Sonic Youth guitarist lets loose Between the Times and the Tides

Lee Ranaldo opens window to a moment in his life

For more than 30 years, guitarist Lee Ranaldo has been the anchor to Sonic Youth’s shimmering blasts of avant-garde noise and dirge rock. While the fate of the group is uncertain following the marital separation of his bandmates, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, Ranaldo remains focused on his own songcraft. With his latest album, Between the Times and the Tides, he moves beyond the experimental bent of his prior solo releases to offer up 10 truly inspired songs that show off his approach to straightforward pop, melody, and earnest songwriting.

On the road with a full band — including Alan Licht (guitar), Irwin Menken (bass), and Sonic Youth cohort Steve Shelley (drums) — Ranaldo has redefined his approach to songwriting while rediscovering why he started playing guitar in the first place.

Between the Times and the Tides feels like a concerted effort on your part as an honest-to-goodness songwriter.

I know what you mean, but as concerted as it sounds this record came out of the blue. I’ve long had in mind that I wanted to do a solo record like this, but it hadn’t ever happened. I was asked to play an acoustic gig in France in the summer of 2010, and I figured I’d just play some Sonic Youth songs that started on an acoustic guitar for me. While I was getting ready, a song called “Lost” just kind of happened. Two weeks later I was playing it on stage in France, and the way that one song popped out kind of energized me to push through a bunch more of them.

Did it feel like the songs were writing themselves?

They were coming out fairly unforced. Often times, if I know I’m working on a song for Sonic Youth, I’ll tailor it in a certain way, but I didn’t put any pressure on these songs to be anything other than what they wanted to be. I fell into this long period where I was just grooving on the reasons that I started playing guitar in the first place and marveling over how beautiful the sound could be, trying new tunings and chord progressions, and letting it go where it wanted to go.

A lot of your work comes across in abstract terms. Was it difficult to switch gears and crank out a very direct song like “Off the Wall”?

I’ve had a few people tell me that this song sticks in their head, and that’s cool. If I had any apprehension about these songs, it was whether I could carry them through to the final product and keep the same purity and energy that I felt about them at every stage in the process.

It happened in such a natural way, from the moment the songs sprang out of my guitar to recording them and asking Steve to play on a couple things. Then suddenly there’s a rhythm section and a band with Alan, Steve, Irwin, and Nels Cline and John Medeski. I was going out on a limb to make this kind of record, so I looked to a close group of friends who would have positive attitudes and contribute good stuff to these songs.

Between the Times and the Tides was released less than a year after Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts, and both albums carry an air of humbled introspection. Are the albums connected on a deeper level?

No one has asked about their connection on that level. But given what we know about Thurston and Kim’s situation, there’s no doubt that Thurston’s record had more of a personal vibe because there was some crazy stuff happening in his life. And he was channeling that into the record.

When I think about records by songwriters that I’ve valued over the years, they seem to open a window to a moment in someone’s life — be it early Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby’s first solo record, Cat Power’s You Are Free, or the last few Bill Callahan records. They all feel like you’re getting inside someone else’s life in a certain way. I’d be happy if Between the Times and the Tides was seen in that light. This is a new band and I feel like being as humble about it as possible. I didn’t want to come off like, “I’ve been in this great band for 30 years, and here’s the next best thing!”