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It’s the Way I Play: An Interview with Lee Ranaldo

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Transcription by Cameron Billon

Guitarist-singer Lee Ranaldo’s song “Hey Joni” was one of the highlights of Sonic Youth’s 1988 LP, Daydream Nation, the band’s double-album magnum opus that the Library of Congress deemed was so culturally, aesthetically, and historically significant that they chose to preserve it in the National Recording Registry in 2005.

Ranaldo’s song—which he recorded with his bandmates guitarist-singer Thurston Moore, bassist-singer Kim Gordon, and drummer Steve Shelley—is about Joni Mitchell, one of his favorite musicians.

When listened to in the context of Ranaldo’s latest solo record and his first with his backing band The Dust—Last Night on Earth—“Hey Joni” has taken on a new meaning. Like Mitchell repeatedly did before him, Ranaldo has made a warm, intricate record, full of musical complexities and deeply personal, poetic lyrics.

Last Night on Earth proves that Ranaldo is one of our great singer-songwriters—and, in so doing, it preserves the elaborate musical structures and extended jams that made Sonic Youth so special. It’s one of this year’s best records.

SEM was grateful to have the opportunity to chat with Ranaldo about the special talents of The Dust (which features Shelley on drums, Alan Licht on guitar, and Tim Lüntzel on bass), his undying interest in alternate tunings, lyric writing, the Occupy Movement, Jean-Luc Godard, the making of Last Night on Earth, and much more.

SEM: I’d like to start with a question I’ve always wanted to ask you. Why do you have the Jasper Johns target on your amp?

LR: When it happened, it seemed like a good and appropriate thing to do. The target for him was part of his early paintings, where he was trying to avoid three dimensionality in painting. His idea was a painting is a flat surface, so why don’t I paint things that are also flat, like a target or a flag?

He made a bunch of variants on that painting, and I just found them very influential. He made some with little sculptural boxes on the top that opened up, and you could look in to these little plaster faces and things.

Somehow it seemed like, on the one hand, a kind of a funny comment on the idea of art rock—to paint a kind of modern art on the amp. It just seemed to work.

It was also a nod to the way hippie musicians used to tie-dye their amps or change the front grill to keep them more appealing.

Somehow that image was very important to me and stayed with me.

SEM: So targets aside, let’s talk about the new record, Last Night on Earth. I wanted to ask you about The Dust and why you thought it was the time to form a band at this point.

LR: When I made the first record, everything was kind of sketched out in a way. I wrote the songs on acoustic guitar and tracked them with Steve and the bass player of that record Irwin Menken. I wasn’t really thinking beyond actually making the record. It was kind late in the process when I thought, “Oh, we should actually figure out a way to go on tour and play these songs.”

Steve and Alan joined me—they’d been on the record—joined me in going on the road and, over the course of a bunch of gigs over about a year or a little over a year, we added Tim Lüntzel on bass. And then we solidified as a band.

Steve and I were always coming out of working so steadily with Sonic Youth during all that time that it never occurred to me to want to be in another band. I’ve collaborated with a lot of musicians on and off, but I never really thought of the idea of wanting to be in a band with another group of people because it takes a big commitment and it takes a while to establish a relationship.

So us playing together for over the last year before Between the Times and the Tides came out solidified us as a band; once we felt it more as a band feeling, we decided to give it a name, so we tossed around names for months and months until we found one that everybody seemed to like and could really get behind.

This record in general was made in a much more of band manner. We spent most of the winter woodshedding the songs in the studio—kind of just playing them over and over and working on the arrangement and things. So it just felt like it grew into a being a band.


SEM: Tim in particular is a very lyrical bass player, very melodic. I was wondering if you could talk about the song “By the Window” and his performance on that. I think it’s just incredible.  

LR: Tim is a very amazing bass player, and he’s been known around Brooklyn for about the last decade or so. He’s played on a few records I’ve produced, and he’s worked with Steve.

I love the melodic style of bass playing, and it’s been really fun to play with him because he’s a very versatile player. For instance, we’re able with this band to do something I was never able to do before: all acoustic shows with Tim playing standup bass and Alan and me playing acoustic guitars. It’s a change of pace, but it’s worked out pretty well.

Tim brought a lot of different things to the record in terms of melodic feel and the way that he locked in with Steve’s drumming on a lot of the songs.

