Talismanic And Thirty: The Strange World Of… Yo La Tengo

Three decades of music-making hasn’t dulled the Hoboken group’s ability to stop their listeners in their tracks. Dale Berning gives the casual listener a guide to the high points of their career

In their 30 years as a band, Yo La Tengo have released 14 full-length albums including this year’s Stuff Like That There. Each, without exception, has added new songs to the playlist of Yo La Tengo tracks that I could listen to forever; each track like beads on a prayer bracelet. Of course, that’s an unashamedly mega fan thing to say – the kind of thing that might well have the band squirming. I once wrote them a card, a properly earnest thank you note for the beauty that was And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. When the album came out I was traipsing around Berlin, in grey mid-winter rain, with a very heavy rucksack. I found it in in the highlights section of a record store and listened to it from beginning to end twice, the weight of my bag bearing down on my shoulders like some kind of physical manifestation of how thoroughly the songs had me in their grip. Yo La Tengo had me pinned down.

In fact, other than being somewhat nonplussed by a shiny Carsten Höller slide, listening to that album is pretty much the only thing I really remember about the trip. So I wrote to them (the only way I could explain how it made me feel was to quote ‘Surprised By Joy’ by CS Lewis). Ira Kaplan wrote back, on the back of a Slinky postcard. He was quick to note the disconnect. But you know, he took the time to write back (with characteristic courtesy and quiet wit).

And these are all things that have come to define for me what this band is about. They make music that is thoroughly arresting, by turns tender, relentless and devastating but always jostling with a delicious lightness of touch, a cool remove and something like bold reticence. They aren’t afraid to beat your ass, be it with a pummelling half-hour of sustained electric noise (Sunsquashed), or a quarter-hour ever-quieter sundown epic (Nightfalls On Hoboken), or with a simple song of love, heartbreakingly sweet and true (Take Care). And as the latest album shows, with its impeccable, improbably takes on songs by The Cure, Hank Williams and Antietam among others, their light touch belies a craftsmanship so resolute, they can make any tune – even the most familiar – their own.

On the eve of the UK leg of their Stuff Like That There tour, I spoke with Ira and emailed with James McNew about their 14th album, their free-associative free-wheeling flow, and friendship.

Deeper Into Movies

Covers and remakes are a constant strand of the band’s output. One of the things about the original version of ‘Deeper In Movies’, from 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, is the really slow fade in, that sense of travelling from far away into the song, and the density of the sound that the voices compete with. It’s a version of the song that demands volume. On this year’s Stuff Like That There though it’s right up close.

James McNew: The combination of propulsion and meditation can be most enjoyable, at any volume or intensity.

Ira Kaplan: As the Freewheeling Yo La Tengo, we take questions from the audience that lead us to what we’re going to play. Frequently we’ll end up playing songs that we’ve never done acoustically before and I’m sure that ‘Deeper Into Movies’ got played that way. Sometimes someone will pick an electric song that we don’t really want to do anymore, we’re like, “Oh God, that song’s 20 minutes long." So we think, "Well, let’s bring Georgia [Hubley, drums, piano, vocals] up front and adapt it for the way we do want to play it.” So we always treat the songs as if they’re maleable. When touring on the Fade record, we did two sets, one essentially quiet, one essentially loud, and we would move songs from one set to the other, Paddle Forward we worked up a quiet version. It’s just a natural outgrowth of how we treat our songs. We like the challenge of making each night’s environment part of the evening whenever we play. The acoustics in a room will change everything; some nights it’s really difficult to hear what people are saying, some nights it’s all too easy. And people will respond differently. Some will raise their hand, others just blurt things out. The Freewheeling shows are not request shows. It’s at its most intriguing for us when it’s free-associative. It’s one of the pluses of the three of us being up there, the more we’re bouncing off each other, the more interesting it is.

Green Arrow

Possibly the Yo La Tengo track I’ve listened the most since I first heard their music in the late 1990s, ‘Green Arrow’ is an endless stretch of open road, it’s dusk and sunlight and a feather floating on the breeze. Paris, Texas-style guitar weaving in the silence around a lilting bassline, shakers shaking a steady beat and a sea of crickets. The quietest cymbal rushes fade intermittently in and out til dampened drums kick in at 4:30 and hold you captive. Invariably, no matter what I listen to immediately afterwards, I’m pissed off at it for ruining what ‘Green Arrow’ had previously conjured.

