Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo is involved in so many diverse projects, it’s mind-boggling.
He just published a writing collection, “How Not to Get Played on the Radio,” and he’s readying a more comprehensive poetry-essay anthology for Salt Press this fall.
He launched his own signature-edition Fender Jazzmaster ax, and is working on large-scale performance art pieces with his visual-artist wife, Leah Singer, in which he suspends his guitar from a cable and swings it over the heads of the audience. He says, “The shows were dedicated to Brion Gysin and his Dream Machine (invention), and we even had a real Dream Machine onstage.”
For the 100th anniversary of avant-garde composer John Cage’s birthday, Ranaldo, 56 — who plays The City next week — also is collaborating on a surreal Vienna museum exhibit involving mushrooms, one of Cage’s lifelong fascinations.
“With this Dutch artist, I created four blank music-score pages 3 feet long, based on an infinity symbol, while he built these boxes around them with dirt underneath and seeded them with mushrooms,” says the Renaissance man. “So the mushrooms are growing up through the paper and becoming musical notes, and hopefully somebody in an experimental mode will be able to interpret them as scores.”
Ranaldo has been feeling so inventive lately, he has done what for many Sonic Youth fans might be the unthinkable: He released “Between the Times and the Tides,” a straightforward rock ‘n’ roll solo CD reverberating with a vintage-R.E.M. urgency in “Lost,” “Off the Wall” and first single “Angles” (which has a video directed by Singer).
“With Sonic Youth, curiosity was always the driving force,” he says. “So this record may be rooted in certain singer-songwriter traditions, but to me, that’s an experimental move, so I’m still coming at it from that childlike sense of, ‘What would happen if I moved in this direction?’”
These accessible ditties first occurred to Ranaldo during an acoustic gig in France, then kept arriving while he and his wife played their increasingly complex shows.
To record them, he gradually recruited musicians including guitarist Alan Licht, drummer Steve Shelley and bassist Irwin Menken, who now back him in concert. “These songs started popping out, and I just followed along behind them,” he says.
Ranaldo says he hasn’t gone mainstream, that he’s still the same edgy aesthete he was in his punk-rock youth: “The stuff that happened in that period — the mid- to late ’70s, when we were 20 to 25 — really shapes you in a lot of ways,” he says, “ways that you spend the rest of your life dealing with.”