Lee Ranaldo :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Ten years past the end of Sonic Youth, Lee Ranaldo takes the stage at a low key festival in northern New England with just a couple of guitars and a few microphones.  He strikes a note, hard, on an aging acoustic, cocks his head a little, and seems to contemplate that reverberating sound.  From an iPhone lying on a stool next to him, the sounds of urban life flicker—an indistinct voice, some running water, the sounds of faraway traffic. 

Against this barely perceptible background, Ranaldo recreates a dreamlike couple of nights in COVID-struck Manhattan, as he picked up his instrument for the first time in months and wrote the pensively beautiful In Virus Times, a four-part 20-minute plus meditation on life and art in the pandemic.  The piece is largely made of the simplest kind of guitar music, single notes held until they decay.  “More than anything else, I was just taking some solace and pleasure in listening to the strings activate these wooden boxes. That, in itself, was kind of enough,” says Ranaldo.   

A few days after the concert, we connect by phone to talk about Ranaldo’s experience of the pandemic, how it moved him to create this new piece and how his attitudes towards touring and performing have changed since COVID. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: I was at your show at Thing in the Spring on Friday, where you played this material. You did explain a little bit about how you wrote In Virus Times during the lockdown in New York City. What was the pandemic like for you?

Lee Ranaldo: Yeah. So, I played the whole record. That was the first thing that I played, the long piece.

My experience of the pandemic, you know, I live in New York City. I think the pandemic hit people that live in New York and other cities differently than it did people who have back yards and lots of open space. In New York, my experience and the experience of a lot of people I talked to was like being locked in your apartment for a period of months, barely going out, masking up, washing hands, the whole crazy ritual of everything. I knew people who were taking their clothes off at the door and throwing them directly into the washing machine. We would order groceries rather than going to the grocery store, and other than perishable things, just leave everything by the door for a couple of days to wait for them to be safe to handle. It was completely bizarre, but the main experience was being indoors.

I would escape and go out for a ride on my bicycle. I had a friend that became a member of my pod that would go out with me for an hour or two, two or three times a week, and that was really the only experience we had of being outdoors. It hit city people in a very different way.

I came back from Europe in the end of the first week in February, and my last record before this one came out the end of February, and then I had a New York City gig in this art gallery, and that got cancelled the day before and everything just dominoed after that. Everything, everywhere got cancelled. So that’s kind of where I mark the beginning of it.

It was just this very fearful time, really. Nobody knew what was happening, and everyone was staying inside.

A long time ago, I had done a cover of the John Lennon song, “Isolation.” Because that word was in the air everywhere in the first months of the pandemic, I decided I would make a video for that song. I wrote to 150 friends and acquaintances around the world, and said, send me what it’s like where you are. And almost all of the city people portrayed either themselves in their apartments or everyone, all over the world, sent images of empty streets, empty streets in Asia, empty streets in South America, empty streets in Russia, in Europe. It was pretty profound seeing all these videos come in, so I cut them all together in really short clips and made this video version of the pandemic.

At the very least, it served to drive home the fact that this was not a localized event. There have rarely been events that affected the entire planet or whatever existed of the planet. Maybe in the Middle Ages the Black Plague affected all of the Western world but it didn’t really affect everybody. But this is a unique experience in that everyone on earth was experiencing the same thing. Wearing masks, staying in, washing hands, not knowing what was going to happen next. It felt very profound to me that it was this global pandemic. When everything shut down, I had tours planned with my musical partner from Barcelona, and we had spent the last year crafting this previous record, Names of North End Women, and everything got shut down.

I was devastated because we had been working very hard on creating this innovative, experimental duo show to go out and perform this very complex material from that record. Everything got shut down, and I didn’t pick up an instrument for months.  

AD: I was wondering if it was hard to work.

Lee Ranaldo: It really was. I had just finished a year of creation and production on this record, and then when everything shut down, I suppose the natural thing to think would be, “Oh, I’ll just write another batch of songs.” But everything was so close that I really couldn’t do that.

All the way through the middle of the summer, four or five months, I turned my energy to other things. I was working on some writing projects, and I started doing some long-awaited archival stuff, scanning some old negatives, Sonic Youth in the 1980s and stuff like that. I did a lot of drawing and painting. I spent a lot of time working on watercolors of the flowers my wife was bringing in to brighten up our space, since we were stuck inside.

