Inquiring Minds

Inquiring Minds: A Lengthy Chat With Yo La Tengo Bassist James McNew

[Ed. Note: Nicholas L. Hall asked Rocks Off if we wouldn't mind publishing the entire transcript of his recent interview with Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew, the raw material of this week's print music feature. We're only too happy to oblige.]

Rocks Off: When last I spoke with your publicist, she said you guys were over in Japan. Where are you right now?

James McNew: Oh, we're back home now.

RO: Back in Hoboken, then?

JM: Uh, more or less. I live in Brooklyn, actually, but we can almost see each-other's places from our windows. Almost.

RO: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

JM: It's kind of a good thing. I think bands for the most part should live close to each other.

RO: OK, before we get started, I'm going to go ahead and get this out of the way. I'm sure this is at least vaguely unprofessional, but I'm going to go ahead and geek out a bit for you. I'm really excited to talk to you because I've been a huge fan of the band for, well, basically as long as I've been intentionally listening to music. You guys were actually hugely influential in getting me interested in listening to music in the first place. So...

JM: (laughs) Wow. That's really sweet of you, thanks.

RO: So, now that I've thrown that out there...

JM: (laughs) Now it's time for me to shatter that illusion. Let's go for it.

RO: Exactly. OK. Over the course of your career, you've explored a dizzying array of styles and genres and approaches to making music, often in the course of a single album, but somehow your music always manages to feel like nothing other than, and be instantly recognizable as Yo La Tengo. How do you do that?

JM: Well, uh, I don't know. It's kinda weird to try to describe because I don't think we think about it too much. I think as far as style, as far as different styles are concerned, I think that's just kind of the way we think and the way we listen to music. We're huge fans of all different kinds of music. Lord knows we can't completely imitate much of it, but we love it, and I'm sure that everything that goes into our brains comes out somehow in the way that we play and write. I don't know.

Maybe playing a lot of cover songs has something to do with it. It gives you this sort of inroad into playing in a style that maybe you wouldn't ordinarily, and then that knowledge just kind of stays with you. It's hard to say, but I don't know. As far as it sounding like us, I don't think I know the answer to that, either. I think we just know it, and when something feels right to us, we just kind of follow it, we don't really question it.

RO: Do you know the phenomenon I mean, though? Does that question make sense? Have you ever listened to a band who's trying to branch out into new territory, or trying a new sound, and you think, "This just doesn't sound like them; this just doesn't work," and then you listen to a different band, and, the example I always think of, the big obvious example, is The Beatles, who were all over the map all the time.

JM: Yeah.

RO: But it always sounded like them.

JM: That's true and, you know, sure. If you're going to go ahead and compare us to the Beatles, that's fine. I won't, you know, try and stop you. I don't know, kind of along those similar Godhead lines, I always thought that about the Velvet Underground, you know. They have like, insane, 20 minute long screeching noise jams, and then they had their third record, and it's kind of like they were a band that could do anything, and yet always sound like themselves, whether it was really sweet, or really abrasive and frightening.

Then, you know, there were those live recordings that got released, I don't know, ten years ago. That really amazing three-CD box set, and that just added another dimension. They were this amazing live band, too, and the songs were different again. There were new dynamics, and you know, I think that that's the height, to be able to be that versatile, and still be themselves. It's totally amazing to behold, and I'm just in awe of that.

RO: Do you think that the fact that the VU was that kind of band might play a role in the fact that you guys became that kind of band? I know, at least at the outset, you obviously weren't involved for the first couple records, but Ira at least has been pretty vocal about establishing the VU as one of the primary motivations for him to begin making music.

JM: Oh, they had the same impact on me. I had this kind of fairy tale story of hearing them for the first time, where my ninth grade English teacher gave me a copy of White Light, White Heat to listen to, and I stopped paying attention to school like that day, and that kind of just blew my mind forever. Like what you were talking about, that record has the super intense stuff, and then pretty stuff as well, within the span of a really short album.