IK: With a lot of our songs, we just happen to be playing one day, and somehow we settle on something. We don’t just show up going, “Here’s a song I wrote, this is the first verse, this is the chorus." It’s just about what it sounds like when we’re playing. If we hear something we like we try to either record it or remember it. It is of the moment. ‘Green Arrow’ came out of ‘Blue-Green Arrow’, which we released on 7" in the UK after I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One – it was the demo to ‘Green Arrow’. We had recorded something and decided to add an e-bow part to it, or for all I know, the e-bow part was the original but either way it was raw enough that we didn’t think of it as finished. But when we went to Nashville to record I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, the e-bow part was unrepeatable. So we found ourselves in a scenario where we thought we were going to do a lesser version of something, just kind of like cleaning up the recording quality but it wasn’t going to be as good, it was just going to be better recorded. And that seemed like a terrible idea. So we dropped the e-bow and that’s where the crickets came in. We had lost one texture and just wanted to find some other way of making that song come to life – to not miss this section that we liked. So somebody had the idea of sticking a microphone outside and recording all the crickets that were chirping away. But we maintained our affection for the original, cruder version.

And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out/Stuff Like That There

Stuff Like That There – with reworked versions of tracks from I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, Electr-O-Pura and Popular Songs – has made me think a lot about the very distinct, coherent sound worlds each of YLT’s albums has come with. Stuff Like That There feels deceptively immediate, like it’s a live one-take recording, like we’ve been let into a room and the band have played it right there for us, exactly this way.

JM: Thanks for saying that, I think there’s no nicer compliment. We knew what sounds we wanted going into the sessions, which was very strange for us; usually we have no idea. There’s some otherworldly playing by Dave Schramm on this album. I don’t know how he does that, even when I stand next to him and watch him. And there are fewer tracks to bury the vocals under on this album. So, we had to make them as good as possible. Same goes for the bass, which felt like driving the truck in the movie Wages Of Fear.

In its quiet dreaminess, it’s made me think a lot of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out

IK: When we wrote the songs for And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, we didn’t intend to make a record of quiet songs, it just came out like that. And it was only years later, when we left that rehearsal space, that we put it together: there was something about the sound in that room that kept us from playing loud. It helped us gravitate towards quiet songs, so when we would play loud, it didn’t stick; we didn’t like the way it sounded.

Before We Stopped To Think

YLT seems at times to cultivate a playful dry distance – raw emotion isn’t a descriptor I’d usually use for their music, which in many ways makes it that much more moving. It’s withheld; at a remove. But this track is something else. It’s like they heard something in the lyrics of this Great Plains track that wasn’t even touched on in the original.

JM: We don’t like to just give stuff away. Raw emotion is always right there, it’s just not on a billboard. It’s such a beautiful song, Great Plains had a bunch of those.

Return To Hot Chicken

This introductory track to I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One is another of my all-time favourites: the simple beat counting out the first ten seconds never fails to get my pulse racing, my hopes up, it’s so full of promise, like you’re on the cusp of something excellent.

What is hot chicken?

IK: Hot chicken is a regional food from Nashville. It was kind of our way of saying hi to Nashville when we started recording there. We did Painful in Hoboken with Fred Brockman and Roger Moutenot, who both at the time lived there. And then when we were getting ready to make what would become Electr-O-Pura, we wanted to work with Roger again but he had moved to Nashville. He suggested we come there to record, so that’s what we did. We’d been there before but we’d never spent a lot of time there until that recording – we stayed for about a month, and that’s when we tried hot chicken for the first time. On Electr-O-Pura, where the songs are subtitled ‘Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)’ and ‘Don’t Say A Word (Hot Chicken #2)’, it was an allusion to the Flying Burrito Brothers [‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’, ‘Hot Burrito #1’ and ‘Hot Burrito #2’], it was a shout-out to Nashville, it seems to kind of fit our idea of being informative but not remotely informative. And then on I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, with ‘Return To Hot Chicken’, it was because we did return to hot chicken: we returned to Nashville to do another record. I don’t think we knew that song was going to be first on the album. In fact that song is an edited version of a much longer instrumental, and when we were going through what we had recorded, trying to figure out how to present it as a record, the idea of cutting that down to an introduction seemed to just fit. It seemed like a good introductory title, we’re back in Nashville, we’ve returned to hot chicken again, and here’s what we did. A lot of the titles for our songs happen after the song has been written and recorded. And that was definitely one of them. I think we had all forgotten that there was this longer recording but recently we remembered it existed. We’ve not yet actually listened back to it – we may have cut it down for a reason!

‘Somebody’s In Love’ / Sun Ra

Sun Ra crops up frequently. Yo La Tengo covered ‘Nuclear War’. Also And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out might just take its title from a Sun Ra quote not to mention the more recent cover of ‘Somebody’s In Love’.

Did you ever meet him?

