Words Out Of The Haze: Lee Ranaldo And Raül Refree Interviewed

Words Out Of The Haze: Lee Ranaldo And Raül Refree Interviewed

The story of their intense collaborations...

“If we’re realistic, most people have a fixed idea of how their music has to be, and they don’t want to move away from that at all,” says Raül Refree.

Refree is reflecting, first and foremost, on what it’s like to work as a producer, but he’s also thinking about the creative relationship he has formed over the last seven years with Lee Ranaldo, a partnership that has delivered one of 2020’s most surprising musical statements, ‘Names Of North End Women’. It’s a record that found both Refree and Ranaldo pursuing a relentlessly experimental streak, a perspective that binds the two together so well.

“I understand it – it’s completely understandable – and I know why some artists are like that,” continues Refree, “but with Lee, and with both of us, sometimes we don’t want to have a clear idea, and we don’t want to have to do something that fits very precisely. We’re open to trying things, and when we work together we feel completely free.”

Ranaldo knows that it’s rare to find a creative partner that you gel with so readily, particularly after thirty odd years of intense and amazing collaboration in Sonic Youth. “With Sonic Youth, after a few years, we found that we had this really powerful thing going on together,” he reflects with a smile. “You can never predict when, or even if, you’ll find collaborators of that depth. I wasn’t necessarily expecting to find that again after Sonic Youth, but with Raül something very, very intense has happened.”

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Lee Ranaldo found himself working with Raül Refree in April 2013 following the cancellation of a festival that he and his band The Dust were scheduled to play in Morocco. Though it arose out of frustrating circumstances, it was a chance encounter that has led to the pair working on three projects and touring together, culminating in ‘Names Of North End Women’. “We were in Spain with a week open after the festival fell apart,” recalls Ranaldo. “Our promoters over there were really into these acoustic shows we’d been doing, and they were like, ‘We’re gonna put you in an apartment in Barcelona for a week to make a record.’ And they brought Raül in as producer. I’d never met him before.”

The album that emerged was ‘Acoustic Dust’, the counterpart to the previous year’s ‘Last Night On Earth’ and 2012’s ‘Between The Tides & The Times’. These were Ranaldo’s first albums that conformed – in a loose sense – to the traditional rock band format since his days as an integral component of Sonic Youth. Outside of Sonic Youth, with few exceptions, Ranaldo had followed a resolutely esoteric path, collaborating with the likes of Christoph Heeman, Rafael Toral, Nels Cline, Jim O’Rourke, William Hooker and a rich seam of other underground, like-minded experimenters; ‘Between The Tides & The Times’ and ‘Last Night On Earth’ found Ranaldo tapping into the rock sound that he’d fallen in love with in his teens and which informed his guitar style in Sonic Youth, even if it was often draped in layers of feedback and pitched in a perpetual battle of thrilling dissonance with Thurston Moore.

“We made ‘Acoustic Dust’ quickly, in four or five days,” remembers Ranaldo. As well as his own songs, the album found him and The Dust – his Sonic Youth partner Steve Shelley, fellow guitarist Alan Licht and bassist Tim Luntzel – nodding in the direction of rock history with covers of songs by Neil Young, The Monkees and Sandy Denny. “In the last days of recording we were doing my vocals in Raül’s little home studio, and we had a really great time. It was just me and him, and he was really into my voice. The band had gone off to sightsee or something, and, I don’t know, we just started this fast friendship.”

“We both realised that we had quickly developed a very strong working relationship,” agrees Refree. This isn’t just interview politeness: pick any point at random during the 75 minutes of Fred Riedel’s documentary ‘Hello Hello Hello’ about the making of Ranaldo’s 2017 ‘Electric Trim’ album and you’ll see that friendship, and their evolving, symbiotic creative process, for yourself.

