An Interview with Yo La Tengo

There are, when it comes down to it, two kinds of bands: bands whose sound is described by the invocation of other bands (“______ sounds like a poppier/slower/suckier ______”), and the bands whose sound is used to describe the sound of other bands. The bands in this second category distinguish themselves by gaining purchase on a sound so unique and texturally diverse that they lack a clear antecedent. Yo La Tengo has, over the twenty years of its existence, been deployed as a way to describe countless other bands, but any attempt to describe Yo La Tengo by using the work of other musicians seems futile and narrow. This is not to say that they are devoid of influence—we know that they share our love of Sun Ra, the Velvet Underground, the Flamin’ Groovies, and Mission of Burma. But the work of these forbears has been dismantled and reverse-engineered by such startling and extravagant means that we feel as if we are a private audience to the birth of a new form.

Before this year is through, Yo La Tengo will have released a three-disc set of exemplary songs and rarities entitled Prisoners of Love, a similarly themed DVD compilation; and the scores for two feature-length independent films: Junebug by Phil Morrison and Game 6 by Michael Hoffman, with a screenplay by Don DeLillo. Titles like “The Hardest-Working Band in Rock and Roll” seem designed specifically to make us feel uncomfortable in their earnestness, but Yo La Tengo has been working hard for us. Bashful, enigmatic drummer Georgia Hubley and her husband Ira Kaplan have, over the course of more than a dozen albums, EPs, and singles, been exploring the remote outposts of their particular domestic landscape with calisthenic rigor, buttressed by James McNew’s assured bass work. All they ask from us in return is that we sit comfortably in a durable chair and listen closely to their music until the thing that made us love them in the first place, that twitching, primordial organism let loose inside us when we first heard Painful or the opening strains of “Return to Hot Chicken” from the landscape-shearing I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, springs once again to life.

—Matthew Derby


THE BELIEVER: You guys were recently at Sundance Film Festival in Utah promoting the two films you just scored. I have never been, but I imagine it to be a massive, airless storm cloud of fleece and corporate-casual tassel loafers.What was it really like?

JAMES McNEW: I saw a lot of fleece. I don’t think it was a statement, though. I think it was more of a comfort thing.The lack of oxygen—that was the one thing I really disliked—that feeling that maybe your lungs were collapsing because the altitude was so severe. It took a lot of getting used to. I wasn’t even there long enough to fully get used to it.

BLVR: People should just remain at or near sea level and call it a day.

JAMES: I was very happy to get back home—to breathe at normal capacity.

IRA KAPLAN: We played a show at a small club out there in a kind of a stripped down format—Georgia just stood and played a really small kit. We learned a number of cover songs just for the show. Because we were playing in Utah we thought we should do an Osmonds song, so we learned “One Bad Apple.” The version we’ve been entranced by lately is this reggae version from the Studio One soul collection. Some of those reggae covers of American hits are just so freely interpreted… One of the things we’ve been doing lately in our cover songs is learning them more faithfully than we might have at earlier times in our career. I never was the kind of person who learned to play guitar by playing along with records and learning licks off records, but in my old age it’s been fun and intriguing to try to do that to a certain extent. But when we got to working on “One Bad Apple,” we were kind of going full circle. It reminded us that you don’t have to follow the original melody. You can find one that works for you—and Georgia came up with this really beautiful melody, totally different from the original.

BLVR: I know that your music has appeared in films before, like some of the early Hal Hartley films, and you all appeared as the Velvet Underground in I Shot Andy Warhol—but is this really the first time you’ve scored a feature film?

IRA: Yes. We’ve done a fair amount of work with Georgia’s sister Emily, who’s an animator, but her films tend to be about five minutes long.

BLVR: And suddenly you’ve got two features under your belt.

JAMES: And I just want to say, I wouldn’t necessarily advise people to do that who had never actually done it before… You know, scoring two films at once. It was a little ambitious.

BLVR: How do you actually go about scoring a film? I mean, even physically? I have this image in my mind of a John Williams or a Danny Elfman, some tall, sourlooking man in a tuxedo conducting a massive orchestra in front of a projection screen. Maybe there are TIE Fighters on the screen.Yet I am guessing you had a bit of a different setup?

IRA:Yeah, it wasn’t quite as grandiose as that. We were, instead, sitting in our practice space with a string quartet and a couple computer screens. But we didn’t so much play to picture because that was pretty difficult.We would play a certain passage back to picture to make sure it was working, and then if it wasn’t we’d alter it until it did. Or alter the mix so that it would.When you’re working with computer screens, you’ve got to be standing directly in front of them to see anything, and it wasn’t really feasible doing it that way. I mean, speaking for myself, I’m not usually dexterous enough to look at anything but my fingers while I’m playing.


