They keep going. On any number of levels, that’s what defines Yo La Tengo. For starters, there’s the sheer longevity; having passed through postpunk, indie, alternative, grunge and whatever flavor-of-the-month has come and gone, YLT has earned the right not to be understood as part of any trend. Then there’s the commitment. First, to craft: The Yo La Tengo sound has evolved impressively (especially since their 1993 Painful, the first in a yet-to-end sequence of remarkably assured records), their palette expanding in complexity, their playing and singing gaining confidence, their songwriting growing more subtle. Looking in at them from the outside, one sees all one could ask from an ongoing creative project—namely, serious growth in a dozen directions with a recognizable aesthetic core still intact. And there’s the commitment to one another: at the band’s core are Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, soulmates and spouses, whose writing often takes the very un-rock perspective of people involved in long-term relationships.
Have you seen a Yo La Tengo show? Staged like some sort of loose, minimal choreography, every performance is radically different, in content and form. De facto frontman Ira boasts that every album and every show has at least one song that goes eight, ten, fifteen minutes long. It’s no mistake; it’s the band’s way of getting to new places. There are discoveries to be found only deep within an experience; few bands—few artists in any discipline, I’d daresay—make the commitment and spend the time getting to that depth. YLT does. Case in point: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, the band’s latest Matador release. Their gentlest, quietest and most texturally nuanced work to date doesn’t sound rock-trio at all, but despite the seeming change of mood, it is unmistakably Yo La Tengo: thoughtful but not cerebral, melodic but not facile, complex but not overwrought, romantic but not adolescent.
Steve Bodow I heard a lot more attention to subtleties of texture on your new album–it’s quieter than what you’ve put out before. Are you paying more attention to texture?
Ira Kaplan We wrote a bunch of songs and the songs we wrote came out quiet. That wasn’t a plan. When we recorded them, instead of it being, “that’s the fast one, there’s the slow one,” it became, “that’s the slow one, that’s the other slow one, and that’s another slow one.” We wanted them to have their own identities –that’s where texture comes in. It’s the defining difference between the songs, also partly the listener’s perception.
SB Perception is pretty important. If you slow things down, or pare things away, quieter gestures become relatively larger. A tendency of mine is to equate that with a more contemplative mood, or being emotionally more down.
IK We weren’t particularly downbeat when we were making up the songs; I know what you’re talking about. The music certainly has that quality to it. But it’s not like I felt, now is the winter of our discontent. (laughter) It’s been a very exciting, reasonably happy process.
SB You get a lot of repeat attendance at your shows.
IK We try to cultivate that, and we’ve done a couple of nights in a row where each show differs pretty radically. If people come more than once, hopefully they’ll be glad they did.
SB You’re conscious of constructing distinct live performances?
IK Among other things.
SB In our theater group, ERS, we talk about being jealous of rock bands, because the mode in which you get to perform seems really cool. It’s not what a theater audience wants or accepts. What you’re doing up there is real; in other words, you have a real task. You’re not putting on the playing of a song, you are playing the song. You don’t have to act. You just play. You don’t have to perform to do this.
IK It is performing. We use the word perform all the time and I think that’s for a good reason.
SB How do you put a show together? When you make a set list, do you pace it so that you’re moving back and forth between instruments?
IK The word we use for ourselves when we switch instruments is choreography. When we decided to start swapping instruments, we made a conscious attempt to not have that drag the show’s pacing down. I’d seen bands do that and wish they’d get on with it.
SB Do you make set-list choices for staging or choreographical reasons, rather than how the songs fit together musically?
IK I don’t differentiate between the two. If they fit together musically, the staging will work. And we won’t just do any song that we can segue to. It’s fun when it works. Ideally, we’re barely in control. That feeling of trying to keep–up like a car in a skid–you try to keep it on the road.
SB And the staging brings a different logic to the music. It’s interesting to watch and, I’m sure, interesting to perform as well. The sets have an integrity beyond what the individual songs are.
