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Lee Ranaldo: From Grateful Dead to Electric Trim

JPG: That’s interesting because in my research for this I watched your episode of Amoeba Music’s “What’s in My Bag?” When I heard “Moroccan Mountains” on the new album, I thought of you picking the Sandy Bull album. I wonder if there’s a connection there.

LR: In a way I’m’ getting back in touch with a lot of that stuff. I love that music — Sandy Bull, John Fahey — and so many different things that have become reemerging touchstones for me as I started to get more involved with acoustic guitar. I’ve always loved Joni Mitchell, just a brand new appreciation of all of her tunings and chord patterns; people like Leonard Cohen and David Crosby, especially a lot of people that worked with open tunings like Joni and Crosby and people like that. That stuff is so inspiring to me.
A lot of that stuff is music I cut my teeth on and now I’m coming back around again, which is cool.

JPG: Going back to your music. After the announced hiatus/split of Sonic Youth, you released Between the Times and Tides. The opening two tunes on that album versus the opening songs on Electric Trim are very different. Back then, you hear the remnants of what you did with Sonic Youth but now, except for a break in “New Thing,” this is Lee Ranaldo 2017…totally…as a solo artist.

LR: You know what’s funny. All the guys in the Dust are on it and Nels Cline and Sharon Van Etten and Kid Millions but my real collaborator on this record was Raul. His whole intention when we first started talking about it was, “Why make another record that’s in that same mold? Let’s push the envelope a little bit. I know you can do other stuff.” He wanted to make a record that sounded different. “Let’s have different rhythms. Let’s have different drums. Let’s not have Steve playing on every song” Something like that. That was a real critical thing for me.

JPG: I think that’s why I like this album so much in comparison to the others.

LR: Yeah. Me, too. It opens up so much new territory for me that in a way it’s not funny. It’s great!

JPG: On “Last Looks” I hear Nick Drake. “New Thing” I hear a ’60 pop element. “Circular (Right as Rain)” I hear psychedelic rock in there.

LR: Yeah. I would say it’s all accurate. It’s all in there. “New Thing,” I don’t know why but when I was working on that one I always thought of a Lou Reed song from the end of the Velvet Underground period. I’m really not sure why that was what came into my head.

All of those influences are in there. Like I was saying earlier, in some cases I’m revisiting influences that were super strong on me in one period. Then, Black Flag came along and Talking Heads and Television came along and Pavement and Nirvana came along and you went down other roads. I’m kind of coming back to a lot of that early stuff that was so very important in a way and just really digging it.

JPG: You mentioned about collaborating with Raul, what about collaborating with novelist Jonathan Lethem’s lyrics on six songs?

LR: He’s an old acquaintance. When I was making the last record, Last Night on Earth I thought to ask him to collaborate with me and it just didn’t happen at the time. When it came to this record I felt like I was in such an experimental place with Raul in terms of the way we made this record…I’m used to making a record with a band in a room. You’re in a room. You rehearse the songs. You hang the mics, and you jam out and play them.

This record was made in such a Pet Sounds, _Revolver, Sgt. Pepper kind of way where the studio was the main instrument we were using. I felt like it was very experimental. I wanted to go somewhere similar on the lyrics. And I have to say quite frankly that part of the reason had to do with the reemergence of the Deadhead in me and my re-appreciation of Robert Hunter’s role in that band.

I worked on this Day of the Dead project that the guys from The National put together last year. When I went to do my track, I was up at the studio and they were like, “Listen to this one. Listen to this one.” First of all, I understand some people are not into half hour jams and that the Dead turns them off for that reason. Listening to all these songs with all these different people singing them and playing them, it really drove home to me what an amazing body of songs they created. Just unbelievable! That’s a lot of Hunter’s doing. The words are just phenomenal.

I was thinking about that and I was thinking about Dylan’s work with Jacques Levy on Desire or Dylan’s work with Hunter on a couple different points in time. It just made me want to have someone to give a different point of view from my own. Basically, I felt like I didn’t want every single aspect of the record to have to spring forth from my brain. Raul was adding all this new stuff from his end and the same with Jonathan. We were passing stuff back and forth. Some of those songs, maybe, he contributed a few words or a line or two and other songs he contributed huge amounts. It almost didn’t matter. The collaborative thing we had going was very significant between us.

JPG: Was that Jonathan or Raul’s input or you deciding to do the spoken word passages on Electric Trim ?

LR: Mostly the spoken stuff was mine. Like the way “Moroccan Mountains” opens it’s kind of retelling an actual event that happened a couple years ago in the south of France. I worked it into this song that was basically inspired by trips to Morocco and in particular sitting on this Moroccan carpet when I was creating the tune for that song.

JPG: Going back to the Day of the Dead why did you decide to cover “Mountains of the Moon?”

LR: It’s a funny story, and it also connects directly with some of my tunes. I was obsessed with that song just a couple years ago. When I was making “Last Night on Earth” I was, for some reason, obsessed with that song. I kept listening to it and feeling like…I was obsessed with that period of the Dead in particular. I was listening a lot to Aoxomoxoa and Anthem of the Sun, and just really loved that song.

When they asked me to do something I chose that song in part because I was so obsessed with it when I was writing the music for Last Night on Earth and during that period I did this weird concert in Holland where I worked with a string orchestra. I wrote a piece for them and we wove in a couple of my songs from Last Night on Earth and other things. It was a very interesting experiment for me – a 20-piece orchestra and me onstage with electric guitar. On the same bill was this amazing woman from Berlin that played harpsichord. She played a baroque piece from the 1600s with a small string quartet, and I loved the sound of it. I went up to her afterwards and told her I was working on this song on my record, it’s called “Late Descent,” and said, “Would you be interested in trying to play something on this song?” I was thinking about “Mountains of the Moon” and thinking that I could use a harpsichord on one of my songs. She was into it and we went through all this back and forth through the mail.

Harpsichords have this weird pitch that they are tuned to so we had to slow the tapes down before we sent them to her and all this crazy stuff. But, it worked out and I got this weird harpsichord thing on my record. Then, when the National guys came calling I was like, “I know exactly what song I want to do” and it was that one.

Did you ever see the Playboy After Dark where they do that song? Oh my God! That’s so amazing! I know they played it a little bit in that period but I have never heard many tapes of them playing it, and seeing that on that show, and there’s a great story of that show about how they dosed everybody, it’s an amazing version of the song with Tom Constanten on the harpsichord. I don’t know. I just really love that song. I find it to be a really special one in their repertoire.

JPG: The song, “Thrown Over the Wall,” accidentally ended up referring to the Resistance.

LR: Yeah.

JPG: I’m curious about doing something that was just a song at one time and is now considered defiant. Also, interested about it because your work hasn’t been associated with politics very much. The only thing I can think of is Sonic Youth doing something for Rock the Vote.

LR: We did stuff for Rock the Vote for sure. We had this song in that period called “Youth Against Fascism.” We were a little bit involved. We were never a highly-political band but I think “Youth Against Fascism” was as political as we ever got. But, we did a bunch of stuff for Rock the Vote, PSAs and things like that.

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