When an artist has contributed to the contemporary musical landscape so significantly over a number of decades, it’s common for them to push on and continue to create half-hearted work by, seemingly, little more than force of habit. Time and time again, we bear witness to second, third and fourth comings of stone aged musical acts who rely on their signature “one-note” far too heavily and far too often, refusing to dabble in anything less than overly familiar. Such is certainly not the case for Lee Ranaldo.
For the few of you who aren’t familiar with Ranaldo’s work, we’ll begin with the basics. Ranaldo is an almost excessively accomplished musician, songwriter, visual artist, poet and writer. He’s a founding member of a little band called Sonic Youth, often credited for pioneering “alt-rock” as we know it. Ranaldo has been producing outstanding and innovative solo material since 1987 and is considered one of the greatest guitar players of all time, largely due to his unparalleled ability to craft both accessible, pop-tinged hooks and singular, experimental works with equal mastery. Despite managing to make his mark on music history more than a few times over, Lee Ranaldo refuses to phone it in. When it comes to creating art of any kind, he never just pushes on; he always thrusts forward.
With his latest “song-based” record, Electric Trim, slated for release later this year, Ranaldo is kicking off 2017 with a string of stripped-down solo shows across Canada and the U.S. Accompanying him on this intimate “acoustic trip” are avant-garde folk rocker (and tour co-headliner) Steve Gunn, as well as multi-talented psych-folk star Meg Baird; the three boundary pushing artists will grace the Phi Centre stage on January 13th.
A few weeks ahead of his Phi Centre show, we caught up with Ranaldo to discuss his new album, creative collaboration, inspiration and his hopes for 2017.
You collaborated with Jonathan Lethem on the lyrical component of your upcoming album, Electric Trim. Aside from being a friend of yours, what made you want to work with him on this project? What was that process like?
I wanted to be able to work on the “language” aspect of the songs in a collaborative way, rather than having to generate it all myself. In the music for the new album, I opened myself up to a lot of new tactics and methods, and I wanted a way to do the same thing with the lyrics. In the last few years, I’ve been drawn back into the music of the Grateful Dead, which was important to me in the 70s. In particular, I liked that they had a guy in the band who just wrote lyrics (Robert Hunter); he didn’t get onstage, but he wrote amazing words for them. I wanted another point of view for the words, so that everything wasn’t generated from my own point of view. It proved to be a very interesting and rewarding collaboration — I think we’re both quite pleased with the results and hope to do more together.
If you could collaborate in that same way with one other person, living or dead, who would it be and why? What qualities make for a great artistic collaborator, in your opinion?
I’ve been lucky enough to have had the chance to collaborate with a wide range of folks along the way — all living, haha. I don’t usually think in terms of a great wish list. I’ve been really digging the music of Circuit des Yeux (Haley Fohr) and recently saw her play in London. I’d love to do something with her. And just being out on this tour is the latest example of working alongside two others I really admire — Steve Gunn and Meg Baird. We still don’t know what sort of collaborations we might get up to… The best artistic collaborators expand on and amplify each other’s creative capabilities and go to places that are surprising to everyone involved. Usually, these brilliant meetings happen quite by chance when no one is looking and the tape’s not rolling!
Which artists do you think have influenced your solo material most overall? Have you drawn inspiration from any of those artists (or others) on Electric Trim?
Well there is a disco hit by Maxine Nightingale from the 70s that had a big influence on one of the songs, haha (not kidding). I think one of the things we were going for on this album, myself and my producer, Raul Fernandez from Barcelona, was a really “studio” quality. As opposed to my last record, Last Night On Earth, which was a real “band” record and pretty much recorded live, the songs on this album are very much studio creations, working with overdubs, etc. We both admire a lot of classic 60s productions, like Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper. We wanted to do something along those lines — being creative in the studio, but also work in electronic drums and more modern beats than would normally be found on one of my records. Raul brought a lot of new techniques to the process and we really hit it off and just had the greatest time in the studio working on the songs and the lyrics and the vocals and the whole thing.
You’ve mentioned that, in recording the upcoming album, you did a lot of layering and sound building in studio. What’s your approach to performing them live? Do you try to mirror the recordings at all, or do you take a totally different approach?
The live approach has been along two fronts; I’m playing them out on my own, solo on acoustic guitars, which is how most of them were written, so taking them back to their stripped down forms, just guitar and vocal. But with the band we are shooting more for something like the arrangements on the record – right now we got both a drum kit and drum samplers and pads onstage and, although a live band is a different animal from the kind of recordings we produced, we’re incorporating a lot of the electronic aspects of the album into the live performance. It’s been really fun and hopefully we’ll do more once the album comes out.
What can fans expect from your upcoming Phi Centre show? Will you be focusing on tracks from the new album? Can we expect any improvisation or collaborative pieces with the artists you’re touring with?
It’s gonna be solo acoustic. I’ll still have an amp and some pedals, but it will be a stripped down solo show. Steve Gunn, Meg Baird and I will all do solo acoustic sets. We’ve been talking about trying to do some stuff together but I’m not sure what it will be just yet! Steve and I are flip-flopping the “headliner” position each night — I’m not sure who’s on last in Montreal. I’ve been wanting to do a tour like this for awhile — a group of acoustic musicians traveling together, playing songs. I think it’s gonna be a really fun tour.
As a spectator, what do you most appreciate in live musical performances? What elements coalesce, on the part of both performer and audience, to create a memorable show-going experience?
Well it’s clear that the best shows happen when there is some kind of synergy between the audience and the performer. The audience has just as much of a role in what makes a good show. For me, I love to go see a show that draws me into the world of the performer and both reinforces things I already know and also shows me something new at the same time.
You were last in Montreal a little over a year ago. What do you find most interesting about the city?
I get to Montreal pretty often — in fact our High School senior is looking quite seriously at McGill! My wife Leah Singer is from Winnipeg. I really love the vibe of the city. It’s such a lively place and so full of culture and, for North America, a bit exotic too. I’ve been coming to perform since the mid 80s I guess and it’s always great to be in Montreal. And can’t forget the bagels, haha. Last year when I was in Montreal I bought a really cool little Martin acoustic guitar in a local shop.
You’re a musician, songwriter, visual artist, writer and producer. Is there any creative pursuit you haven’t yet embarked on, but would be interested in exploring?
I wish I had more time to work on visual art — I continue to create work and exhibit some things, but it’s definitely in the back seat with all the music stuff that’s been going on of late. I love the world of film, and have made some small films on my own and continue to do so. I’ve also scored some films here and there, on my own and with Sonic Youth, and that’s something I really enjoy doing when time allows.
What are your hopes for 2017?
I’m looking forward to seeing my album released in April or May and going out presenting the songs with my current band. I’m already preparing to start work on some new songs pretty soon. In terms of the great world-at-large… Yikes, it’s hard to say after the recent election here! The spectre of a Donald Trump presidency has cast a black mood over everyone I know. I’m sad and scared and fearful of where my country is headed. I’m ready for activism to combat the wrong-headedness that is already apparent. Jonathan and I have a song from the new album called Thrown Over The Wall that I’ve come to think of as a “song of the resistance”— offering it up each night as an incentive not to give in to this resurgent 1950s-white-male-mentality, and as encouragement to look forward, towards greater equality, planet rights, less fear…
Interview by Kelly Hurcomb.
Join Lee Ranaldo, Steve Gunn and Meg Baird on their “acoustic trip” at the Phi Centre on Friday, January 13, 2017 at 9PM.