Band Booking: Lee Ranaldo

It might not be necessary to write an introduction for Lee Ranaldo, so I’ll state the obvious and mention he’s one of the founding members of Sonic Youth.  What I’ve always respected about Ranaldo and his now-former bandmates is their ability to move across musical genres and artistic mediums, and somehow have it work out.  As musicians, Sonic Youth always strove to work with various artists from Cypress Hill to Yoko Ono, and the members’ various interests outside the group included fashion, zines, and filmmaking.

Ranaldo was the personification of that.  While his guitar playing is legendary, his work in mediums like poetry and photography is acclaimed, and he seems genuinely happy to be able to work on whatever project is in front of him at that moment, and the results are usually stellar.

His latest album, Between The Time And Tides, is another example of an artist who, in his late 50s, is still evolving, and still curious.  It’s a moody affair that will be familiar to Sonic Youth aficionados, but also serves as another shining example that Ranaldo is an artist first and foremost; whether he does that with a band or as project under his own name isn’t really what’s important to him.  

Something I’ve always appreciated is that when people talk about you, they always say, “I also love his…” and mention things other than making a better song instead, or something along those lines?

When I moved to NYC in the late 70s it was to pursue both music and art, and I’ve never really stopped making art behind the scenes. In the last decade I’ve had time to make more and get involved in having the work shown. I do sound installations and audio+film installations with my wife Leah Singer. Sometimes the various mediums are connected through relationships, like that. I make ink derived from newspaper imagery, and somehow that feeds back into language. And photography. I’ve also been making prints using old vinyl records as ‘plates’ – scratching on them and printing them. “Black Noise” series, they’re called. So somehow each work feeds into the other, I’m not always looking to see how they fit, but they do compliment each other.You’ve had several books published.  Did you set out to be a musician or writer first?
If I look back on my youth, the things that preoccupied me were music/visuals/language, and those concerns are all still present.Between The Times and Tides is almost straightforward in comparison to a lot of your past solo work and various collaborations.  Was that a conscious decision?
This record started so casually, with a couple songs written on acoustic guitar. I didn’t plan it one way or the other. I was just letting this stuff come out, and letting it be what it wanted to be.I’ve been doing some incredible work these last few years—large scale performance pieces with Leah, featuring my ‘suspended guitar phenomena’, as I call it, Text of Light shows with Brakhage films, and shows with another trio called Glacial, lots of visual art shows, etc… But I guess one thing I missed, in SY’s down-time, was playing songs, and working on songs–that energy and experience can be so rewarding. Out of that, somehow, these songs began to pop out. I’m as amazed as anyone that I’ve made a record like this, and that it came out at this particular point in time. Yet it’s the kind of record I always wanted to do, and somehow it just never happened before. It took a certain uninterrupted headspace for me to make it; I really proceeded at my own pace.Anyway in spring 2010 I was invited to play an acoustic show in the south of France. While preparing for that show the song ‘Lost’ popped out of one of the guitars. Just like that. Two weeks later I opened the show with it, and somehow it just started something flowing. All summer I worked on some other acoustic demos, really just sitting around playing acoustic guitars and recording what was coming out. I was kinda reveling in the sheer pleasure of the acoustic sounds, and, as usual, working in many different tunings.

I’ve always been an acoustic guitar player, written material for SY that way and in general it’s just a beautiful instrument. Although the sound is different, I’m still working with the same basic parameters as when playing electric. I guess I’d say you hear the melodies and voicing more without all the fuzz and volume, and for this music I was definitely interested in all that, the tones and chord progressions rather than a wild electric sound.  But I wasn’t putting any demands on this music that was popping out, just kinda following behind and seeing what happened.

Since the record was made the songwriting hasn’t stopped, I’ve many new songs in progress. So it’s certainly my focus at the moment.

It’s funny, I’d been thinking about the fact of not wanting to repeat myself, and especially in the area of improvised performances, not wanting to go out and do the same kinds of shows over and over again, and I guess in some ways I was looking for something else to come along, something to define a new period. But this sort of songwriting kind of snuck up on my from behind, and provided me with that answer, from a direction I wasn’t expecting it to come from…

In the liner notes you mentioned that Between… was sort of a continuous work in progress.   Do you find it easier to work that way, or was it more because you wanted to enjoy the process?

What I was trying to say in those liners was that I enjoy the process, the development, of a song. It’s kinda wonderful to watch them take shape. It’s so different from the spontaneous world of improv and experimental music—which I also love. When you work on songs you are really trying, as with any composition, to fit every piece of a puzzle in place, to get it just right. I guess it’s kind of like making paintings, in that sense.  A strong song is usually flexible enough to be able to take on different readings. I’ve played the songs on this record out solo on acoustic guitar, and they worked pretty well. And now we’re planning on going out and touring with a two guitar-bass-drums rock combo. The record represents one way these songs went—highly influenced by all the great players who showed up.Work is a continuous process, yes, but in terms of these songs, they were written in a pretty finite period of time, from Spring of 2010 to early 2012.  They weren’t dredged out of old notebooks or off old cassettes.Since I mentioned your talents as both a musician as well as a writer, what have you been reading as of late?  Anything that you’re really into?

I’ve been reading Ed Sanders’s Fug You  and also just cracked open The Hunger Games because both my kids loved it last year and now with the movie it’s kinda inescapable.  About to start on Calvin Tompkins’s “Marcel Duchamp”.So as you put it, your band is “ending for awhile,”  and uou put out a new solo album.  What’s next for you?
I don’t yet really know.  I’m beginning to have a feel for the band I’m working with–Steve Shelley, Alan Licht and Irwin Menken–some of the songs are opening up in nice ways to more expansive sections.  I’m thinking about presenting these songs, right now, and not too far beyond that.
Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle + and our Tumblr.