Interview: Lee Ranaldo on new release “In Virus Times”, Sonic Youth, sound experiments and visual art 

Artistic nature is a specific mechanism of functioning with its own physics and general rules. Sometimes, limitations – conscious or non-conscious tend to provide an effect. Within his newest release, “In Virus Times”, Lee Ranaldo leads you through the broken glass of the pandemic. Through the empty streets, self-searching and melancholy – enhanced by the meditative monotonous-ness of the general acoustic sound of the record. Ranaldo is an explorer. Coming from the avant-garde inspired experiments of Sonic Youth, Lee keeps on staying true to himself being an experimenter and a sound-explorer. Whether through more or less structurally typical songs or records like “In Virus Times”. 

In this interview for Joyzine, Dan Volohov sits down with Lee Ranaldo discussing the factors that influenced him while creating of “In Virus Times”, artistic expression, the New York avant-garde scene, ideas, concept and creation. 

The last time we chatted you mentioned that artist learn from every project they take a part in. It’s true for many artists. But if we speak about a collective of musicians like Sonic Youth or any of your collaborative projects – Ranaldo\Jarmush\Urselli\Pandi versus your solo-creativity. How do you manage to incorporate those lessons within non-band lineup? 

You learn to approach every project as a unique opportunity for learning and new experiences. One of the things that was helpful to me in the first decade of my Sonic Youth career – we pretty much devoted ourselves full-time to what we were doing. We didn’t really do a lot of extra-curricular activity. We were so deeply involved in what we were doing. And I think, as time went on, we got more comfortable with the idea that we could work with different improvising groups… The same way, when you’re young and first learning your instrument, you play with different people, you get together, you play or jam – whatever you want to call it. We realized that going outside of our group and playing with other people created an opportunity for having new experiences. And in many cases we could bring these ideas back to our group. And I think, the main thing with that kind of situation… Especially with the improvisational work which we sort of started getting into in our second period, our second decade, is just being open to whatever is gonna happen. When you’re doing improvised music, you’re not trying to come in with a pre-organized plan. You try to be spontaneous and maybe discover some new things about your own playing, about the possibilities of an-ensemble work. Certainly, the work with Jim Jarmusch on those records is a classic example of four people that would never play together before. I was friends with Jim for a long time. And with the other guys in that group for shorter times. But you come together and you start having a musical conversation. 

How did the limitation of being unable to collaborate with somebody face-to-face push you to go further with “In Virus Times”? 

I don’t know! “In Virus Times” is a very solitary activity, reflective of this last year of COVID-isolation. I made it during that period, having that feeling of being isolated and being stuck inside in our homes for such long period of time. But I think you take away from every project you do. It’s hard to pinpoint a certain influence. I guess, I really felt very strongly with making this new record… I wasn’t in a studio-setting – I made it here, in my house, during some dark evenings with no lights on and just a couple of microphones. I felt very strongly that it was a reflection of a moment in time.

The original recording… Those recordings were made last fall, in September and the combined anxiety of both the virus and the coming elections in the U.S. – whether Trump was going to win or not – created a time of a really extreme anxiety. We were isolated from each other. We were watching the news everyday from all this awful stuff related to Trump and all this awful stuff related to virus. I feel very strongly that the recordings I’d made for that record really reflected my own mental state at that time. Everything was dark and isolated and minimal! 

You could barely play a chord and let it ring in a space. In a sense that it was spontaneous and it wasn’t planned. But in retrospect I’d say – that recording really reflects of what we were going through at that time.

I think “In Virus Times” is the first release of yours that comes out with an art-poster and specific artwork on the B-Side. Not all artists put so much efforts into how the final product is delivered. What made it so important to put this record in this particular way, for you? 

It was an interesting coincidence of things. I showed the piece to Mute. Since it’s not the typical sort of record I would show them, I didn’t have any idea what they’d expect. I expected them to wait for the next record and pass on this one – I was going to give it to a small-label or something like that, but they really liked it! I was very pleased about it. Because it’s about 22-minutes, they suggested putting it all on one side. I thought it was a brilliant idea. And then, they suggested putting an etching on the other side of vinyl. They knew I had done a couple of records in the past that had this etching on vinyl. In particular, my first record – From Here to Infinity that was on Blast First back in 1987 that had etching by artist Savage Pencil scratched into the vinyl on a second side. So with this all, they had a brilliant idea of how to present this package. And I started thinking about as more what can we do to make this packaging unique. I saw some photos that a friend of mine, a brilliant photographer, a young woman in São-Paulo, Brazil had taken. I fell in love with these photos – I thought, they seemed like a perfect reflection of this music and this moment: broken glass and a flower combined… I used the photo of my friend Anna on a cover. And then, we were talking about this etching on the B-side of the record… They don’t do the etching the same way these days. Now it’s all computer created – in the old days, you’d literally scratch on to vinyl and they’d make a press from that. And now you hand in a drawing and the computer puts it on vinyl. It’s a very different process! At that time… I’m also a visual artist. I make prints.

