Lee Ranaldo The Exclaim! Questionnaire
Published Jun 01, 2004What are you up to?
Sonic Youth is getting ready to tour the world in support of our new record, Sonic Nurse. We're starting by playing on the Tonight Show and then we're going to Australia for close to three weeks and then we're participating in the Lollapalooza tour this summer. Otherwise, I've been exhibiting some visual art both here and in Europe, and I've got a new book of poems called Lengths and Breath coming out in a couple of months, as well as a reissue of my first book Road Movies that'll be out this fall. I've also been working with my improvised music quintet, Texts of Light, and I have another film/music project with my wife Leah Singer that just performed in Vancouver a few weeks ago.
What are your current fixations?
I'm an avid film watcher and maker and I've been boning up on certain filmmakers' work that I feel I've missed over the years. At the moment I'm on a bit of a Fellini kick and I'm going through a lot of his films. Now that the weather's gotten warmer there's also bicycle riding and I play a lot of tennis. I'm also working on a lot of art projects and I'd be remiss if I didn't say that I have two little children who are definitely among my current fixations.
Why do you live where you do?
I gravitated to New York City in the late 70s to pursue a career in visual art, which is what I trained in at university. Also, just because the music scene was happening here in a major way and I wanted to be a part of it.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art.
I'd have to say the paintings of Matisse, particularly Bathers by a River.
What's been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
That's a hard one. Being someone who plays gigs and finding many, many memorable ones in different ways I guess I'd have to say I don't really have a single favourite one that I could pick out. As far as seeing other people, I wouldn't say it's the most memorable one but a memorable gig would have to be Neil Young's recent Greendale show.
What have been your career highs and lows?
Well, I suppose a high would be playing with Sonic Youth and being in a situation where we get to pursue basically everything we wanted to pursue, which is a career in music on our own terms for the length of time we have, which is going on 24 years now. I can't really think of a career low.
What's the meanest thing anyone has ever said to you before, during, or after a gig?
"Get the fuck off the stage! You suck!"
What should everyone shut up about?
Let's skip that one.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
Oh lord. Let's skip that one.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Let's skip that one too.
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed and have you?
I have not, but I suppose deceit.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Well, I'm married to a Canadian so I have a lot of fond thoughts about Canada. I think about the prairies of Manitoba where my wife is from and I have a lot of friends and relatives on both coasts and have spent a lot time in Canada from Nova Scotia to BC. In some ways it's a much more sane country than the U.S.
What is your vital daily ritual?
Sleeping late, reading the New York Times over breakfast, working on music in the afternoon, sitting at the computer for a couple of hours answering a lot of email, playing with the children, and reading books before bed.
What are your feelings on piracy, internet or otherwise?
Well, if I had a galleon at sea I'd hate to be boarded by pirates. As far as the internet is concerned, I wouldn't want anyone creeping into my personal machine and stealing stuff. I recognise that the whole issue of downloading and intellectual property rights is not an easy one but, on the whole, I'm a fan of downloading, both legal and illegal and the open-source ethos that it harbours for the future is a good one.
What was your most memorable day job?
As a metal sculptor's assistant, which I had shortly after moving to New York and pretty much fed and clothed me until that time I stopped having to keep a day job because Sonic Youth became somewhat successful. I learned metal welding and bronze casting and a lot of other sculptural techniques that I've been able to apply in on or another manner as it relates to my own visual art.
How do you spoil yourself?
With long bike rides, long walks in the woods, delirious sex, and playtime with my children.
If I wasn't playing music I would be
Making visual art.
What do you fear most?
I guess these days, the world ending. I live three blocks from Ground Zero, so we've gotten a bit of a taste of the world ending a few years ago. I guess I just fear the powers-that-be in the world completely losing their minds and going after each other and completely destroying everything.
What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
Umm I don't know. Madonna?
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
We were on David Letterman one time and Mary Tyler Moore was the other guest. She had recently just gotten married and was talking with us backstage. For one reason or another, she'd left her wedding ring at home and didn't want to go out and talk to David Letterman without her wedding ring on, so she borrowed Kim's ring for her segment of the show.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
I suppose I'm gonna say Jack Kerouac because I would love to have had a chance to meet him. I would serve him cheap wine and potatoes. No wait fine wine. Fine wine and potatoes.
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
Doctor? Actually, my mom is a pianist so she's very happy I'm in music but I suppose she stills thinks I lead a fairly unsettled life and would like to imagine that I was doing something a little more 9 to 5 or regular.
Given the opportunity to choose, how would you like to die?
In the high desert, alone, baking to a crisp in the sun.
Twenty-four years after forming in New York City, Sonic Youth remain the most inspirational experimental art-rock band around, applying dissonance to conventional song structures while furthering notions that such structures can actually possess artistic rather than commercial merit. After working with the band on 2000's NYC Ghosts & Flowers, noted musician and engineer Jim O'Rourke joined the long-standing quartet of Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley as a full-time member. While the last two full-lengths for Geffen NYC Ghosts and Flowers, and Murray Street utilised NYC as a theme in one manner or another, Lee Ranaldo views their latest album, Sonic Nurse, in a slightly more open-ended light. "The new one is far more just a collection of songs and I don't see there being any one over-riding thematic element to it," he states. The band's penchant for social and political commentary still shines through on Gordon's "Pattern Recognition," and the scathing "Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream." Moore pays tribute to the blues on "New Hampshire" and both he and Ranaldo vaguely weigh-in on Bush-Cheney's America on "Peace Attack" and "Paper Cup Exit" respectively.
For the most part, however, Sonic Nurse, is a continuation of the band's recent amalgam of verse-chorus-based song structures and experimental, good times rock'n'roll music. "Our music swings back and forth between these poles of playing more song-form stuff and doing these long, more extrapolated pieces," Ranaldo says. "I've seen this happen since the very first record, so I don't consider it a departure in that regard."