IK We did two weeks at Lollapalooza where we ultimately decided to do the same set every day because we had a time limit. Once we found something that worked, it was easier, instead of worrying about the clock we were playing better and playing more. I found that the cliché, “If you do the same thing every day, it’ll be rote and you won’t put the same amount of passion into it,” to be untrue. We were putting more passion into it by doing the same set. The changing would have caused so many distractions.
SB And the stress worrying about the guy with the Vaudeville hook coming and pulling you off the stage…
IK It was a different kind of audience. We play the best we can, and part of that means connecting to the audience. You can pander, which I guess is bad. (laughter) Pandering is a pejorative word. But you can try to connect which isn’t, I don’t think, a bad thing at all.
SB Are you tailoring your performance to the predilections of the audience?
IK If we know we’re playing to an audience that is unusually unfamiliar with us, we treat it differently than if we know our audience. At one time we found people talking about the sets as if they’d been non-stop feedback guitar shows. We realized that some of the quieter songs were getting over-shadowed by the wilder moments. Bunching those quieter songs in the middle of the set made them jump out as a mood. And then there’s balancing old songs with new songs. If people ask us to play a song before we go on, there’s an excellent chance that we’ll do it–less so when we’re already up on stage. We can’t just drop a song in; it might throw off something else.
SB Do you improvise a lot? If you plan a set and find that the audience vibe that night isn’t what you anticipated, do you make switches?
IK If we feel like the crowd isn’t paying sufficient attention, we’ll keep playing the quiet songs until people quiet down. Which has worked and it’s also been a disaster. There was a night in Florida when we nearly had to end the show because we got quieter and quieter, and nobody would stop talking. (laughter) We had backed ourselves into a corner. And we had to be like Richard Nixon in Vietnam: we just declared victory and got loud again.
On the other hand we did a show in Ottawa, Canada a few years ago in the middle of a snow storm. The attendance was a fraction of what we expected; people were scattered throughout the club in a way that gave the room no energy or electricity. So we moved to the front of the stage and sat with our feet dangling over the edge, turned our guitars way down, and sang two songs without microphones which forced everyone to come forward.
SB The best way to get someone’s attention is to whisper.
IK They came forward and then stayed. Everybody was concentrated together and it changed the mood in a totally positive way.
SB Your studio arrangements, the stuff we hear on your albums, often has overdubbing going on–there’s more stuff than three people can play live. How do you translate those songs from the studio to a live stage? Do they become something else?
IK Every time we finish a record there’s been that feeling: How are we ever going to play this live? Do we need an extra person? Frequently there’s a song or two we don’t play because we just can’t come up with an arrangement we like. We don’t care if it sounds like the record, but we have to like the alternative. It happened with this one too. That’s why we put into motion this three-week tour of seated venues where we will have two extra people playing.
SB You like the road?
IK Yeah! I love to play every night. That aspect is just so exciting–to see what happens. The challenge and the opportunity to make everything different each night is great.
SB Was it a big decision to go out with extra musicians?
IK It was a huge decision. I have the highest hopes; they are friends–but the three of us have played together for so long and there’s so much shared knowledge and understanding, the very act of me walking over to Georgia will give James a pretty good idea of what I’m going to tell her. There’s no way these other two guys will have that connection. It’ll be different. It’ll be exciting. And I’m really looking forward to it. But it is the unknown.
SB Did you make that decision in order to serve the new material? Or because you wanted to try a different arrangement?
IK All of the above and more. The shows we’re going to do will be much quieter than before. That’s why we decided on a seated venue. We know that the songs are demanding and that the energy of a crowded rock club is not the energy of this record.
SB If I were to go into that situation, with a seated audience rather than the usual rock club setting, I’d want to take steps to insure that people didn’t perceive it as being a self-serious move. Usually in your shows there’s always a couple of numbers where Ira ends up throwing himself around the stage, attacking his guitar–those are the more memorable moments that have come to be thought of as a typical Yo La Tengo show.