I was making prints with that image of a flower. And at the same time, this poster that comes in as a print I made again on a record, scratching it on to records and then, making print editions of them. The image was an electron-microscope shot of a COVID-molecule. That may be obscure – you’re looking at it without really knowing what you’re looking at! But that’s what it is. At first, we’re were gonna make the poster of this flower, but I really like that image! I thought, it would be quite strong and so did the folks at Mute. Even though we were adding some other visual images to the package, we thought it was a good idea to do that. And you saw that trailer for the record (watch it below) – where I’m signing and stamping all the posters. The first edition was twenty-five hundred. I literally had to sign twenty-five hundred posters, which was quite a process to go through! And stamp numbers on them. But at the same time, when you take that record from the store, you have something very personal inside. I’m used to making small-print editions of my record pieces. Ten copies, twenty copies at the most and signing them. But the idea of signing twenty-five hundred was quite a big task. I thought, it’s kind of beautiful to take home a record that actually has something from the artist in the inside, which seem like a nice gesture. Especially in this moment when we all are separated from the each other.  

How different are your artistic tasks when you’re writing on an acoustic guitar? In a sense that the degree of intimacy is different, textural elements would have a different coloring. 

Yeah, that’s very true! Everything about this record has a very intimate quality. From the fact that I made it here in my home – with the windows open. Occasionally you can hear the sounds of police cars on the streets or whatever like that… It has a very casual, intimate feeling to it. And I hope the whole package kind of maintains that feeling. I’d been working a lot with acoustic guitar for the last six, seven or eight years, playing a lot of acoustic guitar. Probably these days I’d say even more then electric guitar. So, it does have a more intimate quality and a different set of textures to work with. Of course, I’m still working with my guitar-tuning. With the electric guitar you’re working with certain loud textures based on the amplifier and all the pedals. With acoustic guitar, there’s more of a purity of sound of it. But for this moment, and this period it was combined…

I set up some proper microphones, so it was a recording session, but it was also just an intimate aspect of myself, isolated, sitting in my living room and just strumming the guitar and seeing what happens. As I was preparing for it, I developed a few little thematic elements and I just set around and made a very long recording… Seventy or seventy-five minutes. With all these different themes and elements. And then I spent the next couple of months shaping the pieces and editing and really arranging these different themes into what the final piece has become. I think the acoustic guitar gave it a really good quality. From being in my house, mostly surrounded… I have obviously many-many guitars – electric guitars, acoustic guitars, They are all over the place! There are a lot of acoustic guitars in the house, that’s what I gravitate to. I didn’t sit down and decide: “Ok! I’m gonna make a record!” – I was just playing with this idea, these themes, and even when I was editing, making structural elements. I didn’t really realize I was creating a record. I was just… You’re isolated, you’re sitting at home – I needed something to do. So I was working on it in a casual sense. And once this thing was done, I thought – oh, maybe this is going to be something I could release. The whole gestation and generation of the piece was done in a very natural way. It wasn’t like “Ok! I need to record something! So, I can get the record released!” – I was just playing for myself at that moment. Later, when some people heard it, it became clearer that it could be a record. 

What lead you over that period of post-production? When you were editing these recordings and working on the arrangements. Was there any concept you followed?  

I think, the concept was mainly that I was trying to make music that reflected how I felt at that moment. So aside from the fact that there’s a bit of life-herded whistling at one point, in the music, I feel the music is very dark and minimalistic… And that’s the way I felt in those times. Nothing was happening. There was no one of the streets. We were seeing very-very few people and the most I could do when I first sat down is just to strum a chord and listen to it. And then, strum it again and strum it again. There was almost… Not maniacal… But the sense of how empty everything was. And I was trying to make music that reflected that. An empty chord ringing into space, listening to it in the same way as the flower of the cover – listen to it bloom and decay. And really just listening to the sound. It was a moment, because we were all trapped in our places, that I really felt the sense of anything you said, it just echoed down in the room… Because, there was nothing going on!

