The blossoming creative partnership between Lee Ranaldo and Raul Refree reflects where the artists have been and where they may be going.
The latter produced Ranaldo’s guitar-centric albums Acoustic Dust (2014) and Electric Trim (2017). Then, the two collaborated and shared billing on the recently-released Names of North End Women. Guitars barely make a presence on the eight tracks, which favor a more collage-like approach to songwriting and arranging.
“This album loosens the bonds from the idea of what songs can be,” said Ranaldo. “Raül and I are excited to see where we can push it further.”
Excited by this “new configuration,” Ranaldo – Sonic Youth co-founder and ranked by Rolling Stone and Spin as one of the greatest guitarists of his generation – and Refree – flamenco guitar innovator and producer/arranger of Rosalía’s internationally-acclaimed debut, Los angeles – incorporate percussive instruments, tape manipulations and spoken word on the new album.
“This record began as playing with samplers and cassette players,” said Refree,“as experimental music, musique concrete, polyrhythms.”
During our conversation Ranaldo explained how the process of recording Names of North End Women eventually coalesced into non-traditional yet embracing songs. Through that the material simultaneously became artistic in nature yet contemplative for our current times of self-isolation.
I spoke with Ranaldo just as the world was changing due to the spread of the Coronavirus. Living in New York, he discussed how different life is in what is now a less bustling city as well as reassessing what to do next following cancellations of shows in Europe, Texas and his hometown and the uncertainty of others taking place this year.
How are you dealing with everything that’s happening due to the
LR: It’s definitely getting a little weird. Being out on the streets yesterday, it was the first day that I was on the subway and thinking, “Is this a weird thing to be doing right now, being on the subway with all these people in close quarters, people wearing like rubber gloves to hold the rails and stuff like that?” We did some food shopping yesterday and the shelves are weirdly, strangely empty.
Most of life has been going on, although, I
was supposed to play an art gallery show last night that got canceled and I was
supposed to go to Texas next week to do some film event and that’s canceled.
I’ve got a new album come out and we had a month long tour in Europe in April
and that’s been canceled.
It’s time to think outside the box. Basically, it’s a moment when for large parts of the world, whatever they had planned is going up in smoke. So, it’s an interesting time to have that happen. That doesn’t happen very often when plans all over the world go up in smoke and you have to just be where you are. If you’re stranded in a foreign country and can’t get home, you just have to make the best of it, whatever it is. So, we’re rolling with it so far. Waiting to see what’s going to happen.
We’ve got festival dates in Europe in June, I think it is,
and we’re still not sure if those are going to happen or not. Who knows right
now how long will this go on? I thought yesterday Mayor de Blasio was talking
about six months or something like that. It’s hard to imagine that that would
be the case but…
JPG: In your case because of people that you know and also how you work musically and visually I would think you could set something up as a visual online presentation.
LR: Do you know that’s exactly what has been started to get bandied about. I started thinking about that a couple of days ago and all of a sudden other people have been mentioning it to me. It’s something that a lot of people are wondering about right now. How do you create a virtual presence in a moment when you can’t create an actual presence?
Depending on how long this thing lasts, I
think that a lot of people are gonna brainstorm ways to do live stream events,
exclusive live stream events in concert at eight o’clock on your computer
screen or whatever it is. I don’t know how effective it’ll be for large groups
of artists to do that but certainly those who get started early will, maybe,
get a little bit more traction out of just being the first to try and do it.
JPG: Let’s move from the strangeness of the world to something that can console us – art. On your new album you’re working with Raul Refree (Fernandez) again. We spoke several years ago when Electric Trim came out, which he co-produced with you. This one went to a different place than that album did.
LR: Yeah, yeah. We certainly have. It’s partly just an
indication of the evolution of our working relationship together. That album
was in a way a first step away from what I’d been doing before that; basically,
two guitars, bass, drums, band format. When we got back together to make this
record, we imagined we were going to start in a similar fashion but so many
things had happened in the interim. We’ve been interested in so many new ideas
and we’d actually gone out on the road together and tried two or three
different versions of a band format, looking for what the right thing was and
finding in the end in this trio format that we had for the last couple of tours
we went out and did. Raul was coming off a project that he did for the Sonar
festival where he was working with a lot of high-tech equipment like samplers
and drum machines and stuff.
As soon as we got together, even though I brought in demos in the same fashion that was how we started the previous record, we just took off in a new direction, almost immediately. We wanted to reference different musical points in terms of what we were thinking about while we were trying to make these tracks and we were reacting a little bit to certain ways in which we worked on the last record and certain ways in which we structured the songs, things like that.
It’s kind of a testament to the fact that our main thing together is just to be as experimental as possible in the studioand the experiment this time took a much more…for starters, they took a more electronic feel and then we still were recording a lot of stuff. We just weren’t recording a lot of guitars overall.
