Songwriter Interviews

Lee Ranaldo

by Greg Prato

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I have to admit, back in the late '80s, I fell victim to the "practice your guitar for hours on end/show off how technical you can play on the instrument" train of thought. But when I began discovering alt-rock bands like Sonic Youth circa the early '90s, I was introduced to a whole new concept of guitar playing: coming up with your own original style/approach. "Technicality" wasn't the most important thing... songwriting was.

One half of Sonic Youth's twin guitar tandem, Lee Ranaldo has been issuing solo albums since 1987 apart from the group, including his tenth solo release overall, Last Night on Earth (credited to Lee Ranaldo and the Dust) in 2013. And with Sonic Youth either on hiatus or completely finished (even Lee isn't sure himself - see the final question and answer below), it appears as though Lee's solo recording career will be his main focus for the foreseeable future.

I first spoke with Lee for an earlier book of mine, Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets, but this time, had the opportunity to discuss a variety of topics, including how Hurricane Sandy affected the writing of Last Night on Earth, coming up with interesting guitar tunings, the beauty of second-hand instruments, and the stories behind several classic tunes.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's start with the new album, Last Night on Earth.

Lee Ranaldo: The record came out of the work that started with the last record, really. I found I was continuing to write a bunch of songs, and after putting out Between the Times and the Tides and touring with the band for a year or so, I had a band together that felt pretty comfortable in its skin and feels pretty comfortable to me. So that had a big factor in the songs, how they shaped up for this record. They're much more band-oriented songs. Still starting on acoustic guitar for me, but bringing them to the band and working them out over some extended periods in the studio, developing the arrangements and things.

Songfacts: Is it true that the album was written in your apartment during Hurricane Sandy?

Lee: It's partially true. It's not the whole album. It's just a couple of songs. The title song, "Last Night on Earth," that one and this other song called "Blackt Out," those two songs were written - or at least sketched out - in that week after Sandy when we had no power or running water here in New York. At night you'd be sitting around by candlelight, so I was strumming a guitar and some of those songs started to happen.

Songfacts: How long did you lose power for?

Lee: We lost power for most of a week here. And it was pretty affecting - this neighborhood's been through a lot. It felt like a little bit of an echo of the period down here after September 11. The streets were desolate, no lights were on anywhere. It was like a weird ghost town at night. People were still here, because it's a neighborhood, but you'd kind of be wandering around in the dark.

Songfacts: Where are you based?

Lee: Manhattan. Lower Manhattan.

Songfacts: How would you describe songwriting when you're doing a solo project compared to songwriting for when you were with Sonic Youth?

Lee: Well, it's pretty easy, actually. Because with Sonic Youth, it was kind of a four-way street in a sense. We were all involved in the composition of the songs and in working them out. With Sonic Youth it was almost as though arranging the songs was writing the songs, and we'd all contribute to what a song sounded like in a very concerted way.

With this project, it's just my opinion, basically. It's just my vision. So it's a different kind of thing. It's bound to be more personal. There's something amazing to be said for a working quartet who are equally contributing to stuff, band-style songwriting, so it misses that in a way. It's a different thing.

Songfacts: As far as writing songs, do you primarily start on guitar, or have you written songs on other instruments over the years?

Lee: It's mostly been guitar. Occasionally a piano song, but mostly guitar.

Songfacts: Could you give an example of a song that didn't start on guitar?

Lee: I don't know if I could give you a good example. Most of them are on guitar.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?

Lee: Well, there's so many. There really are so many from all different periods. But with this project I'm thinking about songwriters that I grew up listening to, and in a way the web of it is ever-expanding. You know, David Crosby, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. And of course Dylan and Leonard Cohen. And just a widespread network beyond that in terms of songwriters, from Hank Williams to Jimmy Webb.

But I'm thinking of personal, confessional songwriters that I grew up listening to and can be more well-known or more obscure. Because it's all open tuning stuff - at least when I'm writing it - a lot of finger style playing. I'm thinking about John Fahey and people like that, as well, instrumental guitarists.

Songfacts: Some people don't know this, but you were a fan of the Grateful Dead, right?

Lee: I was.

Songfacts: Would you say that you're a fan of the Grateful Dead songwriting, as well?

Lee: I am a fan of it, in a certain way. I think they had some amazing songs across their years. It's funny, because their songs were often collaboratively written. They were rarely written by a single person. Garcia would work with Robert Hunter and Weir would work with John Barlow or some other combination of those four and more. But I like their songwriting a lot, and I like their playing a lot in its best periods. This record has a great debt to that interest of mine.

It's kind of funny, because I hadn't really thought about it in a long time, that music, but it definitely factors into some of what's going on in this record.

Songfacts: If the opportunity ever presented itself, would you consider collaborating with say, Robert Hunter, or maybe one of the Grateful Dead members, like Bob Weir?

Lee: I don't know. I guess it would depend on what the situation was. I certainly admire those guys and it would be interesting. Sometimes it's hard to work with someone who was once your hero, but you never know, it has been done.

In addition to helping popularize used, cheap, and obscure guitars (during a time when most rock guitarists seemed obsessed with how expensive and gadget-loaded their instrument could be), Sonic Youth also was experimenting with uncommon tunings. And it seems like mostly these tunings came out of necessity - it was to make these jalopy-like instruments sound presentable. But a whole appreciation of the group's tunings has developed over the years amongst guitarists, as evidenced by this chap on YouTube.
Songfacts: As far as Sonic Youth's interesting guitar tunings, was that pretty much a collaboration between you and also Thurston Moore, or was that something that you were dabbling in before Sonic Youth?

