Lee Ranaldo: The Cream Interview



As indie-rock's Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth was a decades-spanning dynasty. So to call it a shock when the band announced an indefinite hiatus — in light of evermore-shocking news that its fronting power couple Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore were divorcing — is an understatement. The silver lining is that mere months after the split, Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo — long the band's secret sonic weapon and the voice behind such back-catalog gems as "Skip Tracer," "Hey Joni" and "Eric's Trip" — released his first song-oriented solo album, the excellent, inspired and uncharacteristically poppy Between the Times and the Tides.

To tackle the tunes, Ranaldo assembled a backing band of past art-rock collaborators and Sonic Youth alumni featuring Steve Shelley, Jim O'Rourke, Nels Cline, John Medski, Alan Licht and Bob Bert. On its first ever tour, the Lee Ranaldo Band comes to Nashville fresh and raw, with only a handful of shows under its belt. In a recent phone interview, Ranaldo tells the Scene about that and more.

OK, people, this show is tonight at Mercy Lounge. Wooden Wand and PUJOL are opening, and you should really go. Already planning on going? Great. Don't let that deter you from reading the full Q&A I did with Ranaldo for this week's Scene feature. He talks about the Sonic Youth breakup, his new record (which rules) and his new band. And after that he gives an epic history of Sonic Youth's career and how it was affected by the music industry's changing tides in the '80s, '90s and Aughts. He also offers an excellent, absolutely on-target defense for why a band can still be considered an indie-rock band even if they're on a major label. Peep it.

Nashville Cream: Have you guys done much touring for this record yet?

Lee Ranaldo: Hardly at all. A couple of weeks ago we did just a trio of shows. We did Mexico City, Los Angeles and San Francisco. And those were, like, I don’t know, for the band, shows six, seven and eight or something like that. We haven’t even played 10 shows together yet. We’re really just getting started as far as touring. Starting tomorrow, we’ve got a pretty good run of dates going on all through the summer.

NC: Right on. I’m excited that you guys are coming so soon to Nashville because for so many artists Nashville a secondary market. Bands come after they’ve been on the road for, like, 14 months.

LR: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, we actually have friends in Nashville and some ties to Nashville. Sonic Youth does some business stuff with some people in Nashville that we work with. We just had the opportunity. This first little tour is with M. Ward, so we had a couple days free in there that we would be driving through Nashville and Louisville. We managed to set up some shows on our own on those dates, which is super fun for us.

NC: What are some of your Nashville ties?

LR: Some of it’s just, like, Nashville as a music town and going there over the years; going to the guitar stores and whatnot, things like that. You know some years ago Thurston had signed that band Be Your Own Pet to his label. It’s always just seemed like a good music town to us. I loved going to Gruhn’s [Guitars] and some of the other stores around there, gawkin’ at all the amazing guitars.

NC: Are there any potential plans in the works to have any Nashville musicians join you on stage?

LR: Well, no, not really. You know, we’re doing these two shows, Nashville and Louisville, with this band called Wooden Wand. It’s got James Jackson Toth. I produced a record for him a couple years ago and I really like what he does. I think he still lives in Knoxville these days. I’m not sure, but I think so. So you know, they’re going to be on both those shows. We’re just getting started as a band, so it’s almost a little premature to start thinking about guest musicians and things like that.

NC: What’s the status of Sonic Youth right now? Is the hiatus still indefinite?

LR: Yup. That’s where it stands. None of us are talking to each other about doing anything anytime soon. Obviously there are a lot of personal issues being worked out. I think that’s going to be that way for a while; that’s what I would imagine. We’re working on a bunch of archival projects and things like that. As far as new performances or new recordings, I don’t think anything like that will happen soon.

NC: This record came out so soon after Sonic Youth went on hiatus that it was really more than a fan could ask for as a consolation.

LR: I think some people are under the impression that my record got made after Sonic Youth decided to go on hiatus or whatever. That's not the case at all. This record was made during a long period where I wasn't completely active and I had the opportunity and some time free to write some songs. This record was done before I knew anything about [Gordon and Moore] having marital difficulties or whatever. ... We played our first show — and this was a few months after the record was finished — the day after [Gordon and Moore] announced their split, which was kind of weird.

NC: So then the Sonic Youth thing didn’t really have an effect on this record?

LR: Yeah, not at all.

