Lee Ranaldo in Vienna

The purpose of the Ezer Kolibri - Mil Colibríes concert film blog is to record jazz and alternative, underground bands from the vibrant Budapest music scene. This time I went a bit further, to Vienna, to film a concert by Lee Ranaldo, from Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth has been my favorite band since I was fourteen, they kind of wrote the soundtrack of my life. Their music helped me through my saddest moments, and was with me to celebrate when I was happy. Since Sonic Youth went into hiatus in 2011, I have enjoyed the solo projects of its members.

Lee Ranaldo is regularly involved in side projects, and has put out a number of experimental records, but his first pop-rock album, titled “Between the Times and the Tides”, was released in 2012. To tour for the album, Ranaldo organised “Lee Ranaldo and the Dust” as his formal group, featuring Alan Licht, Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth, and bassist Tim Lüntzel. In 2013, they published “Last Night on Earth”, and now Lee has finished working on their new album, titled "Electric Trim".

You can watch the full concert on the top of the page, or select the songs from this playlist:

I interviewed Lee Ranaldo for the publication of my video recording of his Vienna Solo Acoustic show in Schauspielhaus Wien on February 3rd 2016. 

Mil Colibríes: You celebrated your 60th birthday in Vienna - how did you feel at the concert, and how did the rest of your solo tour go?

Lee Ranaldo: The concert was really good - in fact all the concerts and venues on this recent tour were really good. In Vienna, the theatre was quite nice, and had the stage design in place from on ongoing theatre production, so it was a nice environment for me, a bit different from the normal concert setting.

MC: I read somewhere in an interview with you, that recording your third album was a somewhat difficult or strange process. You have just finished the album, how was the process of writing and recording it?

LR: I’m actually in Barcelona right now for ten days, to finish the mixing, so it’s not done yet! It hasn’t been a difficult process at all, but perhaps strange in the sense that it’s been very different from any recording process I’ve ever been involved with previously. I’ve been working with a Catalan producer, Raul Fernandez, (who also recorded and mixed my ‘Acoustic Dust’ album of 2013), and together we began this recording project with no other musicians involved. All the songs were built up from my acoustic guitar and vocal, with click tracks and electronic drums and samples. Once we had each song in place, we recorded more on top of the initial ideas, and then brought in the various members of The Dust and other musicians like Nels Cline, Kid Millions and Sharon Van Etten, who sings on a number of tracks. The whole thing forced me to adopt a very different approach from my normal working process. The collaboration has been really fruitful, I think - I really like the songs we’ve come up with and how they have been produced. In addition, I’ve collaborated on the lyric writing for the first time as well. Most of the songs have lyrics that I’ve written with American author Jonathan Lethem, an old friend of mine. I asked him to join me for this record, in an effort to get a bit more outside my own point of view for the words and images. This too has been a really interesting and fruitful process.

MC: At the concert, you told the stories of many songs from your previous two records. I would be really interested to hear the stories and the influences of some of the new songs, and what they mean to you. Can we start with the first song at the concert, ‘Let's Start Again’?

LR: I’m not sure I’ve fully interpreted these songs from the new record yet. “Let’s Start Again”, I wrote on piano, which is interesting, as it’s not my normal instrument (although I’ve played piano, on my own, since I was young). I was thinking about John Cale’s Paris 1919 record when I wrote this, I wanted that kind of feel. As for the lyrics, this is not one of the ones Jonathan assisted with. It’s a song about finalising endings and looking for new beginnings, that’s about all I can tell you. It’s not about anyone in particular, more an abstract about a certain end-of-the-road/on-to-the-next situation. Sharon Van Etten sings background vocals on this one.

MC: How about Circular?

LR: Another that I wrote pretty much on my own, although Jonathan threw in some lines, I think. Sharon Van Etten sings on this one too. Again, I haven’t fully interpreted this one either! I do like to have descriptions or ideas to talk about onstage as to where the songs are coming from - I like the idea of filling in some of the blanks, as generally the lyrics tend to be somewhat obscured or abstract. This song is about daily life, reading the morning paper, waking up in bed, sex, love, and expectations, both thwarted and fulfilled. It’s about what comes after.

MC: Someone described your song ‘Thrown Over The Wall’ like this: “When Trump is the next POTUS, this will be the song of the resistance”. What do you think about recent developments with Trump, and how do you explain that the quality of the presidential debate can reach this historic low and get such a scary direction?

LR: Ha, I love that description and have adopted it. Jonathan wrote a lot of this one. It’s really come into its own on this past solo tour. I didn’t know it was such a cool song, until I started singing it in front of people! It’s become a highlight of the concerts for me, and, I think, for the audience too.

