Interview with Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan

Yo La TengoRolling Stone calls Hoboken’s Yo La Tengo “one of the all-time great American garage bands” The band, comprised of lead singer and guitarist Ira Kaplan, his wife, drummer Georgia Hubley and bassist James McNew.  I  talked to Kaplan about the band’s growth through the years.

Gene: Let’s talk about the evolution of your music.  It really seems like each album builds on the one before it and you keep going, branching out further and further while keeping aspects that worked well for you previously. Is there a place that you have in mind that you’re going to?

Ira: It’s quite the opposite…When we recorded the record “Fakebook,” the band essentially didn’t exist. It was just Georgia and I for the first, I don’t know, six or seven years of the band’s existence. We had a very volatile lineup. But in 1991 James McNew joined the band and really from then on the stability gave us the ability to do exactly what you said, just to keep building on the past. I think we probably did that to a certain extent prior to him joining. But the band for me really began when James joined and what we’ve done increasingly in probably like the last decade is, we just get together and play and see what happens.

Gene: On the most recent record you play in a variety of styles, from dance music to fuzzed-out, gritty guitars. Is there anything that you’ve thought about – a kind of music that’s popped into your head – that you didn’t indulge in because it was too far a field or wouldn’t fit on a Yo La Tengo record?

Ira: Not really. Sometimes I think we have to find what we think is the right outlet for certain things. On the last record for instance, there was a song, “Mr. Tough” and  maybe a lesser extent, “Sometimes I Don’t Get You.” They were probably a little more soul oriented than previous records and I think it took us a little bit of time to accept the notion of sharing things that we do in private with other people. We’ve also, over the last few years, done a number of film soundtracks and one of the things that’s very appealing about doing that is you’re working with a director who is kind of steering the ship. They can ask you to do certain things that you might not necessarily think of doing on your own.

Gene: You’ve talked about how the band has evolved. Has your relationship to music or the feelings you get from it changed over the years?

Ira: Nobody wants to have a strict definition of “this is what the band does and this is what the band doesn’t do.” Everyone changes as people and we want the group to reflect the changes in our own lives… It doesn’t necessarily change it for the better or change it for the worse, but it certainly changes it and similarly, as one gets older all sorts of things happen to change the role music has in your life and the way you hear it.

Gene: What I was thinking of when I asked that was James Taylor. Throughout the 70s, he wrote one way – based on emotion – and then somewhere in the 80s he had to make a switch. To keep it interesting for himself, he started writing songs more intellectually. He would think about what he’d like to see in the song and write it that way, as opposed to writing from the pure emotion of youth. Is there a watershed moment like that in your career?

Ira: I think there was a big one. As I said, we get together and just play and see what happens…But one of our favorite artists, Jad Fair, from the band Half Japanese, asked us to be his band for a recording and we agreed and then he said, “Do you want to rehearse or do you want to just start recording and see what happens?” We said, “We’ll do what you would you do normally. He said, “I’d just get together and play and see what happens.” So we decided to do that and we had a great time doing it.  We were really excited by the results and could hear that it was different from things we had done before and I think inspired by that session. That really kind of motivated us to write our own songs that way, too, and just kind of sort of try to pluck the kernel of the song out of the air and then work on it later. The first record we made primarily that way was “Electr-O-Pura” in 1995.

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About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
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