Interview: Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth

words by Douglas Novielli
| Thursday, August 15th, 2002

LeeOriginally published in Verbicide issue #6

During my time spent living in Budapest, I had a select few albums that were essential for long, overnight train rides. These trains were loud, bouncing over tracks a hundred years old, and stuffy, but they were captivating and nostalgic as experiences, tapping into the very human wanderlust that any journey begins with. Essential to my traveling soundtrack was Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, an album that has been considered classic and timeless for over a decade.

The Youth immediately captured fans by turning the most instinctual of emotions into pure sound and ecstatic vibrating joy. A key element in their success has been the artistry of Lee Ranaldo, singer and songwriter, master of many instruments, writer, journalist, truly a Renaissance man who has explored the realm of creative expression in his words and his music. As we traded messages across cyberspace, and as he graciously took time out from Sonic Youth’s European tour to complete this interview, I found his responses to belie an awareness of qualities essential to music, train rides, and humanity that are often just out of reach.

Are you looking forward to the tour this summer? Any venues that you are particularly excited about?
We are now two days into Europe, the first part of our tour. I’m in Salzburg, Austria now, and tonight will be our second show (last night was in Sweden). We’re all very much excited about playing live (as usual) and presenting the new stuff we’ve written this last year (which is about to hit, as I write, as Murray Street). The traveling is a perk, and although the pace can wear on you after awhile, the gigs are always incredibly exhilarating. We’ll be rocking in Europe from mid-June to mid-July, then after a small break head to Tokyo for one quick gig before spending August in the States. A long hot summer of rock.

What is more appealing to you creatively: live performance or the studio?
Both are a pleasure to partake in, and each becomes tiresome at one point or another. Generally they act as antidote to each other, which is one thing that saves the cycle of tour/write/record/tour from getting stale. Live kicking performance is one of the best releases ever, whether rehearsed songs or automatically-written spontaneously improvised music; also, the fine points of studio creation and the focus it demands are where some other kinds of work get done.

What other kinds of work require the focus of the studio?
Having been trained as a visual artist, the studio was always the retreat, the private domain where research and development happens. My painting teacher, Angelo Ippolito, always used to say that you gotta be there in the studio in order for things to happen — if you’re not “showing up for work” you ain’t gonna get nowhere; sometimes it’s just a matter of being there when the lightning strikes, even if at other times your just reading the paper or sweeping the floor or whatever.

How is nature an influence for your work? What about the mechanical and industrial?
Well, basically all sounds heard and felt are fair game to inspire new sounds in whatever form they may take — I love industrial factory smash mechanique, but also birdsong, the wind whipping through tall grasses, and tall trucks slamming across city blacktop streets.

Do you have any tried-and-true techniques for turning inspiring everyday sounds into riffs and hooks?
Not really, it’s just some subtle switch in the brain that trips when an interesting sonic event happens — a bird’s song, jet engine, etc. that spawns sounds in the studio. It’s mostly about being open to hearing things in the world to begin with; I find interesting sounds just about everywhere I turn — then it’s not a matter of imitating but transforming the emotions you feel when you react to such sounds into music.

Two Dollar Guitar’s Train Songs seems like an apt project for your style, approaching the organic industrial as music.
I was not involved, but I dig that record.

Charles Romalotti has observed that punk rock will become a literary form, as well as a musical and stylistic genre. Do you agree?
Of course. The same impulses that inspired the music have inspired art, painting, and cinema.

What sort of impulses motivate your work?
Love, beauty, anger, jealousy, hatred, happiness, lust, longing, ecstasy. All the usual stuff.

When did you become interested in publishing your writing?
In the early ‘90s, Sander Hicks, of then-fledgling indie publishing house Soft Skull Press, approached me with the idea of doing a book of my writings. Up till then I’d only contributed stray bits and pieces to small zines, etc. That idea turned into Road Movies, my first book, and since then one thing has lead to another. I’ve always written stuff and taken pleasure in the activity, but never seriously thought of directing it towards publishing until Sander brought it up. I’m glad he did.

Have you enjoyed working with Soft Skull Press?
Yeah, it’s been cool to see them (and other literary indies) attempt to challenge the established system and be serious about bringing new, younger literature before the public. They are dreamers and idealists and that is what is needed in all artistic endeavors.

I once posed this question to Sander Hicks, and now it’s your turn: can the dreamers and the artists save the world?
I don’t know who can “save the world” or if anyone can, or even if saving it should be the ultimate goal. Entropy is all, y’know. The dreamers, etc. can, however, illuminate small pockets of the universe and perhaps make them more intelligible for themselves and others peering in at their works.

What sort of experiences did you have with William S. Burroughs?
Basically met Bill twice at his house in Lawrence, Kansas during the course of two different tours through there. First time with the rest of the band; second time with Michael Stipe also in tow. These meetings were set up by Bill’s longtime assistant/confidant, James Grauerholz, and were two incredible afternoons in the presence of a true original. He showed us his collection of fancy knives, his many walking canes, his Wilhelm Reich-inspired Orgone Accumulator box in the back yard, and the shed where he did some of his shotgun paintings. There was an old rusty typewriter in his garden, being overtaken by the green shoots, and that image has remained a strong memory of our time with him. We talked of many things and just generally got to know each other (although not nearly as well as I was to get to know Allen Ginsberg, who, living in New York City, was more accessible). I also did what I believe was one of the very last interviews with Bill before he died (via phone), talking about his experiences in Morocco for a compendium called Calling the Toads. This conversation was unfortunately left out of the recent William Burroughs Collected Interviews book.

