For an example of how a musician’s influences can percolate throughout his work, cue up “Home Chds”, from Lee Ranaldo and the Dust’s Last Night on Earth, and then sing Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them” over its heartbeat pulse. Note the similarity? After that, skip on to the next track, “The Rising Tide” , and see if Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” fits above Ranaldo’s droning, doomy chords.
I’d argue that it does. Ranaldo might disagree, but he’s happy to allow that Last Night on Earth is in part an extended homage to the sounds he loved as a young adult and loves still.
“I’ve never been a huge Zeppelin fan, much to the chagrin of everybody else in my former band,” the Sonic Youth veteran contends on the line from his downtown Manhattan home. “But certainly those Pink Floyd records, I was really into them, especially Dark Side of the Moon. Floyd’s name did come up at one or two points as a reference in the studio, although more in terms of those limpid [David] Gilmour guitar solos. I was definitely listening to a lot more expansive music like that, whether it was Floyd or the Dead or more improvisatory stuff.”
And although Ranaldo has been better known for his abrasive guitar textures than for his lyrics, he notes that the great singer-songwriters of the 1960s and ’70s have also made an impact on the music he’s making now, at age 57.
“When you listen to early Leonard Cohen records or Joni Mitchell records, you feel like a window is being opened into someone’s life,” he says. “I’ve written lyrics in the past that have been way more abstract and maybe harder to parse, but with this record I just felt like I wanted things to be a little bit more personal, a little bit more open.”
It’s not like he didn’t have a lot to write about. Several songs on Last Night on Earth, with “Blackt Out” chief among them, were written in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which found Ranaldo and his family holed up without heat, water, or an Internet connection.
“I spent a lot of time strumming acoustic guitar,” he reveals, noting that while New York “had a very apocalyptic feel downtown”, there was a social upside to the disaster, with neighbours gathering in any apartment that had power.
A storm of a different kind had earlier rolled through Ranaldo’s life, when his Sonic Youth bandmates Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore divorced. This, too, inflected the songs on Last Night on Earth, with “Lecce, Leaving" and “Key/Hole”, in particular, looking at partings and betrayal.
“Although I don’t have any major upheavals in my own relationship, the whole notion of that was on my mind,” Ranaldo says. “It hadn’t really occurred to me that some of that stuff might have been in the background, ruminating on what happened to Thurston and Kim, but I suppose it would be pretty easy to see that in some of the songs.”
Despite the couple’s messy split, Ranaldo holds out some hope that his “former band” isn’t quite done.
“We’ve been saying hiatus, really,” he notes. “Some of the press has been saying demise, but among the four of us we’ve only agreed that we’re not working at the moment.…I don’t think anything will happen in the near future, but whether anything happens again, I really don’t know. So far, everybody is fully engaged in the things that are going on for them right now.”
Which, for Ranaldo, means the Dust—in which he’s joined by guitarist Alan Licht, bassist Tim Luntzel, and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley—and a chance to move forward while paying tribute to the past.