For many bands, the key to longevity rests upon a certain number of variables remaining in place. Perhaps that means selling a certain number of albums or filling specifically sized venues. Since forming way back in 1984, indie rockers Yo La Tengo haven’t let variables determine whether or not they continue to tour and record.
“We continue to enjoy it,” says singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan in a recent phone interview when asked about what’s kept the band intact for more than 30 years. “That’s a big part of it. In a certain sense, not examining and not asking those questions is part of it. If I told you something more concrete saying that as long as A, B and C were in place, we’d keep going and then those things stopped being in place and you’d stop being a band. Maybe focusing on A, B, C would make sense but then perhaps you wouldn’t see D, E and F come along the way. We’ve just found things to enjoy at every moment.”
Not many of the band’s contemporaries have remained active as the music industry has gone through drastic changes over the past three decades. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any mainstream rock or pop acts who’ve survived without significant lineup changes.
“Flaming Lips might predate us,” says Kaplan. “They’re much more popular than we are. We have a lot of friends in bands who were not necessarily that well known. Our friends Antietam, who we cover on [the new album] Stuff Like That There
, our first show was with them. I think it was their third show. They’ve never stopped playing either. They just keep doing it. The Clean predate us. They’re more up and down and stop and go and they don’t live on the same continent. They do things and don’t do things. Eleventh Dream Day started at about the same time. They continue to make records and put one out last year.”
It’s suggestive that Kaplan can cite an array of bands that can claim a legacy similar to Yo La Tengo’s. A former rock writer, Kaplan (and the band’s other members, singer-drummer Georgia Hubley and singer-bassist James McNew) considers himself a huge fan of music.
“I think [writing about music] provided me with a self-consciousness for things like this and interpreting things that are said about us,” he says. “My approach to writing didn’t have a lot of analysis to it anyway. I was much more of a fan. That’s part of my background that the band shares. We’re all fans of music. There are bands that you don’t feel like they have to love music. I don’t think being a voracious listener is an essential characteristic of playing music. There are some who are and some who aren’t. I don’t think one is right or wrong. Our band reflects the fact that we are.”
The fan mentality certainly comes across on the band’s latest album, Stuff Like That There
. Like 1990’s Fakebook
, the album includes a collection of covers and originals. The band recorded the album in the wake of its thirtieth anniversary and as a way to mark the 25th anniversary of Fakebook
“Having gotten our feet wet [with the 30th anniversary], we thought we would take advantage of the 25th anniversary of Fakebook
and make a record with [guitarist] Dave [Schramm] again,” Kaplan explains. “We’ve stayed in touch and love playing with him. We’ve played with him from time to time over the years. It’s always great. We wanted to do something that would last more than one night at Maxwell’s and wanted to do a record and do a little touring. We knew it was something we would enjoy doing. I think it goes back to the idea that we were following the template of Fakebook and that’s what we did on that record.”
Kaplan says the reinterpretations of the band’s own songs isn’t such a novelty because the group always tries to make its songs unique when it plays them live.
“Reinterpreting our songs is something we always do,” he says. “Sometimes in subtle ways by making them longer. When we make a record and then play those songs live, we’ve already changed them from the record. Like a lot of groups, we record with lots of overdubs and things you can’t do live. We don’t care that we can’t do them live. We don’t have laptops and backing tracks so we can make the live show sound just like the record. We’re always interested in taking a song and treating it as something that’s flexible and malleable. The versions on Stuff Like That There are more extremely interpreted. That happens constantly when we play. It was fun to take [the original tune] ‘Deeper into Movies’ and take out the distortion and focus on the singing and think about what that would do to the song.”
One standout, a cover of the Hank Williams’ tune “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” shows off Hubley’s supple voice. Her hushed vocals make it sound as if the Velvet Underground with Nico were covering the tune.
“Of the songs on the record, it’s the one we’ve been doing the longest, though we don’t do it very often,” says Kaplan. “It might even predate James [McNew] being in the group, which is pretty amazing since he’s been playing in the group for 25 years. We all love the way Georgia sings it. Her performance is special. To be honest, it’s appealing to do something brazen like take this song that you think everything that can ever be said about this song has been said about it and think we have one more angle on it.”
The band’s stripped down rendition of the Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” also makes the most of Hubley’s soft voice as she turns the song into something more somber and reflective than the original Cure tune.
“There again, we’ve done that one,” says Kaplan. “We had done it two times before. We did a show quite a few years ago. We played a party that was half party and half public show for The Onion
. For whatever reason, it occurred to us to learn that song. There are lots of covers that we’ll play once or twice and then they go away. That was definitely one of them. We found ourselves a few years later on the radio in London. It was this context where people were making requests. I don’t think this person knew we had done it before but we were able to cobble it back together. I’m sure Georgia didn’t know all the words. The first one was more of a rock version. This time, we were playing quietly as a radio station and it brought out a beautiful quality in Georgia’s singing. When we were considering what songs to do for this record that made the list.”
While the album sounds like it might be a random collection of tunes, it works well as a whole and suggests that You La Tengo remains committed to the longplayer at a time when bands have focused more on singles and EPs.
“It’s the way we approach making music,” he says. “When we make records, we think of the tracks tying together as a whole and getting richer as a whole by talking to each other and the context they’re in. It might not last longer if people aren’t interested. Last night, we were watching an episode of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None
show and he’s talking about his grandmother reminiscing about her youth in which there were horse-drawn carriages. Things change pretty radically in a period of time. We’re so focused on today. We just try to cope with the changes around us whether we like them or not.”
One benefit of being a band that never had that huge hit (something that can’t be said for other indie rock acts such as the Flaming Lips or Dinosaur Jr.) is that the band has the liberty to play what it likes for the live shows.
“This is going to sound slightly ridiculous but it is one of the advantages of not having hits,” says Kaplan. “We have songs that are more popular than others. It’s not like the people who come to a show will only know one song. That hasn’t happened, for better and worse. Most people who will be there will know more than two of our songs. As long as we touch a couple of bases, which we’re perfectly happy to do, then not everyone goes home upset. Only a few.”
Yo La Tengo, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $20 ADV, $23 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.