Yo La Tengo on their greatest hits: 'Maybe no one else is listening'

They are sometimes written off as a band for music nerds – but their vastly varied three decades of music has something for everyone. The band pick out their own favourite songs, from duets with air conditioners to Sun Ra covers about 9/11

Big Day Coming (Second Version), 1993

“37 Record Store Clerks Feared Dead in Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster”, ran a headline from the Onion in 2002 – the joke being that the New Jersey trio are a band beloved of musos, and ignored by pretty much everyone else. Indeed, with their cover versions of everyone from the Cure to George McCrae – not to mention their perma-rumpled anti-glamour – you could imagine them behind the counter of an independent record shop. And flicking through their own music is like rifling through the record bins: across their 15 studio LPs, various film scores and other ephemera, there’s delicate balladry, squalls of feedback, ambient moods and anthemic indie rock.

Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, then dating and now married, formed the band in Hoboken in 1984 “with no plan other than we liked the feeling of playing together”, Kaplan says, in the offices of their long-time record label Matador, discussing the band’s favourite songs from hundreds in their back catalogue. “We had no goals at all, I would say, other than: how can we do something that we like?”

As you might surmise, this was not a mercilessly professional outfit – it took until album number four, Painful, for their lineup to solidify with the arrival of bassist James McNew, who was blown away by a 1990 Yo La Tengo performance in Boston. “I think I could walk you through it, second by second,” he says, marvelling at “the sheer anything-could-happen emotion of that show,” as Kaplan giggles. “I’m laughing at the memory. It was with Sonic Youth, a higher-profile show, and we wanted to be really good at it. Emotionally, we were completely keyed up. And it was like Carrie or something – destruction everywhere. We were unplugging ourselves, knocking drums over, we couldn’t contain anything – and walked off stage convinced we had our shot and could not have blown it more.”

Well, McNew was impressed at least, and joined up, although he missed out on Big Day Coming “by a couple of hours”. The song was originally slow and drum-free, and Kaplan and Hubley were trying to do it “shorter, faster and louder”, and couldn’t get it right – they called McNew to tell him they were done for the night. But inspiration hit, and “we came up with it on the spur of the moment”. McNew, meanwhile, “fell asleep on the subway and woke up in Long Island”.

My Heart’s Reflection, 1995

Yo La Tengo are massive softies: My Heart’s Reflection is one of their many beautiful, rather smoky love songs with half-sung, half-spoken vocals. The central lyric, “I wanna see my heart’s reflection in your eyes”, couldn’t be less guarded, but Kaplan visibly squirms when I ask if it is about his love for Hubley. “You know, yes, I would say the lyrics that I write are, if I’m not … ” He starts again. “No matter what I’m writing about, I always feel like I’m talking to Georgia and James. If someone else happens to be listening, fine. The words I write are not written about my life with Georgia, my life in the band – but they all reflect that very plainly.” “I will reveal that the station wagon mentioned in the lyrics is real,” the ever-droll McNew adds.

Kaplan says the lyric-writing comes last and is, frankly, “a chore, but it’s a chore we now attack with more gusto”. It’s the same for Hubley: “Words, they have that extra weight that you may not necessarily intend. They just make you feel self-conscious. But making the music feels so natural – it just comes out.”

Green Arrow, 1997

Perhaps that reticence in lyric-writing explains the band’s cover versions and instrumentals, this track from 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One being a spellbinding example of the latter: a kind of wordless country ballad, as humid as a Tennessee night, and filled with the sound of crickets in the background – inspired by an air conditioner in their practice space. “We’d record ideas with a crummy cassette recorder in the room, and a lot of the time, unless we weren’t reaching a certain volume, we heard this air conditioner,” says McNew. “And it sounded fantastic!”

Night Falls on Hoboken, 2000

This 18-minute track closes out And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, their masterful 2000 album, broadening their scope to encompass disco covers (You Can Have It All), lounge funk (Tired Hippo) and menacing visions of Kate Moss (Everyday) alongside a perfecting of their usual dream-pop and dinner-jazz balladry. “It took an entire day to figure out how to record it in one piece, and keep it short enough to fit on one reel of recording tape,” says Kaplan of Night Falls on Hoboken, which also necessitated some nimble choreography: Kaplan had to walk out of the studio with his guitar mid-recording to create feedback with amps sat in a hallway. “It was like an elaborate tracking shot in a movie,” he says. “Very suspenseful!” McNew chuckles.

