In Conversation: Lee Ranaldo

The seminal guitarist is still surging into unexplored territory...

In 2012, SPIN magazine unveiled their list of the greatest guitarists of all time. Not topped by Hendrix, Jimmy Page, or Keith Richards, the list was instead topped by Lee Ranaldo, and his Sonic Youth bandmate Thurston Moore. Perhaps to some this was a provocative choice, but to those in the know, the often discordant, energetic, thrashy guitars that decorated Sonic Youth’s 30 year career will eternally feel unparallelled.

2017, six years since Sonic Youth threw the towel in the ring, and Ranaldo continues to work with the fearless creative ethos that defined his earlier career. New album ‘Electric Trim’ is a wildly ambitious departure from all the material he’s released previously, with Lee Ranaldo displaying an infectious amount of pride and enthusiasm for his new record.

Clash catches up with the American artist just before the release of the new record, and finds a guitarist pining for his art to be released unto the world.

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So your new album ‘Electric Trim’ is out now… a long time coming?

Yeah, it has been a long time in coming, it took a good while to make it and it’s taken a good while to get the release sorted out, so it feels like it’s been a long time around in my life already before anybody’s even heard it.

It must feel good to get it out in the open then?

Yeah, I’m really looking forward to other people hearing it, you know I’ve been out playing a bunch of the songs on and off for the last year but nobody’s properly heard them. I’m looking forward to people hearing this record, I’m really proud of this record and looking forward to playing these songs some more after.

You don’t have a backing band for this record like you did with the ‘Dust’ albums a few years back, how did you find the collaborators for ‘Electric Trim’?

In a way the last record, ‘Last Night On Earth’ was really a band record, with Steve Shelley, Alan Licht and Tim Luntzel. Those guys are all on this record, but I’ve also drawn from a wider pool of people to play on it.

I guess the shift is that mostly this album is a collaboration between me and Raul Fernandez from Barcelona, who I met when we made this album called 'Acoustic Dust' a couple of years ago, and it’s mostly about my collaboration with him. He and I were a constant of the whole process, I mean from the beginning to the end he and I were there every day.

It’s not really a record built around live players in the traditional sense of a band in a room. We worked these songs up from my acoustic demos, just the two of us, and really predominately used the studio as the instrument, as well as a lot of electronic beats and samples.

It was only after the songs were taking their shape that we started getting the players in to add the drums, and add the bass, and other layers. So, it was done in a much more studio style process than it was a band process.

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In Conversation: Lee Ranaldo

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So could you tell me a bit about the songwriting process?

Sure, so the songwriting process was mostly built around a handful of acoustic demos I had been working on, and I had been sending those over to Raul after we had decided we were going to be working together. They were pretty crude demos, no singing or anything, no lyrics, just guitar changes really, alongside a bunch of structural ideas about how the songs would go.

That’s what we started from, each song just started from me recording the basic skeletons of the songs on acoustic guitar, and once I felt like I got a good take on it, me and Raul spent some time talking about structure and the arrangement. In some cases, he would start to layer in electronic drums or a sample sound, or something like that, including electric guitars, piano, whatever, as we just slowly built things up.

It was more a process of addition and subtraction, with some of the songs we wrote, we went through that process asking: “what does that song want? What does this song need? We’ll try a tambourine, a marimba, or a different electric guitar”.

And as the songs built from there, we started bringing in other players to add their parts, percussion, drums. I played electric guitar, Raul played electric guitar, Alan Licht played electric guitar, Nels Cline as well. So we had different people come in and play over the songs.

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I’ve always liked female vocals harmonising with mine…

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Later we figured out what we liked for each song, you know? Some songs we had Steve Shelley play through the whole thing on drums, and later we’d do a take of the same song with Kid Millions doing the whole thing on drums, because we were searching for something and not exactly sure what we wanted. It was kind of like everything we recorded was there so that we could find the right thing for every song.

So for instance when Nels (Cline, guitarist) was in the studio, he played on a whole bunch of songs and we didn’t end up using his tracks on every song. It wasn’t a priority that if someone recorded something for a song, that we’d use it, you know? More like, what’s best for the song?

How did you get to be involved with Sharon van Etten?

Well, we hadn’t met when I invited her to do this, but we had been travelling in the same circles for a long time, with this whole indie music scene. I had been hearing her records and obviously been hearing people get really excited about her records, and most of all I was just knocked out by her voice.

