Inquiring Minds

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

Page 6 of 6

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.

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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