From early Macs to vinyl, Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo digs his tech relics
“In a weird twist of fate, music doesn’t take up any room in people’s lives now. It’s all on the internet.”
By Mike Mettler
Music pioneers have it tough. No, really; they do. Think about it. Break new and exciting sonic ground with your music and you’re almost immediately put on a pedestal, forever to be judged by the high quality of the work that put you up there in the first place. Some artists can handle the pressure and continue to search for and create new sounds, while others wither, burn out, and fade away like yesterday’s hashtags.
Guess which camp guitar maestro Lee Ranaldo falls into.
Ranaldo is one half of the thrilling avant-guitarist duo in the legendarily experimental alt-punk foursome Sonic Youth. He and fellow plank-spanking risk-taker Thurston Moore took open tunings and off-kilter rhythms and timbres to their absolute limits. Sonic Youth blazed an aurally jarring trail with touchstone albums like 1983’s no-wave classic Confusion Is Sex, 1988’s dramatic noisefest Daydream Nation, and 1992’s major-label soul-crusher Dirty, never once looking back until essentially calling it a day in 2011.
Since then, the four primary Youths have mostly gone their separate ways, with occasional collaborative intersections. For his part, Ranaldo has continued to push the aural envelope as evidenced by the sonic smorgasbord on display on his new solo album Electric Trim, recently released in multiple formats by Mute.
“We just really went for it on this record,” Ranaldo admitted to Digital Trends. “We spent a lot of time on the vocals, and I worked with [acclaimed novelist] Jonathan Lethem developing the lyrics for those vocals, which was a whole other process. I sang these songs a lot. I sang them about a million times, and the vocals definitely found their place and got better over time.”
Ranaldo added that he and his production partner, Raül Refree, made sure each of the nine songs on Electric Trim had their own individual identity.
“Every song has a different character to it,” he confirmed. “It’s a very varied record, and a nice listening experience. The song I sing with Sharon Van Etten, Last Looks, there’s nothing else like that on the record. You have this languid first section where I’m trading verses with Sharon, and then there’s the spoken part on the second half. Every song on the record is like that, in that it’s different and unique.”
Digital Trends got on the line with Ranaldo before he headed out on tour to discuss the uniquely kitschy vintage gear on display in the New Thing video, his vinyl-centric listening preferences, and when it was he felt Sonic Youth had made a significant onstage breakthrough. We also learned which big-name artist stuck up for the band’s right to “play whatever they want.”
Digital Trends: The opening track on Electric Trim, Moroccan Mountains, sets an interesting tone, because you go through a number of permutations with it. The back end has all those cool tempo shifts where you speed up and then pull back. It reminded me of The Velvet Underground’s Heroin [a pivotal track from 1967’s The Velvet Underground and Nico] and that “rush and run” section, with that level of tension.
Lee Ranaldo: Yeah, and that’s partly what I was thinking of with it. Early on, we thought it would be a cool song to lead off with: “Wow, it’s really a long song [clocking in at 7 and a half minutes], and a strange one to open a record. Maybe we should start with something a little more uptempo, like Circular or Uncle Skeleton.”
But in the end, we felt we’d start with something that lets people know that when they put that needle down on the first song, “This is going to be a different experience. It’s going to take its own time, and do its own thing.” I’m really glad we chose that one.
I totally agree with that. I also have to say, as a longtime vintage-gear hoarder — I mean, I’ve still got a Sony DAT player and my first Mac Plus here — I love what you did with that JVC TV capsule you carry around in the video for New Thing.
Oh yeah, cool. Very, very cool! I still have a couple of those early Macs too. I haven’t been able to let them go.
It’s hard to let go of vintage stuff, isn’t it?
I know! It’s kind of crazy, but I haven’t been able to either — so the video for New Thing was really fun to do, just for that reason.
And you guys found that old JVC unit on eBay, is that right? [Its full model name and number is the JVC 3100R television/radio pyramid capsule unit].
Yeah, Naomi Yang, the video director, who’s a former [bassist] member of Galaxie 500, found that on eBay. She sent me a picture of it and said, “What do you think about this?” It was $500 for a basically useless black-and-white TV-slash-AM/FM radio, so I was like, “I don’t know; it’s $500…”
I tried to talk her out of it, but the next day, she was like, “I bought it! I think it’s going to be great!” As it turns out, she was totally right.
When you were walking around the city with your head down and looking right at it, my first thought was, “I hope he didn’t trip over that cord, fall, or drop it!”
No, we did pretty good on that. (chuckles) We had a couple of people out of camera range guiding us because Naomi was walking backwards most of the time. It worked out pretty well.
I also really like the scene near the end where you’re sitting with it on your lap on the subway.
