Yo La Tengo still growing with 'Summer Sun'

June 6, 2003



One of the longest-running cult bands in the rock underground, the Hoboken, N.J., trio Yo La Tengo, has never stopped changing and evolving. From the jangly indie-pop of "Ride the Tiger" (1986) to the lulling acoustic covers of "Fakebook" (1990), and from the noisy guitar drone of "Painful" (1993) to the Krautrock-inspired soundscapes of "And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out" (2000), the group has often presented a radically new sound with every offering.

Some longtime followers of guitarist-vocalist Ira Kaplan, his wife, drummer Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew are disappointed that the band has followed that last disc with a similarly introspective offering in "Summer Sun." But the new album is quiet in a very different way and, as always, Yo La Tengo is likely to take the music someplace entirely different when it performs at the Vic on Saturday.

I spoke with Kaplan, whom I've known since 1984, shortly before the start of the current tour.





*7:30 p.m. Saturday
*Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield
*Tickets, $19.50
*(773) 472-0449 or (312) 559-1212



Q. It's been three years since the last proper Yo La Tengo album. Was the band lying low during that time?

A. I don't know if we were lying low; we did some stuff in between. We did the movie thing in between--we put out that record ["The Sounds of the Sounds of Science," instrumental tracks written to accompany eight undersea documentary shorts by French filmmaker Jean Painleve], and we played it live, like, 10 times. And we did the things with Ray Davies [of the Kinks] and Neil Innes [of the Bonzo Dog Band, backing them up live]. These were things that we didn't spend a lot of time performing, but we spent a fair amount of time leading up to them, learning them. We've always felt really busy; it wasn't like we were taking time off.

Q. How was working on a movie soundtrack different from making a regular Yo La Tengo album?

A. What was different was that it was all sound for the most part. There was melody involved in the pieces, but it was really all about mood. There's so much of that in the songs we work on anyway, but to think only about the way the mood was developing was a big difference. The songs tend to start the same way with just the three of us kind of playing and seeing what comes out, but once we had something that we were working on, it was a lot different, and the pieces were all 10 minutes long!

Q. A lot of fans have remarked that "Summer Sun" is a very quiet record. It reminds me of 1990's acoustic cover disc, "Fakebook," which was also laidback, sunny and introspective.

A. That would have never occurred to me. It's funny about the quiet aspect; we have loud songs, and last time we didn't. We made a decision at the last second just to leave the loud songs off. We were looking at the material we recorded and just trying to put out the best record that we could. At a certain point, we just thought it seemed right to put out the quiet ones. I've been aware that there's been some surprise about that and people saying it's even quieter than the last record, which has sort of taken me by surprise.

I wouldn't say it's more introspective or more personal. They're all the same in that regard to me. I just think it sounds different; at least to us it does. It's always kind of a conversational trap because bands always think more highly of their own work than other people do. I think it's the best thing we've ever done!

Q. How do you know when a song that's developed in a jam is a keeper?

A. I guess when we feel satisfied. Some things get very little work and we just feel like they're done immediately, and some things we're still working on through mixing. Actually, there are ways we're playing the songs live now where I'm wishing we'd recorded them that way instead. We don't get rid of that much. The last record was the first record where we played every song live. Sometimes we don't play songs live just because we can't figure out a way to do them. And then there's songs we don't play because we don't like them as much once they're done. But with the last record, we'd gotten to a point where we liked them all and played them all.

Q. What was it like to play with members of the Sun Ra Arkestra on the "Nuclear War" EP, which was released shortly before "Summer Sun"?

A. That was great. We started doing that song in December of 2001 when we played at Hanukkah. [Yo La Tengo does a series of annual Hanukkah shows for charity in the New York area.] We were trying to figure out how to play live in the wake of Sept. 11, and it seemed inescapable to say something, and desirable at the same time. I don't think we felt it was our obligation; it was just like, how can you pretend that you're not scared and your audience isn't scared? By October when we were really starting to think about the shows, there was definitely a very palpable mood, and to ignore that just seemed undesirable and impossible. I don't recall which band member it was who thought of playing "Nuclear War," but we thought it was a good idea and just kept playing it. As far as releasing it in 2003, sadly, it hasn't stopped being a good idea.

Q. At the same time, much of the new album has a more optimistic and upbeat feel. Or at least that's how it's being reviewed.

A. I don't want to talk too much about the reviews, but I will say I'm not sure that's accurate. I'd say this record is about coping. I don't think it's a particularly despairing record, but I'm not sure how upbeat it is.

Q. Ray Davies has always been one of your big heroes. Did you learn anything in particular from the experience of playing as his backing band?

A. I think I'm always learning from him. If you care about somebody's music the way I care about his, it's impossible to spend that much time with it without learning. It's not like he necessarily taught me anything; he didn't impart wisdom. But you can't help but see ways that he's lasted as long as he has and also things that I would not necessarily want to repeat.

Q. At this point, Yo La Tengo has outlived the indie-rock '80s and the alternative boom of the '90s, and it continues to thrive in whatever period we're in now. Where do you see the group fitting into the spectrum of popular music?

A. You know, I don't know. I have no idea. We're just fortunate enough that we're just kind of doing what we do, and we're able to ignore all that stuff pretty easily. And we're just lucky to have people listening.