Interview Yo La Tengo: ‘If We Are Playing It, It Sounds Like Us’

Thirteen albums in, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan talks ‘Fade’, Glen Campbell and reenacting entire episodes of Seinfeld.

As the autumnal season of mists gives way to the bitter chill of winter, there is perhaps nothing better than epic, psychedelic guitar-noise freak-outs to warm the soul. Hoboken’s Yo La Tengo, with their loose talk of ‘Autumn Sweater(s)’ and ‘Winter A-Go-Go’, have crafted a near-thirty year career specialising in fuzzy pop tones, improv jams and an all-consuming, encyclopaedic repository of cover versions, ideal for warm wintry listening.

In recent years, the trio have become an almost meta-band; remarkably conscious of their own position in the pantheon of American indie trailblazers, they have taken to touring with a giant spinning wheel, with all manner of ridiculous concepts on it, leaving the wheel to pick what they will perform that night (ranging from moonlighting as garage band the Condo Fucks, acting out episodes of various sitcoms, or only playing songs beginning with the letter ‘S’).

The band have just completed recording their thirteenth studio album, ‘Fade’, with Tortoise’s John McEntire at the helm. I caught up with frontman Ira Kaplan – a man who speaks as softly as he sings - to discuss the new album, the old albums and being serenaded by the legendary Glen Campbell.

The new album, ‘Fade’, is comparatively shorter and more cohesive than the majority of its predecessors. Was there a deliberate decision by the band to cut back the excess?
Sort of. I was looking at an e-mail I wrote to Matador when we finished [previous album] ‘Popular Songs’ and the e-mail was basically saying ‘It doesn’t look like we were successful coming up with a shorter record. We tried but we couldn’t do it!’ I think it’s been our desire for a long time to make a shorter record and I think having tried and failed the last few times, we tried harder this time! It’s funny - cohesive’s a funny word to me. It’s certainly shorter… I’m okay with ‘cohesive’. Well, I hope the others are cohesive too. I’m happy with what people think of it, it’s not for me to say.

Minutemen’s Mike Watt once said ‘A good song title is worth a million lyrics’ and Yo La Tengo have always seemed to follow this. But Fade seems more direct.
Well this time around, we actually did want every title to directly reference the song. So, a few of them still don’t come out of the lyrics but they have a clear reference. Some of the [older] titles – ‘The Crying Of Lot G’, ‘Detouring America With Horns’ - were finding a nice sounding title to go with the song. This time we tried not to do that.

Was bringing John McEntire on board as producer, in favour of Roger Mountenot, a deliberate ploy to alter the band’s sound?
I don’t think we knew what would happen with John. Every time we’ve worked with Roger, we’ve always considered not working with Roger but this time the idea of working with John came up and it just seemed like a good idea.

John is such a renowned musician in his own right – this must have brought a different approach to the recording process?
It’s funny, I’ve been thinking about this, the more you praise John, the more by implication you’re attacking Roger - which is the opposite of my desire and Roger is a musician too - he doesn’t have a discography on Thrill Jockey but he plays every instrument. I don’t know that much about studio techniques but every session takes on its own life and not every session with Roger was the same as another one. So, it’s a tricky question to answer for a couple of reasons.

The band seem to be very much on an upwards trajectory at present, breaching the Billboard Hot 100…
That may be just a statistical quirk! We made the top 10 with ‘Nuclear War’ because nobody puts out singles anymore - for one week, we were the number 9 selling single in the country! It is always hilarious when those intersections occur. I have vivid memories of being in high school and having a subscription to Billboard Magazine… so finding yourself in there was great!

This upward incline of the band seems to have begun around the time of 1997’s ‘I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One’.
Every record comes with a change. I would say the change on that record was getting increasingly willing to try anything and we kept expanding what we were. At this point, I don’t think we would say anything doesn’t sound like us - if we are playing it, it sounds like us. We were probably making an above average step in that direction with that record. The parameters of song style was narrower than on Electr-O-Pura and Painful.

You managed to rope in Kevin Shields to remix ‘Autumn Sweater’ which was quite a coup.
It was difficult to get it done but it really is one of the touchstone great memories, when it arrived and listening to that beautiful, beautiful mix, it was such a classic day when it got here. It certainly felt like a coup. It was so worth it. We made the approach because we toured with My Bloody Valentine in 1992, on their last American shows, Buffalo Tom and us were the support. We took over from Mercury Rev.

Your ears must have taken an assault on that jaunt…
The funny thing is, it wasn’t as loud backstage! But we had the opportunity to be on stage watching the audience…it was like theatre. But it wasn’t just the audience, on more than one occasion, people from the venue would arrive backstage thinking something was wrong.

Unlike My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo have been going for almost thirty years without hiatus – do you feel a sense of luck not having succumbed to the now-inevitable break-up and subsequent reunion?
I try not to get involved in lucky or unlucky - I don’t think I want to be particularly candid in my answer to that question. But the evasive answer - and I apologise because it’s an answer I give to other people - is that we try to just make the most of our situation. And not spend too much time thinking about luck in particular because you can’t control luck. So, no I don’t think that way.

