Yo La Tengo: From Monk to the Mets

By: Ron Hart

Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo of Hoboken, NJ, formed 25 years ago when New York Rocker scribe and local soundman Ira Kaplan met artist Georgia Hubley, daughter of legendary Disney animator John Hubley, and the two bonded over records and the New York Mets. Since then, alongside longtime bassist James McNew, the band has established themselves as one of the truly great American rock bands in modern times, with a sage-like knowledge of pop history and ability to collaborate with just about anyone under the sun, be it El-P of Company Flow, NYC jazz greats Other Dimensions in Music or Howard Kaylan of The Turtles.

2009 saw the trio release Popular Songs, their 12th album and most adventurous since 2000's masterful And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. JamBase had the privilege of catching up with Ira Kaplan while Yo La were on a brief trip back home in Hoboken. Our conversation touched on TV series Monk, Spinal Tap, taking a hiatus from the band's long-running tradition of playing Maxwell's during the week of Hanukkah, bootlegging, and the razing of Shea Stadium, among other topics.

JamBase: While you were in Europe over the holiday season, I read on your blog that you wound up watching Monk in the ancestral home of Hans Christian Andersen.

Ira Kaplan: [Laughs] Yeah, we were in Copenhagen and Monk came on in the middle of the night. It was like a postcard from home.

JamBase: Was he just as neurotic in Denmark as he is in the U.S.?

Ira Kaplan: [Laughs] You know, when you're traveling, he seems to make perfect sense. I mean, we already like that show, but we've had experiences with things you would never watch anywhere else. It's like, "Oh look, they're speaking English. I would love to watch Ally McBeal."

Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby opened for you guys in Europe. How was it touring with Eric?

We've known Eric for a couple of years now, and he's nothing but a prince to us.

You guys cast such a wide net on who you all work with. I always go back to your Hanukkah shows at Maxwell's and all the different people who jump onstage with you.

Well, that's how we met Eric. Eric came to one of the shows and we did some stuff together.

Were you guys bummed that you couldn't do the Maxwell's run this past holiday season?

Well, a little bit, but only a little. We know it was the right decision, so why focus on that aspect of it? We've had a great year, so we just enjoy the fact that we've been too busy to do this other thing that under other circumstances would have been ready.

When did you start those Hanukkah shows?

Yo La Tengo :: March, 2010 :: Tel Aviv by Goni Riskin
2001. For a couple of years, the notion of having some kind of holiday party where we would maybe just play free for our friends seemed like a good idea. We just wanted to do some kind of commemorative something-or-other. And then it would come around we'd be like, "Yeah, this is exactly what the world needs, another Christmas party [laughs]." So, the idea would just go by the wayside. Then one year, not really as a joke but with some element of humorousness, I said, "Oh, why don't we play all eight nights of Hanukkah." And I think it seemed audacious to play eight nights in a row. But it just had such a good combination of funny and... what was that Spinal Tap line?

Oh man, it's been a while.

I just had to look up that line: "The fine line between clever and stupid." That's what I thought we were doing, combining clever and stupid [laughs].

I actually heard a couple of your shows on NYCTaper.com, who I believe has consent to tape your shows?


Are you cool with it?

Well, you know it's a funny thing. Like a lot of things in this world, I am of two minds about it. I feel like people are gonna do stuff like that anyway and when these things are kinda out there, it means they're not.... well, now this is a bit different with the Internet. But back before the Internet, we were allowing people to do that, because I didn't really want people buying them or selling them. You go into these stores and see bootlegs that are like really expensive. So I thought, before it becomes this really rare commodity, you're not gonna stop it from being done. So yeah, we just focus on that aspect of it and if people are interested [in taping us], that's flattering. To be perfectly honest, I like to play shows as if no one will ever hear it again, and the fact that people do hear them again is a mixed blessing [laughs].

I hear what you are saying.

It's just kinda the magic of the moment. You make records to be listened to again and again and you play live to try for something more ephemeral. But that's just one side of it. The other side of it is that it's certainly flattering that people care.

Have you guys ever thought about putting out an official live album?

