Sonic Youth guitar hero Lee Ranaldo is great to shoot the shit with, mostly because he's ultra-articulate and interesting. If you couldn't get enough of Ranaldo from my feature story running in the freshly printed ish of the OC Weekly, here's the rest of the interview. Sonic Youth performs tonight at Fox Theater, Pomona.
OC Weekly (Lilledeshan Bose): I was looking at the Jazzmaster Guitars from Fender. They're really beautiful--how did that deal happen?
Lee Ranaldo: Well, it actually came from Fender. They had been doing artists' models the last couple of years, they did a J Mascis model the year before us. Fender has been kind of supportive over the years, but never fully supportive. I guess they recognized how much we've used those guitars, especially the Jazzmaster, which has been a traditionally underused guitar in their line. All these people in indie rock and punk rock were using them--J Mascis, Tom Verlaine, Elvis Costello--and they'd thought they tried to reinvigorate the line, so they asked us to do it.
It's been said that no one in their right mind plays jazz with a Jazzmaster....
Well, it's obviously someone's opinion, but not ours. That's pretty much all we play.
You're a pretty established writer yourself, and I heard you made the fanzine that comes with the guitar. What's in the zine?
We just wanted to make it funkier than the usual Fender presentation. Initially we thought we'd send our guitars out covered in stickers the way a lot of our guitars really are. The Fender people backed off at that, because they said people want to personalize their own guitars, so we created a sticker sheet with some stickers we copied off old guitars of ours--vintage stickers, you might say--and we also invited artist friends to create new stickers. Then we created a little fanzine which included an information sheet that explained how to set these guitars up to do Sonic Youth stuff--like our weird tunings and string gauges, mod sets that you could do that is not what comes out of the box from Fender. It evolved from an informational sheet to an idea of a fanzine, and our studio tech guy/sound guy and talked to four primary members of the Sonic Youth crew who had worked for us in the last 15-20 years about the evolution of our guitars through the years. If you're a guitar player, it's kind of a cool thing. It could be seen as just geeking out otherwise.
Everyone wants to know insider secrets, though.
Well, if you bought one and you wanted to play it exactly the way we play ours you could figure it out from this zine. Except our own guitars have evolved even further since we finished this project!
After being in a band for 30 years do you still experiment with your gear?
It just comes out of practical necessity at this point. Out instruments are pretty stable in terms of what we do but there are young equipment builders. For example, we just worked with a guy who designed a new bridge from a company called Mastery Bridges in Minnesota. It holds the strings on better when we're abusing them and bashing them around, and it's a weird looking bridge that's clunky looking but it really works and we like it a lot.
Rolling Stone magazine named you and Thurston Moore two of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Do you think that has a lot to do with experimentation?
I suppose so. They were looking for people doing interesting things with guitars. It was a recognition of the fact that lot of the stuff we've done with our playing has seeped into the lineage of younger players that have listened to Sonic Youth for a number of years and checked out what we're doing. It was nice of them to put us on the list; we're not technical chops players like other people on that list. We don't play really well on a regular guitar; we can play our music really well on our kinds of guitars, but we can't fire off strings of leads or anything like that.
Here's a question that I always wanted to ask the members of Sonic Youth. Did you see Juno? What did you think of that scene where she says Sonic Youth is just noise?
We just thought that was hysterical (laughs). It was just the perfect response to that situation, from someone not living in an urban environment who was not really understanding what we were doing and just got into they band by listening to that Carpenters song in the movie. That's a typical thing that happens to us, where people hear something that's a little bit palatable and delves into the rest of our catalog and comes up with a response like that. We thought it was pretty spot on.
You were really popular (on radio and MTV) in the 1990s...and I'm sure some people think you play the same music you did then. Do you try to break people out of that mindset?
After 28 to 30 years of being a band, it's not something we can think too hard about anymore. We just go about making the music that we make, and obviously because it's the same four people, there's always going to be elements of stuff we've done in the past just because we're the same players. But we like to think we're evolving and building from the stuff we've done on the past. I don't think we get bogged down on it. If you look on our chat boards, there's always plenty of discussion on the best period of Sonic Youth. There's certainly as many kids who think the last three or four records were the pinnacle of Sonic Youth, as well as others who think the '90s was the shit. It's up to them to discuss and we just go about our business.
You did the series of Daydream Nation concerts. How much time does the band spend on revisiting your old work?