IK We’re excited to disabuse anyone of the notion that there is a typical show. We’ve always reserved for ourselves the right not to be locked into what is typical. Whatever we choose to do that night is what we are. And, we are very serious. (laughter)
SB It’s commonplace for artists of any stripe to make their new thing somewhat in reaction to what they made before. Everybody’s got more than one side to them, there’s always the need to find that balance. That makes me think of Neil Young. That the same guy is capable of putting out the harshest, most misanthropic, fucked-up guitar record and then comes out with Harvest Moon the next year. Or, like on Rust Never Sleeps, he plays the same song twice on a record; literally the two sides of the same coin: the violent electric side and the gentle acoustic side. I hear a certain amount of him in your stuff.
IK I admire Neil Young, but I don’t know if we were thinking of him when we put the same song twice over on a record…
SB Doing that sets up an internal conversation. There’s a self-consciousness to repeating and varying material, in the best sense. I get the impression you guys have an internal conversation going on, whether it’s about you and Georgia’s relationship or…
IK Well…(long pause) I think it’s easy to think that. And I’m sure there’s some truth to it. I mean when I watch the Kinks, I can’t help but think about Ray and Dave. It’s fascinating, and in their case, a particularly well-documented aspect of the band. It’s tempting and entertaining to look for messages and clues, especially because to a certain extent they’re there.
SB Does the idea that your relationship with Georgia bears on your songs get overplayed in what gets written about you?
IK Things that resonate for the listener are there. It doesn’t have to be what the lyrics mean to me. Our lyrics are not ripped from the pages of our diaries–but they are personal and they do represent our feelings.
SB What’s unusual about your lyrics–and may be a way people relate to them and subsequently imagine that they are autobiographical–is that they are written from the perspective of a long-term committed relationship, be that to one another or to the band as a creative project. That’s a perspective that’s seldom seen in rock music…(long pause) How can I get you to elaborate?
IK I’m dubious about interviews. Whenever I read interviews with movie directors, they’re boring. I think a good movie is so much more productive and evocative than the story behind it. I feel the most I can accomplish in an interview is to take what is hopefully mysterious and intriguing and make it mundane by explaining it. So I walk into these things, at best, ambivalent. I certainly never have something else I’ve been wanting to explain. (laughter) It ends up tainting the music. You can’t look at the Wizard of Oz the same way once you know who he is.
SB It’s tricky to be represented in any way other than the work you’re doing. Your work is what you’re about. That’s why you’re doing it.
IK Particularly for us because it’s three people working together. A lot of it is just unconscious. It’s asking to put into words what’s purposely left unspoken. And, as I said, we’ve been jamming all week, and at no point, has anybody had a word to say about what to do. We love playing and enjoy the music we make together. But to try to put it into words, is in some ways, diametrically opposed to what we’re doing.
Neil Young has been pointing the way to people like me, the possibility of getting older, even old, and playing rock music. That’s not something that has happened with much grace–he’s one of the few who managed it. I find it fascinating. Pop music used to be, by definition, temporary, a novelty. It wasn’t made to last: people would have a hit record and disappear, then someone else would have a hit record. It was a permanent state of impermanence that now has a history. A lot of what we’re doing reflects that. I’m not talking about trying to write pop music that will stand the test of time. Of course, that would be nice.
SB Your lyrics speak to that same sort of interest in duration.
IK I’m talking about something that has really already happened. Capitol Records rushed out a hundred Beatles records in the first six months expecting them to come and go. People in charge thought of it as an assembly line–and probably The Beatles themselves felt that way. Rock wasn’t supposed to be a career at that time.
SB The Beatles also seemed to have a different notion of “a band” than people had had before. They were an ensemble.
IK However, you always knew it was John and Paul and then George and Ringo. There was a pretty clear pecking order. John seemed to be the first among his equals.
