As a co-founder of legendary rock act Sonic Youth, guitarist Lee Ranaldo was integral in developing the band’s boundary-busting sound. Ranaldo’s supple, melodic playing served as a foil to Thurston Moore’s wiry abstractions, helping the group strike the balance that lifted it out of the experimental underground and into the mainstream in the early 1990s.
After Moore and wife Kim Gordon—the group’s bassist and third songwriter—split up in 2011, Sonic Youth followed suit. Its members have pursued other projects since. Moore continues his avant-garde exploration, and has released several more-traditional albums under his name and with Chelsea Light Moving. Gordon, also a visual artist, wrote a memoir and established the noise duo Body/Head. Drummer Steve Shelley has toured and recorded with Sun Kil Moon and Howe Gelb, among others, while contributing to his former bandmates’ various ventures.
After releasing the pleasantly folky Between the Times and the Tides via Matador in 2012, Ranaldo dropped a couple meandering LPs the following year with his band The Dust. Newly energized, he’s set to return this September with Electric Trim, his first album for Mute Records, which the songwriter calls “one of the best things I’ve ever done.” He plays the 40 Watt Thursday as part of a triple bill that also includes guitarists Steve Gunn and Meg Baird.
After expressing appreciation for each other’s work, the three musicians first toured together in January. “We just had an absolute ball,” says Ranaldo. “We had so much fun. There was something really cool about the way the whole thing shook out, with three different takes on acoustic guitar presentation.”
For Ranaldo, going solo after 30 years of constant collaboration has been both liberating and disorienting.
“It’s freer in some ways, and it’s more restrictive in some ways,” Ranaldo says. With Sonic Youth, he explains, “it was very rare that somebody would come in and say, ‘I’ve got a new song, and here’s how it goes.’ Usually, someone had an idea for a riff, or a section, and we would work on it as a group… Sometimes it was hard to find your own self inside of that.”
Ranaldo says he now approaches his music as a director would a film, “where you’re at the helm, you’re making all the decisions,” he says. “It’s all on your shoulders.”
For Electric Trim, the guitarist stepped further out of his comfort zone, working with Spanish producer Raul Fernandez, as well as novelist Jonathan Lethem, who co-wrote the lyrics for many of the album’s songs.
Ranaldo says Fernandez played a large role in shaping the new album’s sound. “He was bringing in a lot of rhythmic things, some more modern electronic sounds, and rhythms derived from stuff that I’m sure for him is fairly innate—flamenco-style rhythms, different rhythmic figures that a typical American rock record doesn’t have on it.”
Lethem’s involvement sprang from a budding friendship between the two artists, and calls to mind the working arrangement favored by one of Ranaldo’s musical inspirations, The Grateful Dead, which famously partnered with lyricist Robert Hunter throughout its existence.
Ranaldo, who covered the Dead deep cut “Mountains of the Moon” for the sprawling, star-studded 2016 tribute album Day of the Dead, says one could draw parallels between the legendary psych-rock group and his own creative path.
“From the time I was first listening to music seriously and learning to play guitar, I was always interested in the whole singer-songwriter mode, whether it was John Fahey or Neil Young, Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, whoever it was,” he says. “But at the same time, I was always interested in group dynamics.”
This dichotomy, as well as a Dead-like knack for balancing pop songcraft with an unconventional approach to texture and structure, can be found throughout Sonic Youth’s discography, from its expertly nasty no-wave beginnings to the band’s commercial peak in the ’90s and its lustrous, Jim O’Rourke-aided last act. Now, Ranaldo is discovering the limits and possibilities of a stripped-down singer-songwriter mode.
That’s particularly true of this current tour, which sees Ranaldo, Gunn and Baird flying solo, without the comfort—or confinement—of their backing bands. While their first shows together took the form of three separate sets, they eventually adopted a looser, more group-minded approach.
“I’ve kind of mastered a couple of Steve’s songs now, and one or two of Meg’s as well, so there might be a chance that there’ll be a little more sitting in during each other’s sets,” Ranaldo says.
In another throwback to 1960s folk culture, there will be at least one protest song performed. “Thrown Over the Wall,” a stirring Electric Trim tune that Ranaldo wrote with Lethem, took on a new significance after last year’s election.
“I wasn’t really sure what the lyrics were about,” says Ranaldo. “One day, a friend of ours was in the studio when we were working on it, and he said, ‘You know, it sounds like the kind of song that, if Trump really became president, this could be the song of the resistance.’ And all of the sudden, it was like, ‘Yes, this is a protest song.’”
Like many musicians, Ranaldo has felt increasingly motivated to speak out against the new administration’s anachronistic agenda.
“There are periods of time where artists can safely kind of ignore the political scene, and go about their business, talk about their personal relationships or whatever,” he says. “But it’s been such an intense period, where it’s impossible to ignore the political situation and the ramifications that are going on.”
On Jan. 20, alongside Gunn and Baird, Ranaldo performed “Thrown Over the Wall” at an Inauguration Day concert in Washington, DC. “It felt very heavy,” he says. “This song has taken on this cast… now it’s got this whole other meaning behind it.”
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