The impetus for ‘Electric Trim’ came from Refree. “He said, ‘I’d love to work on a brand new project with you at some point’,” says Ranaldo. For the next year the pair traded emails and demos. “Eventually Raül said he was coming to New York for a few weeks and that we should try to do some stuff in the studio, and that was the beginning of a year of us working on ‘Electric Trim’. The whole idea of that record was Raül’s. He said, ‘I’d love to take your music, and give it a completely different context.’ He suggested that we take away the two guitars, bass and drums format that I’d been working with since the beginning of Sonic Youth – basically thirty years or more – and suggested we set the songs in different ways.”

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Basing themselves out of Sonic Youth’s Echo Canyon West Studio in Hoboken, NJ, Ranaldo and Refree assembled a loose collective consisting of the members of The Dust, plus Sharon Van Etten, Ranaldo’s guitarist friend and collaborator Nels Cline and drummer Kid Millions. It was a group of players, but not a traditional group in the way that The Dust had been, with Refree keen to explore different rhythmic situations, sounds and set-ups instead of letting Ranaldo reach for the comfort blanket of go-to collaborators like Steve Shelley. It was a calculated gamble that paid off.

“We had a fucking blast making that record,” laughs Ranaldo with an infectious zeal. “Partly it was a shared interest in working with the studio as kind of a laboratory. That was the big thing with ‘Electric Trim’. Most days it was just the two of us in the studio again. We spent a long time making that record, even though it meant Raül coming to New York or me going to Spain. It’s been an amazing thing. We knew, at the end of that project, that we were going to work more together.”

“Neither of us feels fear to experiment,” adds Refree. “We’re open to trying new things. I’ve always been that way, and Lee has always been super open too. By the time we met he was getting a little bit tired of not experimenting after focussing more on songs, and he wanted to try new things. We both felt good trying to go further. It’s a luxury to find someone that understands the process so well and who enjoys the process more than the results.” The result was an album full of varied texture, sonic detail and rhythms, framed by a ‘whatever sticks’ attitude to using anything that was lying around in the studio.

Alongside Refree, another central contributor to ‘Electric Trim’ was the novelist Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress Of Solitude, Chronic City), who co-wrote many of the lyrics on the album. “I met Jonathan through a mutual friend,” Ranaldo explains. “I had been thinking, even on ‘Last Night On Earth’, that I wanted to bring someone else in to help with the lyrics, just to add a different perspective and also so that the whole process of creation – the music, the words, everything – wasn’t just springing from me. I had a resurgent interest in The Grateful Dead around that time, and I was thinking about Robert Hunter, who was basically their in-house lyricist.”

Another reference point for Ranaldo was the 1976 Bob Dylan album ‘Desire’, which found Dylan working with the playwright Jacques Levy on a series of songs containing a distinct narrative quality, including one highly personal piece foretelling his estrangement from his wife. “I mean, who needs a co-lyricist less than Bob Dylan?” asks Ranaldo, himself a huge Dylan fan. “Yet it opened up new avenues for him to have someone else present a different set of viewpoints and a different language. And so I just really felt that having someone else with a different point of view and a different linguistic facility would open up the lyrics in a certain way. Jonathan and I met up in New York one afternoon in a coffee shop and I outlined the record to him, and how I thought we could work together, and he immediately jumped at it.”

“It was very exciting to be asked, because I was a Sonic Youth fan,” gushes Lethem. “I saw them so early in their genealogy that they didn’t even have a drummer at that point, in a tiny, tiny place at two in the morning in the Lower East Side. I listened to all their records. I don’t know how Jacques Levy felt about being tapped up by Bob Dylan, but maybe it is comparable in that sense.”

Like Dylan, Ranaldo never seems to struggle with writing lyrics. His post-Sonic Youth rock albums exhibited a poetic command of words that straddled the emotional and the highly visceral, while the songs he fronted for Sonic Youth – tracks like ‘In The Kingdom #19’ from 1986’s ‘Evol’ and the title track of 2000’s ‘NYC Ghosts & Flowers’ – were always jagged, essential moments of beat-era streams of consciousness.

