Art Rock

Yo La Tengo Bring A Calm To The Riot

Yo la Tengo will bring their engaging sounds to White Oak Music Hall.
Yo la Tengo will bring their engaging sounds to White Oak Music Hall. Photo by Godlis

Getting to create art without worrying about who buys it, is a world that few artists can enjoy. Though, for close to 35 years, that's been the world that New Jersey's Yo La Tengo has been able to call home.

"We've never placed much importance on commercial success, we've kept it personal," says bassist James McNew over the phone. The band started in 1984, but guitarist and singer Ira Kaplan has always stated that the group really started when they made the 1993 album Painful, ironically a year after McNew joined. It's hard to believe that album was 25 years ago. "I don't think about it, I don't wanna' get too sci-fi about it in how time is perceived. We don't think about time that way as a band, and that's been a driving force."

 While in recent years Kaplan has cited NRBQ, and drummer Georgia Hubley has mentioned The Clean as an influence, McNew says there's not one band for him. "My parents listened music that was complimentary but also with opposing tastes. My mom listened to The Beatles and Bob Dylan and my dad listened to Rolling Stones, I was real lucky in what I heard growing up. Seeing The Minutemen perform changed my life in that moment. I think Mike Watt is one of our greatest spiritual leaders, though I doubt he'd accept that."

With such artful records as Painful, I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, and Summer Sun, the band's writing process has always intrigued.  "Well, I guess we don't have a plan. We don't set out to make something other than music. With Stuff Like That There we had a concept, but we typically just work together and work stuff out spontaneously," McNew says.

"It's almost entirely improvised. For the longest time we'd practice and jam without an agenda. Rearranging old work, or just jamming leads to not stopping playing. It's a labor intensive process, it's not the most efficient way, but it's organic. We don't feel the need to force it. We're patient in that regard."

Band members have done collaborations with many artists over the years including Jad Fair of the band Half Japanese. "Oh yeah, we were all fans of them. We were lucky to see Half Japanese play early on with the classic lineup, and I grew up in Virginia which isn't too far from D.C. and I got to see them quite a bit.," McNew says. "I actually caught them two months ago at their Shakemore Festival they have annually in someone's backyard. I'm still starstruck by Jad and David. Their lifelong dedication is overwhelming."

While collaborative works alongside releases that have received critical acclaim are just a part of the Yo La Tengo legacy, their pocketful of covers they can pull out during live sets is something else entirely. "It's a big pocket," says McNew. "What we play depends on the city though through playing, sometimes it's a random choice. Maybe for Houston we'll work on a Culturcide cover. The first time I came to Houston on a Yo La Tengo tour, I got that album Tacky Souvenirs of Pre-Revolutionary America in Houston. That Year One compilation of their work is a great record too. There's a lot of great stuff that comes outta' your town."

The band's latest release, There's A Riot Going On is full of lush instrumentation and has been described as a calm in the storm of today's modern world. "It's not like we were calm when we were writing this record. There wasn't that much of a thought process or concept we were working towards. Lord knows, when music is described certain ways, like when a song is called 'the perfect Summer song,' but it was written in January. I don't think anyone feels calm anymore. The days of being calm are over, but maybe people have a certain idea as to what protest music sounds like."

With There's A Riot Going On, the cohesive nature of how the band performs together is displayed on every track. Tracks like "Let's Do It Wrong," "Above The Sound" and "Polynesia #1" all display gorgeous instrumentation.

"The shows we've done lately have been two sets," McNew says. "The first one is quiet, and the second is louder music, with no openers on the show. That's what we've done for this record tour. A mix of new and old songs, a lot of what we play is spontaneous, with the choices being made in the moment. If someone hasn't seen us before, then they should rectify that. We don't make it down that way very often."

The entire catalog from Yo La Tengo is available to stream wherever you stream music. You can order the bulk of the band's music in multiple formats directly from Matador Records as well. You can catch Yo La Tengo live and in person, when they perform at White Oak Music Hall on Saturday September 22. The all ages show will have no openers. Doors at 8 p.m.; tickets $22.
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David Garrick is a former contributor to the Houston Press. His articles focus primarily on Houston music and Houston music events.