Yo La Tengo biographer Jesse Jarnow shares the band's not-so-lurid secrets
The phrase (and song) "Big Day Coming" embodies a perpetual burgeoning, a band always on the cusp...in the close of the book you touch on effects the economy and the tech and social media spheres have had on the indie music world. Has this ability to survive come to define Yo La Tengo? And is it more a tribute to their music or their adeptness at "navigations of the music world via collaborators they trusted"?
For Yo La Tengo a lot of the survival is more a matter of tuning everything out: the image of a three person band in their practice space, facing each other in a circle while playing. Yes, they did have friends involved in early indie rock distribution, in a way that helped them survive and gave them this infrastructure...but in some ways I feel like they almost did take that for granted, in a really valuable way. They survived by not caring, and just focusing on playing music together...and it still really is the main focus of what they do.
One thing not discussed in the book, which bothered at least one reviewer, was your insistence to not delve into the romantic relationship of Ira and Georgia, beyond the basic facts that helped to foment their musical relationship, which one would imagine are inextricable. Was this a matter of access or choice?
Well, it was a little bit of both. Having interviewed them before I did this book, many times, I knew it was something they weren't really comfortable talking about and something they preferred be separate. So that was in my mind when I was putting together the proposal and early outline and structure of the book. But the other thing is, that stuff is interesting, and if they wanted to open up about that kind of stuff, I'd certainly be interested in reading about it. But at the same time, Yo La Tengo's story is far more interesting that just being about a couple that started a band. The example I bring up is the biography of the Beach Boys called The Nearest Faraway Place. You know the Beach Boys story is full of really awful, terrible things from Murray Wilson beating up Brian Wilson to these almost hilarious fallouts between every member of the band, but at the same time, that's not really the most interesting thing about the Beach Boys' story. The Beach Boys' story is coming out of Southern California, being children of people who had come across the country, growing out of the Southern California culture.
For Yo La Tengo, there are all these other elements of their story, which I find much more fascinating, one of which is this growing out of their initial shyness, and not really knowing what they wanted to sound like as musicians, and developing this voice very slowly and patiently over the course of their career. Or growing out of the Hoboken or WFMU world or being part of New York Rocker, which as a publication really kinda defined the indie rock narrative. All those stories to me add up to something that is as compelling if not more compelling than just the Georgia/Ira story. There were definitely openings in conversations we had for that to come out a bit more,. But it was definitely something that they really veered away from when I was asking questions about that period in their lives, when they were getting together, and ultimately that's something I had to respect.
And something I'd like to point out: some of this stuff is in the book. There are stories about fights they had and the way that manifested itself in their music, discussions of difficulties...some of that stuff is in there, maybe buried more deeply than some people were expecting, but I think if you read between the lines, there's a lot more there than you might get on an immediate impression. That stuff is all in Yo La Tengo, and my impression from hanging out with Georgia and Ira and James is that I could ask them those questions, but I'm not sure I would learn anything more than I'd learn from a song like "Tears are in Your Eyes." I think songs like that, not that they are necessarily the literal truth of the situation between Georgia and Ira, but I think that it really conveys it...and I'm not sure any book about them would be able to reveal anything deeper than that. And it's not to say that it's shallow in any way, I think that's an extremely deep expression of a relationship.
So in turn, why then THIS band? What makes Yo La Tengo stand out? What makes this "critics" band worth such an in-depth history?
One reason is specifically the way their music developed, that it started off as this kinda undistinguished music that came out of the Hoboken scene, and the fact that they were able to build on it and develop it into something really unique and beautiful. To me that's a fantastic story. Then there is a rock and roll narrative about getting over shyness. Talking Heads, you know David Byrne, is another great example of someone who was almost cripplingly shy when they started, and the story of the first few Talking Heads albums, and the narrative of Stop Making Sense the movie is kinda going from that painfully shy awkward person, in the David Byrne sense, to this freaky dance version. And I think the Yo La Tengo story is kinda like that as well. It's a story of liberation, finding themselves, not realizing until age 25 or so...that wow, this is something they can do! And I think that's a really great story.
There are people all over who don't think they could start a band, that that's the last place they could see themselves, is playing music. And you look at the Yo La Tengo story, I think it can be inspirational in that way. But I also found, that bigger story, they way they interacted with the Hoboken world, they way they interacted with WFMU and New Yorker Rocker...they were there for all that stuff. It wasn't an accident that they became the band that they became. There's a very direct connection between those things. To me, that's another thing that makes this a compelling story. And the path from the "River of Water," their first single, to the Sounds of Science, which is their soundtrack to underwater documentaries. That's a pretty weird, winding path to get from one type of music to another, and to do it in a way that makes sense.
Finally, thoughts on the new album? Oh man, I love it. Do you feel like you notice McEntire's production?
I do. One thing that's kinda subtle...but I think the vocals sound really different to me, the way they are set off from the rest of the music. I think there's a density of production that's not what they would have gotten recording with Roger Moutenot, which is something that I think makes Fade really excellent. My first impression of the album was that they made another quiet moody album...but then after listening to it a couple of times, it was like, oh wait, some of these songs really rock, really, really hard. Like "Ohm," the first song of the album, when they played it on Fallon the other week they did it with three drummers, it's really a kind of propulsive tune. The loud songs and quiet songs are dense and moody in similar ways, even though the songs themselves are really different, and I think that's something that McEntire had a lot to do with.
THOUGH at the same time, that was something they were doing even on Painful, a song like From a Motel 6, where you do have this loud throbbing rock song with a whispered Georgia vocal on top of it. That is something I think Yo La Tengo really excel at that a lot of other bands don't: they have this ability to be loud, then quiet at the same time. I have a couple of mixes, one of quiet songs, and one of songs that rock, and to me, there are several Yo La Tengo songs that fit pretty well on both mixes. I think it's pretty rare that a band can make songs that I want to listen to out on a run, or at 3 in the morning hanging out before I go to sleep. I think Fade is like that as well.
Yo La Tengo plays at First Avenue on Monday, February 4. Click here.
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