As Yo La Tengo closes in on 30 years as a band, the trio has secured their name as one of the most beloved and longstanding survivors in indie-rock. While most of their contemporaries have already broken up and launched reunion tours, Yo La Tengo continue on their sonic journey without interruption, and with a legacy and longevity revolving around consistency— not so much a consistency of sound, as much as providing a standard in making great, timeless records that will go down in the permanent lexicon and discography of indie-rock music.
Beginning in 1984, and based around the husband and wife harmonies of founding members Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, the addition of James McNew in the early 90’s put the band in a unique position where each of its members was now a potential singer and songwriter, making their music all the more diverse.
They have scored films, appeared on numerous compilations. They even dared to take their already underground following to more obscure levels by creating a garage rock cover band known as “Condo Fucks” for everyone following along.
With the recent release of Fade, their 13th official LP, the band seems to have created one of their most thematic and introspective records to date. But according to led singer Ira Kaplan that may or may not be the case. And while their records and live shows seem to many to be getting quieter in nature, Kaplan begs to differ here as well. All in all, his answers were often a bit obtuse and sometimes snarky, but it was a pleasure to speak to him nonetheless. After 30 years of doing press, who can blame him for having a bit of fun with the interviewer.
I was lucky enough to interview Ira earlier this month and catch the band on their current tour as they recently rolled through Boston. After one quiet set, the band turned up the amps and shined with a sonic gleam reminiscent of their Electro-Pura Tour in 1996. If you missed Yo La Tengo on their current tour, you may find them opening select dates for Belle and Sebastian later this summer.
So, can you tell me about the album cover?
I could. What do you want to know?
Well, where was it taken?
It’s a pretty stupendous photo. Were these songs all made around the same time, or did you have some in your arsenal that you brought back up?
They are roughly from the same time. When we started writing it, I don’t think any of them preceded it. Occasionally we will pull something old out that we started writing and we thought ‘oh that was kinda nice’ and work on it some more. But I think all of these started from scratch. I think they all came from over a year writing off and on– roughly the same time.
Would you say that there is something that thematically links the tracks together? Many of the lyrics sound like a search for clarity.
Well, I probably would NOT say that, but I could be lying. What does happen is that although the songs are written over a year, the lyrics are not. The lyrics are written very quickly. We tend to sing along in sort of nonsense kind of ways and even record the songs without lyrics and at the last second come up with them. Some of them we had lyrics for some of them before we started recording and because we had actually played “Ohm” live before. Literally, after sound check, but before the show, I finished writing the lyrics. And right before the show in Barcelona I had lyric sheets written for everybody and kind of practiced and made sure we had the phrasing down because we all sing on that song. It was a bit of a slightly ridiculous scenario. And with “Stupid Things” and with “Before We Run” which we wrote in our rehearsal space—and obviously we wrote most of the songs there—but we actually recorded them in our rehearsal space and brought them out to Chicago and did some more work, but we had completed versions of those songs with lyrics too. So, I think because of the speed and the concentrated space in which the lyrics are written, I think they end up talking to each other. But in no way is there a plan like on this record this is what we are going to write about or I’m going to write about. It just sort of takes shape the way it does organically, not with a concept put on it.
I would have assumed that this record more than any other of your records had more of a thematical intention.
As I said, I don’t discourage anyone from leading into it or projecting anything. That’s totally fine. I really don’t like to think too hard about where our ideas are coming from. I like to let them happen and let them be without investigating that much. But people who observe them otherwise, I’m not saying they’re wrong.
There definitely seems to be more question asking and actual question marks in the sentences of these songs than previous records.
It’s possible. I truly haven’t thought about that.
The last couple of times I saw you, I would say the shows generally were quieter than usual. And certainly more quiet that when I first saw you in 1996. But after seeing you on Jimmy Fallon, it seems you were rocking out again.
I’d be curious what the quiet shows you saw were.
One was at the MFA a few years back and one was at the end of last summer at the Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh.
Oh, and that seemed quiet to you? That seems interesting. It’s a funny thing like that. Things register differently with people. Over the years we’ve had people… I can remember an email sent to the band saying ‘All you did was play 2 hours of feedback’. And then I looked at the setlist and wrote back to this person and said ‘actually we did this and this, and did many songs that couldn’t remotely be like that. But nevertheless the set had left a perception of that. Which is also right if that’s how it registers. But sometimes we’re also not the best judges of those types of things as well. We think we create a balance and maybe certain things jump out more than others. What we are doing on this show is extremely different though, where we will essentially be our own opening act. So we do a first set of quieter songs and then the second set is louder. So it truly varies.
