As founding member of Sonic Youth and a constantly evolving creative presence, Lee Ranaldo is a pivotal figure in modern music.
In October last year, the music world mourned the decline of a marriage of two people they’d never met. As founding members of Sonic Youth, for many Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon had stood as figures of innovation, integrity and pure majesty at the heart of alternative music since time immemorial, and the news of their separation threw the future of arguably the most important band of a generation into doubt. Having negotiated punk, grunge, indie and any other genre the world cared to throw at them, were Sonic Youth on the verge of finally being floored?
Yet while the publicity swelled, Lee Ranaldo, fellow co-founder and equally responsible for forging one of the most extraordinary back catalogues in music, was quietly going about his business. “I can’t say I really had any knowledge of what was going on between them personally while I was working on this record”, he tells us. “I think it would have been hard for me to take the approach of ‘well, my band’s going to stop for a while, I’d better make a solo record.’ We weren’t working much over the last couple of years, everyone’s been working on their solo projects, and this became the thing I ended up focusing on. But I’m kind of glad I was in the dark over everything while I was making this.”
The project he’s referring to is Between The Times And The Tides, an album which, after 30 years and at least eight records by the name ‘Lee Ranaldo’, he’s content to call “my first true solo record”. It’s something which came about very casually. From an invitation to play an acoustic set came a song, Lost. From that inchoate seed, further songs began to sprout and quite, quite naturally, the record began to take shape around the acoustic guitar. From a man so freely associated with an iconically detuned Fender Jazzmaster hanging from his neck, orchestrating wave after wave of divine feedback, this may appear jarring. But he’s quick to point out that working acoustically has been the backbone of his path to becoming one of the most distinctive guitarists of a generation. “I’ve always been an acoustic guitar player from my very earliest days, and that never ceased.”
While one might presume that much of Sonic Youth’s material came as a result of experimenting in the practice room, Ranaldo reveals that isn’t the case. “All the way through Sonic Youth’s career I would play acoustic guitars at home and write songs acoustically, and some of the material I would bring in to Sonic Youth would have been written that way, songs like Hey Joni and Eric’s Trip and Mote. It’s never been on public display very much, but it’s always been in the background and it’s always been a great love.” A man who will forever be inextricably linked to the pushing of the guitar’s sonic possibilities describes those instruments in the album’s line notes as ‘simple stringed things’.
In fact, one of the songs on the album, Fire Island (Phases) is in standard tuning, entirely at odds with his entire ethos as a guitar player and the first time on record since Sonic Youth’s 1982 debut. Yet with Lee Ranaldo, guitar playing can never be truly ‘standard’. “I wouldn’t usually have a normally tuned guitar around the house, but one of my sons has been learning guitar and I tuned up a guitar for him to practice while we were out on Fire Island (an island off Long Island). One day I picked it up, as I would any of my other guitars and I guess I’d kind of forgotten that it was in normal tuning because for me, if I have a standard tuned guitar I revert to the very early stuff, playing G and C and all these chords. In this case I picked it up and started making up chords and it took me about a half an hour to realise that I was using a normal guitar.” The piece which resulted is a fascinating piece and perhaps the most reminiscent of Ranaldo’s day job on the album, opening as a traditional and engrossing rock out, before morphing into a delicate acoustic number. “I wanted the beginning part to feel like you’ve just opened the door to a club and there’s a band onstage in full swing”, is his explanation for the song’s duality.
Ranaldo has never restricted himself to the mastery of those simple stringed things, repeatedly turning his hand to the ever complex written word. Having contributed to several publications and completed numerous collections of poetry, one would think he would be champing at the bit to have an entire body of work to apply his words to. Yet perhaps it’s due to this expectation, as well as a lifetime’s habit of composing musical landscapes to be sung over at a later date, that this task proved the most daunting. “I was pretty confident about the music, but I was a bit more apprehensive about how to approach it lyrically; not vocally because I was confident that I’d be able to sing well, but I really wanted the lyrics to be … well, good. I’m happy with the way they turned out, but there was definitely a period where I was wondering where I was going to get lyrics for all these songs from!”
The time spent pondering the words to carry songs with vocals very much in the foreground has paid dividends. Delivery unfailingly passionate and on point, this is a genuinely emotive collection of songs. Yet with the knowledge that Ranaldo’s wife, Leah Singer, contributed vocals to the album and acted as a constant source of creative support and collaboration, it’s surprising to hear the kind of melancholy, lovelorn lyrics which define a song like Stranded. “I think they’re just emotional states that are being suggested”, Lee elaborates. “You get into character, they’re not all autobiographical or anything like that. There’s a lot of me in all of them, but they’re not in any immediate sense indicative of my emotional state. You put your heart into them, but they’re talking about the human condition in all its forms rather than any personal or confessional statements.”
The lyrics can also veer sharply from the intensely personal to the political, particularly on Shouts, where spoken dialogue on the subject of riots is interspersed with Ranaldo imploring: “Everybody’s shouting / there’s shots out on the streets / I can’t hear the words they’re saying / could these be the sacred stories? / A caustic wind inside the walls / Harsh words rain down upon us all.” It’s a subject matter that is widely relatable. “Shouts addresses the Occupy movement and things like that, the worldwide movement starting with the Arab Spring. I was pretty swept up in the whole thing and when it began here in New York it was very close to where I live so I was spending a lot of time there and taking photos and finding out a lot about why it was happening and what people were doing there. It’s really inspiring to see this kind of leftist, peaceful movement arise – well, not peaceful everywhere – but to see this movement for change arise on such a huge scale.”
Lee Ranaldo the poet has made inroads beyond his and his band’s work. On a nostalgically hazy summer’s evening during Glastonbury 2010, his face shone down from the giant screens on either side of The Cribs’ performance. His contribution to Be Safe from 2007’s Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever played a vital part in what was Wakefield’s finest’s most thought-provoking and ambitious song to date. “I went in there with a bunch of words not knowing what was going to happen, it could have fallen flat on its face, but it turned into something really cool. It was a true collaboration in the end and we had a lot of fun putting it together. I think you have to give them a lot of credit for pushing themselves that far.”
Having given his seal of approval to those scruffy young Brits, it soon becomes apparent that Ranaldo is as enthusiastic about music, be it old or new, as ever. When asked to pick out some favourites, he struggles to be reductive: “I’m constantly listening to so much music that it’s a real challenge to know who to choose … let me check my turntable, see what’s been cookin’ up over here.” Having revealed some old American favourites, as well as complementing Tune-Yards (“very experimental and inspiring in its nature”) and several New York-based artists, it becomes apparent that Ranaldo is simply one of those people. One of those people who never stops looking for new artists, for new inspiration and for new ideas. And surely that’s the only way to still be making wonderful music a lifetime since starting out.
And so, to the question: What does the future hold for the great Sonic Youth?
“Our careers have been entwined for so long that there’s no doubt in my mind work between the four of us will continue on some level no matter what. There are archival projects in place right now that are still going on and there’s all kinds of history behind us we have to be the guardians of, in a way. It’s kinda’ funny because it’s almost been 30 years to the day from the time we started and you know, it’s a pretty good long run and I look forward to whatever happens in the future with us, but we’ll be tied to each other and working together on one level for years to come.”
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Between The Times and the Tides is out now on Matador
Words: Geraint Davies
Illustration: James Wilson