Lee Ranaldo on the Future of Sonic Youth

'I'm feeling optimistic no matter what,' says guitarist, who is prepping his first solo album

lee ranaldo
Samuel Dietz/Redferns
Lee Ranaldo performs at Le Point Ephemere in Paris.
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Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo is the long-running New York art-rock band's answer to George Harrison: He's not nearly as prolific as a songwriter as band leaders Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, but he's responsible for some of the band's most beloved songs, including "Eric's Trip," "Mote" and "Skip Tracer." Though he has made a number of experimental instrumental records over the years, he will release his proper debut as a solo artist, Between the Times and the Tides, through Matador Records on March 20th. In this conversation with Ranaldo, the guitarist opens up about making the new record and speculates on the future of Sonic Youth, which is now in question since Moore and Gordon announced the end of their marriage back in October.

How long have you been working on your new solo album?
I guess basically since last summer. Last year I was invited to do a solo acoustic show, which is something I almost never do, in May for this festival called Midi Festival in the south of France. It was nothing I'd ever done in 20 years or something like that – I figured I'd play acoustic versions of some of the Sonic Youth songs that I sing, so I worked up "Hey Joni" and "Eric's Trip" and "Mote" and a couple other things, and during the process of that a couple new songs started to sprout up. It kind of just happened so naturally that I actually led off the concert with one of the new songs, one of the songs that's on the new record.

Over the summer I pulled out a bunch of my acoustic guitars and was just fooling around and a whole bunch of songs just started generating, just kind of out of nowhere. Sometime in the late fall I started doing acoustic demos at the Sonic Youth studio and maybe around January, Steve Shelley and the bass player, Irwin Menkin, came in and started playing with me on some demos with a rhythm section, and it just kind of built from there, really. The three of us tracked most of the basics for the record, and then had all the different players that are on it come in after that and we mixed it in July.

How much of the album ended up being acoustic?
It's eight songs with a full band and two songs with pretty much acoustic guitar only. I've always been an acoustic guitar player and I've pretty much continued to play acoustic guitar throughout all of the Sonic Youth periods. My material for Sonic Youth often started on acoustic guitar. What was refreshing about this was just to see all these songs sprout and actually kind of follow each other down this road and actually get completed. I've got millions of tapes of half-completed songs and for some reason, at this point, I had the energy to take them all the way through to the end.

Why do you think that is? Because with Sonic Youth you only had a couple songs per record, and this is the first time you've done an entire album's worth of song-oriented music.
Over the last couple years Sonic Youth has slowed down markedly, just because we've all been working on our own projects and I guess I was just starting to feel a little bit antsy or something. These songs started to come out and Sonic Youth wasn't really working – we worked on this film soundtrack, and I guess I should say this is all before everything that's been going on with Thurston and Kim came to light, really. We'd been in a period of agreed slowdown for a couple years where we were all working on independent projects, whether it be art or writing or other music projects, and they just started popping out with no other avenue, no other music was really happening of that kind. I was doing a lot of improvised music but I wasn't really doing any song-based music and these songs just started to come out. It seemed like the right time to give in to them.

How does your songwriting process with Sonic Youth differ from how you made this record?
Sonic Youth has a very democratic process for the most part. It almost doesn't matter who brings in an initial idea, everything gets worked over by the band, and kind of co-written by everyone in the end because everyone's ideas get contributed to it. And I think that we would all agree that when we make Sonic Youth music it has a very particular character and it's unlike anything any of us do on our own and that's partly because of the way it's created, which is literally that, everyone is involved in the writing process, everyone's contributing ideas and everyone's got the ability to say, "No, that part's not right, we've got to change it and do it like this", you know, or whatever it is. So that's the main difference. On a project like this, I'm pretty much making all of the decisions and calling most of the shots which is not to say that there is not an incredible amount of input from a lot of different musicians.

Why have you always had the least number of vocal tracks, out of the three singers in Sonic Youth?
I don't know, it's kind of always been the case. I guess from the beginning Thurston and Kim were the dominant singers in the band and although I was singing in bands previously, I guess I mainly deferred to them a lot in terms of who was singing the bulk of the songs. I think to some degree it was Thurston's initial concept of the band and I really just deferred to the two of them as somehow stronger singers in a way, or just more dominant singers.

