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Interview met Lee Ranaldo

Interview with Lee Ranaldo (1956), March 2014




Hilde Van Canneyt: Hello Lee, at the
age of 18 you went to art school and studied painting. Why did you make that
choice? Do you come from a creative family? Were you as a child and teenager
already messing around with paint?

Lee Ranaldo: I did come from a creative family, my
mother was a pianist and there was always music in my house, many extended
musicians in my family. She was also a seamstress and I learned to sew as a
youth and created various fabric ‘toys’ for myself when I was young—fabric
‘superhero’ dolls stuffed with old nylon stockings that I’d then decorate with
paint and marker, to stage huge battles. 

I did a lot of visual art and a lot of
writing in my youth as well, but in spite of being occupied by all of these
activities it never occurred to me until halfway through university that one
could actually “be” an artist – it just didn’t seem an option to a working
class kid like me. At the same time I can see that these things-
visual art, music and language—have been my complete
focus since very early on.

HVC: Did you have some sort of
profession in mind when started art school? Or did you just want to become an
LR: Being an artist was the goal, for sure, w/o any
‘careerist’ or professional idea of how I would fulfill the economic demands of
life. I was absorbed with learning the craft, particularly the craft of visual
art, and deeply immersed in getting up to speed on my art history. Music was so
innate that it was in my blood and bones already from the time I was a child. I
was singing and playing piano and later guitar from an early age.

HVC: But fate decided differently:
first you played with Glenn Branca and in 1981 the legendary band Sonic Youth
was formed. Everyone who wants to experience the atmosphere of your music
should listen to the album ‘Sonic Death’. (I myself only saw you for the first
time in 1991, at Pukkelpop.) In the beginning you were more of an experimental
laboratory. Also Kim Gordon was full of the weirdest ideas.
LR: Well, there were plenty of ideas floating around
the art and culture world of NYC at the time we were forming, and when Kim
Thurston and I got started together we all had heads full of ambition and ideas
that we were filtering and processing from what we found around us. The city
was full of young artists who’d come from all over to try and make it as
filmmakers, painters, playwrights, novelists etc. 

Most ended up playing music
in clubs at one point or another because the access was easier and we’d all
grown up on rock and popmusic. The leap of mind was discovering that music was
as viable a medium for “art” as any of the other forms.

HVC: From the beginning ‘images’ were
very important for your music. Album covers to start with. Gerard Richter
(‘Daydream Nation’), Raymond Pettibon (‘Goo’), Richard Prince (‘Sonic Nurse’),
Jeff Wall (‘The destroyed Room’) and Mike Kelley (‘Dirty’, my favorite cover
and album)
for example created the covers. Did you choose an image that you
thought fitted with the music or did the artists make a ‘work of art’ inspired
on your music?
LR: We generally chose existing image that we felt had
a sympathetic resonance with the music or ideas we were dealing with at the
given time …

HVC: Are there any other visual
artists you would like to work with? You are a fan of Donald Judd, but his work
is perhaps not suited for photographs…
LR: There are lots of artists I admire – in visual
art, music and other field, but I don’t have a ‘wish list’ of possible
collaborators. They seem to come in their own time and place, and it’s not
always easy to predict in advance who might be a suitable collaborator for a
given project. As a band and personally I’ve had the luck to collaborate with a
whole host of incredible folks, many of my ‘heroes’ and many other amazing
individuals, from Neil Young and Iggy Pop to Merce Cunningham and Mike Kelley.

HVC: By the way, what is your favorite
Sonic Youth video clip? (I myself like Dirty Boots a lot, mainly because of the
atmosphere… and the kiss at the end…)
LR: I don’t have a favorite, really. We were involved
in the creation of so many of them in an intimate way. It would be like
choosing your ‘favorite child’. That said, I’m quite partial to the Teenage
Riot clip because I basically put that together and was formulating an editing
style of my own at the time. I also do love the Dirty Boots clip because it was
basically a rock-
n-roll fantasy story (guy + girl meet and fall in love
at rock show) that we worked up to our own style.