While sitting down, I just put the guitar-tune and it was… Nothing to do. I could have sat down, strummed a few chords all night long. What else did you have to do? There was nowhere to go. No one to see. The world felt very empty and oppressive at that moment in time. In a way, the guitar chords were a relief from that situation. I was listening to a lot of music by the composer Morton Feldman, an associate of John Cage. Much of the music Feldman created was very long-duration songs. Two hours, four hours, five hours where very-very little happens. Something happens and there is a long space. And then, something happens. And I found this music really influential. Because, we were trapped in our homes for so much of our time back then, I had this music pretty much on repeat. So it was just playing over and over for weeks. And it was, like I said – blooming. A chord happens. And there’s just this emptiness. And then something else happens. One little event and then another event. I think that was really in my mind when I created this music because, I didn’t feel pressured to make anything complicated. Put the string chord together and try to make it into a song. It was really about listening to these songs, coming and going through this dark room. I recorded late at night. The room was dark, I set a few lights on. I set up the mics and it was just very intimate sessions. These were very intimate sessions!

I was thinking about the reverse side of it. For instance, albums like Names Of North End Women which is precisely experimental and your focus is only lyrical. So, it’s difficult to feel that intimacy. How different was that experience in comparison with “In Virus Times” – conceptually? 

That record, and the one before, we did in collaboration in Barcelona. We spent most of the last year up until February 2020, up to the point when North End Women was released working on that record, trying to create these new forms. My work with Raül Refree has been centered on taking my music and putting it into new forms. When Sonic Youth stopped and I first stopped working on my own – I kept the same format. As for the songs: two guitars, bass and drums. And when I started working with Raül, the idea he came with was: “Let’s take your music, what’s you’re doing and your voice and put them into a totally different concept nobody had never heard before”. It seemed like a simple idea but at that time, it was a revelation to me – that I’m not restricted to this one rock band format. That became the guiding principle going forward, that we could do many different things. So, we worked on really developing my vocals on that record. Between me and Raül, a couple of lyrics I did with American writer Jonathan Lethem with whom I’d been working for some time – just a lyrical collaboration. But our focus was on vocals to a large degree. I sort of say these days that I went from someone who was the guitar-player, who sang to now I’m a singer who plays guitar.

That’s really my focus these days, thinking about the lyrics. And for the release in February, we prepared… We did some short concerts around that time. We decided to really challenge ourselves with the concerts. To be as experimental as we could. Rather then go out as a band that really could re-create all the sounds on a record, we thought “Lets just go out as a duo. Challenge ourselves and see what we can do”. We prepared like mad. We were just on the case. Really great realization of how we can present our shows. We had really beautiful shows planned with a very theatrical setting, with a stage and things. And of course, a week after we launched the record everything in the world got shut down. All the touring was cancelled. We went through this period of isolation. Raül and I are still waiting to be able to work together again – I think, maybe restrictions are gonna leave in November, so he could come to the U.S. to work together.

After March of 2020 when everything stopped, I was kind of devastated, I think. We’d just created this record for a year – planned all these events, live performances and everything stopped. I don’t think I picked up the guitar after that for three or four months – I was so confused. We had just prepared all this music and created all this music. I wasn’t ready to say: “Ok! That’s over! Now I have to create new music!” – we just got through creation. So for three or four months I didn’t do any musical work at all. I found myself drawing and painting. I started my trajectory of drawing and painting for most of that year. It really became predominant in my world. And it was only in the summertime when a friend of mine invited me to his house, where he has a recording studio, that I started playing some music again, recording something, thinking about coming back to music.

And I think, my idea with this pandemic break, aside of all the tragic aspect of it – it gave me an opportunity to re-assess things. Right now, I know, things have started opening up – a lot of people are anxious to resume where they left off in February. “Let’s go back to where we were and pretend this year vanished and just go forward”. I felt something very opposite to that. I wanted to use this break as a way to go forward with new ideas, new projects, not really going back to doing what I was doing before. In a way, to try and use it as a moment of renewal. And even though, I didn’t think about it at that time, “In Virus Times” is a part of that tendency. It’s a record unlike anything else I’ve released before. Even though, I released some acoustic things before, I’ve never released a full record like this. I’m hoping to come out of this pandemic… I might play some concerts with this music. But I’m not really sure what I’m gonna do going forward. I know I don’t want to just jump back into my old ways. I wanna try and find new ways, at this point. That’s one of the big takeaways from that period. This record was very-very differently made. Names of North End Woman took a two of us a year – trying things, arranging things, trying again…Building and destroying and building in a new way. With “In Virus Times” record, I set up the microphones and I was just playing without much pre-planning. Just the way you sit and play guitar for your own enjoyment. Just making sounds and listening to them. It had a different development entirely. It was very natural, the way this music developed. I think, a reflection of the times. We spent many evenings… The Sun would go down, we’d forget to turn on the lights. And rooms getting darker and darker would have a mysterious atmosphere. 

