Yo La Tengo

A band that occupy a unique place in rock history

Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew, otherwise known as Matador’s darlings of the alternative Yo La Tengo, occupy a unique place in rock history.

Few bands in memory dare to experiment quite so widely with such casual audacity. From screeching art-rock and jangling pop songs to electronic soundscapes and hushed lullabies, their output has explored the range of musical history without ever sounding less than modern, in a career that has spanned some twenty-five years and over sixteen albums. Put simply, if you’re looking for your new favourite band, dig into this back catalogue and you’ll find everything you need.

The story of Yo La Tengo began in 1984, when guitarist/keyboard player Kaplan and drummer Hubley started the band as a means to express their infatuation with music of all kinds. After a revolving door of bass players, the husband and wife duo recruited McNew full time in 1992, and continued to release material on a variety of small indie labels, before finally finding a home at Matador with the seminal ‘Painful’.

Their latest album, ‘Popular Songs’, was released in September, and once again sees them explore new sonic landscapes, while still sounding quintessentially like themselves, a blue print that has served them well for the past quarter of a century.

One of the stand-out tracks on the album is the opener, ‘Here To Fall’, a swirling psychedelic testament to the power of love held aloft by streams of crisp strings and atmospheric keyboard lines. It’s an introduction that could surprise those who may be familiar with their electric guitar-led freakouts.

“I don’t think we’re thinking too hard about potential listeners, we’re just trying to play for each other,” Kaplan says. “Additionally, I think particularly when a band has been together as long as long as we have, it’s not a bad idea to put something right at the beginning to indicate that there will be things on this record that you may not have heard from us before. You may think that you know everything that we do, but actually we’ve thought of a few new things over the past couple of years.” Another instant gratification comes in the form of the beautiful pop duet, ‘If It’s True’, which echoes the classic Motown duets of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. “Yeah, well, I don’t think that was unintentional,” laughs Kaplan.

When Clash asks if Motown was a big influence on their approach, Kaplan hesitates, mulling over his response, before replying: “I always stutter when people ask, ‘what is a big influence?’ If you’ve listened to music all your life, you’ve heard the Motown sound, so it’s something that is there. I think ‘influence’ is kind of a misused word. Everybody is influenced by everything. You can be influenced by things you hate as much as the things you love. You could take the noisiest atonal group in the world, and chances are they are being influenced by The Beatles and Motown by making the decision to go as far from that as possible, so it’s still an influence. So, of course Motown is an influence, because it would have to be to anyone who has listened to a lot of music.”

“Basically we started playing that song,” he continues, “and it kind of reminded us of Motown, and we just decided to follow that. I think in years past we might have said, okay, we have to make it sound a little more like us, and less like Motown. But in recent years, we’ve taken the attitude that if we’re playing it, then it’s us, so let’s make it sound however we want.”

The work of old school arranger Richard Evans, famed for his work on the Cadet label, Soulful Strings records and acts like Marlena Shaw and Terry Callier, is stamped all across the tracks, and this unique talent is something that Yo La Tengo were keen to tap into, as Kaplan outlines.

“That was something that came up during the recording process. We realised very quickly that what we were capable of arranging was just not interesting, or wasn’t what we had in mind. We didn’t really know what we had in mind, we just knew it wasn’t that,” he laughs. “So we just started thinking about options, and Richard Evans was the person we wanted. We didn’t even know what he was doing, or if he was still working. But James started looking around on the Internet and managed to find him teaching up in Boston, and wrote to him blindly, and he was interested.”

But hardcore fans shouldn’t be worried that Yo La Tengo have gone soul, because all the other musical staples that have earned them a wealth of critical success and a devoted fanbase over the years are all still there. The unashamed experimentation, the seamless drift between dark ambience and fragile optimism, the sprawling, hypnotic epics, and the inherent gift for melody are all abundant in tracks like ‘Avalon’ or ‘Someone Very Similar’, ‘Nothing To Hide’, ‘When It’s Dark’ and ‘More Stars Than There Are In Heaven’. What ‘Popular Songs’ shows is that, even after twenty-five years of making music together, Yo La Tengo have lost none of their power to surprise and delight, and we love them all the more for it.

“We just enjoy it, you know,” Kaplan reflects. “I think at this point we have a harder time not making music, being able to turn things down that we want to do because we need a little time to ourselves. We just don’t seem to be able to do that. I don’t know, there’s just so many things that are interesting and fun to do. It’s not hard.” Yo La Tengo’s ‘Popular Songs’ is out now on Matador.

Words by Mark Millar

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