Is it necessary to utilise concepts like The Wheel tour to keep the band alive, to keep you on your toes?
The wheel came about primarily because of our garage-band offshoot Condo Fucks. It was fun to play that way, we didn’t really want to go on tour as the Condo Fucks and we definitely didn’t wanna go on tour as Yo La Tengo and then be the Condo Fucks because we thought that would be rude! So we did this Freewheelin’ Yo La Tengo tour which was a response from something that Matador asked of us - I’m gonna get closer to answering your reunion question now - a challenge that this band has, and any band in this position, is fighting complacency. On many, many occasions people say to me ‘I saw you play here last year’ and I reply ‘I don’t think so, we haven’t played in this city in five years’. But the feeling is that we were there. In terms of the reunion thing, people have a legitimate expectation that we’re not going anywhere. And that comes with its own disadvantages and this comes back to the way I did answer your question in that we try not to worry about the bad part but, in any case, Matador asked to do a tour which would be obviously different from any tour we’ve done before. In our case, we hope every show is - by default - different from each other but I can see their distinction. So we came up with the Freewheeling Tour even though the drawback there was the fact that none of us like telling people in advance what we are going to do. But we were willing to take the bad with the good. So we had all these ways we like playing and we didn’t like going out as any of then. But when we went out with the wheel, we were like ‘woah, even we don’t know what we’re gonna be playing!’ and we weren’t being deceitful, it was more like ‘we’ll be as surprised as you will be!’ Then when we came up with the categories, we got really deep into the concept. There were a couple of songs we’d never played live before and in all those cases, it was for good reason, but we created a context where certain songs which never seemed to work were working. It was a real lot of work to keep that many songs almost-ready. At the soundcheck, we would go over a few songs we hadn’t played in a while just in case they came up. Because on a normal tour, we would pull deep songs out and know tonight’s the night we’re gonna play them. I forget exactly how you phrased your question so I’m not sure if I’ve answered it!

But The Wheel concept is fascinating – you must have had some incredibly scary moments…
With the sitcom theatre, the anticipation of that night [was scary]. It took a long time before it came up, we had to rehearse it every night, make sure our lighting was right so we could see our scripts and every night was like ‘maybe…maybe’, and when it did happen [the band acted out an episode of Seinfeld in Chicago], it was like a dam bursting. Most people were really excited when it started, except there was this one woman up the front who audibly said ‘this is my worst fucking nightmare!’ Even though we were telling people we were going to do an entire sitcom show, I’m not sure people believed us or thought what that would mean. And the audience was definitely turning [against us] and by the end, a healthy percentage of the crowd was chanting Music! Music!’ Our intention was never to piss anyone off, but if you don’t like it, I’m sorry - I wish you liked it - but we’re doing it anyway! With the sitcom theatre, we wanted to make sure we had some possibility of doing something that no one had seen us do before. It was never ‘people are gonna hate this!’. We played a long generous second set, we weren’t oblivious to what happened in the first set, it was very exciting. And then word got out so we never did that one again, we did Spongebob Squarepants in Los Angeles and Judge Judy in Leeds. It was a very generous definition as to what qualifies as a sitcom!

Will your Barbican show feature a similar concept?
We’re still discussing what form to take but we will mix it up.

You have plenty of time to fine-tune your grasp of British sitcoms.
Well, you know we do these Hanukkah shows every year and we have special guests – one of our dreams is to get Tommy Saxondale to roadie for us some night! That would really make it!

You began your own career as a music journalist and booking agent; was it quite a step to move from this side of the fence?
Well, it didn’t seem like it in that era – you had people like Neil Tennant, Steve Albini, Lenny Kaye, Morrissey, Patti Smith, Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Peter Laughner…

Quite a lineage.
Yes! It didn’t feel like I was hacking away with the brush to do that. The accusation that is often made of writers is that they just wanna be musicians - it’s certainly true in my case! I’ve done the occasional thing since - I interviewed Glen Campbell last summer, he was definitely already showing signs of his illness but the thing that I’ll never forget is talking a lot about ‘I Guess I’m Dumb’ [a wonderful Brian Wilson collaboration], and at the end of the interview, he just suddenly started singing it and I really was not expecting that at all!

Speaking of lineage, would you consider Yo La Tengo, perhaps along with the setting for On The Waterfront, to be Hoboken’s greatest export?
Well, there’s Frank Sinatra too!

Completing the Holy Trinity.
(laughs) Exactly!

Finally, one of the band’s most famed videos – for ‘Sugarcube’ – depicts you at the mercy of a record company executive, desperate for you to ‘make it’. So, in the words of said executive…are you scared of making money?
(laughs) There is something about not making money that obviously makes decisions easier. I’m not afraid of making money, I like making money, money enters into decisions we make. But it’s funny how something we would do for free, without thinking but if you get paid - we might have to think about whether we do it or not. I don’t want to do something only for the money…but we probably have done something because we got paid for it but we try not to do it too much. It’s a fine line.

Yo La Tengo’s new album ‘Fade’ will be released on 14th January via Matador.

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