Hard Times: Talking pandemics, acoustics and fingerstyle with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo

The music of Sonic Youth has expanded my perception of music, art, and what an electric guitar was capable of. The dense, distorted guitar interplay of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo—not to mention Kim Gordon’s incredible bass playing—shook my very core and changed how I heard music. So imagine my surprise in talking to Ranaldo, not about Jazzmasters or Marshall stacks, but Gurian guitars and Martins… and bicycles.

The reason? Ranaldo has just released In Virus Times, a reflective set of acoustic music that originally was released as a single, 20-minute-long track accompanying author Lucien Jean (it’s since been turned into four tracks, making a vinyl release manageable). While it’s as experimental as anything Sonic Youth put out, it also showcases a quieter side of Ranaldo. This is what one of the world’s most influential electric guitarists sounds like when he’s locked down at home, in the middle of a pandemic, with the TV on in the background and he reaches for a guitar, just like the rest of us. Of course, despite the instrument on-hand, it still sounds just like Lee Ranaldo.

Fretboard Journal: If I remember correctly, when your solo album Last Night on Earth came out, you said it was reflections on Hurricane Sandy. Do global crises result in albums from your end?

Lee Ranaldo: That one was really about how we were stuck here without any electricity for almost a week. There wasn’t really anything to do but strum on a guitar. That led to the development of some of the thematic things I was working on for that record. Maybe big crises, whether they’re global or relationship or whatever, are always fodder for songs in a way or for music. This was a really weird time. My last record, Names of North End Women, came out a week before lockdown, basically, the end of February 2020. My partner on that record, Raül Refree, and I did a couple of launch shows for that album at the very end of February. We had months of touring planned and everything fell apart.

It was devastating for me at the time. We had spent most of the last year creating this music and recording it and mixing it. And when everything stopped, I really wasn’t prepared to just start…sitting in my home, writing new music all of a sudden after having just gone through that birthing process. So I didn’t really touch a guitar or almost any instrument for like three or four months, I think. I was just so confused by what was happening, and I threw myself in to some other things. I started this series of watercolor drawings that extended for more than a year from March of 2020, and that took a lot of my energy. And it wasn’t until sporadically during the summer and after the summer that I started to work on music again.

And that fall, when anxiety was so high about both the election and the pandemic and COVID, I don’t know really what prompted it, but I picked up one of my guitars just out of the blue and spent some evenings right here in the room behind me. The sun was going down at night and we weren’t really turning lights on right away. So I set up some mics, and the room was dark, and I just spent some time recording. I had these thematic things I started working on.

It was all very simple. It was almost as though… I really felt like I was picking up the guitar after not having played very much at all in the intervening six months or something like that. I dabbled a little bit and I played a little on the piano and things like that, but I was really at a loss for what to do. And as it became more and more clear that we didn’t know how long we were going to be in this situation, the impetus for doing music just got away from me, in a sense.

And then over the course of these evenings, some things came to me, and I think because I hadn’t been playing and because I had no real—I didn’t realize I was making a record when I made these recordings. I set up the mics because I wanted to record in a nice situation, but I felt free to do very little, if that makes any sense. My sense of this music in various times is that it’s very minimal. And usually when you play a couple of chords, you want to add a couple more chords and you want things to get more and more complex.

I’m always one of these people that likes to simplify things, but it’s difficult sometimes. And in this case, since I was just playing for myself, I was just strumming chords and letting them ring and listening to them, like, bloom and die in this dark room. I must have recorded about 80 minutes of music with these few different themes, and then I spent a bunch of months structuring it and shaping it and working on the recordings until I had what basically became the record. So it was all done very casually.

Obviously, I did it here in the living room. You can hear some sirens on the street at points and people talking in the next room or whatever. But at one point, when I was getting to the mixing stage, I tried to see if I could filter a lot of that stuff out and it didn’t sound natural. And I came around to liking it because it just seemed in fitting with the whole nature of this endeavor. We’re locked at home, I’m sitting at home, our studio is closed down, and in the end, I really enjoyed the ambient quality of it.

FJ: Is the finished record all from that very first initial sit-down that you did?

