Lee Ranaldo returns to his former label full of exciting musical approaches that moves him further away from the band he co-founded, Sonic Youth.
His latest solo release, Electric Trim, marks a successful collaboration with producer Raül “Refree” Fernandez who encouraged the veteran musician to explore new sonic territories and production techniques that involve electronic beats and samples along with live players including Nels Cline (Wilco), Sharon Van Etten, Kid Millions (aka Man Forever), the members of his previous backing band, The Dust, (Steve Shelley, guitarist Alan Licht, and bassist Tim Luntzel) and his son, Cody.
“Moroccan Mountains” and “Uncle Skeleton” reflect his renewed interest in playing acoustic guitar while Van Etten sings on six of the tracks and duets with Ranaldo on “Last Looks.” It also includes lyrical collaborations with award-winning New York author Jonathan Lethem.
The nine-track album marks a return to Mute Records, which according to Ranaldao is a “homecoming of sorts as Sonic Youth’s early records were released on Blast First/Mute. To me Mute has always been a true artist’s label, concentrating first and foremost on the music. I can’t wait for everyone to hear this music.”
Among other subjects our conversation discusses the making of Electrim Trim, the influence of the Grateful Dead on his recent work, his experience at the Fare Thee Well shows, his return to acoustic guitar playing and his latest works as a visual artist.
JPG: On your previous album it was Lee Ranaldo & the Dust but this one is just your name yet you use some of the same musicians. Any reason for going back to being billed as a solo artist?
Well, I’m not actually just using the Dust guys on this, and there was another interim band in between. I went to Europe with a band called El Rayo, which includes Raul Fernandez who is the producer of Electric Trim. He’s still in the band but because it’s not all of those people, we’re not calling it El Rayo either.
The guys in the Dust, Steve Shelley, Alan Licht and Tim Luntzel…Tim Luntzel just passed away. So, that puts the kibosh on the Dust as far as my thinking about it goes. Steve’s been playing a lot with Thurston [Moore] lately and he’s not been available. So, right now, I’m just calling it Lee Ranaldo Band. Just make it simple. There’s no real band name right now. That’s where we’re at with it.
JPG: Before talking about the new album, I wanted to bring up that the last time I spoke to you, I ran into you on Michigan Avenue in Chicago and we were both on our way to Fare Thee Well at Soldier Field. So, we discussed your interview with Mickey Hart in Relix and our thoughts on the previous night’s two shows. And then, I ran into you when the show was over.
LR: Do remember which night that was?
JPG: It was the final night, Sunday.
LR: That was a thrilling night for me. We ended up backstage, which was super cool. I went out there to merely play the after party the first night, and they gave me tickets to that first day [of FTW]. The gig was so amazing that I was like, “I can’t leave now. I’ve got to see tomorrow night.” Then, tomorrow night came and I said, “I’ve got to see the last night.”
I have three really close buddies from high school that I’m still very close to and we shared a lot of Grateful Dead experiences back in the day. When they heard that I was going up there for the show, one after the other said, “Oh man, you’re going? I want to come.” A second friend said, “I’m gonna meet you there.” And then a third one until all four of us were there. So, all four of us went to the first night. Initially, that was all that was planned. Then, one guy went home and three of us said, “We’re staying!” and we went the next night. After the second night another guy went home. Finally, just my super-close friend that I went to a lot of shows with and I went to the last night, and I ended up backstage somehow. So, that was really fun.
JPG: Those were some great and emotional times.
LR: I would definitely say that. It’s taken me awhile to come back around to the Dead. The last five years have really been about that for me. Those shows were just so emotional in so many ways in terms of just bringing me back to all the shows I saw in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.
JPG: It’s always interesting to hear musicians such as yourself who were part of punk rock/college rock/alternative rock talk about their affection for the Grateful Dead because for the longest time that was never mentioned in music articles or interviews. That changed in the last five to 10 years.
LR: It was like a lot of people were always in public and in print down on them. I never was down on them. I always admitted that I loved them once upon a time and I would always say, “I’m just not there anymore.” But, a lot of people that talked down about them all of a sudden have come back around and have been like, “Oh, I was always into the Dead.” (laughs) It’s kind of funny.
JPG: In regards to your work, I see a connection with how going acoustic on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty energized the Dead creatively and that seems to have done the same with you playing songs and shows on acoustic guitar. Re-energized may not be the right word but it’s definitely inspired you.
LR: Yes, definitely. I wouldn’t say re-energized but I would definitely say energized. What’s funny for me is that it in a lot of ways it tied me back into…I started on an acoustic guitar when I was first learning guitar. I pretty much played acoustic guitar through my whole life; all through the Sonic Youth period and everything, just never in public.
It came about when a promoter friend of mine in France, five or six years ago, said, “I want to do a solo gig with you at my festival but I insist that you play acoustic guitar.” I hadn’t played an acoustic guitar show in probably 20 years at that point. He kept hammering at me and I finally agreed to do it. It was right when I was writing those first songs for [2012 solo album] Between the Times and the Tides. I was like, “Okay. I’ll figure out how to do it. I’ll play a couple of Sonic Youth songs and some of my new ones.” It worked. It just tied me into so many different things that I loved. I love the Dead’s acoustic period. I love that Neil Young bounces back and forth between electric and acoustic…Dylan and a lot of other people. It opened up a whole new thing to me.
People sometimes say, “You moved from being in a really radical music situation to now being in a really traditional music situation” just because that’s what they think of when they think of acoustic guitar. I always say that for myself in a way this is the most radical transition I could make after 30 years of electric sound music to acoustic guitar. So, I feel like some experimental troubadour. (slight laugh) That’s the response I give to them.
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