Yo La Tengo: the band next door

by Jason Jenkins

Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley are a nice, mellow couple in their mid-40s from Hobokken, N.J. They like homemade peach pie, watching TV and going to the occasional baseball game. Oh, and they also founded one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the last decade, Yo La Tengo.

Through their 20-year career, Yo La Tengo have been one of rock’s most consistent bands, never experiencing the break-ups, burnouts or sell-outs most bands their age face. They’ve never put out a bad album, either — each new release maneuvering within the parameters of rock ‘n’ roll, yet embracing chance and originality at every turn. YLT are equally at home with jangly pop and hushed, organ-driven duets as with the crushing feedback freakouts usually associated with another influential indie-rock couple, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth.

Unlike their Manhattanite contemporaries across the river, however, Kaplan and Hubley have spent considerably less time in the spotlight, which suits them just fine. They look more like your neighbors than rock stars, and never really go out of their way to promote themselves anyway, seemingly content to play, as Kaplan puts it, “for their own amusement” wherever people want to hear them.

That’s still a lot of people. YLT’s regular tours of North America, Europe and Japan, as well as their appearances on the festival circuit (including two visits to Fuji Rock), draw huge crowds. Last week’s gigs in Tokyo sold out so quickly the promoter quickly added another.

That included two rock shows and one “Sounds of Science” event on May 28, in which the band performed live musical accompaniment for the underwater films of French documentary maker, Jean Painleve, the father of scientific cinema and a predecessor to Jacques Cousteau. That night at Roppongi’s LaForet Museum, ambient synth and washes of feedback punctuated the movements of octopuses, sea urchins and spider crabs as they wandered across the screen, the experience possibly more surreal for the Japanese audience, who were more familiar with the aquatic cast appearing on plates or skewers. The humor wasn’t lost on Kaplan, who took advantage of the audience’s feelings toward Painleve’s protagonists by thanking everyone for watching their “ode to sashimi.”

Much of YLT’s best work, however, deals with the human condition, with Kaplan and Hubley as central characters. The couple’s post-modern sense of humor peeks through on tracks like “Georgia Vs. Yo La Tengo” and “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” but most lyrics are closer to “Tears Are in Your Eyes,” i.e., straightforward and personal.

Or perhaps not. Sitting backstage before last Friday’s Club Quattro gig, Kaplan, Hubley and YLT bassist James McNew dismissed viewing their words literally. “My lyrics often draw on something personal,” says Hubley, “but we often cater them to fit the song or the mood.”

“Lyrics are an easy thing to latch on to,” Kaplan adds. “But it’s not what we’re really about. It’s not like a Randy Newman situation, though. He frequently writes in the first person, but he’s not the person.”

Married for most of their musical career, hints of their relationship would be impossible to avoid in their music. On the song, “Our Way to Fall,” Kaplan’s sing/speak-style delivery seems to address his wife directly:

I remember walking up to you I remember my face turned red And I remember staring at my feet I remember before we met I remember sitting next to you And I remember pretending I wasn’t looking

In concert, quiet, impossibly precious songs like this may bookend a searing punk number or a rambling jazz stomp, and this juxtaposition only intensifies their power. Yet all of their work is woven from the sturdy fabric of rock ‘n’ roll. Sometimes it’s hard to determine whether their dedication to rock’s fundamentals bends to more experimental predilections or vice versa.

Both are put to the test every year during the fundraiser for Jersey City’s WFMU, where YLT has played the role of human jukebox for the last decade. Donate money, and they will attempt to play any requested song, live on the air.

McNew explains that the key word is “attempt.” The goal is to keep WFMU, a well-loved freeform radio station, in business, not stump the band. Anyone familiar with the band’s discography knows though, that the chances are good their attempt will be at least intriguing, if not amazing. Yo La Tengo’s discography — 12 LPs, plus stacks of singles and EPs — contains dozens of covers. The trio’s musical knowledge rivals the nerdiest vinyl collectors (Kaplan was once a rock critic in New York), yet they rarely feel the need to simply re-create a song. Instead, The Beach Boy’s “Little Honda” becomes a snarling cloud of distortion and The Ramones’ “Blitzkreig Bop” an exercise in elevator music.

This simultaneous respect for and irreverence toward the rock ‘n’ roll playbook may be why the indie-music intelligentsia have embraced the band for so long. Their passion for discovery has helped redefine pop’s raw materials without ever abandoning them. You could think of them as toddlers in art class who paint stunning landscapes, but with the sky green and the land blue.

Kaplan admits that sometimes the band’s encyclopedic knowledge of music can be a hindrance. “I think we are easily distracted from writing new songs,” he says. “If all we did was work on new songs, make an album, go on tour — we might write them faster.”

Not that they need to. Since 1986, YLT has averaged a new album every 18 months. From these, the band carefully selected their favorite tracks for their three-CD compilation, “Prisoners of Love,” released last month.

Or so I thought. I asked them how they decided on songs, and Kaplan suddenly turned serious: “I said, ‘Georgia . . . you do it.’ ” When everyone stopped laughing, Hubley countered. “No, I think he said ‘Gerard [Colsoy, co-president of Matador Records], you do it.’ It was really Gerard’s idea,” she says, matter-of-factly, then quickly stifles a chuckle. “You wouldn’t really think we would come up with: ‘Hey! Let’s put out a greatest hits record!’ “

Everyone acknowledges some input. Hubley did most of the sequencing, and her nonlinear approach works, making “Prisoners of Love” satisfy on multiple levels. Those unfamiliar with the band’s body of work are able to sample their diverse catalog — sonic folk (“Barnaby, Hardly Working”), sun-drenched casio-rock (“Season of the Shark”) and achingly beautiful noise-pop (“Sugarcube”) for starters — while longtime listeners can hear how well some songs have aged. Moreover, a full disc of outtakes and unreleased tracks will content fans until the next release.

Indeed, there’s much to love about this release, except for the fact that retrospectives like this often signal an exit plan. After all, it has been 20 years. And then there’s YLT’s recent soundtrack work: “Sounds of Science” shows began in 2001, and they’ve recently scored two movies (“Game 6,” “Junebug”), both of which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. To the serious YLT fan — myself included — this kind of news sets off alarms. Will the band keep making albums?

Kaplan: “Yes.”

Hubley (grinning): “I don’t know.”

Kaplan (more emphatically): “Yes.”

McNew starts, pauses, and then adds: “After that record was released, the first few interviews I did, the tone of the questions really freaked me out. They were all in past tense. I felt like I was already dead.”

On the contrary, Yo La Tengo’s best work may lie ahead of them. Albums have grown quieter over the past few years, but no less innovative. In person, they speak and sing with the same quirky excitement they’ve always had. Kaplan betrayed his age only once: His eyes lit up during talk of old R&B records like The Hollywood Flames’ “Buzz Buzz Buzz,” but when the topic changed to dancehall, he looked like he just swallowed a bug.

It didn’t really help matters when I asked what they thought of the directions independent music had taken during their tenure, but I had to. “We may keep blinders on as best as possible,” comes Kaplan’s carefully worded reply. “I want to expand on my past rather than leave scorched earth behind.”

That mentality has been seen in the performances of YLT with their heroes, such as The Feelies, The Velvet Underground and The Sun Ra Arkestra, who joined them onstage at 2003′s Fuji Rock Festival to cover their track, “Nuclear War.”

So who else would they like to play with? “Oh, I would hate to announce something like that,” says McNew, with a laugh. “I think it’s better to announce someone you’d never, ever want to work with. Then keep hoping it never works out.”

“Sting,” says Georgia without hesitation. “I don’t think I’ll have to worry about that.”