NC: You've made experimental or instrumental avant-jazz solo records in the past. But given that you've always written rock songs in Sonic Youth, why did you wait so long to make a song-based solo record?

LR: Yeah, you know, I’m not really sure. I think that part of it was that I hadn’t really had … I don't know if it was a confidence issue or what, but I think that part of it was down to really not having a long enough uninterrupted stretch to actually feel like I could develop this stuff without being called back away to be touring with Sonic Youth or start recording something new with Sonic Youth. I don’t know. It’s hard to figure out why things happen. It’s something that I wanted to do for a long time, and in the past I’ve put a lot of songs on tape that I thought might be appropriate for a solo record. It just never came together like it did this time.

At the time that this record came together, I was involved in so many other different things. I was doing this sort of extended technique guitar performance with my wife Leah Singer and a bunch of other things either with this band Text of Light or with another project I do called Glacial and I kinda had just forgotten about the idea of trying to do a solo record, and then these just started springing out of me. It just kind of developed naturally rather than out of some notion on my part that this was the kind of thing I had to do or something like that.

I had kind of almost forgotten the idea of doing a solo record, and these songs just started stringing out of me. It just sort of developed naturally, rather than developed out of some inner notion on my part that this was the kind of thing that I had to do. The songs started popping out.

I was invited to do this show in the summer of 2010 in the South of France. They asked for an acoustic show, and I thought I'd just do Sonic Youth songs on acoustic guitar. At some point during my preparation for that show one of the songs from this record, a song called "Lost," kind of popped out. Two weeks later I opened my concert with it. It was just kind of an empowering thing, in a way. It was really fun to think that two weeks ago this song didn’t exist and then all the sudden I’m performing it in front of a crowd. It just kind motivated me into developing these songs that were springing out.

NC: Is “Lost” the first song that was written for this record? Or do any of the songs come from ideas that dated back before that?

LR: No, that was the first song, in May, June or July of 2010. All of the rest of it started coming out during that summer after that show and into the fall. It was just lucky. I had a long uninterrupted period there where I wasn’t doing a lot. I was really just doing a lot of grooving again, sitting around playing acoustic guitar. Getting together the progression and melodies. It just started, actually, started falling out of the guitar and [coming up with] little chord progressions and melodies and new tunings and stuff. It just started naturally falling out of the guitar. I guess it kind of happens a lot to me but I’m not always motivated to finish them off and develop them, and this time I had the time to do it. By September, I had a group of songs I was demoing in my house or my boat or whatever. I took all these stories to the studio and starting doing some acoustic demos of a bunch of them. Steve [Shelley] was around and I asked him to play on some stuff and it kind of evolved naturally from there.

NC: Were any of the songs ever considered for Sonic Youth?

LR: None of these, no. These were all done in this period when we weren’t working together. We weren't writing new records or anything like that. And then, by the time we were all finished, I was pretty determined that this was going to be a record of my own. A few more months went by, and the record was finished in July, and the recording was finished in May or April of last year. In July, it was right around the time we were understanding things were not going so well with Thurston and Kim.

NC: It's so interesting, because from the outside it looks like the band takes a break and, because you've always had only a handful of songs on each record, that this record would be, like, an All Things Must Pass kind of scenario.

LR: Yeah, well there might be an element of that. There’s certainly no doubt in the fact that the band wasn’t very active. But, that was kind of through our own choice, in a way. Everybody was kind of busy working on their own projects to a large extent. We were all pretty pretty fine with that. We’ve gone through a lot of periods like that. We weren't very active and I guess I kind of missed working on songs. Everything [else] was abstract and performance-based, but not really, actually having the pleasure of working on a song. When these first songs started popping out, I was very motivated just by the fact that there’s particularly one process to develop a song, so sticking to the process is very, you know, it’s working towards a certain kind of thing. It's different than improvisational or abstract music where whatever is happening in the moment is what it is. A song, you're trying to get it to be this perfect nugget in this certain way.

It’s a really cool process. You do that in a studio with a bunch of musicians and then to work on arranging it and recording it and mixing it. It’s a really fun process that I’ve enjoyed a lot over the years with Sonic You. Given the lack of activity there. It just kind of naturally fell in, and I was working on songs on my own. Especially calling on people like Nels Cline and John Medeski, who are friends of mine. I think that, in a certain way, I was calling on some experience I’ve had as a producer of other people’s records. Because even though this was my music and my record, I really felt ready to do the producing role in the regard of bringing other people in and having them do what they could to help out a song. It was fun to do production wise, I was on top of it as well.

