Elektron Interview 2018

This interview comes from the website of Swedish electronic instrument manufacturer Elektron. Their machines were used substantially in the creation of the Names of North End Women album.

Link to original page: https://www.elektronauts.com/talk/128

Talk: Lee Ranaldo
Meet Lee Ranaldo, one of the founding members of Sonic Youth. The sun peaks above New York as we discuss musical experimentation, futuristic noise machines and always following your ears (among a smattering of other topics).

It’s so cool you’ve been bitten by the Elektron bug! There’s no genre pre-programmed into the Elektron instruments, but I guess the legacy, especially since the Machinedrum, has been techno and electronica. The Octatrack is a completely different story because everybody makes that instrument their own and use it in such widely varied ways.

I think that’s the beautiful thing about it, that it’s so open-ended, we were processing nylon string folk guitar last week when we were working on some of my tracks, and you know, using it in some ways that I’m sure is not the most common way. I’d probably think of the Octatrack in terms of electronic music too, but here we were processing acoustic guitars in a very minimal and open — and surprising — way.

It’s a little bit of a challenge to learn the first one, but once you learn the Elektron way then you know all of them.

That’s pretty much where I am right now, I’m learning the workflow on the Octatrack. My partner Raul Fernandez who lives in Barcelona, he’s been using them a lot and he briefed me on that at first, it took him quite some time to understand the workflow on one of them, but then once he did, it was very easy to move from one instrument to the next and understand it quite quickly.

What are you working on now?

I’m just at the beginning stages of working on my next album project — that’s the short answer! My last record, which was called Electric Trim, was a collaboration between myself and Raul Fernandez from Barcelona. It was the first serious project that we’d done together, and it was experimentally done, but it was still done mostly with real instruments played in real time, and between the two of us, and then later in the process bringing many different musicians in. We worked on it over the course of about a year, and it was an amazing project to work on, we both loved the experience so much, so we’ve become close working partners and decided to start the new one. We wanted to go in a completely different direction for this one. The other record was chock-full of instrumental tracks, some of the songs had more than a hundred tracks on them if you can believe it! Two or three different drummers playing, each drum kit miked with 12 or 18 tracks. It became an enormous task to mix it. We wanted to go the other direction and work on something very minimal.

Over the last year we’ve worked a lot with the Elektron instruments. He just created a big composition for Sónar, that was just premiered in June. He fell in love with these instruments, and he suggested that we try and work with them. We set up in the studio, just the two of us, and we just completed about three weeks of work. In October we’ll start three months more of work and hopefully complete the album in that period. We generated three new songs almost from scratch, and the Octatrack and the Analog Rytm were a big part of all three tracks. They immediately took our sound-world into a bunch of new spaces that we didn’t touch on the last record. It has opened up something very new for us at this point.

You just bought some Elektron gear too, right? Which ones did you get?

Raul already had the Octatrack and the Analog Rytm in Barcelona, and I got the same pair here in New York so that we could work even when we’re apart. I’m concentrating more on the Octatrack at first, because I think it will be the more immediate useful thing for me, but I’m anxious to dig into the Rytm machine as well!

Initial impressions? Any favorites so far?

I’m fascinated by the range of things that are possible with the Octatrack. The first song that we worked on, I had created all these demos, and, in the end, we decided we would just use fragmentary pieces of them and see if we could construct new songs together, Raul and me. The first track that we worked on, we took maybe a five or seven second guitar sample from one of my demos. I played it again in the studio, and we manipulated it in the Octatrack, to the point where we created an entire five-minute piece out of this one seven second sample! Then we started layering a few other instruments, very minimally, and then started working on the vocals.

The range of variations that we were able to come up with right away with the Octatrack that put us into all these sound-spaces that were new for us was just marvellous. Just working with that instrument led some of these songs into being, by virtue of what it could generate, the kinds of sounds that it could generate. We made a lot of use of varying the crossfader, blending between different sound-spaces. I really love that feature, we were doing a lot of cool stuff with that, and you know, as someone who comes out of a world that’s more based on electric guitars and rock and roll instruments, this is a fascinating new world for me to enter. I’m not generally known as an electronic musician, although I do various different things, but it seems like we are on the cusp of something very new for both of us. Especially combining both electric and acoustic instruments with the sounds we can generate with the Elektron instruments.

We want this record to focus even more than the last on my voice and on the vocals and on the lyrics, so we’re just kind of putting the whole thing together.

You’ve been exploring and pushing the boundaries of what sound you can get out of a guitar for the past few decades. What does the Octatrack bring to the game? Can you sort of freeze time and go even deeper? What new areas does it bring to exploring sound?