Yeah, they made an enormous impression on me, and I think bands that were influenced by the Velvet Underground had a huge impact on me, too. Bands like the Feelies and Big Star, it just goes on and on, the depth of impact they had on me and on a lot of people.

RO: What effect do you think the fact that you guys have been together for so long has on your ability to function that way as a unit, or do you think your ability to function that way as a unit is one of the reasons you've stayed together for so long?

JM: (laughs) I don't know. You know, I'm sure the two are not unrelated. Yeah, you might be on to something there. I don't think we think about it so much. I think we don't question it, we don't question the fact that we've been playing together for so long and that we love it. We try not to demystify it, I guess. There's something that's really fun to think that, I don't know, maybe it's magic. And I'll think "Yeah, sure, it's magic. I'm fine with that.

RO: I frequently get the impression, when doing interviews with artists, that everybody other than the artist thinks much more about what's potentially going on behind the scenes with their music.

JM: (laughs) Uh huh.

RO: You guys are just there doing your thing, having fun with it, making music that feel right to you when you're making it, and we all sit back and concoct these elaborate conspiracy theories about why everything is the way it is. Does it ever get irritating or is it just amusing?

JM: Oh, I think that's awesome, because, so many times, and I'm sure it's with almost any group, the real answers are just so dull that anything you supply with your own imagination is going to completely eclipse the truth. I support that one million percent. I've done it my whole life with pretty much any record that I love, or have been obsessed with. I'll create an entire back story, and it just comes to me naturally. I'm all in favor of that.

RO: What explanation, if any, can you give for that fact that, coming from both positions - you know, you're an avid music fan who does this to, or I suppose I should say on the behalf of, other bands, and yet not for your own band?

JM: (Laughs a lot) Huh. I'm not sure. I think that. I don't know. I remember always reading that when bands would go on tour, it was just this trail of destruction and overnight stays in jail, you know, great stuff. You know, super exciting, glamorous, sort of rock-espionage sort of stuff, and I remember going on tour for the first time, and it was so thrilling and exciting, but when it got down to it, really mundane.

You know, driving for ten hours a day, and sleeping on somebody's floor with cats crawling all over ya, and at the same time, thinking, "This is amazing! I've never been so excited in my life!" You know, like, "I can't believe I get to do this." I guess I don't know. I guess the thrills are relative to anybody, I guess. Everybody has their own scales.

RO: In answering that first question, I know we've tangentially spiraled off from there, you mentioned that perhaps your propensity for playing covers as a group has played a factor in the fact that your sound is so cohesive, no matter where you go with it. I mean, obviously Fakebook; this year's Fuckbook; the annual fundraiser with WFMU. It's obviously a huge part of what you guys do. Where do you think that comes from? Does that just spring naturally from your love of music? I mean, a lot of people might even say that it's a bit odd for a non cover band to play as many covers as you guys do.

JM: I think it's just kind of how we came to music. I don't think any of us bought instruments and immediately began writing songs because we had to tell the world something. I think we got guitars and drums and stuff because we loved hearing people play 'em, and we wanted to imitate it. We came to song-writing that way, kind of round- about, like eventually thinking 'wow, maybe I could try that'. I think that's just kind of how we think about music. Probably, yeah.

RO: Alright. It sort of seems to point to a connection you guys have with, if you will - and this is probably going to sound a bit purple...

JM: (laughs)

RO: ...sort of the sonic zeitgeist of American music.

JM: Uh huh?

RO: Particularly in the pop vein. Not only do you play covers, but the way you approach them. You know, releasing two entire albums that riff off of the notion of American Standards, right.

JM: I just love the idea that the Electric Eels could be considered an American Standard. That's the kind of America I want to live in.

RO: Well, even if it is an idealized standard. To me, releasing an album called Fuckbook, obviously riffing off the earlier album Fakebook, and in turn the whole concept of, you know, sheet notation for songs that every band of this time period should know. So I wonder if there's an extent to which you guys intentionally or even subconsciously see yourselves as sort of part of a fakebook that will one day be in existence, looking bake on the standards of 20th- and 21st-century music.

