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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 ‘artist’?
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 afterwards?
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 ‘Contre-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 show...

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-hour 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 ‘No 

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 ‘Constellation-Drawings’ that was on show in 2012 in the Jan Dhaese Gallery.  

‘Painted 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 interpretation.

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 dream.)
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 rewarding...

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-wannabe. 
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 pleasure?
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


Torn Photograph: Four Organs 

(for Steve Reich and Robert Smithson)

Lee Ranaldo
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.