Yo La Tengo: Open to interpretation
An indie rock band with an unparalleled pedigree, Yo La Tengo formed some 30 years ago in New Jersey. Since then, the group has attained a loyal cult following and issued album after album that suggests the breadth of its musical influences. Last year’s Stuff Like That There, an album that features a mix of covers, original tunes and covers of original Yo La Tengo, tunes, has a lazy, hazy vibe to it. Singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan recently phoned us from his New York home to talk about this terrific collection of songs and the group’s incredible legacy.
When you formed the band in 1984, did you have the sense that it would still be around some 30 years later?
No. If I had, I would like to be the first person that started a rock band anticipating being around 30 years later.
What’s the key to keeping the group together?
We continue to enjoy it. That’s a big part of it. In a certain sense, not examining and not asking those questions is part of it. If I told you something more concrete saying that as long as A, B and C were in place, we’d keep going and then those things stopped being in place and you’d stop being a band. Maybe focusing on A, B, C would make sense but then perhaps you wouldn’t see D, E and F come along the way.
Are there contemporaries still around?
Flaming Lips might predate us. They’re much more popular than we are. We have a lot of friends in bands who were not necessarily that well known. Our friends Antietam, who we cover on Stuff Like That There, our first show was with them. I think it was their third show. They’ve never stopped playing either. They just keep doing it. The Clean predate us. They’re more up and down and stop and go and they don’t live on the same continent. They do things and don’t do things. Eleventh Dream Day started at about the same time. They continue to make records and put one out last year.
At what point did you become known as “the quintessential critics’ band?” Was that from the beginning or did that tag get attached later on?
I am not sure that tag has been attached. That’s more for your research to uncover. That’s not a big part of our self-identification.
You had been a music critic prior to forming the band. Did that add an element of self-consciousness to your music?
I’m asked that a lot and I’ve denied it a lot. I will say what I’ve pretty much have always said. I think it provided me with a self-consciousness for things like this and interpreting things that are said about us. My approach to writing didn’t have a lot of analysis to it anyway. I was much more of a fan. That’s part of my background that the band shares. We’re all fans of music. There are bands that you don’t feel like they have to love music. I don’t think being a voracious listener is an essential characteristic of playing music. There are some who are and some who aren’t. I don’t think one is right or wrong. Our band reflects the fact that we are.
Talk about the concept for Stuff Like That There. You had made an album of covers before. What made you want to revisit the concept?
It just felt right. I think we goes back to the fact that we noted our thirtieth anniversary as a band. We had never done anything like that. You see that a lot these days. For our thirtieth, we did a couple of shows and tried to put a focus on certain things. I think there was an aspect of that that we did with a bit of sheepishness. We knew it was kind of corny but the number mattered to us and we were proud of it and wanted to celebrate. Having gotten our feet wet, we thought we would take advantage of the 25ht anniversary of Fakebook and make a record with Dave [Schramm] again. We’ve stayed in touch and love playing with him. We’ve played with him from time to time over the years. It’s always great. We wanted to do something that would last more than one night at Maxwell’s and wanted to do a record and do a little touring. We knew it was something we would enjoy doing.
Does Dave Schramm play lead on the album?
I only play acoustic guitar. There are a couple of moments. “The Ballad of Red Buckets” we trade little things and on “Before We Stopped to Think” I have a step out moment. I’m on acoustic and he’s on electric. The song with the most prominent acoustic is the one he plays on. That’s “Friday I’m in Love.”
Talk about the concept of releasing cover songs, “covers” of Yo La Tengo songs, and brand new originals.
I think it goes back to the idea that we were following the template of Fakebook and that’s what we did on that record. One of the things that made us interested in doing that record again was that we do enjoy all those things. Reinterpreting our songs is something we always do. Sometimes in subtle ways by making them longer. When we make a record and then play those songs live, we’ve already changed them from the record. Like a lot of groups, we record with lots of overdubs and things you can’t do live. We don’t care that we can’t do them live. We don’t have laptops and backing tracks so we can make the live show sound just like the record. We’re always interested in taking a song and treating it as something that’s flexible and malleable. The versions on Stuff Like That There are more extremely interpreted. That happens constantly when we play. It was fun to take “Deeper into Movies” and take out the distortion and focus on the singing and think about what that would do to the song.