JM: I don't think it would be one that anyone would buy. I think it's only in our minds that that exists. I don't think we think of ourselves as archivists or guests lecturers. I think we're mostly just fans, when it comes to that. Nerdy as it is, I think that's just what it is. I wish I could pretend it was on a more intellectual level, but I think that would kind of suck all the fun out of it.

RO: Back onto the notion of playing covers all the time, I purchased as soon as I found out about it, Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics, and...

JM: Ahh. Sorry about that.

RO: No, I've thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. Even the obvious gaffes, there's something to be appreciated about them. You guys are pretty self-effacing about the way you guys interface with that fund raiser - the cover art for that album says it all.

JM: (laughs) True.

RO: But I think to a certain extent, the fact that you do this, yearly, with such aplomb and competence, or I suppose I should say relative competence.

JM: (laughing) Right. Nick, let's not get carried away here.

RO: But I think it stands as a testament to your ability, both as individuals and as a group, and I wonder what impact you think those efforts has had. You know, there's playing covers, then there's 'Let's play whatever the hell someone asks us to play, even if we only have a marginal idea of how it goes, and hash our way through it' and, more often than not, come up with something at least recognizable.

JM: I think, I'm sure, as you've figured out over the course of this interview, we're not real big on, we're great at talking about anything but us, but I'm really proud of those WFMU shows. I think the sheer mental and physical effort of going into a trance for three hours, in public, and making just unbelievable, horrible mistakes, all in front of people, and just not caring so much, and having it be for a station, for a cause that we love...

You know, they've supported us and we've supported them for a long time, and we have nothing but love and admiration for that place and those people, and it makes me very proud to suck like that for them. It's an honor.

RO: How long did it take you guys to get to a comfort level where you weren't just terrified every time somebody asked you to play a song that you didn't know by wrote, or are you there at all?

JM: We're kinda not there. I think maybe a couple drinks and, normally, before we do it, maybe a few days before the WFMU show, we'll get together. The WFMU show is always augmented by a fourth member, Bruce Bennet, a great guitar player who plays in a group called the A-Bones. He's also an old friend of ours who also has a really great knowledge of music, and I guess arcane...

I guess all four of us constantly surprise each other when songs get requested. All of a sudden, you're under the gun and you realize, "Wow, I DO know almost all the words to this song by Styx; how did that happen?" You know, when the pressure's on, you can really surprise each other.

RO: Do you ever have an embarrassing moment where someone requests a song, and everyone looks around, expecting none of the other guys to know it, and you raise your hand sheepishly, like, "Uh, yeah, I know that one."?

JM: Oh yeah, yeah. No, I was speaking from experience. Last year or two years ago, within the first five minutes of the show, someone requested "Come Sail Away" by Styx, and I worked on it, kinda in the back of my mind, for the entire show, and then we closed with it. As it turns out, I had pretty much the entire thing. I couldn't believe it. No one could believe it. Nobody talked to me for a while after that. Nobody knew what to say. What can you say, really? It was, uh, it really happened.

RO: That's a great story. Have you guys given any consideration to doing a format like that at a normal live venue?

JM: (laughs) We did it a few times. I remember one year we were out on the road for the week or so leading right up to the WFMU marathon, and we did actually, I can't believe we did it, but we had come back for an encore and just for practice, to get ready for WFMU, we each took requests. Wow. I think people really regretted that.

When we're at FMU, we're at a studio. It's really just us and a few people watching. To do that in front of a paying audience, I think, is kinda risky. Oh, god, where was it? We did "Hey Jude" in its entirety one night, and it was just horrible, the whole thing. We may have even stretched it out. I feel like we played it for 35 minutes. I'm sure it wasn't that long, but oh, God.