Well, it brings a lot of new electronic areas to my sound. The thing is, for thirty years I was mostly involved with electric rock music, and when I started making these records on my own, one of the first things that happened, almost in a spontaneous way, was that I started to play more and more acoustic guitar, so the acoustic guitar became more part of the work I’ve been doing over the last five or six years. In a way, that was a very surprising development for someone in my position, because people are used to me being a loud noisy electric guitarist, and here suddenly, I was working with acoustic guitars, more predominantly.

Now, with the Elektron instruments, it’s shifting into a more electronic mode. You know what I think it is? I think it’s that the sensibility remains the same no matter what the instrumentation is. Once I’ve started to branch out on my own more seriously in the last five or six years, I found that my desire was to go further afield from what people’s expectations were for me, rather than do more of the same.

Sonic Youth stopped working together in 2011, and the first solo record that I made, which was already in progress when Sonic Youth stopped, was in the same mode. Two guitars, bass and drums. Since then, I’ve gone more and more away from that model. I think one thing that’s going to happen with the Elektron instruments is we’re generating all this stuff in the studio that has a whole new sound field. The sensibility hasn’t changed, in terms of, as you put it, wanting to go deeper and take this explorative notion even further, but I would like to work with different sounds, and see what’s possible in different areas.

We’re already talking about how we will go about and present these new tracks live. In some cases, I imagine we could do a lot of it just using the Elektron instruments, but one of our ideas is to transpose a lot of what we generate with the Elektron instruments and take some of those elements and bring them back to, maybe, a string quartet or other kinds of instruments and move it into something that is more uniquely my own sound world, rather than be someone who’s just another person in a two guitars, bass and drums rock band. The world has so many of them that I’m looking to go in a more unique direction right now, and these instruments are really helping to generate that. The possibilities are so open-ended and limitless.

Who introduced you to Elektron instruments?

Raul did. He’s not widely known outside of Spain, but inside of Spain he’s extremely well known. He works with a lot of different singers and artists, especially younger flamenco artists that are doing more avant-garde works with flamenco, and the records that he makes in Spain continually go gold and things like that, win all kinds of awards. He introduced me to them. We’ve been working more and more closely, and his professional name: he goes by Raul Refree. That’s what they call him in Spain!

He found that when Sónar commissioned him to do this piece that he just presented, this was maybe one year ago or a little more, right when we were winding up my record, he found his way to these instruments, to the Elektron instruments, and he found that they were an incredible tool for him, both in terms as a live performative tool and in his studio at home to generate these new compositions. He was the one who suggested we work with these instruments and I started doing a little research on them and, like I said, I’m kind of game for some new frontiers at this point. When he suggested that, we immediately decided that that’s what we’re going to do.

Who introduced you to synthesizers, I mean, any synthesizer?

When I was in university, this is a long time ago, the late Seventies, I was in a band. I went to a school that had a large Film & Art Department, and they had this place called the experimental television center. This was in Binghamton, NY. The people there were working in the early days of experimental video and somehow that crossed over into experimental electronic synthesis. This fellow named Rich Brewster was the bass player in my first serious band in college, when the new wave was burgeoning again in the late Seventies, and I started to get interested in doing more music again. I was a visual arts student in university.

Rich was a synthesizer player and designer, he was an electronic wiz, and he was building his own synthesizers. He was the first one who really exposed me to synthesizers. He was building units that we were using in the band, and later I found my way to, in various instances in Sonic Youth I was playing the Minimoog or the Sequential Circuits Pro-One or a couple of Korg synthesizers, the miniKORG, a very primitive one, but beautiful one that I used quite a lot.

I was using various synthesizers, mostly as noise-making devices and to add an element that was very different-sounding from guitar textures to some of the work that Sonic Youth did over the years. I’ve always had a hand in especially keyboard-based instruments. My mother was a pianist, so I grew up in a house with a piano and keyboards. Through instruments like the Minimoog and the Micromoog and the Sequential Circuits Pro-One, instruments like that in the Eighties and Nineties, I was experimenting a lot with those. The Korg MS-20 was another big one, that was an amazing leap forward, and I used a Mini-Korg a lot at one point, I loved that instrument for live performance.