I’ve been following the election campaign very closely, it will be hard to say much in a paragraph or two. What Trump and, to a lesser extent, Bernie Sanders, have done in this cycle is expose a lot of the accepted tropes of the process as a sham. On the one hand Bernie is calling for an open revolution - what could be more inspiring than that! I love that he’s pushing the discussion so far to the left - where has this voice been all along?? And Trump - he’s appealing to a segment of the American people whose voice is not usually represented well in these affairs: less educated, often more crude (read ‘down-to-earth’), mostly white Middle America. His popularity serves to highlight the ‘populist’ views he’s putting forth: ‘wall off Mexico’, ‘deport/bar Muslims’, disdain for women, etc. It’s amazing to see these things put so bluntly on the table and have a percentage of our population embrace them. He’s been an amazing addition to the political conversation in our country, even as I and many others recoil at his whole deal.

Basically, we have the best television series EVER going on right now! - and more and more people are tuning in! Crazy! On the one side the revolutionary left and on the other the fractured and fucked up right that have been so out in the wilderness for so long that they are pretty much blind to the modern age that we live in. It’s been wild and it’s not over yet! Hillary or Bernie have to win this contest. Hillary is probably most qualified for the office, and likely has the better chance of actually implementing policies as president, working with the Congress and all that. I’d be afraid that no-one in Washington would actually work with Bernie on his grand ideas if he were to be elected, but I support everything he’s been saying. His push to bring more people into the process, the groundswell for ‘political revolution’ that he is asking for, is the most important idea in the whole campaign, on either side.

MC: What’s the story behind ‘Uncle Skeleton’?

LR: Another one that Jonathan had a big hand in. I had a set of chord changes that I really liked and was vaguely thinking of John Phillips’ song ‘Me and My Uncle’ - I had been listening obsessively to his version, and the Grateful Dead’s, and Joni Mitchell’s early version which is on YouTube - and wanted to write a song with a similar feel. What we came up with was in essence a song in two parts that are not really related, yet somehow tell a third story through their juxtaposition.

MC: I won’t ask when Sonic Youth will play again, as probably time will tell. What I would like to hear from you instead, is how it feels not to play all these songs that you have played together for 30 years.

LR: We played all those songs so many times, and over 30 years, so it’s fine to let them go. It was always with the greatest pleasure, but one of the things we were always aware of, was the need to have new songs to keep things interesting. For a long period of time, we stuck to only (or mostly) playing our very newest songs, and resisted playing ‘greatest hits’ (or ‘greatest misses’!), and that attitude always kept us immersed in the present. In the ‘00s we took more to playing sets from across our whole existence, which was also fun. Anyway, I’m pretty happy right now to be immersed in new and current music and projects - I think we’ve all benefitted from striking out on our own w/o the fall-back of SY. That said, SY was much more than the sum of its parts, somehow what we did together is not something I think any of us could achieve on our own - and I think it would be unfair for anyone to expect any of us to do that. We’re all out for new horizons and I like that fine.

MC: I like to listen to noise, but I even more like making it, and I feel like it has an element of acting out my feelings, including violence or anger. A kind of cleansing spirituality through chaos. A lot of music that I like has violence in it, or wildness, or anger, and noise has that kind of energy too, also in your and Sonic Youth’s music. How do you feel about the connection between creating music and acting out or channeling violence or aggression? Especially on stage. Or is it really a kind of violence?

LR: Performing music is, in part, a theatrical act. Glenn Branca taught me that. It can encompass violence, or joy or many other emotions. Because it is more abstract, not literal, it can bring up aspects of emotions that are not otherwise accessible. It doesn’t have to be violent, but it’s often fun (and cathartic) when it is!

MC: What is your favourite music you’ve been listening to recently, and is there any music that you recently discovered and would recommend to our readers?

LR: Ah! I’m ready for this one! I just went to a flamenco concert in NYC this past week, just before flying here to Barcelona. A young Spanish singer named Rocío Márquez and her guitarist Miguel Ángel Cortés. It was one of the most beautiful concerts I’ve been to in ages, and has sparked a new interest in flamenco. She has a most amazing voice and command and control, so emotional, and Miguel Cortés now ranks somewhere around the top 5 guitarists I’ve ever seen playing live. Just amazing technique - but more than that, so emotional! Especially perfect for me right now as I’ve been playing so much more acoustic guitar to hear his flamenco style. SY had the pleasure and honor to play with the great flamenco singer Enrique Morente and to become friendly with him, which was incredible, and was really our first exposure to ‘modern flamenco’ that was/is trying to both embrace its traditions and incorporate new (and sometimes noisy!) elements. Anyway, I really loved Rocio’s concert. She has recently been working with Raul Fernandez, who is producing my album, which is how I found out about her. Highly recommended!

Lee Ranaldo
Barcelona, March 9, 2016

Interview and video: István Gábor Takács
Sound recording: David Chamla and the ORF
Special thanks to Hubert Weinheimer at Schauspielhaus Wien