An Interview With Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo, the most persistent and reliably great of indie-rock bands, returns with a 15th album. As always, there was no plan
a few months ago, ira kaplan
and Georgia Hubley, the husband-wife duo who have performed together in the band Yo La Tengo for 34 years, had some friends over at their apartment. They told the friends a secret: Yo La Tengo had completed a new album—the band’s 15th— and planned to call it There’s a Riot
Goin’ On, a timely nod to Sly and the Family Stone.
Turned out their guests had never heard the Sly Stone album. Kaplan, who considers it one of his favorites, mimics his reaction: “You don’t know that record!?” He immediately retrieved it from his record collection and played it for them.
For decades, Yo La Tengo has performed a similarly curatorial role for its fan base. The beloved Hoboken, New Jersey, band has a reputation for whipping out impromptu covers in concert and hosting surprise guest performers at their sometimes-annual Hanukkah shows. (A favorite tradition is performing all eight nights of Hanukkah at the same venue.) Kaplan was a rock critic before he was a rocker, and the band’s discography is littered with erudite cultural references and obscure covers, such as a killer deconstruction of George McCrae’s “You Can Have It All.” So why not nab a Sly Stone title in 2018? A quick rock grammar lesson:
What’s Going On (no apostrophe on
Going) refers to Marvin Gaye’s landmark 1971 album. What’s Goin’ On is the title of a Frank Strozier Quintet album from 1977. There’s a Riot Goin’
On— titled in response to Gaye’s album—is the name of the 1971 masterpiece by Sly and the Family Stone, recorded at a time of vicious national upheaval. And There’s a Riot Going On (no apostrophe) is the name of the new Yo La Tengo album. (The Sly title is so iconic that a spell check suggests you change Going to Goin’.)
The album title “did feel right,” says Kaplan, 61, during a recent conversation at the Manhattan offices of Matador Records. Kaplan is dressed in his trademark uniform—jeans and a thinly striped T-shirt—and seated opposite the band’s bassist, James Mcnew. (Hubley is absent, preferring to let her bandmates do interviews.) Yo La Tengo chose the title in early 2017, around the time millions of Americans really were taking to the streets to protest a certain real estate mogul’s new presidency.
But Riot sounds nothing like Sly Stone. And despite its resistance-sounding title, the material is not outwardly political. If anything, there seems to be a deliberate contradiction between the title and the calming sounds of the album, centered around murmuring loops and drifting ambient passages. The dreamy sprawl of style and texture— wide-ranging but not random or scattershot—adds up to the band’s warmest and most serene collection of music since 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-out.
“It was a wholly hermetic experience,” Mcnew says of making the album. There was no conventional recording or demoing. The trio worked entirely alone at their studio, and instead of writing songs the way they typically do, they went through years’ worth of unused melodies, discarded film scores and odds and ends to create something new. (Eschewing an outside engineer or producer, McNew constructed the album himself in Pro Tools.)
“I don’t think we were thinking about why we were recording,” Kaplan says. “We just were. Over the years, we’ve tried as much as possible not even to tell ourselves we’re working on a new record. It’s mainly like, Let’s get together and play with as little concern as possible for the end result.”
here’s a bombshell revelation:
The members of Yo La Tengo no longer live in New Jersey. Though the band is practically a mascot of Hoboken, Kaplan and Hubley quietly moved to Manhattan in 2014, not long after the original Maxwell’s— the famous Jersey hotbed of indie music and the longtime venue for Yo La Tengo’s Hanukkah residency— closed down. (The band resurrected the Hanukkah tradition at the Bowery Ballroom in 2017.) Mcnew now lives in Brooklyn.
For a certain population of indie nerds, Yo La Tengo is as synonymous with the Garden State as Bruce Springsteen. But “even when we were living in Hoboken, it wasn’t so much Hoboken that we cared about,” Kaplan says. “It was Maxwell’s and WFMU. We love the Guitar Bar. There are things we love in Hoboken.”
And Yo La Tengo still maintains a studio there, where the band rehearses and recorded their new album. It’s also where the band formed: Kaplan and Hubley met in the early 1980s, after frequently spotting each other at the same record stores and concerts.
The couple decided to start a band and placed a classified ad in The Vil
lage Voice, where Kaplan sometimes wrote about music: “Guitarist & bassist wanted for band that may or may not sound like the Soft Boys, Mission of Burma and Love.”
After releasing a string of scrappy, almost-great albums on Coyote Records and undergoing numerous personnel shifts, Yo La Tengo solidified its lineup when Mcnew joined on bass, just in time for the 1992 album
May I Sing With Me. With 1993’s Painful, an indelible balance of dreamy
Yolatengo nds transcendence in spontaneity. Atone show,theband re-enacted an entire Seinfeld episode onstage.
ballads and feedback-fuzz noisiness, the band achieved greatness. And then…pretty much stayed that way.
Has there ever been an indie-rock band more persistent and reliably great than Yo La Tengo? The sturdy trio is one of the few continuous flag-bearers of the 1980s American indie underground left standing. Sonic Youth—led by another husband-wife duo—dissolved along with Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s marriage. Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. took lengthy breaks. R.E.M. gracefully bowed out. So did the Replacements, though less gracefully.
The band has been active in some form or another since 1984. During that time, empires have fallen, popes have come and gone, the music industry has teetered on the brink of collapse, and Yo La Tengo has endured, pumping out quality records every
two to four years as if it’s nothing. All of those albums are enjoyable, and several of them (particularly Painful and 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beat
ing as One, a stylistic tour de force) are regarded as ironclad classics.
“They have this rare ability to know when and exactly how to change things up to keep themselves interested,” says John Mcentire, who mixed the new album and produced 2013’s Fade. “Being able to be like, Oh, now we’re gonna be the Condo Fucks for two months. [Or] when they had to spin the wheel and do whatever came up.”
Mcentire is referring to the band’s eccentric Wheel of Fortune tour, in which fans determined the evening’s set list by spinning a giant wheel. The wheel might, for instance, dictate that the band could play only songs that start with the letter S. One night, it landed on “Sitcom Theatre,” and Yo La Tengo re-enacted an entire Seinfeld episode onstage.
When I mention the band’s remarkable longevity, Kaplan shrugs it off. “We just like playing,” he says. “So it’s really not that hard.” When I point out that Yo La Tengo seems like the chief surviving indie band from that ’80s generation, he refuses the honor. “The Mekons—they don’t do that much, but they’re still a thing,” he argues. “Certainly the Flaming Lips. And our friends Antietam are completely remarkable. They started before we did.”
But the Flaming Lips generally play the same set list every night, while Yo La Tengo finds transcendence in spontaneity. The band’s versatility in concert is impressive. In the past three years, they’ve brought up Kaplan’s 80-something mother to sing at Central Park’s Summerstage, sung through yellow balloons with experimental composer Alvin Lucier in 2016 and shared the stage with Nick Lowe at a Hanukkah show, having never even rehearsed with Lowe.
A recurring theme in our interview is Yo La Tengo’s lack of interest in making plans. Consider the Wheel of Fortune: Let fate decide. Mcnew says the new album was recorded “accidentally,” and Kaplan says the band didn’t start worrying about the 2017 Hanukkah shows until a few weeks before. “We’ve learned to concentrate our worrying,” says Mcnew.
About the only long-term plan Kaplan will accede to is the band’s future. Asked if Yo La Tengo will be around for another 30 years, he doesn’t hesitate: “Definitely.” What about doing all eight nights of Hanukkah again? They have no clue.