Lee Ranaldo is best known as one of the founders and half of the dynamic guitar duo that shaped the sound of Sonic Youth and, in the process, reinvented the possibilities of rock guitar. Through unconventional tunings and using drumsticks and screwdrivers to mess with their tones, Sonic Youth pioneered a swirling palette of noise that permanently altered the landscape of alternative rock.
The band couldn't have formed anywhere but New York in the early '80s, springing from the experimental no wave and art music scene. Their style fluctuated a bit throughout the years, but eventually settled into something of a more traditional rock sound, although one not without its own singular weirdness, of course.
When the nucleus of the band — co-founders and married couple Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon — announced they were splitting up in 2011, the group effectively ended, but their legacy and influence continues to be staggering.
Moore and Gordon may be considered more of the "voices" of Sonic Youth, but there was always something special about Ranaldo's songwriting contributions. Sonic Youth also projected such a New York sense of coolness, but with Ranaldo you could bank on a bit more earnestness and sincerity — still cool, but not quite so aloof.
Ranaldo released his first solo album in 1987, but it wasn't until the band went on hiatus in 2011 that he started doing more of his own thing on a regular basis. First came Between the Times and the Tides in 2012, which featured a more conventional but no less inviting pop rock sound. It was to tour this album that Ranaldo assembled Alan Licht, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, and the late bassist Tim Lüntzel as his band, the Dust. Another album credited to Ranaldo and the Dust, Last Night on Earth, was released the following year.
Now he's back again with his latest solo work, Electric Trim, although there's actually nothing solo about it. The album was made in collaboration with Barcelona producer and musician Raul Fernandez and apart from the members of the Dust, other musical contributors include Wilco's Nels Cline, Sharon Van Etten, and Kid Millions, while author Jonathan Lethem co-wrote many of the lyrics. The result is a spirited, engaging album that rewards multiple listens in different ways thanks to an approach that is a bit more sprawling than Ranaldo's previous efforts.
He regularly plays in all sorts of different configurations, including legitimately solo, but the particular tour that brings Ranaldo to El Club will feature what he has taken to calling his "chamber trio" group, which includes album producer Fernandez. In advance of the performance, we chatted with Ranaldo about the new album, what Detroit meant to Sonic Youth, and more.
Metro Times: What inspired you to work with Jonathan Lethem on some of the lyrics?
Lee Ranaldo: I had a very experimental collaboration on this record with Raul Fernandez on the music, [he was] really a huge collaborator. When I started to think about the lyrics, I felt like I wanted to have a similar kind of experimental situation to work from. For the last record or two I've wanted to enlist someone else as a kind of co-writing partner just to keep that aspect of the process from being completely solipsistically internalized, your own personal feelings and thoughts and all that. I wanted someone to bounce ideas off of, just in the sense of making the whole language part of it a different situation than it's ever been in the past, and Jonathan was ready to jump right in. We had kind of an amazing exchange back and forth through the whole process. I was thinking about the Grateful Dead's collaboration with Robert Hunter or when Dylan was collaborating with theater [director] Jacques Levy on Desire. You don't ever think of Dylan as being someone who needs a lyrical collaborator and yet every once in a while it's nice to approach that part of the process in a kind of social way [as opposed to] sitting in your bedroom writing your deepest thoughts kind of way.
MT: To continue on the lyrical aspect, the song "Purloined" references Edgar Allan Poe. What is your creative relationship with literature?
Ranaldo: To some degree, I consider myself a writer and so I have a strong relationship with literature. In that particular song, that couplet that sort of grounds the song, "telltale heart and the purloined letter," that was something that Jonathan came up with... He told me later that it was something he wrote 20 years ago and that it had been kicking around in his drawer. He kept feeling like, "Wow, this is something really cool. I don't know what to do with this but it's really cool." Finally when he sent it to me, all of a sudden it gained an actuality.
MT: Another song on the new album that I really like is "Moroccan Mountains." Can you tell me a bit about that song?
Ranaldo: I've [been twice] and really enjoyed my time there. It's been inspirational on a number of levels, [but] that song was inspired by thinking back on some of those trips. In particular I was sitting in my bedroom on this Moroccan carpet that we brought back from there while I was working on the tune for that song. I was sitting on this blood-red carpet with these yellow mountain shapes, and just looking at those images and playing the tune that I was working on seemed to go together in a certain way. Although the lyrics aren't in any specific way related to Morocco, somehow the whole vibe of the thing ultimately had something to do with Morocco just from the way it started. I really love the way that song came out. When we were originally trying to sequence the record, at first we thought we'd put something sort of short and poppy first to draw people in but in the end we decided it would be cool to do something more unusual [with] this sprawling, long piece at the beginning to let people know when they first put on the record that maybe they were in for something a little bit different here, that it wasn't going to start in the typical fashion or all-in-all unfold in a typical fashion. I feel this record is really different-sounding for me, and in the end we thought that "Moroccan Mountains" was a good entry because it let you know this [record] wasn't just going [to provide] immediate gratification.
MT: What are your favorite songs in the Sonic Youth canon?
Ranaldo: Well, it's kind of not easy. People ask us something similar all the time, and it's kind of really hard because [all of our songs] are so personal and we've worked so hard on all of them, but you can always choose something. I can choose something and feel like maybe next week I would choose a different one, but in this very moment, right now when you ask me, I think I would choose either "Skip Tracer" or "Hoarfrost."
MT: A lot of bands don't come to Detroit but Sonic Youth actually did quite a bit in the early years. Do you have any memories of the city in that time period?
Ranaldo: We've always had friends in Detroit, from very early on in our career ... It was just always a significant musical town for us. The Laughing Hyenas was a band we toured with a lot in the '80s, the Stooges were a touchstone, [and] we were super inspired by the MC5 and a lot of the things that were going on, [like] Sun Ra and John Sinclair in Ann Arbor. Later, when the Stooges reunited, we were lucky enough to do a lot of shows with them. We did their very first reunion show, the first time they played in Detroit, and the first time when James Williamson took over. We have a strong connection to and relationship with the Stooges in particular.
[Another connection is] Mike Kelley, who ended up doing the cover art to our record Dirty. [He] was a Detroit native and a big supporter of Detroit, and definitely utilized [the city] and his experiences growing up there in his art. I guess we found it was one of those important places. Like later, maybe younger people cite Athens, Georgia when REM was coming up, or Seattle when Nirvana and Mudhoney were coming up, but for us, Detroit was one of those touchstone places where it seemed like a lot of really interesting stuff was happening. Plus Steve, our drummer, was from Midland, so not far away, and that was another weird connection to Michigan. We always really enjoyed being there.
Lee Ranaldo plays El Club with Devious Ones on Saturday, Nov. 4; 4114 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; elclubdetroit.com; Starts at 8 p.m.; Tickets are $14 in advance, $15 at the door.