Lee Ranaldo: The music industry got big and bloated in the '90s

Lee Ranaldo: The music industry got big and bloated in the '90s
Photo By John Von Pamer

Lee Ranaldo's inventive guitar work with Sonic Youth brazenly took music in an imaginative new direction. But the talented musician has also proven to be a skilled writer, visual artist, and composer, with Ranaldo consistently challenging himself artistically throughout his long, pioneering career.

Over the past few years, Ranaldo has put out two terrific solo albums -- beginning with 2012's Between the Times and the Tides, and continuing with the just released Last Night on Earth, which Lee recorded with his gifted backing band, the Dust (featuring Alan Licht, Steve Shelley, and Tim Luntzel), who he's bringing with him for a show tonight at the Triple Rock.

Gimme Noise was able to chat with Ranaldo from the road outside of Hudson, N.Y., and discussed the inspiration for the new record, how he feels visual art compliments the distinctive sounds he generates, and how the music industry is heading back towards the DIY direction of the past.

Gimme Noise: The new record was partially inspired by the horrific events around Hurricane Sandy -- how did living through that experience bring about these wonderful new songs?

Lee Ranaldo: I live in lower Manhattan, and some people around us were hit really hard by the storm -- flooded out and all that stuff. We were lucky enough to be on high enough ground that we weren't hit with flooding, but we were without power and light for most of a week. It just put a strange twist on that week, everybody in lower Manhattan felt, to one degree or another, like refugees of a sort. There was no power, no electricity, no heat, and it was October so it was getting cold out. It had a very strange feel to it downtown. On the one hand, it hearkened back to the way the neighborhood was after 9/11 to a degree. But it also had this slightly science fiction like feel, at night you'd walk down the streets and they were completely jet black, no lights in the buildings, no lights on the streets.

So, I ended up just sitting around here at night by candlelight, and there wasn't much else to do, so I was strumming acoustic guitars and playing some songs. I didn't really mean to give folks the impression that it was some kind of concept record about the hurricane, but it was pretty fruitful week for me. I got a bunch of different stuff going out of that week. I wrote a piece for a string ensemble in Europe based on sounds I recorded that day of the wind whipping through the buildings downtown creating all these tonal effects, and I transcribed that for this string ensemble in Berlin.

You know, a song like "Blackt Out," which is on the record, it was in a lighthearted spirit more than anything else, it wasn't supposed to be a tragic idea. It was more like, 'There's nothing else to do but scream that the lights are out.' But I felt that it was more playful rather than anything else.

Has the songwriting process grown any easier for you over the years, or have you changed your approach in any way?

Well, I think the main shift is from going from a songwriting collective, which is what Sonic Youth was in its best characterization, where we were all really contributing to those songs. Being on my own, it's been a little bit more like being a sole director. But certainly with this record, the band's process has come a lot more into the mix, in terms of putting the arrangements together and making the songs sound cohesive for a band. Though the songs still start out on acoustic guitar.

So, the process has really been one of moving from a more collaborative situation to one where I'm bringing the songs in and then we're working them over in the studio with the group. That part of it, I'm happy to say these songs keep kind of flowing out of the guitars. I've always written songs all along and put them on cassette tapes or whatever, and ended up putting them in drawers if they weren't something that Sonic Youth worked on. Just because I never felt like I had the time to devote to a situation like this. It takes a lot of time and energy to put a solo project together, and I never felt like I wanted that to conflict with being able to devote my energy to Sonic Youth during all those years. But it's been interesting to see how this has evolved, and really after the first couple of songs came into being for the last record, they just started flowing.

I tell this story of being invited to do this acoustic show in Europe in 2010, and I hardly ever do an acoustic show. So, I figured I would work out some verses of "Eric's Trip" and "Hey Joni" and some other stuff and some covers, and I was getting ready for the show and this new song called "Lost" came out in one of the tunings that I had already had some stuff in. And just this magical quality of a song that didn't exist just springing into being and two weeks later I was performing it on stage. And it just reaffirmed the idea that that's what songwriters do -- they are pulling something out of the air and turning it into something. And it just seemed to kind of flow after that happened.

You've done a lot of experimental audio-visual work lately, combining sight and sound. How do you see music and cinema enhancing each other, and how rewarding has it been for you to give your music a striking visual accompaniment?