NC: Even compared to the more traditional "song" songs that you've had on Sonic Youth records, this is some of the most jangly, poppy stuff you've done — like with “Off the Wall,” or “Lost” or like the chorus of that song “Fire Island.” Where's that coming from?

LR: Yeah. It’s kinda hard to say. With these songs, I really wasn’t trying to tailor them to be any one thing or any other thing. Sometimes if I’m writing something that I think is going to end up in Sonic Youth’s hands, I’ll kind of push it in a certain direction that I think will help adapt it to Sonic Youth’s music. With this stuff, I mean, it was just kind of coming out. I really wasn’t making any demands at this music in terms of wanting to make it one thing or another. I was just kind of curious as to what was popping out of the guitars on the various tunings I was working on. I was just kind of following it along, really, more than anything else.

Some of it I think hearkens back to earlier periods of my life in terms of being wrapped up in certain singer-songwriters — whether it's Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen or David Crosby or Neil Young, or whoever — as opposed to a band dynamic. There's no doubt that I was thinking along the lines of people like that, or more contemporaries of mine — people like Chan Marshall or Bill Callahan — people that are really writing records on their own, and then bringing them into their musical group to work on them.

That was kind of in my mind. Stylistically, they just went where they wanted to go. Other times that was dictated by the tuning. Some tunings just seem to lend themselves more easily to pop-type structures as opposed to longer, more expansive kind of things. I don’t know. I don’t know where it comes from.

NC: How has it been stepping into the role of bandleader?

LR: Basically, because I felt so confident about this group of songs, it hasn’t been that hard to do that. It seems pretty apparent what the songs want and what they need. So being in the role of leader, it’s kind of been easier than I might have expected it to be. It’s really about the songs, and I felt pretty good about the songs. On one hand, playing with Steve is always a pleasure and we’ve worked with each other so long that I feel really comfortable playing with him. Someone like Alan Licht, who’s also someone I’ve played with in a lot of different capacities for a long time … it’s pretty comfortable. I definitely tried to surround myself with people that I considered to be friends and people that would be supportive of what I was trying to do musically. So calling on people like Bob Bert and Jim O’Rourke — old-time Sonic members and longtime friends. I really tried to, in general, surround myself with people that I just felt comfortable around. It wasn’t the kind of situation where I was like, “Well, who will play a hot lead on this song,” or something like that. It was more like what friends can I call on that I know will come and be supportive of me.

Me making a record like this is, to some degree, going out on a limb. It’s not something I do every day. I really wanted to have a comfort level in the studio as far as the people that were working on it.

NC: As far as to expect for the live show here, will guys do an epic, extended noise jam?

LR: There’s definitely been some stuff that’s getting stretched out and pushin’ and pullin’ in different ways. Some of it we’ve kept pretty concise. I mean, the songs are pretty concise on the record and have been kept that way. There’s definitely a few places here and there where we’re [changing things]. Like I said, we’re just getting started on developing the live thing. It’s more core people — you know, Steven and Alan — who are making the core band from the record, so we’re kinda starting out by doing faithful renditions of the songs and we kind of open it up from there.

NC: Will you be playing any of your songs from the Sonic Youth back catalog?

LR: We’ve got a couple that we’re working up. Not common ones. I wanted to stray from ones that Sonic Youth has played a lot. There’s a couple that go back 15 years or so that Sonic didn’t really play very much, that we played for one tour and then kind of left behind. I really don’t wanna get too heavily involved in that kinda thing, but there’s definitely a couple that I’ve been interested in maybe working up. And we’re working up some cover songs as well.

NC: Wanna give out some spoiler alerts?

LR: Eh, no. It’s kinda more fun just to pull them out.

NC: Right, right. Before we wrap up I really want to ask you about the career trajectory of Sonic Youth. As a band that has these kind of three distinct periods in three different decades — the ’80s experimental underground era, being a flagship band of alternative rock in the ’90s and then with the records you guys made in the last decade, in this modern indie world — how would you compare the band in the three different decades?