There were some parts of your playing I compared with a meditative state. Did you feel something like that while this record was coming together? 

Very much. Very much a meditative state. That was my feeling about it from the minute I sat down to play. It’s funny because the early version of that piece, when I was first setting up the microphones I would listen to the radio, the television, because of the news broadcasts. Back then, all we did was listen to the news. Information about the virus and the election… and there was a news report about Trump, the upcoming elections – quite distressing stuff. The first version of the piece I edited together started with a one minute sample of this news report. It seems that it really set the moment this record was made. They were talk about Trump and everything, the upcoming elections. I thought, it would be important to keep these… I turned everything off and started recording by myself. I thought, at that time, that it was very important to keep that radio-sound in the beginning because it set the mood to where we were when this music was created. And it turned out that the company wouldn’t let us use their broadcast so we had to remove it. In a way, even though, I was fighting to keep it at that time, I think removing it made the piece even better. It made everything timeless. It’s not tied to Trump or any of that stuff. It’s more tied to this period of COVID, anxiety… And for me, it was a very meditative process. I was thinking about Morton Feldman, the room was dark. And I was just… Just strumming and listening to these chords. Normally, when you’re developing a piece of music, you’re trying to put things together in a certain way and things get more and more complex. In this case I wasn’t looking for complexity. I was looking for some kind of meditative, drone state. I had three or four different themes. Like I said, I recorded quite a long period. Seventy or eighty minutes of music that I then cut down to 20 minutes. So I had many different themes. Themes were established and disappeared, maybe later coming back. Overlapping. I found as I was working on the music after the recordings were done, that my impetus was to make it more and more simple and meditative – just without a lot of activity going on. As minimal as I could possibly make it. Just to be more of a meditative type of state. It was really part of a goal. 

When you’re choosing musical themes… Is it like poets or lyricists who choose words according to their shape, and quality or do you follow a different concept? 

I really think, I wasn’t planning on making a record. I did set up the microphones… So obviously, I wanted to capture what I was doing in a very good quality. But I didn’t have very much pre-conception, in a way. I started strumming the guitar and thought: “This sounds really beautiful”. The room was empty and I paused… I just forgot about microphones! I sat down and played for one hour and twenty minutes. Often times these are ways song starts. You start with a tuning. And then, you start by playing, getting familiar with the arrangement on the fretboard – what chord can you discover? And the normal process is that you build one thing on top of another until you got a chord progression and something to sing over this kind of thing. In this case, I didn’t feel the need to build it in that way. 

Maybe it was a bit of despair of a moment in time where everything seems so empty that the emptiness of what I was playing was a pure reflection of a moment. I felt like my thoughts and feelings about that time when we all were separated and isolated, the room was dark and I felt like all that was trying to come out through what I was playing. It wasn’t a moment for jumping around or a great activity. It was a moment for stillness. The world seems to be still. If you looked at the world – there were so few people on the streets. Around that time, I made this video… It was a cover of John Lennon’s song – “Isolation”. I made a video and asked people from all over the world to send me pictures of their empty streets and themselves isolated in their rooms. That’s what I was feeling at that time. I really felt that the sounds coming out of the guitar were the real reflection of the way I felt mentally and physically at that moment. 

One of the things that has been present in your playing for a while – this combination of one musical line creating a melody and textural-line. Sometimes artists didn’t find the way to combine these two. When did you start using this as an advantage? 

The truth of a matter… Even when Sonic Youth started, we all were inspired by all kinds of things we were listening to. Early influences would have to include The Velvets and The Stooges and all this quite aggressive music. But we also were fans of pop-music and a good melody line. We grew up with what we call “AM-Radio” here. Pop hits of the day. 45 RPM singles. So, from the very beginning of our career together, our times together, we were equally influenced by pop music and pop songs on one side and all this avant-garde music that was being created in New York back then. Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham. All the improvisors. And the history of what had come out of New York: Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. All this kind of stuff as well. La Monte Young. So, we always had these different poles. We’d really love melodic pop songs. And we really loved distorted aggressive soundscapes. 

