Summer Sun: Yo La Tengo Interviewed
Yo La Tengo are not U2. Yo La Tengo are not REM. Not for Yo La Tengo the albums recorded in the bright light of the world’s most expensive recording studio, with one eye on trends and one eye on sales. Not for Yo La Tengo the summits in Rome to decide the band’s future. Not for Yo La Tengo the tedious explanations as to why this album should be seen as a reaction to that album. Oh no. “We don’t like to think about what we do in that kind of way,” Yo La Tengo main man Ira Kaplan told me, uncomfortably. “I mean. You could say that (the new record) Summer Sun grew out of a small part of (the last record) And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. Just like you could say And Then Nothing… grew out of a small part of (the previous record) I Hear The Heart Beating As One.” If you want to know how Yo La Tengo approach a new record, the best way of getting a handle on it is to hear Kaplan tell you what differences exist between Summer Sun and And Then Nothing…: “We got a piano. So we knew the new record would have more piano on it. We wanted to work the piano in.” That’s about as self-conscious as they get.
Feted as one of the greatest NY bands of recent years, Yo La Tengo are actually based across the water in Hoboken (and, anyway, these days tend to record most of the time in Nashville). Centering for many years upon the husband and wife team of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley (vocals, guitars and keyboards and vocals, drums and keyboards, respectively), Yo La Tengo are now very definitely a trio — with James McNew (who also records under the name of Dump) playing bass and occasionally singing. Over the course of twelve albums (if you include the forthcoming Summer Sun), Yo La Tengo have travelled quite as far as it is possible to travel — from modest guitar rock, through the gentle folk of 1990’s acoustic covers album Fakebook to burn experimental white (1993’s Painful) at the same time as they fostered a devotion to (and genius for) perfect pop — forging a sound that reached its pinnacle on the ’99 album I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. From there, Yo La Tengo can be said to have refined their music still further — And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out was the home of sparse arrangements, brittle sounds, and, in many ways, Summer Sun retains the build of its immediate predecessor — songs like “How to Make a Baby Elephant Float” and “Don’t Have To Be So Sad” all but require you to hunch by the speaker in the attempt to discern what it is Kaplan or Hubley are murmuring at any given time (this is quiet music that desires playing quietly). These are people — and this is music — that you can imagine have/has endured the odd long dark night of the soul, and yet (like the pro-/antagonists of a Ray Carver story) they’ve made it out the other side, discovering and retaining a fragile optimism along the way. “I like that term,” says Kaplan. “I can live with that. Fragile optimism, yeah. That’s what we do.” But fragile optimism isn’t all they do: the sweetest pop songs — songs like “Season of the Shark” and “Little Eyes” — happily nuzzle up to more discordant fare like “Nothing But You and Me” and “Let’s Be Still” (although when I say discordant there is nothing here on a par with “Nuclear War” or “The Sounds of the Sounds of Science”); downbeat instrumentals (“Beach Party Tonight”) belie a mocking self-parody that comes more openly to the foreground in tracks like “Georgia Vs Yo La Tengo.” Ira tells me: “We’ve become much more confident. We still write lyrics at the barrel of a gun. But when we play together. When we sing. We’re much more confident.”
It is, once again, the kind of collection sure to drive those who need definitions mad in their attempts to define precisely what it is that constitutes the Yo La Tengo sound. They remain the proverbial elephant examined by blind men, different things to different people. Which is okay, as far as Ira Kaplan is concerned. I asked him what he’d say if the dictionary people came knocking, wanting a definition. “That’s their job, isn’t it? Finding definitions. We’re happy just playing the music.” We agree it’s limiting, but it happens a lot. You read any Yo La Tengo press, you see it time and again — is it a Velvet Underground thing? (Yo La Tengo played VU in the movie I Shot Andy Warhol), an arthouse thing? (Yo La Tengo soundtracked the Hal Hartley movies Amateur and Simple Men), a Slint-y, Codeine, sad-core thing, a fuzzy Jewish Jimi Hendrix thing, a Simpsons thing (Yo La Tengo were asked to provide a freaky-deaky psychedelic version of The Simpsons‘ theme a while back)? All these things? None of these things? More likely none of these things.
This is one band that you either get or you don’t.
In part, this comes as a result of their free ranging tastes: in their time, they’ve covered Richard Thompson, Wire, Devo, John Cale, The Beach Boys, The Dead C, Sun Ra, George McRae, The Normal, Flamin’ Groovies, the Kinks and, on Summer Sun, Big Star’s “Take Care” (a sweetly sumptuous Georgia Hubley vocal all but improves on the original). Folk, glam, psychedelia, disco, rock — like your man James Joyce says, they work it all in. They even perform each year at WFMU, their local radio station, performing cover versions for charity — you pledge the money, they play whatever song you ask for. “It’s all part of the challenge, part of what keeps us doing this — part of what keeps it fresh for us.”
Performing for charity gets us talking about Paul McCartney (who received £1m for performing at a bash for a TV Exec’s wife recently — and donated the money to charity). “We should do something like that. We should play somewhere really corporate. I suppose the trick would be to not subject them to 45 minutes of feedback. We would want a room of converts by the time we were finished.”
Shouldn’t be difficult, Ira. Shouldn’t be difficult.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Peter Wild lives and works in Manchester, England. He’s the co-founder of the Bookmunch website, which takes up a whole lot of time, but when he gets a moment free he’s writing short stories and a(nother) novel. Either that, or he’s catching up on the sleep his 20-month-old daughter deprives him of.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 1st, 2003.