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Yo La Tengo: Our Life in 15 Songs

Hoboken veterans survey three decades of eclectic indie rock

Yo La Tengo

Dusdin Condren

Founded in Hoboken in 1984 by Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, restless indie experimenters Yo La Tengo grew out of a series of early-Eighties cover bands with never-repeating setlists. As the group expanded its palette and shuffled its lineup, the cover songs remained and have featured on nearly every Yo La Tengo recording since, ranging from then-unreleased tunes by friends (such as Yung Wu's "The Empty Pool" on 1986's Ride the Tiger) to a 12-inch of Sun Ra's "Nuclear War" in 2003. Like 1990's beloved semi-acoustic Fakebook, the new Stuff Like That There consists mainly (but not entirely) of other people's songs, including several Yo La Tengo originals alongside numbers by George Clinton, the Cure, Hank Williams (via Al Green), Antietam, Special Pillow, Great Plains and more.

Also like Fakebook, the album marks the return of Dave Schramm, the elegant and inventive twang specialist who played in some of the band's earliest lineups and has returned to duty periodically since. Unlike Fakebook, Stuff Like That There features bassist James McNew, who joined the band as a bassist in 1991 and quickly became an equal collaborator — and who, for the new album, learned upright bass, in part by taking a few lessons from free-jazz legend Henry Grimes. While the cover songs and Schramm's curling guitar might resemble the folk-tinged quartet that debuted with a self-released single in 1985, Yo La Tengo have been many places in the intervening 30 years.

Though Kaplan and Hubley have relocated to Manhattan since the 2013 closing of Maxwell's, Hoboken's hometown rock club, the group still practices and picks up its mail in the Mile Square City, just as always, gathering nearly every day (when they're not working elsewhere) at a homey practice space overflowing with gear and ephemera. Depending on how one counts singles, EP, anthologies, soundtracks and collaborations, Stuff Like That There is (maybe) the 14th proper Yo La Tengo album. Not even they seem to be sure. We visited Hoboken and heard the story of Yo La Tengo in 15 easy steps.

Yo La Tengo

“The River of Water”

"The River of Water" seven-inch (1985)

Kaplan: We didn't have it when we started rehearsing [in 1984], but we had it soon after. We played it at our second show, a month after our first one, opening for the Turbines at Maxwell's. We were a trio in the studio and asked Dave [Schramm] to help us. If I remember right, it started with the idea of him playing lap steel on "The River of Water." and then once he was there, he played on two other songs, [Love's] "A House Is Not A Motel" and "Private Doberman," as well. Just hearing him play with us, we were surprised that we could sound that good. We weren't surprised that he could sound that good. He entered the studio as someone helping us do some recording, and he left as a member of the band. 

Yo La Tengo

“The Cone of Silence”

Ride the Tiger (1986)

Georgia Hubley: I'm not sure why that's the song from then we still play — maybe just because it's the best one of them.

Kaplan: I'm pretty sure Dave's guitar solo is played without headphones. The two of us went up to Boston by ourselves to do guitar overdubs, and I kept encouraging him to be wilder and wilder. Finally, I suggested he play without wearing headphones at all, without listening to the song at all. I think that's true. It seems kind of hard to believe. 

James McNew: That sounds like something we'd do to him.

Kaplan: I'm sure we did it. But whether we used that take, or it was that song, I can't remember with certainty.

McNew: That was the first Yo La Tengo song I heard. On WTJU [in Charlottesville, Virginia]. Or in the parking lot from friends who were DJs.

Yo La Tengo

“Let’s Compromise” [Information cover]

New Wave Hot Dogs (1987)

Kaplan: Even the very first time we played, with [the dB's] Peter Holsapple [in 1982], the list [included songs like] "Heading for the Texas Border" by the Flamin' Groovies, but we also did [the Gun Club's] "Sex Beat," which would've been kind of brand-new-ish at the time. The idea of covering songs that were current was something we did right from the start. I think [Information's] "Let's Compromise" [from the 1980 compilation cassette Tape #1] went back into our head at a Chris Nelson solo show, maybe with [the dB's] Will Rigby as the drummer.