Then, late summer, late July or August 2021, I started slowly picking up a guitar again and plunking around on it, and I made these recordings in September. At the time, I felt that I’d been away from the instrument for so long. I felt like an absolute beginner in a certain way. I didn’t have any chops. My fingers were kind of thick and slow. I didn’t have callouses. When I started playing, I didn’t know what to do with the instrument. I was sort of feeling my way back.

I almost felt that what I was doing was akin to exercises. And more than anything else, I was just taking some solace and pleasure in listening to the strings activate these wooden boxes. That, in itself, was kind of enough. I wasn’t playing melodies or tunes or even chord progressions. And, indeed, a lot of the record is a single note hit hard and allowed to hang in the air. I was mostly doing this, and I recorded the record right here where I’m talking to you, in my living room, in the dark, nobody on the streets, the lights had gone down, I hadn’t turned the lights on inside. I was playing these rudimentary things. They felt almost like beginners’ exercises. I had something that I liked and normally my MO would be to pull out my iPhone and make some recordings. But in this instance, I decided to set up some microphones and just track it in a better way because I liked what I was hearing. To me, when I listen to it, it comes across as super minimal and super dark. I really feel that it reflects the time in which it was made.

It wasn’t like I set out to do something that would reflect how I was feeling about the moment we were living through. It just ended up that way, automatically or intuitively. I didn’t sit down and say, I’m going to make a record now, or anything like that. I was just recording what I was doing because I liked the sound of it. When I did the recording in one long evening—it happened in like 90 minutes or a little bit more than that. And then I spent a bunch of months editing and structuring the piece. Cutting things down, putting things together, just making it into something intelligible.

AD: It’s almost all instrumental, but there are some very haunting wordless vocals and you also whistle a bit. I was wondering if that stands for something human, maybe something that was missing at that time in your life?

Lee Ranaldo: Well, that’s a nice way to look at it. It is mostly an instrumental piece, but I am happy in the end that there are a couple of places with voice on there and the whistling. The whistling almost gives that passage in that first track a lightness, given that whistling is never that dark.

But no, it all just happened spontaneously. It was the most casual recording recording process. I was just sitting around. There wasn’t anyone in the room. Occasionally you hear someone talking in the next room or running the water or something like that. Or you hear traffic sounds on the street. There are fans going in our house, which makes a surprising amount of noise in recordings. I did turn off the fans but I forgot to close the windows. And so, traffic sounds were coming in.

Later when I was shaping this music into something, I tried really hard to minimize the sound of the window, to eliminate it basically. I finally got it as good as I could, and then somehow I realized I missed that weird background. So, I restored it, and indeed, at the show, I don’t know how prominent it was in Keene but I…

AD: You had your iPhone going.  

Lee Ranaldo: Right, I bring a tape of the backing sounds. Normally there’s a video that has those sounds playing behind me. This became part of the piece, this very quiet little huzzah in the background with occasionally a siren, which happens in a different place every time when I play it live, which is kind of nice, that it’s random. But it just all happened really casually and intuitively, even the vocal sections. I think when I was editing it together, it was mostly editing it for the structure of the guitar, so some of the vocal stuff got kept and some of it got removed.

AD: It looked like you were reading a chart at Thing in the Spring. Is it all written down?

Lee Ranaldo: It is. It’s all scored out. And actually, like I said, it started as 90 or 95 minutes of music, and then I spent a whole bunch of months editing it to be what’s on the record. My record label is Mute out of London, and they’ve been supportive to me. I really love them. But I passed this music on to them almost out of obligation. Like I sent it to them, saying I made this recording and I really want to release it. I didn’t expect them to release it, because it wasn’t really in character with the records they’ve been releasing for me.

AD: You’ve been doing some really accessible indie rock.

Lee Ranaldo: For the most part. The last two record, Names of North End Women and the one before that Electric Trim, were both done with Raül Refree, from Spain, my partner. Only the second one has his name on the cover, but he was an integral part of both of them. Those records started to move me in a different direction, especially Names of North End Women, which is really a studio construct. It has a lot of electronics and things like that on it.

I didn’t expect them to respond to it, and I already had in mind a small, guitar-centric label to give it to, once they’d said, we’ll wait for the next record. You know, thanks but no thanks. But they loved it and were super responsive to it and wanted to release it, which was great by me. It was kind of like they spearheaded the entire piece. I don’t know if you’ve seen the physical release, but it’s 22 minutes long. Which is just the edge of how much you can get on one side of a record. And we were trying to figure out, if we put half of it on one side and half of it on the other side, and they were like, I think it would be better if it was all on one side. Maybe you can do some kind of scratching or etching on the other side. Which is also something I’ve done in the past.