At the Hopscotch Festival, I believe you said you didn’t have a title for the album and you would be accepting ideas from the audience. I would assume things like album titles are very important in the collection of songs—does this mean they are not as important to you guys?
Well, we didn’t take any of the ideas. Of course it matters. But maybe something comes up that is better and we really like more than our idea. That was one of the reasons that we didn’t have a title is because it DOES matter and we had ideas and nothing was really resonating with us.
Why did you decide to change your recording engineers from your longtime go-to to John McEntire [of Tortoise, amongst other things]?
I don’t know. For whatever reason I think it’s strange that we had never even considered working with him before. I can’t believe it, but its true. So, once we the idea we thought it would be great and really interesting. And luckily our schedules matched up, and for both of us, that is hard to do. So I guess it made it perfect.
Did you see a different effect or outcome with working with him?
It was different, but on the other hand, each time we worked with Roger it was different from the time before, which is one of the reasons why we kept working with him. There was always an element of consistency and some other thing that made it fresh and different. In that regard it was obviously more different with John. Just because we’ve known each other a long time, that doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as working with each other. It’s the same as anyone who had ever moved into an apartment with their friend and discovers how it can be.
What is the reasoning and significance of the cover songs that you put on the 7” that came with the vinyl edition?
Well, we had them [laughs]. Some of that was just Matador and marketing and selling vinyl in 2013. Matador was asking us what we could do to sell a deluxe edition. The Times New Viking song is something we did a long time ago… actually when we had thought about doing a split EP, where band covers each other’s songs. So we had that and just hadn’t put it out for some reason. Similarly, the Todd Rundgren song had come out very, very slightly. Michael Shelley, a deejay at WFMU had commissioned a bunch of 70’s covers for a CD that he sent out to people who pledged to his show in 2012. That was out contribution for that. We played them for Matador and asked ‘Is this what you’re looking for?’ and they said ‘Yes it is.”
Would you say that your overall band experience and journey has gotten easier or harder?
It depends, some things get easier and some things get harder. It varies.
You’ve done the “Freewheeling Yo La Tengo” in the past– and that allows for an open dialogue between you and the audience and what songs will be played. Do you still allow audience input, repartee and requests in your regular shows?
From time-to-time…. We still do “Freewheelin’” shows from time-to-time still. We did one in autumn in Tokyo, which was out of this world great. One of the things that “Freewheelin” did was take a sliver of something we might do at a regular show over the course of an entire evening. We try to be open to whatever the moment calls for. Last night we were in Minneapolis and Reg Presley from the Troggs died. “With a Girl Like You” is a song we’ve played before in the past, so we already knew that song and did it in honor of him. That’s a sufficient tribute. We had a friend of ours from Minneapolis and brought him and his wife on stage who plays drums and we all played “Wild Thing”, which none of us have ever played before. What could be more appropriate to the Troggs memory than an inept version of “Wild Thing”?!
Is there a conscious decision when you guys start out records with longer songs? It seems as though you have done that more in recent history. Or even longer songs in general over the course of an album?
This time around we thought “Ohm” was a catchy song and a good way to start off the record. I think lyrically it set a tone for the record. I said we don’t write a record with a concept, but having finished it, we are not deaf to what is on the record. We thought the long song was a good way to set everything up. I know it’s something that we’ve done quite often, so it must be something that we find appealing about these long openers– but not always. Both Summer Sun and I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One started with short ones—but they are definitely outnumbered.
Do you each write the songs that you are the primary singers on?
Usually, but not entirely. On this record Georgia wrote “Cornelia and Jane” and I wrote all the other words.
Did Charlie Sheen [the main guest on your recent Jimmy Fallon show] have anything nice or crazy to say?
We had no encounter with him at all. It’s a big deal to be on that show and we had people from the record company there and good friends there and of course Fred [Armisen]. So we had enough of a circus going already in our dressing room that we didn’t need to venture far from it.
Is everything okay with your health and whatnot nowadays?
I hope so! I mean I think so. I mean we never know, do we?
I’m sorry to ask, I just read that a little while back and was hoping its all okay.
There definitely was a cause for concern and I’m definitely dealing with it. But these things are out of our control– no matter how many pills we take to try to gain control over it.