I’ve also used a lot of sort of primitive, almost like hand-synthesizers: there’s a guy in Holland called Michel Waisvisz, he founded an electronic music studio in Amsterdam called STEIM. He made this little instrument called the Cracklebox (Kraakdoos). This little wooden box, the size of a hardcover book, was a touch-sensitive synthesizer. He made an initial run in the early Eighties, I guess, of about a hundred of these little boxes, and they were what people later went on to call “cracked electronics” you know, when people were taking apart those kids toys and making instruments. It was a bunch of sensors that you touched, and depending on a bunch of factors, which sensors you touched at the same time, how much oil was on your fingers, or what the humidity in the air was, you’d get all these different sounds out of them. In the early Eighties I worked with a young woman from Amsterdam who had one of these boxes. I quickly found one of my own, and she quickly introduced me to how they were working. I used that box a lot on stage with Sonic Youth. I had one of our crew guys modify it, so I could plug my guitar jack into it and run it through all my effects pedals as well. I still use it, to this day. I have three or four of them. They reissued them in the early 2000s and I bought a couple more because mine were getting old. I was being a little precious about it because I had one of the original 100.

I’ve always experimented with synthesizers over the years, but not so much in the last 8-10 years, until Raul introduced the idea of coming back to Elektron instruments. These Crackleboxes, he made a lot of different sizes, but the main one, you should check it out. Super fascinating, and the studio that he founded in Amsterdam, I believe it is still there. I worked there in 1982 or something, with an early group of mine. They were dedicated completely to electronic music synthesis. You know, another one of those kind of places, like the one in Darmstadt (Karlheinz Stockhausen’s original base of operations), it was fascinating to work there.

I’m glad you told me. I had no idea the cracklebox existed! Such an anachronistic box to release in the Eighties, when everything started to go digital and was supposed to be clean and crackle-free, classic CD mastering and so on. Pretty bold to go for that sound then.

Yeah. Almost counter-intuitive. That was kind of the beauty of it. For us, coming out of noisy guitars, it made sense, you know, because it wasn’t this clean, pristine sound. It was a sound that already had a kind of fucked-up quality to it. Once I was running it through all the pedals and things, you know, I had a whole sound world there.

Awesome. Your very first solo album, From Here to Infinity, that was one of the first CDs to have intentional static and tape noise on it, right?

It was. That one was created as a vinyl record, that later was – sort of – transposed into a CD, but that record was really a vinyl record project. Every track on the album ended with a locked groove, every track went on infinitely until you picked up the needle and moved it ahead to the next track. I was making a lot of tape compositions at that point, using a lot of tape loops and experiments with tape. At the time, frankly it hadn’t occurred to me that I could make a solo record. With Sonic Youth, we were just getting our first records off the ground, our English record manager, he heard some of these, and he said let’s make a record! It had never occurred to me that I could do that, and it became an outlet for further experiments.

When you make a vinyl record you have to take your tapes to the mastering studio, where they actually cut the tapes onto the vinyl lacquer. So, we continued our experiments in the studio, we had the reels of tape up on the big machine, and he had the record machine going, cutting the vinyl, and I was moving the tapes over the heads with my hands, almost like a DJ with turntables! We were cutting it directly, something that nobody had ever heard before. We were just doing it live in the studio, cutting it directly onto the master lacquer and it was quite an experimental record to make at the time.

The cover art for that album was done by Savage Pencil. Were you into glyphs and magic and stuff like that?

Well, it’s an area of interest, at the time I was into it. Savage Pencil created the artwork for that record, and this was pretty interesting. I was interested in this ancient symbol of the snake eating its tail, which is called the Ouroboros. It symbolizes the circular nature of life, in a way, the way everything is regenerated and comes back. It also had obvious parallels to the world of tape loops, I was cutting tape loops and they were going around and around and it seemed in a way that they had a similar quality.

Savage Pencil — Edwin is his name, Edwin Pouncey — he came up with the design. Not only did we use it on the cover, but we wanted him to scratch it into the vinyl. He couldn’t do it, because of this experimental way that we made the vinyl, we couldn’t do it until we knew we had a vinyl master that we were going to use.

When we cut the vinyl, after the first three or four tracks we left a big gap in the vinyl where he was going to scratch his drawing, then put another couple of tracks. He had to scratch it in without damaging the other grooves and without letting any of the filings or scrapings get into the grooves. It was quite an interesting process to make. The record that they made in the end was clear vinyl, so you could see his drawing through the vinyl which was quite beautiful.

In the Kingdom #19 on EVOL, with its visceral car crash lyrics, was that inspired by J G Ballard’s Crash at all?

It was inspired by a few things, and that was definitely one of them. Crash and Concrete Island by Ballard were two books that I had been reading right in that same period, and you know at that point we were starting to travel a lot, and I had a very early laptop computer, made by Tandy, if you know who they were.

Over here we called it Radio Shack, but in Europe it was known as Tandy. They made a little computer, it was about the size of a current MacBook, a little thicker, but that size. The memory was 32K. Tiny! That was the entire memory. It had six lines of a little LCD screen, and when the memory got full you had to dump it off to cassette tapes.