I’ve seen her play a couple of times, and been really impressed with her voice, and when we were getting ready to talk about that, we knew already this record was going to have a lot of vocal stuff go on. I’ve always liked female vocals harmonising with mine, so when it came to start getting really serious about the lyrics, and the singing, Raul and I were just making up lists of people we could possibly ask to come in and do stuff, lots of people didn’t have time on their schedule, but I invited Sharon to sing on it and she jumped at the chance.

I didn’t realise that she was a big Sonic Youth fan, or anything like that. We had a great time together and became immediate friends. Her singing on the record is amazing, and we invited her, thinking she was going to sing on maybe two or three songs, and she ended up singing on six, so on the morning she was first scheduled to come in, Raul suggested we do the song 'Last Looks' as a duet together, and that was surprising to me, but I think it worked out super well.

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In Conversation: Lee Ranaldo

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One thing I like about this record is that all the songs sound very different from one another and I feel like it gave that song it’s own character. More so with this record, than any other, you’ve used the studio as an instrument. How do you think this affects how you’ll play it live when you tour this Autumn?

Well, that’s a good question. I did a tour last November in Europe with a full band, with Raul being one of the members of the band. We’ve figured out what we’re going for, trying to reproduce the album as closely as possible. We had a woman on drums from Brooklyn, here, she was playing electronic pads and drum kit, and was pretty much able to do all the percussion stuff from the record. Everybody in the band was singing, so we were able to do a lot of the harmony stuff as well.

I’ve also been playing these songs a lot on my own, just solo acoustic guitar performances, and they seem to work pretty good that way too. So, I’m not sure how we’re going to go out and start, but the idea now is that, maybe in part because I’ve been living with them for a while, we’re going to go out and be true to the record without necessarily reproducing it exactly.

So the first tour we do this Autumn, I’m going to probably go out as a trio, with a percussionist and Raul on electric guitar, and keyboards, and I’ll play acoustic guitar. The idea right now, the idea is to do the songs with a chamber aspect, and not come out blasting as a big rock band. These songs aren’t really meant for that anyway.

The idea’s to start as a trio and add more members as the tour progresses. We want to try and not be a two guitars, bass and drums rock band, I’d rather expand in different ways if possible, in the same way this record allowed me to jump to different kinds of sounds. I mean, there’s strings on the record, there’s some horns, loads of things like that.

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We’re going to go out and be true to the record…

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One of the people you collaborated with on this record is Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. Have you maintained a good working relationship with everyone since the band disbanded?

I still have a good relationship with them all, although I don’t really work with them all that much, except on aspects of archival material.

I see Thurston a lot, and we’ve done lots of shows together over the last few years. The last one, I was in London, and he opened for my band, and we’ve also done some duo shows together, we did one here in New York, and one in Paris last year. And I still get on well with Kim, we still talk to each other with some frequency, but there’s not really any working relationship at this point, outside of decision making for old Sonic Youth stuff.

We’re all on good terms… well, Thurston and Kim may not be, but I’m on good terms with those guys.

You came out with The Cribs to do a performance of ‘Be Safe’ a few months back… how did it feel to get out and do that live?

You know, I’ve become pretty good friends with those guys since that track was recorded, and I didn’t really know them before then. It was good, we’ve only had the chance to do it live three times. That time in Leeds three months ago, when they were doing their 10th anniversary tour of the album, was only the third time we’ve played it live. We did it once here in Brooklyn, and we did it once in Toronto. Toronto or Montreal, I can’t remember.

They were talking about this 10th anniversary tour, and asked if I could come over. It was a pleasure on my part to do it, and it was so much fun getting to hang out with those guys, and I don’t always get to do that.

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I put myself out in new territory…

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You and Raul obviously have a great working relationship, are you going to work with him and the other collaborators after this record?

Well, the other main collaborator was Jonathan Letham, who I worked on a lot of the lyrics with. He’s an American author that’s pretty widely known, I guess. I felt like with this record the most interesting thing for me was that I put myself out in new territory with the musical collaborations with Raul, and the idea of working with another lyricist, which is a new thing for me as well.

So both sides were unknown territory to a degree, and I really enjoyed having these collaborators, and pushing the music in different directions, and being able to bounce ideas, and get a different vision as well as mine in terms of lyrical ideas. I feel like it worked out really good on both levels.

I think beyond the touring cycle of this record, I’ve already been developing a bunch of new demos, and I want to work further with Raul and also with Jonathan. The next round will be a different process, now we’ve spent a year on this record. The next record will pick up where this one leads off, and be a different process but still experimental, with those guys as main collaborators. Hopefully I’ll pick up some new players, and they’ll factor into whatever happens.

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'Electric Trim' is out now, via Mute.

Words: Cal Cashin

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