Yo La Tengo have booked all eight nights of Hanukkah — December 9th to 16th — at their home club, Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, for what frontman Ira Kaplan envisions as a festive party packed with nightly special guests, comedians and quality indie rock.
“I was not Bar Mitzvahed or anything,” Kaplan says. “I am not remotely religious, close to anti- in fact. Even still, I consider myself Jewish, even though I’m not a religious Jew, and I like the idea of participating in the holidays on my own terms. Christmas parties just seem so overdone. I wanted to do something a little different but still seasonal.”
Kaplan says the band’s wish list of collaborators for the event, which he won’t disclose just yet, includes both Jews and gentiles and that it’s likely that Yo La Tengo will bust out a host of cover songs written by certain Jewish legends in rock: Neil Diamond, Marc Bolan (born Mark Feld), Joey Ramone (born Jeffrey Hyman) and Richard Hell (born Richard Myers).
From the sound of things, the band won’t need a miracle to make it through all eight shows without boring repeat customers. “I have a feeling each show will be pretty different,” says Kaplan. “They have to be unpredictable since we’re playing eight nights in a row. We’ve done three and four-night stands at one club, and we’re always aware that some people will come more than once.”
“We’ve also noticed that there are nine candles on a menorah,” he adds. “And nine letters in Yo La Tengo. So the T-shirt possibilities are really coming together.”
While the Hanukkah gigs seem an ideal place to work out new material, Kaplan says the band — himself, his wife/drummer/singer Georgia Hubley and bassist James McNew — has yet to begin formal writing for the follow-up to 2000’s widely praised And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out.
“The way we tend to write is to make up all these pieces of music and then revisit them and turn them into songs,” he says. “We have our usual pile of stuff and at some point we’ll begin looking for the songs within it.”
If not necessarily the makings of a formal album, the band does have ninety minutes of new instrumental music committed to tape, the soundtrack for eight short films from the late French undersea surrealist director Jean Painleve, collectively known as The Sounds of Science. The band initially composed the music back in April, at the request of the the San Francisco Film Festival, which screened Painleve’s watery shorts (“Sea Urchin,” “Liquid Crystal” and “The Lovelife of the Octopus” among others) with live accompaniment from the band.
In September, Yo La Tengo headed into a Nashville studio with longtime producer Roger Moutenot to track the music, but they’ve yet to decide what will become of those sessions.
“We’ve talked to [the band’s label] Matador about releasing the music, but we may put it out ourselves,” says Kaplan. “I think it stands alone, without the images. I think some people who like our group might enjoy it and some people who like our group might not find it very interesting. It’s not tremendously different from some of the instrumentals we’ve already released. It’s more tuneful in some areas and less in others.”
This past summer Yo La Tengo traveled to the U.K. to record with Ray Davies, for what looks to be the Kinks’ frontman’s first real solo album. Together with Davies, they tracked four new songs — “Next Door Neighbor,” “The Morning After,” “Vietnam Cowboys” and “Creatures of Little Faith” — and one old Kinks’ B-side, “This Is Where I Belong.” To date, no release date has been set for the record and Kaplan confesses that he’s not sure his band’s work will even end up on the final product.
“I would imagine he’s changed his mind a number of times about what will eventually become his next album,” Kaplan says of Davies. “Even if I knew the answer to what will be on that album, I’m not sure I would believe it’s going to stay the answer.”