“His language does have the characteristic aura of beat poetry," agrees Lethem. “I know I can be quite a lot more structured when I try to write lyrics. When we started sending things back and forth, he’d email me language that he thought was just a placeholder and he’d say, ‘Throw it out entirely!’ I ended up holding on to a lot of it and trying to convince him of the quality of it, adding a few things of my own or restructuring it slightly. ‘You know, what you had was good!’ I’d say. And so there were times when my job was to sell him on the idea that what he’d sung, as dummy lyrics, were making more sense – or they were more integral – than he realised. His lyrics can be enigmatic but full of all kinds of pregnancy or implication, and I realised, from the point of view or a language worker, that there were ways I could work with the innate syntax and vocabulary to sharpen and deepen lyrics, even though I couldn’t necessarily tell you what they were meant to say.”

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“One thing I love about the process of music making, which was solidified in all the years of Sonic Youth, is that it’s a very social process,” reflects Ranaldo. “I do other things: I write, and I make visual art, and those are super solitary activities. The idea of bringing someone in on lyrics, whether I need the help or not, just made the process more social.”

Jonathan Lethem can relate to that solitary way of working. “I mostly just sit in my room and make books,” he says. “That’s 95% of my writing life. I treasure that exceptional bit, that collaborative part of the work with Lee, precisely because it cuts against the isolation and solipsism that are typical of most of what I do. Those moments are like a tonic, and they’re very precious to me.

"I’ve loved being a part of Lee’s creative process, because it gives me that sense of fulfilling, in an unlikely way, my old teenage dreams of being part of a band,” he laughs, “but in a way we’re like a half-melted-down band. It’s almost like we jumped to that point bands get to when they’re really sick of each other and sick of touring with one another – you know, they don’t even want to see each other and they only ever work remotely. Musicians get together and there’s a somatic, physical element to that. I haven’t done that with these guys. Lee and I have never written lyrics in the same room.”

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The concept for ‘Names Of North End Women’ began to form when Ranaldo was taking an afternoon walk around the North End area of Winnipeg, in Canada’s central Manitoba province. Ranaldo’s wife, the writer Leah Singer, was born in Winnipeg, and the couple often find themselves back there visiting her family. Winnipeg is a city best known for its brutal winters (not for nothing is it known as ‘Winterpeg’), the confluence of two major rivers and Ranaldo’s friend Neil Young growing up there.

“I don’t know why I was in the North End,” ponders Ranaldo. “Maybe I was driving around first and then I got out of the car. As I looked around I noticed that all the street names were women’s names – Ellen, Harriet, Gertrude, Lydia – but it was only first names. I was like, ‘Oh that’s weird.’ Normally if you walk up to a monument or something it’s to a specific person. I found myself trying to figure out why they were just first names. What did it mean? Was Lydia someone who’d lived on this street?

“I was kind of fascinated by it,” he continues, “so a few days later I went back there, and I walked the neighbourhood, and at every corner I wrote down the name of the street. At the end I had this list of women’s names in a vertical column. And so I made it into a poem called ‘Names Of North End Women’, and as we started working on the record, I thought the feeling I had of walking down the streets might be a good concept. Every once in a while, it would be a street with somebody’s name that I related to – Karen, an old girlfriend or whatever – and I could almost imagine walking through a history of a life with all the different people that have drifted in and out over many years.”

For the most part, the streets in the North End are named after daughters and wives of people whose worth to the city meant that they could justify a street plate. What they achieved, what these individuals did and what their female relations accomplished in their lives remain unknown, their identities still broadly anonymous and made all the more elusive by omitting their family name; historically important, perhaps, but for reasons that only the most ardent researcher of Winnipeg history would be able to recognise.

“I felt like it was grounded in a certain humanity, in a way,” says Ranaldo. “It felt like a way to approach lyrics that was somehow hopeful. Later on, all these things came up about that title, ‘Names Of North End Women’: the North End of Winnipeg is a kind of low-rent district with a large First Nations population; over the years, a lot of women have gone missing and things like that. Having these names on the streets brought up all of these different, almost political aspects, and a lot of talking points. I also liked the idea that it was a glorification of women, and the fact that there’s no last name meant that their anonymity could be universal and also mysterious.”