LR: Pretty much. It mostly happened in one long session. I think I turned the recorder off two or three times, but I recorded 75 minutes or 80 minutes of music. When I was setting up the mics, the TV was on, MSNBC or something. It captured a couple minutes of a news broadcast about Trump and Biden and elections. This was prior to the election, but they were already talking about falsifying election returns and all this stuff. The first version of the piece I edited had about a minute of this radio broadcast at the beginning.

I really liked that prologue to the prelude to the piece, because it felt like it really set it in a certain time and place and really defined it in a way. Then we went through all these negotiations with MSNBC and they never give the rights to their stuff to be used in that way. It wasn’t a matter of them judging my work next to somebody else’s. They just flatly said, “We never do this and you can’t use it.” I was really tied to it. And then we eliminated it. And I came around to feeling like that was actually a good thing for the music, because it separated it from…who wants to hear a radio broadcast about Trump from September 2020 at this point, you know?

At the time, even though I felt like it pegged it in time, now I feel like it liberated the music in a way. So when I first turned it in to Mute, it still had that broadcast at the beginning. I have to say, I really thought they were going to come back and say, “This is nice, but we’ll wait for your next real record and you can do something else with this.” There are a couple of small labels, maybe you know this label, VDSQ? [It’s] Steve Lowenthal, who wrote that book on Fahey, and it’s a dedicated acoustic instrumental label.

I thought, “I’ll offer it to Mute because I’m under contract with them, but they’re going to say no, and then I’ll offer Steve, who I have promised a record to for a long time.” But Mute called me up almost immediately and was just like, “We really love this and we want to put it out.” I was a little surprised.

It’s a one-sided record with an etched thing on the other side.

That was all their idea. They were like, “Let’s put it all on one side of the record. It’s 22 minutes. It’ll fit.” I have to say, it’s a really artists-forward label. Just the fact that they were thinking about all this stuff really gave me a great feeling. They came up with the idea for the one-sided record and they knew I had done some etchings on previous records and they were like, “Why don’t you do an etching on the backside?” I was pretty pleased about that. Their tastes are wide-ranging.

FJ: In the liner notes, you gave special thanks to Allen for early feedback. I always wonder about this: If you or anyone were to present me with an improvised piece of music, there’d be no way that I would have the nerve or faculty to comment and tell you to change anything. I want to know what that dialogue looked like and how his feedback shaped it. It seems like a delicate matter when it comes to music like this.

LR: I’ll start by commenting on the phrase “improvised music.” [At the start], I didn’t have anything really structured. I had a few little themes I was working with. It may have started with open-ended free playing, where I was going from one theme to the other and moving back and forth. At one point I had more of these themes coming and going over the course of the piece, and I simplified it a little bit at some point, but it seems like a pretty structured piece to me at this point, even though its genesis was from sitting around just casually playing.

But Allen and I have worked together for a long time, and I wanted to get some feedback on it from someone. So it would seem pretty easy to send it to him and say, “Hey, what do you think?” He actually had some comments that straightened some things. At first, his comments related to how the Trump broadcast at the beginning segued into the music. And we talked about it as being the section in The Wizard of Oz where it goes from black and white to color when they open the door. I was keeping that transition subtle and he was like, “No, you should make more of that.” We talked about it a lot.

The main thing I talked to him about was the fact that one of my big listening experiences during the pandemic was listening to a lot of Morton Feldman’s music. If you know that music, it’s really empty and open and something happens and then there’s silence and then something else happens. There’s a lot of that. For weeks on end, I was just playing [Feldman’s] stuff on repeat, just filling the house all day long.

I really loved how much he was doing with so few elements. A cynical listener would say, “There’s nothing happening here.” But once you get inside it, it opens up and there’s so much happening. I felt like that was a really big influence on this work, because I was sitting around in this room and strumming chords and just listening to them.

Allen and I went back and forth about how this music related to that and ways it could be stronger. He just gave me his honest opinion about what worked and what he thought didn’t work, as well.

FJ: Most of us think of you as an electric guitarist. When you grab a guitar in your home, is it usually an acoustic?

LR: Almost always at this point. That’s been the case for a half a dozen years or more. I started as an acoustic guitar player, and that’s how I learned how to play fingerstyle guitar, learning Reverend Gary Davis songs by way of Jorma [Kaukonen], and really getting into fingerpicking at one point, and figuring out songs off records. But as one is wont to do, I gravitated to electric guitar. By the time Sonic Youth started, I’d been playing mostly electric guitar for ages, but I’ve always been an acoustic guitar player behind the scenes. For 30 years of Sonic Youth, I was playing electric guitar almost exclusively, at home I’d still pick up an acoustic guitar.

