In My Own Space: A Conversation with Lee Ranaldo

Lee Ranaldo
Between the Times and the Tides

For over 30 years, Sonic Youth has been at the forefront of independent rock music, perfecting their singular vision of sprawling, experimental noisescapes channeled through the unlikely medium of popular song. What began as punk and then “college rock” in the ‘80s, got chewed up and spit out as “alternative” by the major record labels in the ‘90s, and is currently being rebranded as “indie” for the millennial generation has seen one constant throughout. And that is the continuing influence and vitality of this quintessentially New York band who somehow rose from the artfully abrasive sounds of the ‘70s no wave scene to become a household name in the world of rock. When bassist Kim Gordon and guitarist Thurston Moore announced that they were separating after over 25 years of marriage late last year, it was a sad day for a whole generation of music lovers who grew up listening to their albums, going to their shows and idealizing Gordon and Moore as the ultimate punk rock power couple. There is, however, one silver lining to the band’s recently announced state of uncertainty and that comes in the form of guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s first “song-based” solo album Between the Times and the Tides.

For ardent fans of Sonic Youth, Ranaldo has a George Harrison like quality of the soft spoken, unassuming genius about him, especially in the context of his bandmates’ indie rock star power. He is the singer and primary songwriter on only one or two songs per Sonic Youth record, but these songs are among the most memorable moments in the band’s catalogue. Songs like “Eric’s Trip”, “Mote”, and “Skip Tracer” see Ranaldo lacing his noise laden, propulsive guitar work with half-sung, half-shouted words that read more like beat poetry than rock lyrics. These songs remain among the most powerful in the band’s live repertoire, shifting shapes with each performance but maintaining that precarious balance of energy, melody and dissonance that Ranaldo and his bandmates have mastered throughout the years.

Because of the often abstract and experimental nature of Ranaldo’s work with Sonic Youth, and his previous solo work, which has unequivocally embraced the art side of the art rock equation, it would be easy to assume that Ranaldo’s interests lie further afield from the realm of pop music than those of his Sonic Youth bandmates. For this album, however, Ranaldo uses his new found creative freedom to explore sounds that are unapologetically pop based, mining the sonic landscapes of straight up rock, folk and americana, but tempering these familiar sounds with that sense of sonic adventurousness that he has cultivated through years of more experimental undertakings.

“I’m very interested in the distance and the space between those two poles: very concrete song based stuff on the one hand and very improvisational, abstract stuff on the other,” says Renaldo when asked about the interplay between these seemingly disparate elements in his music. “I don’t see any reason music should exclude one or the other and I think the pairing of them together makes for very interesting music in a lot of ways. Like everybody else, I love a good pop song, you know, there’s nothing like it. I also just really like music that goes off on extended forays of extrapolation into different areas. So it’s kind of nice to be able to move between those two poles. Sometimes things get more stressed toward one or the other but I’ve always loved bands that were able to combine really concise, good songwriting with really sophisticated instrumental work as well.”

Sophisticated instrumental work is certainly not lacking on Between the Times and the Tides. The album’s players feature two of Rolling Stone’s “Top 100 Guitarists of All Time” in Ranaldo and current Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, who plays guitar and lap steel on the album (Ranaldo was named number 33 in 2004, and Cline was number 82 in the magazine’s 2011 ranking.) Other featured musicians include the jazz keyboardist John Medeski, guitarist Alan Licht and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. This selection of musicians is more a result of the personal nature of the record for Ranaldo than it is of the musician’s impressive resumes, though. “My main concern with this record from start to finish was really doing it in my own space and on my own time and part of that was wanting to have a group of players around me who I considered close friends and who would be supportive of the vision that I was trying to achieve,” he says. “So, rather than ask people who I thought would play in a specific way, I asked people who I felt were close enough to me that they’d be into it and they’d contribute interesting things.”

Each of these musicians comes from a different place in Ranaldo’s past, and each brought something unique and dynamic to the writing and recording process. “I showed some of the songs to Steve who is around a lot and is a frequent collaborator in and out of Sonic Youth. Then I asked my friend Irwin [Menken] to come over and play bass on a few things and it just seemed pretty apparent right away that we had something happening.” Guitarist Alan Licht is also a previous collaborator in Ranaldo’s conceptual music project Text of Light which combines improvised music performance with screenings of American avante-garde films from the ‘50s and ‘60s. “We play in a lot of experimental contexts together, but we’ve never played in a rock song context before even though I know that he’s been in different bands that have been pretty cool and he’s a really good player,” says Ranaldo describing his relationship with Licht who has fronted the bands Run On and Love Child and played with such rock legends as Tom Verlaine and Arthur Lee.