McNew: Top 10 lyrics of all time for me.

Yo La Tengo

“Drug Test”

President Yo La Tengo (1989) 

Kaplan: [Laughing] I remember [producer] Gene Holder convincing me — definitely me, I don't know where [Georgia] stood on this — not to abandon the song because I hated it so much. It was too… I was uncomfortable with the anthemic-ish-ness of it.

Hubley: That would be theme with many records to follow, being talked off the ledge. For any variety of reasons.

Kaplan: I did come around eventually; I don't remember when.

Hubley: Which segues into recordings that are lost that I wish we could find: In 1989, when we went to Japan with [the Go-Betweens'] Robert Vickers on bass, we were on a TV show and we did "Drug Test." We lip-synced, which was insane. For one thing, we'd been playing it long enough that it was already twice as fast as the recorded version, and they played it and we were just like, "What the… ?" [Director and then-roadie] Phil Morrison was with us, and he said it was amazing. They took the camera and they swung it all over. We've tried in vain to get a copy.

Yo La Tengo

“Can’t Forget”

Fakebook (1990)

Kaplan: "Can't Forget" grew out of a different song that we were playing electric in Japan with Robert [Vickers] — similar chords but different. The way it began, it just seemed to make sense as the first song. The Fakebook name came later. It was a record of [mostly] covers because that's what our repertoire was, and we weren't exactly churning out original songs. We had no bass player, so Georgia and I did stuff, just the two of us, all the time, primarily on college radio stations, but not only. Since we were a duo, we decided to have that side of the group [on Fakebook], with Georgia singing more, [because] she hardly ever sang live, except when it was just the two of us.

Yo La Tengo

“Mushroom Cloud of Hiss”

May I Sing With Me (1992)

Kaplan: That began in another duo, when [Georgia and I] started doing an electric guitar duo [in 1989]. I can't believe there was singing, but maybe there was. But it definitely had the guitar parts and the chords that sync up sort of at random. It was probably me playing the chords and [Georgia] playing the other stuff. I'm almost positive the first time we did the two-guitar thing was at the Middle East [in Boston], at some [punk promoter] Billy Ruane thing, where the invitation was to do something different.

McNew: "Mushroom Cloud" was the first song I had ever played in my life where I had to watch for when it changed from section to section. I had never experienced that before. I thought songs were all on a grid and that's how people played songs and wrote songs. In my experience up to that moment, that's how things went, and then all of a sudden, it was like, "How many measures do I play on the B-flat?" "I dunno, just watch me." "Alright!" And realizing it was going to be different every time was just thrilling, it was so exciting. It felt so urgent and alive and fun. We used to play that song every night. I can't imagine that now. [To Ira] You would scream that second verse every night. Man.

Yo La Tengo

“From a Motel 6”

Painful (1993)

McNew: I don't really remember that one. [All laugh.]

Kaplan: I think up until then we would write a song, we would learn it, and it was that good or that not-good. And once the three of us started just practicing every day and —"Motel 6" is like this, and I think a lot of them are like this — it was like, "Maybe it could be better — what could we do to make this song better?" We kept taking it apart and putting it back together again, and still thinking, "We don't have it yet." "Double Dare" was like that too. We'd played it live a couple times. We played it loud first, then quiet, and we were still trying to figure out the way to do that. "Motel 6" might also begin in the [1989] two-guitar lineup.

Hubley: I have a memory of it going back as far as "The Summer" [1990], of having some kind of riff that you played that we loved but we couldn't find a song for, so we just kept writing other songs and inserting it.

Kaplan: And then dropping the riff. "The Summer" is the first one. "Motel 6" is one. The B section might be in "The Summer." And I think the A section might actually be in one of the Genius + Love demos.

