Audeze dives into the life of Sonic Youth co-founder Lee Ranaldo

July 06, 2024

Lee Ranaldo, musician, visual artist and writer, co-founded Sonic Youth in 1981. He played in Glenn Branca’s early ensembles and symphonies, 1980-1984, and has been active both in New York and internationally for over forty years as a composer, performer, collaborator and producer, also exhibiting visual art at galleries and museums worldwide, and publishing several books of journals, poetry, and writings on music. His 30-year performance partnership with Leah Singer, currently Contre Jour, have been large scale, multi-projection sound and light events with suspended electric guitar phenomena that challenge the usual performer/audience relationship. He lives and works in New York City.

Lee Ranaldo wearing Audeze MM-500 Headphones
"The Audeze cans are the first ones that I feel I could confidently use to work on mixes without feeling that I am compromising my listening." - Lee Ranaldo 
Here's our chat with Lee:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

I would say that, at this point, after a long career in music – a career I would never have suspected was possible – the most fulfilling highlight is simply being able to continue this path I’ve been on with music since my youth. A group as special as Sonic Youth doesn’t fall together – or last 30 years – very often, and whatever amalgam of luck and circumstance led us to work with each other in such a creative manner for so long, is good fortune. I’d mention albums like Daydream Nation, perhaps, along with Goo, our most well-known records. But also Washing Machine and A Thousand Leaves from our ‘middle period’, Bad Moon Rising and Sister from the early years. We went out on a high level – our last album – The Eternal – and the tours surrounding it were as good as any we’d ever played. We had the chance to perform and collaborate with many heroes and friends across (and beyond) our career, from Neil Young, with whom we toured for 3 months in 1991, to French ground-breakers Brigitte Fontaine and Areski, Spain’s flamenco master Enrique Morente, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, and John Cage associates Christian Wolff and Takehisa Kosugi, among many others. Our early close relationship with bands on the SST label – Minutemen, Saccharine Trust and Black Flag, and later ones with Mudhoney, Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney and others in the Seattle scene, were also highlights of a long and exhilarating career, which often found us pushing the boundaries of what pop or ‘indie’ music could be. As for my solo career, my first album, the experimental From Here to Infinity, was released in 1986, a record of locked grooves where each track could play forever. More recent song albums Electric Trim and Names of North End Women have found me stretching my musical vocabulary in collaboration with Barcelona producer Raul Refree. My most recent record – In Virus Times – reflects both my renewed interest in the acoustic guitar over the last decade, and the covid times in which it was created.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

Sonic Youth’s 30-year association was founded on our collaborative process, developing our music in group settings, everyone contributing to the final result and receiving equal credit for the result (although lyrics were written personally by our 3 singers, myself included). Although I’ve personally always worked collaboratively, playing with many like-minded musicians in many, often improvised, settings, most of the work I do these days is pretty self-directed. I’m writing the music and directing and often producing the recordings, as well as performing live around the world. I’m currently at the end of a phase predominantly exploring acoustic guitar over the last decade, often in intimate, solo settings, and planning for more ensemble work going forward, writing for and collaborating with a small ensemble of players I’ve worked with over the years.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

There was always music in my house. My mom was a pianist so from an early age I was plunking around on the piano, although I never had many formal lessons, regrettably. The AM radio stations were always on as well, and I was immediately taken with exciting sounds of the pop hits of the early 60s. When the Beatles hit it was all over for me – I was in for life! Initially it was those British groups that had a big effect –the Beatles, the Stones, The Who and The Kinks, The Animals. Later my interest spread to the San Francisco scene, especially that around the Grateful Dead. Between the types of studio experiments being done by both the Beatles and the Dead, it wasn’t a hard leap into modern music – Stockhausen, John Cage, Varese and Ives, and from there to Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Lamonte Young and Meredith Monk, which in turn led to lifelong devotion to The Velvet Underground and The Stooges. Bob Dylan’s music has also been an eternal touchstone. I began playing guitar in my early teens, and in addition to rock music I became interested in acoustic guitar stylists like Reverend Gary Davis, John Fahey, Leo Kottke and others. Kottke’s first album – Six and Twelve String Guitar – released on Fahey’s Tacoma label – was a favorite. I was a university art student as the punk explosion hit in the late 70s, and Patti Smith, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids and Talking Heads, all happening nearby in New York City, where I’d soon be living, were hugely important, as were bands from the UK such as Sex Pistols, Wire, Elvis Costello, The Raincoats, Joy Division, Gang of Four, Buzzcocks and many others. My interests also extended to some international music – in particular the gamelan music of Bali and Java. The album Golden Rain really set my head spinning. Later I found my way to the music of Morocco’s Master Musicians of Jajouka through their inclusion on Ornette Coleman’s Dancing in your Head album, and through the writings of Paul Bowles. I would later collaborate with these Moroccan masters, and visit their remote village, which I describe in my small chapbook ‘Moroccan Journal’.