BLVR:How did the introduction of that alien element— the idea that the music had to accompany a visual narrative—force you to alter the songwriting process?

IRA: I’ll just use the term you suggested, but I think what was alien about it was part of what was ultimately attractive about it. I think it’s always interesting to do something that’s not normal. In doing these soundtracks we came up with different types of sounds and music than we would have come up with otherwise.

JAMES: It’s very challenging because when we’re working on a Yo La Tengo record, we’re working for ourselves and trying to make ourselves happy, but when we’re scoring these movies, we’re ultimately trying to meet the demands of someone else, someone whose mind we unfortunately can’t read. Several years ago, we composed some music for a couple of TV spots, and that was really the first time we did anything as far as going back and forth with, like, an agency—you know, the people who like to call themselves “The Creatives.” It was maddening. It drove me nuts.We were working really hard and coming up with these concepts that we thought were totally cool, and we would send them out and then have a discussion a few days later that was, like,“Yeah, we loved what you came up with, but could you go back and change everything?” That experience prepared us for the fact that there’s always a lot of back and forth when you’re working for someone else. We wrote music for both movies that got excised completely—finished pieces that we slaved over, driving ourselves completely insane, only to find that they weren’t used at all.

BLVR: Game 6, written by Don DeLillo, is about a playwright who ditches the premiere of his latest play in order to catch the historic last game of the 1986 World Series. DeLillo’s Underworld is said by many to be the last American novel of the twentieth century written from the perspective of a baseball, and I know he’s dabbled in playwriting, but I’m having a hard time trying to put those two worlds together meaningfully, and what Robert Downey, Jr has to do with it all.

IRA: Game 6 does have the playwright and the baseball, but it’s more about the playwright and about the—the—I don’t know, it’s hard to describe, especially because I’m trying to describe DeLillo’s themes. But it’s set in his sort of parallel universe, and it’s all about the artistic temperament and the idea of obsession—in this case the devotion of a sports fan—but it could really be anyone struggling with these things that they care about so much that they actually can’t bear to look at them.The playwright skips the premiere of his play for a couple of reasons—I mean, there’s the game, but I think beneath that it’s just that so much is riding on the premiere that he can’t really bear to watch.And Robert Downey, Jr. plays this feared theater critic, who, it turns out, is also a huge Red Sox fan.When the playwright and the critic have their confrontation at the end, the playwright says, “well, you claim to be a Red Sox fan, but you weren’t even watching the game—you went to the play.” And the critic goes, “Well, of course—I can’t bear to watch the game. I get a newspaper and find out what happened afterwards, so that it’s quick, so that I don’t have to endure the torture of watching the game unfold in real time.” The critic and the playwright are really experiencing the same thing, just in opposite ways.

BLVR: Have you ever felt that way about your own work? When a record comes out, do you listen to it obsessively or pack it away in a box and try to forget?

IRA: We don’t spend a lot of time listening to the records when they’re done. When we do hear them, it tends to be for a reason. With this Prisoners of Love compilation we’ve got coming out, I didn’t spend a lot of time listening to it. Most of it I’ve barely heard at all. Georgia was very hands-on and active in it, and I think she enjoyed that process—I think there were things that were really kind of fun about hearing some things again, but I’m sure there were things that weren’t.

JAMES: Georgia is a real wizard/scientist at sequencing records—even sequencing a mix tape. I mean, she’s got the power. Of course, we all discussed it and put in ideas and tried to remember things that we had done but never released, and hunted down tracks and things like that. Photographs.

IRA: I think Gerard [Cosloy, head of Matador Records] had a lot to do with the sequencing. Matador asked us what we thought about the idea of a compilation, and we said yes, we’d go along with it. Gerard sent us a sequence—a two-disc sequence—and I’m sure I had a couple comments along the way, but really it was Georgia who went in and batted stuff back and forth with Gerard. I think the initial suggestion from Gerard had the compilation flowing in non-sequential order. It was never intended to be chronological—it was always supposed to be more listenable than historically pure. And then I think probably with Georgia’s input it started to sound more like one of our records.

BLVR: That’s what really struck me about the compilation—it really does begin to emulate the progression of one of your albums. I’m thinking specifically of Electr-o-Pura and I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, both of which start out with concise, classic pop songs that give way gradually to more expansive, exploratory tracks. I’m not sure the collection would be quite so powerful laid out chronologically.

JAMES: I think that’s just more of what we’re interested in—things that are less technical and more textural. I think it’s much more appealing to do something like that—it reveals personality in its own way.

IRA: I think you could argue it either way. I mean, if you’re going through a museum retrospective, you’re certainly curious as to how the artist got to where they’re at. I’d say, if given a choice, I’d rather the work went sequentially, so you sort of feel like you’re beginning to understand development, but… that’s… just not what we chose to do [laughs].


