Lee Ranaldo & Raül Refree :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

“Listening to your talk/Words out of the haze/Tearing me apart,” Lee Ranaldo intones at the start of “Words out of the Haze,” one of the slinkiest songs from his forthcoming lp with Raül Refree, Names of North End Women. A beguiling collage of electronic pulses, shifting rhythms, tape loops, and far out (and frequently lusty) poetry written by Ranaldo and author Jonathan Lethem, the record proves that 40 years into his career, Ranaldo remains as interested in taking apart and reassembling sounds in surprising ways as he was when he formed Sonic Youth with Kim Gordon and and Thurston Moore in the early 1980s.

In Spanish producer and composer Refree, he’s found a trusted collaborator. Since his start in the Barcelona hardcore scene in the ’90s, he’s emerged as an inventive solo artist and producer, who’s worked with Rosalía, Sílvia Pérez Cruz, Josh Rouse, and many more.

The two first teamed up for 2014’s Acoustic Dust, and then again for 2017’s Electric Trim. While working on the latter, it became apparent to Ranaldo that their partnership showed him pathways departing from the traditional rock band approach that had marked his records with the Dust. With Names of North End Women, the two take that loose, cut-up and go ethos even wider. “I think the idea of going forward is to try to venture into more different places, rather than fall back into familiar sound-worlds from the past,” Ranaldo says, joining Refree to speak with Aquarium Drunkard about their partnership and how collaborations with Haley Fohr of Circuit Des Yeux and Jackie Lynn, the Sey Sisters, and Lethem informed and shaped the new record. Names of North End Women is out February 21 via Mute Records. words & interview/ j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: Lee, Raül, you’re both guitarists, and well known for the fact. But Names of North End Women isn’t a guitar-forward record; it employs a wide swath of other instruments, samplers, and tape edits. Was there a desire to step away from the instrument? 

Lee Ranaldo: There was no concept of using “less guitar”; when Raül and I work in the studio we’re focused on the song at hand and what it needs to come to completion. We knew going in that we wanted to focus more directly on the vocals on this record, and introduce the voice earlier in the process than we perhaps did on Electric Trim.

As the songs evolved and grew, we found ourselves working with the electronic instruments, and the cassette players, etc, and recording many different sorts of live percussion. The guitar made its way into most tracks, but perhaps in a more focused, specific manner than in tracks where the guitar forms a “bed” on which everything else connects. It was just a natural result that these tracks focused on different sounds, rather than relying on guitar in every instance.

Raül Refree: We did decide to play some sections with guitars, it’s just that we were starting the composition process with other instruments and sounds. That was the main difference with Electric Trim— the Names Of North End Women songs weren’t played with a guitar [in the beginning]. 

AD: How did you get turned on to Raül’s work? 

Lee Ranaldo: The first project we worked on together was my Acoustic Dust album, which featured acoustic versions of songs from my first two albums (Between the Times and the Tides, and Last Night on Earth) plus some covers, recorded with the Dust in Spain in 2013 or 2014. Raül was brought in as the producer and that’s when we met. During the sessions, and especially during the vocal sessions, we really hit it off and thought that it would be great to work together on a project of new, original songs at some point. That’s how the road to Electric Trim began.

AD: You’re no stranger to collaboration—what does Raül encourage in the work that excites you enough to consider your collaboration a whole new project, distinct in your discography?

Lee Ranaldo: Raül is great in the studio, a master of all the machines in a way that I am not, and a good collaborator. We seem to compliment each other well; we share many influences and yet each bring passions of our own to the collaboration. The initial idea with Electric Trim was to cast my songwriting in a new setting, somewhat removed from the standard two guitars/bass/drums that I’ve worked with for so long. Once we released ourselves from that, we were free to orchestrate the songs in a new manner, often introducing new rhythmic ideas as well. With Names of North End Women we’ve taken that process even further, and felt even more free in our creation process. I expect we’ll go even further afield next time.

AD: How aware were you of Lee’s work, both solo and with Sonic Youth, before you began working together, Raül?

Raül Refree: It’s difficult not to be aware of Sonic Youth’s trajectory. They’ve been a big influence for many musicians over the last 20 years and for me too. I saw them live many times and I was always amazed by how they were able to create very personal layers of textures and rhythms, sometimes closer to contemporary classical music than to rock. I listened to Sonic Youth as a teenager and they gave me some clues about how many ways a guitar could be played, and their sound attracted me from the early beginning. But I have to say that there have been many names that made me want to go deeper in experimentation: Derek Bailey, Robert Wyatt, Ornette Coleman, White Noise, Fugazi…I really like to listen to music and when I listen to something that I really like I want to try to do it, I want to give my own version of what I’ve learned. It happened during my youth as a younger listener, and it still happens nowadays. 

