Lee Ranaldo: “There’s not going to be another band in my life that’s going to be as important as Sonic Youth has been”

Confessions of a New York musician about his new album and the band of his life

On Twitter, Lee Ranaldo defines himself as a “botanist, amateur spelunker, slack-line walker, road cyclist”. Not a word about music, poetry, or art, the activities that he is known for and for which he will undoubtedly go down in the annals of music history. He started his career playing with Glenn Branca and in 1981 he joined Sonic Youth, a seminal band indispensable for understanding the music not just of recent years, but of recent decades. Last October, the announcement of the end of the matrimony of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore caused a small earthquake on the indie scene. What does the future hold? Well the truth is that not even those involved can answer that question, but right now, the present is fruitful: Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore are performing (separately, of course) and Lee Ranaldo is releasing a new work for which he has called on the collaboration of Steve Shelley. No one should really be surprised by so much activity, because if there was one thing that always characterised the group, it was the number of parallel projects that they were involved in, whether they were artistic or merely musical.

He is undoubtedly one of the most restless members of the group: a writer of poetry, drawer of drawings, a sculptor and prolific musician; he has just released Between The Times And The Tides via Matador, an album that is surprising because it diverges radically from the experimental parameters of his solo career. Ranaldo, who will be performing at this year’s San Miguel Primavera Sound festival, answered our questions by phone.

I have the impression that “Between The Times And The Tides” was composed over a long period of time, because it’s quite varied. How long did it take you to prepare this album?

The first song was written in May of 2010: I was invited to do an acoustic show in the south of France and during the practice of this show I wrote this song called “Lost” that’s on the record; so that was in May, and by September I think I had all the songs written. It wasn’t songs that I kept from years ago or anything like that, it was all written in a six-month period.

"It’s the kind of record I always wanted to make and never did for some reason"

This is the most accessible record of your solo career. What has brought about this change?

I don’t really know. It’s the kind of record I always wanted to make and never did for some reason, and at this point I wasn’t trying to make a solo record, I just wrote this one song after being invited to give this show in France, and this opened a door and all these songs started to come out just with an acoustic guitar sitting in my living room... I’ve always been an acoustic guitar player, I have always made songs on acoustic guitar, just taping them on a cassette or whatever, and after finishing the first one, I just decided to keep finishing them. Sonic Youth wasn’t very busy, which I think really allowed me a lot of time to work on this project, and I just followed the songs; I collected them until I had eight or ten, and I really thought at first that I would make a very simple and acoustic guitar record, just with acoustic guitar and voice, and then it turned into something else in a very natural process. I’m not really sure why it happened or why it happened now, but it aligns itself, I’d say, with a lot of singer-songwriter records that I’ve always loved during the years, like Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, or Cat Power, or Bill Callahan, or Neil Young... So you know, it comes in a way along those lines rather than mostly… when I’m doing solo records it comes out more abstract, or if I’m playing with Sonic Youth it’s something more specific... but this record is very new for me, so in a way, for me it’s quite an experiment.

In this album there are songs like “Stranded” or “Hammer Blows”, which are very acoustic and melodic. I guess that to you that must have been more groundbreaking than other things, right?

Well, in some ways I would agree with you; I mean, it’s funny to have some traditional move, it’s more groundbreaking for someone like me whose career has been built on a more experimental basis. This is a new experiment for me and I’m so happy with the record... so for me, personally, it’s definitely a groundbreaking record.

With Sonic Youth you used to sing only one or two songs an album. Now that you have recorded and sung everything, how did you feel about it?

Yes, you’re right, in Sonic Youth it was mostly Thurston and Kim’s voices, but I really love singing; what was more unusual for me was having to write the lyrics. Usually, like you said, I only had to write one song, and in this case at the beginning it seemed like a huge leap to be making lyrics for ten songs, but it all worked out, I think.

These last months you’ve been from one place to the other, either giving shows, preparing exhibitions with Leah Singer, or with your Text Of Light project. Has being so involved in all this changed your approach to music when recording this album?

Before I started this album I’ve been doing a lot of experimental stuff with Leah and with Text Of Light: large-scale outdoor performances... I’ve been doing a lot of experiments and I guess in a way, even in Sonic Youth I always liked the idea of working both in very abstract music and more song-based music, and in the last few years Sonic Youth hasn’t been working very much, so most of my energy has been put into very abstract musical creations. And the things with Leah and with Text Of Light have been fantastic, I’ve been really, really happy. But I think at the end I missed having the chance to work on songs as well, so in that way I think all my recent experimental work has influenced this record, because it left a hole that I wanted to fill with more song-based work, so when these songs started, I really enjoyed the process of creating a song.

It’s curious that you mention that Sonic Youth could be either more experimental or more song-based, because I’ve always thought your concerts sort of bordered on free jazz, because you knew where the song would start, but not where it’d end...

Yes, we loved that songs could open up and move into very experimental passages or very long instrumental breaks. And we really love that quality. That was one of the most interesting things about Sonic Youth, that we could devote ourselves to all of our interests.

Do you feel more pressure about your new releases with all this history behind you, or when you were starting and didn’t know if you could make a living out of it?