HVC: During those 30 years of Sonic
Youth, did you feel the urge to create your own visual art? Or was the music
too absorbing? I think you made some sketches (see next question), but perhaps
you also took polaroids or tried to visit all the musea in all those cities? In
2007 you made a series of photographs as a tribute to two individuals whose
works have meant a great deal to you: Robert Smithson and Steve Reich.
LR: Although outwardly I was known thru most of the SY
period solely for my musical work, I never stopped making visual art, or
writing as well for that matter. From the time I moved to NYC post-
university I pursued all these objectives. It’s just
that the music was the form that was known to the public, and certainly the
medium that was given the most of my energies.
The work related to Smithson and Reich was a
particular single photographic work. My notes for it are attached at the end of
this document.

HVC: I know that as a student you were
already fascinated by landscapes and roads gliding past from the car. You made
quick sketches of them, which you turned into etchings afterwards. Also now, 30
years later, you are showing ‘Lost Highway Drawings’ in Jan Dhaese Gallery in
Ghent. Are landscapes passing by an endless source of inspiration when you are
on the road so much? Although very similar you never see exactly the same.
You also question yourself. ‘How does
one draw a moving landscape? It’s like trying to draw a rushing river. My first
responses were gestural, skeins of lines following the horizon, the curve of
the road and the shapes of the trees. Continuously overlaid upon itself,
forming a kinetic image. Over time, certain iconographic images developed.’
LR: From Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway” to Bob Dylan’s
“Highway 61 Revisited”, from Kerouac’s “On The Road” to Herman Hesse’s
“Siddhartha”, from “Easy Rider” to “Weekend” there are songs and films, images
and stories based on the allure and transformative qualities of The Road as
metaphor (but also as actual hard fact, standing by it’s side with thumb
extended, for instance). It’s a natural medium and format to symbolize any
quest you have in mind. 

To get from here to there, from New York to L.A., to
get away from something, to find something, to move towards freedom,
away from responsibility –
so many
dreams, thoughts and emotions can be encapsulated in the image of the open
road. For a traveling musician the qualities of the highway are further
reinforced (for both good and ill), just from spending so much time staring at
it on the way from one gig to the next. 

An iconic image of modernity, and of
the automobile, certainly, but dating back to the earliest dirt paths the idea
of ‘road” was about movement and freedom. The very word ‘path’ implies a
quest …


HVC: They seem pure concentration,
these road drawings. But it is not a hit and miss. You feel a sort of moving
energy in the drawings.

LR: They are hit and miss because they are
improvisatory creations, like a free music concert. I’m trying to work quick
and gesturally, trying to capture something that is in motion (“always
different/always the same”). From the moment the first mark is made the image
before my eyes has changed and keeps changing. That is the challenge, to try
and capture the feel of a place, partially thru observation and partially thru
intuition and memory. It’s exciting and a sort of game. 

Once a new white sheet
is placed on the dashboard I know that I’m going to have to generate a very
focused energy from the moment I make the first mark. If I’m too slow I lose
steam almost immediately. So in the heat of the attempt the vision is sometimes
lost in pure frenetic energy, but when I’m on a roll I can turn out a bunch of
good ones in a row, when I have the ‘Zen Mind’ to just follow the graphic and
let the image in front of me transfer thru my hand to the page. 

On a very base
level it’s a great way to pass the time on long rides, it makes the journeys
endlessly interesting.
I’ve always loved landscape painters anyway. This
activity (drawing the moving road/landscape) is a subset of that activity…

HVC: Does the coloring happen
LR: Usually it all happens right then in the five to
fifteen minutes of creating each piece. I try to set up a little studio there
in the front seat, and lay out watercolors and various tools. Sometimes it gets
a little messy for a rental vehicle! Occasionally a drawing is worked on
further later—sometimes color is added later.

HVC: Road clips and videos are very
attractive to film and video clip makers. Are they also an inspiration? In the documentary
on Canvas I saw you are a big fan of Jean-
Luc Godard.
LR: Yes, big admirer! 

