Yo La Tengo biographer Jesse Jarnow shares the band's not-so-lurid secrets

Photo by Carlie Armstrong
Just a few weeks since its release, critics have already hailed Yo La Tengo's 13th full-length album Fade as one of the band's best in years, harkening back to epic cult favorites such as I Can Feel the Heart Beating as One and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out.

In anticipation of the band's February 4 appearance at First Avenue in support of Fade, Gimme Noise chatted with author Jesse Jarnow, whose book, Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, came out last year. As the subtitle would imply, it chronicles not only the development of one of the most stalwart indie bands to have survived and thrived for 30 years, but also the fascinating world of underground rock in NYC, Hoboken, New Jersey, and beyond that emerged in the late '70s and early '80s.

Gimme Noise: Yo La Tengo started out as a cover band, voraciously learning and performing obscure songs that ran the genre gamut. How did this unabashed love and performance of covers help define the band throughout the years?

Jesse Jarnow: There were branches of punk rock [other than hardcore] that really did help them fit into and locate themselves relative to bands like the Fleshtones... even bands like Television would do lots of covers and kinda place themselves in the rock continuum. Like Television or Patti Smith would cover things off the Nuggets box set... or covers of contemporary artists. Being that kinda band really did help Yo La Tengo to figure out who they were... it gave them a framework to work inside. They are pretty voracious music consumers and I think they really weren't sure how to express themselves at first, and learning all these different songs by different people helped them learn what they were good at... One of the things that Ira has said over the years, is that they do pick songs that are favorites of theirs, but they're not picking their actual favorites, they're picking songs they think they can play well and cover convincingly... I think it really is a way of connecting to the bigger history of music and it's just fun, to be able to play those kinds of songs and connect with an audience that maybe isn't as familiar with that canon.

It also gave them the practice on stage, which is something they needed to get proficient with in the early days. Being onstage for those guys, especially then, was not a natural thing, and I think by getting up there and doing Kinks songs and songs by their Hoboken bands was one way of getting over stage fright, cause you know, getting up and playing songs you've written is really hard, getting up onstage playing songs other people have written, well, it's still hard, but it's slightly less hard.

Jesse Jarnow.jpeg
Jesse Jarnow

The book's narrative charts the rise of indie rock from the underground world of 'zines to the emergence of a highly developed industry, including an examination of the Hoboken scene that developed in and around Maxwell's. Were you aware of this rich history before researching the book? Or was this theme something that developed organically?

A little of bit of both. I knew some of the stories of Maxwell's and the Maxwell's bands when I started researching this... I knew The Feelies, the dbs... and I knew the importance of Maxwell's: I knew Ira had been a sound guy there, and Georgia had DJd there, but I didn't really know the full complete extent... a lot of things I learned by talking to the Maxwell's regulars, like how regularly Georgia and Ira were there - which was most of the nights it was open. One of the things I didn't know, it really was a place you went everyday if you lived in Hoboken in the late '70s and early '80s. There wasn't a lot of other stuff going on in terms of rock and roll music. It really became this everyday world these people were part of, that New York, or Brooklyn doesn't really have as much anymore. There are DIY venues, where people live in the back or live upstairs or downstairs...but you don't really get bar scenes anymore, where there are people there everyday and bands there everyday and the same crew of people in all the time. So I think that very tight group of people, that tight bar scene had a lot to do with Yo La Tengo as well.

There's lots of crossover between not only the Minneapolis and Hoboken early '80s indie rock scenes, but specifically Ira and Georgia of Yo La Tengo -- the Kaplans hosting the Replacements on their first NYC landing, Music for Dozens booking Hüsker Dü's first non-hardcore show in NYC, the eventual distribution deal between Coyote Records and Twin/Tone...you even mention that Curtiss A played the same night Ira and Georgia first ever performed together in front of an audience. What fueled this unlikely relationship between two somewhat off-the-beaten-path centers of underground rock?

One is a very general answer and one is a more specific answer. The general answer does have to do with the tight bar scene...in the late 70s and 80s, there really weren't that many bars or places in a given city that people into this scene could hang out in - punk rock, indie rock, whatever you want to call it, was a very small localized thing there, so there really was one core group of people in Minneapolis and one core group of people in New York connecting. So I think in that sense, once groups of musicians and fans across the country started connecting, it would be pretty natural for the New York contingent to connect to the Minneapolis contingent.

The other answer is a lot more specific: there was, and is, a very strong Minneapolis connection to the Hoboken and New York Rocker world, in that Andy Schwartz was the editor of the New York Rocker, which was the music paper that a lot of New York rock people centered around, and he went to school in Minneapolis and worked at Oar Folkjokeopus...and I think that store still exists under a different name.

Treehouse Records...

Yup! Andy worked there when he came to Minneapolis and that became the place that the New York Rocker was sold in Minneapolis... that store was where that paper was sold, where Twin/Tone was really based out of when they started, the guys who started Twin/Tone I believe worked at the store, one was maybe was a partial owner, I'm not sure about that [Peter Jesperson, co-founder of Twin/Tone managed Oar Folkjokeopus from 74-84]. So that started a very, very tight connection between New York and Minneapolis. Chris Nelson who is the first art director of New York Rocker was another Minneapolis guy and he was very involved in a bunch of different bands in New York, so that really created this very tight pipeline between New York and Minneapolis. Yea, Curtiss A and one of the first [albums released by] Coyote...let's see, Beat Rodeo, yea, Steve Almaas. He was in the Suicide Commandos...then moved to Hoboken, and after Andy, I think he may have been the first real New York-Minneapolis transplant.

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