It might be better to burn out than it is to fade away, but what if your ambition is continuity?
Yo La Tengo is a New York (by way of Hoboken) institution, celebrating its 25th year of making music. The reasons the band has outlasted many of its indie peers are many, but most have to do with a careful balance of novelty and consistency.
Never cohering to a scene or sound has been advantageous for Yo La Tengo, though the trio’s hallmarks—hushed brokenhearted pop and elegiac swells of feedbacky reckoning—appear on nearly every album; kind reminders that it’s still Yo La Tengo, shifting while staying in the same place. A nice trick. 1993’s Painful and 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One are the epochal albums. But the last two, 2003’s Summer Sun and 2006’s I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, have proven that, like fellow survivors Sonic Youth, the band is making some of the most vital, assured and arresting music of its career.
Earlier this month the band released its sixteenth album, the cheekily-titled, Popular Songs. It’s cheeky because while the band sees consistent sales that would be the envy of most indie rock outfits (75,000 to 125,000 for the last few records), its popularity is sculpted not from overwrought posturing, obsessive audio tinkering or playing to any particular audience, but from simply making the records the band wants to hear.
“As simplistic as it sounds, we just kept working for ourselves and writing songs to please ourselves and each other,” James McNew, Yo La Tengo’s bassist, told The Observer. “Making records that we thought were good. We didn’t set out to recruit new fans, but that’s worked for us. We just keep doing what feels right.”
And what the band wants to hear has been all over the place, a wide array of sounds, usually tending back toward swirling, feedbacky laments, with stops along the way for everything from funk meltdowns to sugary pop ditties. The new album is a microcosm of the pattern. It opens with a trio of pop tunes taking the band down numerous stylistic paths, from the orchestral-tinged, soundtrack-ready opener to sunny psych freakouts and on to pulsing, keyboard-drone-driven rumblers. The album gets on more familiar poppy ground through the noisy drive of “Nothing to Hide,” and on through the neat and cute tunes, “When It’s Dark” and “I’m On My Way.” Later, things take a funkier turn, the band getting loose on some organ-driven soul numbers with “Periodically Double or Triple” and “If It’s True.” Then another trio strikes both familiar and unexpected chords; three longer pieces, around ten minutes apiece; jams that evolve dreamlike and give the band space to communicate as slowly, softly, fiercely, or noisily as it wants.
“There’s very little that we think of big-picture-wise while we’re making a record,” said Mr. McNew. “Rarely do we think beyond what we’re doing at the moment. I’m sure [the anniversary has] kinda been in our heads this year, a little. But still, we’re not really focusing on celebrating ourselves too much. But it was kind of accidental, almost as if we made a concept record completely in reverse. If you put all those things together you can put together some really strong messages, but we didn’t have any of that in mind.”
And there you have Yo La Tengo. All over the place, yet strangely, comfortingly familiar all the while. It could come from singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan’s onetime métier—music journalist. But more likely it comes from a very genuine collective mania about music. Mr. Kaplan, his wife Georgia Hubley (she plays drums and sings), and Mr. McNew (he sings too, very sweetly, sometimes) share a collective interest to the point of preoccupation with music, television, baseball and culture. It rarely bleeds through in the band’s lyrics, which tend to range from foreboding to melancholic, but always stick to rough narratives of love, loss and longing.
The cultural obsessions come through in the work Yo La Tengo does in between proper albums, keeping themselves exceedingly busy. This year, in addition to Popular Songs, the band released an album under the name Condo Fucks, playing covers in the guise of a mythical more-indie-than-thou band; wrote and performed the soundtrack to film Adventureland; contributed songs to a clutch of compilations; and played a spate of all-acoustic concerts known as the “The Freewheeling Yo La Tengo Tour.” They frequently perform cover songs on Jersey City’s 91.1 WFMU, and have a long-running charity Hannukah residency at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. They recorded a version of the Simpsons’ theme song and played on Gilmore Girls. Before Adventureland, they scored other films, including Junebug and Old Joy. Yet Mr. McNew is quick to fend off the idea that the band may be cashing in.
“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.”
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