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Ranaldo attended SUNY Binghamton in Binghamton, New York, where he played in an experimental punk outfit called the Fluks (named after the Dadaist art movement Fluxus). His early influences include many psychedelic California bands from the late '60s, including the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Hot Tuna, as well as early New York City punk units like the Ramones, Television, and Talking Heads.
After moving to New York in 1979, Ranaldo briefly attempted to revive the Fluks before playing with a series of acts including Rhys Chatham and Plus Instruments (with whom he recorded an LP in 1982). Through Chatham, Ranaldo met the charismatic composer Glenn Branca, who created avant-garde pieces for electric guitar ensembles. Through the burbling downtown no wave scene of the early '80s, Ranaldo met future Sonic Youth bandmates Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon.
Throughout the '80s, the bandmembers worked hard to sustain themselves, recording and touring constantly. The early years of Sonic Youth are documented in a book of road journals written by Ranaldo and published by Soft Skull Press in the mid-'90s. In 1987, he released his first solo album, From Here to Infinity, on SST Records, a vinyl release with locking grooves at the end of each track.
By the early '90s, after the completion and subsequent canonization of their seminal Daydream Nation (and probably partially by dint of sheer survival), Sonic Youth were looked up to as elders in the fledgling alternative music scene, acting as mentors to dozens of younger bands (including Nirvana). In this role, Ranaldo has produced albums for Babes in Toyland, You Am I, Deity Guns, and others.
Ranaldo's role in the ever-experimental Sonic Youth has been an important one, acting as a textural axis for Gordon and Moore. Though he typically only contributed a handful of songs to each Sonic Youth recording, Ranaldo quickly developed his own songwriting style -- throbbing beats topped with beat-influenced, half-spoken/half-sung poetry delivered in Ranaldo's reassuring, gently confident voice, such as "Eric's Trip" on Daydream Nation and the title track on 1999's NYC Ghosts & Flowers.
In addition to releasing a book of his poetry (also published by Soft Skull Press), Ranaldo has also edited a volume of tour journals from the 1995 Lollapalooza Tour written by Moore, Beck, Stephen Malkmus (of Pavement), Courtney Love, and others. Ranaldo also has an ongoing collaboration with jazz drummer William Hooker. The two create dissonant music -- Hooker on drums, Ranaldo on modified guitars, synthesizers, and other electronics -- while taking turns reading and improvising poetry. These collaborations include 1998's heavily edited live album Clouds as well as 2005's Music for Stage and Screen, which featured excerpts of a score Ranaldo produced for Dania Saragovia's film Jealousy, as well as music for plays by Gil Kofman and Michele Salimbeni.
Ranaldo continued to collaborate throughout the 2000s with avant luminaries, as on Christian Marclay: Graffiti Composition, which also featured Elliott Sharp and Vernon Reid, and also released solo forays into the fringes of guitar work while also working with Sonic Youth. When that band moved to Matador Records to release The Eternal, Ranaldo also signed on as a solo artist. His debut album for the label, Between the Times and the Tides, featured familiar faces such as Alan Licht, Nels Cline, Steve Shelley, and Jim O'Rourke, and arrived in March 2012. For 2013's Last Night on Earth, Ranaldo assembled a new band, the Dust, which featured Licht and Shelley along with Tim Luntzel. ~ Jesse Jarnow, Rovi