One of the first people to hear his idea for a project inspired by these disconnected names and histories was Jonathan Lethem. “I remember being struck by how conceptual his thinking was, even at that point,” remembers Lethem. “It was a very literary idea, but it also reminded me, in a slightly silly way, of two punk-era songs, which were essentially lists of people’s names. One was The Jim Carroll Band’s ‘People Who Died’, and the other was ‘88 Lines About 44 Women’ by The Nails. I reminded Lee that there was this context for lists of names in the punk lineage. One of the very first things I did was try to take him at his word and I wrote a long, streaming series of couplets around women’s names that barely got used at all, but exists in our emails somewhere. I might have even done it alphabetically. In the end, I think it was much too much like a Dr. Seuss kind of thing for Lee.”

The last song on the album, ‘At The Forks’, developed out of a set of words that Ranaldo had written a few years before and put away in a notebook. “There’s a place in Winnipeg called The Forks, where the Red River and Assiniboine River come together,” he explains. “In the winter we go there to skate, and in the summer we go there because it’s really beautiful. Coming back from Winnipeg on the plane after one trip to see Leah’s parents, we could see The Forks and the rivers connecting from the air, and I wrote this poem called ‘At The Forks’. At some point while Raül and I were working on the album, I pulled that song out, and it deepened the connection to Winnipeg, somehow, even if it was absentminded. It felt like the city was finding its way into the album. It means that Winnipeg’s happily become the location, and the backdrop, of this record.”

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If Lethem and Ranaldo were enthusiastic about the concept for ‘Names Of North End Women’, Raül Refree was less convinced. “When I first told Raül he was unsure of the title because he thought it sounded like an old folk album title,” says Ranaldo with a laugh. For Ranaldo, that wasn’t necessarily problematic given his firm interest in Bob Dylan. “The record is really nothing like that, although I started calling it electronic folk music. That was a kind of handle I used for it for a while because there are still some folk elements in there, but it’s also so far away from that.

“After ‘Electric Trim’, we found that our concept was just becoming more and more experimental,” he continues. “We knew that when we got together again, we wanted to take things even further. Why go backwards instead of going forwards into new territory, you know? Raül had just come off a period where he did some stuff for the Sonár Festival in Barcelona. He created a piece for them with all these electronic instruments, and he started telling me, ‘I want to bring some of these instruments along when we make the next record.’ When we got together, I had dutifully made a whole bunch of demos, and some of them became the basis of a couple of the tracks, but we immediately just started putting different things together, electronic instruments, a bunch of the percussion stuff we’d had in the studio, and we just span off into new territory. We were talking about Ryuichi Sakamoto, or Max Richter, or Steve Reich – all these different reference points.” The decision largely meant that ‘Names Of North End Women’ was the product of Ranaldo and Refree working almost exclusively together, without the involvement of as many other musicians as had been the case on ‘Electric Trim’.

That approach wasn’t totally unfamiliar to Refree. “I don’t usually work with bands,” he offers. “I usually work with songwriters or singers or artists and together we try to reach places where they haven’t gone before in their career. When Lee suggested working together on ‘Electric Trim’, the way we worked wasn’t so different to what I’m used to. We worked just as the two of us at the start, and then we invited some other guests that played later. But the beginning was not so different – we started with short ideas that Lee had and then we’d follow up on them, and between us we’d try to make some music from very small ideas.

“For the new album we decided to just record and have a good time at the studio, to see where we could get to,” he expands. “We didn’t know what it was going to be – maybe it wouldn’t be a record, maybe it was only going to be one song, or maybe it would be a side-project. Perhaps because of that we didn’t feel the pressure of having to make a record. We just were at the studio and having fun, just playing around with instruments and having a good time. The first months we were just recording without thinking, and that felt really good because we felt really free.”

If there’s a quality that makes ‘Electric Trim’ a solo Lee Ranaldo record and ‘Names Of North End Women’ a duo project, it’s the approach to developing the sounds. Refree effectively encouraged Ranaldo to fully abandon the group format that he’d been used to since forming Sonic Youth, even though you can point to those countless examples in his extra-curricular career that were sonically adventurous; rarely, however, would that experimental streak colour a vocal record.

