Yo La Tengo


Common misconceptions:
Wearing fleece makes a statement
Scoring movies is easy
Listening to your own music is bearable
Harold Pinter is more profound than
The Office
Compilations are not creative
Parents shouldn’t let their children curse
Radio sucks

There are, when it comes down to it, two kinds of bands: bands whose sound is described by the invocation of other bands (“______ sounds like a poppier/slower/suckier ______”), and the bands whose sound is used to describe the sound of other bands. The bands in this second category distinguish themselves by gaining purchase on a sound so unique and texturally diverse that they lack a clear antecedent. Yo La Tengo has, over the twenty years of its existence, been deployed as a way to describe countless other bands, but any attempt to describe Yo La Tengo by using the work of other musicians seems futile and narrow. This is not to say that they are devoid of influence—we know that they share our love of Sun Ra, the Velvet Underground, the Flamin’ Groovies, and Mission of Burma. But the work of these forbears has been dismantled and reverse-engineered by such startling and extravagant means that we feel as if we are a private audience to the birth of a new form.

Before this year is through, Yo La Tengo will have released a three-disc set of exemplary songs and rarities entitled Prisoners of Love, a similarly themed DVD compilation; and the scores for two feature-length independent films: Junebug by Phil Morrison and Game 6 by Michael Hoffman, with a screenplay by Don DeLillo. Titles like “The Hardest-Working Band in Rock and Roll” seem designed specifically to make us feel uncomfortable in their earnestness, but Yo La Tengo has been working hard for us. Bashful, enigmatic drummer Georgia Hubley and her husband Ira Kaplan have, over the course of more than a dozen albums, EPs, and singles, been exploring the remote outposts of their particular domestic landscape with calisthenic rigor, buttressed by James McNew’s assured bass work. All they ask from us in return is that we sit comfortably in a durable chair and listen closely to their music until the thing that made us love them in the first place, that twitching, primordial organism let loose inside us when we first heard Painful or the opening strains of “Return to Hot Chicken” from the landscape-shearing I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, springs once again to life.

—Matthew Derby


THE BELIEVER: How did the introduction of that alien element—the idea that the music had to accompany a visual narrative—force you to alter the songwriting process?

IRA KAPLAN: I’ll just use the term you suggested, but I think what was alien about it was part of what was ultimately attractive about it. I think it’s always interesting to do something that’s not normal. In doing these soundtracks we came up with different types of sounds and music than we would have come up with otherwise.

JAMES McNEW: It’s very challenging because when we’re working on a Yo La Tengo record, we’re working for ourselves and trying to make ourselves happy, but when we’re scoring these movies, we’re ultimately trying to meet the demands of someone else, someone whose mind we unfortunately can’t read. Several years ago, we composed some music for a couple of TV spots, and that was really the first time we did anything as far as going back and forth with, like, an agency—you know, the people who like to call themselves “The Creatives.” It was maddening. It drove me nuts. We were working really hard and coming up with these concepts that we thought were totally cool, and we would send them out and then have a discussion a few days later that was, like, “Yeah, we loved what you came up with, but could you go back and change everything?” That experience prepared us for the fact that there’s always a lot of back and forth when you’re working for someone else. We wrote music for both movies that got excised completely—finished pieces that we slaved over, driving ourselves completely insane, only to find that they weren’t used at all.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Matthew Derby is the author of Super Flat Times. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

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