INTERVIEW: Sonic Youth legend Lee Ranaldo discusses his new album

Sonic Youth guitarist and producer Lee Ranaldo chats to Audio Pro International editor Daniel Gumble about his new self-produced solo offering Between the Times and the Tides

It’s fair to say that Lee Ranaldo is not a man to rest on his laurels. Having spent more than three decades in the role of guitarist and occasional vocalist with alternative rock pioneers Sonic Youth, not to mention an array of production credits and spoken word side projects to his name, Ranaldo is someone who has persistently endeavoured to push the boundaries of sound, whilst maintaining a signature air of sonic dissonance across his extensive body of work. So, no wonder then, that an eyebrow or two were raised earlier this year when he emerged from the studio following an on-going Sonic Youth hiatus with a batch of infectious, neatly crafted pop songs, as opposed to the expansive, loosely structured soundscapes with which he is usually associated.

Recorded and produced at Sonic Youth’s New Jersey studio, Between the Times and the Tides manages to capture the essence of Ranaldo’s distinctive guitar sound whilst offsetting it perfectly against taut melodies and Peter Buck-esque arpeggiated guitar lines. And, according to Ranaldo, it was within the confines of the studio that many of the songs began to take the form in which they appear on the record. “Initially I went in thinking I was going to be recording an acoustic album. But Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth) happened to be around so I had him play drums on some stuff and immediately saw that a lot of this material could open up to band performance, so I started moving more in that direction. We then tracked most of the songs – just guitar, bass and drums – and started sending those tapes out for people to hear, and I subsequently brought in Nels Cline and John Medeski for additional instrumentation, so I built it up in a lot of layers.”

With a combination of both new and vintage technology on offer at the band’s studio facility, Ranaldo was able to utilise the virtues of both analogue and digital in order to create the distinctive sound that beats at the heart of BTTATT. “Our studio is a really comfortable place; there’s no clock or money ticking away, and we have a mix of digital and analogue technology,” he explains. “There’s a beautiful old Neve 5106 Baby V board that we used a lot for mixing, and we recorded the album on two-inch tape with a Studer A800 MK III, which we then mixed down to an Ampex ATR 102 with half-inch tape. There was also a little Pro Tools used along the way but it was mostly made in analogue.” 

The mixing process was further complemented by the introduction of veteran Sonic Youth producer and long-time friend John Agnello to proceedings; someone whom Ranaldo cites as a key influence on the overall sound of the album. “John’s great in the studio. He’s really laid back and he’s one of these mixers/producers who doesn’t let the stress of the situation get to him, which makes it really fun to work with him. He brought a lot of stuff to the album. When we were doing the original rough mixes and preparing the tracks it was all very straightforward and simple. He then he did some ‘productiony’ things to it, which made it sound bigger than I had initially imagined it. At first I was a bit taken aback, as it sounded a little less naturalistic than I anticipated, but ultimately I really loved what he brought to the record.”

One of the key differences between BTTATT and his work with Sonic Youth was the radically different approach to the song writing process, with Ranaldo fully embodying the essence of the singer-songwriter, in contrast to the group dynamic that belies the Sonic Youth ethos. “The thing about Sonic Youth song writing is that everything is kind of group written, so even if someone brings in some ideas or sketches it all gets radically worked over by the group, so you get something at the end that is not really anyone’s handy work, as much as just this amalgam of everybody’s ideas.

“It felt very different from making a Sonic Youth record as it was all based around my ideas as opposed to a group of people all putting forward their ideas. It was more like people maybe adding voices or elements than completely working over the songs.”

While BTTATT is hardly his first venture as a vocalist, having adopted lead vocal duties on a number of Sonic Youth tracks over the years, the album does, however, represent Ranaldo’s first foray into the realm of the rock frontman. A daunting prospect for some, perhaps, but something that Ranaldo has managed to adapt to with relative ease, with a quiet confidence in his work allowing for a seamless transition into his new role. “I’ve always really enjoyed singing so it became normal for me pretty fast, mostly because I had a real confidence in these songs and I felt pretty good about the material, and at that point it’s not difficult if you feel that you’re presenting something that’s pretty strong.”

Clearly embracing this approach to writing, recording and performing, one certainly wonders whether this is a path that Ranaldo is keen to pursue on a full-time basis, especially given the uncertain future of Sonic Youth. “I have a feeling that nothing’s going to happen with Sonic Youth for a while, and that if it does it’ll probably be in a very revamped mode in a lot of ways. If I do think about Sonic Youth happening again at some point, and I don’t think it’ll be for a couple of years at least, I don’t imagine we’ll fall back into the same roles we did somehow. I imagine everything will be different, so I’m not really thinking about it that much, and I’m definitely having a lot of fun with this.

So, with Sonic Youth far from his mind, Ranaldo certainly appears more than content to throw himself fully behind his new solo pursuit, rendering a follow up to BTTATT far more likely to see the light of day before a new Sonic Youth release. “I think now that this has started I’m definitely going to continue doing it for a while. I’ve already got a whole batch more songs that I’m trying to work on, which is hard on the road but I feel that they could be really strong. The whole process of making this album, from the first acoustic demos, to the final mixes, was such an organic progression; it really was one of the most stress-free records I’ve ever worked on, in the sense that it was just super fun and logical at every stage of the game. It was just a really fun experience to make.”

Lee Ranaldo’s Between the Times and the Tides is available now on Matador Records.

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