(Photo by Danielle Petrosa)
We caught up with Lee Ranaldo, the iconic guitar-player of Sonic Youth, who will be headlining this year’s Ziro festival with his new band, Lee Ranaldo and The Dust, over a long and very enlightening (and inspiring) email conversation about the gig in India, his views on art, music, noise, and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Lee Ranaldo, the visionary guitar player who was a part of irreverent indie/art-rock godfathers Sonic Youth for 30 (!) years, loves Indian food, he tells us reluctantly. He also likes Japanese, Thai, and Korean food, among others. What he doesn’t like is making unnecessary Top Five lists and pointing out favourites – “Lists are endless, and if you spend your life in music it’s because you love music in many different forms.” Oh, and as for Steve Albini? “He’s a motherfucker. And you can quote me.”
(Photo by Michael Lavine)
Lee will be headlining the Ziro festival, to be held between September 20-22, at the picturesque locales of Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh (in addition to two further gigs in Delhi and Mumbai). He will be taking the stage with his new band, called Lee Ranaldo and The Dust, which also features Steve Shelley, Sonic Youth’s drummer and long-time collaborator with Lee, and Alan Licht and Tim Luntzel, with Lee manning the vocals and the guitars. Originally, it was supposed to be only Steve and Lee who were slated to come down, but now the entire band will be playing: “Steve and I were going to play a stripped down version of my songs. It was going to be quite good, but what we are doing now is the band and the sound of the band, and I’m happy it’s been worked out for all of us to come along. Myself and The Dust will be playing the songs from Between the Times and the Tides [Lee’s previous solo album] as well as the material from our new album, Last Night On Earth, which will be released in October. We have a habit of playing some cover songs too, so we’ll probably play a few songs by other people as well.
“We’ve been talking about the possibility to play with some local musicians, either drummers/tabla players or sarod or other drone instrumentalists – we’ll see if that can work out.” He even hints at revisiting a couple of old Sonic Youth songs, but one can never be sure, especially considering the diverse repertoire Lee has managed to cultivate over the years, thanks to a restless urge to create art in multiple forms, from Sonic Youth, his solo works, writing poetry, the seemingly endless abstract noise collaborations, tour sketches, Text of Light, and even ‘cinema sound’, a series of audio-visual installations he has worked on with long-time partner Leah Singer: “We are continuing to do our live ‘cinema sound’ performances. Leah creates film for large format projection and I am doing ‘suspended guitar phenomena’ with my guitar hanging from a cord and swinging like a huge pendulum over the heads of the audience. The shows have been pretty exciting and we try to involve and include local musicians wherever we go which also makes it interesting. In Brasil, we had 10 local drummers playing Afro-Brasilian rhythms for part of the evening. In Toronto two years ago we had gong players on huge gongs.”
(Photo by Leah Singer)
He retains a youthful enthusiasm and optimism about music, and art in general, with not a speck of cynicism or scorn that often arises after such a long and illustrious career, still maintaining a hypermanic creative productivity and drive – “The time to work is there if you want to. I like to work. I like to travel. I try to stay in the ‘now’ as much as possible and there are always things inspiring me to try new things, to do new things. Playing music, making art – it’s a gift and it’s mostly such a pleasure that you forget it’s also called ‘working’. I find the various activities – whether it be writing music or poetry or making visual art or singing songs – kind of support each other in interesting ways.”
Nonetheless, it’s fair to say that he has managed to redefine the guitar and the idea of ‘sound’, ‘music’, and ‘noise’ – pushed boundaries with frequent forays into the exploratory spheres of the avant-garde. He has a different, and far more mature outlook towards it, though: “In art, or music, there is always an avant-garde somewhere out there. It’s not the place where many people are looking, it’s not usually on the radio or television (or internet even) but it’s always out there bubbling away somewhere. No-one in the avant-garde ever thinks of themselves in that way; you can’t force cutting edge into existence. It happens and little pockets of recognition begin to develop and spread the word.
“I’m not thinking about pushing limits, usually,” he says about his approach towards art. “I’m thinking about synthesizing what I see around me, absorbing the culture as I can, and trying to figure out what I can do, and what it interests me to do, from my vantage point. I think the main goal for an artist is to find their own line of vision, their own point of view on things, on the world, and then to try and reflect that through their work and hope to achieve some kind of universality in the process, that lets others enter the work and that transmits your visions or feelings to them. There is no divide, for me, between ‘music’ and ‘noise’—it’s not a useful division to me. It’s long been established that ‘noise’ can be music (and the reverse as well!).”
(Photo by John Van Pamer)
This will be Lee’s first visit to India, along with the rest of The Dust, and he sounds genuinely excited about coming here: "I’m incredibly excited to come – I’ve been wanting to come to India for the last decade. I don’t know what exactly to expect but I know it’s going to be amazing. The gig came about when Anup Kutty [promoter of the Ziro Festival and guitar-player for Menwhopause] contacted an agent of mine in Europe."