Hoboken itself is a town in New Jersey, to where the band had now decamped from Brooklyn – their eight-night Hanukkah residencies at the town’s club Maxwell’s are on many indie-rocker’s bucket list, full of epic tours of their back catalogue, guest musicians and standup comedy interludes. “We spent a tremendous amount of time there, and a lot of tremendous time there,” Kaplan says of Hoboken. “I’m very fond of the library, Fiore’s mozzarella cheese, the ladies at the post office. The small town aspects of Hoboken are very appealing. And our music got a lot quieter because we weren’t competing with eight other bands in a Brooklyn rehearsal space.”

Nuclear War, 2002

A cover of Sun Ra’s jazz-funk protest against nuclear arms, recorded in four versions, with one featuring a children’s choir declaiming: “It’s a motherfucker, don’t you know!” The track grew out of one of the Maxwell’s shows, held in the wake of 9/11. “It changed everything,” Kaplan says. “We had these shows ahead of us, and we didn’t know what to do with them, whether to respond, how to respond. But Nuclear War just seemed like the perfect reaction, the perfect way of playing in the December of 2001.”

Did it feel like an apocalyptic time? The trio murmur their agreement. “You would watch airplanes in the sky, their path – is it flying low?” Kaplan says. “And it was a long time before you could stop smelling it. It would be with you every second, for a long time. Terrorism had not been in our way of life, and all of a sudden we were part of the rest of the world in a way we hadn’t been.”

“At those Hannukah shows, three months later, that was the first time some people had gone to a show since 9/11,” McNew continues. “People weren’t going out. And people didn’t react unanimously positively to us playing that song.” Now with Trump casually toying with nuclear rhetoric, and, as Hubley says, “everyone feeling despair and dismay, but in different ways”, does it have a renewed relevance? “The song is funny, but it’s so sad, and it’s sad that it’s funny,” says McNew. “It has a lot of sides, and yeah, it is sad and unfortunate that I now have to think about it every day when I wake up.”

Here to Fall, 2009

The band wring out every last acid drop from the blotter with this softly buzzing, wafting, psychedelic wigout, made even more heady with the addition of a string section. “That was us dipping our toe in the water of working with people that we didn’t know, and being comfortable with that,” says Kaplan. “It’s something that took years for us to embrace.” In fact, the band are so inward-turning it can leave them totally unaware of their own appeal, even though they have got to the point where they are playing London’s Royal Festival Hall in May. “One of the strengths of the band is that we’re playing to and for each other – if other people are listening, it’s really not our focus,” says Kaplan. “A lot of times, that can translate into: maybe no one else is listening. When you feel strong, you don’t care what other people think, but when you don’t feel strong, you don’t know what other people think.”

Stupid Things, 2013

Sometimes, all you need is a new toy. “We’d got a new pedal and started building on top of that,” says Kaplan, as McNew explains the band’s rather Lego-like songwriting: “We added a drum track to it and other different pieces, and it became this large, 12-minute piece of music. We then decided to change it, shorten it, and make a more conventional song from it. It was very modular – you could take pieces of it and move it around.”

“A lot of that style of working is influenced by working on films,” Kaplan continues. They scored the indie movies Adventureland, Junebug, Old Joy and more. “It’s a much more common way of working when we do that – you’ll get a note from the film-maker saying: ‘This is good, but this instrument isn’t working.’ We’ll solve his problem, but then create another one for ourselves ...”

Here You Are, 2018

And here they are at album 15, There’s a Riot Going On, one of their most lucid and ambient-leaning records. What were they trying to say with it? Kaplan shuts me down. “There’s never a thought to that. How does this fit or break with the mood? That stuff is of no consideration at all. In fact, when we’re done mixing the record, finding a presentation where the songs hold together, only then do we think: do they fit?”

A different tack: what is it like to look back on all this work they have made together? He smiles wryly. “One of the downsides of putting a record out is that you get asked questions like that,” he says. “On any other day you don’t reflect back 35 years … To characterise what makes our band special would be to make it mundane.”

There’s A Riot Going On by Yo La Tengo is out now on Matador

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Yo La Tengo have curated a longer primer to their work, featuring the above alongside other favourite tracks from across their career; you can listen and subscribe to it in Spotify below


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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