|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? Its especially puzzling, considering the group isnt
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 todays standards, thats not much of a
success story. However, Kaplan says the record moved twice as many units as the
bands previous efforts and helped draw more fans to shows, especially in the U.S.
The band has been critics darlings since it was formed in 1987 and indie-gods since
it released Painful in 1993.
As the interview begins, Kaplan says hes been spending the
morning in typical fashion, listening to a local public radio show and reading the
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 youd 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
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 dont 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: Weve 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 theres a tremendous audience
whove 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 its my only exposure to them. I look at the top-10 singles
and albums, and I wont 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 youre capable of reaching the audience
in ways that you didnt 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 dont think the Nirvana days changed
that, its still the same way. More bands may be getting signed, but I dont
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 dont think Matador (Yo La Tengos label) even back then made any
tremendous inroads on radio. Pavement, Im sure, were played more a couple years ago
then theyre played now. I guess Liz Phair was, but its hardly Guided By
Voices coming in again at No. 2. Its 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
Kaplan: It can get in the way of it, thats
(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
Boys cover, were you a big fan?
Kaplan: I became a Beach Boys fan probably around
the time of Surfs Up. I didnt 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, Ive liked them more and more.
McMahan: So you didnt have a Pet Sounds
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? thats 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 Im always tired of it. Nothing bothers me about being compared
to them, per se, its how I feel its being offered up. And once something hits
print, its more prone to be repeated, its kind of an expediential thing.
Its been written so many times that theres a lot of people who are predisposed
to think it. But people who genuinely feel that way, it doesnt bother me at all.
McMahan: What are you trying to accomplish when
youre sit down to write?
Kaplan: I try to answer this as vaguely as
possible, but its still probably accurate: We just try to do something we like and
we really try not to be constrained by anything else.
McMahan: So its like a jam?
Kaplan: Thats 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 -- thats 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, Im 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 didnt really believe it in my heart.
Originally printed in The Reader March 26, 1998
Copyright 1998 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.