How Lee Ranaldo Throwing Chairs at a Wall Became a Song About Love
Lee Ranaldo and Rosalía collaborator Raül Refree are extremely talented guitarists, but for their new song “Light Years Out,” they turned to an old cassette of Ranaldo throwing chairs against the wall for instrumentation instead.
“We found some tapes at the studio in New York that Lee recorded many years ago,” Refree tells Rolling Stone. Ranaldo says he created them nearly 20 years ago for a tribute album to Japanese noise band Hanatarash on a cassette player made by the Library of Congress for blind people. “With this cassette and some of the others we found, we created this texture. It was a fresh experience for us,” Refree adds.
“Light Years Out” is the second single off the pair’s upcoming album, Names of North End Women, out February 21st via Mute; the title track dropped at the end of 2019. This is the duo’s second collaboration — following 2017’s Electric Trim — and marks a decided turn toward the experimental.
“The idea with the last record was to take my music — which has been, for so long, in Sonic Youth and after Sonic Youth, based around this format of a rock band — and expand it,” Ranaldo says. “Put the music in some different settings. When we got together to make the follow-up, we thought we would start in a similar vein. I came in with all these demos and we stockpiled all this modern, electronic beat-making equipment that Raül had been working with in the last year, and we just went off on a different path.”
“Light Years Out” is what Ranaldo calls “the weirdest” song on the record. It starts off with a voiceover, a snippet of a poem Ranaldo had on hand: “I wanna look like a man that has nowhere to go,” Ranaldo intones. “Nowhere he’s gotta be. At large, in the 21st century. Light years from your smile, a light rain is falling on my head.” Then the song starts to glitch out.
“We wanted to build it from something very sparse: just a voice,” Ranaldo says. “That was an exciting idea to us. There’s then a lot of bits of fragmentary dialogue. We cut the lyrics to the point where they’re kind of unintelligible in a way — like you’re listening to a radio and it’s going in and out of focus. You hear stuff falling downstairs and clanking and voices breathing heavy. Then it builds to a point where the beat drops and it becomes more conventional.”
“This song is about the possibilities of love, lovers and loving in our expanding universe,” he adds. “About the bonds between people and how they strengthen and loosen.”
The accompanying video tends toward the experimental as well. Ranaldo teamed up with an old classmate from Binghamton University in New York, Matt Schlanger, who happened to have a basement full of analogue video gear in upstate New York. It’s a simple affair, featuring a glitched-out version of Ranaldo’s face.
Ranaldo and Refree approached the album-making process in a collage-y fashion. They mixed electronic with analogue, new recordings with old. They also tapped past collaborator, author Jonathan Lethem, for lyrics. “Rather than be linear or narrative about the lyrics, I would prop up a whole bunch of sheets on music stands — some of Jonathan’s, some of Raul’s, some of mine — and just kind of freestyle a bit and see what worked best with these tracks,” Ranaldo says.
They also tried to hew closely to the concept of the album, inherent in its title: Names of North End Women. Ranaldo came up with the title after wandering through a neighborhood in his wife’s hometown — the North End of Winnipeg, Manitoba — and seeing a series of streets named after women: Lydia, Kate, Dagmar, Harriett, Juno, etc. These women became a metaphor for how people pass in and out of one’s life. Someone named “Angela” crops up in “Light Years Out” — a woman the narrator lusts after.
“This album loosens the bonds from the idea of what songs can be, and both Raül and I are excited to see where we can push it further,” Ranaldo said in a statement.
Once the album releases this fall, the duo plan to hit the road for a brief European tour. There’s no word yet on U.S. dates.
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