Given that this is your first foray into
solo singer-songwriter work, did you
approach the guitar work differently than
you would with Sonic Youth?
Even though I overdubbed some leads, I
was really just focusing on playing rhythm
guitar and letting Alan or Nels take solos or
countermelodies. I wanted to do less. The
songs were written on acoustics, and some
had intricate picking patterns that were
integral to the song, so I did a lot more
purely rhythm work than I might have in
Keith Richards once talked about dreading
playing alone after being in a twoguitar
band for so long. Given how many
years you’ve been locking horns with
Thurston [Moore] in Sonic Youth, did
you share that apprehension?
I didn’t really just because they were songs
I’d started playing alone. But I also knew I
didn’t want to be the only guitar player, and
I thought Alan and Nels could really add
something to these songs. But there’s also
a lot of keyboard, which sets it apart from
Sonic Youth and changes what the guitars do
to some extent. It changes that dynamic and
the way we all approached the guitar layers.
You’ve worked with Alan and Nels in
improv situations for years. Now you’re
working in the context of compositions
and songs. Did you react any differently
to each other?
It wasn’t different at all, which was so cool.
They were just so inventive with the simple
demos I gave them. Alan came back with
these parts that were exactly what you’d
want a second guitar to play—picking
when I’m strumming, strumming when
I’m picking. His parts really locked the
songs together. And Nels did coloration on
everything from smoking leads to loops and
Parts of it really evoke a Neil Young/
Steven Stills- or Tom Verlaine/Richard
Those are such major touchstones for
me. Alan actually played with Tom, so he
knows that dynamic well. But, yeah, getting
in that territory is a thrill—especially
with Alan and Nels, who can really do
anything between them.
At times, the tunes have a David Crosbyor
Joni Mitchell-type feel—there’s often a
melancholy feel but also something that’s
simultaneously very open and very
sturdy in the guitar parts.
So much of that is the tunings—and there
are a lot of them on this record. And it
definitely came from listening to Crosby
and Joni. I mean, there are parts of this
record that I actually referred to as “the
Joni part” when we were running through
them. I played almost entirely in alternate
tunings, and Alan is exclusively in standard,
but they fit together very well. Nels
played some drop tunings for lap steel,
but otherwise he was in standard, too.
Did you use any new tunings that you
hadn’t tinkered with elsewhere?
Almost every one is new to this record.
It’s actually the big problem, because I’ll
have to take more guitars on the road
than I wanted to. There are six or seven
tunings for 10 songs. There’s only one
Sonic Youth tuning that goes back several
years. Hopefully, I won’t have to bring
more than four guitars, or so. I actually
did a song in standard, which is maybe
the only song I’ve done in standard
since the very first Sonic Youth record. I
played in D–D–A–E–A–D [string gauges
.013, .017, .028, .032, .044, .054] on
“Angles,” Shouts,” and “Stranded.” On
“Xtina” and “Off the Wall,” I played in
D–A#–D–F–C–A# [.017, .020, .026,
.032, .047, .054]. And on “Hammer
Blows,” I used C–G–C–C–C–G [.018,
.014, .028, .035, .045, .056].
Do you still work with a lot of unisons?
I do, but I was discovering most of these
tunings as I wrote. I wasn’t looking for
anything in particular. The song would
often steer things in a certain direction.
You’ve always seemed to have a feel for
spare, impressionistic pieces, like
“Hoarfrost” [from SY’s A Thousand
Leaves]—pieces that feel pretty solitary.
Is there an appeal in those structures as a
I do love to hear a lot of tonality and the
interplay of notes. That comes from playing
a lot of acoustic guitar, which I’ve always
done. And those spare arrangements are a
great way to get down deep into that interplay.
We rarely let ourselves get as delicate as
“Hoarfrost” in Sonic Youth, though. But
that might be my favorite recording of one of
my songs in the whole Sonic Youth catalog.
There’s a lot of guitar-generated ambience
on this record.
That came from layering the three of us.
