There's a scene in Hello Hello Hello – a documentary about the making of Lee Ranaldo's new LP, Electric Trim – that shows him playing an electric guitar with a violin bow as it hangs from a ceiling, droning strange, amorphous feedback.
It's an extension of a technique that dates back to 1986. "In Sonic Youth, at the end of 'Expressway to Yr. Skull,' we'd tap on the backs of our guitars to get this low-level feedback, and if I leaned forward, and the guitar hung off my body, it would resonate differently," he says, noting that he also drew inspiration from composer Steve Reich's Pendulum Music. "I hung the guitar at a little gig I did with my wife [artist Leah Singer], and it just turned into this really magical thing. I could play it with the violin bow and hit it with mallets and sticks. Now I've got a wireless rig and I can carry it around the space and walk through the crowd."
While Ranaldo, who made his name as Sonic Youth's soft-voiced guitar savage, still enjoys these sorts of noise experiments – there's some light guitar bowing on Electric Trim – he explored a different direction on the album. "These days, most of my intense energy is going into songwriting," he says. But what he's doing on the album is much more than that.
For roughly a year, Ranaldo traveled between New York and Barcelona working with producer and collaborator Raül "Refree" Fernandez on what he describes as a true studio album, a moody, complex recording that couldn't easily be replicated by a standard-format rock band. It's the sort of record that could only be conceived by spending hours behind a mixing desk layering sounds on his skeletal acoustic recordings – he cites Pet Sounds, Revolver and The Dark Side of the Moon as conceptual examples.
Ultimately, Electric Trim – Ranaldo's 12th solo full-length – became a collection of relatively traditional songs (which, on the surface, seems unusual for Ranaldo) with smart, dense arrangements sweetened with marimba, electronics, banjo, trumpets and flugelhorns, among other instruments. He collaborated with novelist Jonathan Lethem on some of the album's lyrics, creating scenes of longing, soul searching and parsing the meaning of love, and he brought in collaborators like singer Sharon Van Etten, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, Oneida drummer Kid Millions and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, among others, to realize them. It's a departure from the music he made with Sonic Youth, and it's exactly what he wants to be doing at this point in his life.
"I'm 61, and I've been in a well-known band for 30 years, so why not start in on some whole new thing at this point?" he says. "I've been involved in a lot of amazing records over the years, and this record goes right up there as one of the most fun ones I've ever worked on. That's a good place to be right now."
Since Sonic Youth reached a stalemate in 2011 – when the separation and eventual divorce of members Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore blockaded the band from continuing – Ranaldo has divided his time between working on musical projects, creating visual art and being a dad. When he speaks to Rolling Stone, he's bringing one of his teenage sons to the University of Toronto to study international relations, cinema and history. "My wife's from Canada and we're Canadian citizens," Ranaldo says, "so Canadian schools are a really good deal for us."
He learned how to balance fatherhood and being a musician after the birth of his first son in the mid-Eighties. "I had kids and Thurston and Kim had a kid," he says. "We had really strong family lives in this completely weirdo band that played all this extreme or experimental stuff. We were singing about Charles Manson or whatever, and people thought we'd be these really twisted, drug-addled crazies and they'd find out, 'Oh, these guys are normal and live in regular homes.' A lot of our peers from the early period were truly heroin-addicted, crazy freaks and a lot of those people burned out in one way or another in the Eighties and fell by the wayside. But for us, the music could be as weird as we wanted it to get but we had to start from a place of stability to make it all work."
In addition to his family and music lives, Ranaldo also spends a lot of time drawing. He has a couple of art shows opening in Europe this fall to display his illustrations of open roads. He also spends time writing and cycling when he's not bouncing between musical projects. (In addition to Electric Trim, he also has been working on music for a movie being shot in Brazil about a rock band.)
"Since Sonic Youth stopped, economically, it's gotten to be a bit more of a challenge – there's no doubt about that – but it's also been such a rewarding period that we're managing to keep everything together and still do work," he says. "With a family, you have to fit it all together, and luckily it's been fitting together pretty well."
