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They've Got It!



The band, from left, Georgia Hubley, James McNew and Ira Kaplan




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A Sunday morning chat with Yo La Tengo.


by Tim McMahan

What are we doing running a piece on Yo La Tengo, a group who perhaps only a handful of Reader readers have ever heard? It’s especially puzzling, considering the group isn’t in the studio recording or releasing any new material (unless you count the recently released "Little Honda" EP, which consists of covers and remixes).

The question never came up on a Sunday in February, when Ira Kaplan, the creative force behind the trio who writes most of the music and shares vocals with his wife, Georgia Hubley, called from his Hoboken, N.J., home. The band had just finished a year-long tour in support of perhaps their best-sounding, and best-selling CD, "I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One," and was taking some time off before hitting the road again, this time for New Zealand, Australia and Japan.

Certainly 1997 was a banner year for Yo La Tango. "I Can Hear..." made a number of rock critics’ year-end "best-of" lists, thanks to its blend of infectious pop noise, indie-styled love odes and retro-’60s touches reminiscent of Velvet Underground. For the first time, Yo La Tengo was being heard on the radio (albeit, college radio) and MTV (albeit, 120 Minutes).

Okay, okay... by today’s standards, that’s not much of a success story. However, Kaplan says the record moved twice as many units as the band’s previous efforts and helped draw more fans to shows, especially in the U.S. The band has been critic’s darlings since it was formed in 1987 and indie-gods since it released Painful in 1993.

As the interview begins, Kaplan says he’s been spending the morning in typical fashion, listening to a local public radio show and reading the newspaper.

McMahan: In a lot of ways, this CD was a departure, what did you do differently and why?

Kaplan: A lot of times our records tend to be a little bit of a departure and then a little bit similar to our previous records. I tend to find myself disagreeing with whichever side of that equation the interviewer emphasizes.

McMahan: Well, it does have a lot of touches from your other records.

Kaplan: And in some ways, that has to do with its success. Over the last three records, while they still had real differences among them, you could tell they clearly were made by the same band. I think if you listen to "Moby Octopad" or "Center of Gravity" out of the context of the album, maybe then you’d wonder, ‘Is this Yo La Tengo?’ As an album, it has its moments of departure, but it has a lot of things to do especially with the last two records. So I think probably both things together had a lot to do with the reception it got.

McMahan: As a former rock critic, what do you think when you read the rock criticism? For example, Electr-o-Pura seemed to get weaker reviews than Painful and this album.

Kaplan: A lot of times people reassess records, and Electr-o-Pura fared worse in the reassessment reviews then the original ones. But, yes, I do read them, though I don’t hang on every word. Having been a writer, I think I read things that are said about us that are filtered. You always watch out for how much of the review is lifted from the bio.

McMahan: Have you ever been to Omaha?

Kaplan: We’ve driven through it, but never played in Nebraska.

McMahan: Do you ever ask yourself how your band can reach an audience like Omaha?

Kaplan: Not really. We think about it a little bit, but not too much.

McMahan: But there’s a tremendous audience who’ve never heard of you?

Kaplan: I think your right, I mean I know your right, but a lot of that is just 1998. In 1998, the New York Times is printing the charts, which is sad enough, but it’s my only exposure to them. I look at the top-10 singles and albums, and I won’t have heard of more than half of them on any given week. And those are people who are, by any stretch of the imagination, very popular. I think things are so compartmentalized at this point that you’re capable of reaching the audience in ways that you didn’t used to be.

McMahan: There was an article in the N.Y. Times that the record buying public has never been so fickle. Is this something new or are we just returning to the pre-Nirvana days, before the so-called underground surfaced with bands like Nirvana. Are we back to where we were in terms of there will always be the people who follow the scene and the rest will listen to the Spice Girls?

Kaplan: I don’t think the Nirvana days changed that, it’s still the same way. More bands may be getting signed, but I don’t know how many of those bands are actually selling records. Maybe a couple of them sold a few records because the record company got behind them.

For all of the supposed openness to music that allegedly just came to an end, I don’t think Matador (Yo La Tengo’s label) even back then made any tremendous inroads on radio. Pavement, I’m sure, were played more a couple years ago then they’re played now. I guess Liz Phair was, but it’s hardly ‘Guided By Voices coming in again at No. 2.’ It’s just the way it is. I get kinda bored talking about the business end of things. We spend more time talking about it with interviewers than we do among ourselves.

McMahan: I suppose as a musician, the music always comes first.

Kaplan: It can get in the way of it, that’s the problem.

(At this point in the interview, Hubley overhears on the radio that the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson has died of lung cancer. He acts both surprised and a bit shocked.)

McMahan: Being that Little Honda is a Beach Boy’s cover, were you a big fan?

Kaplan: I became a Beach Boys fan probably around the time of Surf’s Up. I didn’t like their surf stuff when I first heard it. I definitely was a lot more British oriented when I was younger. I always lumped the Beach Boys with the Four Seasons. Over the years, I’ve liked them more and more.

McMahan: So you didn’t have a Pet Sounds experience?

Kaplan: Not when I first heard it. I bought it and played it and said ‘Gee, big deal.’ And then I just kept playing it, and finally it did hit me. I had the same reaction when I heard the Velvet Underground the first time. I said, ‘Really? that’s all?’ But the Velvet Underground hit me faster than Pet Sounds did. I have that response many times to music; things that are built up take longer to make their impact.

McMahan: Do you ever get tired of being compared to the Velvet Underground?

Kaplan: I never get tired of it when I get the feeling the writer means it. When I get the feeling the writer read it somewhere else and is parroting it, then I’m always tired of it. Nothing bothers me about being compared to them, per se, it’s how I feel it’s being offered up. And once something hits print, it’s more prone to be repeated, it’s kind of an expediential thing. It’s been written so many times that there’s a lot of people who are predisposed to think it. But people who genuinely feel that way, it doesn’t bother me at all.

McMahan: What are you trying to accomplish when you’re sit down to write?

Kaplan: I try to answer this as vaguely as possible, but it’s still probably accurate: We just try to do something we like and we really try not to be constrained by anything else.

McMahan: So it’s like a jam?

Kaplan: That’s certainly how it begins. The nuts and bolts of our writing process at this point is jamming. In a lot of ways, we do things backwards. Where typically somebody writes a song on acoustic guitar, teaches it to the band, they record it, then they play it live and they extend it to 10 minutes or something -- that’s a rock cliche. Our way of doing it is to jam for a really long time, find a song within it, then learn how to play it on acoustic guitar. The last thing we do is learn how to play it.

McMahan: What was it like back in 1982 when you worked for New York Rocker magazine and hosted the "Music for Dozens" shows at Folk City for bands like The Replacements, Husker Du and Sonic Youth when they were just getting started? How did it influence your career?

Kaplan: Both projects were fun to be involved with. I think everything has an influence on you, and I always paid attention to the bands I was listening to. I always knew that I wanted to be doing this, I’m not sure how much I ever believed I would be. The message that anyone could pick up a guitar and play, I think, was a little bit lost on me. I didn’t really believe it in my heart.

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Originally printed in The Reader March 26, 1998

Copyright 1998 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.


Want more Yo La Tengo? Check out the Lazy-i Interview with James McNew from October 2006.






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I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One Matador Records













"I look at the top-10 singles and albums, and I won’t have heard of more than half of them on any given week. And those are people who are, by any stretch of the imagination, very popular."

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"Our way of doing it is to jam for a really long time, find a song within it, then learn how to play it on acoustic guitar. The last thing we do is learn how to play it."