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Yo La Tengo: They've Still Got It

 story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: Oct. 4, 2006

Yo La Tengo
w/ Why?
Sunday, Oct. 8, 9 p.m.
Sokol Underground
13th & Martha

We all have a list of "dream shows" that we'd love to see, those bands that for whatever reason -- whether it be that they've never come near Omaha or the ticket price was too high or the band no longer exists -- we've never been able to see perform live. Yo La Tengo has been on top of my list for almost a decade.

I first interviewed the band way back in March 1998 (read it here). The Reader, much to its credit, ran the story even though at the time few people had ever heard of them. During that interview, I asked guitarist/vocalist Ira Kaplan why his band never came through Omaha. He said he didn't know. The idea had never occurred to them and that he'd have to remember Omaha on the next tour.

Well, more than eight year later Ira has remembered Omaha, and Yo La Tengo will be playing Sokol Underground Oct. 8. The reason for the occasion, the release of their first new CD in three years, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, another in a series of intimate rock head-trips, almost indefinable in its scope, which ranges from 10-minute acid-rock jams (opener "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind") to ethereal early morning acoustic walks in a forest ("Daphnia) to cow-bell driven, falsetto-sung dance-rock rave-ups ("Mr. Tough"). Best of the 2006? Definitely.

This time instead of Ira, or his wife, drummer/vocalist Georgia Hubley, bassist James McNew, who rounds out the trio, fielded the questions. Though the band is said to be celebrating its 22nd year, McNew didn't join until '91, a late-comer whose job as fill-in has lasted 15 years. He spoke from his home in Brooklyn, where he was feverishly getting ready to hit the road.




How do you prepare for a tour?

We rehearse and get our songs and the cover songs ready. There's so much to do, especially since this will be the first wave of touring in support of this record. We assembled our team, got all of our equipment fixed, even purchased some new things. Now it's just packing. It's sort of like getting ready for an international flight and the mania that takes over your life the 24 hours before going to the airport. The last week or so was like driving around in the furthest parking lot away from the terminal, cursing. Now I feel like we're on the shuttle bus headed toward the terminal, and once we're on the plane, it'll be OK.

Is 'learning' the new songs part of the process?

A lot of times nothing is finished before we head into the studio. We just have song ideas. Lord knows there are never lyrics until the last absolute possible moment in recording. We come up with an idea, flesh it out into a song and then cover the song. We have to go back and learn the thing we made up. I think it may not be as literal as that all the time, but certainly with overdubbing instruments in the studio and adding things that the three of us can't cover at once, we try to figure out things to do to make the arrangements sound right live.

How was writing the soundtrack to the film Old Joy different than putting together a typical Yo La Tengo album?

It's totally different. With Old Joy and any of the movies that we scored, there's quite a bit of literally sitting down in front of the recording meter with the director of the film, who has a pretty clear vision of exactly what he or she wants. So you're composing music and trying to react emotionally to what you see on the screen, and at the same time trying to do exactly what someone else wants. That's new, because writing records is for ourselves and no one else. Here, we're trying to please a director and his vision of the mood of the movie or a scene, but at the same time trying to retain our identity and personality.

How has your role in the band changed since you joined?

It's very different. I originally joined as a temporary substitute bass player filling in for a three-week American tour and three-week European tour in the summer of 1991. I learned all the songs that ended up being on the record May I Sing with Me, but didn't have a hand in (writing) those songs. Afterward, I moved to New York (from Providence, Rhode Island) and started practicing and making up songs that ended up being on Painful. Now I have a key to the room.

Painful marked the band's return to Matador Records. How has the label changed since then?

When we signed over to Matador I was so excited because almost all the records I bought were on that label. I saved a tremendous amount of money because we got free cut-out copies of their releases. It's different at Matador now, and many of the people who were part of the crew early on are gone, but at the same time the core of the original crew is there. The owners, label managers and some people who have come on since then are amazing and great to work with.

With Ira and Georgia being married, what's the dynamic like in the band?

It's hard to describe. We get along really great. The very first time I drove down and rehearsed with them I'm pretty sure we wasted half the day talking about SETV and movies and records and stuff. It's kind of what practices are still like now. We talk about something until it's time to go. Our personalities work well together. We support each other and push each other and challenge our own notions of the group and making music.

Do you expect that there will be fans in towns like Omaha that you've never played before?

Well, you hope so. We've gone to places that just seemed impossibly far away that we've never been to before, and received a warm reception. It's an amazing experience. Whether Omaha or Brazil or Taiwan, it's an eye-opener.

So what are we in for when you get to Omaha for the first time?

For this first wave of traveling we'll be playing a lot of the new songs, but Omaha will be different. We've never been there, so not only have we never played our new songs in that city, we've never played any songs in that city. It will be different than many of the other shows on this tour. We'll be opening up the catalog.

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Published in The Omaha Reader Oct. 4, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.




"Our personalities work well together. We support each other and push each other and challenge our own notions of the group and making music."