“It’s definitely artistically motivated,” he said. “Adventureland was the first movie we actually got paid for. We did the other ones just because we wanted to do them, and it’s something we’ve always wanted to try, so we were kind of in it to be in it. Junebug was the first movie score that we had even tried to do, and that was in 2003. And we’d been together for 15 years and had discovered a brand new way to work together, and create together. And I think it created this new feeling of self-sufficiency. And we were doing it all ourselves, recording all of those scores in our practice space, just the three of us. It’s been a really positive development.”
While the band’s adherence to its own whimsy has played a large part in its success, it is by no means reclusive when it comes to press and marketing. “When I read about people who have to be on phone interviews from 6 in the morning until 10 o’clock at night, talking to Morning Zoo radio DJs on the air, well, that sounds like a nightmare. So I try to take it all in perspective,” said Mr.McNew. And the band has found ways of connecting with fans without offering endless tour diaries and news streams. “We’re not so into recounting the minutiae of our daily adventures to people,” he said. “Talking about anything other than ourselves in our own way is our way of releasing information about who we are and what we’re doing, whether that’s writing about stupid TV shows or anything we happen to come up with. Too much information can be a bummer. It can be more fun when you have to use your imagination with someone. We’ve never made a record with a lyric sheet, and never gone into a real heavy duty press release telling you what we were all going through while we made this record. A), I hate that, and B), it’s kind of like giving instructions to people on how to listen to your record. It’s better to leave it open and people can put their own feelings and ideas into it, and I think that’s more satisfying.”
Yet if Yo La Tengo remains somewhat aloof in its public face, the band has always been diligent in its devotion to keeping in personal contact with fans. Back in what Mr. McNew called “the analog days,” they were attentive in written correspondence with fans, and today they spend plenty of time answering fan emails. Mr. McNew even runs the band’s newfangled Twitter feed, which matches cute observations with links to band performances and news items. “I kinda do enjoy it, particularly the challenge of the limitations,” he said.
Artistic breadth has also been a calling card of the band. They’ve worked with tons of their peers and heroes, from Ray Davies to Jad Fair to Ornette Coleman. They had a minor hit with a kid-chorus-accented cover of Sun Ra’s herky-funky “Nuclear War.” They’ve had fine artists design their album covers, from Gregory Crewdson to Gary Panter to their latest cover, courtesy of artist Dario Robleto. The smashed cassette tape on the cover of Popular Songs is constructed from, among other things, pulverized bones and trinitite, a glass produced during the first atomic test explosion.
“We all felt a really strong connection with Robleto’s work,” said Mr. McNew. “We gingerly approached him and he wrote us back right away and he was a fan already and blew our minds, collectively. It couldn’t have been any more perfect and any more exciting. These are people who we love and really respect, and cherish their work, and the other side of that is that maybe you will too. It’s not so much, ‘Learn about this, dummy!’ It’s more like, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if Gary Panter would do our album cover, or Gregory Crewdson would let us use these photos?’ The answer, it turns out, has been an emphatic, Yes!”
The band’s upcoming show at Roseland Ballroom on Friday, Sept. 25, will be its only New York area appearance in close to a year of planned shows. (The Maxwell’s Hanukkah shows are off this year). As a special gift for hometown fans, the band has some treats on offer: the Black Lips are opening, there will be a light show by Joshua White & Gary Panter, Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. will be playing in the lobby, and Daily Show correspondent John Oliver will emcee the night. Of course, serious touring is a proven moneymaker, but Mr. McNew also looks forward to the in-between times to come, where the band finds itself anew. “When touring starts to slow down and time opens up, interesting opportunities kind of pop up in those times, and we always try to do them and take on anything that seems interesting,” he said. “I remember reading how David Sedaris would write a book, and then finish it, and then just go get a job somewhere doing something and that’s how he would learn about people and get ideas, working in a department store or whatever. I always thought that was really funny, but it also makes perfect sense. The things you’re doing when you’re not doing your main job can be very informative and can kind of awaken different parts of your brain that you weren’t using.”