Okay, so that phonebook carving of Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t the only highlight of last night’s Select Fair preview: over at Kingston-based One Mile Gallery’s booth — wedged between a model made by the amazing Mark Hogencamp of Marwencol and some paintings created by a dog — we got to chat with Lee Ranaldo about his art, also on display.
The singer-guitarist who wrote some of Sonic Youth’s best songs (shoutout to “Mote,” “Hey Joni”) dropped in to survey the scene, toting a tin of limited edition olive oil for which he had created the label (“this is a gallerist from Milan,” he explained, “he has his own olive grove and he produces his own olive oil”). On the tin was a sketch of a highway — part of a series he’s been working on while touring with his band The Dust.
We spoke to Ranaldo about that work and his upcoming artistic and musical endeavors, including a budding collaboration with Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger.
I’m kind of just at the beginning stages of being involved in a pilot for a new HBO series that’s about the music business in New York in the ’70s. I’m going to make music for their pilot — Scorsese is directing it and Mick Jagger is producing it. People are saying, “Oh, it’s definitely going to get picked up, it’s going to be this show about sex, drugs, and rock and roll in early ’70s New York…”
Well, just pre-New York Dolls. They kind of figure into it and actually some of the opening pilot takes place around the Mercer Arts Center when the Dolls are playing there, so it’s around that time. It’s like pre-CBs and Maxes, like that stuff hasn’t formed yet — it’s still kind of old-school record business. It’s mainly about this one character who’s a record executive, he’s a bit past his prime, he’s deep into his cocaine, but he’s got some success and he’s got his eye on this young band. I’m making some of the music that you’ll hear when they’re on stage.
Yeah, but it’s like the rock that was happening in the early ’70s in New York that led to the Dolls and Suicide and that kind of stuff – and Blondie and Talking Heads on the more commercial tip. I’ve only seen the one script so I don’t know where it’s going to go.
It’s something I’ve been doing on tour the last few years, just sitting in the front seat trying to capture this thing that’s always moving. It’s not like drawing something that’s stationary — it’s kind of half drawing and half interpreting the landscape that’s going by the window. I’ve done a bunch of different works using the same title, “Lost Highway” — including a bunch of old acoustic guitars that I put video monitors in the sound holes of — and just kind of riffing on the old Hank Williams song and the imagery of both the highway and the vinyl record art.
I did this for the first time 25 or 30 years ago — I was driving down to Key West. I was still in college and I was making some sketches that I turned into this etching project. Recently, the last few years, I’ve been doing it again — it just keeps me occupied on tour when we’re sitting around in the van. I just had a show of about 70 of these in Ghent, Belgium. They’re all different — some of them are more abstract, some are more literal, they’re a bunch of different mediums from pencil to marker to ink.
That one [at top of page] I think is from Oslo in Norway, just a month and a half ago. I’ve been doing them all over the world — I did some in China and some in India last year, and a lot in Europe and a lot here. I’ve got some from South America. It’s kind of a collected diary of places I’ve been.
I’m taking a vinyl record and I’m scratching into it with a tool – it’s a print technique called dry pointing where you’re not etching the lines in an acid bath the way you do a typical etching but you’re just going into the dry plate with a sharp object and then you print them. They have different characteristics than a proper etching, the main one being you can’t pull a million prints from them because the line degrades.
I’ve been making prints for a really long time. Six or seven years ago I started using old records as…. I was actually on this residency in Paris and they were having me do dry points on pieces of Plexiglass (that’s what people usually do them on) and I just thought, “Well, this is plastic, a record is plastic, let me just try to do some on records.” So I started this series, it’s called “Black Noise,” and it’s just all these different variations on the way you can mark up a record and then print it.
No, you don’t want to do that to a sentimental record — they’re just whatever records I pick up. I was in Nice and I said to one of the people I was hanging out with, “I need some old records,” and he was like, “I’ll give you some records,” so one of them was a mastering disk that hadn’t been used yet, so it was just a clean surface with no grooves on it. But sometimes you can see the grooves on them and stuff like that.
I’m working on these highway drawings and I’m starting to expand those in my studio [in Hoboken] and make bigger and bigger ones and make them a little more complicated than the simple drawings I do in the van. I’ve just started on that right now. I’m still in the middle of my touring cycle from my last record, so I’m going back to Europe in a few weeks. It’s been interesting: I was just in Europe last month and I spent a week making these prints, I spent a week opening the show of the drawings and I spent about two weeks touring in Scandinavia. It was a nice balance.