IK: No, we never did. I saw him play a bunch of times, although frankly not as often as I could have. When I was younger, he played all the time, and I went occasionally, but the eureka moment happened for me after he was ill, so still playing but more sporadically. I remember a memorable show at Maxwell’s. Georgia used to DJ at the venue once a week. On one of her nights Sun Ra was playing and she asked me to help her. She felt like it would be appropriate if she mixed in a lot of jazz, but didn’t feel like at the time it was going to come together that easily, so we ended up doing it together and Sun Ra did two sets. He was so frail that they helped him on to the stage and between sets he just sat the piano, even though everyone else left – it was easier for him just to not move. Meanwhile other members of the Arkestra were listening to what we were playing, doing a blindfold test – they knew every song, they knew every player, it was uncanny. The more I’ve heard the Arkestra, the more I’m awestruck by them. And that continues to this day – the band with Marshall Allen is still remarkable. Every time something more of that seemingly endless supply of archival material is released, it just deepens my reverence for what they’ve accomplished. And in terms of what Sun Ra has led me to discover, even though I don’t really think about the paths to things that much, I’m sure that the tributaries off of listening to them have been multiple.

I’m So lonesome I could cry

How do you approach something so familiar? Or is it more just about beautiful songcraft?

JM: Honestly, I’ve listened to Vom a lot more than I have listened to Hank Williams. I live in New York and I’ve never been to the Statue Of Liberty or the Empire State Building. It’s all relative, I guess.

Naples / Antietam

Last December Yo La Tengo posted

a flyer for an Antietam and YLT gig at Maxwell’s on their website mentioning their first ever gig together there in 1984. The new album features a cover of their song ‘Naples’. That’s a long friendship.

IK: There are so many analogies between Antietam and our band. They’re a trio that have not changed members in a really, really long time, Josh is still the new guy, like James. But you know, James has like merely been in our band for 24 years. We met Tim and Tara at Maxwell’s and became good friends, and at some point when Georgia and I knew we wanted to have a band, we asked them if they would think of playing with us. And at the time they said, "Well we would but we’ve actually started a group with our friends Mike and Wolf." And that was the band that went on to record Antietam’s first album on Homestead. So our friendship goes that far back. We formed Yo La Tengo soon after their third show. They did a lot of changing instruments, all took turns playing drums, Wolf and Mike left and eventually it was just Tim and Tara and a bunch of different drummers, and they’d write different kinds of songs depending on who was playing with them. When they asked Georgia and I to produce a record for them, they finally had a drummer, Charles Schultz, and they chose tracks for the record from these very two very different periods. So we made a record, the five of us, and Naples was on it. I’m not sure if they ever played it live, but it’s always been a song that I’ve loved so much and one day it occurred to me that it would be a cool song to try.


The YLT back catalogue is full of covers, a seemingly endless supply of songs they love.

Do you remember any mixtapes you first made each other at the beginning of the band?

IK: There’s a tape that our friend Byron Coley made for Georgia, or for us, I can’t remember. It was a tape that we listened to a great deal and we ended up finding many of the records subsequently. We recently moved and we didn’t have to get rid of it, but it was obvious that culling was a good idea because of how much stuff we have. I don’t know whether it was hundreds or thousands of cassette tapes, but so many of them we just threw in the garbage, keeping only the ones that were really talismanic. And still now we have what by any yardstick is a huge number of cassette tapes, considering we don’t have a cassette tape player, but they were the ones we couldn’t bear to part with. And that tape that Byron made for us is still with us. I’m thinking that ‘Hurricane Fighter Plane’ by Red Krayola is on it. I’m just going to leave it at that, and hope that it is.

Yo La Tengo’s Private World/ Silence

When addressing a question about tracks on any mixtapes Ira and Georgia might have made for each other at the beginning of Yo La Tengo, Ira starts by saying, “The one thing that is coming to mind is something I’m not dying to talk about.” After a conversation about food and cooking together and the inclusion of recipes in the video for ‘I’ll Be Around’, I ask Ira if they – the band members – have signature dishes, to which he replies: “You know, it seems weird to say this, but I feel like I don’t want to say." And at any suggestion that a specific influence or interest might be “important” to the band’s music, Ira talks of running away as fast as he can: "It’s all just part of the things that you soak up or are exposed to, but I’m going to have a hard time with ‘important’." All of which brings it all back to the music, to the sound, to listening. Yo La Tengo have the kind of sound you loved first as a kid first loving music, when the whole world could be contained in that one song and that song felt like it could last for ever and whenever the song did come to an end, the world seemed to follow suit: it was unbearable. The kind of sound you never want to have properly defined, which is precisely what writers with words strive to do – with questions about influences and interests and anecdotes – because to do so would be reductive. It’s all there for the taking, in the songs themselves. The music is all that matters. A recent review of Stuff Like That There said that in doing yet another compilation of covers and remakes that underline how extensive the band’s musical tastes are, they’ve somehow made an utterly lovely but oddly pointless record. But must a record have a stated point, or a purpose? If the songs are purposefully chosen, and a first listen leads to a second and a tenth and a month and five years go by, and those songs are still there with you, like every one of these 14 albums – remarkably – has done, then all is right with the world. Things are exactly as they should be.

Stuff Like That There is out now on Matador. Their European tour kicks off on October 15 in Dublin

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