RO: To do a kind of abrupt about-face, at least in my listening to the YLT catalogue, it seems like you guys have been undergoing, for lack of a better word, kind of a process of refinement. Is that just a natural progression of playing together, of being a band, or is there an intentional effort in that direction?

JM: Huh. Mmmm. I'm not sure if I would - it certainly wouldn't be anything intentional. It's certainly not something that we've ever discussed. I feel like we're changing, like we're still growing, but I'm not sure if it's kind of trying to perfect anything. I think we've realized that that's kind of futile, I think (laughs), for us. And less fun, in a way. I think it's more fun to be unrefined and spontaneous than to be sort of intentional and precise.

RO: I don't necessarily just mean in terms of perfection of what you do, but sort of in the British, aristocratic, sense of refinement. You know, with early YLT, there was a lot more, I don't know, things like guitar squall. Then, as you progressed, things got a lot more quiet and, I don't know, maybe genteel is the right word. You know, in a lot of reviews I've read of your albums, people talk about it as a process of maturing. I'm not sure that's quite it, because it implies that raucous guitar solos are inherently juvenile and I don't agree with that.

JM: I don't know. I think we think of it as more experimental. I don't think experimental music has to be done in an art gallery, somebody just connecting circuits together. I think we're experimenting with styles and experimenting with ways of writing music and doing things that we've never done before.

That to me is experimentation. I think those are the ways we've kind of grown outward, and I think stuff like that is every bit as risky as, you know, trying to employ strange, unapproachable experimental music. I think it's relative.

RO: No doubt. I was just wondering if it was intentional to move toward that type of music. And obviously, it's not a complete shift. You know, some albums focus more on that type of music, you know, And Then Nothing. Not so much on this latest album, which jumps around a lot. Along those lines, as far as the way you construct albums, on most YLT albums, there seems to be a fairly good distribution of songs which have and Ira feel, or a James or Georgia feel, and which, in turn, focuses a bit more on that member, whether that's a vocal, or instrumental focus, and I wonder if that's something you guys work at or do intentionally, or if it's something you even care about.

JM: I don't really think it's something we care about, so much. One thing we like to do is to distribute the singeing when we can. We like everybody to sing at some point. Other than that, we're happiest when it sounds like the three of us. That feels like a natural goal for a band who writes everything together and works together on the music, that it sounds like it's being played together.

RO: Live, you seem to have a penchant for doing kind of silly stuff throughout the course of the show. You know, occasionally you'll throw in sort of like a hokey-pokey dance with hand movements and stuff, but always with a straight face. It's actually difficult to decide if it's an attempt at irony, or if you guys just don't smile.

JM: I think we've smiled before. I think it's nice to do. There was a period after And Then Nothing; it's a pretty serious record, a kind of quiet record, and pretty intense. That was kind of different, playing shows for that record, we were playing places where people would sit down. It was an intense experience, and we felt very much we were being scrutinized.

So, in every one of those shows, kind of in the middle, we would play "You Can Have it All," which had a dance routine to it. The three of us would come up front and sing and dance to a prerecorded backing track. It kind of changed the feel of the whole show. You know, that nobody was expecting to have this happen, but also to show that life isn't all intense emotions, and we're capable of breathing out as well.

It would really break the tension, and I think that's always something I like when I go see bands; I don't really know them as people. To hear them talk between songs, you get a bit of a feel for what they're like, or if they play a cover song that isn't on their records, that can sort of tell you a lot, too. You know, what kind of music they like when they're not playing their own music. I think things like that can just add an extra dimension to what you're already enjoying.

RO: Oh, right. That's actually the most specific instance that stands out for me. It was very memorable and very effective. I couldn't help but smile when you guys popped up to the front of the stage and started doing that little Snoopy dance kind of thing.

JM: So, I hate to say this, but I should probably wrap this up.

RO: Hey, no problem. Thanks for taking the time.

JM: Sure thing. It was nice talking to you. I'll see you soon.

With Times New Viking, 8 p.m. tonight at Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel, 713-225-5483 or

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall