Lee Ranaldo’s Grateful Dust
In October Sonic Youth co-founder Lee Ranaldo released Last Night on Earth, his excellent second solo LP for Matador Records and first with his new band The Dust (comprised of fellow SY alum Steve Shelley on drums, bassist Tim Lüntzel and Downtown NYC guitar hero Alan Licht). A few weeks earlier the guitarist shared the perspective of a Grateful Dead fan via an illuminating and insightful online review of the 1972 GD concert documentary Sunshine Daydream. In the following conversation, Ranaldo discusses his new band, his Deadhead roots and the possibilities of additional Sonic Youth reissues as well.
How did you come to form The Dust?
When I made the last record, I’d put the songs together and tracked them pretty much on my own with Steve playing drums, and bass. Then I started inviting various friends to come along and play on the tracks. I wasn’t thinking beyond getting an album done—it didn’t occur to me until later that I might be asked to go out and play the songs live.
At that point I enlisted Steve and Alan Licht to help me get a band off the ground. So, really, there wasn’t a ‘band’ to speak of at the time that [2012’s] Between the Time and the Tides was made. But after a year of touring we came together, with Tim Lüntzel on bass, and started to think seriously about finding a name for this new ensemble. Many were thrown out before “The Dust” stuck.
I’ve read that Last Night on Earth is influenced by the Grateful Dead. In what aspects does this influence permeate through the songs on this album and within the interplay of your new band The Dust?
Well, I’ve been debating how much (or little) to make of the Dead’s influence on this record. Some people have such an aversion to the band—as much as some others love them—that it’s a bit of a volatile issue. I make no secret about my own love of The Dead, especially in my youth, mostly thru the 70s when they were in ‘high’ form. And I’ve often drawn parallels between The Dead and SY over the years—in terms of both being bands with three singers/three points of view who were as comfortable playing songs as deep improvisation/exploration.
With all the touring my band did behind Between The Times And The Tides, we really grew together in our playing. I wasn’t used to playing in any rock combo besides SY, in spite of playing lots of ‘abstract music’ with many different improvisers over the years. A band has to achieve a certain balance and shared language to really take off, and it takes some time to get comfortable in a new situation. Especially when treading the delicate line between putting songs across on the one hand, and getting deeply wigged out on the other.
By the time we came together around the songs I’d written for Last Night On Earth, we were growing pretty tight musically, willing to challenge ourselves with some more open-ended playing. I knew I wanted some of the new songs to have some less structured sections, that could shift and change night by night depending on where the music took us. We spent a lot of time on these songs in the studio— I’m thinking of “The Rising Tide”, “By The Window” and “Blackt Out“—waiting for the right moments to happen, pushing and pulling them in different ways over the course of the recording sessions. Some were further edited into the most ‘ideal’ versions. The flexible nature of these tracks is also why we decided to release the double CD of demos and rehearsals ( _The Rising Tide: Last Night On Earth Demos & Rehearsals+ ). It highlights alternate recordings of some of these songs that went to different places than the album versions did, which were, to us, equally interesting to
When did you first get into the Dead and when and where was your first Dead show?
I started listening to The Dead in the late 60s or really early 70s, first with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, and shortly thereafter everything I could get my hands on. Europe 72 was a big record for me—it still is—and I started seeing them live just around that time, which was shortly after Pig Pen stopped touring with them, sadly. I suppose the first show I saw was at the Nassau Coliseum, and I was at the Watkins Glen show they did with The Band and The Allman Bros in upstate New York. I did get to see one or two shows where they had the Wall of Sound PA. I didn’t realize what a feat that system was at the time, but I’m glad I got to experience it.