“We were both into trying something very different but we were coming at it from different angles,” says Ranaldo. “We knew we wanted to take some of the brief bits of spoken word from ‘Electric Trim’ and expand on those, and include more spoken word stuff. With ‘Electric Trim’, my vocals all happened at the very end of the process, and we knew we wanted to bring the vocals in a lot sooner on this record. As soon as we got anything for a song, Raül would be like, ‘Let’s go in and do a vocal!’ And if I said I wasn’t ready, he’d be like, ‘I don’t care – go in and do a vocal!’ And so I started this process where, if we were working on melodies, sometimes I’d be humming, or setting up lyrics with a few pages that Jonathan Lethem had sent me or some of mine, and I’d just be picking lines from all sorts of places. The process of creation between Raül and I was so different and so rapid that in some cases I had to come up with lyrics almost immediately. It meant some of them had this surrealist bent where we were more concerned about how the vocals sounded in the music than exactly what the lyrics were saying.”

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Refree and Ranaldo adopted a similarly spontaneous approach to the vocals as they did with the music. “We were just collaging elements then taking stuff away and putting stuff in,” recalls Ranaldo. “There were songs where, if you were there on the Monday when we started, and came back four days later, half of the elements would be gone and replaced with other things. We were just throwing things up against each other and seeing what was sticking, and I started doing the same thing vocally, and working more on how my vocals fitted into the song rather than worrying about whether they made sense.”

If there was one consequence of this more spontaneous way of working it was that Jonathan Lethem’s contribution was smaller. “Raül couldn’t wait for Jonathan to come up with something,” laughs Ranaldo, “so he’s featured on fewer songs – ‘The Art Of Losing’, ‘Words Out Of The Haze’ and the title track – but he was still a pretty integral part of the process in a lot of ways. There were points where I was just consulting with him about lyrics that I’d written, like, ‘What do you think of this?’.”

“I loved being involved with it,” says Lethem, “and it’s thrilling to be thought of as part of the team, but I’m almost like a astronaut orbiting the project from afar, sending down a stray signal or two that gets reflected in it.

“I have a theory for why I was involved less this time around,” he continues. “Lee is a collaborative artist. He really likes a sounding board, because he came out of a band. So, just as John needed Yoko and Paul needed Linda after The Beatles, I think it’s like that. Raül has grown and grown to the point where he’s a full collaborator, whereas I think on ‘Electric Trim’ I played a kind of surrogate. I was centralised, in a way, as Lee’s interlocutor or correspondent on ‘Electric Trim’, because Raül was more the producer. But I think on this one, Raül has come into his own, and that relationship has prospered so beautifully with this record.”

The sessions for what became ‘Names Of North End Women took place at Echo Canyon West again. Despite generally being most comfortable with using the guitar as his main writing instrument, Ranaldo threw himself into using the new technology Refree brought into the studio that he’d never really experimented with before, playing guitar motifs which Refree sampled and manipulated. After a while, both became a little tired of the approach.

“I don’t think we were ever fully comfortable using digital sounds because we were coming from other places,” admits Refree. “We realised that we wanted to use some digital sampling, but only to create analogue atmospheres. In the end, we found that the best way to do that was to record with cassettes and tapes – cutting tapes and making loops.”

Ranaldo recalls that they were busy recording sounds in the studio when that tape epiphany took place. “Sonic Youth had brought these gamelan instruments back from Indonesia when we went there in the 90s. Raül and I had been together for a couple of weeks and we were recording gamelan sounds and marimbas and vibraphones and a lot of these exotic percussion instruments we had around the studio.” For some reason he found himself raking around in a dusty drawer and alighted upon an old cassette recorder that he used to use in Sonic Youth.

“I used tapes a lot on stage with Sonic Youth,” Ranaldo reminisces. “We would play pop songs and Madonna songs in between our own, but I was also making tapes of noisy sounds that we were integrating into the set, or using those as segues between songs. To me it was only natural for us to do that.”