It was super primitive, but I was doing a lot of writing on that in our travels in those days, just creating various fictional pieces, and In the Kingdom was one of the pieces that we created. When we made that track for the record Bad Moon Rising. I wanted to do something with spoken word, and something that was a little bit of a different kind of song, you might say, that we constructed as a studio track.

The interesting thing about that track, you know, is that the song is about a car crash, and a good friend of ours named D. Boon, guitarist for a band in California called the Minutemen that were very influential in the early Eighties, he had died in a car crash the year before, in a van accident. We were good friends with him and his working partner whose name was Mike Watt, the bass player, he’s still around and still playing. When that happened, Mike was so close with D. Boon that he didn’t know what to do, his band stopped, obviously, and he kind of went into a period of becoming a hermit and retired from music.

When we were making Bad Moon Rising, we were trying to draw him out, and bring him back into the world in a way, because he was in such a devastated way. We said, Mike, come to New York, play on a couple of tracks on our record. He played on a cover song that we did of Kim Fowley’s song called Bubblegum, but he also played the bass on In the Kingdom #19. We didn’t realize until afterwards that the whole song is about this car crash and what this must be like for him, having just gone through losing his best friend in a car crash, but in some transformative way it brought him back into the world of music. After we finished those tracks, he became active again and hasn’t stopped for a minute since.

It had a strange genesis, that song. On a lot of different levels.

Out of you, Thurston and Kim, who would you say is the most experimental?

It’s a hard question to answer. I would say we all have extremely experimental tendencies, because none of us is a traditionally trained or skilled songwriter or composer. We’re all making use of various strategies and ploys in the music that we do, none of us is the kind of skilled musician who can, for instance, rattle off five licks by Eric Clapton, or whoever it is, we’re not those kinds of players.

We obviously have a long history with rock music and other music, experimental, avant-garde, 20th century free jazz and electronic music, and so many different types of music, but we also have a great education in the modern art making practice. For instance, Kim and I both went to art schools, and were trained in the way of conceptual artists and what conceptual artists were doing in the late 20th century, and then when the two of us and Thurston moved to New York, we were exposed to all of that, everything from the conceptual wing of the art world to people like John Cage and Stockhausen and all of those kind of things. We were working with rock instruments, but our field of vision was very broad.

I would say we are all extreme experimentalists, in different ways. Each of us play around with song form and more traditional forms, I think Thurston and I more so than Kim, but I think just the fact that we don’t have those traditional skills has been, in some ways, our strength. We don’t rely on traditional musicianship, so there’s a more conceptual edge and a more creative side to what we’re trying to do, or a more experimental side to what we’re trying to do, I guess.

You’re not classically trained, you’re more Glenn Branca-trained?

In a way, yeah. My mom was a classical pianist, so I grew up with that and I have a bit of education in that, but my music-reading skills are very small, and they’ve gotten smaller over the years because I don’t practice that sort of thing. I have a bit of that education behind me, but I don’t have a classical instrumentalist training. I took five or six guitar lessons when I was first starting out, and then gave up lessons and just started learning with my ear. I think that’s the state of all three of us.

Thurston also grew up in a house where classical music was featured, but none of us studied to any great degree in a formalized way.

Yet, you’re ranked #1 Greatest Guitarist of All Time by Spin Magazine and on Rolling Stone’s top 100!

It was nice for Rolling Stone to put us on their list, in the low 30s I think, 33 and 34 or something like that! That seemed fair enough, you know: we weren’t in front of Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page or whoever it might be (laughs). When Spin Magazine put us as jointly number one, I mean it seemed a little bit absurd to us. We were actually a little embarrassed by it because we were in front of all these fantastic guitar players.

Besides that point, Spin Magazine was never really very kind to Sonic Youth, or very interested in Sonic Youth, during our heyday. They couldn’t seem to care very much about Sonic Youth, so when that happened we were kind of scratching our heads. That said, it’s always nice to be recognized for what one does, and there’s no doubt that we created our own way with the guitar, that nobody else was doing. Yes, although I had been experimenting with alternative tunings and things like that before, hooking up with Glenn, there’s no doubt that our association with Glenn Branca had a lot to do with the ways in which we used the guitar when we started our band. It especially has to do with all the alternative tunings and things like that.

It’s interesting, because when we started we were aware of all these alternative tunings, from all different places. From blues musicians who were playing slide with open tunings, or people like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and David Crosby and the California scene, or Velvet Underground, Lou Reed was experimenting with these things, and Brian Eno was, so a lot of that stuff was in the air. When we came to New York and saw what people like Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham were doing, it really inspired us, and when Sonic Youth were started, we only had two or three guitars at our disposal, and they were generally very cheap guitars that weren’t very good at staying in tune in a normal way. Inspired by what we saw around us, we started using them more as noise-making devices. Either not worrying what tuning they were in or tuning them in very idiosyncratic ways. Especially in our first decade, the music we were making just because of that one fact, was very radical.

