Sonic Youth: Walking Through Lower Manhattan

Lower Manhattan resident Lee Ranaldo is a singer, guitarist, writer, record producer, and visual artist, but he’s best known as a co-founder with Thurston Moore of the alternative rock band Sonic Youth. In the current issue of SPIN magazine, Ranaldo and Thurston share the #1 position on its “greatest guitarists of all time” list.

Ranaldo’s ninth solo album, Between the Times and Tides, was recently released, and its cover shows him walking in front of Walking Men 99, a 500-foot-long work highlighting 99 versions of the international “walk” symbol found on traffic signals around the world.

Walking Men 99—which covers three plywood street facades surrounding the Silverstein Properties construction site at 99 Church Street—is part of the Downtown Alliance’s ReConstruction program, which adorns construction sites with artwork.

Downtown Alliance President Liz Berger (a fellow P.S. 234 parent alum) is a BIG fan of Ranaldo’s and pointed out that only a few years ago Sonic Youth performed at the wildly popular River To River Festival, the Lower Manhattan summertime arts and culture festival.

The Downtown Alliance recently spoke with Ranaldo about his work, the neighborhood, and his inspiration.

Tell me about Between the Times and Tides.

In the spring of 2010, I was invited to play an acoustic show in the south of France. While preparing for that show, the song ‘Lost’ popped out of one of the guitars. Just like that. Two weeks later I opened the show with it, and somehow it just started something flowing. All summer I worked on some other acoustic demos, really just sitting around playing acoustic guitars and recording what was coming out. I was kind of reveling in the sheer pleasure of the acoustic sounds, and, as usual, working in many different tunings.

I’ve always been an acoustic guitar player. I’ve written material for Sonic Youth that way on occasion, and in general, it’s just a beautiful instrument. Although the sound is different, I’m still working with the same basic parameters as when playing electric. I guess I’d say you hear the melodies and voicings more without all the fuzz and volume, and for this music I was definitely interested in all that—the tones and chord progressions rather than a wild electric sound. I wasn’t putting any demands on this music that was popping out, just kind of following behind and seeing what happened.

I really thought I would gather the songs together and make a simple acoustic album.  Between about May 2010 and the end of the year I just kept at it, writing songs. By December I was starting to record acoustic demos in the Sonic Youth studio. A couple of the songs seemed to want more of a band treatment so I asked (Sonic Youth drummer) Steve Shelley in to play on them. Next, Irwin Menken was coming along on bass, and we had a group of “band songs” going.

Between January and March the three of us cut the eight band tracks, and from March to June all of the other players dropped in to do their work. It was a really fun process and very “organic” —one thing just seemed to lead to the next; there wasn’t a lot of stress involved. I really didn’t know how it would end up sounding until we were mixing it. But I knew the songs were strong and somehow it seemed they would find their proper “sound.” When Alan Licht, John Medeski and Nels Cline came in to work on them, they really began to take the shape you hear on the record.

How long have you lived in Lower Manhattan?

I moved to Lower Manhattan in 1980, shortly after moving to New York City. I spent a few months up in Washington Heights, and most of a year in downtown Brooklyn, and then moved into an eight-month sublet in Lower Manhattan, which somehow became 10 years in that same loft. I’ve never really left the area since then, raised my three kids in Tribeca, and have generally loved every minute of my time here.

Why did you move here?

I moved to New York City to pursue art and music—I’d trained as a visual artist at SUNY Binghamton and while there also started playing seriously in bands. I and two guys I was playing with there—both artists themselves—moved to New York City in summer 1979. I’ve been making both art and music in New York ever since. For some time once Sonic Youth took off, I didn’t have enough time to focus much on exhibiting artwork—we were so busy—and, anyway, we consider the music we make our artwork as well. In the last decade or more, I’ve been showing visual work again on a regular basis.

What do you like the most about the district?

I’ve always really liked the neighborhood aspect of the area. I liked it in 1980 when it was still mostly industrial, and I like it today, when it is so much more family-oriented. With P.S. 234 nearby, there is a great elementary school. It’s always struck me as about the most livable section of Manhattan.

Where do you go in the neighborhood for inspiration?

One place for sure – which has always been true – is along the Hudson River. The parks have really become an amazing part of life down here. We used to have “Art on the Beach” in the early ‘80s, and that was amazing. I performed there once or twice at different events.  And today with all the improvements to the various piers, such as a skate park, mini-golf, and soccer fields, it remains a focus for the community. I’m an avid cyclist and can often be found along the river between the Battery and the George Washington Bridge.

Why did you select Walking Men 99 for the cover imagery?

In some ways the whole album started with the cover photo, and I kind of built it up from there.  A young Canadian photographer took that photo of me in September 2010 during an interview session about legendary Canadian group The Nihilist Spasm Band. When I saw the photo I thought it looked so much like a cool album cover. At that point I only had three or four acoustic demos going, and it remained in the back of my mind that if I ever made enough songs for an album, I’d use that pic as the cover. So that helped push me to develop the songs.

The figures from Maya Barkai’s public artwork cover three sides of a city block with images of the ‘walking man’ symbol as it’s interpreted in 99 different global cities. It’s a beautiful work, and it’s in my neighborhood. I didn’t really realize it at the time, but I like the fact that the cover photo was taken locally, in my ‘hood.  The artwork actually has the names of the various cities over each figure—we had to remove them to put the album title there, but I really liked the image of me walking with all these city names over my head; it felt like an image that reflected the traveling minstrel/touring life.

Walking Men is part of the Downtown Alliance’s ReConstruction program, which adorns construction sites with works of art. What has this program meant to you?

Well, in a neighborhood that’s long been known for housing artists, the program has kept an artistic element on our streets as the neighborhood has grown. There’s so much construction going on in Tribeca and at the World Trade Center site, it’s nice to have some artwork on the streets to keep things lively.

You’re also an artist, and your drawings, prints and videos have been displayed in gallery and museum shows in Slovakia, New Zealand, Utah, and here in New York City. Describe your work for me.

I do sound installations and audio+film installations with my wife, Leah Singer. Sometimes these installations are sites where we do music+film performances as well. We’ve recently done large-scale performance and/or installation works in Brazil, Italy, Canada and Belgium.  I also make ink drawings derived from newspaper imagery.

I like to divorce the images from the stories surrounding them and try to open them up to something more universal. I also make a lot of prints—etchings—and a couple years ago on a residency in Paris I began making use of old vinyl records as “plates” to create prints with, scratching them up and then printing them. They’ve come out very nicely so far, and I plan on making more. They are my “Black Noise” series.

What’s a typical day off in Lower Manhattan like for you?

Often cycling along the river, or coaching soccer with my kids in the fields at Battery Park. A lot of my activities are in the neighborhood; there are many days where I don’t need to leave Tribeca. Often I’ll work at home on projects, or take the PATH across the river to my studio in Hoboken. Sometimes just finding a place to have coffee and meet friends to hang out and chat can be about the most enjoyable thing.

What’s next in your career?

I’m doing a fair bit of touring through the summer on the back of my album, and also pursuing new visual works and new collaborative performance works with Leah. A collection of my poetry and other written work is slated to be released in the fall, from a press in Cambridge, England. I’ve started to work on a new group of songs and hope to find time to record them as well.