AD: Wow.

Lee Ranaldo: They really conceptualized a package for it. A one-sided record. Etching on the other side. One of the things I do in my visual art practice is I make prints. I trained on etching presses at university. I make prints using old vinyl records as the plates. I scratch them up, and then I do small editions. The vinyl is soft, so it usually doesn’t usually make more than 10 or 12 prints. But they’re proper prints. I started doing them with 12” vinyl, and then I found these vinyl records from the 1950s and 1960s for radio stations that were 15” records. Really crazy large records. And I did some of those small kiddie records, those yellow 6” records that we had when we were kids.

I had made a print based on an electron microscope image of a COVID molecule, and Mute saw that and were like, well, why don’t we make a poster to go with the record. They wanted to do the record as kind of a limited edition, so that it was really this special object. We decided we would make 2,500 in the first pressing with the blue vinyl. And they were going to have these prints.

The last step when you’re a printer is you sign and number all the copies. And so, I suggested that I hand sign the entire edition of 2,500. That was kind of a trip in itself. Mute sent over a couple helpers and we had this whole production going in my house for one long day. They’re all hand signed and number stamped, 1 to 2500. The package came out really nice, and this was all Mute’s doing in terms of really making it an interesting package. It’s not just a poster, but it’s a poster with pencil signed signature on each one. Which is kind of nice. It’s a record that didn’t just come from a manufacturing plant, in a way.

This is long-winded. They wanted to release it, which was great, and now I don’t even know why I started down this road telling you this.

AD: Me neither, but it’s interesting. I did want to ask you about the video by Philip Virus. Can you tell me about how that came about?

Lee Ranaldo: He’s someone I’ve known for a long time. His sister is married to J. Mascis. He just did this Dinosaur Jr. documentary. I suppose you know about that? He lives in Berlin, and he’s filmed Sonic Youth there. Including during our last couple tours there, he filmed a couple of really special shows in Berlin, actually with J. opening, if I remember correctly.

So anyway, as he was making this documentary, Sonic Youth has a long unreleased tour movie from 1986 from our EVOL tour, when we were touring EVOL in the United States.  And I happened to have at that time a very, very early Sony Portapak video camera, one of the first consumer models that were ever made. And we took it on tour and filmed a lot of that tour and made this tour movie that’s about 80% finished. It’s never been finalized or released. We still hope we will release it at some point because it’s actually before the era when every band under the sun was making a tour movie. It’s kind of both crude and intimate and it’s good. At some point, we’ll finish it and release it.

But Dinosaur, we took them on what I think was their first tour outside the Northeast. We played a couple of weeks with them, and I filmed them a lot. Philly was calling me to get access to my footage, and indeed he used a lot of it. My early footage of Dinosaur is all over that film.

Somehow, I mentioned to him that Mute had suggested that we make some kind of video accompaniment to a section of the piece. I kept thinking about it. I was going to try to do it myself. I thought it would be really cool to make something that reflected the nature of when it was made, like a dark room, really very little going on. I wasn’t really sure what to do, but I wanted to do something very dark and minimal.

I don’t know if you ever saw that video the Replacements made back in the day when they signed to Warners or EMI or whoever they were on. The record company wanted them to make a video, and they had never done videos and were kind of against it. And so, the video is just someone putting the record on the turntable and putting the needle on the record, and then you just watch the record spinning for four and a half minutes. I always thought that was pretty conceptually great, and I wanted to do something minimal and dark with that kind of spirit to it.

Then I mentioned to Philly that I was working on it, and he told me he had all this imagery that he’d been playing around with and making all these multi-layered sequences, so he sent me a bunch of stuff. It was very different from my concept. But I did like the idea of bringing someone else in, rather than trying to do the whole thing myself, which is usually the way out I would take, just because it’s a little easier. But he sent me all this stuff. I really liked it.

