Cult following, new CD – Yo La Tengo’s got it
October 10, 2006
Ira Kaplan is one of the more unassuming souls to be found in the rock world. The 49-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist for Yo La Tengo says one reason the trio has remained in Hoboken, N.J., the less-than-glamorous town that stares across the Hudson River at Manhattan, is that rehearsal space is cheaper on the Jersey side. Which is curious because, after 22 years as a group, one would expect the amount of time rehearsing to have waned. But Yo La Tengo – which also includes Kaplan’s wife, drummer Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew – spends loads of time hanging out and practicing.”We’re still learning how we’re supposed to behave,” explained Kaplan, in his appealing mix of humor, modesty and earnestness.Kaplan’s gentle demeanor makes the title of Yo La Tengo’s latest album a natural topic of conversation. But Kaplan prefers to leave it a mystery how a band known for its annual Hanukkah concert series, for its devotion to a local radio station and for being the darling of record store geeks everywhere, came up with the name, “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass.””I think a lot of things are just better when there’s a fuzziness around them,” said Kaplan, who makes his Aspen debut tonight when Yo La Tengo performs at Belly Up. “When people are stumped for certain meanings, it’s better, or more interesting.
“‘Blonde on Blonde’ is a better title than ‘Abbey Road.'”Kaplan, reputedly a major record collector – a notion reinforced by the breadth of sounds Yo La Tengo makes – is similarly reluctant to talk about what albums he considers cornerstone influences. When I asked, then, what band has made a seminal impact, Kaplan finally gave in and revealed some information.”If I had to name a single band I listened to more than any other, it would have to be the Kinks,” he said. “Now, I don’t think we sound like the Kinks. But if I talk about our career, I think I could be describing the Kinks. So maybe we were influenced more profoundly than we know.”No, Yo La Tengo would not remind anyone of the Kinks. But maybe that’s just a matter of time. If there is a defining trait of the Yo La Tengo sound, it is that they have none. Their sound ranges from guitar noise to psychedelic folk to ’80s-tinged pop to experiments in jazz. “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass” opens with the sprawling guitar antics of “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” before making its way to the sweet pop pleasure of “Mr. Tough.” Somewhere down the road, an exercise in Kinks-style power chords is probably awaiting.”A lot of that comes from not having an explicit and strongly felt concept of what we wanted to do,” said Kaplan. “Other than stay open and let things happen. We’ve never had a feeling of, ‘Oh, that’s not us. We can’t do that.’
“Almost to the point where I even distrust having [a concept]. Not only don’t we, I don’t think we could.”Unlike the new album, the Yo La Tengo name has been demystified. It dates back to the bumbling New York Mets of 1962, the band’s first year of existence. Centerfielder Richie Ashburn was having surprisingly frequent collisions with shortstop Elio Chacón on routine fly balls. Someone notified Ashburn that Chacón, a Venezuelan native, didn’t understand English, and that instead of shouting the usual “I got it!” should try the Spanish translation, “Yo la tengo.” It worked almost perfectly. On a fly ball, Ashburn yelled “Yo la tengo,” Chacón properly backed off – and Ashburn was clobbered by left fielder Frank Thomas, who hadn’t a clue what “Yo la tengo” meant.
Doors open at 8 p.m. for the 9 p.m. show, with Why? opening for Yo La Tengo. Tickets are $20. For a full Belly Up schedule, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/music.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org