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more... ArtistsGuitaristsIndie-RockApril 2012Lee Ranaldo

Fearlessly Forward: Lee Ranaldo

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Fearlessly Forward: Lee Ranaldo

Among dedicated Sonic Youth fans, it’s long been something of an inside joke—“the Lee song.” Almost as a matter of ritual, it’s been the last song on side one of the LP, concealed deep within the glorious cacophony. Yet it always seemed to serve an artful purpose in the grand scheme of every Sonic Youth record. After a few doses of the band’s signature harrowing howl and the feral yowl of bizarro-tuned Jazzmasters and Jaguars, the Lee song was a breather, the eye of the storm, an emotive touch, and often a touch of pop/rock classicism amid the cyclone swirl. Many Lee songs are classics in the Sonic Youth canon—“ Mote” from Goo, “Karen Koltrane” from A Thousand Leaves, “In the Kingdom” from Evol. And they gave every Sonic Youth album a depth, weight, and beautiful counterpoint to the band’s more unbridled side.

Sonic Youth’s future is now uncertain. Lee Ranaldo the songwriter, however, may be just hitting his stride. The evidence is Between the Times and the Tides, a collection of 10 tunes that encapsulates both the love of melody that the young Ranaldo loved in the work of the Beatles and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the sense of adventure and abandon that made Sonic Youth one of the most vital and original bands of the last 30 years.

Between the Times and the Tides began as a solo effort, but it quickly evolved into a band effort featuring one the nastiest set of ringers you could ever swindle: Former underground hero, now-Wilco ace Nels Cline and New York avant lifer Alan Licht support Ranaldo on guitar, organist John Medeski of Medeski Martin & Wood contributes a lush Pink Floyd-ian bed of Farfisa and Hammond organ, and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley acts as rhythm anchor. They are the bedrock for a set of songs teeming with guitar textures that’ll have listeners doing aural double takes—and that will undoubtedly surprise many Sonic Youth fans. It’s a remarkable union of sonics and song.

Nels Cline on the Between the Times and the Tides Sessions

When you’ve spent the last 30 years changing the vocabulary of the electric guitar, you can call on some heavy friends. Lee Ranaldo called on some of the heaviest for Between the Times and the Tides. To fans who’ve come to know Nels Cline through his high-profile work with Wilco in the last half decade, it may be a surprise to know that Cline spent years as the lowkey guitar king of the free-jazz improv underground. It should come as no surprise, then, that Cline and Ranaldo— who has actively championed the avant underground for decades—have collaborated in improvisational situations before, including 2001’s Four Guitars Live gig with Thurston Moore and Carlos Giffoni. While motoring between Wilco gigs, Cline shared some thoughts on working with his old buddy, mentor, and brother in sonic mayhem.

It’s cool to be working with Lee again, I gather?
I’m really proud to be on the record. I’ve admired Lee’s work with Sonic Youth, but also with Kevin Drumm and Text of Light. So I was thrilled. But it’s funny, I always seem to be the last guy to overdub on a record, and that happened here, too. I just went over to the studio in Hoboken [New Jersey] with the idea to play on a couple things to see how it went, and it just kept going. When I listened to the record, I realized I played on about everything! The record is so amazing sounding, though. It has such a beautiful roar to it. To hear the way the guitars all sound together and how strong the songs are—hearing it made me emotional, frankly. To be lucky enough to be part of that sound got to me.

You seem to have such admiration— almost a gratitude, it seems—for what Sonic Youth’s work has meant to you personally.
That’s very true. The influence Sonic Youth had on me, personally, is almost incalculable. Certainly, what they did with guitars was completely intoxicating and attractive to me. I never thought about playing or guitar or sound the same way after I experienced them. So that’s pretty huge.

When I first got into them, around ’83 and Confusion Is Sex, I got so into the whole aesthetic and the way the band gelled. I thought, “This is perfection … how can I create something that’s a complete entity like this.” By the time they got to Daydream Nation and became this kind of rock ’n’ roll juggernaut, that was just so huge in every way—it was hard to not be impressed.

How do you view Sonic Youth’s influence in the larger musical world?
Well, in the ’90s when you started hearing bands like Unwound and Polvo doing things with detuned guitars and eighth-note rhythm-section things, you could spot a very direct influence. There was also a certain outlook on culture—the way they married high and low culture—that felt artful and humorous at the same time. But mostly it was just that the music was excruciatingly beautiful, but not in the sense most people perceive beautiful— and that gave people a different angle from which to hear music in general. A lot of that is in what they did with overtones. I’m not sure many people have been able to touch their sensitivity or their sense of how to create intoxication with guitar overtones. But the way that made folks look at harmonic information is really influential, even if fewer people hear or see that than the bigger pop culture influence.

Society isn’t always so kind to the avant-garde. Is it weird, after so many years of toiling in the avantgarde scene, to look up and think, “Whoa! There’s Lee … there’s Alan Licht … we’re all still around!”?
Yeah, man! Absolutely. I’m so thankful. But when I think about how frail the body can be and how hard basic survival can be, yeah, to get to sit there and work out guitar sounds with Lee or work with Thurston— it’s not lost on me for a second how lucky I am. The avant-garde has less presence in the media right now, but that’s certainly not for lack of effort from Lee and Sonic Youth. Their efforts to expose the world to the avant-garde are totally heroic, but also totally natural.

After playing with Lee in a lot of improvised contexts, was it weird to work in the realm of actual songs and compositions?
No, not at all. I used to grapple with the implications of occupying those two divergent streams, but I don’t really live in that mode of thought anymore. And knowing Lee and Thurston over the years and watching how open and spontaneous they can be in any world, in any way, that’s helped immensely.

“Xtina as I Knew Her” is a very strong example of those two worlds colliding. It’s deep in abstract textures and ripping solo work.
Well, Lee was so relaxed—it was just a very relaxed situation. He just let me come up with whatever idea I wanted, directing me just a little. And then, because we were using Pro Tools, he could grab whatever parts he liked. But I was surprised how much he took and how audible he made it.

Do you have any favorite moments on the record?
I listened to it recently in the car and I didn’t want to get out of the car. I think that’s when I got really emotional about it. I grew up listening to music in the car in L.A., and getting that vibe and all the moods—from the heavy riffage to the lap steel— was really cool. There’s both drama and modesty in it, and things like the lap steel parts that were so spontaneous and inspired.

Why did this album happen now—did you feel like things were fermenting, laying dormant?
Things weren’t really fermenting. They got rolling really quickly, and it just kept going from start to finish. I’ve given up asking myself why it happened the way it did. It was very naturalistic and unforced—and really fun. The songs had a genesis in an invitation to do an acoustic show in the south of France. I figured I’d do some Sonic Youth songs, but then this song popped up out of working on those, and then a few more came out of that, and I started thinking maybe I’d do a solo acoustic record with some singing. But one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew Steve was playing on some things that sounded like band stuff. Then Irwin [Menken, bassist] came over and it just happened. It was pretty magical.

I was really excited to get Alan Licht— who I play with in a lot of different improvisational contexts—in there, too. He’s an amazing guitar player, and I never get to hear him play straight-ahead leads—but he’s so good at it, it’s incredible. Nels and John Medeski really round things out on guitar and organ—in a monster way, obviously.

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