Side projects, eh? Despite the odd gem, they generally fall into the category of forgettable self-indulgences for fevered egos. And side projects from sidemen? Well… hang on a minute. You may already know James McNew as the third member of Yo La Tengo, whose affable presence is often overlooked in favour of his espoused bandmates Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley. He’s the tall, funny one whose musical agility has made him just as vital to the Hoboken trio as his friends – pop folklore has always generated affection towards wedded musical couples, but James’ sparkling wit and adroit songwriting talents glisten with their own warm classicism. Take the Velvet Underground-tinged folk-pop of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, from 1997’s ‘I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One’. Or a highlight from 2003’s ‘Summer Sun’: the meditative murmur of ‘Tiny Birds’. Alternatively, you might want to consider his solo work.
‘It started purely for my own personal amusement.’
That’s right, solo work. Since 1992, James has used the moniker Dump to release collections of his home 4-track recordings, which veer from fully-formed indie rockers to skeletal melodic blueprints. Following Morr Music’s recent expanded reissues of the ‘Superpowerless’ and ‘I Can Hear Music’ albums, it seemed like as good a time as any to chat to the man himself. So how did Dump get started?
“It started purely for my own personal amusement and curiosity when I bought the [4-track] machine in the first place,” he explains. “I guess I made the mistake of sharing my private recordings with my friend Tom, who urged me to consider releasing what became the first Dump 7’ EP on 18 Wheeler Records in 1992.”
Lou Barlow and Guided By Voices inspired a wave of lo-fi copyists when they released their own home-recorded albums around the same time, but James denies any sense of shared aesthetic. “I never felt a strong kinship to either of those people. I had no idea what lo-fi was when I was doing it and I thought it was a dumb way to refer to music.”
The very name of the project suggests a throwaway element, but the songs feel more like diary entries. Is there any difference in the way James approaches songwriting when it comes to his own material? “It’s not so much a diary as a sketchbook,” he replies. “It’s also deeply personal and meaningful for me. Yo La Tengo is a collaboration; we write and work together always. It’s the sound of a band making something together. Working on my own has definitely informed and improved what I have been able to contribute.”
That implies that there’s an element of experimentation to Dump – or at least, a different type of experimentation to that employed by the famously forward-thinking YLT. “I always enjoy trying things and failing and liking the mistakes. I don’t constantly work on music on my own, it comes and goes, but it’s always there. My methods graduated to Pro Tools years ago, but I have worked hard to find ways to misuse the platform for my own sound needs.”
‘I like having the freedom to change.’
James declines to nominate personal favourite songs from his oeuvre (“No regrets,” he offers by way of wry explanation), so let’s turn to those written by other people. Fans of his main act won’t be surprised to learn that there’s an eclectic mixture of covers across the two reissues, from ‘Moon River’ to Sun Ra; Ultravox to The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. In 1998, however, an unexpected turn of events saw Nashville alt country types Lambchop reinterpret Dump’s ‘It’s Not Alright’ for their ‘What Another Man Spills’ opus. James still seems somewhat bashful when the subject is brought up.
“I think Kurt Wagner is one of very few great songwriters in the world. We have been close friends for about 20 years. I was shocked and blown away when they covered my song. I have played bass in Lambchop a few times - not an easy job! - and I really loved playing those songs.” Has he ever considered returning the favour? “I cover all of them in my head all day long.”
Touché. Has playing with them affected his songwriting? Or are there more specific influences that inform the creative process? “I have a lot of influences but none I can instantly name as far as songwriting. That said, I have learned a lot from loving the work of Kurt Wagner, Chris Knox, Mayo Thompson, Daniel Johnston, and El-P.” Are there any newer artists who inspire him at all? “Lately I have been enjoying records by such hot new bands as The Residents, The Grateful Dead, Mudhoney, and The Juggaknots.”
Hmm, fair cop. We return to the subject of the band itself. Dump’s sporadic live performances have the seen the lineup fleshed out by a variety of friends and associates, but James insists there are still no plans for additional permanent members to be welcomed into the fold. “It is not a full-time pursuit, so there is really no point to keeping a band together. I like having the freedom to change it into anything, anytime.”
Have Georgia and Ira ever had any input? “I like to keep it private,” he answers, affirming that this is essentially his own project rather than a vehicle for collaboration. “Thomas [Morr, of Morr Music] was a great help in putting together the reissues, though, and his great ideas were welcomed.” How did the reissues come about? “It was solely prompted by Thomas. I was not thinking about it at all until he approached me.”
And that’s pretty much it. It’s typical of James McNew to think so little of his earlier work, but don’t let that put you off. Granted, these reissues are unlikely to grab the biggest headlines in 2013; their homespun charm owes much to a carefree sense of fun that can only be generated by an artist creating for creation’s sake. If that reads to you like the typical self-satisfaction of a musician’s side project, then fair enough. Either way, it’s all for James’ own amusement.
Dump’s reissues of ‘Superpowerless’ and ‘I Can Hear Music’ are out now via Morr Music.