We’ve had a running bet around the office about who might be the first artist to drop trou in an episode of Show Us Your Junk! Today’s your lucky day, Sonic Youth fans, because Lee Ranaldo is not that artist.
But he came close. And he did expose us to a custom sixteen-string guitar built by Steve Albini with only high E strings and a penis inlay. It says, “Sonic Sixteen.”
“That’s one of the bossest headstocks you’ll ever see in your life,” says Ranaldo.
“So that’s that.”
In thirty short years, Sonic Youth produced one of the largest and most stimulating bodies of work of any American rock band. Their catalog spans 16 studio albums, 4 “best-of” compilations, 6 feature-length videos, 46 music videos, 8 Eps, 21 singles, 8 improvised SYR recordings, 8 authorized bootlegs, 16 soundtrack and compilation appearances; and hundreds – actual hundreds – of guitars. They married hardcore punk with fine art, free-improvisation, beatnik poetry, musiqué concrete, contemporary classical composition, pop-rock, and selfless democratic collaboration to produce a polyamorous cacophony of tension and release that’s often imitated, but never replicated.
During the latter third of their career, Sonic Youth set up camp in their Echo Canyon East recording studio on Manhattan’s Murray St. where they recorded their 2002 album with the same name. In 2006, they decamped to the opposite shore of the Hudson River to Hoboken, NJ to set up shop at Echo Canyon West, where their junk currently resides.
The control room in Echo Canyon West is built around a 2” 16-track Studer A800 tape machine and a modified Neve 5106 mixing console. Since the 5106 was built for broadcast applications, it has no mic preamps. Audio signals are routed to preamps, outboard gear, and tape – bypassing the console entirely. Likewise, they shun plugins and prefer to commit sounds to tape as early as possible. Edits are performed manually using a grease pencil and razorblade to slice and dice entire takes captured on tape.
The studio’s live room is lined with amplifiers – combos mostly – including an early ‘60s Fender Super Reverb (Lee’s amp of choice), a brownface Princeton modded by NYC amp tech Harry Kolbe, and the exact ‘50s Tweed Deluxe model like those used onstage by Neil Young during the Goo tour back in 1991. “It’s not really roadworthy,” says Ranaldo, “but it’s got that classic old Fender sound.”
Guitar-wise, Lee mainly plays his signature Jazzmaster modified with Fender Wide Range humbuckers like those in his early ‘70s Telecaster Deluxe ¬– his first “serious” guitar. When Sonic Youth’s gear was stolen in 1999, Lee’s first Telecaster was among the guitars taken and was one of the few pieces recovered, albeit with a new powder blue finish courtesy of the thieves.
Perhaps the most interesting lost-and-found item is Lee’s Travis Bean Artist (no. 375) played on the song “Kool Thing” (Goo, 1991) which “looked like someone had stuck it in a campfire for an hour or two” and “looked kind of cool,” but has been restored to its original condition at the request of Sonic Youth’s crew who “couldn’t stand the way it looked,” says Lee.
Upstairs is the master tape archive where the entirety of Sonic Youth’s recorded output is painstakingly cataloged. If you’ve made it this far, then we probably don’t need to say too much about the mixdown reels for Evol, Daydream Nation, Sister, and so on. But we’ll keep a lookout for the possibility of an SYR record with Nels Cline.