Even though we were a band that looked traditionally normal, we had two guys with guitars and a bass player and a drummer, the music sounded nothing like anybody else’s music, mainly because of the tunings that we were using, and it immediately set us apart from all the other rock bands that were going on at that time. We had such a unique sound before many other bands came to that kind of thing because the tunings gave us our own sound world. We had a unique place in the scene which was to our advantage, for sure.

You mentioned Neil Young – are the two of you good friends?

We are friends! I’m a huge fan, and a longtime fan, and really, it’s songs by Neil Young and Crosby, Stills and Nash and Joni Mitchell that started me on the road to alternative tunings when I was just starting out. I had an older cousin who was quite a good guitar player, and he showed me some of these songs in open tunings, and one of the beauties of open tunings is that when you have a guitar in an open tuning, it sounds good as soon as you strum the strings.

You immediately sound like a more proficient guitar player than you are, because you can do things very simply and you can have sound quite nice and, in some cases, quite complex! I was learning that music very early, and Neil’s music was extremely inspirational to me. Right up there with Bob Dylan’s music. In 1991, right after Sonic Youth signed to a major label, we signed with David Geffen’s company, Neil Young asked us out on the road for three months. For those three months, we were touring with Neil, and we got to befriend him and become friendly with him, and that’s continued to this day. If he comes to town, I go and see the show, and go say hello to him afterwards. That’s been a great thrill over the years.

Did you ever meet William Gibson?

Yes! This is another example like that. His writing means the world to me. There was a period when we were reading those books ravenously: Neuromancer, that total trilogy, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and later Pattern Recognition became the title of one of our songs. We did have a chance to meet him, we did a joint interview, the band and William, in Vancouver where he lives. It must have been late Nineties or early Two-thousands, something like that. We had sort of a summit meeting, where we shared all our thoughts and we found that we had a lot of things in common, things that we were fans of. We spent an amazing evening with him. I love his writing. I’ve read most all his books. When I was younger I read a lot of science fiction. All the classic people from the Fifties and Sixties, from Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke to Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon and Ursula Le Guin. William Gibson and a few like-minded people, Bruce Sterling and a couple of others, Rudy Rucker, were like the next generation of those people! Rudy Rucker is someone I got turned on to by Glenn Branca because he was super into his work. Especially these two books called Wetware and Software. Two fantastic books, and Glenn was always talking about them.

Philip K Dick was the linchpin. For me, when I was growing up, he was the most modern of the science fiction writers. It was his work that inspired people like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, so his writing was really important. The current guy which I work with for the lyrics on my records, an American author named Jonathan Lethem, he was an early fan of Philip Dick and I guess he met him early on. He wrote a very influential book about Philip K Dick. His influence is pervasive. When we were making our record called Sister we were reading a lot of the Philip K Dick novels, and the William Gibson novels, and there’s a lot of references – some cryptic – to those books in the Sister record.

Is the aesthetics of an instrument important to you?

Well, it is. It’s quite important, and you know as the electric guitar is such an icon of mid- to late 20th century, it’s an iconic image, so we obsess over it, and fetichize it, as much as anyone does! Especially since the way we traveled around and the way we use guitars, we would travel with, for instance, 20 or more instruments. It was a traveling guitar store when we were on tour. Each one looked different, each one sounded different, we would start customizing the way they looked with stickers or they would get beat up from the way that we played them.

We fetichized them, but we didn’t fetichize them in the sense of trying to keep them in that pristine, beautiful condition the way so many instrumentalists do, they don’t want, you know it’s like with your car, you don’t want a scratch on your car, to us it was almost the opposite. We looked at them as the tools that we used and every scratch or scrape or sticker stuck on or peeled-off paint was adding to the history of the instrument and what it had been through in its life.

Most of the guitars that we obsess over the most are quite distressed-looking. Beat-up, covered with stickers or having the paint scraped off, just because the way we use the instruments is very physical and we tended to evolve our performance instruments to meet those needs. We found that the instruments we liked, a lot of the electronics built into them that we didn’t personally care about or use, and when you were rough with the instruments there’d be many, many little connections to break down, so all of a sudden, the instrument would stop working in the middle of a song.

We started having our tech guys take out everything we didn’t need. We never touched the tone knob, because it was always all the way up! We took that off. All the little switches and knobs that are in Jazzmasters, which was our guitar of choice. We just had them removed, so we tried to make the instruments as sturdy and solid as we possibly could because they were used in such occasionally violent manners (laughs)!

