New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree
Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.
Names of North End Women
Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree
21 February 2020
Names of North End Women is the first album from Sonic Youth co-founder Lee Ranaldo and Spanish producer, composer and musician Raül Refree. It's not the first time they've worked together; there was the 2014 Lee Ranaldo and the Dust set, Electric Dust and, perhaps more notably, Ranaldo's spectacular 2017 set, Electric Trim. But this set announces the pair as collaborators.
The album is, in many ways, notable for what it is not. Despite both Ranaldo and Refree being accomplished and influential guitarists, the instrument's role on Names of North End Women is muted. It's one of many colors found in a broader palette, which includes marimbas, vibraphones, samplers, and the employment of spoken word, all of which makes for a dense but digestible collection of songs that is both brilliant and breathtaking in its execution.
Author Jonathan Lethem once more contributed words that were woven into the music that Ranaldo and Refree created. Meanwhile, Haley Fohr (Circuit des Yeux) provides vocals on "The Art of Losing" as do and Kathy and Yolanda Sey of the Sey Sisters with Joan-Antoni Pich lending cello.
As for the record's title, Ranaldo explains that it was inspired by the North End of Winnipeg, Manitoba, where streets bear the names of women: Juno, Harriett. As elsewhere on the record, the spare instrumentation and employment of spoken word vocals lend the material an especially stark and haunting quality. Though there are clear points of influence, this is an album that sounds like it has arrived from some point in the future, a bold step forward for music of any ilk.
Refree and Ranaldo recently spoke with PopMatters about their collaboration with the spirit of experimentation which guided the creation of Names of North End Women.
The two of you worked on the album Electric Trim in 2017. It must have gone well because you're back with a new project.
Lee Ranaldo: We worked together on an album before that called Acoustic Dust, , which came out on a Spanish label. That's when Raül and I met. We had such a good time in the studio for that record that we made a pact to come back together and work on new material. That's what led to Electric Trim.
Raül Refree: I came over here in July 2018 to begin work on this new album. In a way, Electric Trim was us getting to know each other. We spent a long time working on that.
LR: Almost a year on-and-off.
RR: At the end of that, it felt like we knew each other very well, and we wanted to work together again. I came in to work as the producer at first, but that changed once we started working on the record. I was sampling some of the guitars and tweaking them. We were exploring new territories. Lee said, "I think this is a different record." We started working in a different way. We weren't even sure if it was going to be a record. We just wanted to play together.
LR: Make tracks in the studio, basically.
RR: That decision made us more free.
LR: Technically, Electric Trim could have had both our names on the cover. But we were still thinking about it as an artist/producer relationship even though we built those songs from the ground up and wrote most of them in the studio together as well. On this one, we decided to formalize it as a way to move forward with whatever we wanted to do in the future. Electric Trim stepped off from what I'd done in the past in terms of the rock guitar format. This record steps a lot further off. We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints.
Tell me about the decision to have the guitar play a minimal role on this album.
LR: One of the ideas that Raül had when we started working together was to take my music and set it in new settings. Take it away from two guitars, bass, and drums that I've worked with since Sonic Youth started. Try different rhythms, different instruments, different elements. We started injecting some electronic stuff and different players. Different percussionists with different sensibilities. We took that even further this time.
We weren't making an anti-guitar record on any level. In fact, the first songs we generated started on guitar. We started manipulating them and became fascinated with the landscapes we were creating. We were recording a lot of stuff acoustically: Marimbas, vibes, and Gamelan instruments, and we just treated the guitar like another instrument. When it was needed, we used it, and when it wasn't needed, we didn't slather it from the beginning of the record to the end of the record, the way so much guitar music works.
We wanted to use the instruments more delicately. We also wanted to keep this record more open atmospherically, and that meant not having distorted guitars slathering across the tracks. We're both guitar players, we love guitars, but it just wasn't called for. [laughs]
RR: Some people have asked me if we were trying to avoid using guitars. That's not true. It was like a blank page in front of us. We didn't want to have one instrument be more important than another. We just wanted to explore other timbres.
