On the ball

Yo La Tengo are perfectly comfortable in their intellectual indie universe.

yo la tengo 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
yo la tengo 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It can be the curse of death being labelled a “critics’ band.” And indeed, you’ll never find Yo La Tengo at the top of the charts or being covered by American Idol contestants. But you will find the more than dozen quirky albums the Hoboken, New Jersey-based trio has released over the last 25 years consistently showing up on end of the yearly “best of” lists.
Their combination of what the American Music Guide describes as “adventurous eclecticism, defiant independence, and restless creative ambition,” along with a healthy Velvet Underground obsession, has insured that Yo La Tengo – consisting of husband and wife team Ira Kaplan on guitar, Georgia Hubley on drums and James McNew on bass – has remained firmly entrenched in the intellectual indie universe populated by similarly-minded colleagues like Sonic Youth. It’s not that they can’t write hits – their cerebral power pop can be maddeningly catchy – but, like their antecedents, they tend to choose the less accessible over the obvious, experimentation over bland finesse.
That ambivalence toward traditional rock stardom, as exemplified in tongue in cheek videos and profanities in album titles, has enabled the group to write its own ticket on the journey to a comfortable level of success.
“It’s surprising to find out that we have fans everywhere,” McNew told The Jerusalem Post in a recent phone conversation from New York, only a couple of days after Yo La Tengo returned from an Australian tour, and two weeks before the band makes its Israeli debut on March 22 and 23 at the Barby club in Tel Aviv.
“We’ve been to Australia several times before, so it’s more familiar territory than Israel is going to be,” he added. “It was our first time in Tazmania though, and it was amazing. It’s probably geographically and spiritually as far away from New York as possible. It definitely freaked me out a little being in Western Australia. I was thinking, ‘wow, I’m really a long way from Brooklyn.’ I guess I’ll feel like that in Israel too, but  I often get that feeling in parts of America.”
That’s because Yo La Tengo is truly a New York band, full of big city realism and attitude, and as far away from the mall culture of suburban America as they are musically from just about anything you’ll hear on the radio. Even the band’s name has an origin in the wry sensibilities of people who tend to see the margins as a more interesting place to be than the center, and helps to explain their role as perennial underdog.
Kaplan, a former rock music critic himself, and Hubley chose the name “Yo La Tengo” (Spanish for “I’ve got it”) because of an obscure baseball anecdote from the early years of the bumbling New York Mets. Center fielder Richie Ashburn and Venezuelan shortstop Elio Chacon would often collide going after pop ups until Ashburn learned how to scream “yo la tengo” to the Spanish-speaking Chacon.
In a later game, Ashburn gave Chacon his verbal signal and settled under the ball only to be run into by left fielder Frank Thomas, who understood no Spanish and had missed a team meeting that had settled on “yo la tengo” as the catchword to avoid outfield collisions. After getting up, Thomas scratched his head and asked Ashburn, “What the heck is a yellow tango?”
‘YELLOW TANGO’ came into being when Kaplan and Hubley places ads in New York music classifieds looking for band members who were into some of the music they liked – The Soft Boys, Mission of Burma, Arthur Lee’s Love. The cult influences indicated from the start that the couple wasn’t planning on a Top-40 career. After some promising initial albums and a few personnel changes, the band came into its own when the Virginia-raised McNew joined in 1992 from the band Christmas, and the lineup has stayed the same ever since.
The band sounded at times so similar to the Velvet Underground, with their combination of sweet melodic pop and noisy feedback-filled detours, Kaplan’s straighfoward chords and Lou Reed-like vocals, and Hubley’s steady Maureen Tucker drum beat, that they were asked to portray the influential rockers in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol. But the days are long gone when they’re compared to others, and now, up and coming bands are pegged with having a Yo La Tengo sound.
McNew attributes their success in forging identifiable characteristics to the spaces and opportunities left open by being a trio, and the genuine enjoyment the band members get from playing with each other.
“I just try to listen to Ira and Georgia playing and try to find a spot. I certainly employ and enjoy a simpler, less-is-more approach,” he said. “Playing in the rhythm section with Georgia and her style of drum playing is a natural thing for me – we get along very well.”
What unites them is their rock geekiness – they’re first and foremost music fans and album collectors, the kind of people skewered in the Nick Hornby book High Fidelity and resultant film starring John Cusack. You’ll find obsessing over hard-to-find cut-out LPs by 1960s British Invasion bands or 1970s Athens, Georgia groups. Such attention to detail served the band well when they were approached 10 years ago by the legendary frontman of The Kinks, Ray Davies, to collaborate on stage and in the studio.
“We came to know Ray through a friend of ours, she would bring him to see us play. We had a hard time processing that he was a fan of ours, it still feels weird to think that that was a possibility,” said McNew.
Davies was writing songs at the time for what would become his first solo album, Other People’s Lives,  and asked Yo La Tengo to play some shows in the New York area as his backing band so he could play “live demos” for his record company instead of going into the studio to record them. The rehearsals ended up becoming a “name that tune” free-for-all for the band, thrilled at backing one of their heroes.
“We ended up toying with each other in rehearsals, because we were all Kink fanatics so we would suggest some fairly obscure songs to do. Ray would hem and haw, saying, ‘The Kinks never really played that one live’ or something else to put us off, and he would counter with some equally obscure song, genuinely thinking he would throw us off the trail because there’s no way we could know it,” said McNew.
“Of course, we knew everything he suggested, because we were Kinks geeks, and Ray would be silently kicking himself, coerced into playing these long-forgotten gems. Playing with Ray was amazing, otherworldly.”
Davies and Yo La Tengo ended up recording several tracks for the solo album in a London studio, but for reasons still unknown by the band, he ended up scrapping them.
“We didn’t even get the tapes of the recording. I’d love to have a copy,” he said.
THANKFULLY, THE band has plenty tapes of their own, and the last decade has seen them collaborate with Yoko Ono in a benefit album, a “best of” collection, some film scores, an acoustic “The Freewheelin’ Yo La Tengo” tour consisting entirely of audience requests, and most recently, two more acclaimed studio albums – 2006’s I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, and last year’s Popular Songs, which entered the Billboard charts at #58, the highest of their career. The band’s popularity in Israel even surprised the promoter, who originally booked one show but quickly added a second performance when the first sold out.
McNew is achieving some notoriety of his own as an interview subject in the documentary The Parking Lot Movie, which is debuting this month in the US.
“The time has come – there’s been a documentary made about everything, so why not about a parking lot in central Virginia where I worked for a few years?” laughed McNew. “It’s about the people who worked there and the area around it, beyond that I couldn’t tell you much more. I was interviewed about the psychic complexities involved in running a parking lot.”
And how does his parking skills compare to his bass playing capabilities?
“I was a fantastic parking lot attendant,” he said.
Still, playing in Yo La Tengo beats parking Ford Fiestas in Virginiaany day, as McNew will tell you –especially when you can do it withfriends, even married friends. The fact that he’s been in a band for 18years with a married couple is something that rarely comes into playfor McNew, and it when it does, he’s able to put a typically Yo LaTengo spin on it.
“There’s always that sense of odd-man-out whenever you join an alreadyestablished group, whether the members are married or not,” he said. 
“But it’s something that I never have to think about – for me, it’sabout being in a group with my friends. And from a practicalstandpoint, it works out great. On the road I get my own room.”