As we got more into recording gamelan instruments and marimbas and vibes and stuff, we were mixing and matching a lot of stuff made with these high-tech digital machines and drum machines and mixing and matching it with a lot of stuff we were recording ourselves in the studio. We always have been kind of in this frame of mind of, “What does this song need? What does this section of the song need?” whereas in the past there was always a bed of guitar on everything as a given. In this case we almost put that in the same boat as all the other instruments like, “Where do we need guitar? Where don’t we need guitar?” rather than make a record in the rock world especially where guitar starts at the beginning of the first song and goes to the end of the last song.
We wanted to use the guitar in more
specific ways on this record without even being conscious of actually doing it.
It wasn’t like we put up signs with the red circle with the X through it
saying, “NO GUITARS” or something like that. It’s happened as we
evolved that there were places where we needed guitars, places where songs
started still from guitar demos like the old ones but we were using everything
a little more judiciously and we really wanted to make an open and more
atmospheric record. That meant we didn’t want to slather guitar distortion
across everything for starters.
JPG: It’s very different in regards to the sound of modern music. It’s very meditative in a lot of ways but then it’s also modern in some ways because there’s something like Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” with a slight repetitive rhythm that gives it, I don’t want to say sinister but it gives the song an underlying sense that something’s wrong. The minimalist rhythm is on your album but it also feels like it could be a soundtrack to an art piece as well.
LR: Yeah. For this kind of minimalist thing
on this record, I tend to write songs that have lots of changes and parts and
themes that come and go and we grappled with that alone on the last record.
When we started this record, one of the things we wanted to do was strip things
down. In a way, a lot of modern music is made like that these days where it’s
like that song you’re talking about by Billie Eilish. It’s kinda just one
rhythm movement that carries through the whole song, and most songs are made
that way these days like R&B and rap songs where a beat gets established
and then a bunch of vocalizations take place over the top of it without a
chorus and a bridge and…
We were trying to streamline some of this music a little bit more in that regard and make more landscape kind of tracks rather than a rock rhythm-driven tracks. That was definitely one of the things we started with was we wanted this stuff to be more open and airy and have fewer parts. With Electric Trim we worked the vocals up at the last stage of the process, which in some cases the songs were waiting around for me to finish lyrics and things like that. In the meantime we kept, “Well, let’s put another guitar on this,” something like that. The tracks may be a bit denser than they needed to be in some cases.
For this record, we knew we wanted to keep things open and as soon as we had anything down to work from, we wanted to start introducing vocals and get vocal lines in there, whether they were serious lyrics or melodic babble, just to lay placeholders in. We found we got a lot of keeper vocals right away, and having the vocals there really shapes the songs and allows the songs to exist with whatever instrumental backing was already there. We didn’t need to keep heaping more stuff on top of it.
We also knew we wanted to do a lot more
spoken word stuff, which we did a little bit of on Electric Trim. That was one thing Raul wanted to feature a little
bit more. We just wanted to branch out a little bit in general without having a
clear concept entering this record. We wanted to do some things different
sonically but we didn’t have a strict mandate or manifesto for what we were
trying to do with this record. We just knew we wanted to push a little bit
JPG: I’m getting a greater sense of this with what you’ve said so far but to put it in concrete terms about your creative approach, how does it change, if it changes, from being a member of a band to being a solo artist to now this, a duo collaboration?
LR: Well, being a member of a band is a special thing in a way, especially if it’s the kind of band that clicks in the way that Sonic Youth did where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts kind of thing. We felt like we had some special connection and creative force when we were working together. Moving from that into being a solo bandleader was interesting and, maybe, in a sense necessary. But one thing I love about music is the social aspect of it. So, even if you’re a bandleader, no matter who you are, you’re working with the people that are in your band and whether they’re getting credit for it or not, they are contributing to what makes the music happen. That’s what a band’s about. It’s a group of people making the music happen. Otherwise, everybody would go out as a solo artist with nobody else on the stage, and however little or great credit you give to the band that you’re working with they have a great influence on what’s going on and it’s a very social process together.
Sonic Youth was a group of four creators
and then I was out in this wilderness taking all that weight on my shoulders.
As with Sonic, when you get together with a band, you never can predict whether
you’re gonna work together for a year or for 10 years or in our case for 30
years. Each is impossible to predict but every once in awhile you find
collaborators that are meaningful in a longer term way and that’s what happened
when Raul and I met. We were each looking for someone to spark off of and it’s
slowly built. We did an acoustic record with my band, The Dust, before we did Electric
Trim and has gone on to the present day, now performing live and in a bunch
of different incarnations and working together on recorded projects. Although,
we each do a lot of other things, this relationship is pretty central for both
of us right now.
With this record we realized that we moved past the traditional artist-producer relationship. Frankly, we probably could’ve put both our names on the cover of the last record but with this one we certainly realized that, “Okay, we’re writing this music together. It’s gone beyond me bringing in demos at this point. We’re writing it together. We’re making it together.” We felt like this is a new band. This is an ongoing experimental project at this point that we’ll take whatever iteration each time we get together is going to take. This record moved us somewhere different than the last record and we feel free and open to have each record be its own different thing at this point as we explore different aspects of musical creativity that we’re interested in.