Hubley: It's like the muse riff.

Kaplan: In the course of trying to figure out "Motel 6" and take it apart and put it back together again, it went so far afield from "Motel 6" that that's where both "Shaker" and "I Was the Fool Beside You" came from, from attempting to play "From a Motel 6."

Hubley: The riff never found a home. Yet.

Yo La Tengo

“Don’t Say a Word (Hot Chicken #2)”

Electr-O-Pura (1995)

Hubley: There was some summer that I made up some songs on my own and recorded a little 4-track Fostex demo thing, and that was one of them. It came out on Prisoners of Love. There was another song we used, too, "Treading Water."

Was that the first time you played around with a 4-track like that?

Hubley: I think so.

Kaplan: For a song you wrote. Because she did [Big Star's] "Kangaroo."

Hubley: Oh, yeah, that was around the same time, in our old apartment. I guess I was in a Fostex phase. It was fun! I think it was all Casio drums, and a delay, and a guitar. And overdubs.

Yo La Tengo

“Moby Octopad”

I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One (1997)

McNew: That was a pretty good example of us leaving stuff very unfinished before we got to the studio. That's really how we were doing stuff then. We'd have the basic idea of a song to record. Sometimes they'd kind of be finished. And sometimes it'd be that thing where it's, "Okay, I play that bass line and let's see what happens." We would leave a lot of stuff very open-ended and try to finish it in the moment.

Kaplan: I'd be surprised if we went there with the vocal arrangement.

McNew: I barely remember anything about that song existing before we went in.

Kaplan: I remember doing some [guitar] solo, like, "Go do what you do," and it just feeling like, "Wow, everyone knows this is coming; there's something wrong here," and trying to come up with a piano part and then, having come up with it, trying to play it, which I'm sure took many episodes of TV Land shows.

Yo La Tengo

“You Can Have it All” [Harry Wayne Casey cover]

And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000)

Hubley: That album we definitely worked on in the Jersey City practice space. A lot of that was doing drum stuff, me and McNew, and even [Kaplan] was doing some playing.

McNew: I remember recording it. I think it's you guys doing it, playing along with a Casio beat: two drum kits and a Casio beat live in the room, and I recorded a couple of minutes of it and then we made a long loop of it in the studio.

Hubley: We did that for a lot of songs. I don't know how many got used on the record. It was on our minds.

McNew: We definitely started doing that a lot for that record, more loop-based stuff and drum-machine stuff: "Everyday" and "Saturday," "Tired Hippo"; "Madeline," too. A lot of those jams had more primitive electronic beats. That was at the time when — and I feel like I'm using an Abe Simpson tone of voice saying this — that was when electronica was the future of music and everybody was into drum 'n' bass and samplers, and I was so excited that our version of that was, "Hey, what does the Casio drum machine sound like?" "It sounds great! Use that!" Either the Casio drum machine or the Ace Tone Rhythm Ace.

Kaplan: If I'm right, [Hubley] put that song on a cassette for McNew, and McNew suggested that you sing it, and I think that whole thing with the drum part came about because we really liked the idea of you singing it, but we couldn't find an arrangement that worked and we kept doing different things with it and finally settled on that one. And then I didn't want to record it for the record, I know that, because we did it for a [John] Peel session. I thought, "We've already done this — why should we do it again?"

Yo La Tengo

“Don’t Have to Be So Sad” [featuring William Parker on double bass]

Summer Sun (2003)

Kaplan: Hubley plays piano on "Don't Have to Be So Sad." In late 2001, Hubley's mom died, and we took possession of her piano and started using it more and writing songs on it.

Hubley: Now functioning as a table.

Kaplan: Until then, the piano was just a studio afterthought. We'd recorded in Nashville and [the Other Dimensions in Music] guys came in one day while we were mixing. But I'm not sure we'd played with William [Parker] at that time. I know we'd played with [reed players] Daniel [Carter] and Sabir [Mateen]. I think we knew we just wanted them to play. We didn't have a real plan. We just kept throwing different songs at them.

