Angles: Lee Ranaldo

"Luckily everything just fell in place...”
Ranaldo cover.jpg
Fuck.

I’ve only got twenty minutes on the phone to Lee Ranaldo and the fates have already wasted five by refusing to let my phone connect.

Fuck fuck fuck.

Mercifully fortune intervenes, and after a few more seconds of stress, I hear the familiar beep of an American dialling tone.

Problem solved. Now I just have to resolve the issue of how I’m gonna talk to this guy like a regular human being. I mean, it’s LEE FUCKING RANALDO.

Shall I talk about how Sonic Youth redefined the electric guitar with their post-no wave skronk-rock in the 80s? Or how they toyed with the mainstream in the 90s, despite breakthrough albums ‘Goo’ and ‘Dirty’ being liberally doused with a terrifying, ultimately inimitable scree? Or how unremittingly awesome they’ve been in all that time? Fuck it, we already know all that.

Should I tell him that ‘Dirty’ broke my unsuspecting 14-year-old brain, and years later I’m still trying to make some sorta sense from the mush it left behind? Nah – how self-indulgent. No-one cares.

This is why you should never meet your heroes.

FUCK.

***

Luckily there’s plenty to discuss with Lee Ranaldo. His new record ‘Between The Times And Tides’ represents the first time he’s ever stepped out as a solo artist. Sure, he’s put out music under his own name before, but always playing the experimentalist, the artist, the musician. This is unmistakeably a rock album.

But it nearly didn’t turn out that way.

“I just thought that I would make a pretty stripped-down acoustic record,” Lee explains, “just in terms of the ease of doing it, you know? It’s a lot of work to make a rock record, in terms of organisation and everything. As we got into it, one thing led to another – it was kind of obvious to me all along that some of these songs would be good with a band, but I always wondered if I would find the right people. Luckily everything just fell in place.”

The band in question includes Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, bassist Irwen Menken and jazz keyboard player John Medeski, but there are also guest appearances from the likes of Nels Cline, Jim O’Rourke and Ranaldo’s wife Leah Singer. It’s a pretty stellar cast, and Lee was happy to have them on board.

“The coolest thing about making this record is that it was such an organic process from start to finish,” he affirms. “I had some idea of what I wanted these songs to sound like, but I was also very much open to whatever anyone was gonna do to them.”

So why do this as a solo record, rather than forming a new band?

“Well, Sonic Youth was in a moment of downtime, mainly because everyone was busy on their own projects. I’d been doing a lot of performing… a lot of really interesting stuff… but I guess I missed the opportunity to play songs, and to work on songs.

“These songs evolved over four to five months, from simple acoustic sketches to full band versions, and that’s a pretty interesting process if you’ve got the time and spirit to do it. It just came about on that level, y’know?”

One of the most glaringly obvious features of ‘Between The Times And Tides’ is just how pop it feels. Ok, pop isn’t an exact fit, but even compared to the relative accessibility of Sonic Youth albums like ‘Goo’ or ‘The Eternal’, this is the fucking Archies. Was that deliberate?

Lee pauses. “You know, I have no idea what ‘pop’ means. Pop is such a vague thing – with Sonic Youth we never really worried about what pop was, because we’ve always thought that we were making pop music. It just was not pop music in other people’s eyes. We just stopped worrying about it.”

Well, when I say ‘pop’ I mean the melodies are more strident and less obscured by noise or fractured instrumentation… more straightforward, I suppose.

“In that sense of the word, sure,” he agrees. “It was designed as that.”

“I just saw some review of it that called it my ninth solo album. And yet in general I’m almost kind of thinking of it as my first solo album – in terms of my first ‘pop’ solo album, as it were.”

To expand on that thought, it seems to me that there’s a very specific clarity to this record – SY records are clouded in noise, whereas here the noise is texture rather than an obscuring device.

Again, there’s a pause. “Sonic Youth music is very complex, and it’s a quartet of people creating it, so it has aspirations towards a different kind of musical complexity. This stuff aspired to a certain… simplicity, I guess you would say.”

This seems the best opportunity to ask - do you think Sonic Youth will work together again?

“We’re not saying anything at this point. We will definitely work together again on some level or other. When you’ve worked together for 30 years and established the kind of legacy that we have, there’s so many ways in which we’ll be tied together forever, probably.”

Neither of us have brought up Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s widely-publicised split, but Lee finally alludes to it: “In a lot of ways I think that, in spite of what’s going on or what sparked it, it’s kind of healthy time right now to stop for a bit. Maybe we’ll regroup under a new set of circumstances.”

***

The interview draws to a close. The affable New Yorker has plenty of other journos to talk to today– presumably ones who can get their telephones to work in the first place – and we’re lucky to have gotten to speak with him at all. It’s all too short, of course. These things often are. But there’s still time to ask one more thing – with thirty years’ worth of mind-blowing music under his belt, what else can he possibly want to achieve? The answer is almost predictably straightforward.

“Right now I’m looking forward to going out and playing shows with the band, and doing some of these songs live. It’s kind of opened this floodgate. I’ve got a whole bunch of new songs in the works. Y’know, I’m not 25 or 35 – it’s kind of novel for me to be doing this. I didn’t really expect it to be happening, and, in its own way it’s an experimental interlude for me. I’m just hoping to work on it some more and see where it goes.”

And with that, he’s gone. No time for more questions, and trust me, I’ve got hundreds. Guess they’ll have to wait for another time.

Fuck, at least I didn’t embarrass myself.

- - -

‘Between The Times And Tides' is out now.
Words by Will Fitzpatrick

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