AD: Once again you’ve got Motherless Brooklyn author Jonathan Lethem in the fold, lyrically, as he was on Electric Trim. Lee, you also drew from your archives, and you assembled all these lyrics in the moment. Did this lyrical process have the effect of revealing themes to you about this record in the moment? 

Lee Ranaldo: It’s been great to have Jonathan as a lyric collaborator, because he brings his own vision to the lyrics…he is such a consummate wordsmith. I’d wanted to find some way to get out of self-creating all the lyrics, and his participation was the answer. The process for Names of North End Women was much more collage-based than the last album. I was setting up many sheets from each of us on music stands and just drawing lines that caught my eye and sounded good rolling off the tongue.

Mixing and matching lines without worrying too much about continuity, the words began to form their own meanings which in turn led to their completion. It was a new way of working on song lyrics, but similar to the manner in which I created many poems just a few years back [for Hello From the American Desert, a chapbook] based on internet spam emails. In those poems, I was putting random words and phrases together to create new, often surrealistic, meanings. The process of creating the lyrics for the new album took a similar turn.

AD: Raül, how did Lee’s lyrics inform your approach, sonically? For example, it feels like you’re blanketing his words in hiss as “New Brain Trajectory” coils outward—did you find yourself feeling “directed” by mood or the sound of the language? 

Raül Refree: Most of the time, the vocal track was the last thing we were adding to the songs. While we were composing, we both were trying melodies with words that Lee had written on papers or even sometimes with the first words that were coming to our minds, almost like automatic writing. And at the very end Lee decided which words to use; so I don’t think lyrics were an influence to the music, more the opposite. 

AD: Songs like “Light Years Out” and “New Brain Trajectory” are defined by these very different, but similarly prominent rhythms. What kind of discussions did the two of you have about rhythmic character of this album? 

Lee Ranaldo: We didn’t really discuss as much as try many different ideas until something stuck and made sense to both of us. Raül has a lot of experience working with the specific rhythms of, for instance, Flamenco, or Portugese Fado, and brought this experience to bear. Songs mutated constantly. Sometimes if you heard a song on Monday and came back on Wednesday, all the elements may have shifted and changed as we looked for the elements that would ultimately define each track.

Raül Refree: We wanted the rhythmic part of the record to be really strong, we didn’t want a very busy record with many layers of instruments. We wanted emptiness and the rhythm to be a strong section. And we didn’t want to play electronics like they were a regular drum kit. We wanted to play around one single sound, like a deep kick for example, and create a rhythm only with one element changing the pitch or the duration or a concrete effect to create different sensations with only one sound.

AD: Where was this record recorded?

Lee Ranaldo: The new album followed a similar trajectory to Electric Trim mostly recorded in Hoboken, actually, at the studio Sonic Youth continues to maintain, Echo Canyon West, and mostly mixed in Barcelona at Raul’s Studio Calamar. We’ve been working back and forth between the two locations, which has worked out quite well.

AD: Where do you stay when you’re in Spain? What kind of headspace does being there put you in?

Lee Ranadlo: I love being in Spain. It’s one of the first European countries I got to know well, as Sonic Youth went there quite early and often, and I love the country and it’s culture more and more with every visit. Spanish lifestyle, so good! There is an appreciation and joy of life there that is infectious. The food is great, and there is an inclusiveness to the culture—families out together, the old people with the young and the children all mixing together, that is inspiring. I stay with Raül when I’m there, his house is big enough to accomodate me as a guest, so it works out well. The vibe of the city and the Catalan culture (and the beautiful weather) certainly inspires me when I’m there.

AD: Sharon Van Etten contributed some incredible guest vocals to the last record, and this one features Katy and Yolanda Sey of the Sey Sisters, as well as Haley Fohr of Circuit des Yeux. What qualities did they bring to the record? 

Lee Ranaldo: I’ve not met [the Sey Sisters] but really loved what their voices brought to many of the songs on the new album. We knew we wanted to have additional voices on some of the songs. In some cases we worked out the parts for them to sing in advance, and in others they invented their own.

Haley is an artist I’ve been following for some time now, and taken great inspiration from. I know the same is true for Raül. She and met a few years back at the Drone Not Drones 24-hour drone festival in Minneapolis and did back-to-back, overlapping sets, which cemented our friendship. Her records are amazing and her voice is incredible, she’s a force of nature! Her last record, Reaching For Indigo, was my favorite record of that year, and the performances I saw, both solo and with her band, were knockouts. I wrote about it for The Talkhouse. It’s a complete honor for us to have her singing as a guest on our album! We caught her in a very busy period but she still found time to freestyle on our track and give us some different options to consider.

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