Unplugging with Lee Ranaldo

The former Sonic Youth member talks about his musical evolution and his upcoming return to Israel.

Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth (photo credit: ANNA BOGACIOVAS)
Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth
(photo credit: ANNA BOGACIOVAS)
Lee Ranaldo is hailed as one of contemporary music’s most influential guitarists and lyricists. With good reason. He and his former band, Sonic Youth have built a reputation for some of the most experimental sounds in music, using a bevy of techniques, including unusual alternate guitar tuning and gutting their electric guitars and amplifiers to create the most difficult-to-replicate sounds in music (I challenge the reader to find a Sonic Youth cover band that can accurately cover any of their songs).
The New York City-based quartet that built a strong reputation for leading rock and roll into uncharted territory for three decades broke up in 2011, following the divorce of two of its founding members, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon.
Prior to the band’s demise, all four of the members had always developed their own individual style for the good of the band and for the good of music through side projects and releasing solo albums.
This is the first time that Ranaldo is approaching his solo career without having his full-time job to fall back on, something that he says is “exciting and new.”
“We are all excited to see what is out there to explore musically. It took a while for all of us to find our feet musically, but the music is evolving in interesting ways. We will all look back fondly at our time in Sonic Youth, but for all of us, this time is like a breath of fresh air,” he told The Jerusalem Post in a recent phone conversation.
At 61, Ranaldo refuses to rest on his laurels or rely on feeding nostalgic fans their favorite Sonic Youth tracks. To be fair, Sonic Youth fans that have seen the band in concert have learned the hard way that the band is strictly uncompromising when it comes to playing old tracks and will only do it on very rare and special occasions. Ranaldo is carrying on that tradition and his 12th full-length studio album, Electric Trim, will be the highlight of his upcoming performance on September 20 at the Einav Center in Tel Aviv.
“The show is going be a fun and intimate experience, not just a concert, I’ll be telling stories, showing videos – I think it will be fun,” he said.
Ranaldo is still reinventing himself and evolving his art, trading in his banged-up guitars and rewired amplifiers for a more acoustic sound, in what he called a “radical move in a way.”
“After 30-plus years of playing electric guitar and being really known for that and almost never playing an acoustic on stage, I felt like in some ways, the most experimental thing somebody like me can do is challenge myself to write songs and sing songs and play them simply with an acoustic presence instead of making a big ball of noise on stage that I guess everybody expects from me. I still do plenty of crazy abstract guitar shows, but for the past bunch of years I’ve really been concentrating on the acoustic guitar.”
“I just started reintroducing the electric guitar in my solo set, so when I come to Tel Aviv, I’ll be playing a solo set that incorporates electric and acoustic.”
Ranaldo has also made some other changes in his approach to making music. He described Sonic Youth’s approach to music as centering around their live performances, where, as he put it, “We tried to distill that energy and that essence we developed on stage into our studio albums.”
He has been taking the reverse approach, putting the musical focus in the studio and using the studio as a tool and working with Spanish producer Raul “Refree” Fernandez and producing records the way classic records he respects like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the Beatles’ Revolver or Sgt. Pepper and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
Ranaldo took full advantage of the potential within the studio and has even branched out into some electronic sounds the last time he recorded in the studio this past July.
“We’re just trying to do something really different and to me right now that’s super exciting.”
With ex-bandmate Moore being a vocal supporter of the BDS movement and as someone who is known to be left of center on the political spectrum, Ranaldo has received criticism from his peers about his upcoming trip to Israel. He understands where they are coming from but he emphasized that as someone who has visited and enjoyed the country (Sonic Youth performed in Tel Aviv in 1996) and appreciates the complexity of the situation, he will honor his commitment and has no intention to change his mind about bringing his guitar textures back to Israel.