Yo La Tengo

“Mr. Tough”

I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (2006)

Kaplan: The Tonic benefit happened [in 2005], and we thought, "They have a piano, let's use it." Unsurprisingly — we had done it before and we've done it since — we put inordinate amounts of time into one benefit, for Tonic, and we worked harder on that than we did for a tour, having done that, and then getting [cellist] Garo [Yellin] and rehearsing with him. A lot of piano playing happened between those two records. I would be surprised if ["Mr. Tough"] didn't begin with me practicing the piano and just trying to play something. We probably started with the riff is my guess. We had the idea of having a horn section on that and wrote a horn arrangement on keyboards and demoed it with MIDI keyboards. One guy comes in and goes, "Oh, yeah, like a Van Morrison vibe!" and it was, like, "Oh god! That wasn't what we meant at all!"

McNew: No, no. No, no, no.

Kaplan: "We'll be right back." We rewrote the whole thing.

Yo La Tengo

“I’m on My Way”

Popular Songs (2009)

On the similarities between the beginning of "I'm on My Way" and the Lovin' Spoonful's "Didn't Want to Have to Do It":

Kaplan: We were not covering the song. I may've at some point put my fingers on the guitar and realized there are those two chords. We were not unaware that it was those chords. Or, I was not unaware.

McNew: I didn't know the song. I had to borrow the Lovin' Spoonful album from [Kaplan]. The percussion track was something we recorded by ourselves before [producer] Roger [Moutenot] got here. And it's all three of us set up in different places around the room, all playing this interlocking percussion part. Then Roger imported the tracks we'd recorded ourselves and used them on the record, augmenting them here and there.

Yo La Tengo

“I’ll Be Around”

Fade (2013)

McNew: That one started really loud and kept getting quieter and quieter. I think it started as a practice-long jam and then slowly kept coming down and down and down until the three of us were sitting right here — a chair here, a chair here and me. I had a little drum-machine app that I was using and playing through the speakers, and we were all just seated playing to each other until it was like, "Okay, there it is."

Kaplan: When we did that, the song was on its way out the door. We had played it a lot and were getting disenchanted with it. And we thought, "Maybe this'll work."

McNew: I think it was near the end of gathering songs for Fade.

Kaplan: We had no notion of how they were going to use it [in Richard Linklater's Boyhood]. We went to see it, which is not that common. Usually if I know we have a song in a movie, it'll be, "Let's go see something else," but when we realized how prominent it was, that was pretty exciting. And then it has that thing: It always reminds me of "Springtime for Hitler," right as I'm about to open my mouth and start singing it's like — zoop.

McNew: Needle-scratch… rrrrr.

Yo La Tengo

“Friday I’m in Love”

Stuff Like That There (2015)

Hubley: We'd done that song twice. Once at the Onion Christmas party [in 2003].

Kaplan: The other was on some London radio show, a call-in thing. We've been really resistant to doing this over the years, where people try to get us to take requests, à la [the band's annual benefits for] WFMU. But one time, I don't even know why, we agreed to take some requests, and one was for that. The fact that we'd played it however many years earlier wasn't much of a help, which we'd done loud.

Hubley: They printed the lyrics out for me.

Kaplan: Hubley was reluctant to [record] the song, and it was my memory of the version on the radio that it was quieter. It was softer, and I remember being struck by how beautifully she sang it and wanting to try it again for this, and Hubley being resistant.

Hubley: I'm not even sure I could put it into words where the resistance came from. I think when we were making the record, I was able to put it into words. [Laughter]

McNew: I remember two of them!

Hubley: "I don't want to doooo this song." But then I relented and got to like it. I think the commercial aspect of it, whatever that means, is probably the thing that made me think, "I'm not sure I hear myself, or us, in this song," but in the end, I really like it.