I especially responded to this footage of the woman wandering in the desert of Morocco. I have a bunch of different reasons to have a relationship with Morocco. I’ve been there a number of times and I’ve spent some time in the village of Jajouka where these master musicians lived that Brian Jones recorded and William Burroughs and all that. So, I really responded to this desert image. I just thought that I would string a bunch of his clips together and make a video out of it. I had already shot these images of myself right here in this dark living room where I recorded the piece. I injected a few of those in as talismans. Like this is actually where the recording was made, right here where I’m sitting in the video. I stripped those in and sent it back to Philly and he really liked it. We batted it back and forth a little bit. That’s how it came about.

AD: I know you’re about to go to Europe and I gather you’ve hardly been playing live at all. How do you feel about getting out there again?

Lee Ranaldo: I feel mixed about it. It’s certainly brought a lot of pleasure to be doing it again. I didn’t know how or what form that was going to take. I don’t know if this was your experience but here in the city back in the late fall, like October/November, there was a window of four to six weeks, and everybody was like, it’s going away, hurray!

I did six or seven shows in that window here around New York. Six or seven completely different shows. No two shows were the same format. I did one show at Union Pool where I played a similar concert to the one you saw, first the instrumental piece and then singing songs all by myself. The other five or six concerts were each a different ensemble, mostly more improvisational stuff. Mostly electric guitar, noisy stuff. I did a trio. I did a piece with these weird futurist instruments somebody had recreated. Every concert was different. And then the world closed up again.

But I just remember the first show I did was a trio piece at Union Pool with a friend of mine, David Watson, he’s a New Zealander, but long-time New York resident, plays bagpipes. We’ve played a lot together over the years, bagpipe and guitar, mostly with this drummer Tony Buck who plays in the Necks. David and I did a duo set, and it was going to be the first concert I’d done in two years almost. I was really trepidatious about doing it. Not so much about getting COVID but after such a long lay off, I just wasn’t really sure how to approach it. The main thing that was going through my mind.

I know a lot of people when the time came to start playing again, they wanted to erase these two years that had gone by and pick up exactly where they were in February or March of 2020. Just kind of pretend it didn’t happen. They wanted to go right back on stage where they were, so that the concert two years ago is like a concert two days ago. I really had an opposite feeling about it. I wanted to use this break. I felt like the break raised so many different emotions. Fear. You think about your mortality. You think about your family’s mortality. But I just really felt when I started playing again, I wanted to reflect somehow, even if it was just in a personal way that wasn’t apparent to the audience, what had happened.

AD: That’s something that I’m really curious about. Do you think that there will be long term effects on the way people make and listen to music because of what’s happened in the last couple of years?

Lee Ranaldo: I don’t know if change will happen in that sense. But I think everybody experienced this moment when the world as a whole felt very fragile. And I think somehow or other, it can’t but affect people’s attitudes going forward, maybe more broadly than the music and the music community. We are basically a global community at this point. When problems arise, they are going to hit the whole globe. I keep saying these are the wars we’re going to fight in the 21st century, pandemics, viral wars. This is just the first one. This is not the last pandemic we’re going to see in this century. That’s my take on it.

So, I think in think in the back of everyone’s mind, there’s this knowledge now of what happened and how it could have gone. Where it could have gone. We’re thankful it wasn’t worse. But we don’t even know if we’re done at this point.

I was doing one of those quizzes in the New York Times, and it said, how many people have died since the vaccines started? It’s almost half that have died in the last six or eight months. Which is pretty amazing when you consider all the people who are vaxxed up. And still half a million people—400,000 people—have died. It’s pretty scary.

So anyway, just to go back to October 2021. I did play some shows. I did one with the set up of the show you just saw. I’ve done a lot more acoustic playing over the last six or eight years. I’ve played acoustic guitar a lot in the last six or eight years. But it’s always been with an amplifier and pedals, and it can still get crazy loud. One of the things I wanted to challenge myself with here was just to go out, just to show up at the gig with an acoustic guitar and put a microphone in front it of it, old school, and let’s get some really good microphones and really make the guitar sound wonderful and challenge myself to play in the most stripped down way possible, with an acoustic guitar and a voice. That’s part of the way I’ve been challenging myself.  

AD: You still have three guitars.

Lee Ranaldo: I have two. I played everything on one guitar except for one song, the song that was related to that bird song project. Which is in a very different tuning, so I did bring two guitars.