A couple of the songs on this record required getting comfortable enough with the music to allow for extended instrumental interplay to happen, and “By the Window” is one of those, where there’s a middle section where we are kind of feeling each other out musically—and it’s one of the ones Tim brought a lot of stuff to.

SEM: He doesn’t always just play the root note and instead plays some melodic passages that remind me of The Beach Boys or The Beatles.

LR: (Laughter.) Well, those are good references!

SEM: I think those references have to do with how warm the record sounds and how melodic it is. In fact, I’ve been listening to you for more than half my life, and I’ve never heard you be so vocally melodic before. Does that come from writing this mainly on acoustic?

LR: Maybe a little bit, although songs like “Mote” and “Eric’s Trip” were written on an acoustic guitar.

I think I’m just finding my way more into vocal melody because I’m singing more with the band—singing falsettos and singing a full album. I’m enjoying exercising the melodic side of things. One of the most enjoying aspects is being able to sing so much, and it’s just the way the songs have fallen into place in a way that I’m enjoying getting deeper into that side of things. The chord progressions are pretty melodic to begin with, although this is not trying to be a noise band or anything like that.


SEM: I also wanted to ask you about the alternate tunings for which you’re known. Are there many on this record?

LR: I haven’t really added them up, but there’s probably four or five or six of them on the record. They just keep evolving as I keep playing. I’ve brought a bunch of new tunings to the last record, and I’ve been trying to solidify some of them by writing more songs in them.

So there are some songs in this record with the same tunings from the last record, and then there are some new tunings. It’s a process that continues to happen. It does get a little sticky when you go out on the road because you need to have enough guitars to handle these things. With Sonic Youth, that was always easy, because we had big budgets and big crews to sort of cart around all the guitars. With a band like this, it’s a little stickier in terms of just how many guitars we can have out with us in the road. So it kind of establishes the balance in terms of how many tunings I’m using. We’ve got a bunch of guitars that get tuned on the side of the stage.

It’s the way I play. The way I enjoy playing is working in tunings; there’s just something immediate about it. When you start that, it just sets what you do apart from 99.9% of guitar players that play in standard tuning

SEM: I agree, and I think it lends an emotion to your songs that I don’t find anywhere else. It’s just so evocative.

LR: Well, that’s cool!

SEM: How does that process start? When you decide to write something, do you mess around with an alternate tuning and then proceed from there? What tends to happen first?

LR: It usually starts by just sitting around with an acoustic guitar and kind of strumming it, twisting the pegs, just listening, and occasionally putting fingers down somewhere. When you’re working with an open tuning, you don’t have any standard chords to work from, so it’s all kind of exploration and like a “seek and find” kind of thing. You put your fingers down to see what works and what combinations sound good or which open strings ringing adds to what you’re doing. So usually it starts just like that, you just start clunking around on the guitar and twisting the pegs until something sounds right, and then you just follow your ears from there.

SEM: So following your ears must lead to the discovery of an emotional tone—maybe like you’ve hit on a tuning that you know is going to affect people emotionally.

LR: I guess it does to some degree. I mean that’s what you respond to. I mean sometimes it’s about finding a few chords that go together in a nice progression, so you have a sequence of something building that sounds like it could turn into a song or it sounds like a song.

Sometimes there’s an emotional character that comes out right away, and you get a few lines of lyrics that end up defining what the song is about. They just kind of string from the chords you’re hearing and kind of lock the whole thing together. That’s kind of the way it works the best.


SEM: Yeah, well let’s return to some of the songs on the new record. “Home Chds”—was that one written in an alternate tuning?

LR: That one’s written in a very common alternate tuning—it’s called open D. It’s kind of as if you took the shape when your finger’s in E chord and tune the guitar so that it plays that shape without your fingers on it. You drop down a step to D, so when you hit the guitar without any fingers on it, it sounds like a D chord.

It’s a very common tuning, and it’s pretty much the very first alternate tuning I learned back when I was a teenager. It’s been used a lot by various people, like old blues players like the Reverend Gary Davis. People on the West Coast were using that tuning in the folky 70s on songs like Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” A bunch of other songs are in that tuning.

