Interview: Yo La Tengo's James McNew

07/11/2013 12:15 PM |

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Yo La Tengo have been a reassuringly consistent presence in rock n’ roll for just about three decades. The renowned Hoboken band have released 13 full-length albums, along with scores of EPs, 7 inches, and about a million inspired cover versions, and found time to throw the best Hanukah parties ever amid numerous world tours. Bassist James McNew established himself as a great songwriter with his Dump albums before starting a 20 year tour of duty with the group that brings him back to Brooklyn this very evening. Tonight, Yo La Tengo play Prospect Park with fellow indie-rock elder statesman Belle and Sebastian in one of the summer’s most anticipated concerts.

To pass the time waiting for the show, we talked to James about the closing of legendary Hoboken venue Maxwell’s, the profound joy of cover songs, the recent reissues of his Dump records, and the romantic late 90s mix-CDs that hopefully spawned a new generation of Yo La Tengo fans.

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Yo La Tengo were one of the bands most associated with Maxwell’s in Hoboken. What are your lasting impressions of the place as it gets ready to close?

James McNew: Just how perfect it was. What a great size it was to see a show. How good it sounded. I was always comfortable there. I always felt at home, felt I was the perfect distance from the group playing. I dunno, I saw some really great stuff there. A lot of really important stuff in my life happened in that room.

Have you guys come to a decision about whether you’re going to try to find a new home for the Hanukah shows? Or is that going to be a Maxwell’s thing that ends with the club?

We don’t know. For months, we’d known that we weren’t going to do Hanukah this year just because of schedule conflicts and commitments. We haven’t done it every single year. The years in which we haven’t done it are not coincidentally years in which we released records.

Right now we haven’t made any plans for a year and a half from now. As of this very second it would feel very strange to do it anywhere else. But, who knows. I really do love it.

I read in interviews around the release of Fade that you guys were making an effort to write songs that were more concise. As you’re playing those songs live are they loosening up a bit?

Lengthwise, things are loose. The lengths of songs can change minutely or drastically depending on whatever we feel like in the moment. We’re all pretty firm believers that songs are never really done and that they can change—the tone, the instrumentation, length, tempo, any of it is subject to change, forever. But it’s not like we’re playing “Dark Star,” where there’s a single version that’s 3 minutes long, and live we play it for 4 hours.

I’m always curious about a band with as big of a back catalog as you have, how do you go about picking set lists and figuring out what old stuff you might want to revisit. Do you treat it casually or is it very deliberately plotted out?

The tours since Fade came out, we’ve done sort of the same presentation every night, where we’ll play two sets with no opening band. The first set while be quiet material and the second set will be loud material. We end up playing for 2 1/2 hours or so. I think that framework lets us switch up what we want to do from night to night. We do have a very big catalog, and we like to keep a lot of it pretty fresh. It’s kind of fun to be able, every day, when making up set lists, to say “Oh, we haven’t played that in a month, or we haven’t played that in years.” It’s always changing. And I think we’re always happiest that way.