In the last few years of Sonic Youth, where I started writing the songs that would go on my first solo song record, I was writing them mostly on acoustic guitar. I just fell back in love with the acoustic guitar. I’ve got a lot of guitars. I’ve got a lot of electric guitars and the band has a whole lot of electric guitars, but I’ve also got a lot of acoustic guitars. I started doing shows with acoustic guitars with my band as a trio and a quartet, and I started doing some solo acoustic guitar shows. I really loved the nakedness and the intimacy of it.

When you’re doing acoustic concerts, at least for me, you’re playing in much smaller rooms. And there was some kind of intimate connection with the audience that I found was just so lovely. When I’m playing acoustic guitar live, I’ve got some pedals and an amp, and the guitar is miked, so it’s not straight acoustic, but it’s been really satisfying.

I found that playing acoustics, especially playing in all these open tunings when I’m working on something, I’m putting my fingers down and trying to find notes that work together in certain ways. All of that became much clearer on the acoustic guitar without the layer of distortion and noise and volume. I just really gravitated back to it. So these days it’s almost always an acoustic guitar. I’ve got six or eight of them laying around the house right now.

The funny thing about this record, and actually this entire COVID period: I have some really beautiful acoustics. I’ve got Martins from the ’20s and the ’40s, I’ve got Gibsons from the ’50s and ’60s. But in the last few years, pre-COVID, I bought a couple of really cheap guitars. And they’ve been the guitars that I’ve used almost exclusively in the last two years. One of them is a cheap Martin, the one in the record was made on. It’s an 00M.

I think it was only made for like a year or something. I tried to track down information on this guitar and there’s almost no information. I think it’s a plywood back and I think they turned it into that series that they call their Road Series.

I found this guitar in a shop in Montreal. It was used and was $275 Canadian. So it was really fucking cheap. I played it and I just fell in love with it. It had a pickup in it and everything. The other guitar I bought right before the pandemic was from a place in Ithaca, New York: Ithaca Guitar Works, which was a place I used to frequent when I went to school down the road in Binghamton. My son is there now at Cornell, so when we dropped him off for school in 2019, I went into the store. I’d become fascinated at that point with these Yamaha Red Label Nippon Gakki Guitars.

I knew that Elliot Smith was really into those guitars. I hadn’t really played them very much, but I decided I wanted to get one. I did all this research and I figured out which model I wanted. I’m really into the 000- or 00-sized bodies. I’ve got a couple of these Gurians…I fell in love with those guitars. When I was in high school, my buddy that I played with in a band had a Gurian and he was always like, “You’ve got to buy one of these guitars.” Just three or four years ago, I bought two, a rosewood one and a mahogany one. I absolutely love them. But I figured out which Nippon Gakki I wanted and walked into Ithaca Guitar Works. I was like, “They’re never going to have any of these guitars, let alone the one I want,” and they had it there! It was $300 and they said, “Tomorrow it goes on sale for $250.”

So I came back and bought it. I’ve got the two Gurians and a [Gibson] Nick Lucas and an old Martin Plectrum tenor over there—really classic guitars—but these are the two guitars I’ve been playing for the last two years. I don’t really know what it was, but I just was really gravitating to these lesser guitars for some reason, and really just getting so much pleasure out of the way they sounded, which made me feel good.

FJ: Did you try these compositions out on different guitars in front of a mic before you recorded this album?

LR: I did. When I first recorded it, I tried it on the Nick Lucas and one of the Gurians. For some reason, the cheap Martin was the one that seemed to have the voice for what I was doing. The resonance that it had for the chords I was playing. It’s just drop D tuning, it’s nothing very special. This guitar was the one. I put the other ones back and then I just went from there.

FJ: Back to Michael Gurian. We’ve featured him in our magazine and even did a short documentary on him. I consider him a dear friend.

LR: He is a really special guy. The other thing I loved about those guitars is one of the ones I have was literally built 10 blocks from here.

