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.
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.
Has there ever been a song that you guys all thought it’d be a great idea to cover that you just couldn’t crack?
Yeah, most of 'em. (laughs) Other people’s songs can be really hard to play. We just played at the Solid Sound Festival which is the Wilco festival up in Massachusetts. They played two sets. One Saturday night they played a really long set of their songs, but on the opening night of the festival, Friday night, Wilco played like a 30 song set of all cover songs, and you know, those guys are really good at playing their instruments. Reeeeeeeeally good at playing their instruments. All of them. So watching them say, “OK, ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ let’s do it. Every guitar part, breakdowns, the whole middle section, everything.” Wow, there it is. There’s a nearly note perfect version of “Marquee Moon” with Nils Cline on the entire song. And it’s like “Oh My God.” They were basically replicating these songs which was blowing my mind. And you could hear them in it as well. It wasn’t like they were just being imitators. I like that a lot.
I think that’s what kind of appeals to us more. If we can’t crack it than it kind of remains uncracked. I think of the group Half Japanese, who, you know, couldn’t play their instruments, quite literally. Could not play there instruments. And yet there’s a cover of “Tangled Up in Blue” or “10th Avenue Freeze Out” and it’s like, I can’t wait to hear this. It creates this sort of weird, shared feeling between these two sort of disparate groups. That might be at the heart of the happiness in playing cover songs. Even if you can’t do it exactly like Thin Lizzy did it. You do it like yourself, and that’s great too.
Some of your early albums as Dump were just reissued. Was that the first time you’d revisited that stuff in a while?
I had not listened to it in a very long time before I was approached about doing the reissues. I play every now and again, maybe once a year on average. So, I still remember a lot of the songs, but I don’t listen to the recordings that often. I’ve listened to them quite a bit over the last year.
Do you have new feelings about that stuff now?
I still like it. It’s a very weird experience, but it was pleasurable and ultimately I did feel happy with it all. Even if I don’t agree 100% with some of the execution I still felt good about the ideas and I could sort of see growth, I think. See where certain ideas had their beginnings, some of them are still with me. And it informs how I write and how I collaborate now. I feel great about the reissues, I think they did a really fantastic job.
This wasn’t one of the recent ones, but I just wanted to ask you about “International Airport,” because I love that song...
The patience involved in it is kind of mind-boggling, and I have trouble even wrapping my head around how you wrote that.
I’m a huge fans of songs that go on forever and maybe don’t end. I remember having that thought when I was really little, when songs would fade out on the radio. When you hear the closing chord and a cymbal ring out you know they’re done. But like when they are still playing that really kinda bothered me a little bit. I didn’t know what was happening. “Where did they go?”
Again with “Marquee Moon”, you know, maybe it might not end? I love things that are ridiculously long. There were a lot of songs in my life at the time that were like that that were really important to me. I just wanted to try it. And it would be a nice surprise all of a sudden for there to be some singing. You should put “Spoiler Alert” before that, I guess.
It was kind of a songwriting and recording experiment. That was maybe my proudest achievement as far as bouncing tracks down. I can’t even remember how many tracks were involved in the recording. I did it all on a 4-track, standing in front of my home stereo plugged into my receiver trying to balance it. It was as scientific as I ever got back then.
Has Yo La Tengo ever played with Belle and Sebastian before?
We played with them as part of the Matador at 21 weekend, although we didn’t play at the same night. I payed on a bill, a solo Dump show in Glasgow in 1997 where they played as the unannounced opening group, I played in the middle, and the Pastels headlined the show.
That sounds amazing.
Yeah, that was absolutely amazing. I believe this will be the first time that we’ll ever just the two of us play together.
I actually connect the two of you a bit, just because If You’re Feeling Sinister was out right around the same time as I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and “Autumn Sweater” and “Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying” were prominent features of mix CDs I gave to girls in college.
Ha ha. I guess I was more of a “Dylan in the Movies” guy. “Fox in the Snow” was really nice too.
I wonder if there are people coming to your shows now who were conceived as romantic indie rock mix CD babies of the late 90s.
I hope so. Instead of it being left somewhere or thrown in the garbage, I would love to think that it worked just once.