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.
Why did this album happen now—did
you feel like things were fermenting, laying
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.
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 Sonic Youth.
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 stuff—just incredible.
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.
Lee Ranaldo's Gear
Guitars: Fender Lee Ranaldo Signature Jazzmaster (third from left), various Fender “Jazzblasters” (Jazzmasters with Wide Range humbuckers), Saul Koll Jazzmaster-style semi-hollowbody (far left, note the behind-the-bridge pickup), Jarrell JZH-1x (second from left), Fender Telecaster Deluxe (second from right)
Amps: Fender Super Reverb, Fender Deluxe, Ampeg Jet, ZT Lunchbox
Effects: Ibanez AD-80 analog delay, BJF Electronics Honey Bee, Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive
Strings and Picks: Ernie Ball strings (various gauges, depending on tuning), Jim Dunlop picks
For a taste of Lee Ranaldo’s screaming sonic mayhem, check out the following clips on YouTube.
The fi rst gig with Ranaldo’s new band in Brooklyn in October 2011. Here the band takes on standout “Xtina As I Knew Her”. Alan Licht and Ranaldo each take a lead.
“Mote” is one of the strongest Lee Ranaldo songs in the Sonic Youth catalog. Here the band works out a pretty screaming version complete with delay and feedback breakdown at a European festival in the early 2000s.
“What We Know” was a highlight on the last Sonic Youth LP, The Eternal—a perfect example of how Lee and Sonic Youth could unite the tuneful and the howling.