SB Some things are more equal than others. Where does Yo La Tengo fit in that scheme? Are you the bandleader? More important, do James and Georgia feel you to be the bandleader?
IK I don’t know. (pause) It’s a band. It’s three people. It’s not a democracy. It’s three people working together. I certainly talk more than anybody else in the group; there’s no question about that. But there’s a lot of ways to lead. How do we look at it? I don’t think it’s a question that we debate that often. When we disagree, I don’t say “I’m the leader.” That doesn’t come up.
SB What do you want it to be when it’s working at its best?
IK When it’s working its best, I think everybody is thinking the same way and who’s leading doesn’t matter, it’s irrelevant. Somebody says something and the other two go: “That’s right. That’s what I think.” It’s better if one person inspires everybody else to add something. The three of us are not a particularly contentious group. You hear about two people who hate each other, and the competition between them creates great work. I don’t think that’s how our records work.
SB Three years ago, after your previous record came out, New York Magazine did a feature, trying to place Yo La Tengo in the tradition of Jewish Bohemian rock. What did you think about that?
IK You play a seder, you got to expect these things. (laughter) Well, it didn’t make any sense but it was an interesting way of looking at things. I didn’t have the slightest religious upbringing. I’ve been in temple a half-dozen times in my life, mostly for other peoples’ Bar Mitzvahs, and for a couple of anti-war rallies. But I still consider myself Jewish and feel unconsciously that I am in some sort of tradition.
SB What parts of the tradition?
IK I don’t know. I’m an American… these are parts of my identity in ways that aren’t always examined. I just take them for granted.
SB That reminds me, your song “We’re an American Band…” Is that heartfelt? How much irony was or wasn’t there in taking that old song title?
IK If it had just been irony, I don’t think we could have used the title. We covered The Grand Funk song for a while and enjoyed that it wasn’t what people were expecting us to do. It wasn’t meant ironically, in that Grand Funk is not the whole definition of rock. We’re an American band, too; we’re not trashing a motel room, we’re going to the movies. (laughter) We sometimes use the word, rock, as an insult to reflect a kind of boorishness that we think of as rock. But at the same time, we love rock music. If you think rock is dead, maybe you’re using too narrow a definition. There’s more to it than that narrow cliché, or stereotype or something. When I wrote the lyrics to “We’re an American Band” and showed them to Georgia, she wasn’t expecting comedic lyrics. But we sang them and realized that done with a certain deadpan quality, it might be funny. It’s easy to listen to that song, or any of our songs, without knowing what the words are; they sort of have a life separate from the text.
SB There are a lot of references to movies in your songs. Have you ever done film score music?
IK Not as much as we’d like to. We did some music for Hal Hartley’s TV film The Book of Life.
SB I saw that. I knew a couple of the actors in it.
IK We gave him one composition with four different arrangements. To our thinking, that was film music. Which, of course, is completely what we love to do, rearrange things and recontextualize.
SB Bernard Herrmann did a lot of that too. The soundtrack for North by Northwest is only like four songs but then there are about 30 tracks on the record, the same few songs rearranged over and over. Something about the repetition is effective.
IK It’s Peter and the Wolf. The music becomes the theme that runs through the movie and then you just keep coming back to the tone. It’s the same theme, but you change the mood. My beef about film music these days is how all these stupid songs just call attention to the music. I was impressed by the Aimee Mann songs in Magnolia; it was her voice over and over again, and it ended up being more like a supporting role.
SB Do you have preconceived ideas when you go into the practice room, formal ideas for how you want a song to be shaped?
IK Almost never–not at first. Once we have this jam then we’ll say, “Let’s go back and try it another way…” We start talking about it and coming up with ideas. But we really try to let the beginning just happen. That’s what we’ve been doing this week, in fact. We’re being borderline irresponsible, because we should be rehearsing the new songs and making sure we know how to play them before the other guys get here. But we just keep jamming.