Yo La Tengo biographer Jesse Jarnow shares the band's not-so-lurid secrets
You joke that Ira may be "one of the few to fail at music journalism only to succeed in rock music" upon discussing his role as a critic for New Yorker Rocker, a zine that served as the epicenter for the late 70s/early 80s indie rock scene, and ultimately introduced him to Georgia Hubley, an equally astute rock superfan. How did this trajectory for the band -- being obsessively informed fans first before setting out to play music -- impact their development?
Good question, maybe more in practical ways than in other regards, that they were really involved in almost every level of the local music world. In the sense that Ira was a sound guy and booking shows and Georgia was a DJ, Georgia would make the flyers -- she's an incredible visual artist. They had this whole skill set even before they started Yo La Tengo, in that they had the elements of HOW to be in a band in some ways, even before they were in a band. And once they actually started the band, there were lots of other things they had to no clue about - for example, when they first started Ira didn't know to take a spare guitar on stage, so there were things that they were naive about. But I think being around the music world gave them that skill set, and maybe just that vocabulary of how to be in a band -- to see how bands practiced, how bands existed, to see what mistakes bands make that they wouldn't want to repeat being very-closely-watching music fans had a huge impact on who they are.
Here's another example: Yo La Tengo is a band that don't repeat setlists ever. Maybe a more common thing these days, but when they were starting I think a lot of bands had the same setlist they would play for at least a few shows, maybe learn a couple new tunes and jigger the order around. But Ira, especially, was an enormous fan of the Kinks and the Dead and he would go to these shows, so it was just natural to him that you would change your setlist around every night, because there were people that were going to see your shows that would want to see you play different things and see you dig into your back catalog.
And that's definitely a fan's perspective...
Oh, absolutely. One of the things he [Ira Kaplan] told me, that when he was little he wrote a fan letter to the Monkees and he got a form response back, just a typed out letter where clearly no one had read what he had written, and at however old he was at that point, 8 or 9 or 10 or something, it REALLY made a big impression on him and really annoyed him. And I know to this day, if you write a thoughtful piece of fan mail to Yo La Tengo, Ira or someone in the band will write you back. It's things like that have a serious fan's perspective.
I think the search for the bassist, it probably was kinda annoying at the time, but it gave Georgia and Ira this real flexibility in terms of playing with different musicians and having different approaches for different situations. So I think that was probably one effect, they were never really settled, there was never really a permanent Yo La Tengo sound, cause the line up was always shifting. I think, even more, the fact that James was the permanent bassist they found...by the time he came along, they'd been exploring all these different sort of paths from super noisy jams to kinda jangle pop to beautifully harmonized folk music -- and he was the person that was able to unify all those things, someone that was really interested in noise as much as gorgeous songs.
I do think of them as a continuum, I don't think of them as having specific aesthetic periods because they always circle back...it just represents different parts of Yo La Tengo and what they're interested in. So Fakebook, their 1990 acoustic album, is really one thing they first did that they were interested in then, and they are STILL interested in. Like this current tour, they've been doing two sets this tour, one set is acoustic and one is electric [non-Calexico shows]. So they're still very interested in that kinda Fakebook approach. The other approach is the noisy, extremely loud guitar stuff that could drive some people out of the room, but other people like me, closer to the amps. And that's something that they still do. And the sort of abstract music - film soundtracks...there are many things I love and cherish about Yo La Tengo, but one of the huge ones is that...there are so many different approaches that they take that it really does keep things surprising and fresh, and it's rare, very rare, that they'll just put out an album and you'll go and see them and they're just playing that album. There's always something more going on.
There's very little ego to Yo La Tengo's magic, yet the sound they've developed over the years is hardly passive or lacking edge. What allowed two shy introverts afraid to perform in front of people without swigs of Maalox to coalesce into an incredibly tight, powerful live act?
There is a lot of shyness to them as performers, but there is a certain amount of ego that is required to get yourself up on a stage, but I feel like they have the bare minimum of that...the thing is, they really enjoy making music, and the fact that they were and maybe still are, scared shitless when they step onto that stage, well, there is a much bigger part of them that really loves doing that, flailing around on guitars and having loud noisy jams and the sound of their voices when they blend together. I think those things all combine to overpower that initial shyness...They've definitely gotten more confident over the years, in terms of showmanship, Ira, throwing his guitar around or throwing himself around, but I don't think that fundamental feeling about being performers has changed much. I think in some ways they still find it unnatural to be doing that, but at the same time, I think once they get up there, that disappears as well.