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Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo on ‘using the studio as a tool’ on solo album Electric Trim

The Sonic Youth guitarist spoke to PSNEurope about Electric Trim, his third and most unexpected solo album to date

“I’m, like 61, so it’s a funny time to embark on a new stage of your career,” chuckles former Sonic Youth guitarist extraordinaire cum latter day troubadour Lee Ranaldo as we discuss his experimental new album Electric Trim. And despite the faintly ironic undertone in this statement, Electric Trim really does feel like something of a new start, which is saying something for a man who both pre and post-Sonic Youth’s 2011 split/hiatus – call it what you will – has never been afraid to venture from the confines of classic rock band set up into the farthest reaches of sonic possibility.

For 30 years, Sonic Youth were the touchstone for any alt rock band, consistently producing music that redefined the very notion of ‘guitar music’ and what it meant to play in a rock band. Not content simply to play around with tunings that would make your head spin, one would generally be more likely to see Ranaldo or fellow guitarist and vocalist Thurston Moore attacking their instruments with drumsticks and attempting to saw through their amp rig with them than simply strumming or picking at a guitar. Yet simmering just beneath the dirge was enough melody and craftsmanship to transform the potentially unlistenable into something visceral, exciting and quite often beautiful. And one could certainly argue that much of the band’s melodic underpinning was provided by Ranaldo’s unrivalled ability to blend fizzing, eviscerating guitar tones with a structure and discipline more typically associated with the classic singer songwriter. Indeed, his first two solo outings Between The Times And The Tides (2012) and Last Night On Earth (2013) with his band The Dust showcased an emphasis on traditional song structure that was seldom found among the Sonic Youth ranks, drawing comparisons to the likes of Neil Young and Bob Dylan.

This time around, Ranaldo decided to mix things up again, calling on Spanish producer Raül ‘Refree’ Fernandez to both co-write and co-produce the more expansive, meandering sonic petri dish that is Electric Trim. Gone are the more conventional song structures and focus on the guitar in favour of a more electronic, non-linear approach, complete with drum machines, samples and previously unexplored production techniques.

He’s also secured the services of a raft of collaborators for the record, both new and old. Regular cohorts along for the ride include Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Wilco’s Nels Cline, as well as first time guests Kid Millions and acclaimed singer songwriter Sharon Van Etten.

Here, we find out more about Ranaldo’s mission to “use the studio as a tool” and why this new way of working has inspired him to explore new production possibilities at this stage of his career…

This is a completely different sounding record to any of your previous work. Tell us about the production process.

This record is mainly a collaboration between me and my friend Raül Fernandez . We met in 2013 through some strange vagaries of scheduling and a gig that fell apart at the last minute in Morocco. We had a week off in Spain and we decided to make a very quick acoustic record with the whole band playing songs from my first couple of records. Then the promoters brought Raül in to mix and produce it. At the end of it he said that he’d love to work on a new record with me at some point, so we started talking and in the early months of 2015 I started sending him some really crude acoustic demos I was working on. 

Around April he said he was coming to New York, so we met in Sonic Youth’s studio in Hoboken, New Jersey, and we started working for a few days and were really excited by what we heard. We were building things up basically from nothing. It was a really interesting process, very different to how I normally work. There was no band, it was just us in the studio. We were experimenting with drum machines and samplers and playing around with arrangements. Then he or I would play a little electric guitar or piano and we basically built it up over a year, on and off. He’d come over for a few weeks at a time and we’d work really intensively on it. It was a record where we really utilised the studio as our primary tool, trying different things out with samples, electronics and then bringing in other musicians to add instrumentation. It was the kind of record that I’ve rarely worked on. In the late ‘80s/early ‘90s Sonic Youth made a record called Ciccone Youth where we worked in a similar fashion, coming into the studio with no real idea of what we were going to do.

Was it a deliberate move to try something so different, or did it happen organically?

On Raül‘s part it was somewhat deliberate because he wanted to make a record with me that sounded somewhat different and that challenged me to move away from a two guitars, drums, bass record. In terms of what’s going on in the arrangements, it’s a very different record to the last two I made. We wanted to try different colours. Also, when we were working on the record that became Acoustic Dust [an album of acoustic versions of songs from Ranaldo’s first two solo records] and he was getting the idea of working on a new project with me, I think he responded to my voice and the way I sang. In Spain he has been working with these two female vocalists singing in the flamenco style and they are both really powerful, amazing singers. I think he really likes to work with vocalists. And I really like to sing and we both knew going into this process that there’d be a lot of singing, a lot of harmonies. That’s one of the reasons we brought Sharon Van Etten in. I’ve always liked a woman’s voice next to mine and we wanted there to be a lot of places where we were working predominantly with the vocals and stacking up harmonies.

Also I wrote a lot of the lyrics for this album in collaboration with an old acquaintance of mine, Jonathan Lethem, who is a pretty widely known music writer and novelist. I knew he had done some lyrical collaboration before and for my last couple of records I’ve been wanting to try out the idea of working with somebody else on the lyrics, just to allow for some different stuff to happen. Jonathan responded right away and we had a really interesting collaboration. It put the lyrics on to a similar footing as what was going on with the music, which was unchartered territory for me. And that felt very experimental in a lot of very positive ways and put me in some new spaces where things happened that might not have happened if I’d just gone about these demos with my normal process – it would probably sound a lot more like a band record. This way it took some different twists and turns.