We were really resistant to doing the Daydream Nation stuff just because we felt, "Why should we spend a month or two of relearning old material versus writing new stuff?" In the end it was really interesting, because some of these songs we hadn't played in 15 years. It showed us aspects of our music that we hadn't heard so it was pretty useful. In general, we revisit old songs into our live sets, but we don't really do whole albums. We're so used to what happens live that we almost forget what the recorded version sounds like because we've heard hundreds of versions of the live songs since then.
The Eternal seems more--I don't know if mainstream is the word, but it's certainly one of your more accessible works. Do you think it's that everyone else that has been influenced by your band has caught up with the Sonic Youth sound? Or has there been an effort on your part to be more accessible on that album?
Definitely not the latter. We never think about that stuff when making new records. I will say this is the first record we've done since we've played the Daydream Nation stuff, and if anything the fact that it was so hard rocking, it may have rubbed off on this album a little bit. But yeah, I think our music sounded more different in the '80s and early '90s than it does today--partly because a lot of people have caught up. A lot more more people are utilizing weird sounds to make their records or odd tunings. In the '80s there was a small contingent of people doing stuff like that mostly coming out of New York, or a couple of specific places, and to the rest of the music community it was definitely odd sounding music. These days people are more used to hearing things that sound odd, if you're listening to underground and independent music,
Sonic Youth could be considered the antithesis of a California band, coming from New York. Have there been any California influences in your music?
Oh, tons of stuff. The general view is that we are the antithesis of a California band, but in reality we spent tons of time in California in our first decade and still to this day, it's like our second home base. We have tons of friends there. Kim grew up in West LA so all through the 80s we spent a lot of time in LA crashed on her parent's floor. We took a lot from the early California punk scene and the amazing history of California music from San Francisco psychedelics, to the LA stuff like the Wrecking Crew and Lee Hazelwood's singer-songwriter stuff. A lot of that music has rubbed off on us, although the basic premise of what we play definitely came out of New York in the late 70s and 80s.
I read about the Sonic Youth exhibition touring Europe. (The museum exhibition SONIC YOUTH ETC. : SENSATIONAL FIX focuses on the multidisciplinary activities of Sonic Youth since the band's formation in 1981. It features the band's collaborations with visual artists, filmmakers, designers and musicians, as well as a choice of other works selected by the band.) Why hasn't it come to the States? It looks like such an awesome show.
That's what we're asking ourselves. It's a total bummer to us that it hasn't come to the states, it's on its fifth museum in Europe. It's such an awesome show and we can't get an American institution to pony up and spring for shipping it around from one place to the next. It's a really beautiful show, with more than 100 different artists who've had a relationship with us in one way or another such as Raymond Pettibon or people whose work we really like and influenced us. Thurston, Kim and I's work is in the show, as well...The catalog is this amazing, gigantic, thick book of stuff that's part band history and part catalog, and it sold out so fast in its first run in Europe that hardly anyone in America saw it. We always thought if people see it here, they can get an idea of what the show is about. It's about to get reprinted, so hopefully they're gearing a lot of this next pressing to the American market.
I know you're a writer and visual artist too. Does being in a band lend itself to multitasking better as an artist?
It's possible. It could just be that the way we all operate. I think we all feel like big multi-taskers. We occasionally take on too many things at once, but have a lot of different interests in a lot of different areas whether it's bookmaking--Thurston just started book label. A bunch of us exhibit visual art on a regular basis, we play in different projects. I think we just like to have full creative lives that have a lot of different areas that bounce off each other, that's the way we're happiest for the most part. Thurston, Kim and I have always done writing since the earliest days, but there've been points that the band was taking up so much of our time that we didn't really do anything else especially in the beginning. Kim and I came to art school and moved to New York to do art, but it's only been the past eight or nine years that we've had time to do visual art.
What do you want to be most remembered for, and what do you think Sonic Youth's legacy is as a band?
Sonic Youth is bound to be the thing we're most remembered for, its legacy is still being created in a way, but it's mostly coming out of this experimental period of music in New York in the late '70s, early '80s, and even around the world, different pockets of experimentation that we dipped into and familiarized ourselves with. In part, just the fact that we stuck to our guns and have gone our own way with our career, and not been too concerned with issues of fame or wealth as much as trying to keep the music really high quality and stayed focused on the music. It's hard for a band that's been around for a very long time to not be a nostalgia band, in a certain way, and our focus has always been on looking forward, like "what's our next project?" Luckily we're not saddled with tons of old "hit records" that we're obliged to play in concert, we can go out and our audience will go along with whatever we do, so if we're playing all new music people haven't heard, everyone will just go for it. It's just the way we've conducted our career, given that it's been so long. It's part of what you talk about when you talk about legacy. And also, that people will think we've made a bunch of good records that are still worth listening to.