Do you grow especially fond of an instrument that you can tell has a lot of mileage in it?

Yeah, we do. We have a studio full of guitars from the entire history of the band, and you know, many of them are either broken down or just retired for one reason or another. They’re all a big part for us in a historical sense. You become attached to each one, and just looking at it kind of tells a story. Occasionally, we would design songs around particular instruments, you would have for instance an instrument that had a very unique sound, and it generated some kind of tone that led to a song’s creation. Occasionally, when we’ve had instruments stolen that were these kind of instruments, we found it was very difficult to perform those songs anymore, because they were so tied to a specific instrument.

After a while we sort of figured out how to do it, but there were a couple of cases where we couldn’t play certain compositions well anymore, as well as we wanted to, because the particular instruments were either broken or stolen.

Prepping and alternative tuning a guitar, do you see any similarities between that and sound crafting using a synthesizer?

Well, I guess the way that we usually work with electric guitars, and the way that I work with an electric guitar, is usually I’m just kind of experimenting and listening, and strumming, and you know when you’re playing in open tunings, you don’t know where the chords are anymore. You just have to start putting your fingers down, following what your ears say sounds nice and what combinations work. So, there is a lot of just listening and experimenting. I found that we were doing the same thing, for instance, with the Octatrack. We had a bunch of things loaded in, and we were just listening a lot, turning different knobs, playing with the crossfader and with all the different things that you can do with the instrument, and every once in a while, we’d find something that was like: yeah, that sounds good, let’s grab some of this! In some cases, we were recording it in the machine or recording it out of the machine into the computer.

A lot of the work I do is following my ears down paths, and it’s an interesting way to discover new things. You’re not starting from a concept and working towards it, rather you’re letting it hit you and finding out what’s surprising, what’s interesting, what sounds good. We’re using the Elektron instruments in the same way: doing a lot of experimenting, and then following our ears toward what we like.

Awesome. This is an abstract question that sort of references the locked loops on your first solo album, and the looping nature of an Octatrack also: do you strive to be circular?

Well, I have a song on my last record called Circular (laughs)! Sometimes, but not exclusively. I like circular patterns and I like patterns that repeat, especially if they repeat in a sense of, sometimes a complex pattern, if it repeats a few times, you can crawl inside of it a little bit more or understand it a little bit more. To me, that’s interesting, but I find, and this is one of those subjective things where you trust your instincts and intuitions: I find there’s a certain point for that repetition, and there’s a certain point where you want to start introducing more variation, or even leaving it behind and going elsewhere.

I like both of those things. I saw a very interesting experimental film when I was in University, made by a fellow student who went on to become a filmmaker, I was also studying film a lot, and the school I went to was a school where they weren’t teaching you how to make narrative movies, they were teaching experimental film, so it was much more akin to abstract painting and poetry than it was akin to a narrative film. This fellow’s film, it was very abstract and poetic and beautiful. Within the course of about a fifteen-minute film, it had a one-minute loop of film that repeated three or four times, and I really loved this aspect, because every time that loop of film came around I felt like I got new information out of it and because of what had come before, I felt like I was able to approach it in a different way. I liked this repetitive quality. but then, you know, it went elsewhere and came back and looped again.

I use loops all the time in what I do, but I like to vary them and let them go and then come back and modify them in different ways, as the music demands or requires.

You’ve been based in New York for a long time, right?

Yeah. Since the early eighties.

Did you ever experience the 17-year cycle cicada brood in rural New York, when the cicada come out of the ground, swarm, mate and eat for a few weeks?

I have, but not in New York. This is funny, because on my last record, there’s a lyric in one of the songs that’s all about this. You know, after they emerge, and they breed, and then they die, and you can see their carcasses everywhere, sometimes they’re still on the trees or whatever, and they look like a living thing until you approach them, and you see that it’s just a skeletal shell at that point. I wrote a piece that had to do with the coming across of some of the carcasses of these creatures that come out every seventeen years, but it wasn’t in New York that I’ve experienced that emergence of them: it was in Upstate New York when I was living there for a while. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of these insects. In a way, they’re like these biblical stories of the locusts returning, and things like that.

It’s funny you mention that because the sound of those insects as well is very interesting to me. Four years ago, I had a chance to do a couple of open-air performances with my electric guitar, and one of them took place in this massive outdoors sculpture park, and I was on a wireless system, and I was free to roam through all these different sculptures and these trees, this wooded area, and the audience was kind of sitting around on the grass or following me.