You just came back from a tour of South America with Sonic Youth and as you said, Kim and Thurston just recently broke up. How did that affect that tour? Was it something that had been going on for a while, or was this a sudden thing for you?
Well, it's not as sudden for me as it's been in terms of the press and what not. Actually, the tour went really well. It really didn't affect it all that much. It was a pretty good tour overall. I mean, there was a little bit of tiptoeing around and some different situations with the traveling– you know, they're not sharing a room anymore or anything like that. I would say in general the shows went really well. It kind of remains to be seen at this point what happens to the future. I think they are certainly the last shows for a while and I guess I'd just leave it at that.

Are you optimistic about the future of the band?
I'm feeling optimistic about the future no matter what happens at this point. I mean, every band runs its course. We've been together way longer than any of us ever imagined would happen and it's been for the most part an incredibly pleasurable ride. There's still a lot of stuff we're going to continue to do. There's tons and tons of archival projects and things like that that are still going on, so there are so many ways in which we are tied to each other for the future both musically and in other ways. I'm just happy right now to let the future take its course and I guess I'm kind of thankful that I've got this other project that kind of came about on its own. It wasn't kind of like, well, "Oh the band is ending for a while and I've got to figure out what to do." It kind of naturally happened in the course of things so that was a nice way for that to come about.  I played my first show the day after Kim and Thurston announced [their separation.] That was completely weird.


Do you think you'll be playing any of your Sonic Youth songs when you tour for this album?
I think so. I think we're gonna try and work up eventually some of the lesser-known ones, or older ones, not like the "Hey Joni"'s or "Eric Trip"'s, but some of the ones that really didn't get played that much. We're talking about a couple things right now.

What in pop culture have you been into over the past year?
There's been definitely a few major revelations this year, this Paul Thek show at the Guggenheim Museum. He was sort of a hippy artist from the Sixties who was just doing this incredible work, with ideas of community and participation. It's actually something that I've been doing in a lot of in my other musical activities. I do a collaborative piece with my wife Leah Singer that's film and music based, and we've been using a lot of local musicians and volunteers for the pieces. 

I really liked the Jean-Luc Godard movie, Film Socialisme. That's sort of a weird, left field one, but I really liked that. I just saw that movie Drive, and I liked that. I liked some aspects of it, I should say. It still felt a little Hollywood-y, and I still almost didn't believe Ryan Gosling in that role totally. He kinda grew into it,  but there was a little bit of him still being this pretty boy Hollywood actor. I felt like I wanted an even more anonymous person in the role. But I thought it was a pretty classy movie. I liked that Godard movie because I love his work and it was cool to see him return to form like that, see him make a movie that threw everything, including Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye, into the scenario. That's pretty cool.

You used the phrase "return to form," and that's a phrase that comes up quite a lot in reviews of older artists. As a person who has been making records for 30 years, how do you respond when you see people say, "Oh, it was a return to form for Sonic Youth"?
It was one of those terms that just slipped out of my mouth right now without being very accurate. "Return to form" kind of implies someone that has gone off-form and then comes back. And that's often the case. But there's certain artists, like, I don't know if Neil Young's record came out this past year or not, but I really liked that last record because I really like what he does. He's someone who continues to amaze me. His solo acoustic show at Avery Fisher Hall or wherever it was was just a mind-blowing experience, to see this guy who's 40-plus years deep into a career and still be able to come out with brand new songs and some classic old nuggets, and play the most mind-blowing show where it doesn't matter that he's Neil Young. Anybody who came out and played that show would've been absolutely impressive. It's just mind-blowing that somebody like that could still be teaching me about what performance can be.

Everybody has their off-periods and some people may drift in and out of Sonic Youth's music the way that others would drift in and out of Godard or Neil Young, but the artists I hold near and dear are the artists that I love to look at the entire arc of their career, that I'm interested in following down whatever highway they go, even if they're not successful. At this point, I guess Sonic Youth is in that position, at least longevity wise. We had a career of 30 years and there's always people who come up to you and say, "Oh, I was really into you guys during the time of Sister or Goo, or Washing Machine or whatever." Then there's other people who follow the entire career, who aren't super interested in every record, as I may not be super interested in every Neil record or Godard film. We had this song a couple records ago called "Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style." It was really about this notion that it's not only youth that needs to be inspiring, but you take great inspiration from your artists who have a long career, who continue to put out in amazing ways. That's super exciting, as far as I'm concerned.

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