it be an acoustic performance. I really went into it thinking that I would sort of rework some of the Sonic Youth songs that I sing, in terms of acoustic instruments, and while I was preparing for that this song called “Lost” kind of just sprung out of nowhere.

Lee Ranaldo InterviewIt just lead to a period of songwriting that extended through the whole Summer and into the Fall, and suddenly I had all of these songs together.

Because Sonic Youth was in a period of a couple of years where we weren’t really working a lot (everyone was working on their own projects to begin with), I really had the time to develop them.

I really thought that I would end up with a solo acoustic record, that’s what I intended to do when I finally got serious about them. But one thing just kind of naturally lead to another—it was a pretty organic process. I asked Steve (Shelley, Sonic Youth/Pavement Drummer) to play on a couple of them that were looking for a beat, and then Irwin Menken the bass player came in and suddenly we had a rock band record going, and it was sounding really cool.

I got a little bit more serious about it at that point—making it a more ‘proper’ record rather than just a simple acoustic guitar record.

Sonic Youth toured South America late last year, how were those shows for you? And do you think the timing is right for this record to come out now?
Well, given that Sonic Youth’s slow period has suddenly turned into a hiatus due to personal situations — it was definitely good timing for me, just to have stuff to do on that level.

I’ve been really busy the last few years doing different kind of performances, mainly film and music performances with my wife and this group called Texts of Light. A lot of stuff that’s been going very well for me, but there’s no doubt I miss the opportunity to be working on, and playing songs in a band.

That was part of the impetus for making these songs, and I’m happy that the record was completed before all of this stuff with Thurston (Moore) and Kim (Gordon) came out— I don’t know if I could have completed it under the circumstances of kind of like… my band is stopping for a certain amount of time, and I have to make a solo record kind of thing — it really wasn’t that situation at all.

I approached it more as a hobby at first, you know we aren’t really touring this month, so I’ll work more on these songs. But the timing is definitely good, and to answer your first question, those shows in November went really really well in spite of everything. There was some awkwardness, but overall we had a fair amount of fun given the circumstances.

I really enjoyed the video for your single “Off The Wall”. Did you always plan on incorporating your own video footage in these? And can we expect future videos for the other songs on the album?
Well you know, yea I think there will be some more videos. I love the medium — I’ve always been someone who’s dabbled in film to one degree or another. When the record label started talking about videos, it immediately perked by interest.

That one, the main footage, was shot by a fan in the audience. He posted it online, and I was collecting footage from my first couple of shows to put on my website and give examples of my new material. Then when Matador started talking about videos, I figured I’d adapt that into the first video — I’m always fooling around with film stuff. There’s actually another video that I just completed for the song “Angles” that will come out next week.

And you were able to work with a lot of people from your past in recording the album. How did that enhance the experience for you?
Well, you know starting with Steve — he’s someone that’s been a long time collaborator, a really amazing drummer and close friend, so he was really important in the early stages in terms of encouraging me to continue with it. So it was really made in a family atmosphere. Alan Licht is someone I play with a lot in an abstract, experimental context but never before in a song context. Yet I’ve always known him in the early days to be in bands, so that was really gratifying to work with him in another context — it’s worked really well.

Beyond that it was an amalgam–the bass player, I know him because his son and my son are friends, we’ve known each other as parents around the school. I’ve always known he’s a great bass player, but he’s not really coming out of the Music community. So that was really fun. Nels (Cline, Wilco) and John Medeski too, who are both amazing players that I’ve worked with in one capacity or another in the past.

It was just great to pull all of these people together. You know, Jim O’Rourke and Bob Bert from various past incarnations of Sonic Youth, and my wife is singing on one song, and a couple other people are involved.

Medeski and Nels in particular — I produced the soundtrack for the Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan film I’m Not There, and I had both of those guys in to play on that stuff. Something about what they did on that work stuck in my head sound wise, and when this record was getting formulated — for instance I knew I wanted to have a prominent keyboard part, and John just really was the guy I wanted to do it after working on that Dylan stuff with him. And to see the way Nels worked on that stuff — he has been a friend for 20-30 years and it was great to finally pull him on a project of mine personally.

I really like the title of the album “Between The Times and the Tides.” How did that come to you, and was that an idea you had initially in beginning to write this album?
No actually, it came in the latter stages when I was getting the lyrics together for the songs—it’s one of the lyrics from the song “Christina As I Knew Her.” Right away it just seemed like a really fitting image.

I like the idea of being caught between the pull of the momentary modern world and the slow moving natural world—modernity and history as a metaphor. I liked something about it as a title, but when I first sprung it on people, no one really liked it. Eventually this record was really about following my instincts, and I was going to go back to the title that struck me first and hardest.

It was the same with the album cover, they didn’t like it that much, or it wasn’t dynamic enough, but it just said so much about what I wanted this record to be and I went back to that as well.

