Yo La Tengo: TAS In Session
Yo La Tengo's thoughtful legacy of longevity, quality and innovation is an enviable one. Few bands have managed to span thirty years so effortlessly and with such a consistently strong discography. The trio's 13th release, Fade, came out earlier this year and it's one of Yo La Tengo's best, a succinct collection of ten songs, shifting slyly from bold grooves to more brooding ambles.
The band — married couple Ira Kaplan and Georgie Hubley and compadre James McNew — has been touring all year and last month they supported Belle and Sebastian at Celebrate Brooklyn! in Prospect Park. The indefatigable friends play Los Angeles' FYF Festival the weekend of August 24 and Ithaca, NY on September 13. A European and UK tour follows later this fall.
Alisa Ali: Now, I’ve seen your “Ohm” video and there is a ridiculously complicated math equation of “What is Yo La Tengo.” Can you guys talk about equation?
Ira Kaplan: Well, it was put together by an old friend of ours, Donick Carey, who used to work for “The Simpsons.” He’s had an illustrious career in television and worked for David Letterman and he’s on “Parks and Recreation” now. We’d talked about doing something together for a long time and we finally did. But that was mostly his concept. We threw in some touchstones we were hoping he’d work into the equation.
Alisa: Like what?
Ira: I think it’s almost obvious which ones came from us so I won’t spoil it. But if it’s the square root sign, that’s all him. If it’s obscure bands from the great D.C. area, that’s us!
Alisa: What I was perplexed and fascinated by was that specific equation because there’s Nancy Sinatra going into the White Stripes going into Sister Nancy … did you guys come up with the list of all of those bands?
Ira: No, mostly that was Donick. We tweaked it a couple of times. There was a lot of proofreading, including Matador staff members. This totally took me by surprise, but the Rod Stewart hit record which is known to me as, “Do You Think I’m Sexy” is actually correctly “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy.” So that was one of the last things gotten right. We didn’t want the student to erroneously get an “A.”
James McNew: That’s right. The spelling of Pharoahe Monch was also elusive.
Alisa: [You've played a] very different version of “Ohm” than what’s on the album, but I’ve seen you play a few times and I think it was at a Town Hall show where you played that song twice. Is that something you’ve been doing?
Georgia Hubley: Yes, on that tour and a few tours, we’ve played two sets. One set kind of quiet and stripped down and we played a lot of the songs on the album that are quieter. And then we do a second set where we’re full on rock. It seemed a nice way to open the show and have that song come back. Play it in two different forms.
Alisa: I also heard that you’re going to be releasing a vinyl series that will include different versions of that song? And a shower curtain?
Ira: I have to say, that aspect of the news is new to us. I’ve heard that too. We had a lot to do with the packaging but [the shower curtain] was someone else’s brainwave. But even the live version that more closely resembles the studio version has gotten pretty far from that version. We’ve never been particularly shy about changing songs or playing them live and we don’t care about being true to the way it sounds on the record. So there’s going to be three 12-inch records, one with the studio version, one with a live, rock version and one with the live, quieter version. And then there’s a song that didn’t make it to the record that we recorded with our friends from Chicago, Doug McCombs and Rick Rizzo from Eleventh Dream Day. Doug is also in Tortoise with John McEntire and all three of the are on this thing called “Oriole." We have three radically different remixes of that song which will be the B-Side of each 12-inch. And a shower curtain.
Alisa: Is there a particular song that you’ve done that you feel changed most radically from inception?
Ira: Most of them?
Alisa: That song, “The Point of It,” is so beautiful. Ira and Georgia, you’ve been married for a long time. Do you think your fans want to read into the lyrics of your songs? Or do you keep them vague so people aren’t delving into [your] private life?
Ira: I don’t think that’s an either/or. I hope if they were more specific, like “I called up James and we talked about SCTV for a while,” then there wouldn’t be anything to look into. I like the idea and it’s flattering if people are thinking about the words and wondering what they mean, wondering how they fit into their own life. I think that’s great if that happens.
Alisa: When you’re writing, is it an ongoing processs? Or do you set aside time?
Ira: The latter. I’d say all of us are reluctant lyricists, always. I don’t like this, but I accept that it’s true. We record the record mostly before the lyrics are written and then at the last possible second, either when the recording gets shut down or we start singing, lyrics start appearing. This record was no different. Its seems like it’s inevitable. I’d personally love to be somebody who walked around with a notebook and came with ideas for songs.
Georgia: I know personally that the music part and the melody part is something that comes really naturally. The words are just a little harder. But what are you gonna do? Ira: Ultimately the lyrics were written very quickly. Finally, we just looked at the calendar and knew they had to be written. They came quickly, but when we’re writing songs, we leap into the creation of everything but the lyrics.
Alisa: How would you describe each other’s writing style?
Georgia: I don’t know if I could. James: I’ve never had to before.
Ira: We make up songs as a group. We’ll make up songs, record them, make a record and then go on tour for a long time. And then it gets to a point where we need new songs and we all know it. We start getting together and making up music, kind of with no direction. That’s a really fun time. It’s also kind of a strange time but it’s also really exciting. I would be on my way to practice and be like, “Wow! Today we could make something up that I’ll be playing for the rest of my life! I can’t wait!” I really like that. I always loved that. It feels very natural and exciting to make up music out of nowhere, between the three of us.