The scenes on the subway were the last scenes we shot. We just barged onto the train, sat down, and went right to filming it. Some of the people in the car got a little (pauses) … irate.(chuckles)
I was wondering if those were extras seated near you, or real passengers. Like the guy in the headphones next to you — the look he gives you when you first sit down is classic New York right there, like, “What the f—? What is this guy doing?”
He moved away, and started yelling. (laughs) It was funny.
It was! As someone who’s been a vinyl fan all his life, how do you feel about seeing the revival that’s been going on with it lately? Well, it never left for some of us, but you know what I mean.
Yeah, and I’ve gotten more vinyl than ever these days. It never stopped for me, but I find that I do play more vinyl now. Whenever I work on an album and the time comes to do all the artwork, the only thing I think of is the LP artwork. When we worked on the Electric Trimartwork, we spent weeks and weeks making the LP artwork great, and then the CD artwork came together in a day or two. The LP is what’s important to me.
It’s kind of cool that it’s coming back. The only thing weird about it is, it takes up so much room! I think that’s why people tried to get away from it at some point. In a weird twist of fate, music doesn’t take up any room in people’s lives now; it’s all on the internet. It’s all on Spotify, Apple Music, or wherever it is, and people don’t have a physical collection at all, which is strange.
But for me, the stuff I really like, I like to own. I still have that kind of library mentality, so I still love to own vinyl with all the big artwork and be able to read all the credits rather than have CDs or cassettes. I’d rather have vinyl and a download code than a CD any day. One thing I always hated with CDs is when people started putting 65 to 75 minutes on their albums.
Right? It was fatiguing. I think artists were better editors when they only had to do 45 minutes, and put all of their A material on an album. In the CD age, it was like, “Well, these might have been B-sides or left as unfinished pieces, but let’s just put the whole kitchen sink on there.” I think the overall quality of albums suffered because of that.
Yeah, I think so too. It was something different when Bob Dylan did Blonde on Blonde (1966), or The Beatles did The White Album (1968) — they were special editions where they had a lot to say, and with a lot of material. But then there was a point where everybody’s album was 70 minutes long — and, yeah, nobody got to the end of half of those records.
Coming back to the present day with vinyl, you again have to be concerned with how much bass content you put on an album so the needle doesn’t jump out of the groove.
I know — it’s true! At one point, we toyed with the idea of making this a double 45 [rpm] album: “Man, wouldn’t that sound great?” In the end, we didn’t do it, but it was definitely on our minds, to get the best vinyl sound that we could.
One thing I always loved about vinyl was the length of a side, around 20 or 22 minutes. That’s the perfect length of an attention span for listening time, you know? You could listen, and give it all your attention. Put on something that’s 70 minutes, and nobody’s sticking around past the first 20 or 30 minutes.
So true. Finally, I have to say how proud I was to see Sonic Youth open for Neil Young & Crazy Horse at Madison Square Garden in New York back in the day [February 4, 1991]. It was just fantastic to watch an audience literally not know what was hitting them after you took the stage. To get a Sonic Youth set, which I was used to seeing in small clubs like Maxwell’s in Hoboken, translated to the bigger arena stage was really something special.
That was like two weeks into a three-month tour with Neil, and those were kind of critical shows for us. Before that, we had never played in hockey arenas, and Neil’s crew had never had to deal with an opening band like us before — and they were not super-happy about it. They thought we were a bunch of jokers, quite frankly. They later warmed up to us, but they had to learn how to accommodate us on Neil’s stage. Neil was into it, of course.
His sound people were kind of squashing what we could do onstage — keeping the volume down, and all that stuff. Right around the time of those shows at the Garden, we were told we could play as loud as we wanted, but there was a lot of pushback. And Neil was like, “Look — these guys are my guests. I invited them on this tour, and they can do whatever they want.” After he said that, I think it got better, so the Garden shows were really what did it for us early on, at that level.
Isn’t it interesting that when you listen to Sonic Youth songs like Dirty Boots [from 1990’s Goo] and The Diamond Sea [from 1995’s Washing Machine] now, the impact isn’t as startling as it was back then? Do you think that’s because Sonic Youth brought a certain kind of sound to a whole new generation of listeners?
I think so. It was something that set us apart in the early days — that we didn’t sound like anybody else, especially with those tunings.
Is it ironic that Sonic Youth became … what? I don’t think we can quite call you “mainstream” …
No, I don’t think we ever did become mainstream! (both laugh) A lot of people heard about us, but fewer people actually heard us and dug into the music. But when we were about eight or ten years into our career, other people were discovering what we did, and they all started to do similar kinds of stuff.
This article was originally posted on Digital Trends