Interview: Lee Ranaldo (Part 1)

by Dan Ruccia on April 2, 2012

Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo (photo: Sage Ranaldo)

After three decades with the archetypal art-rock band Sonic Youth, Lee Ranaldo is striking out on his own (with help from a few familiar friends) for Between the Times and the Tides, out now on Matador. In May, Duke Performances brings Ranaldo to Page Auditorium to showcase material from the record, opening for M. Ward. In the first part of our phone interview, we talked to a gregarious Ranaldo about stepping out of the shadow of Sonic Youth, choosing collaborators, and how what was to be a “simple acoustic guitar and voice album” grew into an elaborate full-band rock record.

The Thread: You’ve released many albums of improvisations and collaborations over the years, but Between the Times and the Tides is the first time you’ve really done song-form stuff for an extended time. What was that like for you?

Lee Ranaldo: Yeah, it’s a very different sort of thing from what I do solo. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and for one reason or another never got to do before. I’m really familiar with the process from making records of songs with Sonic Youth. Making an experimental or improvisational record is generally a very spontaneous thing. Making a song record is always much more in-depth, more long term.  You really work on these things for a long time and try to perfect them. It’s a really cool process.

I think part of what made this record happen was the fact that Sonic Youth wasn’t working very much for the past few years—by our own design, we’ve all been really busy with our own personal projects. At a certain point, a couple of these songs popped out and I realized I really missed the activity of just working on songs. I just started to follow them along and see what I could do with them. I really thought I was going to make a very simple acoustic guitar and voice record, and then it naturally evolved into something very different from that.

This is the kind of thing I’ve always done behind the scenes: written songs on an acoustic guitar and put them on a cassette tape and file them away in a drawer. This time, I had the time, without being interrupted by tours or Sonic Youth recording projects or whatever, to follow it through in a very organic way, which was really a great pleasure.

Do you feel the songs came out differently because you weren’t bouncing them off of band mates?

Lee Ranaldo's "Between the Times & Tides"

Well, very differently, compared to Sonic Youth. The songwriting process in Sonic Youth is something very particular. It’s hardly ever involved somebody bringing in a song and saying, “here’s a song and here’s how it goes.” It’s always, “well, I’ve got a couple changes, I don’t know what to do with it.” Or else just starting in the room. So Sonic Youth songs have always been built from the ground up in a group fashion, for the most part. That’s a very collaborative, democratic style, where everyone is telling each other, “I like what you’re doing here. I don’t like what you’re doing there.” It’s kind of more like sculpting in a way.  You’ve got a block of marble and you’re trying to figure out what’s inside and you slowly start chipping away at it until you find something. But this is more of a singer-songwriter process, where you do all that stuff on your own and then you get to a point where you’ve got a finished structure, and you bring it in and tell people, “here’s how it goes” and “what can you do with this?”

Was it different to work with Jim O’Rourke or Alan Licht or Nels Cline the context of songs versus other sorts of things?

Alan and I have played together in a lot of contexts, but never in a song context before. I’ve known his work with Love Child and Run On and I knew he was a really good guitar player as well, but we’ve always played together in abstract, experimental capacities. But pretty much everybody else on the record, I’ve worked with on songs in one form or another. All of them were chosen because I feel like we’re close friends and I admire them as players.

To some degree, the experiences I had as a producer really influenced the way this record worked. For instance, I produced the soundtrack to that Todd Haynes film I’m Not There, and I used both Nels Cline and John Medeski on those sessions. What each of those guys brought to that session really impressed me; the sound of Medeski’s organ made me feel, when it started looking like this was going to be more than an acoustic solo record, that I wanted him to be on it if possible. I guess I was wearing my producer’s hat at that point, figuring out different people, even O’Rourke.

Jim O'Rourke (photo: Kahimi Karie)

Obviously, Jim and I have been playing together since long before he hooked up with Sonic Youth, and hopefully that will continue since he stopped being in Sonic Youth. But the last record Sonic Youth made was the soundtrack to this French film, Simon Werner a Disparu. There was one long track that I was really struggling with, and I knew it could be something really cool, but it was this long amorphous track. So I spent weeks and weeks editing it into a cool shape and then—this was the period when me, Kim [Gordon], and Thurston [Moore] were all playing guitars, so there was no bass on it—I was like, “This track really needs a bass.” So I talked to Jim and sent it to him and he put the bass on it.

In a way, that’s exactly what happened with my record. There was one song where I really felt like, “This needs a certain kind of bass part. Who could do that? Jim could do it.” I had a bit of a method established from using him on that Sonic Youth track. It worked like that with a bunch of people. Someone like Bob Bert, our old drummer: I’ve been in touch with him a lot. He has a studio in the same building where our studio is, so I’d run into him and he said, “Oh, I’m playing a lot of congas these days.” So he came in and listened to a couple songs, and I was like, “Why don’t you come in one day with your drums and do something on this?” A lot of it was casually put together, but it was all with friends who I thought would be pretty supportive.

Are any of these guys in your touring band?

Alan Licht (photo: Bryony McIntyre)

It’s Steve Shelley, Alan Licht, and Irwin Menken. That is the touring band. We’re starting as humbly as we can: two guitars, bass, and drums. If it flies, in terms of being able to make a go of it financially, on the road, I’d love to add a keyboard player and really get that aspect of the sound back in place. So that’s where it’s at right now.

TOMORROW: Lee Ranaldo discusses his contemporary influences

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