Lee Ranaldo Interview

Is there any specific song on the record that’s your favorite or that stands out to you?
Well, this is a group of 10 songs, the first time I’ve done a record like this, and I wouldn’t presume to have a favorite among them. It’s really hard for me to pick one as I stand firmly behind all of these songs.

In terms of my intentions and my aspirations for them, there’s not really a dud among them in my viewpoint, and I’m really happy with the way they all turned out. “Off The Wall” is an easy one to pick—its such a short and poppy song, and its not what I was expecting to be writing at this point, and I mean I love to hear it when it pops up, but I’m really happy with the way they all came out.

I wanted to ask you about the industry in general—obviously it has changed a lot since the beginning of your career, but how do you think the idea of the album is perceived in this day and age, as a collective whole? Do you think people still appreciate that?
It’s a good question, and it’s a question I’ve been thinking a lot about because you know, I’m old school in that way. I’m still really about the album, I know these days we’ve come back around to 45, 7” single culture, where people are buying the song again they aren’t buying the album. And in many cases it’s justified, especially with pop music, its always been about the song.

You’ve never really demanded that your pop artist make entire albums that were great. Choose your pop artist of choice, you know Madonna or whoever, they’ve made records that have been good all the way through, but they’ve also made one good song and a bunch of other songs. In the world of pop it’s kind of understandable, but I come from an older world that still values the album.

When I was making this record, I was very conscious of it being an album, right down to looking at the first five songs as side one, the rest as side two—even in the CD release there is going to be a silent break between the two to get that feeling a little bit. There’s something beautiful about a side of a record, the amount of time as a listening experience. It’s a pretty easy amount of time to sit and give it your attention.

These days, I find people just plop CD’s on and don’t really listen to them in the same way. I think there will always be people that aspire to make a group of songs that hang together in a really nice way. It’s a different thing from the industry as we have it right now, it’s kind of like the early ‘60s, where the emphasis is on single songs and pop charts and how many you can move with that song – it’s a different world.

I see you have some shows coming up—one in New York in May with M. Ward. How did that collaboration come about?
Well basically, I’ve got a brand new band. We’ve done a few shows already and we’re planning to do a bunch of shows on our own. And Matt Ward invited us to do some supporting dates for his tour. I’m kind of approaching the live thing pretty humbly at this point. I’m letting it start off and see how it goes. It is in my mind a new band.

At first, the idea of going out on a supporting tour was a little bit weird, but it’s going to be a pretty comfortable tour and we’ll play probably bigger places than we would have played on our own, and Matt’s someone I’ve been friendly with for a long time, and it just seemed like a cool idea to do it.

It’s a way to kick us off in terms of getting out on the road. We’re going to follow that up with some shows of our own, and then come to Europe in May and June—it’s kind of a launching pad.

Do you have a favorite medium or context to take in music? Do you still listen to vinyls, or is it mostly MP3s and cds—you obviously still go to shows?
All of the above. I still listen to a lot of vinyl, mp3s, things on my computer, I go to shows. It’s kind of a world where music is in all of those places. I don’t usually walk around on the street with headphones listening to music that way. But lots of times you happen to be at your computer when you discover music or a new band—you go to YouTube or their website to hear the song, a lot of it happens that way. But for music that peaks my interest more than just hearing it once or twice, I either go out and buy the album, or download it—or I try to listen to it on a real, proper stereo when I can.

 Lee Ranaldo interview

Are there any bands that you’re excited about or currently listening to?
There’s one group I really like a lot—it’s mainly two girls, they’re called Talk Normal, they’ve been around for a couple of years, and they continue to knock me out every time I see them. There’s a lot of younger groups that I keep running across—I really liked some of the last tUnE-yArDs record; I like St. Vincent. One of our first shows was with Wild Flag, and I really like what they’re doing.

Do you think that fans of Sonic Youth can expect future collaborations or releases? Or are you just keeping the focus on solo projects at the moment?
Ya, I mean everyone’s kind of doing that. In the last few years, we’ve been focusing on stuff individually. We haven’t been very busy, which is what lead me to have the time to make this record. This record was pretty much made before all of the stuff with Thurston and Kim came out, and I’m thankful about that.

I don’t know if I could have made it so easily, knowing that my band was going through a terrible period or something like that. I mean it was really made during the period when we had time to work on our own projects. We’ve been playing together for 30 years, and there’s a million ways in which our lives are intertwined.

There’s right now a whole bunch of archival projects in the works, and we’re just taking it as it comes at this point. We aren’t making any plans with each other at the moment, just not thinking about it, and letting it rest.

Lee Ranaldo and band are on tour in the US and Mexico in April and May, with plans to tour the UK around their Primavera festival performance in Barcelona on the weekend of June 1st-3rd. Just confirmed is The Scala in London on June 6th, more to come.

Between the Times and the Tides is out March 26th on Matador Records
For more info visit www.leeranaldo.com

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