LR: Well, they kind of reflect the state of the music business at each one of those periods. I mean, when we started there wasn’t really much of a music business to speak of for a band like us. There was no network of underground labels; fanzines were just starting up and all that kind of stuff. And, you know, we kind of came to a music out of New York in this period when it was being made as much by artists as it was anybody else and we really looked on it as kind of an art form. So the ‘80s were spent experimenting and developing these sounds that we were turned onto coming to New York in the late ‘70s — people like Steve Reich and Philip Glass on the one hand, and people like Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham on the one hand, and all the no wave and new wave that was going on in New York in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. So our ‘80s sounds were kind of shaped by that. I think that by Evol and by Sister and certainly by Daydream we’d found a working method using these alternate tunings and this kind of dueling guitar mesh that Thurston and I kind of developed. And, in general, just kind of interlocking parts with Kim’s bass parts.

But then, you know, in the ‘90s the music business changed as a whole. And we were lucky enough to be around through that kind of first camp being signed to Geffen shortly before Nirvana, being instrumental in their signing. In that period, the majors were just picking and choosing one or two indie or underground bands to work with. Whether it’s with R.E.M., or The Replacements, or us, or Husker Du and then onto Nirvana — the whole business model changed. It was also at the time that CDs were coming in and record companies were making, like, crazy amounts of money. It was a weird period. It was interesting for us to be on a major label in that period. We still felt like we had our interests in the indie world, but it was cool for a band like us to be on a major label because we felt like infiltrators in major label house to some degree, like we were able to do arena tours with Neil Young and work on a major label record company while still going out and playing this kind of freaky music.

And by the end of the ‘90s we were kind of disillusioned with that whole thing. The majors were kind of at a loss for which way to turn. They spent the ‘90s thinking every band that they signed was gonna be the next Nirvana and then dropping them each after one record and ruining a lot of bands’ careers in the process in a way. So by the end of the ‘90s we just kind of reverting back to who we were, like, “let’s just forget about all this bullshit and follow our own path again. And we started making a record like Goodbye 20th Century, where we were mining 20th century classical music and going out and playing abstract music like that again. Or making a record like NYC Ghosts & Flowers, which was kind of rooted in the New York avant poetry scene of the ‘50s and the ‘60s — that Beat Generation stuff. We were just following a lot of different avenues of our own.

I think the records we made in the 2000s kind of reflect that. Just of looking back into this period when our records — maybe from Washing Machine in ‘95, which had a 20, 25-minute song like “Diamond Sea” on it — it’s just, like, toying with a lot of different aspects of exactly what was our interests, the combination of pop music on the one hand and experimental music on the other and recombining them in different ways. In the early ‘90s we were really influenced by the stuff coming out of Seattle, like Mudhoney and bands like that, that were playing with balls-out rock. Certainly Dirty was a record that was really influenced by those bands and what they were doing.

We wanted to step up some that stuff and play with bigger budgets on recording. It was kind of interesting to see, like, “What would Sonic Youth like if we threw, like, $150-thousand dollars at a producer to figure out whatever it is.” We found out. We found that it really didn’t matter in the end how much money you spent as much as what was going on behind it.

That was also a period when people were sort of responding to lo-fi music and records recorded in bedrooms on cassette players were on the top of the indie charts because of what the substance of it was and not how good the drum sound was or whatever.

NC: So it sounds like you got in and out of the major label thing at the right time.

LR: Yeah, I guess so. I mean it certainly helped us as a band to stay a band through all those years. We certainly were making enough money to make the band self-supporting through all those years, thanks to the major label stuff, you know? We always were this band that had, like, a foot on each side of the line. The majors were not losing money on our records, which were profitable, so they were happy. And we still keeping another foot in the experimental camp and doing lots of weird solo records on our own all through those periods as well.

NC: Can a band a major label still be an indie-rock band? Because if you ask people what are some indie-rock bands and they’ll mention bands like Built to Spill, or Modest Mouse or Sonic Youth — bands that were on major labels.

LR: Yeah. It’s like, what’s the definition of a major-label band and an indie-rock band? You know, there’s not too much substance, for me, in trying to decide what those issues mean. It really like the mindset of the band is what matters. Some bands, they’re not trying to sell every record they can, or be on the radio or whatever it is these days, it’s more about a certain kind of musical development. The bands you mentioned are all bands that have been around a plenty long time without have huge financial success or whatever you wanna call it. They’re doing it because they’re really actively involved in the music that they make. It’s their art, you know?

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