At one point I was playing my guitar with a bow, and all of these insects started to literally join in! They became louder and louder, and everyone in the audience could realize it, and for about ten minutes I was playing one or two notes on the guitar with the bow, with some distortion and effects, and the insects got louder and louder and seemed to almost come closer to the trees where I was. It was really insane, and it was really a strange and wonderful moment! I thought I was communing with these cicadas at that moment (laughs)! We have a film of it. You can hear it on the film, they get louder and louder and they’re joining in. It was really a wild moment.

Wow. Nature is the greatest synthesizer of all!

Yeah, without a doubt. Especially insect sounds. Lots of times when I’m working with electronic sounds, I imagine different kinds of insect sounds being close to what I’m hearing.

Do you think the tension and collaboration between Swans and Sonic Youth early on helped both bands grow?

I think so. You know, if Sonic Youth was in some sense an extreme band, Swans was even more extreme in a lot of ways. Both conceptually and sonically. They were a much more aggressive band than we were, we had some similarities and some very big differences. In our early days, we were banded together as like-minded individuals in that we were both trying to do very radical work in a period when there wasn’t a lot of support for it.

Even though there were a lot of other bands doing similar things, for some reason Swans and Sonic Youth really gravitated towards each other. We shared a rehearsal space for a long time, and we did our first early tours out of New York together. We shared a lot of influences, and we gave each other a lot of support in the early days. For instance, we used some of Mike Gira’s lyrics in one of our songs, and at various points both Thurston and I filled in for missing members of Swans and played in Swans’ line-up at concerts. We were kind of a mutual support group in the early days.

Then there was a point where we branched further and further apart from each other and kind of lost touch with each other for a bit for a while, but in the early three or four years we were very, very close.

Will Sonic Youth reunite?

This is the question everyone asks. I have to tell you I can’t really imagine it happening, but it’s a mistake, in any case, to say never. I mean, we were together for almost 30 years, so it was a long run. I mean, when you consider the Beatles were together for ten years! Sonic Youth was together for a long, long time, we had so many amazing things happen to us, but I have to say that right now, especially for Kim and Thurston and myself, we’re all so actively involved and I must say quite happy with where we are, doing the things that we’re doing that although Sonic Youth maintains a massive archive and we’re always working to expose more and more of our archive so that people who want to hear it can hear it, I think it’s really the last thing on our minds.

I don’t think any of us sit around thinking: well, wouldn’t it be interesting if we worked together again now because we’re just so involved in where we are. Even during all the years we were in the group, we were never a very nostalgia-oriented group. We were always looking forward. Until the very last years, we were always a group that concentrated almost exclusively on our most recent record. We weren’t a group that played all the popular songs from the last five records, we had a new record, we were focused on the new record and we would play almost exclusively that material. That’s pretty much how we operated through most of our 30-year career. Towards the end, we started realizing that people wanted to hear more a wide-ranging cross-section of our music and we adopted that, but we were never nostalgic-oriented.

My hope is that, if we were ever to work together again, we live in an age where all these groups are re-uniting and going out and playing their classic records again, and somehow, I don’t think it would be Sonic Youth’s way to do that. At least not at first. My hope would be that if, for some reason, we play together again – I’m not holding my breath or advising anyone to hold their breath because it’s not likely – I would hope that we would start by saying: let’s see if we still have any shared musical interests. Let’s start with new music. Let’s create a whole bunch of new music and take that out on the road, and if we’re happy then, maybe we’ll bring back Teenage Riot or Kool Thing or whatever it is, but I don’t like the idea of groups that come back around and they’re still playing only their music from 30 or 40 years ago. They’re sort of a nostalgia act. I saw one of my favorite groups from the late Seventies or early Eighties a few nights ago, a super influential group. I won’t name them now. I went to see them, and they were basically playing the same set of music I saw them play in 1978! I felt like I was – even if almost all the original members were present – I felt like I was watching a cover band. There were no new inflections. They weren’t giving me anything new. The music is fantastic, so I still enjoyed listening to it, but I would hope for something other than that if Sonic Youth ever came back together, you know.

There’s been a few bands, like our friends in Dinosaur Jr. who reunited and played their classics, and then they started writing new music. Now, they are five new albums into their career, and they’re playing new music as well, so they’ve had kind of a successful reunion, I would say.

I’m not a big fan of the nostalgic reunion. I know there’s people out there that, you know, I posted some Sonic Youth posters up online the other day, and there were people in the comments saying oh I’m so sad I never got to see you guys play live and I understand that, and yet, you know, I’m sad I never saw the Beatles play live, or Elvis, you know (laughs)!

You never know. It might happen, it might not. I think Kim (Gordon) is the only one who at one point said publicly it will never happen. I don’t think the rest of us have ever said anything one way or the other.

I’ve exhausted my sensible questions, so here’s a real convoluted one: I believe Glenn Branca was really inspired by the German natural philosopher Hermann von Helmholtz. Is that someone you’ve sort of explored as well?

