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2017 Artist Survey: Lee Ranaldo

Ranaldo on "Me Too" and Sexual Harassment, Trump's First Year, and That Time Sonic Youth Tried to Change Their Name

Jan 25, 2018 Web Exclusive
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For Under the Radar‘s 15th annual Artist Survey we emailed some of our favorite artists a few questions relating to the last year. We asked them about their favorite albums of the year and their thoughts on various notable 2017 news stories involving either the music industry or world events, as well as some quirkier personal questions. Here are some answers from Lee Ranaldo. The former Sonic Youth guitarist released a new solo album, Electric Trim, in 2017 via Mute. It features Sharon Van Etten, who sings on six of the album’s songs, as well as Wilco’s Nels Cline and fellow Sonic Youth member Steve Shelley, among others.

For our annual Artist Surveys we emailed the same set of questions to musicians about the various sexual harassment and assault allegations, the “Me Too” movement, the chaotic first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, the Charlottesville alt-right rally and racism in America, embarrassing moments, professional regrets, which Breakfast Club character they are most like, the end of the world, and much more.

What were your Top 10 Albums released in 2017?

My favorite album this year, the best album of 2017 IMHO, was Circuit des Yeux’s Reaching for Indigo. I’ve been following the progress of Haley Fohr and this record is a culmination of sorts. It’s SO good, I can’t stop listening to it. There is so much variety and invention and personal feeling and vision happening on this album. From nylon string folk guitar to Meredith Monk-like vocal layering to Steve Reich-ian loops and phases, Yoko vocalizing, rock power, etc. It’s a magical, complete record.

My list is one record long. I also liked Dirty Projectors’ self-titled album from this year.

What was the highlight of 2017 for either you personally or for the band? What was the low point?

The high point was having my album Electric Trim released, finally, after a year of work on it and almost a year after it’s completion. This record is a huge step for me and it took a long time for it to reach the airwaves.

The low point was everything Trump and Republican, conservative movements all around the world, from Le Pen in France to Temer in Brazil, Australia, Austria, so many places.

2017 saw sexual harassment and assault allegations against many men in the music industry, film industry, journalism, politics, and elsewhere (including Harvey Weinstein, Matt Mondanile of Ducktails and Real Estate, Brand New’s Jesse Lacey, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, Democratic Senator Al Franken, and others). Why do you think the floodgates opened in 2017 and do you think any meaningful change will come from it or will sexual harassment and assaults continue to be prevalent in certain industries?

I think this topic has been building for a while now and its part of a major reassessment of our entire value structurein response to the conservative push (putsch?) that has descended over the entire globe. What’s going on?? Where are the voices raised at Occupy? They are still active, if currently behind the eight-ball. This reassessment is part of itpart of an attempt at global consciousness raising. Separate the woke from the dopes. It’s the only viable way forward.

In 2017 the “Me Too” and “It Was Me” social media hashtags further brought sexual assault and harassment to light. Have you ever been the victim of harassment or assault, or witnessed such behavior, or been the perpetrator? And what concrete steps can be taken to combat sexual harassment and assault in the music industry and make it a more welcoming place for women?

Relations between the sexes have been complicated forever. I’ve never, to my knowledge, been victim or perpetrator. A first step is to give proper credence and import to a woman’s claims of victimization, to take such accusations seriously.

It has been said that 2016 was the year your favorite artist died, and, because of the litany of sex scandals, 2017 is the year that your favorite artist became dead to you. Which artist did you stop being a fan of this year? Which public person would you be most devastated to learn had a history of abusive or predatory behavior?

Well, Al Franken was a disappointment, for sure, but really this stuff is going on on both sides of the aisle, with liberals and conservatives, the powerful over the powerless, so it wasn’t really a surprise.

Should we be able to separate an artist‘s work from his or her actions? Or should an artist‘s negative behaviors completely negate the quality of his or her work?

This is a really hard question to answer. It’s hard to like work made by awful people but doesn’t everyone have some awfulness inside them? Who casts the first stone? People need help more than condemnation.

The first year of the Trump administration has been chaotic to say the least. What has President Donald Trump done so far that most concerns or angers you? Is there anything President Trump has done, proposed, or said that you actually agree with? Why do you think his base continues to support him?

To me it’s been a continued disaster from day one. I think the only positive I can see is that he’s shaken up the nature of the officeis the presidency now a truly “crowd-sourced” position? The president is on Twitter? Getting his information from TV news? Just like the masses? It’s unprecedented and weird in the extreme. If this conservative nose-dive has any merit it will be to shake up all of our visions of what this office is and what it can be.

Many predicted President Donald Trump wouldn’t last long in the White House and yet he’s still there. At this point how hopeful are you that he’ll be impeached? Barring that, how optimistic are you that he won’t win reelection? And although it’s still very early, is there already a potential candidate you would most like to see run for president in 2020?

No idea on these questions. He should be impeached, on many counts. I don’t believe he will be reelected but hey, no one thought he’d win even once. The country is in a tailspin where the two sides are like football teamsthere is no meeting in the middle. It’s an absurd situation. Things are never as black and white as the political parties have become. I don’t know (yet) who I think would be a viable candidate.

2017 saw several music festivals cancelled due to low ticket sales (not to mention the Fyre Festival debacle in the Bahamas). Are there too many music festivals right now?

Festivals are parties with live music, not always the best place to see an artist you love. But then again some artists specialize in that type of situation. The demise of a viable record industry means that many bands are touring more in order to make a livingtheir recorded music is often free promos for the live show. In general there are more and more things vying for audience attention.

Which Breakfast Club character are you most like and why?

Haha. I think Molly Ringwald.


If you could time travel what advice would you give to your childhood or teenage self?

This one is pretty easy. To find and follow your own vision, not get distracted from it.

A 2017 Wall Street Journal article pointed out that music critics have been giving less and less full on negative reviews of late. In the era of streaming when almost any album can be easily accessed, do you still find value in music criticism and have music critics gotten too soft?

I hate reviews that are half positive, half negativeto the point where you can’t tell if the journalist really liked the music or not. I think reviewers should only review records they feel really positively or really negatively aboutI don’t want to read lukewarm “respectful” reviews of any album. Only the raves and the pans.

If you had to rename your band or stage name due to a legal dispute, which new name would you pick?

In the ‘90s Sonic Youth tried to rename ourselves Washing Machine but we were not allowed to do so. We wanted to release our new album and have it stand on it’s own, critics rely on the baggage of history to just a new album by long-term artist in terms of what came before. We were frustrated about this and wondered how the album would have been received as the work of a “new” band.

CHVRCHES and Tegan and Sara are appearing in the new The Archies comic book series as themselves, interacting with Archie and his friends. Which comic book would you like to guest star in?

Fantastic Four.



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