On Inauguration Day, when Lee Ranaldo salved our wounds by previewing some new songs, he was strumming an acoustic guitar. But a documentary that premiered at the Montclair Film Festival over the weekend, Hello Hello Hello: Lee Ranaldo : Electric Trim, shows the extent to which his forthcoming album will be anything but unplugged.
Barcelona-based producer Raul Fernandez was blown away when, at age 22, he first saw Ranaldo play live with Sonic Youth. He ended up working with the guitarist on a solo album, Acoustic Dust. But, as he says in the film, he “wanted Lee to be the electric Sonic Youth guitar player that he was.” When Ranaldo sent him some demos, which were really just instrumental fragments, Fernandez encouraged him to push them further.
At a Q&A in Montclair, New Jersey on Saturday, Ranaldo described how Fernandez called to tell him he’d be in town for a few weeks. In April of 2015, they started a casual collaboration that ended up lasting a year. Meanwhile, Fred Riedel, who went to school with Ranaldo at State University of New York-Binghamton, caught wind that a new album was in the works and decided to bring a simple DSLR camera over to Echo Canyon West, the Hoboken studio where it was recorded.
At the time, Riedel didn’t know much about the process of recording an album, and expected to find a full band in the studio. “I had this classic rock documentary in my head of this band working songs out and playing, and I realized that hours were going by and it was just Lee and Raul,” he said. It wasn’t until later that additional collaborators like Nels Cline (Wilco), Kid Millions (Oneida), Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), Alan Licht, and vocalist Sharon Van Etten came in.
Rather than simply rehearsing pre-written songs and recording them live in studio, as Ranaldo did for his 2013 album, Last Night on Earth, the duo gradually cooked up what Riedel called “a stew of amazing music.” Thanks to editor Jerry Fried, who also went to school with Riedel and Ranaldo, the film shows just how that stew came together. It cuts seamlessly between Ranaldo and Fernandez hashing out a lick, to a blow-you-outta-yr-seat, wall-of-sound recording of the polished mix. You see the precise moment when Ranaldo decides on a whim that a song needs some bells. And then, just as you’re thinking he’s nuts, you hear that it turned out quite nicely. (And no, he didn’t yell, “More cowbell!”)
As a fan of Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s, Ranaldo knew he always wanted to create an album in “more of an old-school way,” he told the crowd at the Clairidge Theater in Montclair, New Jersey. “Where it takes a really long time and you’re constructing it in a very conceived way, almost orchestrally or something like that, rather than a band sitting in a room and bashing out tunes.”
The results of this process surprised even Ranaldo, who as a solo artist, experimental musician, and a member of Sonic Youth has recorded dozens of albums. “Some of [the songs] turned out much more beautiful than I thought they were going to be,” he said. “And there was a point where it was a little uncomfortable for me. I wasn’t sure how much beauty I could handle. Maybe because I’m associated with a noisier style of music, there were places where we were really sculpting things and they were really good but it was almost, ‘Does it need a needle-nosed guitar sticking through the middle or not?’”
The album was “new territory” for Ranaldo for another reason, as well. While he was collaborating with Fernandez on the music, he was also exchanging emails with Jonathan Lethem, who wrote some of the lyrics. Clips of Lethem chatting about the process from bucolic Maine make for a nice respite from all the noise and noodling in studio. Ranaldo would send dummy lyrics to the novelist, who would substitute them with something more literate. Ranaldo would then slice and dice them as needed. One of Lethem’s lines, referencing Edgar Allan Poe, had been poking around in his desk drawer, unused, ever since he wrote it in his 20s. Lyrics to another song, with lines like “you have to let the skeleton breathe,” was inspired by passages from Lethem’s book, A Gambler’s Anatomy. Fernandez gave it a spaghetti western feel via an Ennio Morricone-style chorus.
The result of all this, Ranaldo said, was “one of the most fun projects I’ve ever worked on in terms of it being really fascinating what was happening to the music. Every day we’d go in there, things would change in really interesting and unexpected ways.”
You’ll get to hear the results in September, when Mute releases the album, Electric Trim.