AD: But compared to the racks of guitars that you guys used to cart around for Sonic Youth…

Lee Ranaldo: Yeah. And at the solo shows, I always had at least four guitars on stage, so this was stripped down as possible. I also kind of vowed that I was not going to go out and do the classic thing, which is you play in the same format for two months, same band, same line-up. I wanted to mix that up. One of the things that came out of this pandemic is that those long tours are probably a thing of the past for me. I want to play more individualized shows or just very short runs, then do something else.

I did just come back from Europe. I was in Spain and France, in one city in each for a week. I got back ten days ago, and I’m going again. Each of those gigs was a different ensemble, a trio in Spain and a quintet in France. But I have to say that over there, when we flew in…you probably know that all the airlines have dispensed with masking. When we went to Spain, the United people came over and announced, “Sorry to tell you folks, but you have to wear your masks. The Spanish government insists on it.” I was very happy about that. I would have worn my mask anyway. I hadn’t been on a long plane flight up until that point for two years.

But once we got there, I didn’t see a mask on anyone for two weeks. In either place. To the point where, I wasn’t wearing a mask. I always had it in my pocket. In Marseilles, which was the second week, two of the musicians were not vaccinated and were not wearing masks. It was really weird compared to New York. Here, everybody’s wearing a mask. When we were in France, we went to this small town where one of the musicians lived, where they have this amazing museum. And we were walking around the museum for half an hour or more and suddenly a family of four walked by us and they all had masks on. My head kind of exploded. I was like, I didn’t even think to put my mask on. This would never happen at home. It was very strange. I don’t know if, over there, they’re just so sick and tired of it or so anti-rules and regulations that the whole populace is just not obeying.

AD: They’re more vaccinated there, aren’t they?

Lee Ranaldo: Well, I guess that’s true. But you also hear about these revolts in Holland and people in the streets burning their cards.

AD: There’s quite a bit of it in the UK, the vaccine refusal. I still wear a mask inside if I go grocery shopping. My health insurance sucks, and I do not want to go to the hospital.

Lee Ranaldo: Same here. I don’t want to go to the hospital for any reason. Early in the pandemic, I think in the first few weeks, we were just kind of scratching our heads wondering what was going on. And early in the pandemic, like in April, a good friend of ours, actually the music producer Hal Willner died from COVID. He was a long-time friend of mine, and in the year before the pandemic hit—he’s one of these guys who’s always moving around, so I don’t always see him—but in the year before the COVID hit, I would see him all the time. Running into him at gigs and hanging out with him a little bit. And really spending a good amount of time together. When he died, I just remembered getting super scared. It was the first person that I knew that died. It really shook me to the point, of oh my god, we’ve got to take this seriously. When someone you know succumbs to it, it really hits home.

AD: Have you managed to avoid it yourself?

Lee Ranaldo: No. My wife and I both got it in March of this year, so two months ago. You know, there was a period again where things seemed a little bit lighter. There was one week where we went to three or four events where people were not wearing masks, and indeed, we weren’t wearing masks some of the time either. They were checking vax cards at the door. That made us feel a little better. So, we don’t know which event we caught it at, but we both caught it within a couple of days of each other. Our 22-year-old son, who has been living here after college, did not catch it from us, even though we spent a couple of days where we definitely had it and were sitting around watching TV or eating dinner together, before we realized that first me and then a day or so later my wife had COVID. Then he isolated. He didn’t get it, though he got it a month later.

We each had a day or a day and a half of really not fun. And then four or five days of getting better, and then after the sixth day, we felt mostly normal again. And actually, if I hadn’t gotten it, I don’t know if I would have gone to Europe. I got it randomly, but then I felt like, okay, I’ve got a certain kind of immunity. I just remember before I got it, I was hedging my bets about whether I wanted to go on these trips or not. And then after I had it, I said I would go.

Here’s a funny story. I have a friend and his partner were in a close quarters with someone who, the next day came down with COVID. The next day, my friend came down with it, and his partner didn’t. I have a little friend group that does a zoom group. It’s one of the amazing things that COVID has allowed. We were like, well, are you isolating from her? And he was like, no we’re still sleeping together. And we’re like, what are you, crazy? And he said, no, we just figured that since I’ve got it, she’s probably got it. She’s just not showing symptoms. We were castigating him. You’re crazy. You’ve got to wear a mask. You’ve got to isolate from her. And indeed, she didn’t get it. They spent a couple of days after he tested positive in super close quarters…so it’s just so unpredictable.

AD: I don’t see how you can isolate in a New York apartment.

