Lee Ranaldo’s Grateful Dust
Did you ever attend a Dead concert after you joined Sonic Youth?
I think I only saw them once after SY got going, it was at the Garden in NYC and if I remember correctly. Either Wynton or Branford Marsalis came out and joined them for part of the set [it was Branford]. I wasn’t particularly in their headspace anymore by then and just kinda took it in. When SY was recording Washing Machine down in Memphis in 1995 we had the invitation to see them play at that weird pyramid-shaped arena there, with the implication that we might also get to meet the band, but we were so wrapped up in our recording sessions that we didn’t make it. In light of Jerry’s death not long after, I’m sorry we didn’t get out to see them that night. I guess I can’t really imagine anyone else in SY was too interested, though…
What is your favorite live period of the Dead?
Well I cut my teeth on the music from Europe ’72 and the Skullfuck album, I love that period. The earlier stuff— Live Dead especially—is untouchably great. And I loved their live versions of much of the Mars Hotel and Wake of the Flood records—“Eyes of the World,” “Weather Report Suite,” “Stella Blue,” “Scarlet Begonias,” “U.S. Blues”...
What do you feel is the most underrated Dead studio album?
Hmm, well I guess there are some late ones that are underrated for good reason. Some times people find the early ones a little opaque, but I love AoxomoxoA and Anthem of the Sun. All the collage experiments on the latter are, to me, really great exploratory usage of the studio situation to try and craft something new and exciting. They may not have fully made it to the finish line, but they are totally interesting records to listen to. I was recently obsessed by the song “Mountains of the Moon” which led directly to the harpsichord playing on “Late Descent #2” of Last Night On Earth.
What is your favorite unissued or bootlegged Dead set?
Oh man, there are so many. I went to Harpur College in Binghamton NY and there is a legendary show they did at Harpur shortly before I arrived—playing both acoustic and electric sets—that I wish I had attended. My band these days is proving pretty versatile as well, we’ve been doing all-acoustic sets that have been really refreshing and great fun.
Did anyone else in Sonic Youth share your affinity for the Dead?
Not really, although Thurston has always had an appreciation for all types of music, and was certainly moved when Jerry died. Just lately Steve has been seen with a copy of Dennis McNally’s Long Strange Trip book under his arm.
Are there any plans to continue the reissue campaign of your Geffen catalog? I’m looking forward to the deluxe editions of Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star and Washing Machine. Is there a lot of stuff in the vaults from that period?
There is lots of stuff from every period, and we’ve spent a lot of time over the last 4-5 years preserving and digitizing our back catalog. Currently I don’t think there are hard copies in print of most of the pre-Geffen albums, and we’re working on that. Also, the recently released Smart Bar/Live 1985 album is the first in what we hope will be an extended series of live releases from every period of our career. I’ve always thought it would be great to present the material from each of our albums in their ideal live versions—for instance a live album of the Washing Machine material or The Eternal material or Daydream Nation songs.
For us as players, it’s the live versions of most of our songs that we have in our mind, rather than the ‘snapshots’ that are the album versions. We have an immense archive of stuff—30 years of photos, videos, recordings, ephemera etc—and we’d like to see some further releases come of it. We’ve been working on plans (just to name one) for an extended multi-disc set of Sister era material, as well as the idea of compiling all the film music that SY has recorded over the years. All in progress in between our current busy schedules.