FOREWORD: Yo La Tengo are the most successful band to emerge from the ashes of Hoboken’s then fledging ‘80s scene. Main man, Ira Kaplan, an ex-rock scribe, learned to compose and play guitar from scratch while long-time girlfriend and part-time singer, Georgia Hubley, handled percussion duties. Nearly from the start, bassist James Mc New went along for the ride. Yo La Tengo’s sensational discography is wide and varied. They’ve helped local Jersey station WFMU’s annual fundraiser for years, doing impromptu cover versions for donations. And if you could find a ticket, their 8-night Hanukkah shows at Maxwells always feature special guests and comic relief. I’ve met Ira and Georgia on several occasions – after a Beacon Theatre show; at Maxwells; and on the ball field. Ira pitched against me in a Manhattan softball game in ’05. This interview originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Could there be a better representation of Hoboken’s bohemian independent rock scene than the fabulously evolving Yo La Tengo? Guiding light Ira Kaplan (lead vocals-guitar) and his percussionist wife, Georgia Hubley, gained admiration by challenging audiences with stylistically adventurous originals and well-chosen covers.
After the ‘60s-informed ’86 debut, Ride The Tiger, and a few solid successors traipsed through droning trance-rock and bludgeoned noise experiments, neighbor-bassist James Mc New joined the fold and the trio hit astral heights with ‘92s brilliant May I Sing With Me and ‘93s noisily majestic Painful. Following ‘97s amorous I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, ‘00s serendipitous low key charmer And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out found Mile Square’s most enduring combo slipping further into the ether, leading to ‘03s hypnotic endearment, Summer Sun.
Kaplan’s crew understand the eternal learning process inquisitive artists experience, so instead of settling into one tried and true formula they constantly confound expectations whether on-stage or in the studio. An unassuming sophistication and casual restraint shrouds shrewd new Jazz-skewed meditations such as the lounge-y “pillow talk” flirtation “How To Make A Baby Elephant Float,” the hovering flute swirl “Let’s Be Still,” and the slumbering tropical breeze, “Winter A Go-Go” (hazily sung by Mc New). Moody guitar vibrato lingers across the blissful neo-orchestral retreat, “Little Birds,” exploring familiar ‘urban-noir’ terrain initially trekked on ‘95s Electr-O-Pura. For the finale, Lambchop’s Paul Niehaus guests on pedal steel as Hubley purrs her way through a sedate take of Big Star’s “Take Care.”
After nearly twenty years of existence, Yo La Tengo have attracted many serious-minded fans and played with many respected artists who’ve embellished their increasing repertoire. For Summer Sun, local New York friends Roy Campbell, Jr. (trumpet), William Parker (upright bass), and Daniel Carter (sax-flute) from virtuoso Jazz practitioners, Other Dimensions In Music, drop by to spruce up the mystified transcendental departure “Beach Party Tonight” and the twinkly piano confection “Don’t Have To Be So Sad.”
Besides Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War,” Yo La Tengo recently covered the otherworldly Jazz ensembles’ “Rocket #9″ on an English label 7″ for Planet Records.
IRA KAPLAN: It’s got two “Rocket #9″ live versions we do better now plus a “Wig Out With Charlie Dapper” instrumental. There’s another cover on our 3-song Christmas EP made in conjunction with our Hanukkah shows called “It’s Christmas Time,” which is from Sun Ra’s singles collection. It was released under the Qualities band name.
Were the Christmas songs as somber as Summer Sun’s tracks?
IRA: Not by a longshot. (laughter) They were more fun loving and upbeat.
Was the “Some Other Dimension” 7″ record as moody and introspective as the new album?
IRA: Not at all. That was the first thing we did with Other Dimensions. We’d written this song after we did “Rocket #9″ that we called “Now 2000,” which was clearly a Sun Ra rip-off. (laughter) We were curious what it would sound like if we had real Jazz musicians playing with us on it. Those songs were much more jazzy than this record. It was more of a genre piece. We didn’t know they were gonna play on Summer Sun. Everything was recorded in Nashville. They came to a New York mixing session and did a bunch of recording. The only song we knew they’d be on was “”Let’s Be Still.”