Lee: Well, I was dabbling in it since I started to learn how to play guitar. When I was still a teenager learning to play acoustic guitar, I had an older cousin who showed me one particular open tuning that a lot of people like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Joni Mitchell were using in the '60s. So I was playing a lot of stuff in open tuning early on. Then we both got to New York and I guess we were aware that people like the Velvet Underground experimented with strange tunings on guitars, you know, all high E strings or whatever.

But when we got to New York there were people like Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham that were doing their own version of open tunings - very specific art tunings. We immediately fell in with them, as well. So in a sense it was in the air, it was something that was going around. But it was reinforced on a couple of different levels. For me, from old '60s folky stuff and then late '70s New York art practice tunings. So we fell into it pretty quickly.

Songfacts: Could you give a tip to someone who may just be starting to experiment with tunings as far as how they can come up with their own interesting tunings?

Lee: Well, you just have to use your ears, really. I mean, there's lots of published alternate tunings, some that are widely used, like this open D tuning that I'm talking about earlier. But I'm just making them up. I'm not following anyone's prescribed method of what they should be. I'm just starting with my ears, twisting the strings a little bit and find something that sounds like something and then see if I can make some more out of it by threading the guitar or whatever.

Songfacts: To the best of my knowledge, Sonic Youth popularized secondhand guitars. Because back in the '80s, as far as the bands that weren't so much underground but were more mainstream, they were all playing pointy heavy metal type guitars.

Lee: They were. But everybody in New York and elsewhere was playing used gear, because it was all you could afford, and you could find good deals on really good guitars back then.

We were playing a lot of cheapie pawnshop guitars in the early days. Maybe it was more of a "New York thing" in that people here were willing to take a guitar that wouldn't sound right played in a normal standard tuning, and detune it or retune it to something where the tuning didn't matter as much as its effectiveness as a sound maker.

Songfacts: The bands from Seattle seemed to pick up on that and play secondhand guitars.

Lee: I guess so. But it was a matter of the same thing: that was what they could afford. So they found the vintage stuff that was really the right stuff for the music.

Songfacts: Let's talk about some specific songs, starting with "Lecce, Leaving."

Lee: Well, that song was written in a town in Italy called Lecce. It's down in the boot heel at the very bottom of the country where I spent some time in 2011 on a sound residency with my wife and our kids. That song was generated there, and it's loosely based on some images that I took from that place.

We were staying in an older Italian apartment that had marble floors, like a really old, old-fashioned apartment, really beautiful place. We were walking around in this old town that didn't have any tourists in it or anything like that. It just had something that stuck in my mind that got transferred to that song. I brought those chord changes with me to Italy, and it actually became a song there - I figured it out.

Songfacts: And what about "Mote," off the Goo album?

Lee: Well, the lyrics were based on some re-readings I was doing at the time of the poet Sylvia Plath - I was reading deeper into some of her poetry. She has a poem called "The Eye Mote" that I really liked. It's the idea of a dust mote or a speck of dust in your eye. That had something to do with those lyrics.

The first time I ever heard the name "Eric Emerson" was while flipping through the pages of a book about Blondie (Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie) that I had rented from my library in the early '90s. It turns out Emerson was a friend of Blondie's Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, and had parts in several Andy Warhol flicks (Chelsea Girls, Lonesome Cowboys, San Diego Surf, and Heat). He also fronted a glam-punk band, the Magic Tramps. But before his career could truly take off, he died in May 1975, less than a month from what would have been his 30th birthday, in New York City - the victim of what appeared to be a hit-and-run.
Songfacts: What about the song "Eric's Trip," off Daydream Nation?

Lee: Well, the first verse was taken down almost verbatim from a scene in Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls movie. I believe it was this guy named Eric Emerson who was around Warhol's Factory in the '60s. He was a so-called "house hippie" or something like that. In the movie he's on acid and he's talking in a rambling monologue: "I can't see anything at all, all I can see is me." That's the whole first verse of the song. I just noted it down and used it as a jumping off point.

Songfacts: I actually remember reading about Eric Emerson in some of the Warhol books. He was a singer of a band if I'm not mistaken?

Lee: Yes. I think he was. I don't know too much about his band. But I believe he was.

Songfacts: I believe Debbie Harry was friends with him, if I remember correctly?

Lee: Could be.

Songfacts: Looking back from a songwriting standpoint, what would you say is your favorite solo album and what is your favorite Sonic Youth album?

Lee: I don't know if I'd have an answer for you on either question. I certainly have a lot of abstract solo albums, but I've got two records that I feel are solo albums in a classic sense: Between the Times and the Tides and this new one. It would be pretty hard for me to pick between them right now, since I'm still so close to both of them.

And as far as Sonic Youth go, there's such a long list of them and I'm so invested in all of them that it would be very hard to single one out.

Songfacts: Okay. Last question: what do you predict for Sonic Youth's future?

Lee: No idea. No idea, in a nutshell. We're working on some archival projects. We've kind of solidified our tape archive over the last bunch of years, digitized it and all that stuff. So as far as historical stuff, there's bound to be more released. As far as any future work, it's completely anybody's guess right now.

March 7, 2014.
Get more at leeranaldo.com.

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