Did it feel strange to be letting go of your control over the songs?

Music is a very social medium, especially if you’re not just isolated in a room. For years I had this very social process of music with Sonic Youth; we wrote our music together, all of our names are on every songwriting credit because we really collaborated in a very specific way. Once I started making these records on my own it was a little bit more like being a film director, where you’re kind of in charge of the whole thing. This time, that role shifted to Raül a little bit. There was no hesitation at all, mainly because it was such a fascinating process. We were modelling this record a little bit on some of the classic records from the ‘60s and ‘70s that we love that were made in a similar way, where you couldn’t have made the record in quite the same way without the studio as a tool – records like Pet Sounds and Revolver and Dark Side Of The Moon. There were a lot of records at that time that were real studio creations.

I guess I always dreamed of working like that in the studio, because those records mean so much to me and have been such a huge part of my musical background. And like I said, Sonic Youth approached it at one point, but that wasn’t really our working method. We were more working from the sound that a band creates. When I made Between The Times And The Tides I wrote something in the liner notes about how the songs started with an acoustic guitar and ended with an electric band sound and liking the fact that the well-crafted song can stand the rigour of lots of different settings musically, from electric band to solo acoustic. A couple of years ago I sent a couple of my songs to a small orchestral ensemble… I could hear these songs being presented in many different ways and this album gave us a chance to explore different ideas of how to set a song.

How did the Sharon Van Etten collaboration come about?

Sharon and I have travelled in the same worlds for a bunch of years now but we hadn’t really met. [Raül and I] were talking about this record and having a woman come in and do vocals and somehow her name came up. So I cold called her and asked if she would be interested in coming to the studio. I guess I didn’t know she was a big Sonic Youth fan and she agreed right away. So she came to the studio and we really hit it off. She’s got an amazing voice. There were a lot of places where we really didn’t know what we wanted but we knew we wanted her to try some things with some really loose direction, and she just went with it and did some really beautiful stuff.

How did you record the album?

The record was done on Pro Tools HD. We didn’t really utilise tape, which is kind of a new experience for me because I’m so used to using tape to a large degree. But that’s the way people work these days, especially if you’re working on a record where you’re doing a lot of cutting and arranging in the computer. Sonic Youth’s studio has a Neve desk. We recorded it there and we mixed three of the songs in New York and six of the songs in Barcelona on a Trident desk that Raül had recently installed in his studio.

How different was the recording and production process?

It was pretty different. Partly because all these songs had many more tracks than anything I’m used to. Some of the songs had 70 or 80 tracks, just because of the way we kept building them up and discovering what worked with the layers we were adding. There were moments when Raül would turn to me and say, This is the most difficult thing I’ve mixed in my life! And there were other times when it was really easy.

Is this a way you’d like to work again, or would you move back to a more traditional way of working?

Me and Raül are already planning the next record. This record just wet our whistle. It established a few things and because of him being based in Barcelona and us working on it slowly over a year, that was really to our advantage. I don’t know who takes a year to make a record these days, other than maybe Taylor Swift or Kanye [West]. But it seemed like a very luxurious way to work and it really allowed these songs time to grow and attain their full potential. Working this way in the studio was so amazing and fascinating.

How do you plan on taking such a complex record on the road?

Well, I’m like 61 so it’s a funny time to embark on a new stage of your career, but I’m totally energised by all this stuff that’s happened over the past few years, and I feel like I’m more interested in trying out a bunch of different settings. Maybe there’ll be a string quartet in the set up in future. Who knows? We’re going to go out to tour this record in the US as a kind of chamber trio, with Raul on keyboards and electric guitar and me on acoustic guitar and a percussionist playing pieces of the drum kit and maybe some electronic drums – we don’t want to lock it into a regular band set up. I’m trying to keep as open a mind as possible as to the presentation of these songs. 

I’ve also been playing some concerts just me and acoustic guitar. They are usually seated concerts, so people aren’t standing around like they would be in a bar. People are sitting down in a nice theatre or an interesting place to hear music, like a library or a gallery space, not your typical bear-soaked rock club. That change of environment has enhanced the performance, I think. Also, I’ll be playing to between 150-500 people rather than 1,000-2,000 people. That level of intimacy has been really interesting. The rapport at at these intimate concerts is really interesting to me and I love feeling that close to the audience. It’s created an environment for the music to exist that is very different to playing in a rock club where people are drinking and talking in the background.

You’ve worked with Steve Shelley a lot since Sonic Youth split. Could you see yourself collaborating with any of the other Sonic Youth members on future records of yours?

I don’t have any sense of wanting to leave that in the past, and I’m sure if the opportunity presented itself and it seemed like a cool idea that that would be the kind of thing that could come to pass. Steve and I still live in the New York area and end up working a lot in the studio – he’s been a collaborator since Sonic Youth stopped. Over the last year or so Thurston and I have done some shows together, a couple of duo performances, maybe not playing his songs or my songs, but playing more abstract music. I would expect that at some point down the line something could happen. I would love to get Kim into the studio to play some guitar on something I was working on, but we haven’t found the time to do something like that yet. But I’d want to do it if the setting was right and it seemed like a good idea and not just because I wanted to get Sonic Youth members on my record. But we’re all in pretty close touch.”