As indie-rock's Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth was a decades-spanning dynasty. So to call it a shock when the band announced an indefinite hiatus — in light of evermore-shocking news that its fronting power couple Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore were divorcing — is an understatement. The silver lining is that mere months after the split, Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo — long the band's secret sonic weapon and the voice behind such back-catalog gems as "Skip Tracer," "Hey Joni" and "Eric's Trip" — released his first song-oriented solo album, the excellent, inspired and uncharacteristically poppy Between the Times and the Tides.
To tackle the tunes, Ranaldo assembled a backing band of past art-rock collaborators and Sonic Youth alumni featuring Steve Shelley, Jim O'Rourke, Nels Cline, John Medski, Alan Licht and Bob Bert. On its first ever tour, the Lee Ranaldo Band comes to Nashville fresh and raw, with only a handful of shows under its belt. In a recent phone interview, Ranaldo tells the Scene about that and more.
Have you guys done much touring for this record yet?
Hardly at all. ... We haven't even played 10 shows together yet.
What's the status of Sonic Youth right now? Is the hiatus still indefinite?
Yup. That's where it stands. None of us are talking to each other about doing anything anytime soon. Obviously there are a lot of personal issues being worked out. I think that's going to be that way for a while. ... We're working on a bunch of archival projects and things like that. As far as new performances or new recordings, I don't think anything like that is gonna happen anytime soon.
This record came out so soon after Sonic Youth went on hiatus that it was really more than a fan could ask for as a consolation.
I think some people are under the impression that my record got made after Sonic Youth decided to go on hiatus or whatever. That's not the case at all. This record was made during a long period where I wasn't completely active and I had the opportunity and some time free to write some songs. This record was done before I knew anything about [Gordon and Moore] having marital difficulties or whatever. ... We played our first show — and this was a few months after the record was finished — the day after [Gordon and Moore] announced their split, which was kind of weird.
You've made experimental or instrumental avant-jazz solo records in the past. But given that you've always written rock songs in Sonic Youth, why did you wait so long to make a song-based solo record?
I don't know if it was a confidence issue or what, but I think that part of it was down to really not having a long enough uninterrupted stretch to actually feel like I could develop this stuff without being called back away to be touring with Sonic Youth or start recording something new with Sonic Youth. ... It's something that I wanted to do for a long time, and in the past I've put a lot of songs on tape that I thought might be appropriate for a solo record. It just never came together like it did this time.
I was invited to do this show in the summer of 2010 in the south of France. They asked for an acoustic show, and I thought I'd just do Sonic Youth songs on acoustic guitar. At some point during my preparation for that show one of the songs from this record, a song called "Lost," kind of popped out. Two weeks later I opened my concert with it. It was just kind of an empowering thing, in a way. ... It just kind motivated me into developing these songs that were springing out.
Were any of the songs ever considered for Sonic Youth?
None of these, no. ... We weren't writing new records or anything like that. And then, by the time we were all finished, I was pretty determined that this was going to be a record of my own. A few more months went by, and the record was finished in July, and the recording was finished in May or April of last year. In July, it was right around the time we were understanding things were not going so well with Thurston and Kim.
It's so interesting, because from the outside it looks like the band takes a break and, because you've always had only a handful of songs on each record, that this record would be, like, an All Things Must Pass kind of scenario.
Yeah, well there might be an element of that. ... We weren't very active and I guess I kind of missed working on songs. Everything [else] was abstract and performance-based, but not really, actually having the pleasure of working on a song. ... It's different than improvisational or abstract music where whatever is happening in the moment is what it is. A song, you're trying to get it to be this perfect nugget in this certain way.
Even compared to the more traditional "song" songs that you've had on Sonic Youth records, this is some of the most jangly, poppy stuff you've done. Where's that coming from?
Some of it I think harkens back to earlier periods of my life in terms of being wrapped up in certain singer-songwriters — whether it's Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen or David Crosby or Neil Young, or whoever — as opposed to a band dynamic. There's no doubt that I was thinking along the lines of people like that, or more contemporaries of mine — people like Chan Marshall or Bill Callahan — people that are really writing records on their own, and then bringing them into their musical group to work on them.
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