Success hasn’t spoiled them yet
Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan talks recording, shows and the importance of not having goals
It’s been nearly 30 years since Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan formed Yo La Tengo in Hoboken, New Jersey, and 21 years since James McNew joined the married couple as the band’s bassist. In the years since, the trio’s honed its sound to near-perfection, making music that runs the gamut of noisy jams and feedback frenzy to dreamy love songs. Always, the music’s shored up by smart lyrics and a bittersweet, emotional core. On the eve of the Yo La Tengo’s latest tour, which arrives in Sacramento on Sunday, May 12, singer-songwriter Kaplan battled a bad phone connection to chat with SN&R about its latest album Fade, songwriting and what it’s like to open for yourself at a show.
What’s up with the tour—what can people expect?
We’re doing two sets for each show—one quiet and one loud. We’re basically our own opening act.
(Laughs.) Well, that’s convenient.
It’s not a joke! We’re using different equipment for each one, and each set is about 45 to 50 minutes long.
OK, so how did that come about?
We were trying to come up with a way to present songs from Fade—so many of them are quiet, and we didn’t know how to incorporate them without disrupting the pace—wait, “disrupting” isn’t quite the right word. In any case, we’d done a few [shows] like that when we played with Calexico, and it seemed to work.
Fade is the band’s shortest album in years—there are no really long freak-out jams. Was that intentional?
It’s intentional that the album as a whole is shorter. It’s something we’d been trying to do for years but failing at. When we got a little closer to [going into the studio], when we were within striking distance and knew that there were a few songs that needed to be left off, we just started pruning away [the longer ones]. But none of the other stuff was; we never do anything long or short on purpose.
How much of the songwriting revolves around jamming as a band in the studio as opposed to working out the songs before you even start recording?
We just start playing and see what happens. Sometimes a song just pops out, and sometimes something happens in the studio, and then we never hear it again, or if we do it again, it’s completely different. It’s a very open-ended process.
I’ve heard that you won’t play songs live before you record them—why is that?
The philosophy on that goes way back. For a long time, the record that I think we felt least warm about was [1992’s] May I Sing With Me. That was a record for which we’d been playing the songs live for a long time. It was James’ first record with the band, and we’d played the songs with a variety of different bass players and taught them a number of times. Rightly or wrongly, we came to the conclusion that we knew the songs too well—we’d lost that sense of discovery, and were instead just documenting what we’d already found out.
After 30 years, how do you keep it fresh for the band? Do you set goals?
We try not to set goals. I think if you set a goal and you’re focused on that goal, then you run the risk of losing sight of what might be just as good or better. For example, in the most obvious way, if your goal is to get a gold record, then anything short of selling 500,000 records is a failure—but amazing things can happen along the way. If we were to read our rock biographies carefully, we’d see that success is not all it’s cracked up to be.