Yo La Tengo: “Success gave us the courage to be weirder”

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Originally published in Uncut’s Take 189

Long seen as perhaps the quintessential American indie band, this unassuming Hoboken, New Jersey trio have a far more fiery and fearless back catalogue than that dubious epithet would suggest. In fact, they’ve quietly established themselves as one of the most stunningly eclectic and experimental rock bands of the last 30 years. Producing 13 albums and countless side-projects, married couple Georgia Hubley (drums, keys and vocals) and Ira Kaplan (guitar, keys and vocals), along with bassist James McNew, have spun away from the jangly garage-rock of their mid-’80s origins to embrace the dustier corners of their enviable record collections – taking in krautrock, shoegaze, ambient, even Bacharach-esque pop and tropicália, and inspiring artists like The Flaming Lips and Graham Coxon along the way. “It all comes down to not really knowing what we were doing!”

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Ride The Tiger

Coyote, 1986

The timid, compact debut, featuring Ira on what he later termed “naïve guitar”, and, in what would become a pattern for their early years, a revolving cast of bassists.

Ira Kaplan: This album feels very far away. Some things feel like yesterday; that is not one of them. It was recorded in Boston, at White Dog. I don’t think overconfidence was ever our problem – we were big fans of Mission Of Burma, and having somebody we respected as much as Clint Conley [bassist/vocalist] to sign on to produce us meant a lot. We were not anywhere close to knowing what we were doing…

Georgia Hubley: Our influences were not terribly different from now – forgetting things that came after, of course. A bit of US garage rock, ’60s folk rock, The Feelies.

Ira: I think we were happy with the album at the time, to a certain extent. There were things about it that were definitely very exciting. Dave [Schramm, lead guitarist on the album] had so much to do with it. Some of the more orchestrated, overdubbed things were ideas from him. There were definitely things we were discovering about ourselves. I think it all really comes down to not really knowing what we were doing!

James McNew: I think I heard Yo La Tengo for the first time on a college radio station in my town, Charlottesville, Virginia. Whether I would’ve heard Ride The Tiger first or [1987’s] New Wave Hot Dogs I’m not sure, but it would’ve been right around that time.

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Fakebook

Bar None, 1990

After losing their bassist, Stephan Wichnewski, Ira and Georgia record a charming acoustic set mainly comprised of covers, including songs by Cat Stevens, John Cale and the Flamin’ Groovies.

Ira: There was a day on tour when Georgia was walking down the street somewhere in the mid-West and she actually overheard people laughing about the terrible radio interview that they’d just heard with us. So we thought, ‘How can we get out of this stuff?’ – so we brought a guitar to the interviews and started singing songs. It became a repertoire we developed with all these cover songs. Fakebook was trying to present that side of us – there’s a couple of songs we wrote for it, but mostly it was things we’d been doing that way already. The whole record was done very quickly, we were rehearsing in our living room at the time because we were playing so quietly we could rehearse almost anywhere. It had the advantage that Georgia wasn’t having to play drums and sing at the same time…it was a two-tiered thing: the confidence to sing and the ability and confidence to sing while playing drums. Having to do just the one definitely made it easier.

Georgia: I suppose I did [find my voice] here. Trying parts that I knew from listening to records was kind of an entry way into singing. I think I’m a lot more confident now. I’m more accepting of the imperfections, which actually makes it easier to carry on and possibly improve.

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Painful

Matador, 1993

With Matador, new producer Roger Moutenot and the latest (and last) bassist James on board, the band get busy reinventing themselves as noise-rocking sonic explorers.

Ira: James is on [1992’s] May I Sing With Me, but there he’s still kind of the guy who’s filling in, we didn’t necessarily think he’d be around 12 months on.

Georgia: I think Painful is where the three of us really joined up as a single-headed monster. That’s the record where we really decided we could do whatever we wanted. It’s where we discovered that creative freedom, to do things we hadn’t done before. Then, the more successful it was, it gave us the courage to be weirder. I know when we were making Painful, though, it was kind of a rough period for us. We were changing record labels, it was a very stressful time – not making the music, but other stuff. Although it is one of my favourite records, there were a lot of challenges.