While Inside Out seemed lyrically personal, perhaps reflecting on modern domesticity, Summer Sun seems, at times, seafaring or exotic. Have you been vacationing in the Caribbean?
IRA: Sadly, no. You made references to the lyrical content of the previous record and then the musical style of the current one and contrasted them. I don’t think this record is that lyrically different than the previous one. I didn’t think the last one was as dramatically different lyrically as people made it out to be. I think the lyrics got better on Inside Out and there’s something about the musical setting that made people notice them more. Perhaps because of the musical setting of this record, people are noticing them less, but it surprises me sometimes. I think there’s more of a consistency in the topics and point of view of the songs. The last one may have sounded more intimate, but I don’t think that necessarily made it more personal. It took on a different form. But I’d say, emphatically, this is no less personal.
There’s a tropical Martin Denny feel fortifying “Little Birds” and “Winter A-Go-Go.” But why title the album Summer Sun when the cloudy gray skies of the cover make it seem ominously dusky?
IRA: Well. Look out your window now.
It’s still overcast.
IRA: There you go. I think it doesn’t have to be exactly what it sounds like on the surface. It can have a number of meanings.
Most of your songs do.
IRA: Yeah. I hope so. A good friend of ours (Phil Morrison) did the cover. He did our videos for “Sugarcube” and “Rock School” in the past. He’s directed a lot of our videos. The setting was done in co-operation with him. The plan wasn’t necessarily to have that photo specifically taken. But we took a lot of pictures and thought that’d make the best cover.
What element has long-time Yo La Tengo producer, Roger Moutenot, added to the overall sound?
IRA: We like the idea of somebody coming at our songs from a different perspective. When we go to make a record, we’ve been living with the material already for months – the writing and rehearsing of it. I think a lot of these things we go to record we know how the songs got there. I like having fresh ears who could say ‘maybe you don’t need this or put something here.’ If you listen to something enough times, you look at it differently. His perspective is valuable. Occasionally, he’ll have suggestions. The piano part we brought in on “Let’s Be Still” he requested how it should be adapted to have a better feel for the album. A lot of times he encourages us to think of something new. Ideas are passed to him for an opinion.
Will Yo La Tengo ever get back to recording guitar-heavy sets?
IRA: Maybe. (laughter) We didn’t know Summer Sun would turn out like this.
I love its transcendental escapism, but couldn’t get to the bottom of “Season Of The Shark.” There’s an underlying soothing sweetness contrasting some curious mystery.
IRA: Basically, I was using that to say people have unreasonable fears. It’s the summer and everyone’s afraid to go in the water because they’re gonna get eaten by a shark, which is preposterous since all over the U.S. only one or two people are attacked out of millions swimming.
Georgia purrs her way through the Big Star cover, “Take Care” while Paul Niehaus plies pedal steel. Has his band, Lambchop, who you’ve toured with, affected the effervescent moodiness of recent records?
IRA: We’re good friends with them. I love them and think they’re a great band. When I listen to them, I secretly feel there’s stuff back and forth where we’ve affected them and they’ve affected us.
What’s it like having comedians such as David Cross and Jaaeane Garofalo opening for your band?
IRA: Other than those Hanukkah shows, the only time we’d done that was at Maxwell’s and Todd Barry opened. We tried to make the concept of these Hanukkah shows really spectacular. Those are some of the most exciting things we’ve been a part of. There was a wide range of entertainers. Sun Ra Orchestra came on-stage. Given the nature of these shows, we’ve tended to not mention much in advance. By the time people know these performers will be there, the shows are already sold out. People who are savvy enough and know what’s happened the first time know who might be there. But there’s no way of knowing who’s gonna be there each night.
Has James Mc New released any new Dump material since the Prince covers cassette?
IRA: Yes. There’s a brand new one, Grown Ass Man, on Shrimper Records. Sue Garner and Fontaine Toups (Versus) may be the only other people on the record besides James.
What’ve you been listening to lately?
IRA: The Great Plains Cornflakes has unreleased live things. I always liked that band. I like the new Janet Bean (Freakwater) album. I got a cool record in Norway of ‘60s/ ‘70s soul, like a cover of “Watermelon Man.”