The other thing that I was obsessing about over the last six years or eight years is the Hoboken period of Guild Guitars, in particular because Sonic Youth’s studio was around the corner from where I am right now on Murray Street for a long time. At some point, that building got sold and we moved to Hoboken, to the building where Guild Guitars had their factory. They built their guitars there from the late ’50s to the late ’60s, when they moved to Rhode Island. And I was like, “I want to buy a guitar that was made in this building. I’ve spent 15 years or more of my life in this building.”

I haven’t really found a steel string one that I could afford, but they made these beautiful nylon string guitars in that period. And I bought what’s called a Mark I, or Mark III, I forget which, an all-mahogany, nylon-stringed guitar from the ’60s. And again, this guitar was $350. Those nylon-string Guilds from that period are dirt cheap, and it’s phenomenal. It really gave me a new impetus to play a nylon-stringed guitar for a while, which I still haven’t really recorded. But I’m happy to be able to find cheap guitars that I love as well as $3,000 guitars.

FJ: Since we’re talking acoustics, at some point, Sonic Youth’s path must have crossed with John Fahey’s. Did you ever chat with him about acoustics?

LR: Oh yeah. Both Thurston and I toured with John and got to know him pretty well. In the last six or eight years of his life, I did an East Coast tour with him, where we were riding up and down the East Coast in a car. Obviously, he’s a huge influence. My way to Fahey came through Kottke. I loved that very first 6- and 12-String Guitar record that Leo Kottke made on Takoma Records. That was my introduction to that music when I was very young, and through looking at the label and trying to figure out what else was on it, I came to Fahey’s music.

Fahey became much more important, especially because he was doing all this weird stuff with tape. When we were playing with him, he was playing an electric guitar most of the time.

So I was playing acoustic at our shows and he was playing electric with some pedals and doing all that weird stuff he did in the last decade of his life.

FJ: Speaking of your electrics, do you still have a space for the Sonic Youth stuff?

LR: We still have a studio. It’s been mostly shuttered for the last year.

FJ: I imagine that’s where you go to plug in and play loud.

LR: Pretty much. I’ve been a recent convert to really tiny little low-watt amplifiers. I’ve got a few scattered around my house. I stumbled on this place in Bloomington, Indiana, when I was there a couple of years ago doing something. I bought two. It’s a Truetone, and it was $75, and it’s a five-watt. I’ve got another one across the room that’s a two-watt that was a hundred dollars. I am just so into the sound of these little tiny amps right now. You can put a distortion box on it and make it sound like a Marshall stack if you want.

They’re ancient. I’ve been quizzing my friends at Fender now, “What’s the lowest-watt amp you’ve got?” But yes, that’s where I go to plug in and play loud. Although I don’t really do that very much these days.

FJ: Between Morton Feldman and you playing acoustic and everything that you just said, is it intimidating to go into that Sonic Youth rehearsal room and look at the walls of amplifiers and electric guitar effects and go, “Where do I begin?” Or does it come naturally to you and does stuff just unfold?

LR: I think probably a little bit of both. I love loud rock music and I still see it when I can, but I guess I’m at a moment where I feel like there’s so much of that out there in the world. And my ability to contribute something unique there is much smaller than if I branch out and do something different. I do this performance with my wife, Leah Singer, where I’ve got the electric guitar suspended from a cable and it’s swinging around and I’m playing it mostly with a bow. I do a lot of performances with electric guitar where I barely fret the thing at all. It’s all capo’d, it’s in a special tuning and I’m using a lot of effects and dragging it around, getting the resonance. Concrete floors are great because they have a little texture. You drag the neck and it’s resonating the body in all these fantastic ways.

When I’m doing this swinging guitar thing, oftentimes I’m in the middle of the circle around which the guitar swings and then the audience can be around me, and Leah’s film is behind them. It gets into this performative thing with the audience that’s been really, really cool. Nobody else is doing it. You can come and see that. You might like it, you might hate it, but you haven’t seen it before.

I feel like if I go out with a rock band, you’ve seen it a million times before. I guess I don’t feel like my ability is there to make it that unique at the moment. Right now I’m starting to get the urge to just make rock music for the sake of making it and not worry about any of those considerations, but going out and trying to do that and being older, it’s a bit of a young person’s game. I just feel like my energy is moving towards other things.

