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Q&A: Yo La Tengo on Personal Songs and Keeping New LP Brief

'We've been trying to make a shorter record,' says Ira Kaplan

Yo La Tengo
Araya Diaz/Getty Images
January 15, 2013 10:00 AM ET

Yo La Tengo have sometimes had trouble knowing when to stop writing songs, but not this time. The New Jersey trio's latest LP, Fade, clocks in at 45 minutes, a modest length for a band prone to stretching past the 70-minute mark.

"We tried a little harder explicitly to stop working on new songs at a certain point, not trusting ourselves to leave them off the record once we had developed an attachment to them," singer and guitarist Ira Kaplan tells Rolling Stone. "We recorded 13 songs, and 10 of them are on the record." 

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Those songs share a certain wistful tone that seems to find slivers of hope layered under disappointment and even tragedy. Although Kaplan is reluctant to get specific, he allows that the songs are both a reflection of what he and bandmates Georgia Hubley (also his wife) and James McNew were thinking and feeling as they wrote them, and not as personal as they might sound. 

Your label describes this album as the band's most cohesive. Do you agree?
It might be. If my answer to that is no, it's not because I'm going to tell you what is our most cohesive record. The reason I'll say no is really that I don't know. We're so close to it that I think that requires an overview, and we're the last people to answer that question. That's a listener's response.

Did you think aiming for a shorter album would have a stylistic effect on the songs?
I'm not so sure that would have been the case with this record. This record for whatever reason didn't seem to bounce around as much stylistically as, say, the last two. But I think we also sequenced the record in a way as to minimize the stylistic changes. The second side is much quieter than the first side. Rather than bouncing around from song to song, we kind of separated the two halves. For quite a few records, more records than you would think, we've been trying to make a shorter record, and as you can see by the length of previous records, we've been not succeeding.

Why did you want to make a shorter record?
We like so many different things, and as much as we love the sprawl of long songs and long anything – I went to see Django Unchained yesterday, and I was perfectly happy to be there for three hours – but at the same time, to stick with the movie analogy, I love an 80-minute Hollywood comedy and we love two-minute pop songs, even though we don't write that many. So I think that to have something more concise has been in our mind, and the more we thought about it and didn't do it, the more we wanted to try to do it. 

How challenging was it to stop after writing 13 songs?
In a way, it is hard to stop. We did it arbitrarily. We just said, "Let's stop." We enjoy writing stuff, and we certainly would have continued to if we hadn't. I think this is one of the ways we have ended up with such long records. Sometimes the songs you include that make the record long are the ones that ultimately keep it moving better. I think back to I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, which was the first record we put out that was a double, and I think if that had been a single record, "Little Honda" wouldn't have been on it and "My Little Corner of the World" wouldn't have been on it and some of the other things that I think maybe occupy the margins but make the record feel more – it's kind of a way in. Sometimes the longer the record is, the shorter it feels, at least from our warped perspective. [Laughs

There's an elegiac feel to these songs. Was that intentional?
It's more the way they turned out. I wrote nine of the 10 lyrics on this, but I don't think James or Georgia was flabbergasted that that's the tone that they took. It definitely reflects what the three of us have been thinking about in the time leading up to the writing of the words. It wasn't planned. 

Is Fade more personal than your previous records?
I don't think so, but maybe. I don't know. It's funny, I'm not going to be specific, but I have been asked that a lot, and there actually is a specific instance in which I wrote something – and it's not a whole lyric, it's almost like a moment – that felt uncharacteristically open. But it's probably not what you're talking about. [Laughs] I think these things – they are so personal. Maybe I've gotten comfortable writing personally, and therefore you can push it a little further without even knowing it. When we were working on And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, I was aware that the lyrics were different than previous ones. I'm not so sure I was thinking about that this time. It's nice to just sort of allow things to happen and find their own path. Our lyrics are always written last. We put it off, put it off, put it off, and then when it happens, they necessarily have to come fast, so it's kind of easy to not – there's really no time to examine them for common themes and evaluate them for how personal they are. [Laughs] It's like, just go get them done. 

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