Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth talks Dylan, guitars, and Tulsa
Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer come to Tulsa on April 27.
Lee Ranaldo is one of the founding members of Sonic Youth, playing with the iconic art rock band from 1981 to their culmination in 2011. Recognized as one of the most innovative guitar players of all time, he’s also released approximately a half-dozen solo records. The Bob Dylan Center is bringing Ranaldo to Tulsa for a live show on April 27 at Duet Jazz Club as part of the Woody Guthrie Center’s sixth anniversary celebration. He will be performing with his partner, multimedia artist Leah Singer, in “Contre Jour: Cinema and Suspended Electric Guitar Phenomena.” Their musical/film performance will blow minds to a degree Tulsa rarely gets to experience. Below are snippets from a conversation with Ranaldo about his upcoming performance, Tulsa as a burger town, and Bob Dylan.
Mason Whitehorn Powell: It’s been a decade since you’ve been to Tulsa. Sonic Youth last performed at the Cain’s Ballroom in 2009. What is your impression of the city?
Lee Ranaldo: I remember Cain’s because we were excited to go there, both for its former life as a country music hall and of course because of the Sex Pistols and all that kind of stuff, so we definitely were reveling in the fact that we got to play at Cain’s. That was super cool…
I remember [Tulsa] was pretty flat and that the downtown buildings were really art deco, which was kind of beautiful, and I remember cruising out of town—somebody had told us about an amazing hamburger place and we went and found it … I’m a pretty big cyclist, and three or four of us had bikes on that tour, and I remember taking an amazing bike ride out of town into the surrounding country that was pretty beautiful. I’m definitely planning and hoping to get a few rides in when I come back to Tulsa at the end of the month.
Powell: Recently, you’ve been recording in Barcelona, reading poetry at Ferlinghetti’s birthday celebration, and performing various shows. What else have you been up to?
Ranaldo: The main thing I’ve been up to is working on this new record. My partner these days in music is a guy named Raül Fernandez, who lives in Barcelona. We’ve made my last couple records together and this one’s gonna be a record with both of our names on it. We did most of the recording in New York City and I’ve been to Barcelona twice for about two weeks, each in the last six weeks, and we just finished the mixes on the record … It’s kind of a curve ball for me, it’s a lot of very electronic music, there’s a lot of singing, there’s not a lot of guitar playing on it—it’s a different kind of musical landscape.
Powell: What’s your connection to Dylanology?
Ranaldo: I’ve been super deep into his work and life, for I don’t know [how long] at this point, probably close to 30 years or more. I mean he’s the Shakespeare of our time you might say. I find it’s endlessly rewarding work to move through and discover, and I delight in listening to it. I’m fascinated by him as a person and as a mystery, and as a creative force for our time.
Powell: You we’re a member of the supergroup The Million Dollar Bashers for the “I’m Not There” soundtrack—could you tell me about that?
Ranaldo: Yeah, I was the one who put it together. The director of that movie, Todd Haynes, had asked me if I would work with him on the music for that film. Obviously, he had a lot of different people working on the music, but he asked me if I would come in to work on particularly the first electric era of Dylan’s work when he was going electric and making those groundbreaking records that Cate Blanchett would be miming to in the film.
So it was a period of Dylan’s work that I loved, and I got a chance to put this all-star cast together with Tom Verlaine on the other guitar, and Steve Shelley on the drums, and John Medeski on keyboards—a great friend of mine over the years who is just amazing—and Dylan’s then and current bass player Tony Garnier on the bass. We recorded a number of those mid-sixties songs for the film. And Steve Malkmus, [we] ended up using him for the vocalist; he’s the voice you hear when Cate Blanchett is singing in the movie. It was an awesome project and it was really fantastic to work with all those guys.
Powell: What about Dylan’s technique as a guitar player? What makes his playing style unique?
