Slow Fade: Yo La Tengo
'Nothing ever stays the same," sings Yo La Tengo front man Ira Kaplan on "Ohm," the opening track from the band's thirteenth and latest release, Fade. "The higher we go, the longer we fly."
Yo La Tengo, however, displays more consistency than those lyrics would suggest.
After nearly 30 years as a band, the Hoboken-based trio has not only managed to "stay the same," they're also flying higher than ever before with the release of Fade. And they've endured entirely on their own terms.
Bassist James McNew has a theory on the band's functional staying power.
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"We didn't start a group to become big and powerful," McNew reflects during a recent phone interview. "It was more like, 'Let's start a group because it's what we've wanted to do since we were little kids.' We've always managed to make music solely for ourselves as a band, and I think we still do."
Kaplan and wife Georgia Hubley formed Yo La Tengo in 1984. McNew joined the group in 1992, just in time for two of the band's most lauded albums, 1993's Painful and 1995's Electr-O-Pura.
Despite remaining in critically favorable light for nearly three decades, Yo La Tengo has always flown low on the alt-rock radar. They've never been a band for lofty moves or grandiose headlines; rather, they enjoy simpler, self-satisfying feats like frequently choosing cover songs to incorporate into their live sets. (Most recently, they tackled the Supremes' "Come See About Me.")
According to McNew, setting their sights on smaller goals has subsequently helped Yo La Tengo maintain their integrity.
"Our dreams of success are more like, 'Let's learn to make better records and write better songs,'" he says. "Those are the things we do together as a band, and that's how we've always operated together. Maybe that's the key."
In an age when musical trends are as fleeting as runway fashions, Yo La Tengo traverses genre classification — though they're not particularly bummed to be excluded from the mainstream clique.
"It's one thing not to even be invited to the party," McNew analogizes, "but in not going to the party, you have time to do something else instead.
"You have to look at it positively," he laughs. "It removes the pressure."
So how does one classify a non-classifiable band?
Google Yo La Tengo and you'll find them most commonly referred to as "The Quintessential Critics' Band." Flattering as that description may seem — especially in today's exceedingly critical digital age — McNew doesn't exactly take it as a compliment.
In fact, he loathes it. And don't even think about calling his band "indie."
"Maybe it's because there's no easy way to describe us," McNew explains. "You can't really snap your fingers and know what Yo La Tengo is about, so instead we get called two things that make my flesh crawl: the 'Critics' Band' thing and 'Indie.'
"I can't help but have bitterness in my voice when I say the word 'indie,' because it just doesn't mean anything!" he adds. "It's like describing us as 'Music.' It's so general."
"And shouldn't we be much more popular if everyone's a critic?"
"We've gone on for so long without being part of an instantly identifiable movement that I don't even think about it," McNew says. "None of us do."
Instead, Yo La Tengo thinks only about the essentials: the music. McNew, quick to joke and heavy with sarcasm in his voice, is instantly focused as the conversation shifts to the band's recording technique — and more specifically to Fade.
Veering away from their longtime producer, Roger Moutenot, Yo La Tengo instead opted to record Fade at Chicago's Soma Studios, where the trio worked with studio owner John McEntire of acclaimed post-rockers Tortoise.
"It was the first change we've made, as far as recording, in 20 years," he says, with a trace of lingering disbelief in his voice. "Wow, that's a long time."
McEntire has also produced albums by Stereolab, Teenage Fanclub and Bright Eyes, and has been a longtime friend of the Yo La Tengo members, but it took some time for him to fully learn the band's in-studio lingo. McNew hints that maybe the group's idiosyncratic vernacular was at the root of any early miscommunications.
"As you're probably discovering during this interview, we can be a little on the inscrutable side," McNew laughs, referring to his band's uniquely lax nature. "Having worked so long with the same producer, Roger learned over the years to understand how we talk and what we mean as a band."
"We basically started from zero with John," he continues. "Though we've known him since 1992 and we've been friends, we never worked together — studio conversations are totally different than hanging out in clubs after shows. All of a sudden we're on the clock and working together, so we had to learn how to communicate ideas, which, luckily, we were able to do pretty fast.
"It was overwhelmingly intense," McNew concludes, "but in a great way."
McNew clearly takes his love for music seriously, both in and out of the studio. As our conversation wraps, we begin discussing Texas music; surprisingly, the native Virginian is impressively well-versed on the topic.
"Tons of the music I love comes from Texas," he muses. "There is some amazing, bizarre music that comes out of Houston, in particular, in a way it doesn't come from other cities.
"The [experimental punk] group Culturcide is one of the most mind-blowing bands I've ever heard," continues McNew. "Also, Tom Carter and his band, Charalambides...Bun B is a great rapper...Oh, and AK-47! They wrote some of the best punk singles I've ever heard. Thanks for making me remember that AK-47 album — I'm gonna go dig that out right now!"
If his excitement in these few minutes is any indicator, McNew will be just as keen to discuss Houston music with you Thursday, if you're able to track him down after the show.
But remember — don't call him "indie."
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