When Sonic Youth disbanded, in 2011, hearts were broken and spirits were crushed. The band that paved the road for experimental noise and indie rock was calling it quits. Founding couple Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon had split.
Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo wasted no time mourning, though. He released a solo album last year (Between the Times and the Tides), then introduced a new outfit called Lee Ranaldo and the Dust. Now there's a follow-up record, Last Night on Earth, and it's full of breathable, straightforward songs that sound nothing like Sonic Youth. Which is exactly the way Ranaldo wanted it.
Ahead of Ranaldo's October 19 gig at the Bottleneck, The Pitch dialed him up at his New York City home to talk about making music in a post–Sonic Youth world.
The Pitch: This is a new band assembly for you, with the Dust. What have the shows been like?
Ranaldo: The shows have been good. To me, it's the same band that played on the last record for the most part, with Steve Shelley on drums and Alan Licht on guitar. But since the last record came out, we've been out playing more. The band is kind of solidified and developed.
I read that you wrote most of this album while you lost power during Hurricane Sandy.
I wrote a couple of the songs during that week after Hurricane Sandy, when we had no electricity or power or heat here in lower Manhattan. A couple of them had their start there, but it's not as thematic as all that. In that week after Sandy hit — I live in Manhattan, but it's pretty much a neighborhood — everybody stayed here. We weren't flooded out. We were living by candlelight. So I was just strumming my guitar, and a couple of the songs developed in that period.
If I remember correctly, this is your 10th solo album —
[Laughs.] But it's actually my second because this one has songs.
Right. Last Night is closer to traditional songwriting than anything you did with Sonic Youth. I expected to hear more of Sonic Youth in your solo stuff.
I think it's normal to expect that, but it's also impossible to expect that, in a major way, from any of us, really. What made Sonic Youth what it was, was this combination of what we were all doing. If you take any good band quartet — I mean, look at the Beatles after they broke up. None of them are what the Beatles were. They [the solo albums] are all interesting in their own way, but they're all developing from their own theme instead of from this intertwining of three or four themes. A band has a certain kind of power that an individual can never have.
The other part of it, for me, is that I was interested in doing something, frankly, quite different. There was no point in doing anything that might be comparable to Sonic Youth. This was really a project about writing some really simple songs and trying to present them in a vehicle for singing and just seeing where it could go, basically. Sonic Youth was a whole different thing in terms of the way we collaboratively wrote songs. It's like being the sole director of a movie versus a partnership.
Most of the tracks on this album are longer: six minutes, nine minutes, even 12.
Yeah, the songs are long. It's a long record. I think it takes a long time to seep in. We really wanted to let some things flow in a certain way. The songs get more expansive and open-ended, and we don't worry about tight boundaries, like keeping them into a tight three- or four-minute pop song.
Because you've done so many experimental records, was it a conscious decision for you to do something more singer-songwriter-oriented?
This [Last Night] is the kind of record I've always wanted to make. I've always been in this amazing songwriting partnership with Sonic Youth, but the first record [Between the Tides] developed even before all this stuff went down with Thurston and Kim, even before we knew. The last record came out of a desire to work on some songs in a period when Sonic Youth wasn't working so much.
There's something really great about the specifics of songwriting as opposed to making abstract music, and I feel like I have a balance where I continue to work on both sides of the coin. I still do a bunch of abstract performances when there's time. When you write songs, you invest a lot of time in a certain kind of construction. And for songs to really work, everything has to be in a certain place, in a way. It's a pretty cool process, so I felt like I missed that aspect of it. But I've got a pretty good balance between the two sides.