Lee's Trip

10 October 2012 | 6:00 am | Brendan Telford

"We went through so many periods where we weren’t working as a group, everyone was working on the individual projects, so nothing felt overly different... so all of us were incredibly surprised at what was going on, because Thurston and Kim always seemed like this extremely stable couple. And this is personal stuff, and it’s hard to deal with in a public setting."

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Having been at the forefront of the New York experimental rock movement in the 1980s that would go on to spawn the no-wave genre, in no small part due to the huge crossover success of his long-serving band Sonic Youth, Lee Ranaldo is synonymous with pushing creative boundaries. When not walking the tightrope between mainstream and underground aesthetics with SY alumni Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Steve Shelley, Ranaldo has continually walked his own path, delving into dissonance and destruction with the intention of exploring the outer regions of distorted manipulation.

However, his latest solo offering, Between The Times And The Tides, contains a suite of songs that in the main stick to conventional pop music conventions, albeit with his iconic guitar and vocals entrenched front and centre. Such an about turn has confused many pundits, but Ranaldo cannot see why. “In terms of solo output, for me right now this is just as experimental as anything else I've done in that regard,” he states. “It is unusual for me to put out an album of all songs, all with me singing. It came about, if not by accident, then not by my design. The songs started to manifest themselves at a time when I wasn't even thinking about doing an album. I was asked to do an acoustic show in France in 2010, and I just figured I'd do Sonic Youth covers and a few other things, but whilst I was practicing a song popped out called Lost. So when I played that show I opened the show with that song that didn't even exist two weeks before. That quick movement from nothing being there, to performing a relatively fully formed song, was interesting to me, and all summer long I was spending all my spare time on acoustic guitars, making stuff up, and I had some stuff that felt like it needed recording.”

Further analysis of Ranaldo's career within Sonic Youth adds further credence to Between The Times…'s inevitable creation. Many of the gems that he has penned – Wish Fulfilment, Skip Tracer, Eric's Trip, just to name a few – are steeped in familiar and accessible musical composition, yet moulded to his uniquely abrasive aesthetics. The difference here is that while the seven-minute opener Waiting For A Dream harbours some of those familiar exploratory tropes, from Off The Wall onwards, Ranaldo's influences (he cites widely, from Neil Young and Joni Mitchell to Cat Power and Bill Callahan) are more readily recognisable throughout. “[Off The Wall] is a statement of purpose in a way – 'take me as I am',” he laughs. “It's the statement for the whole album. The thing people have to realise, and that I have always realised, is that nothing is going to come close to what Sonic Youth does, which is all down to the complementing of the people. It is only something that the four of us can do together. so if I'm writing something for Sonic Youth I tend to tailor it a bit to what I think the band might want to do with it. So with this stuff, I was pulling out all my acoustic guitars that had sat under my bed for ages, and being able to revel in the sound of these instruments whilst sitting in my living room. There was no push into any one direction. I was as surprised as anybody in terms of what they came out like, especially something as poppy as Off The Wall. It's all about putting aside any kind of preconceptions of what I might do, and instead embracing what I did do.”

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This unexpected creative wellspring came from Ranaldo's love affair with the guitar, the instrument often “speaking” to him, thus the conviction to leave the songs as they came into fruition without further development. Such a process has informed his artistic process from the beginning. “When you work with a lot of different tunings, you make up these tunings, then they indicate the type of song they want to play. Some are good for really dark, minor key settings, whilst something like Hammer Blows has a bluesier edge that comes about from nothing more than the tuning that the guitar was in. Some songs might sparkle with shiny chords. You get into, not a duel so much as a conversation with the guitar, it shows you what to do depending on whatever tuning you're working on. It's really exploratory, it's a mystery to me too, and that is the most fun part about it.”

The album came out after Sonic Youth announced their indefinite hiatus due to the breakdown of Moore and Gordon's relationship, a fact that has led many to believe that Between The Tides… is a reaction to these events; a process of moving on. Quite the contrary – the record was done and dusted before the shock announcement, which even he didn't see coming.

“The album was written and recorded before I even had an inkling [Sonic Youth] would be going on hiatus or whatever,” Ranaldo stresses. “I wrote it all on some downtime from the band, where we were all working on our own stuff. We went through so many periods where we weren't working as a group, everyone was working on the individual projects, so nothing felt overly different. I was doing stuff with [experimental band] Text Of Light, and this performance piece with my wife [Leah Singer] – so all of us were incredibly surprised at what was going on, because Thurston and Kim always seemed like this extremely stable couple. And this is personal stuff, and it's hard to deal with in a public setting. But in a way things as they are don't feel that different. Kim's in Europe doing shows, Thurston has his hands full with different things. Everyone is still working hard and doing really interesting stuff. Currently we are working on archival stuff too. It's almost 30 years to the day [since Sonic Youth formed], so in many ways it's a perfect time to stop and take stock. We've had an amazing run, and whether things pan out for us to work together in the future or not, right now anyway, I'm not really fretting about it; none of us are discussing the 'what-ifs'.”

The passion and “wide-eyed wonder” that Ranaldo still holds for the creation of music will continue to drive him towards the horizon and beyond. “When I moved to New York my only aspiration was to become an artist and to work creatively. In music or visual art or poetry, it didn't matter. So the drive is inherent in a certain way. The whole goal is to push yourself, to continually figure out who you are and what you want to say. The record is like that, to figure out what I would do on my own when all I had was an acoustic guitar and my thoughts. All these little facets define who you are, or indeed shows you who you are. And there is time to reflect on it all, because that's what keeps it inspirational. For me, this all a natural state of affairs.”

Lee Ranaldo will be playing the following shows:

Saturday 20 October - Oxford Art Factory, Sydney NSW
Sunday 21 October - The Zoo, Brisbane QLD
Wednesday 24 October - The Hi-Fi, Melbourne VIC