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Lee Ranaldo: From Grateful Dead to Electric Trim

JPG: Does it feel good or strange that “Thrown Over the Wall” is now viewed as your political song?

LR: It feels really good because it gives me a chance from the stage to talk about all this stuff. I’m kind of a news junkie and I had a lot of strong feelings about it. The funny thing was…there’s this film made about the making of my new record and the guy that was making the film was listening to that song come together in the studio – maybe because it had this imagery of a wall – he was the one who suggested, “If by some fucked up chance Trump gets elected, this could be your song of the Resistance.”

I did a bunch of shows in September and October before the election and I thought it would fun to introduce it with this anecdote about, “Ha ha ha…if Trump gets elected this is the song of the Resistance.” And I figured that come election day I’d have to come up with a new intro to the song because it wouldn’t be of any use anymore (slight laugh) and here, lo and behold, it’s almost of more use than ever.

It’s funny because the words come right out of the headlines, especially the verses which are largely Jonathan’s. It’s got this political bent anyway – “Hide your submarines” and “Disguising your faces with names” – but almost by virtue of saying this is my song for the Resistance it took on this whole other character in a strange way.

I’ve been singing it here and there for the last year as I’ve done gigs in advance of the album release. I was just down in Brazil for a few weeks and I was there a year ago too and I was singing it. They’re going through their own completely crazy political upheaval. It really resonated down there, too. I discovered a bit about their political situation and wove in some of that as well as the Trump stuff. They were just as moved by the idea, and any other places in Europe where there’s this conservative rise, it seems like it was hitting home with people just in the simple terms of being able to talk about that stuff. It’s allowing me to talk about that stuff from the stage as well. So, works pretty good for me.

JPG: I saw the official trailer on YouTube for “Hello Hello Hello: Lee Ranaldo: Electric Trim,” the documentary on the making of the album. Is that going to be released or available on a streaming service?

LR: It’s got a whole bunch of festival screenings and local screenings here and there. I’m sure the film will be available in one form or another at some point. Right now, it’s just doing the festival circuit and one-off screenings.

It’s interesting that the reason that got made is my friend Fred Riedel, who made it, when he heard that Raul was coming over the week we were starting for the first time to work before we even knew where we were going to go or get to with this whole project, he said, “I have no idea how one makes a record.” He’s a guitar player but he’s never made a record. He was like, “Can I come in and bring my camera and just shoot a little?” He got so inspired that he came back through the whole time we were making the record and cut this film together. But, it’s funny because normally a film like that at some point in the sequence involves seeing a band playing together in the studio or live in concert, and this film was made in such a strange way none of that is there.

So, it doesn’t have that final penultimate catharsis of the band kicking the songs out live or something like that. But, this record, it was such an interesting process to make it. It was a good record to capture because it was done in such an unusual way. It was a happy accident that he chose to come by and do that.

JPG: I think you’re a good person to ask this. Now, to set it up I was listening to a Lou Reed CD compilation that came with “MOJO” magazine. It goes from the beginning of his solo career to “Mistrial” and includes “Metal Machine Music Pt 1.” (Lee laughs) Now, I must admit I avoided listening to “Metal Machine Music” for years. Then, I finally relented and, while it’s not something I’d play often, to my older ears it’s not that frightening. There’s kind of an arc to its squelching soundscape. Which brings me to this, is there a line where noise is just noise and noise becomes beauty and melody and does that even matter?

LR: Well, I think that line is probably inside everybody’s individual head. For me I would say there’s stuff I like and there’s stuff I don’t like. Certainly, over the years, I’ve listened to a lot of, for instance, harsh noise as they call it coming out of Japan where it’s really really harsh noise. Lou’s record is somewhere in between. It has a melodic side. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.

I try not to separate things out in what’s noise and what’s music. To me it’s all elements of music and it’s really about what you do with it and how you structure it. Music is structure across time. Whether it’s a beautiful melody or some kind of harsh screeching of the #1 Train pulling into Time Square or whatever it might be, if you’re structuring it in a certain way and calling it music then I’m fine with that. It doesn’t mean I’m gonna like every bit of it. I think people draw that line in their head.

