Artist On Artist: The Laurels Vs Lee Ranaldo
News posted Tuesday, October 2 2012 at 01:00 PM.
Related: Sonic Youth, The Laurels, Laurels, Lee Ranaldo.
The Laurels’ LUKE O’FARRELL and CONOR HANNAN get a priceless chance to pick the brain of Sonic Youth guitarist, solo artist and past You Am I producer LEE RANALDO ahead of supporting him at this month’s Melbourne Festival.
Luke: Between the Times and the Tides is being touted as your “first proper song-oriented studio album.” You’ve actually released quite a few records under your name since the late ’80s. Do you see a need to separate your more experimental work from your “song-based” records?
Lee: This is really the first song-based record, in terms of a full record of me singing my own songs. So there is a sense of “first.” And yes, I’ve been sort of referring to it as my “experimental folk singer” record, ha ha. So in that sense it’s just another experiment, but I’m pretty committed to the direction right now. It’s been super fun to see this grow and develop.
Luke: You’ve been heavily involved in improvisational music throughout your career. One of the most interesting was Contre Jour, a performance piece that incorporated a guitar swinging from the ceiling – or “suspended guitar phenomena,” as you referred to it. While Sonic Youth shares many of the same ideals in challenging musical conventions, do you find that there is more freedom for expression when you pursue these other avenues? Do you look at your improvisational pieces as an escape from the "restrictions" of pop music?
There were plenty of occasions where SY got “out there” in different experimental directions – from our SYR series of records to improvising with films or live on stage, often in collaboration with other artists, or playing 20th-century composer music; in fact, we always took pleasure in the fact that we felt our audience would stay with us through a whole number of different directions. But at the same time, we were basically built as an experimental rock unit, and that’s what we mostly did. I think each of us felt the freedom to go “further out” in personal situations. Certainly the suspended guitar performances have been pretty far out for me, and pretty satisfying as far as further exploration of the potential of the electric guitar. But I don’t think any of us ever felt the need to escape restrictions of any sort, whether expectations [for] pop or noise or improvisation or anything else.
Luke/Conor: I was reading about a performance you did in 2009 using noise instruments based on those of Luigi Russolo. In his manifesto, The Art of Noises, he stated that “the industrial revolution had given modern men a greater capacity to appreciate more complex sounds” and that he found “traditional melodic music confining and envisioned noise music as its future replacement.” Would you say that this ethos – and that of Futurist noise exploration more broadly – had an influence on your approach to constructing a "pop song"? And can you tell me more about the instruments (intonarumori) that were rebuilt for the performance?
The intonarumori were created at the turn of the 1900s, just as the “modern age” was beginning, and are considered the first instruments whose sounds were meant to reflect the nature of the industrial society, full of noises. They were recreated in 2009, and my improvising group Text of Light (who will be at Melbourne Festival this year alongside my band) did perform with them at that time. Last year I composed a piece of my own for these instruments and performed it in Miami for the 10th anniversary of Art Basel Miami.
Luke: You’re known for heavily customising your equipment in unique and innovative ways – one of my favourite examples is the installation of a single-coil pickup between the guitar’s bridge and tremolo (I’ve been meaning to try that mod out for years). The Moonlander is another custom instrument of yours that caught my eye. Can you tell me a bit more about that? Are there any other customised guitars or instruments outside of your Jazzblasters that you are particularly fond of?
Yeah, over the years there have been a bunch of other customized instruments. Yuri Landman, who built The Moonlander (which is a beast – I haven’t totally figured it out yet!) also built me a really cool “electric kalimba” type thing with these metal rods that you pluck. Steve Albini built us a 16-string Strat strung with all high E strings. Another guy built us an all-metal “acoustic” guitar with a speaker in the soundhole, which is pretty cool. And of course in the early days, I was modifying zithers and autoharps for live use with SY. Even just stuffing screwdrivers or drumsticks under the strings immediately creates a new instrument.
