Hoboken, New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo has its roots when Ira Kaplan (guitars, piano, vocals), and Georgia Hubley (drums, piano, vocals), met on Independence Day in 1980. Since 1992, the line up has included James McNew (bass, vocals) and despite remaining on the fringe of mainstream success, Yo La Tengo has been one of a few core bands that helped define what was once called underground, alternative and now indie music. A band that gives equal import to the Beatles or Kinks in their musical lexicon as they might to the Feelies and NRBQ (in no small part to Kaplan’s early passion for music that resulted in a very early journalism career that rival’s Cameron Crow’s “Almost Famous” experiences). Alongside kindred spirits in Sebadoh, Guided By Voices or Pavement, Yo La Tengo are in tune with the entire history of rock and pop culture but strive to offer something different, unique and totally their own. Their thirteenth full–length album, Fade released at the beginning of this year, continues to bridge the arty, quirky acoustic pop world with the more psychedelic and at times cataclysmic world of shoegaze and otherwise. With their Hamilton live debut at this weekend’s outdoor Supercrawl Festival, Yo La Tengo stand as the quintessential art rock band that defied the expectations of mainstream thought and made success of their art on their own terms.
After twenty years of recording with producer Roger Moutenot, Yo La Tengo decided to enlist old friend John McEntire for Fade, while fans are excited with their first album in years, diehard Yo La Tengo fans would take note of the noticeable change. The process, Kaplan confirms, is as always for the band and the anticipation with a new collection of recordings — although he chuckles at the possible comparison to the Beatles’ relationship with long–time producer George Martin.
“I don’t think we vary our approach that much but it allows us to make different decisions,” explains Kaplan. “Every time we’ve made a record, we thought about whether to work with Roger and the answer was always, ‘yes’. This time it was no but it’s not like we hadn’t thought about it before. We talk a lot, and we talk things through, but sometimes if everybody agrees with it quickly, we don’t talk about why we agree. We just trust that it’s a good sign. I think it was just time. It was more about the thought of working with John than not working with Roger. We were friends a long time and thought it would be something fun and interesting to do so we did it.
“I know there is ironic exaggeration in comparing our change of producer to the Beatles not working with George Martin, but it’s particularly funny to me because of the extent that we are so interconnected,” he adds. “We’re not naïve, we knew people were going to notice the change but we spend so much time as just the three of us that sometimes it’s very easy and enjoyable to pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist. When we do something so rest–of–the–world inclusive as putting out a record, it changes the ground beneath your feet and it is an exciting moment and the follow up with the touring and playing. That feeling doesn’t change — the excitement of having a new record out.”
Fade is a comprehensive collection of what Yo La Tengo does best and as their fan base grows, (with alternative media and college/campus radio being the crux, the internet has helped and the recent Jesse Jarnow biography “Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock” has helped more people learn of the band), Kaplan and company have spent a wealth studying rock history, but they don’t wear those influences on their sleeves. Their love of great music doesn’t mean they copy the past and Yo La Tengo remain as original and inventive as ever.
“Because the three of us are such music fans, it’s in us and comes out of us,” notes Kaplan. “It’s not something we work at — that we’re keeping some flame alit. Since the band is an expression of the three people it is our shared language, it couldn’t be not a part of what we do even if we wanted that.”
Dubbed a record collector’s band or indie rock darlings, Yo La Tengo have embodied what is called indie these days. They’ve retained their authenticity outside of corporate culture and urban marketing and while it hasn’t meant a financial windfall necessarily, success ends up being relative and it’s more important to love what you do for Kaplan.
“We’re a relatively successful in a certain sense,” says Kaplan. “We’re getting in a car and going to play a show in Hamilton, but it’s not like economies crumble if Yo La Tengo stops performing. It would be ridiculous to do this if we didn’t enjoy what we’re doing it.”
With Supercrawl, Yo La Tengo offers the ideas and sounds of the underground — the captivating less sullied world of music where art is for art’s sake and not selling a product. It’s the ideals they’ve retained that made them such an influential band and make them an important act to see live. When the Velvet Underground played McMaster University in the ‘60s or New Order in the ‘80s, few knew of the importance of such shows at the time. For three decades, Yo La Tengo has inspired and influenced — new bands, new ways of thinking about music, about business and about success — exploring what else is there outside the mainstream and speaking for a generation. While Kaplan and company find it difficult to talk of the band during interviews never mind espouse how important their music has been to so many, their first appearance in Hamilton is nevertheless noteworthy.
“It’ll be a good way to experience the band for the first time; it’ll be a digest of what we’ve done, which any show is but even of what we normally do,” suggests Kaplan on Yo La Tengo’s Supercrawl showcase. “It’ll be a relatively short performance, but we’ll play as long as they’ll have us. We’ll do a bunch of new songs from the new record and some of the older ones and we like going pretty far afield and doing songs from our catalogue that people don’t expect us to do, doing whatever cover song that pops into our mind that night. But that’s not the set we do for a festival, the setting is not right for that. Maybe it’s a better introduction to the band than our normal set. It will cover a lot of ground, it will be very loud and very quiet and pretty diversified within that.
“You see someone you haven’t seen in twenty or thirty years and you think they’ve changed so much and I haven’t changed, meanwhile they’re thinking the same thing about you,” remarks Kaplan on whether he’s the same shy guy that started this band, this indie rock movement so many years ago. “I’d rather be in the band than talk about the band but it’s like how I look at our first record. We don’t do songs from it very often, it’s not really a part of the band, but on one hand, it’s like looking at a goofy old picture of yourself in the cowboy outfit from a birthday. You can kind of see how you became who you are from that picture... I feel very happy to be where I am right now and it’s not for me to pick and choose which experiences lead to today. They all did, the happy ones, the awkward ones; they all contributed to getting me to where I am right now… we’re not really looking at the future. We’re thinking about Hamilton this week and maybe a couple of days down the road.” V
Yo La Tengo will be performing at Supercrawl on Saturday September 14th 8:50 pm, Hamilton International Airport Stage. Click on supercrawl.ca for a full schedule.