Ranaldo: He’s not often credited very much as a guitar player because from the time he went electric he had all these fantastic guitar players at his side, whether it was Mike Bloomfield or Mark Knopfler or whoever—he had amazing guitar players in his groups. But if you listen to the pre-electric stuff, he’s a fantastic guitar player, especially in those early tapes. There’s a few early tapes in the [Bob Dylan] Archives that I really want to hear from the first period in New York. There’s a couple that have not been circulated that are really supposed to be high-quality recordings of coffee house sets and things like that—like Gerde’s Folk City—they’re definitely some of the things I want to listen to. I mean, I thought he was a fantastic guitar player.
Powell: Tell me then about Dylan’s Gibson Nick Lucas?
Ranaldo: Ah! [Laughs.] How do you know about that?
Powell: [Michael] Chaiken.
Ranaldo: I was completely obsessed with this guitar. And supposedly Jacob Dylan has that original, although for many years it was deemed lost. But I think reports recently are that someone saw it while in Jacob’s possession not too long ago. The Nick Lucas was a really strange Gibson guitar—I don’t know how deeply you want me to go into this because I could talk about this for awhile—but in brief, it was a small body guitar that was very deep, much thicker than a typical guitar of that size, so it had a specific characteristic. Some people really love the sound of this guitar. And I had never seen one or played one, but I always read about Dylan’s. His was unique for a few reasons. First of all, the top had been refinished, it was no longer sunburst, which was a characteristic of those guitars—[Dylan’s] was natural wood finish. And you can see him playing it in all those ‘64/‘65, like in “Don’t Look Back” and just before and after that he’s photographed a lot with that guitar …
So I’ve never seen or played one of these 13-fret guitars but it’s one of those guitar player’s holy grails I guess.
Powell: Dylan’s music has gone through many transitions and phases, and Sonic Youth experienced this as well. What’s your perspective on how sounds change and develop over time?
Ranaldo: Well, I think the thing that’s clear about Dylan from the very beginning of his career is that—this is what he wanted in a way, from his life, to be a traveling troubadour, which is really his main art. He puts out these amazing records, and makes drawings, and writes books and things—but he’s a performing musician and he’s wanted that from the very beginning of his career. And he’s stuck to his guns and he’s living it to this day. I think in a way the changes that come along are just part and parcel of being an artist who’s continuing to work over a long period of time.
Powell: You seem to have a philosophic understanding of Dylan and his career.
Ranaldo: Like I said, I’m pretty deeply involved in just—thinking about it, I guess, more than anything. Reading all the books, it’s like one of these clubs where the more people know that you’re interested in it, meeting someone like Clinton [Heylin, Dylan’s biographer] or meeting a bunch of other people that I’ve met that are deeply into his work. It is almost like a scholarly pursuit at a certain point. It contributed to a huge change in our culture, what [Dylan] provided. He was not alone in that period of time, but he was pretty unique. The thing I always say is that he’s been in our eye, I don’t even know anymore, probably sixty years as a performer, and he remains a very mysterious character. That is a feat in itself after 60 years, for the public to still not know who you are. It’s a pretty magical feat. He continues to keep us guessing.
Powell: What’s it like being in a band and making music as a group, as opposed to Dylan, for example?
Ranaldo: Well, it’s real different. The thing that made Sonic Youth special was this collective aspect of it, the fact that we composed everything as a group. All the songs are credited to the four of us—to the band—because that’s the way we worked on music. It was a much more communal process. At this point, I’ve had a chance to see it from inside and out, because since Sonic Youth stopped playing I’ve been more of a band leader than a co-band leader, which is what we each were in Sonic Youth, and more of a director, out front. And in a way that’s Dylan’s role from the very beginning. He’s always been center stage.
Powell: What can people expect from your performance at Duet Jazz Club?
Ranaldo: I offered them the idea of another project, which was something I do with my partner Leah Singer that’s film and music. It’s an experimental sort of cinematic-with-live-musical-accompaniment evening, and I usually have my guitar suspended from a cord and do this kind of hanging guitar phenomenon. It’s usually a bit theatrical and we play with my shadows on the screen in front of Leah’s films … [The Bob Dylan Center] went for that. Their mindset seemed to be: Let’s challenge the Tulsa audience a little bit more.
Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer: Contre Jour
Duet Jazz | 108 N. Detroit Ave.
April 27, 8 p.m., $20