Ira: Once James moved to Brooklyn and was actually going to be in the group, our whole approach changed. There was a lot of practicing, and regular practicing, it wasn’t like ‘who’s available on Thursday night?’, it became an everyday kind of thing.

James: In the interim between May I Sing With Me and Painful, we took this organ off the shelf in the practice space – it belonged to someone else who practised there – and spent the day just playing our songs in this re-arranged lineup. We just thought ‘that’s kind of funny’ – and then realised, ‘Oh, that’s pretty good, actually!’

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Electr-O-Pura

Matador, 1995

To Nashville, where the trio meet Lambchop, try the city’s famous hot chicken and jam their sound into groovier, krautrocking pastures.

Ira: We knew we needed to work with Roger again and he’d moved to Nashville. So we blocked out I-don’t-remember-how-many weeks, and we went down there and exclusively worked. I believe it was Richard Baluyut from the band Versus who told us that going to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack was a must do…

Georgia: Hot chicken is a local, hot, spicy chicken. It’s fried chicken with a red hot chili coating but mostly it tastes like southern fried chicken – very tasty but not so good for your digestive tract!

James: We became friends with Lambchop around that time, which was great, because all of a sudden you have twenty new friends in a town you don’t know that well – the people from Lambchop were really like family, like it was a really special connection that we had.

Ira: In between Painful and Electr-O-Pura we started working with [Half Japanese’s] Jad Fair for a record, Strange But True. Jad suggested we record without any preparation. We were so intrigued by the things we were coming up with spontaneously that we thought that would make a good direction. Sometimes writing like that is easy, sometimes it’s not. The neighbours like it better.

James: I know that ‘Tom Courtenay’ began as a forty-five minute instrumental jam.

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I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One

Matador, 1997

The finest embodiment of the band’s many sides: from distorted indie (“Sugarcube”) and tender ballads (“Shadows”) to bossanova (“Center Of Gravity”) and ten-minute organ grinds (“Spec Bebop”).

Ira: I think we’re aware that many other people view it [as their favourite]. We’re aware when we play we live that “Sugarcube” and “Stockholm Syndrome” and “Autumn Sweater” are getting a response. I think we were probably just more confident by this point. Everything is kind built on what came before and I think there were things that we were trying here that we hadn’t tried before. We put out an EP called “Camp Yo La Tengo” that had a [nine-minute instrumental] song called “Mr Ameche Plays The Stranger”, and I remember feeling at the time that that was a thing that we really liked that we left off of Electr-O-Pura. So there was a kind of feeling throughout the group, that ‘we’re not leaving that one off again on this album.’ We felt as strongly about those kind of songs as we did “Sugarcube” or “Stockholm Syndrome”. Things like [Beach Boys cover] “Little Honda”, which might not have been on an earlier record, were on that record.

James: It’s not as though I feel any prouder of that one than I do of anything else that we’ve done. I feel very strongly about all of it. I wish I were able to shed some light on it. Maybe, looking back, I feel that we had gained confidence in making that record. I think that we showed different sides of ourselves a little bit, showed different ways we could play, yet they were all still us, they were all our personalities, and I think maybe that’s where that became a more regular thing. I mean, I know that when we played live we would play loud and quiet, that was just who we were, and I think that that expanded quite a bit around that time in terms of showing other styles and textures. We’ve started lots of shows with “Green Arrow”… A song that’s in one space on an album is in a completely different space in a live show, and in the different contexts, the songs and the moods are very flexible for us. I think they’re open to interpretation and change. Georgia is really the best when it comes to sequencing things, and this was a great one.

Georgia: This one kind of came together pretty easily – sequencing is like a puzzle, it dictates where the songs can go. I can’t really take all the credit for it, I’m just more emphatic about what I want!

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And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out…

Matador, 2000

Named after a Sun Ra lyric, this is a hushed and spooky sojourn into the dark heart of domesticity and the suburban night – once again recorded at Nashville’s Alex The Great with Roger Moutenot.

Ira: It was never part of the plan to make a quiet record. It seemed to keep happening that when we’d play loud it just wasn’t sticking, if we played quiet, it was. At the time we didn’t know why it was happening. Later, we hypothesised that it could have been the sound in our new practice space. I’ve always thought that a lot of the development of the band is confidence, and confidence to accept that, ‘OK, this may not be anything like anything we’ve done before but that’s alright.’