Yo La Tengo
We've talked about it here and there among different things. One of the things is that it's just not that much fun to work on, but we'll see what happens. [Writer's note: There is one great live document of Yo La Tengo officially available, and that's their compilation of performances during their yearly cover-thon for the WFMU pledge drive, where the band will play anything the callers request on the spot, which the group sells on their website].

I noticed on Popular Songs you play a lot more keyboards than usual.

Yeah, I guess that's true [laughs]. There's piano and a bunch of organs.

There's that one performance of you guys playing the new album's first track "Here to Fall" on a rooftop and you looked like you were having a good time with all the effects pedals hooked up to your Wurlitzer.

When we first wrote that song, I was playing it on piano. And I'm almost sure it was James who suggested trying it on the Wurlitzer and plugging it into a fuzzbox and then the wah-wah pedal. I think most of that stuff came from James. It definitely had a sound unlike any other one. We were certainly grabbed by it. And then a couple of other things led to trying out a few of the other sounds at the beginning. We were working on trial and error.

You also worked with Cadet Records composer/arranger Richard Evans. How did you hook up with him to do the strings on "If It's True"?

We had the idea of trying to find an old school string arranger and he was number one on our want list. James just went on the Internet and managed to search him and find out that he's teaching in Berklee [College of Music] up in Boston. He just sent him a cold email, and next thing you knew he was hearing from Richard Evans.

It's pretty extraordinary how accessible some people are online. I just sent Doug Yule an email about an interview and he got right back to me.

Oh yeah, how's he doin'?

He does an old-timey band up in Seattle called RedDog. He still has that great voice. Moe Tucker [Velvet Underground] had a very distinct voice as well, and I definitely hear a little of her in Georgia's singing, in a way.

Yeah, I love Moe's singing and I've heard that myself [in Georgia's singing]. I've read other people make that same observation.

Georgia didn't start singing until Fakebook [1990], if I'm not mistaken.

Yo La Tengo by Steve Gullick
Pretty much. She sang the tiniest bit before that but she was extremely, extremely reluctant to sing. It was a pretty slow process. She sings on the records a little bit prior to Fakebook, but she certainly never sang a lead vocal until Fakebook.

Did you always know she had such a lovely voice?

Oh yeah, yeah [laughs]. I always encouraged her to sing.

Speaking of Fakebook, how did you guys come up with the concept of your covers album as the Condo Fucks, Fuckbook?

The name is an old name in our world. Even at the time, we forgot how old it is. We were referencing the inner sleeve to the [vinyl version of] I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One [1997]. We did kind of a old fashioned homage to old label inner sleeves in which different records on the label would be highlighted. So, we did our own where we made one for Matador; we made up a bunch of records and the Condo Fucks was one of them. And at the time, and that's what we were remembering, but it's only occurred to us in talking about it that Georgia did the cover art for a Homestead compilation called Human Music that we appear on. And when she was doing a mock-up of it, she didn't know who was going to be on the record, but in the space where she knew the groups would be listed she was writing in band names just to get a feel for how it would look, and one of the names she wrote was the Condo Fucks. So, she came up with that name. I don't remember what year that was but a long time ago, and we just dredged it back up for I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One.

Well, it certainly is a name for its time, especially given the gentrification of certain parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn over the years.

Well, I'm sure she was referencing more about Hoboken, which hits a little closer to home.

When did you guys first perform as Yo La Tengo?

It was at Maxwell's for a party with Antietam. Antietam's second show, our first.

How many people showed up?

Well, it felt like a million [laughs]. Too many, it was terrifying.

I'm sure after a few beers it got more fun.

I think after a few years, it got a little more fun [laughs]. Something we learned pretty quickly was that you think it's gonna be easy to perform to your friends but there's actually no harder audience. I don't necessarily mean that they're tough on you, but it's just harder to play for people you know. Playing for strangers is much easier [laughs].

Have you been to Citifield yet?

I have not. I went to one Mets game last year. I drove down to Philadelphia to spend a couple of days there. The Philadelphia ICA had an exhibit of Sun Ra memorabilia, so I drove down and went to that and went to a Mets-Phillies game.

Were you sad to see Shea go?

You know, I was and I wasn't. It wasn't a very good place to see a game. But at the same time, part of your life gets knocked down with it. But clearly I was under no illusions about its attributes as a ballpark.

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[Published on: 5/6/10]

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