Hank Williams’ tune “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” has been covered countless times. What did you try to bring to the song?
Of the songs on the record, it’s the one we’ve been doing the longest, though we don’t do it very often. It might even predate James being in the group, which is pretty amazing since he’s been playing in the group for 25 years. We all love the way Georgia sings it. Her performance is special. To be honest, it’s appealing to do something brazen like take this song that you think everything that can ever be said about this song has been said about it and think we have one more angle on it.
I think “Friday I’m in Love” might be the album’s most popular song. What made you pick that particular Cure song?
There again, we’ve done that one. We had done it two times before. We did a show quite a few years ago. We played a party that was half party and half public show for the Onion. For whatever reason, it occurred to us to learn that song. There are lots of covers that we’ll play once or twice and then they go away. That was definitely one of them. We found ourselves a few years later on the radio in London. It was this context where people were making requests. I don’t think this person knew we had done it before but we were able to cobble it back together. I’m sure Georgia didn’t know all the words. The first one was more of a rock version. This time, we were playing quietly as a radio station and it brought out a beautiful quality in Georgia’s singing. When we were considering what songs to do for this record that made the list. As far as the record goes, we recorded I don’t remember how many more songs that didn’t make the record. I think it was seven or eight.
I like how the music works as a unit. We often hear that albums are going to disappear. I would think you don’t agree with that sentiment.
When people say that, I don’t think they’re saying that because of the musicians making records are no longer making them. It has more to do with the way people are hearing music. That might be true. It’s something we thought about. It’s the way we approach making music. When we make records, we think of the tracks tying together as a whole and getting richer as a whole by talking to each other and the context they’re in. It might not last longer if people aren’t interested.
It would be like living in world without novels.
Last night, we were watching an episode of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None show and he’s talking about his grandmother reminiscing about her youth in which there were horse-drawn carriages. Things change pretty radically in a period of time. We’re so focused on today. We just try to cope with the changes around us whether we like them or not.
Have you started thinking about the next album yet?
We’re in the thinking about thinking stage. We have a couple of things coming up that we’re focusing our attention on. We’re doing this performance in February with a composer named Alvin Lucier. This is a typical thing with our band. After we put out an album, we start doing other things and put our attention other places.
Dave Schramm is playing with you on the tour?
He’s not coming with us on the road. On this trip, he’ll fly in and do a show in Ann Arbor and then fly in and do a show in Austin. This tour is primarily back to the three of us. It’s completely different playing with him. It’s really fun to be with him and to do the shows. Getting back to the earlier discussion of reinterpreting songs, we pulled out a few songs, including one that we had only played once with a Japanese band we were opening for because they had invited us to come on stage and play with them. We learned it to play with them. We brought it back for the tour last year and played it often. That’s a dramatic example.
It must be fun to play whatever you want. You don’t have to play the “hits.”
This is going to sound slightly ridiculous but it is one of the advantages of not having hits. We have songs that are more popular than others. It’s not like the people who come to a show will only know one song. That hasn’t happened, for better and worse. Most people who will be there will know more than two of our songs. As long as we touch a couple of bases, which we’re perfectly happy to do, then not everyone goes home upset. Only a few.
Upcoming 2016 Shows
Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom
Ann Arbor, MI @ Ann Arbor Folk Festival
Columbus, OH @ Wexner Center for the Arts
St. Louis, MO @ The Ready Room
Oklahoma City, OK @ ACM @ UCO Performance Lab
Dallas, TX @ Granada Theater
Austin, TX @ Hogg Auditorium *
Hudson, NY @ Club Helsinki
Charlottesville, VA @ Jefferson Theater
03/29 – Nashville, TN @ Exit/In
Knoxville, TN @ Big Ears Festival
Asheville, NC @ The Orange Peel
04/03 – Charleston, SC @ Music Farm
04/05 – Baltimore, MD @ Baltimore Sound Stage
Northampton, MA @ Academy of Music
Portsmouth, NH @ The Music Hall
Jersey City, NJ @ Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre