INTERVIEW with LEE RANALDO - "The situation dictates the structures and ideas"

Lee Ranaldo
Credit: Anna Bogaciovas

“Churning of the Ocean” is the second time Lee Ranaldo, Jim Jarmusch, Marc Urselli and Balazs Pandi get together. Previously, pushed by Urselli’s idea, quartet recorded their self-titled debut. A combination of soundscapes uniting improvisational textures into one record. Their second release is not much different. Quartet definitely changed their approach. From experiments to almost-meditative-type-of-improvisation.

Dan Volohov sits down with the member of quartet and the founding member of Sonic Youth – Lee Ranaldo for XS Noize. Lee speaks about moving from band to solo-format, reflection in his creativity and the story behind “Churning of the Ocean”, about development and acoustic shows, and the details on the upcoming “In Virus Times” LP.

Lee Ranaldo
Credit: Diego-Homez

At the beginning of your career, you, Lee, just like any of the artists coming from NYC at that point, had been exploring their love for pop music combined with minimalism and radical experimentalism, reflecting their feelings of living in the city at that particular time. You recorded “Churning of the Ocean” in New York in 2019. How much of a reflection was involved in your work on this record?

LR: The recordings were pre-covid! Now it’s almost hard to believe it. I bring all my accumulated experiences to each session, so I suppose in some sense it’s a reflection, but more just an additive process – one learns from every project and carries those things on to the next one. With an improvising project like this one – especially considering it’s the first meeting for some of us – you also put your abilities to the test, starting a new conversation, fresh, hopefully, full of life. Relationships that have formed – older ones like with Jim and Marc, and newer with Balázs, all influence the process.

One of the most interesting aspects of your collaboration is that Marc Urselli, an engineer contributing to the production side of the recording, is also one of the collective members. What was it like to work with Marc and have this production aspect involved in the creation process?

LR: It was easy and familiar – and it’s not uncommon for one member of the recording ensemble to also take care of the recording process. I’ve done this myself, and often Jim O’Rourke took this function in Sonic Youth. One can think of Holger Czukay in Can attending to the same thing sometimes. There are many other examples.

Since the breakup of Sonic Youth, as a solo artist, you stepped aside from the experimentation of your early releases, like “Scriptures of the Golden Eternity”, and got to something more structural. “Churning of the Ocean” is an example of how the collaborative work with Marc, Jim and Balázs brought you back to those things. What do you feel when the situation you’re in dictates the rules, per se?

LR: I haven’t stepped aside from those earlier experimental works – I’ve just chosen in recent years to concentrate my ‘major’ recording processes on more song-related works – although I also consider these to be some of the most experimental work I’ve done. I do many-many improvisational, experimental performances each year, in addition to songs and acoustic performances. But certainly, the situation dictates the structures and ideas. For this project, it’s based on pure improvisation. And a little weed, sometimes.

These days, do you need any particular stimulus to start your work, or does it became a daily routine?

LR: Not so much routine, which almost implies boredom – but rather development and process. I work on music and also on visual art and writings. And things like cycling – and these creative forms keep me constantly occupied and interested. Working on them, daily or otherwise, is the greatest pleasure.

As far as I know, you have a new LP coming out? Could you please share with our readers some of the details?

LR: My new LP is called “In Virus Times” – it’s a 22-minute instrumental acoustic piece, in 4 sections, representing my musical response to the past year of isolation. To my ears, it’s rather dark and minimal. It was recorded in evening sessions in the dark of my living room – in other words, in isolation times. The sounds of the street enter through the windows and add to the feeling that this was done at home – rather than in a studio's pristine environment. I’m very happy with the recording and the ambience it gives. I heard the test pressings recently after not hearing this work for a couple of months, and I was very happy with what I heard. I am anxious to release it. The album package will be really beautiful, with photographs by my friend Anna Bogaciovas from São Paulo, Brasil.

You’ve been writing some of your songs for quite a while – for example,” Last Night on Earth” and “Black Out”. Can you say that the process becomes painful for you, or it’s always the same?

LR: When working on songs – as opposed to the spontaneous process of improvisation – it’s nice to take the time to work on something over some time. On occasion, a song appears in one short session but often, working on the music – getting it ‘just right’ – takes longer. With Sonic Youth, we would almost always work on the music for months until we were happy with solid structures to sing on top of. It was rather like making sculptures – adding and subtracting to the compositions until they felt complete.  The process is almost never painful! Rather the contrary – often exhilarating!

If with Sonic Youth, the process always been fully collaborative, when you’re a solo artist or the principal author in the band, your role is different. How long it took for you to get comfortable with this shift since you started your solo career?

