LIFE FOR THE CHERISHED INDIE HEROES IS EVERY BIT AS FUN AS IT LOOKS.
A pop culture archivist would probably file Yo La Tengo alongside definitive American indie bands such as Guided By Voices, Pavement and Sonic Youth. As tempting as it is to refer to the New Jersey trio as ‘legendary indie rock veterans’, that label simply doesn’t reflect their demeanour. These guys are the antithesis to guitar band bravado, and throughout their career Yo La Tengo have been inspired by new ideas rather than nostalgic desires.
Primarily, Yo La Tengo’s set up involves Georgia Hubley behind the drum kit, James McNew on bass and Ira Kaplan playing guitar. But the whole band sings, and they often shift roles, embracing each instrument with effortless aptitude. By the same token, at this stage they’ve become proficient in genres of all kinds, delving freely from lo-fi guitar pop to folk, indie electronica to droned-out psychedelia. Nearly every experiment comes off.
On stage, Ira is an incredible presence. Simultaneously unhinged yet focused, he leaps around during the louder moments, fervently hammering a synth or conjuring up a dissonant wall of scuzz by thrashing at his low-slung Fender Jazzmaster. When we make his acquaintance at a Soho hotel bar he’s seriously jetlagged. But for all his tiredness, Ira still comes across as witty and courteous, becoming visibly excited when we broach the subject of live shows and Yo La Tengo’s upcoming album Fade.
Like many of the band’s albums, Fade sees Yo La Tengo stylistically shape-shift from track to track, but all the songs somehow radiate a trademark charm that is distinctly theirs. You’d imagine such a broad array of ideas buzzing around Yo La Tengo’s rehearsal space might lead to some awkward disagreements. But according to Ira, the writing process is always democratic. “We always try to arrive at something we all believe in, it’s rare that one of us will be freaking out about something. And it’s not as if there’s anybody in the band who’s like ‘we’re putting a cello on this track and I don’t care what you think’. Even when we write lyrics, we’ll show them to the others in the band before we sing them.”
It’s been just over three years since Yo La Tengo released their previous album Popular Songs, but the band have been keeping busy. Over the years they’ve scored movie soundtracks, released many EPs and collaborated with the likes of Daniel Johnson, Yoko Ono and seasoned lo-fi practitioner Jad Fair. They also harbour a passion for conceptual shows: recently they soundtracked a live interactive documentary about the American polymath Richard Buckminster Fuller, and they’ve kept up the annual tradition of playing a string of hometown shows to celebrate the eight days of Hanukkah.
During 2010 and ’11, the band toured their ‘Spinning Wheel’ concept. At each gig they’d invite an audience member to spin a game show style wheel with each category denoting the nature of the set to follow. Some nights they’d perform as their garage-punk alter egos Condo Fucks, play songs from James’s side project Dump, run through a set of songs beginning with the letter S or, most notoriously, if the wheel landed on ‘Sitcom Theatre’, the band would re-enact an entire episode of Seinfeld. Things proceeded to get weirder: the band diversified by performing episodes of Spongebob Squarepants and the instalment of US court drama Judge Judy where, inexplicably, John Lydon gets sued.
“Although of course, the integrity of Yo La Tengo was beyond reproach, I suspect that the structural integrity of the wheel might not have been completely perfect”, Ira confesses. “The ‘Dump’ slot came up a lot more than the others, so we became very polished at that set.” As exciting and hilarious as this all sounds, surely some members of the crowd were demanding refunds? Ira assures us that they’d be rewarded with a few crowd pleasers in the encore to make amends. “The wheel was always just the first of two sets. So the second set always took into account the first. When it landed on the sitcom segment, I guess we’d put more of our well known songs in the second half, sort of as a way of saying ‘Look, we understand what you just had to sit through!” Throughout their career, Yo La Tengo have always radiated good spirits by appearing to genuinely love what they’re doing, something which is key to their appeal. It’s not uncommon to encounter a breakthrough band who are exhausted after just one or two years of touring and press rounds. So is it a sense of autonomy which has given Yo La Tengo the freedom to do what keeps them excited? “You know what? I think we are largely able to do what we want to do. And this seems like such a ridiculous job to have if it’s not fun. It’s not like every single aspect of it is exciting all the time. But, you know, it’s always great to play. I mean, I can’t promise this, but I hope that we’d stop doing this if we weren’t having fun.”
With a dedicated fanbase, Yo La Tengo’s experimentation is usually well received. Their tendency towards playing obscurities, breaking out into epic freeform jams and scoring arthouse movies are as appreciated as their sugary indie pop hooks. But Ira shares an anecdote of when their desire to both please a crowd and keep the show stimulating was maybe thrown a little out of balance. “We did a show at a Pitchfork festival before I’m Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass came out and we played nothing but unreleased songs from that record. It didn’t down so great!”, he laughs. “I got this one really angry and obnoxious e-mail about it, so I wrote back with what I guess was an angry and obnoxious reply. But then the guy wrote me another more reasonable e-mail just expressing why he felt that the show was disappointing, so I was like ‘Now that you’ve stopped being insulting, I’ll stop being insulting.’ So I explained that every show is different, and that every single time we play a song it’s because we want to, not because we have to. What I’m trying to say is that I think we should just do what we feel is right in the moment, and I think that a lot of the audience respond well when they can see that we’re enjoying ourselves.”
Although Yo La Tengo come across as relaxed yet confident, ever willing to take risk, it took a long time for the band to establish this sense of security. Ira and Georgia formed Yo La Tengo around 1984, and up until the early 90s their line-up fluctuated frequently. They’d recruit musicians in their extended social circle to help them out on their tour circuits of bar shows and cramped indie rock clubs. After years of having no definitive bass player, often recruiting producer Gene Holder to fill in, Yo La Tengo’s enduring bassist James McNew joined the band in 1991. According to Ira, this was an absolutely pivotal moment for the band. “Everyone else would be in, like, three other bands, so they’d squeeze in a rehearsal a day before a show. But James rehearsed with us a lot, we made all the songs on Painful together and we sounded much better. It was good to feel in command. That’s when we got involved with Matador, because we were working on something that we were worried was going to get lost in the air because of the situation we were in”. On Painful, Yo La Tengo developed the perfect distillation of their formula, underpinning beautifully tender songs with an instinctive improv impulse and coating them in a wall of shoegaze fuzz. It’s the record that made them the quintessential Matador band, cementing their two decade long relationship with the institutional indie label. If Yo La Tengo fans were forced to make the traumatic decision of choosing their favourite record, many would likely opt for Painful or ‘97’s diverse masterpiece I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One.
And that’s not to suggest that Yo La Tengo hit some kind of mid 90s ‘peak’. The excitement around the band has never wavered, charming and intriguing their fans in equal measure throughout the noughties with consistently brilliant output, and Fade is a continuation of that trend. In this light, the title of the album feels slightly ironic, because from what Ira tells us, Yo La Tengo have no intention of slowing down. “It wasn’t easy for us to write a record like Painful. It was a struggle, we did a lot of fighting, we had to challenge ourselves to do things we hadn’t done before. But at this point we understand that sometimes things can fail without it meaning that you’re a failure. We’re more trusting with each other and willing to try new ideas. And I think that now, we’re happier.”
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Fade is released on January 14th via Matador
Words: David Reed