The many musical sides of Yo La Tengo
October 6, 2006
Asked when he started learning to play guitar, Ira Kaplan pinpoints the time as two years after he formed Yo La Tengo, the rock band that has been a critic’s darling since … well, before its leader could even play his instrument, if Kaplan is to be believed.
Kaplan is joking, of course, but insists he’s not straying too far from the truth. The 49-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist has a notoriously bad handle on dates and timelines; virtually any question involving something that happened earlier than yesterday results in an elongated pause, a few “uhhs” and “hmmms,” and an estimation based on what else was going on at the time. Still, it is true that Kaplan stumbled into a music career, into Yo La Tengo, and, paradoxically, into his status as a rock visionary, with no designs, much less aspirations for the brand of art rock that has earned the band unyielding praise.
“Musically, we were trying to get through a song without collapsing from fear,” Kaplan said of his earliest hopes and dreams for Yo La Tengo, formed with drummer Georgia Hubley (then his girlfriend, now his wife). Kaplan and Hubley, with a rotating series of bassists, was mostly a cover band in those days, drawing material from Kaplan’s extensive record collection. After figuring out how to write songs, Yo La Tengo released a pair of promising records: 1986’s “Ride the Tiger” and, the next year, “New Wave Hot Dogs.” The band’s artistic breakthrough came with 1989’s “President Yo La Tengo,” which saw a transition from a jangly take on ’80s rock to the more elastic, free-flowing style that has been a trademark, though hardly a constant.
To Kaplan, however, Yo La Tengo was still a work-in-progress, despite the acclaim earned by “President Yo La Tengo” and the succeeding album, “Fakebook,” which deconstructed songs by the Kinks, NRBQ and the Flamin’ Groovies. The lack of certainty was largely due to the membership, which comprised Kaplan, Hubley and a bassist du jour. Not till James McNew came on board, in the early ’90s, did Kaplan feel settled. “We actually founded the band seven years after we started Yo La Tengo, when James joined the band,” said Kaplan, echoing his line about his own guitar-playing.
That lack of clarity, which in Kaplan comes off like a willful but charming naivete, has served Yo La Tengo well. The band, which makes its Aspen debut Wednesday, Oct. 11, at Belly Up, has demonstrated over a series of 15 albums a remarkable knack for not painting itself into an artistic corner. On one album, the band can feel like a mid-’60s throwback, emulating the acoustic guitars and harmonies of the Byrds (and never quite nailing it, but coming up with something worthwhile, and more original, as they fall short). On the next album, the sounds become whispery, dronelike and full of texture. On “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass,” released last month, the multifaceted nature of Yo La Tengo is evident: the opening “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” is 10 minutes of chugging guitar excursions, before the album settles into more song-oriented breeziness.
Yo La Tengo has sometimes been described as garage rock. There is something to that; certainly what they do is far closer to cooking up basement experiments in sound than to seeking manufactured perfection in the studio. But Yo La Tengo adds elements of jazz and funky horns parts to their music. On “Mr. Tough,” from “I Am Not Afraid of You,” Kaplan’s voice slips into a wonderful falsetto. This, it has always seemed to me, is not the stuff of garage guitarists but of art school graduates, working in the medium of noise, who knew exactly what they were doing. It turns out I was wrong (though Hubley is an art school dropout).
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“A lot of that comes from not having an explicit and strongly felt concept of what we wanted to do, other than stay open, and let things happen,” said Kaplan. “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.”
Among the projects happening for Yo La Tengo is recording the soundtrack for last year’s indie film “Junebug,” backing David Byrne and the Kinks’ Ray Davies, appearing as the Velvet Underground in the film “I Shot Andy Warhol,” and recording a version of the theme song for “The Simpsons.” (Yo La Tengo’s psychedelic take on “The Simpsons” music plays at the close of “D’oh-in in the Wind,” the episode in which Homer aligns himself with a pair of juice-making hippies.)
Just as it would be difficult to imagine Yo La Tengo suddenly sticking to some first principle of music-making, it would be equally hard to imagine them based anywhere but Hoboken, N.J. Actually, McNew now lives in Brooklyn, and for a few years, after the group’s practice space was being demolished, the band moved its headquarters to Jersey City. Even though Jersey City borders Hoboken, McNew said in a recent interview that he couldn’t wait to get back to familiar surroundings a few miles north.
Kaplan, a native of Westchester County, N.Y., came to Hoboken for several reasons. One was that it wasn’t Manhattan, which had proved expensive in his short stay there in the early ’80s. The other was Maxwell’s.
If Kaplan has been looking for what most people think of as a music scene, he would have stayed in Manhattan, or moved east to Brooklyn. But Kaplan was looking for something like Maxwell’s, which in 1984 was a tiny neighborhood dive that no one could envision becoming the center of anything.
“It was based on Maxwell’s,” said Kaplan of his relocation to Hoboken. “I could walk to Maxwell’s in a few minutes. Weighing the merits of Brooklyn versus here, that was a big one.”
Kaplan’s association with the club began as a fan. The first show he saw was the Individuals; he can’t recall the year. He then became the club’s soundman, and when he formed Yo La Tengo, Maxwell’s became the band’s proving ground. Kaplan guesses the band played six or seven times there in Yo La Tengo’s first month of existence. Both band and club have moved on. By the end of the ’80s, Yo La Tengo was touring enough that Kaplan had to quit his job as soundman. And Maxwell’s became the kind of place that wouldn’t host the same startup group multiple times in a month. Its most famous moment came when Bruce Springsteen filmed his “Glory Days” video there, but its reputation was built more on cultivating grunge and indie rock acts. Nirvana, the Melvins, Hüsker Dü, Fugazi and Dinosaur Jr. all put in time on Maxwell’s stage.
Yo La Tengo doesn’t play Maxwell’s much anymore. Two weeks ago, they played a gig at the Landmark Theatre in Jersey City. But Hoboken retains its significance for the trio.
“The contribution the city makes is vaguer, and maybe deeper” than the impact Maxwell’s has now. “But hard to quantify,” says Kaplan. “I think the band does kind of exist in isolation. We’re a bit outside, geographically and in other ways.”
The lower cost of living has also translated into more time for rehearsal. Although Yo La Tengo is 20-or-so years old, that still holds true; Kaplan said the three members hang out and practice as much as ever. “We’re still learning how we’re supposed to behave,” he said.
Being the house band for New Jersey’s Hudson County has also instilled in Yo La Tengo a sense of community. That connection is evidenced best in the annual Hanukkah series, which has the band playing eight nights of guest-filled performances over the Jewish holiday and in the annual fundraiser for Jersey City’s WFMU, when Yo La Tengo performs, or attempts, any listener-requested tune. Highlights – and memorable lowlights – of the decade-old tradition, like stabs at Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right,” the Mets’ theme song “Meet the Mets” and Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died,” are collected on the recent album, “Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics.”
Beyond the isolation and the traditions established in Hudson County, Kaplan has found another reason to stay rooted.
“I enjoy not moving my records,” he said. “That is one of the appeals of staying here.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org