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You Should Already Know: Yo La Tengo

By Cord Jefferson on January 7, 2010


You Should Already Know: Yo La Tengo

Up towards the top corner of America, just across the Hudson River from New York City, sits Hoboken, New Jersey. Dubbed the “Mile Square City” because of its tidy, tiny size, it’s a place different enough from the looming island of concrete next door that The New York Times once ran the headline, “Hoboken, a 10-Minute Ride to Far Away.”  It’s a quiet, clean, relatively affordable place that, if it could talk, would say, “Sure, I guess New York is alright; it’s just not for me.”

Yo La Tengo is a Hoboken band. Composed of husband-and-wife-duo Ira Kaplan (guitar/vocals) and Georgia Hubley (drums), who founded the group in 1984, and bassist James McNew, who came on in the early ‘90s, YLT’s dedication to itself and its idiosyncratic indie rock is unmistakably reminiscent of the city in which it resides. Specifically, both entities are seemingly impervious to the trends that come and go like flu seasons within spitting range of their respective borders. Hoboken, for instance, remains largely graffiti-free, unlike its famous neighbor, the birthplace of hip-hop. And for its part in the parallel, over the past quarter century, YLT has produced rock music genre-bending enough that describing it as “indie” isn’t so much a perfect categorization as it is a necessity – “shoegaze, post-punk, noise-pop, garage music” just doesn’t have the same ring.

“Basically, we enjoy doing it,” says Kaplan, responding to my question about Yo La Tengo’s key to longevity. We’re in the Matador Records offices in Lower Manhattan, separated by a glass door from the buzzing, typing, whirling innards of the label. Kaplan’s graying curls are typically fluffy, and he crosses his thin legs tightly while he speaks. “It’s either no magic trick or one very big magic trick. Or, we’re too stupid to stop.”  Actually, it would be stupid to stop while on such a roll. Since releasing their first album, Ride the Tiger, in 1986, Kaplan and his bandmates have produced over a dozen records, many of which have become critical favorites, if not commercial hits. And last year, the trio briefly changed its name to the Condo Fucks for a tongue-in-cheek alter-ego project, the fruit of which was a smattering of shows and another full album, Fuckbook.

When not recording and touring, the group often goes Hollywood, appearing as The Velvet Underground to whom it’s often compared - in 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol and providing songs to the soundtracks of everything from a series of deep-sea documentaries (The Sounds of the Sounds of Science) to the award-winning road film, Old Joy, to I’m Not There, the gentle, strange Bob Dylan biopic. 

In September, Yo La Tengo will debut its latest effort, Popular Songs. Counting B-sides and side-projects, it will be the band’s 16th record, meaning its ouvre is now as sizable as that of its better known contemporary and new label mate, Sonic Youth. Yet despite being younger - and thus, technically, more productive - than Thurston Moore et al., Kaplan calls his band’s music-making schedule “infrequent,” which sounds a little like a supermodel complaining that she’s fat. “We are endlessly entertained by so many different things,” says Kaplan, smiling as if he’s just remembered an inside joke. “So much so, that we end up being distracted by all these little projects that aren’t the band in the strictest sense.”

“Yo La Tengo in the strictest sense” is oxymoronic, especially when speaking of Popular Songs, an album that frequently meanders away from a lot of what you thought you knew about YLT’s sound. Kaplan’s soft, half-spoken vocals remain, as do very prominent garage and New Wave influences. But then there’s the building string arrangements on “Here to Fall,” which, when coupled with a slightly funky distorted guitar sound, yields music that could easily have fallen out of a ‘60s blaxploitation flick. Even stranger is “Periodically Double or Triple,” Songs’ organ-peppered first single, which was such a departure for YLT that the band had a sit-down to decide whether it should even be included on the record. “There was definitely some discussion about, ‘Is this us?’” admits Kaplan. “And the consensus was, ‘Well, we’re playing it; it’s not anyone else.’ If there’s anything we can be counted on to do, it’s to keep expanding what it is we do.”

Perhaps the magic trick is this, then: Stay focused, do good work and become dynamic - and thrive in the half-light despite having an empire between you and the sun. F

This article is from FILTER Issue 37