An older cousin taught me that tuning when I was young, so I was experimenting with some open tunings from a very early age. I hadn’t revisited that tuning in a long time, and one of my sons who was 12 at the time a couple years ago was starting to take guitar lessons, and the teacher was teaching him the open D to start because when you’re learning you don’t really know how to do anything and this way, as soon as you strum the guitar, you have some pleasing sound. And you can put your finger across it in a barre across all the strings at once, and you get all these other chords. So it the teacher thought it was an easy way to start kids off. The guitar that my son was using was in that tuning.

“Home Chrds” pretty much almost immediately popped out. The chord progression came almost immediately. And the first couple lines about waiting for the revolution to come came out as well. And it just kind of built from there. It’s a funny one where I hadn’t used that tuning in many many years because it was a common tuning, and an easy one to tune a normal guitar to. You don’t have to restring the guitar or anything like that, and it just kind of happened like that.

SEM: It’s a powerful song lyrically as well because it connects the personal to the political. It’s about Occupy, but it also has a love song element. Would you talk about the lyrics?

LR: It was sparked by my experiences of what was going on with Occupy in New York. I’m kind of a child of the 60s and 70s, when you knew the idea of revolution was in the air and the idea of changing the world for the better. It just felt, after all this time, that even in the media’s eyes, it hadn’t really gone away. But in some of the media’s eyes, it was a limited thing. Just kind of looking back at those years in that regard, you like how much political change was really affected and you notice how much wasn’t. Taking it from the more global aspect of looking at it in a political sense of, “Was there any change or revolution happening?”

Then you’re playing between that pole and the pole of a personal relationship or a more intimate relationship with someone. And people’s relationships go through sorts of revolutions, too, if they last. It’s just applying them to the micro and the macro, looking at the greater world view of protest across the last few decades. Just going from that worldview to sort of a more personal situation.

SEM: What do you make of Occupy now? Do you think it’s been successful in its own way?

LR: I think it’s been really successful in a lot of way in bringing a revolutionary consciousness to our modern society. I keep saying that it’s the most important movement of kind of Leftist-thinking nonviolence that I can remember since I was a young kid, and what’s most important is that the movement isn’t asking for minor changes or little bitty things, but it’s asking for such massive changes that you know on the one hand might be impossible to achieve, but on the other hand is the kind of stuff that needs to be discussed and demanded to really move things forward in any kind of ground shaking way. So I find it really important because it has put all these things out there. I don’t feel like it’s ceased at all; I feel like it’s kind of gone underground a little bit at the moment, but even putting forth the whole notion of the 99% and all the other demands or issues that Occupy was putting on the table sparked a global discussion of these issues. If nothing else, it was amazing on that level.


SEM: Your work in Sonic Youth and as a solo artist that has always inspired me challenges people. It creates cognitive dissonance in that the music is sometimes dissonant. Do you think that there is a way that there could be an aesthetic replication almost of revolution? As pertaining to Occupy?

LR: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure. It’s nice to imagine that an artist’s work reflects your interests and things that are happening out in the greater world beyond just your personal four walls. It’s always hard for me to assesses how that works. You like to feel that as an artist, you’re talking to issues both intimate and more universal or global. I’ve found that I get that kind of stuff from people that interest me.

SEM: So who are some of those people? I know that Godard is very important to you…

LR: Yeah, Godard in particular has been a huge and lasting interest and influence. I think in the history of 20th-century cinema, certainly, he really shook things up in a major way. Basically the thing that I love is that he brought a world of ideas to cinema in a very clear-cut way. It’s not always clear sometimes; it’s very obscure.

It’s kind of like tuning your guitar to open—using cinema in a very different way, in a didactic way, almost in a discursive way that you’d find in a college lecture or something like that. He stretched the boundaries of what cinema could be, which is really what you want from your great artists: that they’re spreading what your vision is just through their vision.

So someone like Godard or Stan Brakhage, with whom I’ve been involved a lot. Alan and I have this band called Text of Light that plays improvisational music with Brakhage films, and that’s important.

And lots of different music over the years. These days I’ve been getting more into a singer-songwriter mode of re-exploring in a kind of personal rotation a lot of different solo musicians—people like Leonard Cohen and old favorites like Joni Mitchell to Neil Young and Bob Dylan to modern people like Bill Callahan or Chan Marshall or a bunch of less well-known singer-songwriters who are working today whose records I really like. Across the board—painters too, artists—I find great inspiration in all those areas.