HVC: Landscapes are often calming.
What do you want to achieve with them? Not to stop your thoughts, but quite the
opposite, it seems to me.

LR: Yes I suppose I use the landscape and the act of
trying to interpret it as a springboard toward questions of place and time, and
how I locate myself in the mix.

HVC: What do you want to add to the
already existing oversupply of visual arts? What do you have others don’t have?
LR: No idea, it’s not of concern to me.

HVC: Your wife Leah Singer is
photographer and multimedia artist. Here in Belgium we saw her in the
exhibition Contour 2011 in Mechelen and in Watou 2013. In Contour we also saw
jour’, a
performance with live music, noise and video projections. You were ‘dialoguing’
with the dream machine of Gysin and Sommerville.
LR: Yes what a beautiful version of our piece we had
in Mechelen! That old church and the silhouettes of the hanging chandeliers in
front of the screen, and the dream machines spinning, it was a very magical
evening. We did a couple versions of our piece inspired by Brion Gysin, his
dream machines and his language. He voice in particular hangs on the soundtrack
of our performances still today. We loved many works that were featured in that

HVC: ‘Drift’ is one of your most
famous performances and it also has something of an ‘I love you I hate you’
nature. Is there a large difference between a performance for an ‘arty farty’
audience and a one-
concert for thousands of people?
LR: Each version of our performance is tailored
specifically to the site it’s in, so it’s always a little bit different. We try
to keep it surprising to ourselves so it stays fresh. Doing an art-
type performance event is always a bit different from
a rock concert in front of a huge audience, usually a bit more intimate and
with a more accepting audience. 

Sometimes a rock audience can have a pretty
narrow focus but once you set up in an art museum, say, it’s possible to defy
expectations a bit more…


HVC: In 2012 we already saw you at the

Permanent Landscape Exhibition’ at the Boothuis Brauhaus in Turnhout. The
curator there was Jan Van Woensel. How did you meet? I know he spends a lot of
time in New York and introduced you to Jan Dhaese. He also made the exhibition
that was on show in 2012 in the Jan Dhaese Gallery.

pictures of private airplanes, ballet dancers and foreign landscape
sceneries, a blindfolded performer, palm trees, an armed soldier, handwritten
poems, a pair of hands, street signs, the Beatles and a portrait of composer
Glen Gould, each based on newspaper photos — this collection of (at first
sight) randomly selected images shows how Ranaldo observes the world around him’
it says in the exhibition text.

LR: We met Jan VW in NYC and collaborated with him on
a number of exhibitions. Both Leah and I felt that he really understood our
work and where we were coming from; he has a good eye for hanging an exhibition
and a perceptive understanding of the place of modern art in the modern world.

HVC: Do you think an artist has to be
committed? Throw something in people’s faces? How do you want people to feel
when they look at your visual work? Is it different from music, that has more
the intention of bringing the listener in a certain ‘zone’?
LR: I don’t know. I’m working from some inner
motivation without thinking so much about trying to manipulate the viewer’s
thoughts. Ultimately I’m trying to draw them into a world I’ve created, whether
it be thru music or words or images, but it’s not always towards a specific,
focused end – I like the idea of leaving aspects of the work open to

HVC: Do you know a lot of work of
Belgian artists? I know you worked with Philippe Vandenberg, who unfortunately
passed away.
LR: Yes, that was sad. I know some Belgian artists,
probably not that many. Currently I’m writing a text to accompany a publication
by the Belgian filmmaker Jean D.L., who used some music of mine in his film
‘Psychic Diary’.

HVC: Does drawing give you peace of
mind; is it some sort of counterbalance to the (loud) guitar? Playing music is
also something you do in a group. But you can also practice the acoustic guitar
at home. What is for you the main difference between a guitar and a pencil?
LR: They are different mediums but both are vehicles
for creative expression. Sometimes one plays off the other, sometimes they
inform each other. One is more private and quiet, the other louder and more
public (performing). I think for me both are useful in unlocking my creative
urges. Sometimes I gravitate more towards one side and give that the greater
focus, and then if things slow down I can move laterally to another medium …

HVC: Why did take you so long to show
your visual work to the world? Didn’t you have the time to elaborate the
concept or did you feel insecure?