Ranaldo's base in recent years has become the studio Sonic Youth built in the late Nineties in New Jersey, where they recorded their final LP, The Eternal. With Moore now living in London and Gordon in L.A., Ranaldo and Shelley have been using the space, dubbed Echo Canyon West, most frequently. Ranaldo recorded his 2012 solo LP, Last Night on Earth, there as he was beginning to feel fissures within Sonic Youth, and Shelley has used it for various recordings. It houses the band's archives; they hope to put out a remastered DVD of their Screaming Fields of Sonic Love home video soon, and Ranaldo hopes to release a concert film from their Evol tour in 1986 and, possibly, compilations of live recordings of songs from their latter-era LPs. And he has a painting studio there. "Some of the recording gear is in need of repair, so we're just trying to keep it going at the moment," Ranaldo says. "At some point, we're going to have just fold it in and sell everything off or something."
In the meantime, Echo Canyon West served as Ranaldo's U.S. base for Electric Trim when he and Refree weren't in Barcelona, where the producer lives. He'd met Refree when he made an album, Acoustic Dust, over a week in Spain in 2013. It contained stripped-down versions of songs from his first previous two solo LPs, and he found that he'd hit it off with the producer. "Toward the end of that record, I was doing the vocals, and he said, 'Man, I really love the way you sing, and I'd love to work on an record of new stuff with you,'" Ranaldo says.
For most of Electric Trim, it was just the two of them spending full days in the studio with no band around, as they fleshed out songs with samplers and drum machines, which was new to Ranaldo. "It felt like it was injecting some modern tone into my songwriting," he says. He also credits his lyrical collaboration with his longtime friend Lethem with pushing him into uncharted territory. "The record challenged me and was pretty experimental in a big way, just because it wasn't my normal working method in either music or lyrics," he says. "It was brand new on every level."
Mostly, they were trying to explore everything the studio had to offer, since it was chock full of instruments Sonic Youth had acquired but were not using. "Being a guy who was a geek with tape machines in the early days and really interested in how records get made, I was inspired in particular by how the Beatles were innovating when they were making those records late in their career, while using the studio in a maximal way," Ranaldo says. "I've always wanted to make a record like that. Sonic Youth came close when we did the Ciccone Youth Whitey Album, because we started that record with no preexisting ideas. We went into the studio and started trying new things and developing things."
Soon, Ranaldo found himself working in a way that never would have worked with Sonic Youth. "Sonic Youth was a collective," he says. "There's something fantastic about the idea of making music is a social activity. That interaction is a big part of it, and we had a very strong thing going on that level. When I started to have to make my own records, it was a little bit more like, 'OK, now I'm the director, I'm in charge of everything. Even putting [previous group] Dust together was looking to have new collaborators around me to give me input and help shape everything. I think now with Raül and Jonathan, I found a little core group of people that I can move forward with and keep that kind of social nature of the process."
They eventually brought in more musical collaborators, as documented in Hello Hello Hello, a film made by Ranaldo's friend Fred Riedel, who wanted to see how an album was made. In one scene, Cline holds an electronic device over his guitar strings to create a racket during the song "Electric Trim." In another, Van Etten sings the word "like" over and over again in "New Thing." Ranaldo's eldest son, Cody, played some electronics on the album, and Ranaldo also brought in Kid Millions to play drums when Refree suggested using a drummer other than Shelley to break him out of his comfort zone, since the Sonic Youth members had such a strong rapport. "There's a couple songs where Steve's playing drums in the chorus, Kid's playing drums in the verse and there's an electronic drum machine in the bridge," Ranaldo says. "It was all kind of in service of the songs and what the songs developed into. There was amazing stuff that Nels did that we left on the cutting-room floor because it didn't end up being what's best for the song. It was cool that in the end it was kind of egoless."
Despite all the levels to Electric Trim, Ranaldo is planning on using a pared-down ensemble when he hits the road this fall. "We're gonna start with the idea of building it around the acoustic guitar, which the songs are basically started from anyway, and it's going to be Raül on sampler, keyboard and electric guitar, and a percussionist rather than a full kit drummer," Ranaldo says. "We're going to approach this first tour more like in a chamber ensemble, and then we're going to back up to a full band as budgets and interest allows. I don't want it to evolve back into a rock band in the traditional sense. Why not try some different things at this point in time? I feel like I've got something special here, and it would be fun to push it in different directions rather than push it back into the same old direction."
Although Ranaldo bristles at a question about whether he feels a new freedom without Sonic Youth, he says he's happy exploring new territory. "I feel like, after 30 years of my radical electric guitar treatment," he says, "for me to be picking up an acoustic guitar is kind of an experimental project."