LEE RANALDO: In our case, our son just stayed in his bedroom the whole time. When he came out, he had a mask on, and we wore masks, and my wife and I stayed in our room and our son stayed in his room, and he didn’t get it. And indeed, my friend’s partner didn’t get it in that time. It’s quirky as far as who’s getting it and who’s not. It’s a really mixed-up time. I feel more than anything else, this is a time that we as the human species have to learn from. This kind of situation does not come up very often that shows how vulnerable we are, especially now that it’s a global community. The killer bees are coming from Asia and all this crazy stuff is happening. The world is so small now that there’s no way you can contain something like this. Even if they had caught it in Wuhan in the early days, people are jetting off all over the world.

AD: Did you ever read the book, The Sixth Extinction?

Lee Ranaldo: No.

AD: There’s a chapter in it about bats. They were getting this virus, and the author would come upon these bats in caves by the hundreds, just dead. And it was because people are traveling more, and virus that bats are immune to in Asia were coming here. I couldn’t stop thinking about that during COVID. Now we’re the bats.

Lee Ranaldo: I’m going to put it on my list. I know the story about the bats dying. And right now, bees are dying. I’m involved in this bird song project about the same thing with bird habitats. That’s more about humanity’s encroachment than pestilence coming from another part of the world.

AD: Tell me about the bird project. 

Lee Ranaldo: It’s a project spearheaded by a friend of mine, Randall Poster. He’s a music supervisor. He works on Wes Anderson’s films and Todd Haynes films. I’ve worked with him for a long time. I did a lot of the score work on I’m Not There, Todd’s Bob Dylan film. I worked with him on that TV show, Vinyl, which was ill-fated, but which for season or so was a really interesting gig. I was a music producer on that show. We’ve a lot of stuff over the years.

He woke up one pandemic morning and was listening to the birds outside his window and probably was reading some article about how endangered their habitats were and just decided to start a project to raise money to preserve avian habitats.

He asked me early on if I would be involved and help him invite people from my Rolodex and contribute a track. We gathered something like 200 musicians from all across the spectrum, from Elvis Costello to Terry Riley and a million points in between, from every genre of music, and 60 or 70 poets and 20 or thirty visual artists who created cover art and just launched this massive project.

It came out in the last week or so. It’s going to be a 20 LP box, a high-ticket item to benefit avian habitat. All these artists created new pieces, thinking about birds or bird song. That was the loose theme that we asked people to work on. They just rolled out the first four LPs and every month they’re going to roll out four more until all 20 are released. It’s a labor of love to raise money for a cause. In and out of itself, raising money for birds sounds like a good idea, but when you think about how birds are endangered not only because of humanity’s encroachment but also because of climate change, which is the bigger issue, it’s all about raising awareness. It’s a noble venture. Nobody involved got paid a dime, and everybody stepped up and contributed because they liked the idea of it. It’s just rolling out at the moment.

I made a song with lyrics by the poet Michael McClure, who was a friend of mine and passed away a couple of years ago. I used one of his late poems for the song that I wrote.

AD: It sounds like a really worthwhile project. 

Lee Ranaldo: We’re at a tipping point on so many levels. The main thrust is that the global community has to work together on this stuff. It’s time for a global government on some stuff. Like when COVID hit, some countries were saying we don’t give a shit and some countries were being as safe as they could. There was no rhyme or reason to it.

AD: In every science fiction book, the minute there’s a threat, the world’s governments get together to fight it. Now we know that’s not going to happen.

Lee Ranaldo: I was a big science fiction reader in my youth, so this brought back all those dystopian stories. It actually seemed like the first year of the pandemic, every time I turned on the TV to watch something, I ended up watching all these dystopian tales. Handmaid’s Tale. One after the other, these apocalyptic tales of the future after the big crash.

AD: I was thinking of the Three Body Problem, because they had this hundreds of year lead time to address a problem, and they just didn’t do it.

Lee Ranaldo: The Three Body Problem?

AD: Have you read that? It’s a three-volume Chinese trilogy. It’s a story of an alien race that discovers that the earth exists, and you find out that the reason why civilizations only last so long is because they eventually start transmitting and other civilizations find them and destroy them. I think they’ve making a series on Netflix. It’s a really interesting set of books, but it will take you forever. What have you been reading? Anything interesting?