In a certain way I think I feel freer now. I feel like at this point in my career I don’t really have to worry about anybody but myself in terms of what I might do. There were times when we were coming up as a band when you really wanted people to like what you were doing because it would mean that you’d continue, and at this point when I think of what I’ve done on my own and with Sonic Youth, it’s been so much and so many fantastic things that I feel free to do a lot of different things right now. So I feel free to make visual art, poetry, or a record like the one I just made or experimental stuff. I think and I hope that it will all continue.

Do you feel like writing another book?

Yes, I’m going to have a big book of poetry coming out before the year is over, a real collection of all my poems for ten or fifteen years. And I’m very active and I will probably write another book soon.

In “Hello From The American Desert” you wrote poems out of spam mail. How did you come up with this idea?

I started getting all this spam and I found it very interesting that they always had these words at the bottom: a thousand or five thousand words with no relationship, just words, like taken randomly from a dictionary or something like that, and I didn’t know why they were there. But I realised that sometimes there would be three or four words together that sounded like a poem or had a poetic image, and I thought that was a really interesting thing to capture. So I started collecting these words of the spam mail and then started pulling different bits out and taking them out and using them, sort of lining them up like a poem, adding my own words and changing the meaning of it and just creating these poems that were very abstract and very surrealistic, like the Surreals would do with automatic writing, or William Burroughs with his cut-ups of newspapers... And in the same spirit I found out that this mostly came out very abstract, and I found it interesting and I really liked to do it, so in the last three years a lot of my poems have been created this way.

Some days ago your fans were asked to choose their 10 favourite songs of your career. Surprised with the results?

No, in a way I was surprised a little which songs had been left out and that some people didn’t go for more experimental stuff, but pretty much everybody went for Sonic Youth tracks... that wasn’t so surprising, I guess that was sort of expected. But I was pleased by the choices in the most part. But it was the record company that asked me to do a bit like that, and I didn’t really want to, so I suggested to them to do it this way, because sometimes, in our forum, kids do things like that anyway, they’re like “what are your 10 favourite Thurston songs?” or whatever, so it seemed like a very obvious thing to do, that the people that are most devoted to doing that kind of thing had their say. So that was really fun for me.

"I’m in touch with everybody and we’re talking, but we’re not talking about that at all. I mean, I think there are very personal issues between Thurston and Kim that have to be worked out first"

For this album in a way you’ve formed a band. Do you miss being in one?

I like being in a band and I like playing with a band and I’ve been in a very special band for a very long time and there’s not going to be another band in my life that’s going to be as important as Sonic Youth has been. But you know, I like to play with other people. With Text Of Light, for instance, I can do more abstract things, but I do like the idea of playing in a band that does play songs as well. Right now it’s been very interesting and very fun for me to play leading a band like that, you know? Being in control of things; everything has been pretty interesting.

I know everyone must be asking you, but now that there’s a hiatus on Sonic Youth: do you see yourselves playing together again or just calling it quits?

I have no answer, really. I really don’t know. I’m in touch with everybody and we’re talking, but we’re not talking about that at all. I mean, I think there are very personal issues between Thurston and Kim that have to be worked out first... I think everybody is quite happy because they are all doing projects on their own at this moment and there are certain ways in which we’re going to be in a relationship together for years and years to come... I mean we’ve got the studio, we’re gonna reissue some of our records on the catalogue next year, and there’s a lot of archival material to release or concerts or things like that... So there are some ways in which we’ll continue very definitely, but I think it’s much too soon for any of us to talk about whether we’re gonna do new concerts or make new recordings or anything like that.

And I also guess it’s more sincere to the fans not to make a statement when you’re not even sure...

If we knew what the answer is, we would say it right away, but the thing is we don’t.

The first time I interviewed you was shortly after 9/11 and you were quite pessimistic about politics. I see you’ve been at OWS several times. What’s your perception of the future now?

I’ve definitely been very involved in the Occupy movement, taking pictures and making field recordings and posting them on my site, and I’ve been using some of those recordings at the Occupy site in my performances as well, and I’m really inspired by it. The initial inspiration came from the events that were happening in the Middle East, and watching this movement spread first to Europe, then to Russia and China and here in the States is very exciting to me. First of all, it’s very exciting because it’s a non-violent movement and that is fantastic, and to me it’s the flowering of the leftist spirit in my youth in the sixties and seventies, when that kind of thing was happening. So I have great hopes. The changes that have been asked for are very, very big and you can look at it and say “it’s nearly impossible”, but I have some hope it will lead to some change in more situations and in a more global way, so I’m much inspired. At least a couple of songs on my record are inspired by it, especially the song “Shouts”, but in general, it’s been a super-inspiring moment for me. I think people know the phoney part of politics and people are starting to see that there are very, very important questions that we ask each other as a whole in a global sense that are gonna lead to the survival of human kind or our destruction, in a way. It’s not about any particular country or government at this point, it’s about everybody grasping the larger issues and working together, so I’ve been very inspired by it.

What about Occupy Musicians? What’s your role there, if you have any?

My role there is adding my name to the list and supporting it. Occasionally I have communication with those people, but more than anything else I think it’s important for people, especially for people with some sort of public profile, to put that out there, you know? Like “this is the side of the line I’m standing on and I’m supporting this and I’m hoping that this and the things that they’re asking for will be given respect”.


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