Formed by husband-and-wife duo Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1984, Yo La Tengo has succeeded as one of rock's most consistent and innovatively independent bands. In his new book, available now, journalist Jesse Jarnow explores not only the band's journey and identity, but the evolving indie rock scene in which they built their singular career. The excerpts below describe the band's early recording challenges, and the changes in the business of rock around the birth of grunge.
Ira is an uptight fag read the graffiti over the studio door. It was at the end of a long, disgusting hallway. This is art read another proclamation scrawled elsewhere on the wall. Axl Rose – gay, another. Down the hall was Sleepyhead, a slew of metal bands, and a single shared bathroom "that definitely was the bane of Georgia's existence," in one recollection. Sonic Youth practiced next door.
While Yo La Tengo was on the road, Lyle Hysen – whose Ace Tone organ the band had borrowed from the corner and not returned – had fixed up the room as a functional budget recording studio. "The point wasn't quality recording," said Fred Brockman, the onetime Dioxin Field center fielder who joined Hysen in the endeavor. "There was no way you could do that under those circumstances. It was sitting in a room holding a microphone up, basically."
Working five afternoons a week while the space's other leaseholders took on recording projects in the evenings, it became Yo La Tengo's second home as they eagerly began to assemble new songs in a far more collaborative manner than ever before. Increasingly, James's bass lines pulled surprising melodies from Ira's noise-heavy progressions and gave them powerful new shapes, his natural ear an ever-useful asset in their day-to-day work. Brockman often stuck around to help them demo new songs and offer occasional input.
Georgia brought in a new ballad, "Nowhere Near," she'd worked out at home. "From a Motel 6" was sourced from Ira and Georgia's two-guitar lineup. There was a quiet version but also a rushing, electric one, Georgia now comfortable enough to sing inside a noisier squall. They hadn't put "Big Day Coming"
on May I Sing with Me, and played it for Fred. He was mystified that they played such an accessible number so slowly. They were mystified at his suggestion of turning it into a rock song. They humored Fred and tried it a few times unsuccessfully and put the loud version aside.
Which is not to say that everything was hunky-dory. The new album would eventually take the name Painful and, as every member of Yo La Tengo long continued to point out, the process was exactly that. "The very painful sessions," Georgia groaned almost 20 years after the fact.
"We had never had a band that rehearsed all the time," Ira said. "We rehearsed every day, and we were working really hard. There were lots of arguments within the group, knowing something was possible but not knowing how to get it." Gradually, they did.
* * *
Things had been afoot for some time. While in school, Karen Glauber had gotten a college radio promotions job at A&M and, after graduation, moved to Hoboken. She dated [Ira's younger brother] Adam Kaplan briefly, and her twin sister, Diane, married Craig Marks, Yo La Tengo's first roadie and later an editor at CMJ. But Glauber's work with college radio stations soon evolved into an A&R gig at Warner Bros. She helped put together a deal to land Seattle's Soundgarden, a longhaired and often shirtless quartet on Sub Pop who'd released a single and an EP.
To make it look like they weren't selling out, at least straightaway, Glauber engineered a stopgap LP on the then flailing SST. Founder Greg Ginn had overextended himself like Homestead and other indie labels of the time. Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. (forced to add the diminutive after a legal notice
from the Dinosaurs) had both left Gerard Cosloy and Homestead for SST a few years earlier; both bolted from SST as soon as they could. "I like Greg Ginn and stuff, but they wouldn't pay you," Dinosaur's J Mascis noted.
Released appropriately on Halloween 1988, a major-label record dressed as an indie, Soundgarden's Ultramega OK only further illustrated the distance between the bands that were about to break out of college radio and the underground they were leaving behind. Somewhere, the term "alternative" had
been coined to describe the music not generally played by commercial radio, and it caught on.
"It was a fake indie deal," Glauber admitted of Soundgarden's debut LP. "It was the most rock thing I'd ever dealt with. I was used to Suzanne Vega – more palatable stuff. Soundgarden changed the game in a lot of ways: to have a swagger and be so rocking, and be such a college radio band. It was a pretty
sexless format before that." Indeed, Soundgarden's punk fell just short of heavy metal, an unhidden influence on one of their Sub Pop labelmates, Nirvana.
In April 1991, David Geffen's DGC – run by the '70s record mogul and owned by MCA, in turn part of Japan's Matsushita Electric Industrial – concluded its bidding for Nirvana and snatched the Olympia- based trio off Sub Pop for $287,000, with an agreement to feature the smaller label's logo on the
back cover of the next Nirvana album. Based on the 118,000 units Sonic Youth's Goo had moved the previous year, DGC pressed 50,000 copies of Nirvana's Nevermind, which they released on September 24th. The album entered the Billboard chart two weeks after its release at Number 144, and the trio got affixed with its very own buzzword: "grunge." The rush was on.
Excerpted from the book Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock Copyright © 2012 by Jesse Jarnow. Excerpted with permission by Gotham Books of Penguin Group USA.