Rock band biographies tend to follow a boilerplate format, tracing a band from obscurity, to fame, to rehab and then, if they’re lucky, perhaps a single season on “The Surreal Life.” But Yo La Tengo traveled a more circuitous path to rock semi-stardom, one that involved a lot of couch surfing and record store crate digging. If the Hoboken, N.J. trio fought a battle to overcome addiction, it was only an addiction to the food at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville.
In “Big Day Coming” Brooklyn-based music critic and WFMU radio host Jesse Jarnow tells the band’s story, following the long-running indie-pop group — founded in 1984 by Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan and later completed with the addition of multi-instrumentalist James McNew — from its early years as a lark for record collecting copy editors to its unlikely brush with mainstream success during the mid ‘90s. The book also doubles as an intro to the era’s East Coast indie-rock culture, documenting the fanzines, labels and clubs that knit the community together. Recently, The Washington Post spoke with Jarnow about his book, the band and the moment he flowered into a bona fide Yo La Tengo-dork.
Washington Post: So, how did you cross over from being a run-of-the-mill Yo La Tengo fan to the guy who would pen the band’s authorized biography?
Jarnow: I wrote an article about them for “Signal to Noise” when their record “Summer Sun” came out. I just found that the deeper I went [into their music], the deeper I could go. I just kept learning new things about them. And then at some point I kept finding reasons to get assignments to cover them, until I was attending all eight nights of Chanukah, so that I could hear the different songs every night. The moment when I hit my Yo La Tengo-dork tipping point was at one of their Hanukah concerts where David Mansfield, this Nashville session guy, played with them. It was incredible. They did a version of this Bob Dylan song from the first Nico record, “I’ll keep it with mine.” It was the only time I ever heard them do that live. And then, eventually, I got an agent and pitched the book about them and it happened.
Washington Post: Your book lays out the story arc of Yo La Tengo — from copy editors to full-time rockers — but it also provides a fairly complete account of the commercial rise of indie-rock during the early ’90s and the characters that made that happen. Why was it important to feature all of these other folks?
Jarnow: To understand where [Yo La Tengo] are coming from, I had to understand a lot about that world. For instance, it’s important that they’re on Matador records and not some other label. And then that traces back Matador co-founder Gerard Cosloy’s zine, “Conflict,” which he covered Yo La Tengo in. And Cosloy worked at Homestead records in the ’80s, which was an important part of Yo La Tengo’s world. It was the culture that they participated in.
Washington Post: You mentioned that it took time for Yo La Tengo to find its sound. They were scrappy and noisy, but also made acoustic records and covered Cat Stevens. What was the moment when you think they found their groove? And what was that groove?
Jarnow: Landing on it was very gradual. What they do…well, they do a lot of different things. They have different identities — they electric experimental stuff, stuff with lots of improvisation, stuff with no improvisation, stuff where Georgia sings. And that took a lot of time to discover. I think the moment when they really came together is when James [McNew] joined. He’s an incredible musician and a perfect personality match. I can’t over/under emphasize how important he was to that band. Yo La Tengo didn’t really become the band that most people recognize as Yo La Tengo until they put out “Painful,” which was 10 years after Georgia and Ira started playing together.
Washington Post: One thing about the band that I always thought was important was that more than just enjoying their records, there was a lot of to find out about through listening to — stuff that they frequently referenced, like NRBQ and Sun Ra that wasn’t necessarily directly related to their scene.
Jarnow: Yo La Tengo were just fans. They’d be, like, “Michael Hurley is amazing, the Meat Puppets are amazing, and Sonic Youth is amazing.” Why as a listener would you limit yourself? They didn’t come from one school. They didn’t really come from any school at all. They came at it as music fans. I think that hindered them a little bit in the beginning. How they could you channel all these different things at the same time? Their song “Moby Octopad” is the one I point out the most, because it seems to come from so many different places — strange groove, weird harmonies, layers of noise, processed pedal steel. It’s definitely not just writing a song by a given set of rules, where there’s a verse chorus and bridge. It comes out of them being open to so many different ideas.
Washington Post: In the book, you also mention that former Washington Post board member Rick Smith was Yo La Tengo’s landlord for more than a decade. Did you guys speak? What was his take on them?
Jarnow: He was pretty amused by the fact that I was interested in his tenants. He told me that, “Me and my wife called them an affinity group.”
Side Note: Jarnow has also been curating Mp3 compilations drawn from Sunsquashed 's extensive archive of Yo La Tengo concert bootlegs. The first two set — “Big Day Coming” and “Yo La Tengo Does Dylan” — are available here and here .