Some people have really specific lines drawn where they’re like, “I’m not crossing this line because it’s not music anymore” whether it’s John Cage or [Karlheinz] Stockhausen or Merzbow from Japan or Sonic Youth for that matter and other people’s lines are more sketchy and movable. So, I think it’s a personal thing. I try not to ever say, “That’s noise and not music.”

A year or two ago, I posted this thing on instagram because I thought it was so so funny and so great. There was an eight-second long track that got leaked on to the web from Taylor Swift. She was working on her 1989 record at the time. It was an eight-second track of absolute white noise that was credited to her on itunes. It was up for a few days and shot up the charts. (laughs). All these people were like, “Oh, something new by Taylor Swift” and they just clicked and bought it. Then, they listened to it and it was an eight-second blast of insane noise. I just thought, “Okay. The biggest selling noise musician in the whole world is Taylor Swift.” (laughs) That gave me a real kick. So, I put together a little instagram headline post about it.

JPG: When you mentioned Japanese noise rock artists, I remember The Boredoms opened for Sonic Youth.

LR: Yeah! They’re stuff always seemed so totally insane but they were super well-rehearsed. They could create the same insanity every night after night and stop on the same dime every night. It was something just unbelievably disciplined about what they did.

In the avant garde days there were people smashing pianos or pulling a violin down the streets of New York and calling it a concert. We first were turned on to them when we first went to Japan in ’89. People were telling us about this gig they did in a little club where they drove a bulldozer through a wall of the club. Our jaws dropped. “That’s amazing!” It was at the same time that you had in Germany Einsturzen Neubauten bringing power tools onstage, grinding metal and shooting sparks and calling it music.

It’s not a huge leap from the stuff that people like Cage and Stockhausen were doing and someone like [avant-garde classical composer Luciano] Berio who Phil Lesh studied with and that influenced what the Dead were doing in the early days. If you’re in that river we call music, it all kind of washes around and bumps up against each other sooner or later.

JPG: The video for “New Thing,” I just wonder did it hurt your eyes staring at that bright light or did they add that in post-production?

LR: (laughs) No, it was like an LED thing that was taped on to that old black & white TV set, a ‘70s four or six-inch black & white TV screen, which was kind of ridiculous because these days there’s no analog signal left. So, there was no signal to get on that thing when we tried. It had an AM-FM radio that still had a pretty good sound. But, we taped on there this LED thing that photographers use and you could regulate how bright it was. It wasn’t bad. Sometimes, it was like when you get a bright flash on your face when somebody’s taking your picture. It was a little like that but mostly it was okay.

JPG: I watched it and felt bad for you, thinking you’re temporarily blinded after doing so many scenes with it.

LR: I think it’s more the way it looks on camera. It wasn’t so dramatic in a sense because I was carrying it around all day long.

JPG: Do you have any updates on your next art exhibit or art book?

I’ve been doing a lot of art these days. I do a lot of drawings of highways when I’m out on tour and they’ve taken a new turn recently. That’s been really cool. And, I do a lot of etchings. I was trained as a printmaker and I do all these prints using old vinyl records that I’m scratching the hell out of and then making small edition prints of them – editions of eight or 10. So, I’m showing a lot of these new highway drawings and a lot of these new record prints at my gallery show. Then, I’m showing an amalgam of older work in this other museum.

Right now, I feel like it’s funny to embark on almost like a new career in my early 60s but my music is in a really good place and the art is in a really good place. A lot of things are just coming together for me. There are new book projects in the works but not far enough along to talk about yet. There’s a couple foreign translations of old books about to happen and there’s a guy in England working on a compendium of selections from all the different books I’ve done over the last 20 years or so. I’m still keeping my hand in that regard as well.

JPG: And finally, from someone of Italian descent to another, it’s great to hear you in another interview talk about making Wedding Soup.

LR: (laughs) That’s one of my favorites. My kids just absolutely adore that soup. Every once in awhile we’ll be somewhere and we’ll have one and they’ll be like, “Yours is way better.” Especially in the colder months, I like to make that one a lot. I’m a soup maker. That’s one of my specialties. I leave most of the cooking to Leah who is a much better cook than me but when it comes to soups and pies I’m right in there and I can do pretty good. I can hold my own.

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