Revisions and Reflections with Indie Rock Stalwarts Yo La Tengo

by Yasmine Shemesh

Published in print and online in the November 2015 issue of BeatRoute Magazine

This is Ira Kaplan’s first Skype interview. In the midst of a world tour, the Yo La Tengo co-founder has landed in Ireland the day before our scheduled phone call. Due to my fear of long-distance charges, the guitarist and I proceed over the World Wide Web.

His avatar is an illustration of a gladiator pitching a shot put.

“We actually did one thing, I think we did it on Skype,” Kaplan laughs. “The song ‘Yellow Sarong’ was recorded by our friends, The Scene is Now. A couple years ago when we were in Helsinki, they were celebrating their 30th anniversary in New York and we were really disappointed that we couldn’t be a part of it…I think it was 4 in the morning and the three of us sang ‘Yellow Sarong’ via Skype in New York.”

An endearing unsavvy with virtual reality isn’t the slightest bit strange when one remembers that YLT themselves have been a band for over 30 years, forming in New Jersey in 1984 (when interviews were typically conducted pen-to-pad). One would be forgiven for forgetting how long they’ve been around, as the alternative rockers have consistently released music since, accumulating 14 studio albums, four compilation albums, 12 EPs, one film score, one collaborative album, and one cover album.

YLT’s latest effort, Stuff Like That There, was released in August. Comprised of new songs alongside revised material and covers, the album has been called a sequel to 1990’s Fakebook — some of the band’s most celebrated work.

“We did think of it self-consciously, as a return to making a record that way,” Kaplan explains. “The mixture of covers, new songs, and re-workings of our songs. We did think it would be different and, therefore, interesting to self-consciously work from a template, rather than just get together, play, and then see what happened.”

Stuff revisits more than Fakebook’s concept. Gene Holder, who worked on the iconic album, also produced it; James McNew, bassist since 1992, learned to play double bass to honour preceding inclusions of the instrument; Dave Schramm, who hasn’t officially been a YLT member since the ’90s, returned on guitar.

The covers on Stuff range enormously in genre, from post-punk (The Cure’s “Friday, I’m In Love”) to golden-age country (Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”); the latter is a song Kaplan and his wife/YLT co-founder Georgia Hubley often played at home. The result is one of Stuff’s most poignant moments, with Hubley’s gentle vocals floating over twangy pedal steel.

New cuts (“Rickety,” “Awhileaway”) fit nicely with older ones, which also extend in scope. “All Your Secrets” (2009) favours organ over guitar, while a softened “Deeper Into Movies” (1997) trades loud instrumentation for sweet harmonies. Sonic shifts were easy, Kaplan says, because the band habitually plays older material in concert.

“They still feel very current to me and I think it’s because of the way we play live and that the songs stay in rotation,” he continues. “That’s one of the things that’s really rewarding about playing live: a way to provide a new context to the songs every single night… Doing the re-arrangements for this album is just another variation of that.”

Exceptional is an artist that can reinterpret something (themselves, another, a genre) and pull it off; more exceptional is an artist that succeeds in making it new, familiar, and distinctly individual. On Stuff, YLT is, once again, that rarity.

“I think we have some sense of what we’re good at,” Kaplan says. “We feel a collective freedom to try whatever we want to try and with some confidence. We just believe in ourselves. But, I think we try to leave things open ended enough that we don’t actually have a sense of what we are.”

The sound on my speakers breaks up. I apologize and Kaplan responds, but the audio pixilates and is impossible to understand. I tell him I can’t hear him. He chuckles.

“This Skype thing. It’s hard sometimes to establish a connection, but I gave it a shot!”