BLVR: I thought the title of this retrospective you’ve got coming out, Prisoners of Love, is really appropriate, because it brings to the surface a certain mode of melodramatic sixties pop that you seem regularly to mine, both in covers and in the composition of your own work, but also because it’s weighted with a darkness that seems to lurk beneath even the sunniest, most optimistic passages. It’s simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking to think of you guys as prisoners of love.

IRA: Georgia is the one who thought of it. She had gone in to the Matador offices to work on the art—they had a space to fill and they wanted to get a feel for what something would look like, so she just came up with it on the spot and placed it into the cover art so we could look at it. I think she maybe liked it a little more than she initially wanted to, but [the phrase] seemed so instantly perfect, that idea of tying together James Brown and The Producers. That’s something we’re fond of: allowing serious thoughts to come through, hopefully, with some degree of comedy. I think a lot of times it’s easier to get through to the core of things through humor. I’m staring at the case for The Office on DVD right now… This may be shallow, but I really feel that The Office is as penetrating about humanity, if not more so, as Harold Pinter. The comedy makes the experience of that show more bearable and also unbearable simultaneously.

JAMES: I get really excited when a record I really like will make me laugh, too. I’ll notice some twist in the lyrics or a photograph or something and of a sudden I will bond with the record twice as powerfully as just liking the music in the first place. Even reading something that anybody in a band has said that makes me laugh will all of a sudden really get me interested. I think it takes a lot to do that. I consider making a joke—or at least attempting to make a joke—so much more of a risk than, you know, bearing your feelings in a rock song, because everybody does that now. I mean everybody. They’re all singing about their feelings, like, [half-sung] “Take my hand/ help me with my emotions,” and when it’s done that way it’s terrible—it’s the most abysmal shit you can think of.


BLVR: I was glad to see that your cover of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” made it onto Prisoners, but not the insane alternate version, the one with a children’s choir chanting “Nuclear war/ it’s a motherfucker.” How did you get those children into the studio? I mean, how did you convince their parents?

IRA:We just asked the parents. We didn’t get too many “nos,” actually.

BLVR: Really?

IRA:Yeah—well, we recorded that version of the song on Labor Day, so all those kids were starting school a couple days later. They were going to have to write essays about what they did on their summer vacation in three days, and there were a couple of parents who couldn’t trust their kids not to be cursing all over their first homework assignment of the school year.

BLVR: Right.

IRA: I mean, of course all the kids were instructed beforehand about the lyrics—I think some of the parents were actually happy to have their kids involved because it became a good way to talk to them about language; what’s appropriate sometimes and inappropriate at other times. The kids are all really smart, and it’s a nuanced way of looking at the world where it’s not like there are good words and bad words—there are words that are good at some times and bad at other times.

BLVR:Your dexterous work in covering other artists’ songs is pretty legendary. For the past several years, you’ve appeared during the yearly pledge drive on the listener-supported radio station WFMU, performing impromptu covers on request to raise funds. Can you tell me how that works?

JAMES: WFMU is, without a doubt, the greatest radio station in the world, and every year they have a pledge drive, and we—oh man, I can’t even remember how many years we’ve done this for—maybe since ’96 or ’97—just go and play live on the air, and people call in and request any song that they can think of,and we have to try to play it. Most likely we can’t, and those requests are always the most entertaining. If they want us to play one of our own songs it costs twice as much, which is only fair—you know, there’s no challenge there—you have to put a premium on something like that. If they want to call in and sing along with us over the phone while we play—there’s a special pledge amount for that. The first couple of years were really hilarious,because people were just calling to try to stump us, and I totally loved that.That doesn’t happen so much anymore.

BLVR:Why not?

JAMES: It kind of goes with the territory of it being such a great radio station. The people who listen to it know a lot about music, so they request really cool songs. And it’s fun, but not as fun as trying to play “Rock the Boat,” or “The Night Chicago Died,” or one of those ridiculous, horrible songs where you’re like, “Uh oh, come up with something quick!” Now we’ll get requests for “Heart of Darkness” by Pere Ubu or some other legitimately cool request.

BLVR: Are there any covers from those sessions that you remember as especially sublime?

JAMES: There were some that people called in for that we actually started playing at shows. I think the first year or the second year somebody requested “You Sexy Thing,” and we liked it enough that we brought it back to play at a wedding. That occasionally shows up in our encores. There was a version of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” that was particularly hideous; that, I’ll always remember. Oh,“Tijuana Taxi”—a very good version of “Tijuana Taxi” by Herb Alpert. I actually considered using that as my outgoing message on my home phone at some point. I think people would just never want to leave a message.


Megan Milks is the author of Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body (Feminist Press, 2021), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender fiction, as well as Slug and Other Stories and Remember the Internet: Tori Amos Bootleg Webring.

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