The influence of ex-Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo knows no bounds. Countless noise, punk and avant-garde musicians hail his unique style of playing an electric six-string. As a solo artist, he’s currently extending his craft as a songwriter and showing fans a side of himself that they never got to see while he was with the New York City noise punk quintet. As part of his tour with singer-songwriter Steve Gunn, Ranaldo will be taking the stage at the Columbus Theatre in Providence’s West End on January 11 with Meg Baird starting off the evening.
Ahead of the show I had a talk with Ranaldo about the unlikely shared musical influences he has with Gunn, starting his career with the legendary Glenn Branca, writing his own songs with a backing band, Sonic Youth’s disbandment and what 2017 has in store.
Rob Duguay: You’ve been doing a few shows with Steve Gunn so far on this tour, and it’s interesting because you come from a noise and punk rock background while Steve has a background of folk and Americana. What made the two of you want to start hitting the road together?
Lee Ranaldo: Well, I don’t think that our backgrounds need to be portrayed as far apart as you make it. We share a lot of similar musical interests, we’ve put records out on the same label at Matador and I think over the five or six years I’ve been listening to a bunch of his music and I know that he’s listened to stuff I’ve done and stuff I’ve done with Sonic Youth. I just think that we both found that we shared a mutual interest in what each other was doing and with mutual enthusiasm. All of those genres aren’t mutually exclusive by any means; my tastes in music are certainly all over the place and the kind of stuff that Steve is putting out is right up my alley or right up one of my alleys, I guess you could say.
RD: Before you were in Sonic Youth you were in this electric guitar orchestra that was run by avant-garde composer Glenn Branca. How much of an influence did Glenn have on you as a guitar player when you were starting out in the early ‘80s?
LR: He had quite a bit of influence in a lot of different ways. I had already been experimenting with a lot of different tunings, which I still use today, and he was also playing around with. What I mainly learned playing with Glenn was that you could make art music making rock ‘n’ roll materials, which was something that a lot of people were discovering at that point in time. There were younger people who had grown up on rock ‘n’ roll, but they were also trying to become serious artists in one form or another. All of the sudden they realized that rock ‘n’ roll could be a medium for that like any other medium you could choose.
That was kind of a big breakthrough and Glenn definitely was one of those people who realized and made use of that. He was trying to do this thing that later became serious compositions. He always wrote serious compositions with traditional instruments, but later he started pushing rock ‘n’ roll in a different direction. Glenn’s background was theater and one of the things I mainly learned from him most of all was the drama of a performance and the fact that when you’re on stage, there’s always a theatrical element to deliver. Whether you’re trying to be a dude in flannel singing heartfelt songs or whatever it is, there’s always a formative dramatic element of it and that was a pretty big revelation in a way in terms of the way my performance is at this point.
RD: When Sonic Youth broke up in 2011, did it blindside you or did you see it coming?
LR: It wasn’t a shock when it happened. I had seen it coming for a while, we on the inside knew that something was going to happen at a certain point. It coincidentally happened at the same time that I had been preparing my first solo record, Between the Times and the Tides, that I had been putting together in downtime from Sonic Youth when we had a few months off and I had these songs. When it all came down that we were going to stop, I had this other record that I just finished mastering and I was about to go out and do some performances in support of that, too. It kind of flowed reasonably naturally from one to the next and it was maybe in a lot of ways a good time for all of us to be able to explore music more intensively in our solo work.
In a way, it’s really something that Thurston [Moore] and I at least had been enthusiastic about that we can go off and do other things now. The band was together for 30 years so there was plenty of time for people to appreciate it in its time and hopefully people will appreciate it going forward, as well. As someone who has been working in music for a long time, even though Sonic Youth was the main thing for a long time, we were all doing lots of other things so we just picked up more time to do some of the other things that we were involved in. I’m not trying to deny what an amazing experience it was and the amazing things that we were able to do together, there’s no doubt about that.
