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Yo La Tengo - Interview

  by Mark Rowland

published: 20 / 10 / 2009

Yo La Tengo - Interview


One of the most innovative bands of the last 25 years, Yo La Tengo have just released their latest new album, 'Popular Songs'. Mark Rowland speaks to the band's front man Ira Kaplan about it and adaptable and constantly changing nature of his band

Yo La Tengo are one of those rare bands that have managed, over a 25-year career, to maintain the quality and freshness of their music. Their songs take in a variety of different styles and genres and filter them into a coherent sound, one that is as influenced by soul, 60s pop, electronica, folk and psychedelic music as it is punk and indie rock. The band are also unusual in rock circles by having had an incredibly stable line-up since 1991, at which time bassist James McNew joined the band. From 1993’s ‘Painful’ onwards, the band have managed to maintain a consistency across all their records, one that builds on the sound of ‘Painful’ with umpteen new sounds and experimentation. Their earlier rough and ready indie records, while not without their charms, almost sound like a completely different group. Formed in 1984 by Ira Kaplan and his wife Georgia Hubley, Yo La Tengo has always had a casual and spontaneous approach to their career that has allowed them to try new things without really worrying whether it would work or not – if it didn’t work the first time, they would approach it a different way until it felt right. This attitude seems to have allowed the band to hold on to their enjoyment for making music – perhaps a reason why they still make great music. Their latest album, ‘Popular Songs’ builds on the widescreen sound of their previous album, 2006’s ‘I’m not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass’, with sweeping strings, horn and woodwind parts, and more Hammond organ than any of their previous records. Across its 12 tracks, the band flit through several different styles (the Hammond organ giving it a little more of a 60s flavour) without compromising the flow of the record or parodying the genres they have incorporated into their sound. In many ways, it’s business as usual for the band, though they have been known to record more thematic records, such as 1990’s largely acoustic ‘Fakebook’, the slow and subtle 2003 album ‘Summer Sun', and covers albums ‘Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics’ (2006) and ‘Fuckbook’ (2009), recorded under the name Condo Fucks. The band have also written the score for recent indie rom-com ‘Adventureland’, which centres on a pair of teens who fall for each other while working at a run-down theme park. It is not the first score the band have written – since doing music for documentary ,‘The Sounds of the Sounds of Science’, at the beginning of the decade, the band have scored several films, including’ Junebug’, ‘Game 6’ and ‘Shortbus’, several of which, bizarrely, feature acting performances from Will Oldham. The band are known for their fun, fairly loose shows. In recent years, they have been taking that approach to extremes with their Freewheelin’ Yo La Tengo shows, where the band answer questions from the crowd, take many requests, and play stripped down versions of both their songs, and any covers that people might suggest. Ira Kaplan spoke to Pennyblackmusic on the phone from the US West coast, where they were playing a few shows. PB : Your latest album ‘Popular Songs’ has a particular flow to it – it’s almost three parts, with a few laidback tracks at its start, upbeat songs in the middle and then three concluding long songs. Was that an intentional thing, or more of a coincidence? IK: I would say, in answer to your question was it intentional to do it that way, the answer is definitely no. I don’t think we see the first song as particularly laid back. It’s not a particularly fast song, but from a performance standpoint, it’s pretty ferocious. It’s just not fast. So I think even the second one, to us, is kind of a power pop song, maybe more pop than power. The third one is definitely slow, and then I think the idea was to - when you sequence a record, there’s kind of two things you can do; there’s a song that flows seamlessly and there’s a song that flows by changing direction, so I think it kind of flows through the first three songs, and then it abruptly changes direction and then kind of resumes flowing again. The long songs all being at the end, partly it seemed to just work, and also there was an attraction to it because we had never really done it before. We’ve got a lot of records with multiple long songs on them and generally we spread them apart. This time it just seemed like they were fitting together. I don’t know – it’s hard for me to be more specific than that, because a lot of them we just listen to it and if it sounds right, we don’t really question it. It’s tried a lot of different ways before we settle on the last one that’s for sure. PB: There is a lot of Hammond organ on this record. What drew you to that instrument for this recording? IK: We got one, so it just became part of the sound. That’s been a typical manoeuvre over the last 25 years - that we used organ on our records and keyboards on our records sparingly until we actually got an organ then the organ became more prominent. The same thing happened with the piano. We acquired a Hammond organ and started fooling around, so we found more use for it. PB: What is it about the Hammond that appeals to you? IK: It’s just kind of a classic sound which doesn’t sound like anything else, which is an interesting challenge when we come to playing those songs live because we’re not carting a Hammond organ around. Typically, that’s