The common impression of Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo is one of a polymorphic artist with ideas constantly tumbling out as spoken word, art and of course music. His collaborative projects are numerous, as are the publications of his poetry and one senses he is totally consumed by the creative process. With this in mind as we chatted over the phone from his New York home it was slightly surprising to hear that he was preparing to head to Nova Scotia in Canada for a few weeks of rest and relaxation the following day.
“Sometimes it is nice to not have any agenda and just be out experiencing things but usually downtime involves moving from one art form to another. Usually one is a vacation from doing the other so when I’m not touring I get to work on drawings or something else in my studio.” he explains.
Having his fingers in a number of artistic pies allows Ranaldo flexibility in how he expresses himself creatively and as he explains, none of the disciplines he works in are mutually exclusive.
“I see myself first and foremost as an artist who doesn’t work in a particular field. I’m interested in visual artists whether that’s painting, drawings and cinema and I’m interested in language whether it be writing as poems or stories or journals or lyrics and I’m interested in music and I feel like they feed each other. Its really all about tapping into creativity in whichever area you work in. I’m pretty active in visual arts these days, I’ve got work in shows in a few different places right now and I’m always writing and putting out new small books of poetry. The things feed off each other. The words end up on canvas, the music informs ideas for cinema and spoken word finds its way into some of the performance events.”
The most prominent of Ranaldo’s recent projects in the wake of the Sonic Youth hiatus enforced by Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s split is his solo record Between The Times & The Tides. Ranaldo has released solo works in the past but this album sees him working primarily in a standard rock band format and in fact was written and recorded prior to the current hibernation of his main band.
“This record was done during one of those periods before we found out what was going on between Thurston and Kim. Over the last decade we’ve built a lot of time into our schedule for people to work on their own projects outside Sonic Youth. I’m thankful it was done before I had any inkling of that stuff so it was done as normal without any added pressure that my band was stopping or anything like that.”
Though the album is predominantly an electric guitar, rock album, the songs started life acoustically in Ranaldo’s lounge room before undergoing a process that included the addition of a rhythm section and a number of guest appearances from friends he had collaborated with on other musical projects.
“I wouldn’t say it came about by accident but I wasn’t really planning to make a record like this. The songs just started coming out and I performed the first couple that I wrote and that led to writing some more. I started off thinking it was going to be an acoustic and voice record and then it ended up as this rock band record so it just built in this very natural, organic way from the very first tunes that came out of my acoustic guitars in my living room,” explains Ranaldo.
“Early on I got Steve (Shelley) to play drums on a few things and right away we decided we’d try to find a bass player and put a rhythm section on some of the songs. That’s how we started tracking the record, with bass, drums and me and then I invited everyone else in to play after that, so the structures were pretty well worked out and there was a framework for people to get an idea of what I was looking for in each song. The songs were just coming out and I was following them, I wasn’t trying to make them into anything they weren’t.”
“It’s been a really fun process and just as surprising to me as any one else at this point. I still say that for me to make a more traditional singer/songwriter record like this – on one hand it is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time – on the other hand it is as experimental a phase in my career as all the other experimental things I’ve done from spoken word to noisy music to film soundtracks.”
Though Between The Times And The Tides is a solo record there are contributions from a number of guest musicians that are essential to making the songs sound as detailed and expansive as they do.
“There is a certain group of people playing on them, a lot of friends and collaborators from various points in my life from Sonic Youth members like Steve Shelley and Jim O’Rourke to Alan Licht. Nels Cline and John Medeski also played on the album and they’ve worked with me on various other projects over the years so it was really fun to make the record and see these songs come up,” says Ranaldo enthusiastically.
Rather than collecting together a group of songs, tacking on some cover art and sending them out into the world, Ranaldo was determined to create an album in the traditional sense where there is an ebb and flow and a narrative to both the music and the packaging. Like so much of the cross-pollination in his work, the initial seed for the album came from a photograph.
“It really started with this picture of me that we used on the front cover. I was writing the first of these songs and I did an interview with some people for a documentary and one of the guys took those pictures and when he sent me that one I thought “wow, this looks it would be a really cool album cover”. That goaded me into writing the record, to wrap in this package in a sense,” explains Ranaldo. “I was very aware it was going to be an album, with a gatefold and liner notes about the sessions and the feeling that “this is going to be the last song on side one,” so there was a grouping of songs you could listen to as a side of a record. We pretty much thought we were making a vinyl record right up until it was done and then we had to prepare the CD issue. So many records these days devolve into being about one or two songs and bunch of others so we were really trying to make a group of songs that hung together in an interesting way.”
“I really wanted it to be a personal record harking back to a singer/songwriter album like they were when I was listening to records like that in the 60s and 70s, where it would be a window on somebody’s life and you hoped you’d find a commonality and shared experience from listening to it. Records then were these experiences that they’re not really now. You’d get a record and pore over the liner notes and who played on each track and they’d stay with you longer and be this real listening experience. Even if it was for no one other than me I wanted this record to be made in that kind of mindset.“
Looking back to those early years of folk rock as inspiration for the format of Between The Times And The Tides was also in keeping with the musical inspiration for the songs in their initial incarnations.
“I was playing acoustic guitars again seriously for the first time in ages so I guess that really took me back to certain things I listened to when I was much younger, when I was predominately an acoustic guitar player – whether it was John Fahey or Leo Kottke or David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Velvet Underground and Reverend Gary Davis – all kinds of people that were working with open guitar tunings.”
As our conversation winds up there is the matter of addressing the elephant on the phone line, the future prospects for Sonic Youth. Together for 31 years, they are currently in a holding phase while each member explores other projects and Moore and Gordon are given the space to decide whether they can still work together artistically.
“We are all enjoying the freedom to do other things as we have done for many, many years over the lifetime of the band,” says Ranaldo. “None of us are in any way even thinking about or certainly not talking to each other about ideas of what might or might not happen. The idea of getting to that point is a long, long way off. I have no doubt that we’re all going to continue. We are all doing interesting things now and that spirit that has driven us all these years isn’t just going to dry up if we stop working together. I wouldn’t say building towards this but we’ve really prepared ourselves well by over the last ten or fifteen years being involved in lots of independent projects outside Sonic Youth. It’s easy to fill time, the challenge is filling it in a significant way and all of us get offers to do various things all year long.”