When we started the band we never thought that we’d be together for five years let alone 30 years, and because of our vast archive that we still maintain, we’re still releasing stuff. The experience of Sonic Youth is not really over because of business things that go on almost monthly that we have to deal with, and we’re still combing through archival recordings. It’s still very much an alive presence in our lives.
RD: Sonic Youth have been releasing a lot of B sides and unreleased studio material over the past few years, can fans expect that to keep happening on a continual basis in the future?
LR: That’s a given.
RD: That’s very awesome to hear. Within the past 10 years, one thing that has been notable in music is that all these reunions have been happening. The Police did a reunion tour a few years back, Dinosaur Jr. have been back together for a while and 2016 alone has seen The Stone Roses reunite and A Tribe Called Quest release their first album in 18 years. Do you think at any time in the future that there’s any shot of Sonic Youth getting back together or do you think that it’s final and the band will probably never take the stage again?
LR: I have no way of predicting the answer to that question. My attitude toward it is never say never and why should we bother saying that it’s never going to happen at this moment? We’re all still here and healthy. I know it’s not going to happen anytime soon because none of us are remotely interested or thinking about it, but you never know. I’m not going to be the one to say that it’s never going to happen.
RD: Your current solo project has had two backing bands, The Dust and your current backing band El Rayo. The Dust also featured ex-Sonic Youth member Steve Shelley. You’ve mentioned before how you saw the opportunity after Sonic Youth ended to focus on other things musically that you’ve always wanted to try. What was your vision behind working with both bands initially? Was there something specific you were trying to capture or was it improvised, going with the flow and going on the fly?
LR: It wasn’t improvised at all. There are always improvised elements to rock music, but the work with The Dust was really about finding a band that could play my songs that I was writing at that point, while Sonic Youth was a collaborative endeavor where we wrote our material together. We all claimed songwriting on all of our music because we worked on everything together. This was much more of solo project where I’m directing it and it’s my music and that was the idea of it and the object of it from the beginning. It was pretty different on that level, El Rayo, the current band, is different people, although the guys in The Dust all play on my new record, which consists of the music that I’m presenting on this current tour with Steve Gunn.
Those guys are on the record, but they’re not in my band anymore for one reason or another. One of them is having serious health issues. Actually Alan Licht, the guitar player, is still playing live shows with me as well as playing on the records. Steve Shelley has been doing other stuff; he’s on the upcoming record, but he hasn’t been playing live with me at the moment. I got a new situation with this new record that I just finished called Electric Trim that’s hopefully coming out in May. I’ve worked very closely with this guy from Barcelona who’s a producer from there named Raul Fernandez who actually recorded a record for the Dust in 2013, which is the last one that we did together that was called Acoustic Dust. It was acoustic versions of my songs along with a few covers; it was recorded in Barcelona.
We spent a year working on this new record of mine and we’re finalizing it for release right now. It’s lead to this whole new situation; the music has taken a change in a few ways and it may be the most realized solo stuff that I’ve done to date since I started it back in 2011 with Between the Times and the Tides. It’s a pretty exciting place and I’m pretty happy with where things are right now.
RD: What else do you have in store for the rest of 2017?
LR: The main plan is to wait for the record to come out and then do a bunch of touring behind that, especially as I got a band that I’m really enthusiastic about that I’m playing with right now. I’m doing a bunch of other things, I’ve got an art show coming up in the fall at a gallery in Belgium that I’ve been working at for a few years, so I’m going to be working on a bunch of paintings and things like that. There’s always one project after another and I’m starting to think about new songs and work on new songs. I’m getting ready to work on some new stuff so I’ll be going to Barcelona to work with Raul again in March for a couple weeks while working on developing some new songs.
Buy tickets for Steve Gunn, Lee Renaldo and Meg Baird @ the Columbus Theatre on January 11 here: ticketfly.com/purchase/event/1383087?utm_source=fbTfly&utm_medium=ampOfficialEvent; Lee Renaldo’s Website: leeranaldo.com