what we do – we make a record and then re-learn the songs for the live shows with varying degrees of faithfulness to the version on the record, but that’s a digression. I think it’s just to play that sound and instantly you just feel like you’re in some kind of continuum. It’s a great, classic, gigantic instrument. PB: You recorded the album at your rehearsal space rather than a studio. What things did that bring to the recording that you wouldn’t have got from a studio? IK: Well, we’ll never know, because our doppelgangers were not recording in a studio to see what the difference would be. Over the years, we’ve done a lot of recording in our room on ProTools. James has recorded all of the film scores that we’ve done, the Condo Fucks record, they were all done in our space. It kind of reminded us just how much we enjoy playing there. For many years we would write songs and frequently not quite finish them. I think we would allow ourselves the luxury of finishing them off in the studio; trying to eliminate the line in which you write the songs in one place, and then you go to a studio to document them. We’d always rather that the studio was the most creative place it could be, and not just a place you go to record. There’s kind of a famous notion that Alfred Hitchcock would say that he never particularly liked making a movie, because he had the whole thing mapped out and storyboarded and that, to him was the creative part and then he had to make the movie because that’s what his job was. It was just realising what he had already completely figured out, and that’s not how we approach making a record. I think that the thought was that if the studio is the rehearsal space, that line becomes even further blurred. It’s still part of the creating process, and with the documenting, we were hoping that we would trick ourselves into forgetting we were doing that. PB: Your records often feature songs in several different styles, but always manage to seem coherent. How do you go about settling on the sound of a particular song? IK: There’s no exact one way. Some songs seem to get finished very quickly, and with others, we just have this sense that we haven’t really gotten it yet. While there may be something we like about it, we want to just keep looking at it, and songs can change pretty dramatically while that’s going on. Sometimes we’ll just be screwing around and something will come up and we’ll go, “Oh wow, we meant that as a joke but actually it’s kind of good, maybe we should keep that.” As generally, and hopefully as informatively as I can be, I think we just try to be open to what we’re doing, listen to what we’re playing and kind of constantly try to hear it and hear if we like it, and if we do we follow it and if we don’t, just try to make it better. PB: You are all obviously big fans of all sorts of music and it’s not always easy to hear where your influences come from. Over-simplifying things somewhat, you could put music fans in two vague categories; those that are into music history and the sounds of different eras, and those who are always looking for something new. If you had to put yourselves into either one of those categories, which would it be? IK: I would say Georgia and I are most assuredly are not looking for the new thing. James, I think he would be insulted if I characterised him that way, but he’s very interested in a lot of underground hip hop music and things that Georgia and I hear through him or not at all. With the majority of the things that we listen to, there’s a lot of current music but I wouldn’t say that’s where our passion is. It’s more for older music. But, I don’t know, I was just reading an interview today with Roy Loney, who was the original singer with the Flamin’ Groovies. He’s somebody we’re friendly with. He came onstage with us a couple of nights ago and we did a couple of Flamin’ Groovies songs. I actually wrote something about it on our website and I was looking for a link, and I found this interview, so I read the interview. And he was talking about this record they made that at the time was criticised for being such a backwards-sounding record and not being up to date. And he said, well it still sounds good today, so it must have been up to date after all. I think there’s a lot of truth in that, and I think that the new thing becomes the old thing really fast, and I don’t think anyone in our band has been particularly desirous of making music that you would be able to listen to and know exactly what day we recorded it, like, “That’s screaming 1994 – that snare drum sound can mean only one thing!” Even though, I think, as you were acknowledging, that’s kind of an artificial distinction that you were drawing from there, but if we’re going to accept that distinction, we’re very much in the backward looking camp. PB: There is certainly elements of your music that seem to reference genres of the past, but there is always a distinctly modern edge to your music too. How do you balance the two? IK: Our record was recorded on ProTools; we’re not recording our records in mono on a four track. We have a great passion for old music, but I don’t think any of us have any interest in replicating something. It sort of is part of us, and as such is reflected in what we do. I do think it’s personal and to me it’s up to date, because if you’re listening it today, it’s current music – it doesn’t matter when it was recorded. In fact, if I just expand on that a little more, somebody who is hearing anything for the first time, something from 1965, say, hearing it for the first time, is not going to hear it in the same way that people heard it in 1965. The context in which you experience things has a tremendous impact on the way you