What can you share about your time with Allen Ginsberg?
You know, the more I’ve studied about the various Beat authors, the more I’ve come to see Allen as the shining light in the group. He presaged so many trends of youth across the ’50s/’60s/’70s, and into the ’80s and ’90s was still an active and admirable cultural force. He used his later-day iconic status to continue his role as a teacher. He is one of the most inspiring persons I’ve met in my life — committed to honesty, the truth, and art. Yet he never failed to acknowledge that he was human, with all the faults that come with that. I am happy to have become friendly with him across the last decade of his life, and the time we spent together — while not extensive — contain many fond memories.

I did some performances with him of some of his works—most memorably of “Witchita Vortex Sutra,” for which Hal Wilner organized a stellar group to accompany Allen in this 45-minute reading — including Arto Linday, Phillip Glass, myself and Steve Shelley, and others. It was an incredible night, at St. Marks Church in New York City — where Allen was unofficial spiritual leader. The illumination he provided to us about the text during rehearsals were fascinating. I also had the privilege of reading his late piece, “Death and Fame,” at the St. Marks Church memorial for him. He was a saint, or should I say, “Bodhisattva,” of our time…

I’ve often felt the influence of the Beat Generation in many subtle ways, particularly their addiction to experiencing life in as many ways as possible. Do you find a similar inspiration in your energetic and spontaneous music?
Yes, they put their finger on this primacy of life experience back in the ’40s, and, while they were not the first to do so, they did somehow map a course that affected much of the thinking of young people in the second half of the 20th Century.

Do you consider your work Road Movies a Beat book?
Listen, “Beat” writing is Kerouac, Corso, Bill and Allen, and their related sphere — anything coming after that can merely be inspired by that writing. I would consider the beat writers to be one influence I have felt strongly — one among many; Raymond Carver being equally strong, Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, countless other writers.

Have you considered moving into film, or theater?
I’ve written a few things along the lines of film scripts — shorts — I think there are a few dialogue studies in my Bookstore book. As I studied film extensively in school (mostly American Avant-Garde 1950s-’60s film) I have a great interest in it, and have made some short films myself in Super 8, 8mm, 16mm and video — including a series of very short video loops which accompanied my ’87 release, From Here to Infinity. I’m actually going to spend some time this winter preparing a DVD of my film stuff… I’d love to find the time to make more films. Sonic Youth has done a lot of soundtrack work recently, and it’s certainly something I’d like to do more of.

The journal from your 1995 trip to Morocco, currently available online in the addict.com archives, reveals an intense interest of yours in music from many cultural backgrounds. How do you incorporate those emotions into your own particular style of music?
I’ve always had a soft spot for certain “other” musics, particularly Balinese Gamelan music, and the music of Africa in it’s many dimensions as well. To actually get to experience some of this stuff in the flesh whilst in Morocco, with the Master Musicians in Jajouka and G’naouan players in Fes, was just stupendous and inspiring. There’s no need to imitate, but hearing new (or old) sounds can send you off in a direction to attempt to do some different things. Basically, every listening experience you have can be a springboard to new forms for your own playing to take off into.

My Moroccan Journals, which currently exist only as a chapbook excerpt pertaining to the Jajouka section (which is also online here and there), will soon finally be published in their entirety, with texts and many photos by myself and my partner Leah Singer.

Do you think that artists of all mediums can bridge cultural gaps? Do artists have an obligation to try?
For some artists this is almost second nature, to try to move across cultures — others have no need for this in their work and I don’t think there is any obligation to try or any special merit in doing so, artistically. It all comes down to what serves and/or motivates an individual’s work.

Why did the band decide to play Central Park in August?
We were invited to play the park almost exactly a decade after our first appearance there in 1992 with Sun Ra supporting. That show stands in our mind as a very memorable event, both for being able to play with and meet Sunny finally (and shortly before his passing), and for the great sunshine vibe of the park that day during our own set, so we decided to accept the offer to do it again. We’ll probably play some indoor New York City venues in the fall after our tour is over.

Do you feel a different relationship with New York City after September 11?
As for post-September 11, I suppose everything is somehow changed. I’ve had with me a small stack of things to read that I hadn’t gotten to yet, and it’s funny somehow to read the stuff that was written before September 11, 2001 — there’s an innocence to it that is now lost. The difference for New Yorkers (and I suppose everyone in general) is that possibly we’ve all stepped back a bit and realized once more what makes New York such a special place, and why we all gravitated to it in the first place — which maybe we’d collectively forgotten in the rush of daily life before September 11.

“Paperbox” is certainly an emotional account, and that’s a particularly touching comment about the shoes. Do you feel the personal effect of September 11 in your creative work? Do you feel that any artist can avoid the realties of their contemporary world?
Well, there’re times when you can avoid the outside world, and times when it’s harder. I think for we in the USA the current times have, in one sense, brought us closer to a reality that many parts of the world experience everyday, and have made this period in history one in which it would be particularly hard to avoid being affected by current events. I don’t think it would be worthwhile to try, either. It’s impossible to live and work in the USA especially without feeling the effects of September 11 — hopefully the knowledge gained in that time will inform the route we take from here on out, and shake us out of our isolated complacency in terms of world events. We’ve led too isolated an existence for far too long. It’s time to come down from the tower and stand with everyone else on the street.

LR Train to Berlin July 2002

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