Lee Ranaldo Discusses His Return to Improv Music with New Album 'Lee Ranaldo / Jim Jarmusch / Marc Urselli / Balázs Pándi'

Lee Ranaldo Discusses His Return to Improv Music with New Album 'Lee Ranaldo / Jim Jarmusch / Marc Urselli / Balázs Pándi'
Photo: William Semeraro
Today (May 24), Lee Ranaldo returns with Lee Ranaldo / Jim Jarmusch / Marc Urselli / Balázs Pándi, a new album with those titular collaborators and his first of improv music in eight years.
 
Between 1990 and 2011, when Sonic Youth transformed from noise-rock pioneers to alt-rock poster children, founding guitarist Lee Ranaldo refused to abandon his experimental side, releasing a steady stream of avant-garde solo albums and collaborations alongside the band's output. But since the seminal group's break-up, Ranaldo has almost exclusively focused on straightforward indie rock, recording music with his band the Dust and even putting out an all-acoustic LP.
 
In an email interview with Exclaim!, the New York guitarist explains why: "The demise of Sonic Youth left a hole in my musical life in terms of more concrete, song-based music, and that's what I began to gravitate towards, especially in terms of my own recorded output."
 
But it was a Grammy Award-winning producer who would ultimately lure Ranaldo back to his noisier roots.
 
"The idea came to me as I was standing on top of the Great Wall of China in late December of 2017," says Marc Urselli, prolific producer and longtime engineer for John Zorn and Mike Patton. "I received a text from Balázs (Pándi, session drummer for Merzbow and Venetian Snares) saying he was going to be in New York a week later, and me and him had been talking about doing something together for a while."
 
This gave Urselli, who owns EastSide Sound studios, an idea to bring together four musicians who have never worked together for a single evening session. After considering Ranaldo, whom the producer had previously worked with in live settings, Urselli was reminded of a recent meeting he had with a certain influential film auteur.
 
Although Jim Jarmusch is best known as the director of indie films like Down by Law and Dead Man, he was actually bred from the same New York no wave scene that spawned Sonic Youth (Jarmusch was keyboardist/vocalist for the short-lived Del-Byzanteens and has been releasing music with Dutch musician Jozef van Wissem since 2013).
 
"I've been friends with and known Jim since the '80s," clarifies Ranaldo. "I think we have mutually admired much of the work each other has done. We hung out together during Sonic Youth days and also with Neil Young."
 
The resulting LP, Lee Ranaldo / Jim Jarmusch / Marc Urselli / Balázs Pándi, out now on Trost Records, finds the quartet acting as master improv collaborators, as Ranaldo and Jarmusch radiantly bounce drone-laden guitar effects off of each other to create 50 minutes of tempered but adventurous noise for Urselli (who contributed bass and "laptop") and Pándi to stretch out under.
 
Although all-night sessions revolved around a sort of musical telepathy, the four artists didn't just form a bond based on their mutual tastes and friends.
 
"The cold weather was actually a big part of this project, in terms of mood and inspiration," explains Urselli. "It was early January when we recorded. The cold weather was definitely all around us. Lee had just come back from Winnipeg and was telling us stories about the cold weather there, Jim had also just come from somewhere cold — Ohio I think, and I was standing on the freezing Great Wall of China a few days before. [That's] is also why I decided to give the tracks titles that come from Norwegian mythology and use the work of Norwegian-based photographer William Semeraro."
 
Whether it was the climate outdoors or in the studio, Ranaldo's triumphant return to experimental music came together like a breeze.
 
"Improvisational experiments like this rely a lot on listening and on reacting, so it's always a challenge to bring fresh ears and new ideas to the session. I think we were able to do that in the studio together. It's like having a conversation with new friends — wide-ranging, covering a lot of ground, and always surprising each other."