When Lee Ranaldo comes to the phone, he is warm and courteous. Speaking from his home in New York, he takes the time to ask the little questions. “How are you? Where are you calling from?”
Humble and down to earth, something you might not expect from one of the world’s most innovative and critically successful musicians.
Then again, as his new solo record shows, there’s a lot you might not know about the Sonic Youth guitarist. In fact, for those expecting the dissonant noise of his old band, the melody obsessed Between The Times And The Tides may come as a shock.
“It might be surprising (to some), but there’s never been any denial of my love of pop,” Ranaldo explains. “It wasn’t a conscious choice to write pop songs, they just sprung out of the guitars.”
Currently in Australia for performances in Melbourne and Sydney, he’ll play with improvisational group Text of Light and also with his own group, made up of mostly musical friends. Punters can expect to hear the new record in its entirety, a few covers, and a smattering of Sonic Youth songs.
For the uninitiated, Lee Ranaldo gained prominence in the 1980s as the guitarist in Sonic Youth. Alongside indie power couple Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, with drummer Steve Shelley, the New York quartet were pioneers of the alternative rock movement.
However, Moore and Gordon divorced last year, effectively fracturing the group after 30 years together.
“There was nothing like being in that band,” Ranaldo says. “But I’m super happy we had such a long run. It’s incredible.”
“We didn’t set out to do anything other than just make music that was interesting to us. We weren’t trying to shake up music and its progression.”
Unknown to many, Ranaldo has been releasing solo records since the late 80s. But while those recordings were mostly avant-garde, experimental sketches, Between The Times And The Tides is decidedly song-based.
“Not everyday would I make a record like this,” he admits. “But I knew what I wanted… I’ve had a solo career for ages, I just haven’t been a band leader.”
He adds: “I look at this as just as experimental as anything I’ve done,” he says. “Looking at the career I’ve had, this is just another experiment, it’s not in opposition to anything else I’ve done.”
In that long, illustrious career, Ranaldo has seen his fair share of critical acclaim. These days, Sonic Youth’s landmark fifth album Daydream Nation regularly appears near the top of greatest ever lists, while Ranaldo and Moore are named as guitar heroes in both rock and indie magazines.
In fact, the pair were crowned joint best guitarists of all-time by SPIN, earlier in the year.
“We laughed our heads off at being number one,” Ranaldo says, clearly amused. “We never aspired to be guitar heroes, we were just flying by the seat of our pants. Still, it’s nice to be mentioned at the top,” he adds with another chuckle.
Meanwhile, Ranaldo can hardly contain his excitement as he describes making his latest solo effort.
“The process was incredible,” he enthuses. “Eventually it started getting serious when I knew I was going to make a solo acoustic guitar album with vocals. Then some kid took a photo of me, which became the album cover. We started jamming some songs and Steve [Shelley] was around. Then I got a rhythm section together, and started asking other guys. It was gradual but really organic.”
The record was made with a long list of collaborators, including keyboardist John Medeski, Steve Shelley, guitarist Alan Licht, and Wilco’s Nels Cline. Ranaldo says choosing musicians to work with was quite easy.
“I basically asked people I knew,” he laughs. “Just friends I thought would be supportive of the project. It was great to ask John [Medeski] and Nels [Cline] – who I’ve been friends with for 30 years.”
Inspiration for the album came not only through collaboration, but also from some of his favourite singer-songwriters.
“Making this album, I tried to think of all the solo albums that had influenced me,” Ranaldo says. “So that’s albums like [Bob Dylan’s] Blonde On Blonde and also Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.”
Indeed, there’s a classicist vibe on Between The Times And The Tides. Opening track “Waiting On A Dream” nods to the Stones’ “Paint It Black” while “Fire Island (phases)” recalls Neil Young.
The album closer “Tomorrow Never Comes” references the Fab Four’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” in both name and atmosphere. “I love the Beatles as much as anyone,” Ranaldo says. “That music is on the upper most shelf for me. It’s aspirational.”
But he also looked to modern artists. “How could one not be influenced by contemporary music,” he offers. He mentions Cat Power in particular, before adding: “It’s hard to make a record that really resonates, and that’s what I tried to do.”
In addition to the countless albums he’s made with Sonic Youth and on his own, Ranaldo has worked as a producer. He even joined forces with You Am I on three records in the early 90s, including the classic Hi-Fi Way.
He says recording with the band, who he still counts as friends, was “super-fun”. Ranaldo is also prolific as a writer and visual artist, the man obviously likes to keep busy.
“I’m usually doing two or three things at the same time, but I hope music will always be in the mix,” he explains. “I’m actually trying to follow up (Between The Times And The Tides) now.”
As for Sonic Youth, Ranaldo is still leaving the door ajar.
“We still hang out,” he says. “I’m enjoying what I’m doing now, but there’s still a question mark there.”
Between The Times And The Tides is out now through Matador. Lee Ranaldo plays The Hi-Fi Bar tonight, Wednesday October 24. Full details here.