I hooked up some many years ago with this guy in Holland named Yuri Landman and he’s a builder. He builds weirdo stuff and he’s like a mad Dutch scientist. He built me a couple of weird guitars. He built me this guitar that everybody always asked me about because it’s on my Wikipedia page, it’s called the Moonlander. It’s got resonant strings and pickups all over the place. It’s super unwieldy. It’s almost impossible to strap it on and play it. But it’s got 20 or 30 strings and it’s just this crazy, noise-making instrument.

They’re really weird, they look really homemade, they’re like blocks of wood with pickups mounted on them and stuff. They’re guitar related, because I’m running them through all the effects pedals, but they’re also percussion based. I guess a lot of my guitar playing is a bit percussion based when you’re playing behind the bridge or whatever.

FJ: Back to that performance art piece with your wife: Do those guitars hold up after more than one performance, after being dragged around and swung around?

LR: Yeah. They’re pretty durable. For those, I use my Fender signature Jazzmaster. Our whole impetus when designing those was that we really wanted guitars that represented what we were playing onstage. We love those Jazzmasters, but all those fucking wheels and little toggle switches would constantly break down. We got to the point where all we wanted was a three-way switch and a volume knob, not even a tone control. We had our crew guys just start taking all that stuff out and putting some good solder joints in there. Since we were throwing the guitars around and utilizing them, we really wanted them to be durable. So we built them as strong as we could with as few moving parts, as little things to break.

So, they hold up pretty well. They can take quite a lot of dragging around and I’m playing them with sticks and mallets and stuff like that. Even though it presents this theatrical picture, it’s really all done in the name of trying to get some kind of tonality out of the guitar.

We used to have this song called “Expressway To Yr Skull,” which was our long set ender. We’d end the set where we were tapping on the back of the guitar necks. At some point, I realized if I leaned forward and the guitar stopped being muted by my body, that it had a different kind of resonant quality. That really sent me down this road of starting to hold it up with my hands, like as a fulcrum, and later tapping it with fuzzy mallets and later with sticks and bows and things like that.

In Sonic Youth, I started shoving screwdrivers under the strings. We were never afraid to do that stuff, but I was always in service of trying to get a certain tonality out of them. It just led me down this crazy path of playing them in different ways and using the capo to change tonalities and in the middle of the set, putting the capo on and off. That’s really where a lot of my interest in electric guitar lies right now.

FJ: We began our talk on the unplugged front, so I guess I’ll finish with a different way of unplugging: cycling. It seems to be a big part of your Instagram feed. How long has that been a part of your life?

LR: It’s been a part for a really long time. I remember cycling to rehearsals in the early ’90s, when our rehearsal space, every year and a half or two years, would move around. I had just a regular town bike, a flat bar bike, and was riding to rehearsals. At some point, I found an old Trek racing bike in the basement of my building. There’s a bike room and there’s all these abandoned bikes that look like they haven’t been ridden in 20 years. I fixed it up and started riding it.

At first, it was just therapeutic. Back then, I was listening to stuff on headphones, a lot of those Dylan Theme Time Radio Hours. They were an hour long and I’d go out and put that on and cycle along the Hudson River here on the bike path. One thing led to the other: I got more seriously into it, I bought myself a modern road bike, a really nice bike, and I’ve just really never looked back. It’s become my meditative thing. A lot of times if I’m working on lyrics or just thinking deeply, if I’m writing something, I’ll go out and just try and ponder it while I’m doing that. I’ve fallen in with a couple of old friends who’ve picked it up.

It’s an old-guy sport. A lot of middle-aged people are taking it up for health reasons. I ride to get around town, but I also just started doing longer rides. I think 25 miles is an average ride for me these days. I do that two or three times a week, usually. Most of the year around, I’ve gotten geared up for winter cycling and all that stuff as long as there’s not snow on the ground, and going up into the Catskills and challenging myself on mountains and stuff. I love it. I’m as obsessed about that as I am about guitars at this point, really. If you start me talking about bicycling, it’ll be like the rap about the acoustic guitar.

I don’t have as many bikes as I have guitars, but I have five or six: a folding bike, that old racer, and this new one. I have a bike from the late ’50s that was my Italian uncle’s bike. When I was a little kid, I’d see him in Brooklyn at my grandma’s house; he’d be in his kit and he’d be taking off on these road rides on his bike. I’m restoring it right now to make it into a knock-around town bike. You get obsessive about this stuff.

Photographs: Mark Kauzlarich for the Fretboard Journal

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