experience them. Those things are not really fixed in time. PB: I’d like to move onto your score for the recent film ‘Adventureland’. There are a lot of songs in that film that play quite a big part in the story, partly because they evoke an era. What sort of challenges did that create for you when writing the score? IK: I’m not sure that aspect of it presents a challenge. It’s basically how the director hears it. In that case, he was certainly not asking us to write interstitial music that might evoke that period. I think the music that we were playing was not of that period the way the source music songs are. That is always the challenge of film-scoring; that you’re trying to realise the director’s vision and simultaneously do something that you feel strongly about, but it’s the director’s call and that’s a really interesting way to work, when you’re taking orders from somebody else. PB: It has been perceived by a lot of people that the songs in the film are there to illustrate the setting, while the score represents the characters. To what extent is that true? IK: That certainly was what was being discussed when we were having our meetings about it. That was the goal; to kind of help bring out what the characters were going through. There was one cue in particular, I think the character of Em, Kristen Stewart’s character, is raging at her dad and her stepmother, and the first notion was that we would write something quite angry, and then everybody came round to thinking that we were looking at the screen – we know she’s angry, we don’t need the music to bring that out. Maybe we should emphasise the sadness, the confusion that’s even deeper in the character. You just kind of know that’s what you’re after and you’re watching the scene and you just play something and if it feels like it’s working, we just follow it. It’s interesting because I was describing the songwriting process, which can take a long time, but the film scoring process does not because you don’t get that luxury; you just follow your instincts and if it works, great, you finish it, and if it doesn’t work (meaning if the director doesn’t like it) then you try something else and discuss what you thought was working, but why it wasn’t for the director. PB: You’ve done several scores now, starting with ‘The Sounds of the Sounds of Science…’ IK: ‘The Sounds of the Sounds of Science’ was pretty different. In that one we were only answering to ourselves, because we were commissioned to write music, but we were not in collaboration with anyone. We were trying to work on something that would work with the films, of course, but it was up to us what that meant. But in the case of ‘Junebug,’ ‘Game 6’, ‘Shortbus’, ‘The Toe Tactic’, ‘Adventureland’ and ‘Oh Joy’, those were all working with the director and trying to meet their agenda. PB: Is scoring films something you found quite natural, or do you think it’s something that you had to work on to get right? IK: It’s gotten easier in that we’ve gotten better at it technologically. We’ve fixed some of the problems we had because we’re in a rehearsal space and not in a studio. We were getting a lot of noise issues from outside the room that we’ve subsequently put a lot of…let’s put it this way, our room is a lot darker than it used to be. We’ve covered up windows as effectively as we could, so some of those things are better and then we’ve acquired more equipment and James gets ever more adept at recording. That’s a challenge too because as I said, we’re working so quickly, and especially because James is playing and recording, and either one of those jobs are very capable of taking up all of your attention. So we’ve got more adept at some of those logistic things, but one of the things that is entertaining about it and challenging about it is that it’s different every time. Doing one doesn’t exactly prepare you for doing another. The only thing it’s really prepared us for is dealing with the emotional aspect of thinking you’ve done something good, and having a director say “Try again.” We’re a bit better at dealing with that than we used to be. PB: ‘Adventureland’, while still being an indie film, is a little more high profile than some of the other films you’ve scored. Do you think it will open up more opportunities to score films? IK: I hope it opens up some more opportunities. We’ll see. We’re not really in the habit of making predictions, but it’s certainly something that we’d like to do again and we hope to get the opportunity to do it again. There’s a lot of things that are good about it, one of them being that it gives us the opportunity to work and be creative without being on tour. I think it makes us appreciate being on tour all the more when we are, because the less we’re required to do it, the more we can because we want to, so the more options you have, the more you can enjoy the one you choose. PB: Speaking of live shows, you started doing the Freewheelin’ Yo La Tengo shows a couple of years ago. What inspired you to do shows in such a radically different format? IK : It actually it had a twin origin. One part was that we were offered a bunch of money by a university to do what they called giving a lecture, and obviously, we weren’t actually going to give a lecture, but what we were going to do was completely open-ended. So we thought we would bring a couple of instruments, we won’t bring much; we’ll dispense with the prepared remarks and go straight to the Q and A. So that’s what we did. We didn’t really know what it was going to be like, to be honest,. There was a certain amount of well, you know, if it’s a disaster at least we would be well-paid, so we couldn’t really lose. It ended up being really exciting, because we had no idea where