Georgia: I wouldn’t say we are exactly floating along in outer space, but [our ethos] is open-ended. Opportunities are often very exciting when things arise, cause you didn’t plan it.

James: [18-minute closer] “Night Falls On Hoboken” was recorded completely live. We wanted to figure out a way to properly capture what we had been doing, you know, physically, so it took us… a couple of days, I think… ‘Okay, let’s try one!’ and half an hour later, ‘Let’s try another one!’ We definitely chased it for a couple of days until we hit on the way that we could actually do it the way we were doing it, and we were really happy once we got it.

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The Sounds Of The Sounds Of Science

Egon, 2002

An instrumental soundtrack to eight Surrealist nature documentaries by the eccentric French director Jean Painlevé, including “The Love Life Of The Octopus” and “Shrimp Stories”…

Georgia: It was a weird time – we made The Sounds Of The Sounds Of Science literally right after September 11. We were at a wedding in North Carolina, and we had all our equipment with us, as we were planning to head on to Nashville to record. We almost cancelled – you just want to be there when things like that happen, but it was more practical to make the record. I really loved that record, but it was very strange recording it.

Ira: We were approached by San Francisco International Film Festival about doing something. we were not familiar with Painlevé, they brought him to our attention. We got some VHS copies of some of his movies, and we thought, ‘Great, we love the movies…’, and saw how we could find our way in.

James: It was definitely another jam-oriented time. We had been playing a lot, practising a lot. We had all these jams coming into play before that project even came about. I think we sort of went through what we had and found that quite a bit of it matched up to the images. I know that the “Sea Urchins” track is actually two separate pieces of music that we had already composed, mashed into each other. Maybe there is something in an all-instrumental set that does allow us a little more room, I guess, to be freakier and looser, and more psychedelic, I don’t know. But I like how it feels.

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Condo Fucks

Fuckbook

Matador, 2009

A lo-fi YLT alter-ego is born – feedback-drenched garage-rockers tearing up classics by the Small Faces, The Kinks, The Beach Boys and even Slade.

Ira: This pretty much was recorded in real time! It was an accidental record. We were going to open for The A-Bones, who are friends of ours that I play with sometimes, in a small bar. We wanted to do it under a fake name, so we just came up with that repertoire and came up with that name. Meanwhile, James had got some new recording equipment and wanted to try it out so we just recorded a rehearsal and played the set from start to finish, but the recording sounded pretty good. We were ready to release it on Egon, but to our surprise Matador decided it was Matador material.

James: A lot of them were songs we had already been doing, like songs that had been in our live sets – almost all of them were song that we’d known already. I think we were really attracted to the idea of no tonal variety at all, and just everything basically sounding the same… No switching of instruments, just completely straight-ahead, like, for half an hour, no talking between songs. Yeah, that was pretty appealing. I recorded it, kind of… that was one of the first full band recordings that I ever did, and it was very easy because I certainly didn’t have to worry about level, I just pushed everything into the red and practically recorded it live.

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Fade

Matador, 2012

Recorded in Chicago with a new producer, Tortoise’s John McEntire, the band’s thirteenth record is a typically varied mix of sweet harmony and unorthodox textures, dominated by its second side of woozily pretty ballads.

Georgia: The only thing we decided to do was to keep this more concise, possibly shorter. It was fun to really pare down the music and the songs and get them a little tighter and shorter. After they’re done, I do not spend a lot of time thinking about our records! I can literally be at a bar and a song can come on and it will sound oddly familiar. It’ll literally take half the song to realise!

Ira: We had a really great time with John, we’ve known him for a long time. He’s got all sorts of stuff in his studio; it’s quite a playhouse he’s put together.

James: John’s studio is amazing, it’s like a very clean spaceship. There was one thing that I became very attached to, called the Luminous Garden. It’s a box with different wires sprouting out of the top of it, with a contact mic inside the box, and various echo and filter processes built into it. It creates these amazing oscillating percussive sounds. I’m perfectly ready to forfeit every instrument in the band and do all of our songs just on this crazy instrument. And I don’t think people will enjoy it, but I know I’ll have a really good time doing it!

 

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