JPG: The final number on the album, “At the Forks.” It’s the last number, and when I think of “forks” I think of fork in the road, “Which way do I go?” Since Electric Trim was one type of record and this is a different type of record…fork in the road. Do you have an idea where your next collaboration with Raul may go or where it’s already going?
LR: I tend to think that the next things we do together are going to compound on what we’ve learned with this record because we stretched ourselves in a whole bunch of different directions on this record. It was an interesting evolution because the first tracks we made started from acoustic guitar and digital machines. A little bit later, we started recording more percussive things — marimbas and these old gamelan instruments that Sonic Youth had dragged back from Indonesia in the ’90s — and this old, weird cassette machine that I used to perform with 20 years ago, this crazy modified cassette machine that you can speed up and slow down the tapes and play them forwards and backwards and all this crazy stuff. And we started bringing in these old real analog elements, like these hissy cassette tapes.
By the time we were done, we had really
tried a whole bunch of new avenues. The songs on this record represent a whole
bunch of different new avenues that we could potentially explore further and I
would think the next batch of songs that we make, whether it’s an album or just
the next two to four tracks, are gonna to expand on the stuff we created with
It’s funny about that track “At the Forks” because it’s one of the first ones we created. And it is kind of cool that it got these connotations that you just brought up, that it’s the last track on the record and, yeah, there’s a sense of you’re at a fork in the road or something like that, but it has a slightly more innocent genesis which is that the forks…the song “Names of North End Women” is about this place in Winnipeg in Central Canada in Manitoba, my wife’s hometown, and the Forks is another place there where the two big rivers in town meet and it’s a gathering place for the population, a place where you go skating on the river in the winter time and there’s an indoor shopping center there with all these cool shops and things.
So, it was built around another place in
Winnipeg but it does represent what you were saying in terms of we’ve
just created this record that has this whole new set of directions to it and
you get to the last song and, and maybe there’s this sense of possibilities in
front of us and having to choose something. That’s an interesting
interpretation of it that I like a lot.
JPG: Well, you’re welcome. Consider yourself lucky because I’m normally horrible at interpreting poems and lyrics and symbols.
LR: (laughs) There were a bunch of circular arcs on this record. The first song and the last song were the first songs we created. They’re both built on the same small little guitar riff used in different ways in each of those songs. There’s already this circular thing happening between the first song and the last song. I don’t even think we realized it when we sequenced the record, and somebody pointed out to me the other day that they both share a lyrical line about a road to nowhere. So, you start with the very first song, one of the very first lines is something about a road to nowhere and then the last one brings this line back as part of the lyrics. There’s a sense of we’re playing around with a lot of elements and using them in different ways on all these songs. Maybe it’s kind of a spiraling sense of some ideas that we’re going to work further with as we continue.
JPG: That’s pretty cool that it subconsciously worked out like that. Musically, because of all the progressive percussive instruments used that there were moments such as the title track and “Light Years Out” that reminded me of work by like Mickey Hart or Peter Gabriel around the time of his album Security.
LR: Sure, sure. Obviously, Mickey’s stuff is super percussion heavy and he gets into a lot of different spaces that way. The Peter Gabriel stuff was challenging conventions of what music could be at that moment in time. That’s really what we wanted to do with this record. We wanted to free ourselves from whatever hats people thought we wore and try some different stuff. We knew that percussive stuff and vocals were going to be two of the centerpieces that we wanted to work on with this record. We really wanted to, like I said before, to introduce the vocals earlier and to really center a lot of the tracks around the vocal work. Partly for me over the last few records, the vocals have been coming more to the front in terms of something that I’m really interested in working on.
For the last couple of years, I kept saying I’m someone who was a guitarist who also sang to now being someone who’s a singer who also plays guitar. That’s been the shift a little bit, the vocals and the lyrics and the words and, again, bringing [writer] Jonathan Lethem to collaborate on some of those lyrics. That was really in the front line on this record. We really concentrated on the vocals. They grounded the pieces in general more so whereas in the past I would probably say the guitars and the guitar chord changes and stuff like that really set the tone for what was going on. On this record, it’s much more vocal-driven.
JPG: I see it at some point in the future, “Americana artist Lee Ranaldo.”
LR: Yeah. When we first started making this record, I was calling it electronic folk because we were still working with acoustic guitars and yet we were putting all these samplers and stuff on top of it and yet it never really lost that, if not Americana, at least to me it never really lost this certain kind of folk music sensibility in a certain way with just playing around with acoustic guitars in a certain way. So, maybe it’s an update, a cross pollination of the two things.