Luke: You Am I’s Sound As Ever is a hugely influential Australian album and you produced the record. Tim Rogers said you were “the sweetest man in the world and continue to be so.” Do you have any stories from those sessions you could share?
It was a really great period, working with You Am I. We did three records together, and Hi Fi Way is indeed the highlight, although I really enjoyed making all those records with them. I love Tim’s songs, first off. We try to remain in touch. While we were making Sound As Ever out in Minnesota – I’m a bit of a cycling nut and just starting to ride long-distance back then, every morning before our studio sessions. So I had this old road bike around. They always tell you not to pull the left-hand brake (front wheel) because you can pitch over the handlebars. Mark Tunaley – then their drummer – is the only person I’ve ever seen it happen to! So that was really cool. The guys spent a lot of time in NYC back then. My wife Leah [Singer] (GF back then) made their ‘Adam’s Ribs’ video and a couple others too, which was fun. Actually, one of the few acoustic shows I’ve done in NYC was back then, with Tim also on the bill.
Conor: I know you also began recording what would have been Townes Van Zandt’s last record. I love his work, and am always a little surprised at how well his music transcends genre. Flyin’ Shoes is filled with country and western affectations I would typically cringe at, yet I play it all the time. Without going into recording experiences, could you shed some light on your own identification with his music?
I love Townes’ music, but that was [Sonic Youth drummer] Steve Shelley who was working with him when he died. Steve knew Townes much better than I. Like so many other singer-songwriters that I’ve loved, Townes’ records really gave you a sense of the man behind them, a kind of intimate peek into an artist’s life. Inspiring.
Luke: Bands in the ’60s used to release an album every six months, whereas the creative output of most modern bands seems to be stagnated by industry timing, promotion and rhetoric. Sonic Youth worked hard to sustain constant recording and touring throughout the ’80s. It’s allowed you the freedom to pursue unconventional creative avenues without having to compromise your art. Why do you think it’s harder for modern bands to keep up with their peers’ output? Is it because of the industry or because of the artists?
It’s a bit of both, I think. Today they cycle demands you write/record/promote/tour/repeat and it does limit the immediacy of creativity in some ways. But on the other hand, anyone who sweats the time to create a record wants it to be heard as widely as they can, so you hop on the cycle ... That doesn’t mean it’s not possible to create in a different way, more continuously, with more immediacy. But I think you have to be luck to do that once you start to get a reputation. Because there become demands on you if you want to play the game. At the same time, there is so much music (and everything else) out there that it’s also nice to give folks time to digest what you’ve done and look forward to what you’re gonna do next.
Conor: I’ve recently been pouring over the catalogue to an exhibition of works by Gordon Matta-Clark, Trisha Brown and Laurie Anderson. I love that their work – and other artists and musicians of the period – was so informed by, and based upon, the aesthetics of New York itself. Growing up in 1990s Australia, [that] setting couldn’t be more exciting – not just the music or art, but the actual city of the 1970s and early ’80s. In his introduction to [his book] Lowlife, Luc Sante makes it sound almost post-apocalyptic. Obviously you’re always inspired by your environment, but do you feel like living and working in New York at this time shaped your own aesthetics? Or is this all just a romanticised notion?
I know that catalogue – my friend organised that show in London. Great show! There’s no doubt that being in NYC has shaped my thinking and creativity, it’s just not possible that it couldn’t. It’s such an inspiring place and there is always so much going on. Particularly in the period that I came to New York – late ’70s/early ’80s; the period just after the generation that included Matta-Clark, Smithson, et al – there was so much inspiring stuff going on, so much pushing of boundaries. It all seeped into the creative process of everyone around.
LEE RANALDO BAND TOUR
Sat, Oct 20 – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney, NSW
Sun, Oct 21 – Zoo, Brisbane, QLD
Thurs, Oct 23 – ACMI, Melbourne, VIC (Melbourne Festival; performance with Text of Light, not Lee Ranaldo Band)
Wed, Oct 24 – Hi-Fi, Melbourne, VIC (Melbourne Festival) – with The Laurels