Old concert posters and relics line the walls of the 9:30 Club’s basement bar. Dressed in loose jeans and sneakers on a Friday night in December, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan and James McNew scan the items, searching for familiar names while reminiscing about the D.C. club’s original — much smaller, dingier and rat-infested — location. Kaplan drifts over to a metal chair under the stairwell and settles in, hands dumped into sweatshirt pockets. In a few hours the band will be upstairs performing a sold-out concert, one of a handful of East Coast shows celebrating its 30th anniversary. But right now Kaplan is about to enter his own personal purgatory: a press interview.
Looking at Yo La Tengo’s rise from ramshackle Hoboken, N.J., cover band to indie-rock standard-bearer, Kaplan insists that this has always been a band without a plan. “We just play and fool around with things until we hear something we like,” he says. “We just try to follow our ears, not a concept.”
The trio blends the divide between listener and performer with more quiet power than almost any other band in rock, pulling from across eras and genres without sounding allusive. Its songs percolate into your brain, like memories returning. Especially since the 1993 album “Painful” — which Matador Records reissued in a deluxe edition this month, on the 30th anniversary of the band’s first gig — Yo La Tengo has condensed its omnivorous impulse into a new stance: The band can play skronking, feedback-fueled, 13-minute songs that are somehow comforting instead of transgressive. And as indie rock has developed over the band’s career, the trio has incorporated new streams of thought into its steadily persuasive sound.
“We listen to all different kinds of music,” says drummer and vocalist Georgia Hubley, speaking via phone a few days after the concert. “There’s so much sound affinity that we share. . . . Appreciation of music is at the core of the band.”
Even the group’s way of writing centers on listening. “I think we’ve perfected our process — which is basically just to get together, talk about movies or sports or food for about an hour, and eventually start playing, with no goal,” McNew says in the pre-show chat in D.C. The band’s rehearsals are slow burns through a loose practicum of experimentation, engulfment and response. That is, they’re jam sessions. When the members hit on something, they’re likely to repeat it for, say, an hour, just to see what else they might hear inside.
“Maybe a couple of chords sound good next to each other, or a cool rhythm will come out of nowhere,” McNew says. “We’ll scramble to turn on a recorder and preserve that moment, and if we like it we’ll go back, revisit it and make something out of it.”
Kaplan was a music columnist in the late 1970s and early ’80s for the small, independent-minded publications SoHo News and New York Rocker. He helped chart alternative rock’s rise in the days after punk caught flame. (He wrote liner notes for the occasional album, too, including a brief rave on the back cover of D.C. punk legends Bad Brains’ debut.) Then he and Hubley, his girlfriend at the time and now his wife, started Yo La Tengo in their living room — and you can basically track the following 30 years of underground rock history through the sound of this band.
Kaplan, Hubley and McNew have the advantage of historical perspective: Most of rock history has unfolded in their lifetimes. Now 57, Kaplan was 10 when he got his first record, the Rolling Stones’ brand-new single “Ruby Tuesday.” In punk’s salad days he was a college student haunting CBGB and the record shops of the Lower East Side. As a young critic, he chronicled the rise of new wave, as well as no wave, its grittier arch rival.
He and Hubley were living in Hoboken, a town too small for style territorialism. And anyway, their tastes didn’t discriminate. The couple started Yo La Tengo in 1984 and started releasing albums and EPs with a rotating cast of friends on bass and lead guitar. They toured the East Coast and Midwest and honed original songs that drew from country music’s “Bakersfield” sound and brawling post-punk. When McNew joined in 1991, he brought intimacy with funk and jazz phrasing and thick, tactile warmth. Fuller possibilities bloomed.
That year was big: Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” both hit. Classics on arrival, they were turbid and distorted records that didn’t use too many lyrics and didn’t much care about you hearing the ones they did. After the funk declamations and punk exhibitionism of prior decades, music was representing a world that had turned inward. Buzzes and screen hisses and mutable chatter started to be everywhere; voices quieted down. The next year Yo La Tengo released its first album with McNew and began recording the music that would become “Painful.”
Kaplan remembers “a bunch of improvising and experimenting and switching instruments” at that session. “We could all sense ourselves finding new things to play, new ways to play and new sounds,” he says.
They’d just bought an Ace Tone electric organ; together with McNew’s ballooning harmonies on the bass, it added a humming, undulating depth. And for the first time the band enlisted a true producer, Roger Moutenot, instead of just asking a musician from a band they liked, as had been the policy. Moutenot pulled Kaplan and Hubley’s naturally hushed voices into the mike without making them pipe up, and Kaplan began to step forward more with dissonant bursts of effects-splotched guitar.
On the opener, “Big Day Coming,” a lone organ fades in slowly over the course of a minute, arpeggiating a dawning, two-chord pattern. Kaplan enters with something like a plea, missing eye contact and barely audible. “Let’s be undecided / Let’s take our time.” A love song of forbearance and internal catharsis rolls itself out for the next six minutes; sound and ardor build steadily without piling up.