I’m trying to work in a lot of those areas as well. I’ve kind of always been someone who’s worked in visual arts and language arts as well as music. So, yeah, you look for inspiration where you can find it.

SEM: I’m interested in what you said about Leonard Cohen. Are you reading any of his prose works at all?

LR: Yeah, I’ve read a couple of his things. I’ve read a couple of his poetry books and Beautiful Losers. He started out as a writer; he was a writer long before he was a singer, and I really respect that stuff. He’s brought a certain kind of literary style to his writing that’s really interesting to me

SEM: I’ve noticed a change in your lyric writing. To me, it’s a lot less abstract on this record than it has been in the past. It’s a lot more specific. Was that intentional?

LR: I’ve had people comment on both sides of that coin. I was talking to someone the other day who was saying that they found the lyrics to be really abstract. I’m with you. I find that I’m getting a little bit more specific. Maybe the idea of writing an entire record from my perspective rather than, for instance, in Sonic Youth getting to sing one or two songs. Sometimes being able to sing more songs opens up different facets where the lyrics kind of play off each other and expand into a bigger picture. In general, when I started writing Between the Times and Tides—in the past I’ve occasionally mined some of my more abstract poetry that I write for song lyrics and tried to keep things really abstract—but with that record, since it felt more like a singer-songwriter record because there wasn’t a band at that point, I wanted to keep the lyrics very personal. At first I was going to pull more stuff from my poetry, and in the end, I just decided to write the songs kind of more straight and try and address things more clearly after years of trying to figure out maybe the most abstract way I could address a certain thought or issue. I guess I wanted to make these records a little more personal and plain spoken.

SEM: Are there tracks from the past that might be an example of your abstract writing?

LR: I find that there’s always a subject of every song no matter how abstract it gets. So, I mean, it’s more of abstracted ideas that are still based on a subject. I think back on songs from Sonic Youth’s records like “Eric’s Trip.” It was based on this guy from the Warhol scene: Eric Emerson. I took the first verse almost verbatim from Warhol’s Chelsea movie, when Eric’s talking.

“Mote” was written in response to Sylvia Plath’s poetry. There’s a poem by her that’s called “The Eye-Mote” about getting a speck of dust in your eye as a metaphor for greater forms of vision. I used my enjoyment of that poem for the basis behind that song.

“Karen Koltrane” is kind of based on somebody I knew many years ago. It’s loosely based on someone that kind of drifted through my life one way or another.

So you know as abstract as they might be—I’m trying to think of one that’s really more purely abstract, but I can’t seem to find one—at least I know what I’m talking about or trying to dance around in each one.


SEM: What about “Skip Tracer” from the Washing Machine album? That’s Burroughs right?

LR: Yeah, but I always talked about the idea of a skip tracer, and the first part of that song—about the girl on stage who’s kind of whacked out of her head—was based on a particular gig that Thurston and I went to in L.A. a year before I wrote that song, so it’s based on a specific person and her performance and what was going on and reading poetry out of a notebook over distorted guitar. It’s kind of all based in fact

SEM: That song just has an incredible melody. I remember getting that back in ’95 and thinking—again!—Lee should sing more. What’s it like singing more? Has it been hard to build up the stamina to do a full show as a lead vocalist?

LR: No, it really hasn’t. I’ve always been a singer. With Sonic Youth, it seemed like it was more appropriate for Thurston and Kim’s vision to be more upfront. That’s the way it all shook out in the beginning, but I’ve been someone who’s sung since I was a kid in one form or another. And I really like to sing, so that’s one aspect of this.

It’s been a little weird, especially the year or so going out on the road and people would come not knowing to expect. Or they’d come knowing you were in Sonic Youth. It’s like maybe they got some of what I was doing through Sonic Youth, but it was always mixed in with what everyone else was doing and this was more fully a presentation of me.

It was easy for me to get adjusted to singing a whole set, and I think some of the early audiences were surprised at maybe how melodic or how lyrical some of it was. I wasn’t trying to replicate in any way things that were going on with Sonic Youth. I wanted this music to be a break into a new situation for me.

It’s kind of like after 30 years of playing pretty intense music with Sonic Youth and on other projects—playing very abstract, sort of mental music—I wanted this to be kind of a simplification and kind of a giving props or respect to, like I’ve said before, some of the singer-songwriters that I grew up on that really influenced me in every period of my guitar playing.