With Sonic Youth we’d always put all those things together. We always went from sort of one pole to the other. And I think, it’s one of the things that made our music interesting. I think, if we had just been a noise-band. Or if we’d have been trying to do a pop-music with strange tuning – it wouldn’t have been as expansive and interesting as it was. Our interests covered so many different things. And we tried to bring different elements of all of those things into our music, from spoken word to pop melodies. That’s something that always stayed with me. And I love a good melody and a good pop song as much as anybody does. 

That’s part of the world we live in. And the culture we live in. Just the abstract, aggressive noisier sound that we obviously love as well. We love Madonna or whatever fill in the blank of pop music. But we also love lo-fi and all this aggressive black-noise. We loved it all! We wanted to have aspects of all that being part of our own world. That feeling had never really left.  

Some of your records can be grouped togetherby your exploration of some tendencies. Like Between The Times And The Tides and following it Last Night On Earth or Electric Trim. And then you did Words Out Of Haze – a different record with different energies. What makes you focus on some tendencies and then change your focus? As a result, it’s balance. And sometimes one of the things bring you to one side. So, you won’t have these two being in an equal position.

You know, I think, the difference is really there… There are some projects or collaborators you work with for a LONG PERIOD OF TIME. And you develop things in a specific way. Sonic Youth is the main example of that. For the thirty years of working together we really developed a mutual language between us. And then, when I started working on my own records – that was kind of a thread. Me, singing songs, making records. As a musician, as an artist you find yourself doing other things. 

You get invited to do spontaneous improvisational collaboration with someone or I have a couple improv-groups. I have a group called Text of Light. Which is mainly centered around myself, the guitarist Alan Licht and the saxophonist Ulrich Krieger. We don’t play very often but we do have a developed history of playing together over 20 years or so. Some things are spontaneous projects that happen in one session, one concert and they have a different place in your cosmos compared with the work you do with ongoing collaborators. But as a musician you like to challenge yourself in both those areas. 

For me, if somebody says “Do you want to play in a club this week with these two or three other people?” – that can be really interesting to do as an experiment. As an experimental conversation in music. There are some collaborations and collaborators you work with for an extended duration. And some things just happen once and maybe never happen again. But you learn from all of those experiences. And I guess, especially since Sonic Youth stopped – not exclusively since that moment, but over the last decade I’ve been playing a lot more acoustic guitar. And acoustic guitar – that’s where I started! Even though I’d been mostly known as an electric guitar-player and still play a lot of electric guitar, the acoustic guitar is more important in my life. In a way this new record is almost a tribute to that fact or a manifestation of that. 

I’d never made such a pure acoustic record before. My last tour, I did play a lot of acoustic guitar with my band, my trio and my quartet. But this… Maybe after this decade of more and more acoustic guitar and getting more atuned to the way these sounds are…One thing about acoustic guitar that’s so lovely – the sound is very pure. It’s coming out of this wooden box. And there are no effects pedals or amplification – it’s just really a pure sound. With an electric guitar and an amplifier, you get these layers of distortion that build up this beautiful sound, but with the acoustic guitar the sound is much purer. Every note has more of a place… Maybe this record was my love letter to playing acoustic guitar, in the simplest and the most minimalist form. 

But don’t you miss these conflicts? When you play electric guitar and you can use the conflict of interplay as compositional tool. 

Yes! You use different things for compositional structure. So, with the acoustic guitar it’s more about melody and harmony and the way the notes are tied together. And the chords are free of the distorted wrhhhhhh that kind of coats everything in this beautiful noise. So it’s more naked in a sense. In that way, it’s a challenge to almost anything you do if you have volume and noise and effects. It can create some blooming sound that’s very beautiful and can fill in the room. The acoustic guitar is more like a quiet conversation as opposed to stadium full of people. And again, with melody vs. the noise – as humans like both these things, intimate conversations and crowded parties where everybody is talking at once and jumping around very active. So, this record is really a reflection of this minimal moment. Just like: “Let’s just listen to these chords. Listen to them bloom in this sound-chamber and get off on a purity of sounds” – that’s my hope with “In Virus Times”! It’s a really purely listening experience. 

“In Virus Times” is coming out on November, the 22nd via Mute. Listen and pre-order here.

Find out more on Lee Ranaldo’s official website

Interview by Dan Volohov

Photography: Stefano Giovannini + Lee Ranaldo’s archive

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