INTERVIEW: Lee Ranaldo (2012)

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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.”

Chris Familton

NEW MUSIC: Kim Gordon Releases Debut Solo Single ‘Murdered Out’

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Kim Gordon has kept pretty busy in the last couple of post-Sonic Youth years. She’s continued to work on visual art, collaborated with in Body/Head, released her acclaimed Girl In A Band autobiography and now, with little buildup, she’s released her first single under her own name. Murdered Out was recorded with producer Justin Raisen and is built on a huge lurching drum beat courtesy of Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa and plenty of distortion and general audio chaos in an industrial/trashy garage-rock/post-punk style.

The single is out now via Matador Records.

Kim Gordon:

“Black matte spray.

When I moved back to LA I noticed more and more cars painted with black matte spray, tinted windows, blackened logos, and black wheels. This was something I had occasionally seen in the past, part of low-rider car culture. A reclaiming of a corporate symbol of American success, The Car, from an outsider’s point of view. A statement-making rejection of the shiny brand new look, the idea of a new start, the promise of power, and the freedom on the open road. Like an option on a voting ballot, “none of the above.”

“Murdered Out,” as a look, is now creeping into mainstream culture as a design trend. A coffee brand. A clothing line. A nail polish color.

Black-on-black matte is the ultimate expression in digging out, getting rid of, purging the soul. Like a black hole, the supreme inward look, a culture collapsing in on itself, the outsider as an unwilling participant as the “It” look.”

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ALBUM REVIEW: Lee Ranaldo | Between The Times And The Tides

by Chris Familton

When news began to spread across the blogosphere that Lee Ranaldo had a new solo album coming out there would have been mixed reactions for fans of his work in Sonic Youth. Would this be a showcase for his esoteric experimental guitar-scapes (like 2008‘s Maelstrom From Drift) or a journey deeper into his poetry-laced art rock songs that pepper the many Sonic Youth albums? The answer becomes clear straight from the first track and as the album reveals itself an impressive collection of ragged, twisting and chiming indie rock emerges.

Waiting On A Dream is that opening song with its teasing Paint It Black guitar notes giving way to a dreamy chug. Ranaldo has always had a wandering feel to many of his songs and this is a perfect example. He is in no rush to get to a chorus or hit a solo as the song winds its way, building a warm and gentle sonic bed as he lays those keening melodies over the top of everything. It is the perfect scene setter, announcing the album’s intent and proposing his palette of krautrock rhythms, R.E.M meets Neil Young and Television guitar tones and diverse lyrical content.

The standout track comes early with Off The Wall, its glorious vocal melodies coming thick and fast over an unabashed catchy melange of guitar hooks. The shape of the song, the chord changes and placement of his voice are eminently traditional in form but they are woven together John Agnello’s production brilliantly. Everything in its right place as Thom Yorke would say.

Ranaldo benefits greatly from the other players he has surrounded himself with on the record. Longtime Sonic Youth cohort Steve Shelley does exactly what he normally does on the kit, anchoring the sound and ushering it along with metronomic drive and precision while Wilco’s Nels Cline provides his usual superb guitar textures, vibrato riffs and six string acrobatics. Agnello uses Cline well, never letting the histrionics overshadow the song. On the seven minute Xtina As I Knew Her the guitar is theremin-like giving it a disconcerting feel while on Angles Cline is used to add spiraling avant-garde wiggles as a counterpoint to the straight flavour of the rest of the song.

While Ranaldo embraces his rock influences on tracks like the R.E.M photocopy Lost (Plane T Nice) and Shouts which references some of the 80s output of New Zealand’s Flying Nun label like The Bats, he also dials back the electricity for a couple of wonderful slower tracks like the sad and ghostly Stranded and the folk tones of Hammer Blows. Both tracks give his lyrics a chance to step forward and though less abstract than much of his Sonic Youth output they still conjure up some wonderful dark imagery.

Some will be disappointed by the predominance of traditional rock tropes on Between The Times And The Tides but it makes sense that Ranaldo would venture in this direction after decades of dissonance and exploration with Sonic Youth. It gives him a chance to indulge in all those other corners of his songwriting and shows a determined maturity and a strong belief in the power of verses, choruses and above all; rock n roll.

 this review was first published on FasterLouder

NEWS: Lee Ranaldo to release new solo LP…

Lee Ranaldo has timed things well with current question mark over the future of Sonic Youth in light of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s split. He is set to release a new solo LP on March 20th via Matador who describing it as a “shimmering and melodic tapestry of sounds” and ” a fascinatingly approachable song collection”. The album features production from John Agnello and an impressive line-up of guest musicians…

Between the Times and the Tides:

Lee Ranaldo: vocals & guitar

guitars: Alan Licht, Nels Cline
bass: Irwin Menkin, Jim O’Rourke
percussion: Bob Bert
keyboards: John Medeski
drums: Steve Shelly
add’l vocals: Kathy Leisen, Leah Singer

Check out the track Off The Wall from the new LP HERE

WATCH: The trailer for the DVD release of 1991:The Year Punk Broke…

Finally one of the seminal documents of the early days of the 90s punk/grunge/garage rock boom gets a release on DVD – right on the 20th anniversary of its original issue. Featuring performances, footage, interviews with Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Babes in Toyland, The Ramones and Dinosaur Jr this is essential viewing.

All footage has been fully restored with audio re-synced and remastered in uncompressed PCM stereo under the supervision of Sonic Youth.

1991: The Year Punk Broke is also packed with 65 minutes of bonus material, including the previously unreleased featurette “(This Is Known As) The Blues Scale” featuring over 40 minutes of additional live footage of Sonic Youth performing “White Kross,” “Eric’s Trip,” “Chapel Hill” and “Inhuman” plus a rare Nirvana performance of “In Bloom.” Other extras include live rough cuts of “Mote” and “Flower,” the original movie trailer, and “Broken Punk” — a 2003 panel discussion Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo, Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis and Filmmaker Dave Markey.

NEWS: SONIC YOUTH announce new album details…

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Those SY kids have been finishing up their new record entitled THE ETERNAL between twitters and are set to release it on June 9.

It is their 16th album and their first for new label Matador and the album cover is a painting by legendary guitarist John Fahey.

01 Sacred Trickster
02 Anti-Orgasm
03 Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso)
04 Antenna
05 What We Know
06 Calming The Snake
07 Poison Arrow
08 Malibu Gas Station
09 Thunderclap For Bobby Pyn
10 No Way
11 Walkin Blue
12 Massage The History