JPG: I was kidding, a bit, with that comment but your response was illuminating. Now, this ties into what we talked about in the beginning. I saw on your website about the collaboration with Jim Jarmusch, Marc Urcelli and Balazs Pandi. Tell me about that collaboration. Are you still playing Victoriaville [in Ontario] because I see that listed in May?
LR: That’s up in the air at the moment,
also. I don’t really know what’s going to happen with that festival. [Editor’s
Note: It has since been cancelled.]
I’m supposed to play there as well with this Italian duo called My Cat Is An Alien that has been a friend of Sonic Youth for 20 years now and I don’t know if they’re going to get out of Italy at this point to get there to that festival. Who knows at this point? That’s up in the air.
I was really looking forward to that because it would be a first for this project with Jim to play out live. That was a really fun record to cut and I was looking forward to playing live. There’ll be only a few dates if we do anything at all just ‘cause Jim’s so busy doing other stuff.
It’s improv sessions. It’s all
instrumental. It took place in a very prescribed studio session or two where we
recorded all this stuff. We actually recorded enough for a couple of records.
The one that came out six or eight months ago, it’s made it’s way out there and
was really well-received, which I was very happy with. Marc Urcelli works in a
really great studio here in Manhattan and he came up with this idea. He knew
that we all knew each other and he was like, “Let’s just go in and record some
stuff and see what we come up with,” and we all really liked what we came up
with. It was right as Jim was starting to make that last film, the zombie film.
I don’t know if it’s an ongoing collaboration or what at this point but we
definitely got a lot of material out of it.
JPG: That’s cool. Besides the new album with Raul, do you have any other art projects or books or anything else coming up?
LR: Well, I’m working on a couple different art projects and art music, kind of crossover projects. I was supposed to go to Texas at the end of this month before we went to Europe to do something. In the 90s I made this record, this CD, called “Amarillo Ramp.” It was inspired by this earth art piece by this guy Robert Smithson. I’m really involved in his work. He did the “Spiral Jetty” out in Utah. And there’s a couple other of his earth art pieces out in the world, one’s in Holland and one’s in Texas. Somebody I know works on this ranch in Texas where this piece is. So, last year I went out and visited it for the first time and we had this idea to go back there and film me performing this piece I wrote about the place and the work at the site where it is. That was supposed to happen 10 days from now and, of course, that was a university-sponsored trip and that’s been canceled now as well.
I’m working on a couple ideas for musical interventions with two of these earth art pieces by this guy Robert Smithson.The one in Texas is definitely gonna happen somewhere down the line. There’s another piece in Holland that I’m working with his foundational estate to maybe do a larger piece involving a whole bunch of musicians out in this landscape where this other piece is.
So, I’m working on these longer-term projects like that. And, there’s a book I put out last year that I self-manufactured and was selling at gigs called “Some Writings On Music and Musicians.” It was small collection, a little pocket book, of writings based on music and about different musicians that I’ve encountered. I’m working on an expanded volume of that right now. There’s actually going to be a Spanish language volume, this expanded edition sometime this year and I’m working with American publishers. I’ve got a couple of different book-related projects in the works.
JPG: Do you think with the extra time on your hands right now that writing may evolve into a Lee Ranaldo autobiography spanning from pre-Sonic Youth to where you are?
LR: That’s an interesting thing to entertain but I think you’ve got to really set aside a big block of time to do something like that and do all the research and put it together. I’m not thinking along those lines at this point. I know that everyone on the planet is writing their memoir. It’s almost something you’ve got to do at this point but I still feel like I would push that down the line. There’s more pressing things than telling my life story right now.
I like the idea of collecting the stuff
I’ve written about music and I continue to write about music. I’m working on a
project with the Bob Dylan archives out in Tulsa that initiated last year and
I’m writing something for there. They’re building a study center out there to
have with Dylan’s archives and when it opens next year or the year after,
they’re gonna launch it with this catalog of various essays on objects and
items in their collection.
I spent a week out there combing through their archives and choosing a couple of things to write about for them. I’m deep into Dylan, so that’s gonna be an ongoing relationship with them. I’m already working on some stuff beyond this essay. I’m writing for them some Dylan-related stuff. It’s cool to have this place where so much of his archive is centered right now to be able to go out there and poke around and see his handwritten manuscripts or all the video from album sessions and things like that.