it was going at any moment; we were exercising different skills that we weren’t really sure we had – kind of controlling a crowd, and talking that much, the whole aspect became something unlike anything we’d done before. And then Matador came to us with a sort of a challenge. One of the things that is difficult about being as together as long as we’ve been is the perception on a lot of people’s parts that they already know what you do and they’re going to see something new. The band can believe that every record we make is different from every other record we’d made and that every show is different from every other show we’ve done, but the audience might not see it that way. They may feel like they’ve seen us, and the next time we come around, they might skip us that time. Matador was suggesting that we try to come up with a way of going on tour that would make it clear even to people who had seen us before that the show would be unlike any other show. They had a couple of ideas in that regard. We thought about them and came back at them and said, “Well you know what, we just did this other show that may be exactly what you were talking about” and uncharacteristically for us we gave it a name and advertised that it was something different, rather than let people show up and see that it was something different. Just to kind of meet that marketing challenge, or something, that Matador gave us. We did a few of them and they just keep being fun to do and there really is no two are alike. There have been nights where we do two shows in a night, and they’ll be just night and day different from each other – it’s all based on who’s in the audience and how much they’ve had to drink, and what time it is, You just never know. So we’ve just kept doing them, off and on. PB : Do you think it’s something you would do again? IK: I would be surprised if it wasn’t. I know we’re going to do a couple in Australia next year. We’re going to Australia primarily to do a rock tour, but in Melbourne and Sydney we’re going to do one rock show and then do a Freewheelin’ show on a different day. PB : The Freewheelin’ shows are similar in some ways to other projects of yours, such as the ‘Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics’ live show and the Condo Fucks stuff – ideas that really bring the fun, loose side of the band to the fore. What’s the appeal of doing those kinds of shows? IK: Well, you just don’t know what’s going to happen. In a lot of ways it’s like riding a rollercoaster and getting that great feeling when you’ve lived at the end. There’s a lot of terror, it does have a rollercoaster aspect to it, especially the ‘Murdering the Classics’ thing, but Freewheeling, to a certain extent, there really is that sort of ‘uh oh!’ aspect to it, just trying to keep from getting thrown off the bucking bronco or something and , if you do get thrown, trying to get back on the horse. PB: The Condo Fucks record, ‘Fuckbook,’ almost mirrors your other more thematic records, such as ‘Fakebook’ and, to a certain extent, ‘Summer Sun’. Are those rare occasions when you do go to make an album with a set idea or sound in mind? IK: Um, no, not at all, they were all borne out of circumstances that just happened. ‘Fakebook’ really came about because we didn’t have a bass player, but we did have an acoustic repertoire, so we thought that we’d just do that. At the time, I was a reluctant singer and Georgia all but refused to sing, except when we’d do these kind of shows on radio stations and things, so it was kind of a way to sing a little bit and try to get comfortable with singing, but it wasn’t like a decision, it was us reacting to circumstances. The Condo Fucks was pretty much an accidental record. We were opening for some friends of ours at a little bar that held about a hundred people and the bar was closing, so it was our way of saying thanks to a place we liked. So we gave ourselves a fake name, and then just started working up a repertoire of songs appropriate to the name and the evening. It was just before we were going to do ‘Adventureland,’ so James wanted a rehearsal of recording. So we decided to record a set, just to practice, and it was basically the joke, that we should release it and call it ‘Fuckbook’. That’s when it became a record. There was never any plan to put out a Condo Fucks record until we came up with the title, and then we had to, in our minds. As far as ‘Summer Sun ‘is concerned, I wouldn’t call it stripped down. It certainly has a mood,, I would agree with that, and that was a last-second decision. Subsequent to that record we’d put out an EP called ‘Today is the Day’, and the first three songs were all up tempo, louder songs, aberrations from what was on ‘Summer Sun ‘for the most part. All three of those songs were recorded at the same time as ‘Summer Sun,’ and when we were looking at the material and deciding what we wanted to put out, we just decided to unify these songs a little more than we normally would have. I think we liked the idea of doing something different. Also, the fact that ‘And Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out’ had been so different, I think we liked the idea of getting a sibling for that record, so it wouldn’t be an only child, I didn’t want that record to seem, um, I don’t know. We meant it, and by doing it again it kind of underscored the fact that we meant it. It was just kind of a spur of the moment decision. We were done recording before we thought about it. That’s what we tend to do – we record what we’ve learned, and then figure out how to make a record out of what we’ve recorded. PB: One of your real standout records is ‘Painful’ and you’ve been quoted as saying that you view it as your first proper