I’ve read a little bit of it, and there were some people like that, including a few esoteric people, that Glenn was inspired by. Another guy named Dane Rudhyar was a big inspiration for Glenn. I got a lot of information from Glenn about people like this, but I don’t know too much about him. I did do some research, once I heard about him from Glenn, but I don’t know enough to talk in any educated way about his work.

Through the magic of this vast library that almost everyone has access to: I searched Google Books and there was this whole scan of a 600-page book by Hermann von Helmholtz, printed in 1863. There is a schematic of an electromechanical synthesizer, using circuitry, capacitors, resistors, tuning forks, batteries –

Before most of that stuff existed, really!

Yeah, and resonators – the thing has eight different-size sound generating units, one being the fundamental and the seven others for overtones, and you can open up any combination of them – when I saw it I was blown away. This is an additive, harmonic synthesizer! From 1863! That basically anybody could build, using the schematic. So awesome.

Like some of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings, projecting some of the things that would be years into the future! He was seeing it at the time.

You know, we talked synthesizers, and I don’t know if they really class as synthesizers, but some of the most interesting instruments I’ve ever had a chance to explore, about ten or twelve years ago, a fellow re-created these instruments that were created by the Italian futurists in the early 20th century. They were called Intonarumori, made by this guy Luigi Russolo.
Somebody created facsimiles of these instruments and created them as noise instruments. That’s what they were supposed to be, he was supposed to reflect what they saw as the chaotic, noisy city that he lived in in Italy. He saw the industrialization of the city as becoming a big influence on music, because of all the noises, so he created these noise intoners – intona rumori – and a fellow recreated them, and I had a chance to make a composition for them, and then to do some work with them with one of my improvisational groups called Text of Light.

It struck me that they were kind of like early synthesizers because the sounds they were generating were not naturalistic sounds at all. They were super primitive, but they were creating sounds that were unheard in the world of music at the time. They were really fascinating to see, because they were on the one hand very primitive, and yet you could still do very complex things with them.

Somber closing question: you were nearby when the 9/11 terror attack on the World Trade Center happened, right?

I was nearby, and I still am, right this moment, very nearby that location. As you might imagine, it was a very intense day, and my wife and I were here, and we had very, very young children. Two years old and the other one two months old. It was a frightening day.
After it was said and done, for the many, many months of cleaning it up and starting to restore it, they drew a red box around the innermost area of the attack. They called it the Red Zone. It was the zone closest to the World Trade Center, and you had to show lots of credentials to get across those lines.

Our building, where I live and where I am right now, was on the inside corner of the Red Zone. Very, very close. Sonic Youth’s studio, at the time on Murray Street, was also within that zone. In fact, one of the jet engines from one of the planes, part of it ended up on the roof of our studio building.

Some weeks later all these government agencies came to our building and had to get up on the roof to take it away as evidence and all this other stuff. It was very intense. A very intense day. I’ve written some things about it and talked about it.

This attack – unfortunately, in some parts of the world it’s kind of commonplace, but it wasn’t commonplace in America. It brought to our soil, maybe for the first time since Pearl Harbor, this kind of violent attack. It changed the face of our country and our city.
To this day, it’s almost like a dividing line. Everything changed since that day. The musician and critical writer in London called David Toop was doing a book on sound ten or maybe twelve years ago, and he was asking people that were here at the time if they had any special sound experiences of that day.

We live on a low floor of the building, and we don’t face that direction, so we didn’t see anything that was happening. When the towers collapsed, our windows went dark, but we didn’t see it directly. Earlier on that day, when we were watching it on TV, I decided to go up on the roof of the building to see what I could see.
My building is only eight or nine stories, so I went up in the elevator and I came onto the roof. Almost immediately upon coming out, I could see the towers and all the smoke and everything, I started to hear a very sinister sound, like nothing I had ever heard in my life before.

A really strange and violent sound, and I didn’t have any idea of what it was. It was very loud, and I wasn’t sure what was happening. I wasn’t sure if more planes were coming, or if there was an attack, I really didn’t know what was happening, and the first thing I thought of was my family downstairs.

I immediately went back down. I now know what the cause of the sound was: the first tower starting to collapse. By the time I came back to my apartment, dust was coming across all our windows and eventually they went totally black for many, many minutes.

It was one of the most bizarre sounds I had heard in my life, and it was the floors of the building starting to collapse. I couldn’t see it, they were still standing when I left the roof, but I turned around and left pretty quickly, I must say.

It was a day I wouldn’t wish anybody to have to go through, that’s for sure.

Interview by Daniel Sterner
Photo by Sage Ranaldo

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