As the fate of Sonic Youth hangs in the balance, Lee Ranaldo gears up for his ninth solo album.


In 2004 Lee Ranaldo was voted the 33rd greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, placing joint with his Sonic Youth cohort Thurston Moore and topping an array of musicians as vast and talented as Link Wray, Pete Townsend, Frank Zappa, Tom Verlaine, Bert Jansch and Lou Reed. While the contention for these kinds of lists is obvious, it’s not a bad achievement for someone who has made a career out of deconstructing the conventionalities of guitar playing, both stylistically and with his unique tunings and modifications.

Ranaldo has now been a voracious and incessant artist at work for over thirty years, an avid consumer and collector of artistic endeavours as much as he is a limitless creator of them. While his achievements in the music world are well documented and the results omnipresent in the work of countless imitators, he too is a hugely successful artist – in the broadest sense of the word – film, multimedia, photography, producing, poetry and writing are just some of the areas in which Ranaldo has flourished. As he rather insightfully later tells me, “I came to NYC to be an artist but happened to end up with an electric guitar rather than a paint brush.” But he also points out, “but all of the various disciplines have been brewing in the mix – cinema, literature, visual art, sound art, song art, and I’ve pretty much kept working in all of them.

“I came to NYC wanting to lead a creative life,” he says, “that was the goal. It wasn’t money or fame, it was to be a life of creative endeavour and interesting company, which it has been thus far…”. Indeed it has.

Ranaldo is set to release his latest studio album ‘Between the Times and the Tides in March’. It’s a comprehensive and thoroughly structured rock record, big and classic sounding with resemblances to Big Star, Neil Young and R.E.M that creates a somewhat mystical time-frame to it, sounding as though the record could have really been from any era at any point over the last forty years. Guests featuring on the album include Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley and previous SY members and collaborators such as Nels Cline, Jim O’Rourke, Alan Licht, John Medeski and Irwin Menkin, with co-production from John Agnello – a dream team of sorts then. So how did getting them involved work in the studio?

“Everyone had free range. They’d all heard the songs in advance, and each came in with some ideas, which we worked on together in the studio. Alan Licht came in with many fully formed counter parts for my guitar parts, which became pretty integral to the songs. Nels and John approached each song on the spot and we worked on getting the kind of ‘feel’ I had in mind.”

With having so much talent on board, one can imagine the managing of such characters, like the powerful and idiosyncratic Nels Cline, to be a skill in itself.

“Nels is an amazingly versatile player who can hold his own in so many different settings” enthuses Lee. “He was very methodical in his approach, seemingly always providing what each song needed. In general, all these guys played over the songs, and then it was up to me to ‘arrange’ the parts, drop this one here in favour of that one, etc. Especially with our three guitars, I really had to figure out for each song which parts to feature where. It was a puzzle, but really fun.”

Even with Steve Shelley behind the drums and previous some-time members of Sonic Youth playing on the record, it feels distinctly un-like anything Ranaldo has created with his band. It’s because, as he puts it himself, “Only a group with me, Steve, Kim and Thurston in is going to sound like Sonic Youth – that’s the short answer.” Lee pauses. “I wasn’t thinking of trying to sound like Sonic Youth, or trying not to sound like Sonic Youth, it just wasn’t an issue,” he continues.

“These songs asked for their own thing. One thing that does set it apart from Sonic Youth is the keyboards all over the record.” And for all the seemingly unhinged characteristics of Lee’s band’s work, he notes that this structured record is not a new way of working for him. “I really let the music go where it wanted to,” he says, “and just kind of followed behind collecting it. Sonic Youth works in a very similar way, for the most part – we don’t conceptualize first, we play first and see what we’ve got, what we’re getting into… anyway that’s what our work in Sonic Youth has always been about, really – structured music, thoroughly structured songs. Sure, lots of experimentation and open sections, but really we’ve always been about putting the songs together.

Lee says that “the learning process doesn’t let up, nor the urge to do new things”, and nothing proves it more than the fact that ‘Between the Times…’ is yet to be released (it’ll be out 20 March 2012) and he’s already “got a new group of songs I’m working on” and is “looking forward to developing them further.” It seems like he has restless need to create.

“I’m not sure ‘restless’ is the right term,” he ponders. “Ever since the early days of Sonic Youth it’s been more along the lines of relishing the opportunities put in front of us, and wanting to do more with the added access and responsibility as our success grew.”

For all the plenteous enthusiasm and excitement that Lee has for his new project (which will be coming live to the UK around June), the inevitable subject of Sonic Youth’s current state has to be broached, so I tentatively enquire.

“We are on ‘hiatus’,” he says. “I prefer to leave it at that. Archival projects will go on, but not much more than that for quite a while at least. No matter what happens from here, 30 years has been a pretty good run,” he says, then pauses, then offers further insight into the relationship with his new project – “I’m happy to have this record to sink into, and it allows me to be less concerned about the fate of the band. I’m also thankful that none of the behind-the-scenes things were up-front or in my view while I was making this record. I’m happy to have made it ‘while still in Sonic Youth’, rather than being confronted with the task of trying to make a ‘solo record’ because my band’s halted all of a sudden. I don’t think I could’ve done it under those circumstances. I’m glad it was so far along before all the heaviness started for Sonic Youth.”

To us mere general public, the split of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon was a sudden, immediate event, largely due to us having no prior context, knowledge or link to their relationship, but I cautiously question about their situation in the band over recent times and the affect this has had on Lee and Sonic Youth as a whole.

“This is personal between the two of them, mostly,” he says. “And to that, the band and pretty much everything else, is secondary. It’s been difficult to see them go through this, more than anything to do with what might happen to the band.”

And has life without Sonic Youth been thought about much?

“I try to keep as my motto, ‘change is good’, no matter how hard it sometimes hurts! Change is usually for the better. So I can’t be too worried. It’s not healthy. After 30 years working together, with the history we have, we’ll always be connected to each other, no matter what happens. There are still a lot of things to do, even without the band being active currently. We were always asked what it felt like to still be working together after 20 years, 25 years… It always felt great; it was always viable and creative to us. But nobody expects their band will last forever. We got lucky and had a long long run. The future is uncertain,” he says. “Meanwhile, I’ve got some songs to sing…”

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