Ranaldo’s weapon of choice in Sonic Youth wasn’t a high-end professional Walkman. Instead, he found a beaten up tape machine manufactured by the Library Of Congress primarily for use by blind people. “I don’t know exactly how blind people use it,” he laughs, “because it has controls so you can change the speed of the tape, you can flip a button and play the other side of the tape, which is then backwards. I don’t know why you’d want that! It made tapes very manipulable; you could slow them down and speed them up, you could play them forwards or backwards.”

When Ranaldo found the cassette deck again, there were a bunch of tapes in with it that he’d last used in performances right at the end of the 80s. “A couple of them were gamelan tapes that I’d bought in Indonesia that I’d been using live,” he says, “and Raül and I started recording them and sampling them – so we were recording real gamelan instruments live in the studio and then working with this tape machine and manipulating these old cassettes of proper gamelan orchestras. It just became another layer to what we were doing, and we loved the idea that we were using these hi-tech instruments and this crude old, analogue cassette and putting the two things together. Somehow it made good sense to us.”

“We went to the beginning of sampling, to the cassette and to tape machines,” adds Refree. “We both like experimental music and things like musique concrète. Lee told me that he’d experimented with cutting tape and putting tapes together in the early Sonic Youth days. We were trying to take all these experiences from him and place them in another landscape. We both feel very comfortable with analogue equipment – we like the texture and the value that comes with that. When we were working with digital kit at the beginning, we both thought it wasn’t the right sound, and we weren’t drawn to it. When we were recording the sounds ourselves to tapes, we both felt it was easier for us to work with them. Maybe it’s just the way we feel about music, how it has to be, and its sound.”

Critical to the sound of tracks like ‘Humps’ or ‘Light Years Out’ or ‘Words Out Of The Haze’ on the new album are moments of extreme sparseness, spliced together with sections of heavily-processed percussion, detached voices and other sounds of unknown provenance. “One thing that happened with ‘Electric Trim’, partly because it took me a long time to finalise all the vocals, was that we just kept throwing more and more stuff on the songs,” says Ranaldo. “With this record we really felt like we wanted to keep the space of the music very open, and not clutter it up with a million things, and so that meant we didn’t want guitars over the top of everything. We wanted to make it very atmospheric.”

The notable absence of guitars is another, somewhat unexpected feature of ‘Names Of North End Women’, all the more remarkable when you remind yourself that both Refree and Ranaldo are incredibly gifted guitarists. “Most rock records these days include guitar from beginning to end on every single song,” sighs Ranaldo. “Raül and I wanted to use the guitar in a more specific way, rather than being at the very start of the song and carrying through right to the end. That was kind of a natural evolution. It wasn’t a conceptual thing, but it worked out really well. Even when we started with some guitar, we eventually pulled them out and had other instruments supersede them in a way.” The effect is, in a way, not dissimilar to Bob Rauschenberg’s ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’, only with a new, and utterly different sketch drawn over the original's obliterated crayon, ink and pencil.

For Raül Refree and Lee Ranaldo, ‘Names Of North End Women’ is far from the conclusion of their creative partnership. Right now, the duo should be touring Europe, performing the songs from the album with Brooklyn experimental cellist Leila Bordreuil. COVID-19 stopped that from happening, but Refree is optimistic about his and Ranaldo’s future together.

“Our idea is definitely to keep on working together,” he insists. “We really enjoy it, and we were planning to record more songs as soon as we could. We’re going to try and do something from a distance, sharing ideas back and forth, but that’s quite difficult because we both like to interact in real time, in the studio. We both definitely want Jonathan Lethem to be even more involved in the next record, but what I really don’t know is if the next songs are going to be the same sort of textural landscapes as ‘Names Of North End Women’ or if we’re going to do completely new things.”

Refree pauses before continuing. “I was talking with Lee about this earlier today. I’d like to be able to play music and make songs with anything that’s there in the studio, or in whatever room we’re in, whether it’s a grand piano or a bunch of old cassettes. So we don’t know what instruments or what kind of timbres we’ll use, but we are going to experiment even more than on the next record. That’s one thing I can be completely certain about.”

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Words: Mat Smith

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