I knew what I wanted for a rhythm bed,
but then Alan and Nels were so good with
countermelodies that there was a lot of stuff
to play with. So it came down to this really
fun process of layering and arranging in the
mix—“put those two here, take me out there,
then me and Alan there”—those kinds of
things. I really, really enjoyed that part of it.
“Xtina as I Knew Her” seems to have very
That one is the most layered. It was just a
rhythm track, then Alan came in and put
some chordal stuff on it and very purposefully
didn’t play in some sections. Then Nels
put on the fiery riffs and we traded back
and forth on the leads—mine were more
Neil Young-like and his were more fluid.
But as dense as it sounds, it’s not quite as
wall-of-sound as it might seem. It’s just a
few guitars playing off a rhythm section and
then John Agnello, who mixed the thing,
used a lot of short delay to spread the tracks
out a bit—it almost makes it kind of a blur.
Did you use any new gear or consciously
try to differentiate this record from a Sonic
Youth record from a sound perspective?
No, I didn’t think about it like that. I
played a lot of my “Jazzblasters” [Fender
Jazzmasters customized with Fender
Wide Range humbuckers from old Tele
Thinlines], which have a very strong
familiarity for me. I played one new guitar—
a Jarrell JZH-1x, which is pretty cool.
I used that on the standard-tuning stuff. It
holds standard tuning really well and is a
very nice-playing guitar.
Effects-wise, the big change is that I’m
using so much less. I used an Ibanez AD-80
delay and a few distortion pedals—a BJF
Electronics Honey Bee and a Voodoo Lab
Sparkle Drive—and that’s pretty much it. I’m
not even using a loop pedal, which is unusual
for me. Alan is doing much more of the
coloration in the live setting, so he has a lot
more pedals than me. My rig is really pretty
simplified, and that’s nice for a change.
You’ve cultivated a very distinct tone over
the last 10 years or so.
Thurston and I have really dialed in our
tones in recent years—though I think our
real accomplishment was that we got better
at mixing our guitars together. And we were
so good at it in a way that I really haven’t
thought about it in a long time—whose
tone was whose. I had just started to hear
things as this bigger whole.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you’ve
always liked Fender amps for the way
they project. Are you still working primarily
with Fender amps?
I could never play through a Marshall, really,
because I feel like it throws the sounds
away from you. They’re good onstage in
some instances, because they almost feel
like they throw the sound past you. Fenders
always seem to bloom right there in front
of you. They’re loud in a different way—a
more experiential way. In terms of coloration,
I find they just sound better. They
have that nice, pleasing roundness to them.
Right now, though, I’ve been looking
to play through smaller amps. We’ve been
trying a lot more 20-watt amps and things
like that. For a long time, Super Reverbs
have just been the beginning and end of
things for me. They just sound great every
time. But this time I looked at a lot of
stuff I’ve never used before, and I’m still
in testing mode. Sonic Youth’s guitar tech,
Eric Baecht, is out on tour with Wilco
doing Nels’ stuff, so he sends me pictures
of what’s out there and what they’re messing
with. Jeff Tweedy was playing out of
a Tex [a Tex Amps Texosound Bernie 15]
that looked really cool, and I was like,
“Whoa, what’s the Tex?” So I hooked up
with those people and that’s been cool.
I’ve used a Fender Deluxe. We’ve also tried
some stuff by Victoria—a pretty cool amp
that mimics a tweed Deluxe. We tried
out the ZT Lunchbox, which Nels speaks
very highly of, and I’m going to try out
the larger version of that [the Club]. I’m
playing out of an Ampeg Jet, and I also
tried [Wild Flag vocalist/guitarist] Carrie
Brownstein’s 100-Watt Music Man. That
sounded pretty cool, too.
There’s a lot of emotion in these songs—
and great imagery, too. Visual art—especially
photography and film—is such
a huge part of your life these days. Are
there similarities between that and music
that reinforce each other?
They must. Strangely, a lot of it is about
decision-making and process. They’re surprisingly
similar in that way. I’m getting to
a place where I’m pretty comfortable with
the process of both, and that’s when unexpected,
sometimes more natural things happen.
It certainly did with this record.