Yo La Tengo are Hoboken, New Jersey’s greatest musical export since Frank Sinatra.
Centring around the husband and wife team of Ira Kaplan (vocals, guitars, keyboards) and Georgia Hubley (vocals, drums, keyboards), Yo La Tengo had a fluid line-up (including singer/songwriter, Dave Schramm of country-rockers The Schramms) until the band hooked up with bassist/vocalist/keyboard-player James McNew in 1991.
Yo La Tengo are unpredictable mavericks.
Their next release might be a fragile folky thrum, or a heavy-metal Beach Boys cover, or a droning interpretation of a Sun Ra composition.
“We have very wide tastes,” understates Ira.
“We love avant garde things, we love simple pop music,” continues Georgia. “to us music has no boundaries. We push ourselves in these different directions to keep things interesting, for us and for the audience.”
“I don’t accept that those are mutually exclusive concepts,” argues Ira. “‘Smile’-era Beach Boys is a perfect example of music which is ‘pop’ in one sense, and completely avant garde in another.”
Yo La Tengo like to ‘jam’. A lot.
“We just like to play,” explains Ira. “A lot of it is aimless. Often we’ll be playing at least an hour before we hit upon anything we might wanna use. With this album [‘And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-out’], we sifted through hours and hours of cassette recordings of our practices, picking out ideas, melodies, songs.”
The album’s closing track, the sublime ‘Night Falls On Hoboken’ – a haunting, ghostly lament evolving into an enchanting, ambient excursion over seventeen minutes – grew from this process.
“We already had the song,” remembers Ira, “Then one practice session, we just decided not to stop.”
“We just kept going,” grins Georgia.
“A lot of our songs go through various incarnations. After we heard Kevin Shields‘ remix of ‘Autumn Sweater’, we started to ‘cover’ the remix live. We’d try and replicate the sounds he made on that remix, kinda do a medley of his version and ours.”
Yo La Tengo can play requests.
1990’s acclaimed ‘Fakebook’ album featured songs by The Kinks, John Cale, and other, more obscure artists.
“We play every year on the fund-raiser for our local radio station, WFMU,” says Georgia. “People pledge money and request songs that we’ll cover. We’re quite generous to ourselves as to what counts as honouring the request, we’ll frequently substitute another song by the same artist, a different song with the same name. The listeners are smart enough not to try and stump us, they’re not purposefully choosing obscure songs.”
“We’ll practice a day or so beforehand,” says Ira, “Try and challenge ourselves, take turns at calling out songs. It can be surprising which songs are hard and which are easy.”
“‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’ was pretty good,” smiles James, “And ‘You Sexy Thing’. I particularly enjoyed ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours’!”
Ira used to be a rock journo. Perhaps understandably, he prefers not to talk about it.
“I was a really bad writer,” he winces, “Completely that cliche of the hack who would rather be up there on stage. I just thought it was some impossible dream, whenever I’d see someone perform it just reinforced for me the distance between the audience and the stage, that there was something special about them, something untouchable. But I wanted to hang around that world. I get embarrassed when I read my stuff now, it’s like a really unflattering photograph.
“It bothers me, though, when people write about us as if we’re some typical rock critic’s band. I was always just some idiot who loved music, who tried to communicate that. We’re fans of music, not analysts, its all done out of enthusiasm.”
Yo La Tengo are on speaking terms with Homer Simpson.
“We were playing a show in LA,” remembers Ira, “I was working on our T-Shirt stall, and this guy came up to us and said he was a writer for The Simpsons.”
“We got to know him quite well,” continues Georgia, “And he wanted us to record the music for an episode where Homer sets up a hippy commune, because he likes the idea of the hippy lifestyle – never washing, never working.
“We submitted three demos of the theme tune. Our favourite was played in a John Coltrane, free-jazz style; we did another, biker-rock version, like ‘Born To Be Wild’. The one they eventually chose, predictably, was based on The Beatles‘ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, with the guy who plays Homer improvising gibberish lyrics over the top.”
“The deadline was pretty harsh,” laughs James, “But, hey, we got to meet Homer Simpson!”
Yo La Tengo are available for weddings, parties, Bar Mitzvahs…
“We played at the wedding of that Simpsons writer,” remembers Georgia. “Before then we’d played a few wedding receptions, but this time we were playing during the actual service. I played the church organ; it was pretty, understated church music. Although if you listened closely enough, you’d realise we were playing ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ by Carl Douglas, Steve Miller‘s ‘The Joker’ and ‘He’s a Whore’ by Cheap Trick.
“We also played Annie Lebowitz‘s Christmas party a few years back. We played a quiet instrumental set, until one of Annie‘s entourage approached the stage and said, ‘Annie wants you to pick it up a little!’ So we played our ‘rock’ set, and everyone started dancing. Annie was dancing with Susan Sontag!”
Yo La Tengo are movie stars
They portrayed a band not-dissimilar to The Velvet Underground (to whom YLT are often compared) in the movie ‘I Shot Andy Warhol’.
“That was a glamourous shoot,” remembers Ira, “Especially for Georgia. We weren’t allowed to eat with her, she got to use the union-members’ canteen.”
“My parents were animators,” explains Georgia (indeed, the Hubleys were responsible for Mr Magoo), “They worked on this kids show, The Electric Company, and my brothers and sisters and I did voices for it. But I had to join the actors’ guild, and I never quit, and the only way the film-makers could make the picture with both union and non-union staff is if the union people have separate catering services. The food was better, it was like being in First Class.”
“But whenever we tour now,” laughs Ira, “Georgia still refuses to eat with us!”
Yo La Tengo are scared of words
Despite ‘And Nothing’ being their most lyrically explicit album yet (a collection of songs about relationships), Yo La Tengo are still pretty uncomfortable with lyric-writing.
“The words are pretty heartfelt, but they’re always the last things we write,” admits Ira. “We’re probably more fond of the non-verbal side of things. Georgia wouldn’t sing at all when we first formed. I sang, but with a lot of reservation; it took us a while to take our singing seriously.
“I still marvel at people who find it so easily to sing and write lyrics in their own voice. We’re finding it a little easier as we go along, but the words still lag behind somewhat.”
‘Yo La Tengo’ is meaningless
“Yo La Tengo means nothing,” admits Ira. “We don’t speak Spanish, we just liked the way the words sound. Georgia thought it would be nice if we had a name without any literal meaning, but then, in interviews, we’d make up definitions, so there’s all these different meanings floating around.
“Whatever you wanna write for this article, that would be good.”