album. It certainly is a leap sonically from your previous records. What was it that brought it together so well? IK :Well, I mentioned that we didn’t have a bass player when we recorded ‘Fakebook’, and the personnel in our band for the first bunch of years was always in constant flux; it was always me and Georgia and whoever we could get to play with us. Very few of those people were committed to our band. They tended to be friends of ours who were simultaneously doing other things. That was really what they mostly cared about, but also they enjoyed playing with us and hanging out with us, so we would do stuff. In 1991, we met James and he started playing with us in the same way that all the other people had played with us. James was in the band Christmas at the time, who were friends of ours and a band we thought the world of. They’d just made a record that their record label, for reasons that never made any sense to me, didn’t want to put out. So the band were sort of in limbo at that point, and James volunteered to go on a tour with us, so we went on a tour and when we came to record ‘May I Sing With Me’(1992 album-Ed), since he had played all those songs live, he was the bass player. But he was not really in the band. He was just the guy who was filling in at that time. Then he decided that he did want to join the band and so even though James was on ‘May I Sing with Me’, ‘Painful’ is the first record we learned as a band, instead of us teaching him the songs that we already knew and that five bass players had played before him. With the songs on ‘Painful’, there’s a couple that had been played before him, but not more than once or twice. That’s really his record, as much as it’s our record, which you couldn’t really have said about ‘May I Sing with Me’; I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re not really that fond of it. We practiced tremendously for the first time. It was the first time we had a band that wanted to practice. Normally it would be like. “We’ve got a show coming up, we should have a practice,” that kind of thing. But when we were writing the songs for ‘Painful’ and learning them, we were practicing every single day and really attacking those songs. ‘Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo’ has some sketches of ‘From a Motel 6’ which are pretty different sounding from each other, and different from the final version and I think we just felt like we were capable of doing something good and kept challenging ourselves to realise it. There was quite a bit of tension during that time, because we were trying to push each other out of our comfort zones into doing something that we were capable of but didn’t take to that naturally. So for all those reasons that became the beginning. I think from pretty early on in the process, we knew that ‘Big Day Coming’, that version of it, that’s how we heard that record beginning. That was one of the early songs we had for that. I think that sentiment, I think a lot of the songs we write, the lyrics we write are just sort of singing into the mirror at each other, and that certainly was one of them. PB: Your records since ‘Painful’ seem to build on the foundations of that record. Obviously you have had the same line-up since then. What are the advantages of being such a stable unit? IK: It gives you something to build on, instead of starting from scratch each time, you’re building on what you’ve done. Including working with Roger Moutenot again and again, we have this so much common ground now that it just gives us all the more things to draw on and things to try to push towards because we have this shared experience. PB: Your last few records have seen your sound expanded with greater instrumentation, such as horns and strings. What has attracted you to those sounds in recent years? IK: Some of that has been the soundtrack stuff, as we’ve done some of those things on soundtracks and gotten a little more comfortable with it. I also think it’s a common thread that runs through the band that our confidence just continues to grow slowly but surely over the years. I think to allow outside musicians to play with us, and remain confident that it would still be you even though there was other musicians playing on it. I think that was something we had to arrive at, I think particularly because none of us are really gifted technicians. We could always find somebody who plays guitar technically better than I do. So if the point of the band isn’t our dazzling musicianship, maybe we’re undermining the band by bringing in dazzling musicians. But I think we ultimately always try things because we want to and the more we go on the more that we trust that we will emerge from it somehow. PB : Last question, and it’s a bit of a broad one: the traditional view of a band is that they make their first couple of records, build on their sound for a few albums, hit a peak within their first decade and start becoming a bit rubbish. You have a career that spans three decades, and yet you’ve still managed to keep your music interesting. There aren’t many bands that have achieved that goal. Why do you think you’ve managed it? IK: I’m not sure that’s so much broad as impossible to answer. There certainly is no secret, it just…I don’t know, because I think any answer I gave – because I get asked that a lot. - I’ve been failing to answer that question throughout this year. I think any answer we gave, you could point to somebody who seems to fit that category, and then just…doesn’t. PB: I guess that was a bit of a nasty question to end on, apologies. IK: It’s not really. Maybe the fact that can’t be answered indicates how good a question it is. PB: Thank you.

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