Indie rockers Yo La Tengo still rock 30 years later

Punk, jazz, funk, country - no genres are off-limits as inspiration for Yo La Tengo

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 January, 2015, 9:04pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 January, 2015, 9:04pm

Old concert posters and relics line the walls of the 9:30 Club's basement bar. Dressed in loose jeans and sneakers on a Friday night, Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan and James McNew scan the relics, searching for familiar names while reminiscing about the Washington club's original, much smaller, dingier and rat-infested location.

Kaplan drifts over to a metal chair under the stairwell and settles in, hands dumped into sweatshirt pockets. In a few hours the band will be upstairs performing a sold-out concert, one of a handful of east coast shows celebrating their 30th anniversary. But right now Kaplan is about to enter his personal purgatory: a press interview.

Looking at Yo La Tengo's rise from ramshackle Hoboken, New Jersey, cover band to indie-rock standard-bearer, Kaplan says this has always been a band without a plan. "We just play and fool around with things until we hear something we like," he says. "We just try to follow our ears, not a concept."

The trio blend the divide between listener and performer with more quiet power than almost any other band in rock, pulling from across eras and genres without sounding allusive. They percolate into your brain, like memories returning. Especially since the 1993 album Painful - which was reissued in a deluxe edition last month, on the 30th anniversary of the band's first gig - Yo La Tengo have condensed their omnivorous impulse into a new stance: they can play feedback-fuelled, 13-minute songs that are somehow comforting instead of transgressive.

And as indie rock has developed over the band's career, the trio have incorporated new streams of thought into its steadily persuasive sound. "We listen to all different kinds of music," says drummer and vocalist Georgia Hubley, speaking by phone a few days after the concert. "There's so much sound affinity that we share. Appreciation of music is at the core of the band."

Even the group's way of writing centres on listening. "I think we've perfected our process, which is basically just to get together, talk about movies or sports or food for about an hour, and eventually start playing, with no goal," McNew says before the show in Washington.

Their rehearsals are slow burns of experimentation, engulfment and response. That is, they're jam sessions. When the members hit on something, they're likely to repeat it for, say, an hour, just to see what else they might hear inside.

"Maybe a couple of chords sound good next to each other, or a cool rhythm will come out of nowhere," McNew says. "We'll scramble to turn on a recorder and preserve that moment, and if we like it we'll go back, revisit it and make something out of it."

You can … track the following 30 years of underground rock history through the sound of [Yo La Tengo]

Kaplan was a music columnist in the late 1970s and early 1980s for the small, independent-minded publications The SoHo News and New York Rocker. He helped chart alternative rock's rise in the days after punk caught flame. Then he and Hubley, his girlfriend at the time and now his wife, started Yo La Tengo in their living room, and you can basically track the following 30 years of underground rock history through the sound of this band.

Kaplan, Hubley and McNew have the advantage of historical perspective: most of rock history has unfolded in their lifetimes. Now 57, Kaplan was 10 when he got his first record, the Rolling Stones' brand-new single Ruby Tuesday. In punk's salad days, he was a college student haunting CBGB and the record shops of the Lower East Side. As a young critic, he chronicled the rise of new wave, as well as no wave, its grittier arch-rival.

He and Hubley were living in Hoboken, a town too small for style territorialism. And anyway, their tastes didn't discriminate. The couple started Yo La Tengo in 1984 and started releasing albums and EPs with a rotating cast of friends on bass and lead guitar. They toured the east coast and Midwest, and honed original songs that drew from country music's "Bakersfield" sound and brawling post-punk.

When McNew joined in 1991, he brought intimacy with funk and jazz phrasing, and thick, tactile warmth. Fuller possibilities bloomed.

That year was big: Nirvana's Nevermind and My Bloody Valentine's Loveless both hit. Classics on arrival, they were turbid, distorted records that didn't use many lyrics and didn't much care about you hearing the ones they did. After the funk declamations and punk exhibitionism of prior decades, music was representing a world that had turned inward. Buzzes and screen hisses and mutable chatter started to be everywhere; voices quieted down.

The next year, Yo La Tengo released their first album with McNew and began recording the music that would become Painful. Kaplan remembers "improvising and experimenting and switching instruments" at that session. "We could all sense ourselves finding new things to play, new ways to play and new sounds," he says.

The album also marked the awakening of Hubley's voice, probably the most enchanting element of Yo La Tengo in the years since. Until that point she'd sung some, but mostly on tunes Kaplan wrote. Her feathered, distant alto anchored some of the record's best tunes, especially her love ballad, Nowhere Near, the first original song she remembers feeling pride in.

From Painful forward, Yo La Tengo had an aesthetic frame, if not a hemmed-in sound: distanced or unmoved voices with no desire to gain traction, set amid drones, waves, screeches, circular gestures and porous edges.

A string of strong albums followed: Electr-O-Pura, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, Summer Sun. It's I Can Hear the Heart (1997) that goes down as the broad, definitive collection. It has McNew's first recorded lead vocal, the hippie-country stunner Stockholm Syndrome, and also features Autumn Sweater, an organ-drums-vocals confessional sung by Kaplan. Like a more matter-of-fact sequel to Big Day Coming, it shows the slow give-and-take of his relationship with Hubley maturing.

Yo La Tengo have never stopped playing cover songs, even releasing the occasional album full of them. It keeps the players connected to the liberations of fandom, their feeling of awe inside the music rather than ownership of it.

"It was always a lot easier to play a guitar solo when Georgia or me hadn't written the song and it was written by Arthur Lee - it was like, 'Oh, I can pretend I'm doing this,'" Kaplan says of the band's early affinity for covers. "And that hasn't changed. A lot of the genre things that we've added to our way of playing, probably most of them, started with a cover song."

Their relationships with outside musicians feed into the same stream. Kaplan and Hubley still live in Hoboken, and until it closed last year they were close with Maxwell's, the club where Yo La Tengo played their first gigs. Starting in 2000, it was the site of an almost annual series of benefit concerts on the eight nights of Hanukkah - chummy, packed-out shows that gave an excuse to bring in special guests each night, from My Morning Jacket's Jim James to Howard Kaylan of The Turtles.

"They're always dabbling, and not afraid to experiment," says Mission of Burma bassist Clint Conley, producer of Yo La Tengo's first album and a Maxwell's Hanukkah veteran who joined the band in a 30th-anniversary show at New York's Town Hall. "There's an aspect to them that is kind of shy, but there's this audacity, too - they're playing with jazz people, they're playing with Ray Davies."

Guitarist Dave Schramm, who was in Yo La Tengo during their earliest years, was also onstage at Town Hall, and he says this sort of thing is "in their DNA. There's this core sound, but then, 'How can we play with that?' If playing with it means playing a song totally differently from how it was played last night, or bringing in other musicians and sounds to force it into another direction, that's part of what they're doing."

Through a connection to Yoko Ono's management, Yo La Tengo became her Plastic Ono Band on a European tour last year. "We played the song Mind Train, which is a 16-minute jam with a very hypnotic bass part," McNew says.

"She said to me, 'Oh, you know, I'm sorry the bass part doesn't have much to do.' I was like: 'Are you kidding me? There's four notes in this bass part - that's three too many in my opinion!' And then I think after that she thought I was crazy. I was very proud."

The Washington Post