Lee Ranaldo: I started reading again during the pandemic in a ferocious way. I’ve always been a reader, but you know, you end up reading so much stuff on your phone, that I didn’t have enough time for books. But almost as soon as the pandemic hit, I just started reading like crazy and that has not gone away. I’ve been reading a lot of music related books. I’m just about finished this book on the band, Suicide. That was pretty good. I’m a Bob Dylan freak and a good friend who is one of the main Dylan writers published a book that came out in the pandemic. I was reading that. I read a lot of art criticism.

One of the artists who was most significant to me, in terms of writing this music, was a composer named Morton Feldman. I’ve always liked his music, but I got deep into it in a very significant way during the pandemic. If you know his music even a little bit, you know that a lot of it is super, super empty. Almost nothing is happening. It’s just little gestures and a lot of air and then something else happens. Some of them are two hours or three hours. One of them is five hours. Somehow it seemed so right for those summer months of the pandemic when literally, the streets were so empty. There were no cars. There were no tourists. There were no people. And I would put this music on. It was so empty. I would put his music on and just listen to it on repeat all day long. It was this weird environment. The one thing that was striking to me when I did my piece was what he did with this emptiness. He does so much with so little and so much empty space. When I was sitting here, playing and recording, basically, I was just hitting notes and letting them hang in the air. It felt like guitar 101. There’s nothing fancy going on, and it’s all about this minimal atmosphere. And I read a book of his writings that really made an impression.

I read Chris Frantz’s book, Remain in Love. He’s the drummer from the Talking Heads. I read Lenny Kaye’s book Lightning Striking early on in the pandemic and his book is marvelous. It’s about the development of rock through ten cities. That book was really good. And Duncan Hanna’s book Twentieth-Century Boy, that was a fantastic book. Really loved that book. He moved to New York around the same time I did. 1970s and 1980s New York. It really brought back a lot of really interesting memories. So yeah, the pandemic has reinstilled my sense of reading, which is wonderful.

AD: You’ve been doing this for a long time now. Do you have any ideas about legacy or what you would like to be remembered for?

Lee Ranaldo: Oh gosh. I don’t know That’s such a hard question to answer. History is written by others. I have to say, Sonic Youth released this record in the last couple of months called In/Out/In on Three Lobed, and we were kind of bowled over by the reception to it. There was so much love shown to the band, and most of the reviews were so positive — even though it’s just a collection of instrumental pieces. It’s not the most typical Sonic Youth collection. We were just amazed at how much love was out there for the band. That’s super cool.

We have a massive and constantly growing archive. So, we’re preserving what we can of our career. That stuff will be written by other people. It’s really hard to say. It’s hard to say, if you look 100 years from now, what’s still going to be interesting to people and what’s going to be just of its time and that’s the end of it. I guess I try not to think too much about it. We had an amazing run. We had 30 years together, and now we’ve all had ten years where we’re doing work on our own that probably wouldn’t have happened if we had stayed together. It would have been a different road to go down. I’m really happy to see that we’re all active and still producing and creating stuff that seems worthwhile to me.

We were always interested in artists who had long careers and who remained engaged. And that’s the very antithesis of a pop group that has a hit single or a little string of hits. Where do you go from there? A lot of them just fade away or give up. But we had a song on the last record, one of the last records, called “Radical Adult.” We were thinking about people like Yoko Ono and Neil Young, people who started early in life and had this career that never stopped. In the way Picasso or Matisse never stopped. You declare yourself an artist at some point and that’s what you want out of your life. It’s not like you hit 65 and retire. I have a bunch of friends who are professional people that just retired recently. And it’s like, what are you going to do in the next 20 years? Artists don’t have that problem. You do it until you drop dead, basically. I think our personal legacy is just that we will continue to work and make things and put them out there for people that might be interested. And leave the rest of it to historians.

Back when we were making records for Universal Geffen, when we first signed the big deal, and even before that, the record companies would always single out a song like “Teenage Riot” or “Kool Thing,” and be like, “Oh this is the song that’s going to break you guys. This is going to be a big hit.” It would really come to pass in the way that record companies expect. To the point where we would just start tuning out that kind of blather. Now it’s like that even from management, “Oh yeah, you guys will get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” and we’re like, oh yeah, sure we will. There’s not enough people that respond to what we do that will make that happen. But who knows what will happen. That’s legacy building that someone else is responsible for. We’ve put it out there and just left a pretty good body of work. Hopefully we can continue to add to it.  

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