by / November 4th, 2009 /

Yo La Tengo – Interview

Yo La Tengo have been on the go since the mid-eighties, consistently producing great albums, one after another. So consistent that they run the risk of being overlooked or taken for granted. Earlier in the year the band released a covers record under the alias Condo Fucks. In September they released Popular Songs, which is arguably the finest record they’ve made to date.

The band kick off their European/World tour this Thursday in Dublin’s Tripod. State interrupted James McNew from his packing to discuss deadlines, tour buses and crazy teen sex comedies.

Tickets are €20/24.50 available from Ticketmaster, City Discs, Sound Cellar and usual outlets. Doors open at 8pm. Yo La Tengo will play a 2 hour show (no support).

As a band Yo La Tengo have twelve studio albums and you’ve been with them for nine of those, was there anything different about going to the studio with Popular Songs?
Yes there was. For the most part we had everything fairly ready to go when we began recording. Which is slightly unusual compared to previous records. I think we generally come up with ideas for songs and intentionally not finish them. We leave them open for further ‘¦ in recording, we’re learning them and writing them at the same time the tape is rolling; which is also fun. But now that I think of it we had followed through a little more this time before we began recording. I don’t know why, it wasn’t intentional.

Do Matador give you guys deadlines?
Oh yeah sure. There are always deadlines and we always nearly miss them. There’s always a deadline that seems reasonable at first, that we always almost miss every single time. Them we pull together in the last second. Though it seems we have all the time in the world we never do.

Why did you take the Condo Fucks alias when releasing Fuckbook?
For no real exciting reason. That record came about because there was a bar in Brooklyn (Magnetic Field) that we liked very much and they were closing down forever. Our friends’ band the A-bones were going to play the final concert at the bar and we wanted to play too. So we offered to open for them; they’re like a really great, trashy, grunge rock band. So we put together a set of covers, a thirty minute set. Many of which we already knew and had done at Yo La Tengo shows or at practice. We didn’t want to use our name because we weren’t playing any of our songs and we were opening for our friends. The name is one we came up with many years ago (The band previously released Fakebook under this alias). I believe one of the Condo Fucks records appeared in the inner sleeve of advertisement for I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. When I recorded our rehearsal, it came out pretty good. So we thought maybe we’d release it ourselves one day. But someone from Matador was at that concert and heard that we had a recording. When Matador offered to put it out and we thought they were crazy.

How involved are you in the local music scene, do you go to a lot of gigs?
Sure, yeah, the club Maxwell’s in Hobhoken is a fantastic place that has been having gigs for 25 years or more, definitely more, and we’ve been going there regularly or somehow regularly ever since we’ve lived here.

What kind of bands are you into?
I’m a huge fan of the band Lambchop from Nashville, Tennessee. Not a particularly new band but I they are amazing. I don’t think there’s anything like them.

I’m also a huge fan of a band from Tokyo called Yura Yura Teikoku, a spectacular, great kind of psychedelic pop-rock band. I also never heard anything like that either. We were lucky enough to play some shows with them in the States, it was an honour. I still can’t believe we got that co-ordinated. It just seems like an impossible thing.

I like the band WHY? from California. I think they are really terrific. We toured with them a lot when our last album came out. It was a pleasure to watch those guys play every night.

Have you toured with Popular Songs yet?
It was released in the middle of September and we’ve been around the United States and Canada so far. They [the shows] have been great. [It’s] fun, frustrating and challenging to learn how to play our new songs. I like figuring it out logistically, incorporating new instruments, new pedals, new song sections, set ways and transitions. It’s pretty fun. I’m enjoying this tour a lot. I like travelling too, so it’s good.

Your songs vary stylistically on this album a great deal, how has translated into your show?
The songs tended to change quite a bit, at least to our ears, from the time that we write them and then record them. Then we had to relearn them to play live they definitely changed. And they change from night to night. Some times the lengths vary. That’s just how our writing process works. Songs are always subject to change, whether its length, tempo or mood, no song is safe from that.

So you’ll be here later this week?
Yes, this tour starts in Dublin and ends in Japan. I’ve always liked coming to Dublin. It took us a long time to get there. -98 maybe or -97, it took us a while but we were really excited to get there.
I like touring. I think we all do. We’ve been doing it for such a long time that we’re fortunate to have friends in different places that we would really never see otherwise.

Has it changed much for you in the 20 odd years that you’ve been doing it?
Yeah. We have a tour bus. Which is great. Because we’re, uh, ‘¦ old. (laughing a lot) It feels lovely to have that as an option. For many, many years we travelled in a sprinter van and that was back-breaking. But we still did it and we still enjoyed it. Ultimately. Maybe not as it was happening, but ultimately we enjoyed it. It’s not lost on me that during older tours we were crammed into a transport van like sardines and cursing big bands and their tour buses. I was imagining in my head this is much more punk rock. But there’s a lot to be said for a tour bus.

At what point did this happen for you?
I think we switched over, probably in the early 2000’s, that was the first time.

That was after the success of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out?
Yeah, I mean it definitely had moments where it felt like a really vulgar display of power but eh, it’s pretty terrific. It certainly allows us to be more comfortable, which allows us to rest more and cover more ground and play more shows.

So what has been influencing you lately?
I can’t really answer that. I can’t really pinpoint any specific influences. Certainly not when we’re playing or writing songs. We listened to so much music during our lives and are such huge fans. We listen to records all the time. I’m sure everything that goes in comes out in ways we’re not aware of, which is for the best. We’re possibly our own influence.

Soundtracks are really becoming part of Yo La Tengo, can you tell us about that?
Yeah. We were always interested in trying it and the opportunity arose, I think it was 2003 when we first started working on movie soundtracks and we really took to it. We had always been aware of soundtrack music and would have a lot of soundtrack records in our collection anyway. It felt like a pretty natural approach to writing music and it has been fun, hard, confusing and challenging. It was really cool that after being in a band for 20 years we found a new way to work and a new way to make music. We really responded to that.

We’re not doing anything right now, we’re too busy touring. Soundtracks usually take a pretty committed block of time to just keep working on every day. Especially now with the miracle of the internet, you’re expected to keep the film production up to date on your daily work. Which would involve us recording and then me uploading files all night long, the glamour of show-business huh?

The most recent film we did was about, I guess the movie came out in America back in the Spring-time of this year and it was called Adventureland; which was our first Hollywood movie.

So you got a new boss?
Well yeah, because when you are working on a movie you are basically working for the director. Which is new to us as we are the director as far as Yo La Tengo is concerned. It’s a highly collaborative way of working and even if you are really convinced that you are right about something, really it comes down to the vision of the filmmaker. I thought it was a great movie too actually. It was directed by a guy named Greg Mottola who directed a movie a few summers ago called Superbad, which was a huge hit over here. This was his next movie after the huge hit and the studio really wanted it to be Superbad Part 2 and it just wasn’t. It was a much more emotional, thoughtful kind of movie. Which really took them [the studio] by surprise so it was advertised as a crazy teen sex comedy. That was unfortunate, because the people went to the movie were completely disappointed because it wasn’t a crazy teen sex comedy.

  • Great interview! Great band! Excitied about seeing them play tripod.

    – Philip