LR: I’ve shown work consistently over the years, it’s
just been in small exhibitions that few saw!

HVC: Creating hurts, is the opposite
of comfort, Patrick Riguelle, a Belgian musician, says. What do you think?
LR: Breton said “Beauty must be convulsive or not at
all”. Maybe in the long run there is a wrenching and difficult aspect to
creation, but as easily there is spiritual uplift and joy. Generally I think
most artists love their work and the fact that they get to do these things,
treasure the joyous act of creation. It’s the same blissful feeling that a
child gets when, for instance, taking a crayon to paper, a sense that anything
might be possible. Many people lose this sense as the mature, but an artist
grants him/herself the right to sustain it.

HVC: Thinking is the enemy of
creativity, Ray Bradbury said. Do you agree?
LR: No. Although I love Bradbury…

HVC: Whose career as a visual artist
do you admire? (By the way, I think your musical career is everybody’s wet
LR: Robert Smithson is a particular touchstone:
thinker and visualizer. Matisse is a constant inspiration as well. But there
are so many…

HVC: Can you name one thing that would
make the quality of your work as a visual artist better?
LR: Lots of sales!

HVC: Can you say anything about your
new band ‘Lee Ranaldo and The Dust’?
LR: I could say many things. The band is my current
vehicle for musical exploration. I love this band so much, they are
versatile—can play both electric and acoustically—and really support the kind
of songwriting I’m doing right now. Of course I’ve collaborated with Steve
Shelley for a long time, and that has been very fruitful. The same is true with
Alan Licht, in
more improvisatory forms up until this band began. The
addition of new bass player Tim Luntzel has solidified our sound. Our recent
record album–Last Night On Earth—was such a pleasure to make, and the
band supported me at every step of the way. Our recent live shows have been so

HVC: What is the best piece of advice
you ever received and what is the most important lesson your life as an artist
taught you?
LR: Best advice came from my painting instructor
Angelo Ippolito in college: ‘If you want to be an artist you have to show up at
the studio for work each day. Nothing is going to happen if you don’t show up.’
It’s really as simple as that, the dedication to and joy in working is a big
part of it. It sounds simple but trips up many an artist-

If I reference Sonic Youth here, one thing
that allowed us to maintain our band for so many years was the simple focus on
making music, and avoiding the distractions that assault one at every turn.

HVC: What is your most guilty guilty
LR: My pleasures don’t tend to have a lot of guilt
attached to them. I love cycling and tennis.

HVC: I would like to propose that
everyone now plays ‘Superstar’. When I hear the version by the Carpenters, it
seems the world comes to a halt.

Lee Ranaldo exhibits in: Jan
Dhaese galerie Ajuinlei, 9000 Gent, Belgium.

Hilde Van Canneyt


Photograph: Four Organs 

(for Steve Reich and Robert Smithson)

ink jet print, edition of 10,
21.5” square, torn in quarters, glassine
envelope. Inkjet print, edition of 10

A photo
work in homage to two individuals whose works have meant a great deal to me. In
1970 Robert Smithson contributed a piece to a boxed edition of artist’s
multiples organized by the gallerist Marion Goodman under the label
“Multiples, Inc”. The box included artists such as Dan Graham, Mel
Bochner, Richard Serra and many others from the time. Smithson’s piece, Torn Photograph, was an image of
construction rubble taken from one of his slideworks, which he had torn in 4
quarters and packaged in a glassine envelope. Steve Reich, the composer, is a
friend and has been my neighbor in lower Manhattan for the last decade. There
is an early piece of his called “Four Organs” which has had a profound
influence on me ever since I first heard it many years ago. The four organs of
his piece are now gathering dust in our mutual basement. I’ve photographed
Riech’s stacked up organs and have done a torn print of similar dimensions to
Smithson’s, dedicated to both men.

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