LR: That was one thing that happened with Electric Trim; we were interested in finding other textures and other timbres. That led to us using other instruments. This time we took that much further forward. Most of our reference points for this record were outside rock music: electronic music, new music, contemporary music. Sonic Youth has marimbas and vibes in our studio, these Gamelan instruments that we brought back from Indonesia in the '90s.
We just became fascinated with trying different things on these instruments and with all the samplers and digital things that Raül has. We were cutting things up and finding new rhythms and new and new textures and just being excited by that, feeling free to be as experimental as we could.
I wanted to ask specifically about "Light Years Out".
LR: We knew that we wanted to concentrate a lot on the vocals on this record and that we wanted to incorporate more spoken word stuff. I think it's one of the first things that Raül said to me: "I think we should have more spoken word on this one." I think I was just at the microphone saying those first few lines, "I want to look like a man who has nowhere to go." Then Raül started bringing in other textures. We loved that we had a song that started with just the vocals. It's kind of a rarity that a song starts with just a vocal and silence.
It gave us a new way to attack the song, a new way to enter into it. I dragged out this old analog cassette machine that I had used 20-25 years ago. It's this machine that lets you manipulate the cassettes: play the front side, play the backside, fast or slow. We had that around, and it was kind of an antidote to these shiny digital textures. That song is really one of the first where we were putting those sounds together and loving this idea of old and new technology meeting.
Then it drops into a more organized song.
RR: It started with the use of cassettes. I don't remember what came first, the spoken word or the other sections. I remember we started using some cassettes in the studio and turning them upside down or backward or pitching it down. There was the sensation that we were finding something and that we were going to use it. At the first moment, we didn't know exactly how. We sampled the cassettes and used them as new instruments.
LR: That one uses spoken word in a very specific way. There's not even musical backing. Then the musical backing in the front section of the song is very chaotic. It creates a certain emotional space, all this chaos. When we first finished the record, it seemed like, if not the weirdest song, one of the most challenging songs on the record. That was great for us to have that.
We had to make some videos for these songs, and we chose that song as the second video. We released the title track first, which is one of the most accessible songs, and then we thought, "Rather than follow that with another accessible song, let's show the real breadth of this record."
RR: I think it's one of my favorites for sure. I was really surprised when we recorded "Moroccan Mountains" on Electric Trim. I couldn't believe how good Lee was with spoken word. He knows a lot of people from when spoken word was started to happen in New York in the '70s.
LR: We wanted to focus on the voice more with this record and introduce it earlier than we did on the last one, it was almost the last element that we put together. Jonathan Lethem collaborated on some of the lyrics again this time. We used a collage or montage approach with the music, grabbing sounds from different places, dropping them in, and seeing what worked and what didn't. With the lyrics, Raül was guiding me from the control room when I was singing, or we would take turns with melodies, seeing what worked. We were thinking about the vocals in terms of how the words worked with the music.
It wasn't necessarily about the logical sequence of lyrics. I was grabbing lines from various papers that I wrote, some that Jonathan sent in, some that Raül wrote. We were just putting it all together. Even the meaning of the words was something new. That song is one where the vocal is cut up to the point where you don't even understand what's being said. That was exciting for us.
The full density of the record didn't really hit me until I'd been all the way through. I got to the final track and quietly reflected on how much had happened since the very start. It was a heavy moment. Did you think a lot about the sequencing?
LR: We didn't think about it during the process. We certainly thought about it once we had this group of songs together. "At the Forks" always seemed slated to be the last song on the record. It's such a nice way out with that long instrumental section at the end. When we're in the studio, we have a very experimental attitude. It'd different than working with a band. When you have a band, the songs all sound like they were cut from the same cloth, at least to some degree if you've got two guitars, bass, and drums.