The album also marked the awakening of Hubley’s voice, probably the most directly enchanting element of Yo La Tengo in the years since. Until that point she’d sung some, but mostly on tunes that Kaplan wrote. (She had some experience hearing her voice played back; her parents were Faith and John Hubley, the Academy Award-winning animators and leftists who used their children’s voices in many shorts.) Her feathered, distant alto anchored some of the record’s best tunes — especially her own love ballad, “Nowhere Near,” the first original song she remembers feeling pride in.
From “Painful” forward, Yo La Tengo had an aesthetic frame, if not a hemmed-in sound: distanced or unmoved voices with no desire to gain traction, set amid drones, waves, screeches, circular gestures and porous edges.
A string of strong albums followed — “Electr-O-Pura,” “I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One,” “And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out,” “Summer Sun.” It’s “I Can Hear the Heart,” from 1997, that goes down as the broad, definitive collection. It has McNew’s first recorded lead vocal for the band, the hippie-country stunner “Stockholm Syndrome,” and also features “Autumn Sweater,” an organ-drums-vocals confessional sung by Kaplan. Like a more matter-of-fact sequel to “Big Day Coming,” it suggests the slow give-and-take of his relationship with Hubley maturing.
Yo La Tengo has never stopped playing cover songs, even releasing the occasional album full of them. It keeps the players connected to the liberations of fandom, their feeling of awe inside the music rather than ownership of it.
“It was always a lot easier to play a guitar solo when Georgia or me hadn’t written the song and it was written by Arthur Lee — it was like, ‘Oh, I can pretend I’m doing this,’ ” Kaplan says of the band’s early affinity for covers. “And that hasn’t changed. A lot of the genre things that we’ve added to our way of playing, probably most of them, started with a cover song.”
Their relationships with outside musicians feed into the same stream. Kaplan and Hubley still live in Hoboken, and until it closed last year they kept up a close relationship with Maxwell’s, the club where Yo La Tengo played its first gigs. Starting in 2000, it was the site of an almost annual series of benefit concerts on the eight nights of Hanukkah — chummy, packed-out shows that gave an excuse to bring in special guests each night, from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James to Howard Kaylan of the Turtles.
“They’re always dabbling, and not afraid to experiment,” says Mission of Burma bassist Clint Conley, the producer of Yo La Tengo’s first album and a Maxwell’s Hanukkah veteran who joined the band earlier this month during a 30th-anniversary show at New York’s Town Hall. “There’s an aspect to them that is kind of shy, but there’s this audacity, too — they’re playing with jazz people, they’re playing with Ray Davies.”
Guitarist Dave Schramm, who was in Yo La Tengo during its earliest years, was also onstage at Town Hall, and he says this sort of thing is “in their DNA. There’s this core sound, but then, ‘How can we play with that?’ If playing with it means playing a song totally differently from how it was played last night, or bringing in other musicians and sounds to force it into another direction, that’s part of what they’re doing.”
Through a connection to Yoko Ono’s management, Yo La Tengo became her Plastic Ono Band on a European tour this year. “We played the song ‘Mind Train,’ which is about a 16-minute jam with a very hypnotic bass part,” McNew says. “She said to me, ‘Oh, you know, I’m sorry the bass part doesn’t have much to do.’ I was like: ‘Are you kidding me? There’s four notes in this bass part — that’s three too many in my opinion!’ And then I think after that she thought I was crazy. I was very proud.”
In their recent set at the 9:30 Club, Yo La Tengo brought up some guests but needed little help. Onstage, Kaplan kept his back constantly in a curve. He crouched over a fleet of effects pedals, leaned into his amp to draw feedback. When forced to sing into the mike, he angled one shoulder toward the back of the stage, as if about to escape from a conversation.
Kaplan sometimes unstrapped his guitar, flailed it toward the ground, enacting a release but not fully letting go. He seemed comfortable with the guitar out of his hands completely: On the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda,” he cranked the effects and lowered the instrument down into the crowd.
On the rocker “Double Dare,” from “Painful,” Kaplan’s guitar chords made a sheet of noise while McNew rose into the midrange. You thought of ’90s shoegaze acts like Slowdive, but also predecessors like the Who. On some of the darkened, minor tunes, it was both the Feelies and Eric Burdon. You could infer that Yo La Tengo has been influential in that way, and point to the recent spark in halfway-backdated indie rock: grit messengers confronting modern complacency, such as Mac DeMarco and Kurt Vile and Sharon Van Etten. But then, it’s hard to be sure.
“Lots and lots of younger bands will tell me that Yo La Tengo are one of their favorites,” says Gerard Cosloy, the co-owner of Matador Records who first signed the band in 1993. “It’s fascinating to me because those bands often sound nothing like Yo La Tengo. But in a weird way I think that’s kind of cool — the reaction wasn’t to ape what Yo La Tengo were doing. . . . For a band that is so strong and diverse musically, the influence may be not musical, but how fearless they are.”
Russonello is a freelance writer.