This week it’s been Lee Ranaldo’s birthday. The evidence he’s all generosity is this double present: a solo acoustic performance and another one with the complete band, including the other sonic boy, Steve Shelley at Tanned Tin Festival in Castelló, and this interview about his new album in progress, the tour with John Fahey, the creation process, contemporary dance or his passion for Africa. One of those hyperactive minds. Enjoy it.
An acoustic performance in France 2010 was the origin of Between the Times and the Tides. Will be some surprises at Tanned Tin festival? Will you bring us new compositions or do you have plans to work on them soon?
We are about to start recording the next album, so there are lots of new songs about right now. Unfortunately most of them are just not quite ready to be performed–mostly as I am still working on the lyrics. If we DO attempt one or two, it will be with only temporary lyrics at best (or maybe instrumentally). I would love to play some of the new songs–they are going to sound quite different to the first group in some ways. It remains to be seen whether we try any or not. But we will start recording the album as soon as we return from Tanned Tin.
Do you feel strange playing alone the Sonic Youth’s songs?
In general I don’t feel too strange playing the SY songs we’ve tried to play–Genetic or Karenology–because it’s been ages since SY played either of these songs, and also because I’m not trying to do them in the same way that SY played them. That would be impossible with any other group playing them, even with both Steve and I involved. But I liked the idea that I could revive a couple songs that I thought had good aspects, but that no-one has heard in a long time. Less familiar songs. That seemed interesting, and also like it might satisfy some audience interest in continuity between my past situation and my present. It could be weird to play some of the more well-known ones–like Eric’s Trip or Hey Joni, Mote—with my band, as they are so identified with SY–those songs have such a SY sound to them… Although I could imagine playing them solo, as that’s the way they started out… Wish Fulfillment is another song I’ve played at solo shows over the years–Sonic Youth hardly ever played that one, I think maybe only once, and I really that song…
Watching you playing with your acoustic guitar and sitting alone, inevitably reminds me of the great master John Fahey. You knew him and played some shows with him. What do you remember from those performances and from him?
When I toured with John he was getting into playing electric guitar and using effects pedals. It was cool to see a new evolution in the life of such an innovator. It was great hanging out with him and having the chance to talk on the car rides between cities, that was very memorable. And watching him onstage–this guy known so much for his acoustic work, doing something so different, with an electric guitar, it was great to see this vision he had of where his music should go to renew itself. He was quite a guy…
But I don’t think that my acoustic gtr playing is anything like what he did with an acoustic, although I take great influence from him. Firstly I’m playing songs, so that makes it very different and adds the element of voice to the whole thing. I’d love to do more shows where I’m playing finger-picked acoustic songs, and singing. I’d like to do some really ‘pure’ acoustic shows, with no effects pedals or amplification—rather like the way I play at home and the fantastic feeling I get playing a beautiful wooden instrument, the great sound of it. It’s hard to do that in concert, but I’d like to try it in that pure way sometime. I want to experience some new things in performance now, after years of almost exclusively loud sets with electric guitars. That’s really where my head is at right now.
John Fahey and his acoustic guitar (or on his last recordings with the electric guitar), as other artists like Leo Kottke, Loren Mazzacane Connors, Ali Farka Touré, Keiji Haino (who will also participate at Tanned Tin Festival 2013) or yourself too, seem to work from minimalism as the basis of artistic creation. How would you describe that process?
I wouldn’t necessarily say that my work starts from minimalism -and I don’t necessarily think I’d say that about any of the other artists you mention. Certainly the minimalist aesthetic is a great influence, but I don’t always associate the kind of melodic playing that I do, or of many of the artists you mention, with minimalism. I’d say maybe ‘personal’ is a better word, perhaps? In a way the term ‘minimal’ can imply simple or simplistic–and maybe that is so. A guitar is often good with very simple structures and phrases. Especially for someone self-taught like myself!
While traveling to Morocco you explained your experience about playing with the Master Musicians of Jajouka (in 1999 they played with Sonic Youth in Spain, too). At Tanned Tin Festival will also play Tamikrest, a group of Tuareg musicians. Bowles, Burroughs and more others fell in love with Africa. What attracts you to this continent, to this culture?
I think in part it’s the continued exotic nature of Africa that so enchants. It is of course the place, or one of the places, where human life began, and so that is significant. Also there is so much mystery about this continent–much myth and legend passed down about Africa. Certainly the exotic qualities and loose morals of North Africa are what drew fellows such as Bowles and Burroughs there–and the legendary music too. It’s the continent I’ve spent the least amount of time on–I’ve only been to the northern tip, Morocco, three times. I’d really love to spend more time in Africa, and explore so much more of this continent–especially sub-Saharan Africa. I hope to have the chance to do so in the upcoming years…
You’ve also had the opportunity to participate with Merce Cunningham’s dance company, and to improvise musically on Stan Brakhage’s silent films. How are the days, the hours before a performance like that? Is it similar to automatic writing process?
Usually the time before the concert consists of getting mentally ready for the type of performance that’s about to happen. In my recent concert series with the Cunningham dancers I was interpreting many different works of John Cage, and these pieces, while seeming simple, are actually quite challenging to play, and a lot of concentration is needed. So I spend some time thinking about how I’m gonna approach the musical and performative aspects of these works. For the Brakhage films -those performances are by Text of Light, with Ulrich Krieger, Alan Licht and often others. The feeling is a bit looser -it’s a group, and there is some discussion of how to begin the concert, usually. After that we let the music take us where it will, into unexplored realms. Playing with those guys is quite comfortable, so I don’t get too worried before a show. It’s usually a great adventure, with many surprises along the way.
Beyond your spam poetry (Barcelona enjoyed a fabulous and organometallic performance in 2011), do you practice with automatic writing in your poetry? Which poets have influenced you? Are you working on a new book of poems?
The ‘Spam Poems’ were really my solution to working in an automatic writing type of way. Kind of a combination of that and Burroughs/Gysin’s cutup technique. The initial words that I would construct those poems out of came to me out of the blue (or out of the internet, really)–unorganized, usually, just reams of lists of words. I chose the words or sequences that struck me, and then moved things around, added or subtracted new words of my own, and constructed something new. In a way these new pieces reflected aspects of both where my thinking was at the time, and also something more difficult to pin down—something drawn out of the air with these found words and texts….
I’m not working much on poems right now. I’m about to tackle all the serious work on the lyrics for the new album, so I’m thinking about song lyrics, which is related but different. Actually since the last album happened I haven’t been working on poems too much. I’ve had my mind on music, on songs… But I do have a collection of my writings in the works, that’s supposed to come out this year sometime, so I’ve been working a bit on that. And there are still some half-finished spam poems that I’ll get back to at some point. I worked on poems in that style for a number of years, since as far back as 2004, really; I’m not sure how much further I’ll go with the spam poems. They are quite fun to do -even though they are often a struggle to find the right balance, and that’s an interesting problem to try and solve, in any art activity…