Since we're working as a duo, we're selecting different sounds to make each song what it is. Each song becomes a little movie unto itself. They're related to each other, but they don't have the same sounds as each other. It creates this varied listening experience across eight or ten songs. It is a journey and we had to sequence it like that.
I think we're a bit old school in terms of seeing an album the way a vinyl album is: you've got two chances to make an entry and two closing side songs, so we were thinking, "What's the first song on Side One? What's the first song on Side Two? What's the last song on the album?" I think the CD even has a longer than normal pause between the fourth song and the fifth song to more clearly delineate the idea of sides.
RR: We approached each song as something unique. In the end, we felt like we had an album.
LR: A coherence.
RR: Yes. We both know that we're living in a period where people aren't listening to albums as much as individual songs. It's fine to release individual songs, but when you work on an album for months and months, you want it to have a concept and to be understood as a journey.
"Humps" is the halfway point of the record. I think it's a really beautiful composition.
LR: The first tracks we recorded we were reliant on these digital recorders. Then we started to record things on our own, the marimbas, the gamelans, and things. We had these acoustically recorded sounds and digitally manipulated sounds. At some point, we brought in this old analog cassette player, which I think I mentioned before, and started adding in these analog sounds.
We worked at Sonic Youth's studio, Echo Canyon West, and we have these two giant tape machines, two-inch 16-track machines that Sonic Youth recorded on for most of our career. We said, "Let's fire up the 16-track and see what we can do." We just grabbed some random tapes that were in the room. I don't even know whose tapes they were. They weren't Sonic Youth tapes.
We found all this weird, strange percussion on one, including some voices. "He came from Portland, Oregon." We just started manipulating the tape. Drum rhythms, all that industrial stuff. We thought coupling this super industrial section with this really beautiful section with heartfelt lyrics, then going back and forth, toggling between them, was really interesting.
RR: I have to say that that was one of the most difficult songs to finish. We were trying to understand how to put everything together. We had recorded some strings and weren't sure if we should use them. It took a while to get to the end of this song. And there are two different versions: One is on the LP, the other is in the digital format ["Humps (Espriu Mix)"].
LR: The digital one is the master; the LP is the variant. The digital one has the Catalan poet in the front section.
RR: We got to the mixes without really knowing which direction to take. I have this relationship with the family of a very famous Catalan poet [Salvador Espriu i Castelló]. They've been asking me to do something with his materials. I found a very old recording of him reciting a poem, and I put it at the beginning of the track. Lee listened to it and really liked it, but later on, we had some doubts about what to do with it because it was a super-local thing.
LR: I think at one point, I wasn't sure about including it and got cold feet. We changed that after we'd already cut the vinyl, and I missed it. Here it was, another spoken word element, in Catalan, which is Raül's language. Live, I'll have that sound on tape. We figure we can replace the Catalan speaker with other people for different territories. It's just a place where there's a spoken word section, and it's not one of us talking.
LR: That song was interesting for so many reasons: Coupling the beautiful section with the industrial section for one. And the lyrics to that one have a funny genesis. I worked on that TV show Vinyl. We recorded a lot of music for that show. One of the lead characters on the show was Mick Jagger's son. He was supposed to be the Richard Hell character.
Every once in awhile, he'd bring in a song. He brought one in that we didn't really like very much and had these corny lyrics. I decided to re-write the lyrics and wrote, basically word-for-word, what "Humps" is. But before I could even show him those lyrics, the producers said, "We don't want to use that song", so I put the lyrics away.
Something similar had happened on Electric Trim. Jonathan Lethem had sent a bunch of words which became the song "Uncle Skeleton." I saw them and said, "These are the weirdest words ever" and put them aside. In the end, we were desperate to get vocals on that song. I picked them up, and they just fell into place. Almost perfectly. I barely had to change a word.
The same thing happened with this one: I dragged the lyric sheet out, and the words fit the music so well. It was strange.
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