LR: Yes, being a solo artist is more like being a film director or something like that. In Sonic Youth, the process was almost always fully collaborative, so it’s a change. Mostly going solo was about waiting for new collaborators – which I found in Raul Refree and Jonathan Lethem – and we continue to work together today, thinking about our next album to come…

If back in the days, you started experimenting with your guitar right away, these days it one of the ways – more focused, artificial, with an acoustic guitar. Or experimental. Having more focused releases, you tend to put these two together. Does it give you a principally new look at things?

LR: I approach the guitar each time with all of my experience. I’ve found a great resource in acoustic music over this last decade, after three decades of mostly electric music with Sonic Youth. But even more so, I concentrate on the voice and the vocals these days and on experiments with my old cassette players, bells of various sorts, and a bunch of homemade experimental instruments constructed for me by Dutch wizard Yuri Landeman. The guitar will, of course, always be a part of the picture as well.

The best example of such a record would be “Words Out Of The Haze” – recorded alongside the great Raül Refree. Interestingly, the lyrical side works with music– it reminds me of the works of the beats. Was it the reference or something you came to as a result of your work?

LR: The Beats have been internalized to me, so deep have I gone into their works – but they are one influence among many. In the case of this song (one of my favourites on the album), we were exploring new ways for me to sing – and as the words were a collaboration with Jonathan, I was experiencing the sensation of interpreting imagery from another writer, quite a nice challenge to try and make his words over in my own voice. Raul brings a separate set of influences to the music. And we combine in ways that are new to me.

While asking this question, I was actually thinking about your lyrics. “See a little darkness mixed in with the light…” – there is a lot of imagery in your writing. While working on the records like “Churning of the Ocean”, do you tend to visualize your musical imagery?

LR: No, so much; there’s not so much verbalizing when creating improvised music. It’s all about listening and sorting out what to add that might be worthwhile.

Lee Ranaldo
Credit: Andie-Borie

What was it like for you when the band broke up, and you started playing acoustic shows? What it was like, when space, reverberation – all these elements of acoustic became your main accompaniers.

LR: During my first acoustic shows in this period, one of the main sensations was the feeling of being almost naked onstage – no longer enveloped by the noise and volume. It made my playing more precise in some ways. I considered the move to acoustic guitar among the most experimental things I’ve done in a very long time, as it was so unexpected and challenging.

The other beautiful thing about the acoustic performances was regaining the sense of intimacy with the audience and the venues – the sound and, yes, the reverberation – often lost when playing bigger shows and bigger rooms. The personal sense of connection with the public was quite profound, and I really enjoyed this feeling of closeness with the audience. In fact, during the last tours I did before the pandemic, we held conversations with the audience from the stage after the concert. That was a really cool part of those evenings, talking together after the music ended.

How different are your relations to space when working acoustically and when there’s an improvisation factor involved?

LR: It’s more a matter of the relative quiet of acoustic music (although mostly my acoustic shows still employed amplifiers and effects pedals) vs the volume of electric music.

There was a description of one of your solo releases that said that you’re ready to challenge the listener as an artist. Is it important for you to get the listener out of their comfort zone?

LR: It’s more important for me personally to get out of my comfort zone, to challenge myself each time. I’m not generally an artist who tries to repeat the experience of past work. I’d always rather be exploring new territory while I have the time.

Having an art background, you’ve always had a very expressive manner of presentation. But when did you started gravitating towards different production discovering other means of expressivity?

LR: I think mostly it’s happened as a result of working with Raul, to be honest. He encouraged different ideas of production and different sound concepts. In some ways, Sonic Youth had a ‘built in’ sound, and as I get further from those days of the band, I find myself more and more free to try new forms and new ideas.

In what way these new perspectives of production affected your songwriting strategies?

LR: As I evolve from ‘a guitar player who sings’ to ‘a singer who plays the guitar’, I find that to be the most profound change to my songwriting strategies – the challenge of finding new ideas for vocal techniques and new ways to sing and layer vocals. I hope to do much more of this going forward.

Commenting on your first record, you said once that the experimental approach involves listening and reacting. At the same time, something unexpected always may happen. What does your preparation for the recording look like in these cases, and what was it like with “Churning of the Ocean”, in particular?

LR: For the recordings with this ensemble, I showed up with my ‘bag of tricks’ – the pedals, bells, bows etc., that I normally employ, and more than anything else, kept an open mind to what might happen. I’d never played with any of the three before and wanted to be present and to react to the other three.

Once, you’ve been speaking about a little trip you had back in the days when you travelled to California as Kerouac did many years prior. How important was it to pass these circles discovering who you are as a personality?

LR: It was an important early influence on my life, spending 3 months at age 18 years old on my own - with one friend - travelling from New York to California and back. The variety of experiences I had at that time were quite impressive! This period was especially resonating with my readings of Kerouac (which occurred directly afterwards) and the early days of touring with Sonic Youth. When we found ourselves travelling many of the same roads repeatedly in the years, we spent crisscrossing the USA.

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