Well, for me music and visual just go together in so many nice ways -- from the whole music video revolution, and even before that where bands would use visuals, like everything from A Hard Day's Night on forward. Visuals can enhance music, though there's times where they detract from it a little bit, because you don't want to get stuck with a song being always equatable with a visual image. But I like the idea of music and visuals going together.

When I'm working in that context, though, it's mostly in the context of abstract music. Alan Licht and I have a group called Text Of Light that plays in particular with films by one of the masters of American avant-garde cinema, Stan Brakhage. And when I work with my wife, Leah Singer, we're using films that she puts together or that she and I put together. Usually, it's much more experimental, abstract film, and I really like visuals in that context. When Alan and I started Text Of Light, we'd all been on the improvisational scene in New York for quite a while, but sometimes it's not that interesting watching improvisers play.

They all have their heads down listening to each other, the sounds are interesting but there's not a whole visual element to the performance. We felt that by coupling it with these abstract films, that it would open up audiences experiences, the way they would see things and hear things. And from working on soundtrack stuff over the years and other things like that, it's just interesting to see the way music pairs with moving images. It's seems like a natural coupling.


How have you seen the music industry change the most over the past few decades? And do you think music is heading back in the DIY direction that was so prevalent when Sonic Youth started?

Well, it certainly is in a lot of ways. The music industry got big and bloated in the '90s, and charged exorbitant prices for everything -- like CD's that cost 50¢ to make, you were paying like $20 in the store. The music industry had tons of money and power, but it was just a passing phase for the most part. I think we're much more back in the state where anybody can make a record in their bedroom if they want and post it online and get people to hear it. It's definitely in a certain state of flux right now, there's a lot less money in the music industry, and most musicians are finding that more of their income these days comes from playing live.

And in a way, that puts musicians back in this situation that traditionally musicians have always been in -- you're a kind of a traveling minstrel to one degree or another and you're playing for your supper. The days when always made tons and tons of money off of records was kind of an aberration more than anything else. In the '90s, every little band was signing big, expensive contracts and making a lot of money and it was just an unreal situation for the most part. It's been a good corrective, I think.

How integral was having these other various music outlets and side-projects to the life of Sonic Youth and the band lasting as long as it did?

We spent our first 10 or 15 years with our head down just developing what we did, and putting the situations in place to be able to grow as a group and tour the world, and hire a good crew and get good equipment and stuff like that. And once things were in place and it wasn't so difficult, we all started branching out and doing side-projects and solo things or collaborations with other people. And that's always so enriching on so many levels. You maybe take an element from something Sonic Youth is working on, but put it in a mix with a whole bunch of other things, or you take something you're interested in and you take it and isolate it with a group of other people and do something different with it, or bring inspiration from other players back to what Sonic Youth is doing.

We spent the last half of our career doing outside projects and other things, and also establishing this SYR record label that we had together that was an outlet for weirder stuff that we were recording. Once we had established a pretty decent studio, we were recording a lot of stuff that wasn't going to make it onto the Geffen records, and we established an outlet for that. So, all that stuff kind of fed back and forth into itself, and definitely made us happy to start establishing identities outside of the group and to be doing different, other things. And here we are in 2013 and we're all pretty much mining our own solo situations, and everybody is quite heavily invested in what they are doing individually, and pretty happy about that as well.

We're all excited to see you play Minneapolis again, Lee. Safe travels on tour while you're on your way here.

We've been coming there to play for so long, and it's really exciting for me to come back with my own group now. Sonic Youth has had so many great experiences there, playing the Entry and First Avenue, and here and there, so it's definitely fun to be coming back. Minneapolis is one of my favorite stops on tour.

One of my favorite Sonic Youth shows ever was the 2006 MN State Fair show you put on with the Flaming Lips that almost got canceled because of this insane rainstorm. I don't know if you remember that one at all?

Oh yeah, I remember that very well. We did that run with the Lips and it was kind of unusual to be playing State Fairs, with the Best Apple Pie contest in the next tent or whatever [laughs]. It was kind of a funny situation. But I definitely remember the weather being a factor as to whether or not that show was going to go on. Those guys are longtime old friends, so it was really fun to play a bunch of shows with them.

Lee Ranaldo and the Dust play the Triple Rocks Social Club tonight with Robust Worlds.

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