Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo is a trio of music lovers who make music for music lovers. The band also happens to include the husband and wife duo of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, along with bassist/organist James McNew, which means they are also lovers making music for lovers.
Songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Ira Kaplan has been a music critic for over two decades, and began Yo La Tengo with his girlfriend (now his wife) Georgia Hubley as a musical vehicle to express their shared love of obscure pop from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. They established a reputation early on of performing unlikely cover songs on albums like Fakebook, which consisted entirely of covers, such as Cat Stevens’ “Here Comes My Baby.” They were signed early on to the quintessential indie rock label, New York’s Matador Records, which they still call home to this day.
With Hoboken, New Jersey as its home base, the band has had a string of four flawless albums in a row, starting with Painful, Electr-o-Pura, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, and this year’s And Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. Many music critics and fans have declared Yo La Tengo as the new Velvet Underground, and the band hasn’t done much to discredit these types of statements, having even appeared in the movie I Shot Andy Warhol playing the part of the Velvet Underground, and often covering VU songs in their live sets.
The band’s record sales have continually grown as the band increasingly becomes the favorites of college radio and rock critics. They’ve also appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien twice now. The band seems to be gaining a larger audience with each release, so hopefully they’ll be around offering up a new album every year or two for another decade at least.
The band’s sound centers around the noisy, unorthodox guitar playing of Ira Kaplan (which has been toned down a bit on the past two albums), droning organs, and the subtle crooning of Ira and Georgia, who both have a spoken/whispered delivery style. The majority of their songs are quite obviously love songs, most noticeably on the latest release, And Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out.
James McNew joined the band just before the recording of May I Sing With Me in 1991, replacing Dave Schramm as the group’s bassist. He is currently the most cordial and approachable member of Yo La Tengo, in this writer’s opinion. He also records solo material under the name Dump, and is one of the world’s biggest Simpsons fans. I chatted with James over the phone from his Hoboken home.
The last Yo La Tengo album seemed to be a very personal and intimate album of love songs that documented the relationship of your two bandmates, Ira and Georgia. Was it strange or awkward to be involved in something so personal?
I think it’s actually kind of cool that a lot of people, you know, the press and fans have put a lot of thought into that. It’s a compliment that they got a reaction like that, people have paid attention to the words, that’s gotta be a good sign. I don’t feel weird about the songs at all, I think they’re really good.
What is the current touring line-up of Yo La Tengo? I’ve heard rumors of some extra members popping up on stage recently.
No, there won’t be any extra players on this tour, just the three of us. We did that briefly on the European tour in England as part of an Arts Council Grant that we got. I don’t know who makes up these ideas over there, but they’ll help pay for a tour that you put together if you hire British side-men, so we hired Sonic Boom from Spacemen 3, Neil Innes, who was in the Rutles, and Robyn Hitchcock also. It was amazing. When we toured the U.S. earlier this year with Lambchop, we had Mac McCaughan of Superchunk and David Kilgour playing with us every night. There were some shows in Europe and in the U.S. where we played with Lambchop and we would borrow from their group at will.
Did you ever get on stage with Lambchop?
Yes, I did, twice. I sang “Gimme a Little Sign” by Brent Wood, I fronted the group.
Do you select your opening acts? For example, are you a big Versus fan?
Yes, we do. I’ve been a very big fan of theirs for a really long time. We’ve never toured with them extensively before, we’ve just sort of met up with them here and there.
Talk a little bit about your European audiences, do you think they have a sort of warped view of how popular you are in America?
It’s all kinda relative, you know. In the States, we’re popular in certain cities, and in certain cities we’re not. Overseas, we’re popular in places like Spain, Portugal, bigger German cities like Berlin and Hamburg. We’ve been touring over there for a really long time. One of the first things I did when I joined the band was to go on a European tour in the summer of 1991. We went over for a three-week tour with Eleventh Dream Day. I was flabbergasted at the response we got and at the size of the crowds. The audiences over there were gigantic compared to the ones over here, and it sort of seems that since then that it’s really kind of flip-flopped.
While you were in Europe, you were interviewed by The Wire magazine for their Invisible Jukebox section (where artists are played random songs and asked to identify them). You seemed to have a slightly more positive response to some of the music they played you than your bandmates.
I don’t really remember. I think we all sort of thought that there’s no way to be in one of those things and not sound like an idiot. We all knew enough to be conscious of that. That part of it was kind of a drag.
Were there any other experiences with the British press that were positive?
Do you plan ahead of time which cover songs you’re going to do before you go out on tour?
We will probably play something different every night. There are no definite plans yet, but we did just learn a ton of cover songs since the last tour.
How much of a break have you had since your last tour?
We’ve been home from touring for about a month now, but we’ve been working almost non-stop since then. We’ve been working on writing and recording some soundtrack stuff.
What film is it for?
Well, I’m not sure if I’m really supposed to say yet. It’s a pretty big deal, and I guess we’re also hoping that we’ll avoid the jinx factor by not telling anyone about it yet. It’s really wild how this new stuff turned out. We’ve also played at Ira’s brother’s wedding, we learned a bunch of cover songs for that. We also played three shows in New York backing up Ray Davies (of the Kinks) at the Jane Street Theater in the Village.
How did that come about?
We have a few mutual friends who had been bringing him to our concerts in London and New York over the past couple of years, and we got to know him a little bit. We played about six of his new solo songs, I think he’s got a solo album coming out on Capitol sometime soon. We also did as many as seven Kinks songs. It was really weird, but it was totally amazing, very surreal.
Speaking of films, what have been your favorite movies of the past couple of years?
I thought The Straight Story was really amazing, probably one of the best movies I’ve seen in years, and this summer I liked The Original Kings of Comedy, it was excellent.
Have you done any solo recording since you’ve been home?
Some, but nothing that is going to come out any time soon. There is actually going to be a CD version issued on Shrimper Records of the Prince covers cassette that I did in a few months. It will have five bonus songs on it as well.
After this tour with Versus, is Yo La Tengo finally going to take a break?
Nope, after playing two weeks with Versus we have a few more shows with Chris Knox opening, then we’re heading to New Zealand, Australia, and Japan. Then, we have a few more shows on the East Coast in November, and maybe then we’ll actually take a break.