Clines and Medeski had also worked with Ranaldo on previous music projects, most recently on the soundtrack for the Todd Haynes Bob Dylan film I’m Not There which Ranaldo produced. “Something about what each of them contributed to the songs really stuck in my head,” says Ranaldo, describing their work on the soundtrack. John Medeski, who is most well known for his work with the jazz group Medeski, Martin and Wood, brought an element with his organ playing that Ranaldo felt would nicely complement the new directions he wanted to explore on Between the Times and the Tides. “I come from a place where most of the rock music I create is pretty much guitar driven and yet what the organ added to those songs was just so special and beautiful. I knew early on, when I wanted this to be a band record, that I wanted there to be a pretty heavy keyboard presence on it, and I really wanted John to be the guy to do it.”

What ended as a band record began for Ranaldo with an unexpected turn toward the acoustic guitar. In 2010, his friends Régis Laugier and Béatrice Miniconi invited him to play a solo acoustic show for the Midi Festival in Hyeres, France. “It was a pretty unusual request for me,” he says. “I’ve always been an acoustic guitar player, but it’s been ages since I performed that way, so I assumed I would just revamp a bunch of Sonic Youth songs for acoustic guitar and go down and do it that way. While I was preparing for that show, this song called ‘Lost’ just kind of popped out of nowhere and I thought it was cool and I decided to open the show there with it to kind of test and challenge myself a little bit. Maybe it was the fact of this song coming into being, and being completed and performed in such a very short period of time that set some kind of tone or pace, because songs just started popping out behind it as I played through the summer of 2010. By the fall I had five or six songs, and I decided to get a bit more serious about it. Initially I thought I was going to make a solo acoustic record and it just happily branched out from that in a bunch of different ways into the record it is.”

You can still hear the acoustic origins of many of the songs on Between the Times and the Tides, and there are a couple of tracks like the wispy, folk based “Hammer Blows”, and the softly strummed “Stranded”, that remain entirely acoustic in their completed versions. But there are plenty of other songs, such as “Fire Island” and “Waiting on a Dream”, that see Ranaldo and his supporting musicians branching out into a layered and intricate approach to the standard rock format that bears some resemblance to Neil Young in its blending of classic Americana sounds with Ranaldo’s trademark melodic dissonance and expansive approach to song structure. Perhaps the most surprising elements for those who have followed Ranaldo’s more experimental endeavors are the straight up indie pop numbers such as “Lost”, and lead single “Off the Wall”. The irony here is that for an artist who has spent his entire career pushing against the aesthetic boundaries of his craft, this turn toward conventionality is an extension of that very will to explore and challenge both himself and his listeners.

Between the Times and the Tides in its accessible, yet complex, approach to traditional song craft further solidifies Ranaldo’s status as one of the most innovative and technically adept rock musicians of his generation, and as a uniquely inventive songwriter as well. One of the elements that contributes to Sonic Youth’s truly distinctive approach to rock music is their exclusive use of open, non-standard guitar tunings, and this is a technique that has shaped Ranaldo’s songwriting process, both in Sonic Youth and in his solo work. “Songs seem to always spring from improvisation. The one place where this stuff shares with Sonic Youth is that it’s all derived from open tunings,” he says, referring to the songs on his new record. He goes on to elaborate about how this use of open tunings facilitates a song writing process in which free improvisation leads to structure.

“For my record, I used a lot of new tunings that I just devised and I’d not played in before so that means, whenever you’ve got a new tuning, it’s very unfamiliar and you don’t know what to do until you start experimenting. So it’s all a matter of experimenting on the strings and trying to find chord shapes and finding something that flows from one thing into the next. So, the early stages of these songs, and a lot of the early stages of Sonic Youth songs are really about a very exploratory nature of finding different chord patterns that work, and finding sounds that go together into these pleasing little strings of chord shapes. A lot of these songs started out very improvisational, but I really knew that I was looking for songs here, I wasn’t looking for abstract pieces, so they slowly shaped themselves into verses, choruses and bridges.”

Lyrically, Ranaldo’s work with Sonic Youth combines abstract imagery with narrative based approach, often centered on titular characters as in the “Eric’s Trip”, “Hey Joni”, and “Karen” songs. His vocal delivery combines melodic lines with spoken word sections that are more reminiscent of Alan Ginsberg or Gregory Corso than any traditional rock lyricist. In Sonic Youth, Ranaldo explains, the lyrics are often written only after a song’s musical arrangements are perfected, perhaps allowing for the often thoughtful and literate approach to lyricism that Ranaldo shares with his bandmates Moore and Gordon. “With Sonic Youth, we work on the music for weeks and weeks as a musical composition until it’s really strong enough on its own before you ever put lyrics on top. I think that’s always been a hallmark of Sonic Youth that the music’s been really strong,” says Ranaldo. He goes on to describe the process of writing lyrics for Between the Times and the Tides. “With this music, sometimes I would be strumming the guitar, or working out a chord sequence and words just came, particularly for a chorus here or there. But mostly this was done in the same style where I really worked on all the song structures first and brought the lyrics in later.”

In addition to his work as a musician, Ranaldo is also poet, writer and visual artist, often collaborating for gallery installations with his wife, multimedia artist Leah Singer. And his work within these various mediums often informs and interacts with his songwriting in both apparent and enigmatic ways. The most obvious relationship is between Ranaldo’s poetry and his song lyrics. “Sometimes for me, lyrics are derived from poems that I’m working on and they kind of cross back and forth between the two,” he explains. However, Ranaldo experiences a complex, and often symbiotic relationship between all the various forms that he works in. “I think the nice thing about having a few areas to work in is if you get stuck in one area, you can just shift your attention to a whole other process, whether it be from making music to making visual art to working on words and the shift of focus sometimes will kind of reenergize you. There’s no doubt that a lot of my lyrics and words have found their way onto some of my paintings and visual art pieces, and there’s the relationship between the poems and the lyrics. Sometimes an idea that you develop for visual art will have an interesting parallel in the way you think when you create music. It’s kind of a mysterious process but there’s definitely ways in which they inform each other.”

With Sonic Youth’s uncertain future, and the release of Between the Times and the Tides marking a period of creative transition for Ranaldo as a solo artist, one can’t help but look back upon the legacy of Sonic Youth as a band that truly changed the course of rock music history. One of the pivotal stages in the band’s development, particularly with regard to achieving a certain degree of mainstream acceptance is documented in the film The Year Punk Broke which was rereleased last year on DVD. The film follows Sonic Youth and Nirvana on tour in 1991, just months before the release of Nevermind would propel both bands into the realm of MTV, commercial airplay and multi record deals with major labels. I ask Ranaldo what it feels like to look back on those years from his current vantage point. “It was an amazing time,” he replies. “And it was a very fortuitous time for us to be making a movie of this young band called Nirvana out on the road right before everything exploded in their world and in our world as well with their music becoming so widely accepted. So, it was a really interesting period to be making a tour film for us, and I look back on it with a great degree of fondness.”

He goes on to describe the ensuing paradigm shift that would alter both the mainstream and the underground worlds of rock music up to the present day. “On the one hand, it was the year punk broke and on the other hand it was really the year the indie music scene was changed in radical ways forever, for both good and bad. In a way what Nirvana’s rise indicated was a period where the record companies went just totally ballistically nuts on this feeding frenzy trying to mine the underground for the next Nirvana, the next big millions selling record. And they kind of distorted and destroyed a lot of the purity of the underground just by getting in there and pulling out bands that they had certain expectations of. I feel like a lot of young bands had their careers kind of mutilated or destroyed by their associations with major labels that had outsized expectations for them. The labels got lucky in a brief period where they were signing some underground acts that worked like R.E.M. or Nirvana, or signing some more adventurous acts like ourselves or Hüsker Dü or whatever. But really through the ‘90s they showed themselves once again to be kind of clueless in terms of how they were going to treat this underground music scene. They tried to take bands that weren’t shooting for universal appeal and make them universally appealing and it just wasn’t going to work. We got more and more disillusioned with major labels through the ‘90s as we saw how cheaply they were just groveling for the money side of things.”

On the other hand, it was that period that in many ways created the possibility for contemporary underground or indie acts to find a significant audience and to build their careers on any of several prominent independent labels such as Matador Records, the current home of both Sonic Youth and Ranaldo’s solo work. By integrating innovation and experimentation with guitar rock sounds and a real pop sensibility, bands like Sonic Youth laid the groundwork in the ‘80s and ‘90s for much of today’s indie rock music. On Between the Times and the Tides, Ranaldo continues that tradition into the current moment, and as someone who has enjoyed the dissonant beauty of Sonic Youth’s music for nearly two decades of my own life, I can only hope that we will hear much more from its members, individually and collectively, in the future.