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

Once the Beatles came into my life I think it was a given that I would spend my life music-obsessed, although in those early days I couldn’t imaging the ongoing music path I’ve found myself on – it seemed only a dream then to be a musician in any ‘professional’ sense. It seemed like something that happened to other people. But here I am, forty years in. I sang chorus all through High School, and as well as ‘standards’ like Handel’s "Hallelujah" Chorus, we tackled experimental pieces with graphic scores, all of which overlapped with my interest in contemporary music and art, and would later go on to inform Sonic Youth’s late 90s project Goodbye 20th Century, where we played and recorded contemporary works with graphic scores, with the participation of some of the original practitioners of those works. Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison and Patti Smith, along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg’s writings, excited me with the new possibilities for language in popular art forms. The alternate tunings employed by a vast number of performers in my listening orbit – from Reverend Gary Davis and John Fahey, Leo Kottke to Keith Richards, David Crosby and Joni Mitchell (and later Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham) – proved most highly influential, and really set me on the course that my own style of playing would take right up through today.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

I can’t cite a specific example, but I think every artist goes through periods when they are ‘blocked’ for one reason or another. A mix isn’t going well, lyrics won’t fall into place, a painting or poem didn’t come out the way you wished it to. Since I was young I’ve split my interests and activities in a few different areas: music, visual art, and writing. Usually if I’m stuck on something I’ll switch gears and work in another area for a bit, to clear my head. If the music is not going well I’ll end up in my painting studio for a bit and hash out some stuff there, and that usually does the trick. When I return to the music problem I’m refreshed and have some new perspective on solutions. The main lesson I learned in art school is that creating is about showing up each day, ready to work, more than any spark of inspiration or ‘talent’. If one takes pleasure in working – in hard work, sometimes – most obstacles can be surmounted. One signs on for life, in seriousness and devotion to the practice. At the same time, as musicians, we don’t call it ‘playing’ for nothing! Work can and should be fun.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

The guitar is first and foremost, whether an electric Fender Jazzmaster or one of many other electrics or acoustics I have around. There’s an old effects pedal, the Ibanez AD-80 (AD-8, AD-9) that has remained a steadfast fixture on my pedal board for 30 years – it’s the one pedal I think I couldn’t live without. In the studio, myself and Sonic Youth always gravitated to the mixing desks made by Rupert Neve – something about the sound they produced always struck us as the most musical. We’d always try to work on a Neve desk when we could, and indeed, at our Echo Canyon studio we had a couple Neve desks back-to-back for most of the years the studio was active. All this said, I’m open to new sounds wherever I find them, in whatever instrument or piece of gear proves useful. I try to keep an open mind about gear, not so much locked into any particular pieces as much as cultivating a willingness to use whatever seems right, or fresh, at any given time.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

My main advice would be the most basic: follow your own vision and personal instincts as much as possible, and know why you have chosen the path you are on. Trying to adapt or conform to others expectations, grasping for ‘hits’ or fame, is simply a distraction. If you choose a path in the arts, whether music or some other form, prepare for a life of ups and downs – a life you’ve chosen and which you can take pleasure in for the long haul. The approval of others may come, but the motivation to create and continue forward must come from inside. Unlike many other professions, setting out on the road of music/art is a lifelong pursuit.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow? How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?

I’ve been ‘working’ with headphones since my teenage years listening to music late at night in my bedroom! Of course, these days headphones of some sort are a staple in any listeners’ toolbox for one reason or another, whether walking down the street or in the studio. Tracking with headphones for recording has long been the rule, although it’s always nice when there’s a chance to do a session without them, everyone listening live in the room. As far as overdubbing is concerned, it's often been a struggle finding headphones that work well, seal out the room, etc., and at Echo Canyon we’ve gone through many different pairs over the years. As far as mixing is concerned, I’ve never found headphones to be very useful, compared to near-field monitors, until recently becoming familiar with Audeze products. They are the first headphones that I feel I could trust when listening critically to mixes. I’ve used many headphones in the past, but more for quick reference that anything else. The Audeze cans are the first ones that I feel I could confidently use to work on mixes without feeling that I am compromising my listening.

Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

I’m currently working on mixing some longform studio projects that have occupied me over the last few years, one being an ensemble piece of mine called ‘Hurricane Transcriptions’, scored for electric string quartet (Dither Quartet), percussion (Brian Chase), and myself on Fender Rhodes. We did a few days tracking during the pandemic, and have performed the piece live on a number of occasions, and I’m finally getting around to reviewing and mixing the sessions. I recently completed mixing another long piece, a 30-minute instrumental called 'Sky Hauling', where I’ve played most of the instruments myself, which should be released around summer. Right now my main efforts are in putting together my next solo album for my label, Mute Records, which is an ongoing process; I’m in the middle of making demos, writing lyrics and enlisting players for the recording sessions.

Audeze MM-500 headphones on mixing table