In the first part of our interview with Lee Ranaldo, who performs at Page Auditorium on May 15, the singer and guitarist discussed stepping out of the shadow of Sonic Youth, choosing collaborators for his new record, and how what was to be a “simple acoustic guitar and voice album” grew into an elaborate full-band rock record. Today, in Part 2, we learn more about Ranaldo’s contemporary and classic influences, as well as how he feels about going back to the opening slots after headlining festivals and “touring in style” with a famous band.
The Thread: The songs that you’ve written with Sonic Youth have this really fun, hidden, melodic core, and I was struck again by how prominent the melodies are on your new songs. These things have some intense hooks in them.
Lee Ranaldo: I’ve always been big on melody. These songs all started on acoustic guitar, and that really emphasized that they were going to be about melody and structure rather than wild noise or electricity or anything like that. I wanted to do a record that I could really sing out on.
And, yeah, in Sonic Youth, I guess I usually do sing the more overtly melodic ones. Sometimes when I’m writing a song and I know it’s going to Sonic Youth, I try to push it in a certain direction, whether that means a little more aggressive or whatever. But with these songs, I never really demanded of them that they be one thing or another. So I was able to allow a delicate, romantic song like “Stranded” or the country-rock parts of something like “Fire Island” to find their place, without saying, “Is it weird for me to do a country section with a lap steel?” It didn’t get into that aspect of critical thinking; I just followed them where they seemed to want to go. And for the most part, they came out pretty melodic.
Wow. I’m so amazed to hear that people keep hearing R.E.M. in it. I guess I can see why. To me, a lot of it was looking back even 10 or 15 years before that, thinking about singer-songwriter records that I valued in my youth, whether it was Joni Mitchell or David Crosby or Neil Young. I was thinking about song stylings related to that period, and—since it’s all on alternate-tuned guitars—thinking about people like John Fahey and Leo Kottke and Jorma Kaukonen. When it seemed clear to me that this was going to become a singer-songwriter record, I had more of those kinds of models in mind. I would never have thought of Screaming Trees or even R.E.M. They’re all happy comparisons for me. I really loved a lot of those bands. It’s interesting to see how different people read it.
You’re known for your wide-ranging ears. What have you been listening to recently?
I’ve been really liking the last couple Bill Callahan records, especially the one before the most recent one, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. I really loved the most recent PJ Harvey record. That tUnE-yArDs record, I really liked. Some of the new St. Vincent record is pretty cool. There’s a bunch of younger bands from New York that I’ve had the chance to hear or play alongside of recently: this band called Buke and Gass, and another one called Titus Andronicus that are kind of cool. Leonard Cohen’s new record is really an amazing thing.
So it runs a pretty wide gamut. I’ve definitely been listening to more sort of singery, singer-songwriter people rather than band people at the moment, just because I’ve been involved in making a record like that. I was just checking out records in that vein, I guess.
Your Duke Performances show is going to be in a sit-down theater as opposed to a rock club. Do you approach live shows differently, depending on the venue that you’re playing in?
That’s an interesting question. Up until now, we’ve only done three or four shows as a band, and this will be the first extended run that we do, so I hadn’t even gotten to thinking about that aspect yet. I didn’t know it was a sit-down venue—that’s kind of cool.
We worked everything up as an electric band. Yesterday was the record release show and Steve [Shelley] couldn’t be here there—he had to go off and play with another band—so we did an acoustic trio: the two guitars and drums. That went pretty good, and we were talking about the fact that maybe we could do some stuff in a more acoustic setting as well. So maybe in some sit-down theater situations, we might try to break it down and do some acoustic stuff as well. I think it’ll be really fun to play in places like that, and I think the band will do really cool stuff.
Thurston Moore came through here recently, and Steve Shelley is coming with Disappears next month, so you’ll be the third Sonic Youth member to visit the Triangle this spring. Is it different for you, touring your own material without the trappings of Sonic Youth?
It’s not that different, in that I do a lot of touring on my own in one capacity or another. The thing that’s different is that I don’t tour on my own with a rock band. Alan [Licht] and I have Text of Light and it’s usually three, four, or five guys, and we’ve done a bunch of tours. There is definitely a sense of feeling a little spoiled by the way…Sonic Youth tours in style, pretty much. We’ve got a really great road crew and there’s no worries like, “Well, we need to take three extra guitars. How are we going to carry them?” or anything like that. All those things become much more serious concerns with a small-scale rock band like I’m doing right now.
At a certain point, it’s hard to do the shows and pull them off properly without a really dedicated crew, especially playing the way we do, where there’s lots of guitars and lots of tunings and whatnot. We’re trying to figure out how to make that part of it work. Touring a rock band like this, where we’re carrying drums and all that kind of stuff—it’s definitely a lot of details to work out.
You’re opening for M. Ward on this tour—is that a different experience, since you’re normally headliners?
Yeah, it’s a bit of a different experience. I was maybe, momentarily, resistant to it at first, but the way I look at it is that this is a brand new band, a brand new project, and I just want to be as humble about it as possible. The opportunity was there to play with Matt, and we’ve been corresponding for a long time and wanting to do something together. It’s no doubt that we’ll play much larger places and play to more people than if we had just started by doing our own tour.
We’re doing our own gigs in between some of the gigs with Matt. We’re only doing a couple weeks with him, and then we’re going to Europe on our own, so there’ll be plenty of headlining shows. I thought it would be fun to play a couple weeks of shows with him. Also, I think the venues will be really nice, in some regards nicer than the venues we would have played on our own. There are a lot of reasons to do it. Like I said, we’re starting out small and hoping that people will dig it and it will grow. So we’ll see how it goes.