“I hope to see as much as I can. I’m interested in Indian culture and in the music and Buddhism, I don’t really have a list of things I want to do – I just want to experience the country.” He even reveals how surprised he was that Sonic Youth has such a dedicated fan following in the country, saying, “It came as a complete surprise and I was not aware at all that Sonic Youth had any following in India. I raised the point a few times during Sonic Youth’s touring days about trying to go to India but it was so hard to find any contact to bring us over. I recognize that it’s not an easy thing to bring Western rock music to such a huge continent, but we are so happy to be coming.” He admits to not knowing much about Indian bands, but he’s been doing his homework, checking out the bands on the festival bill, and is curious to hear what forms rock music has taken in India, but he does play it safe (for once) – “…I’ll hold off naming names ’til I return.”
While Lee’s guitar playing has always bordered on the schizophrenic, finding a delicate space between noisy passages of sound on prepared guitars with heavy experimentation and an uncanny ear for melodic precision and guitar interplay, all of which is steeped in a punk-rock spirit, he has discovered a new facet to his musical persona of late, using the acoustic guitar and his voice as the primary compositional apparatus while focusing on softer and more well-designed melodic structures – a shift that, in his words, came out of the blue. “…I came to a new appreciation of the acoustic guitar and also of my voice. I like to sing and it’s been such an unexpected detour to be working on songs on my own and leading a band. It’s mostly been fairly effortless and has established its own momentum at this point. These days, the most pleasurable thing to me is to strum an acoustic guitar and make simple music out of what I find. The band really supports this effort – on the new record – which really has a ‘band’ sound – they have really helped develop the songs in interesting ways.”
And about Steve Shelley, himself an accomplished (and power packed!) percussionist who formed the spine of Sonic Youth for 30 years and also retains the same impulses to explore diverse terrains within the realms of music and sound, Lee says, “Steve and I have played together for a long time now, and he’s often been the first to hear new stuff that I’m working on. It’s a very comfortable playing dialogue and we have a certain language together that we’ve worked on for years in Sonic Youth – we speak the same musical language.”
In the pipeline is the follow up to Between the Times and the Tides, called Last Night on Earth (out on October 8), as well as an acoustic record the band recorded in Barcelona, featuring songs from BTT&TT and the new album, and a few covers. He’s also spent a lot of time this year on visual art, for which he’ll hold exhibitions in 2014, while there’s a compendium of his writing and his poems that should release by the end of this year. For now, though, we have their performance at Ziro and the two gigs in Delhi and Mumbai, which we await with bated breath.
(Photo by Frey Ranaldo)
Lee on his Lost Highway series of drawings:
The Lost Highway series of drawings continue to develop an interest of mine which began in the late’70s, namely how to capture the landscape as it rolls by the window of a moving car – that elemental vehicle of the Twentieth Century. In 1976, while still an art student, I did some highway/landscape sketches out the front window of a van as a friend and I rolled down the East Coast from New York to Key West, Florida. I’ve recently reconnected with this process in earnest, doing similar work, drawing rolling highways, as my band tours around the world. It’s the perfect thing to do if you are sitting in a moving vehicle a lot! I’ve worked on a lot of these drawings over the last year or two. It’s a developing series—very quick sketches, trying to capture the iconic quality of the highway, which, like a river too, is always different yet always the same…
Lee on the changing face of the music business:
Well, there is no doubt that today an artist can’t make a lot of money selling records – beyond the biggest artists – in the same way that it was possible at the height of the music business, say, 20 years ago. Music is available without charge (both legally and not) on the web in a million places. Musicians have gone back to becoming troubadors (which some might argue was always their role), playing concerts for coin or for friends (“I’ll play if you have the money, or if you’re a friend to me,” as Joni sang).
Lee on Sonic Youth appearing on Gossip Girl:
It was just a TV show. It wasn’t my favorite show, but it was fun to do – it’s always fun to do TV or film stuff just to be exposed to those worlds.
Lee on Sonic Youth’s acoustic work:
No, Sonic Youth never did much with acoustic guitars. There’s almost nothing, as a group.
Lee on Sonic Youth reforming:
There’s no telling if we will or not.
Lee on what he’s listening to these days:
Right now, both myself and the rest of The Dust have been obsessing over the music of Jonathan Richmond and the Modern Lovers, particularly the earliest period when they were being recorded by John Cale and Kim Fowley. The songs, and the band, and most especially Jonathan’s singing, is just amazing. They were so ahead of their time and the music still sounds so fresh today.
Watch Lee Ranaldo and The Dust playing 'Off the Wall' live below:
Buy the September-October issue of Rock Street Journal to read the email interview in its entirety.
Head over to Lee Ranaldo's official website for more information on him.
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