Having It All
I hate the interview process, the whole thing," says Ira Kaplan, guitarist and founder of Yo La Tengo, one of the most critically acclaimed and longest-lasting American indie bands. "But I'd be happy to talk about some movies I have seen." Sounding more amused than annoyed, Kaplan, a former rock journalist, is keenly aware of the clichés and repetition inherent in most interviews.
"People want some kind of shortcut to your music," says Kaplan. "Listening to the records might just give them the answer they are looking for."
Kaplan, along with his wife Georgia, formed Yo La Tengo in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1984. Over the past two decades, the couple (along with bassist James McNew) has made some of the most invigorating and challenging music to fall within the rock spectrum. The band's most recent release, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, is just another in an impressive series of efforts that continue to meld the anglophile pop of early Kinks with the feedback furor of Sonic Youth.
With each effort, Yo La Tengo has continued to expand their audience, yet the group has often been described as the quintessential critic's band. Kaplan is uncomfortable with such a portrayal. "We live in the Wikipedia world of knowledge," he says. "These descriptions have a life of their own." Even the band's name (Spanish for "I've got it," inspired by shouts from a Venezuelan baseball player) has become fodder for journalists and Internet chatters. "You know my computer does come with Google," says an obviously irritated Kaplan. "I think other computers come with that as well."
Despite some inroads toward the mainstream that the band made with 2000's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out and 2003's Summer Sun, Yo La Tengo's music is simply too unusual and layered to connect with any sort of mass appeal. Yet Kaplan isn't positive that being known as "a beloved institution of the indie community" is entirely a good thing.
"Being an indie band comes with its own sort of pressures," says Kaplan. "I have no problem with the word 'independent,' but 'indie' is kind of a skin crawler." And Kaplan is equally suspicious of mass success.
"We are all devoted watchers of Valley of the Dolls and A Star Is Born and we know that having your dreams come true is not all it's cracked up to be."
Yet with a few film appearances, their music being used on PBS and for several undersea documentaries (along with high-profile collaborations with Yoko Ono and Will Oldham), the members of Yo La Tengo are perhaps better-known now than at any other point in their lengthy career.
"I am not dumb enough to tell you that we are getting better and better," says Kaplan. "But if more people are paying attention, that is great with me."
But getting better is exactly what Ira, Georgia and James have done. Starting with President Yo La Tengo in 1989, the band has not released a bad record. And a few efforts, such as 1995's Electr-O-Pura, 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and the aforementioned And Then Nothing stand out as bona fide classics, featuring feedback and distortion retrofitted to beautiful melodies and recurring themes of affection and loss.
I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass is something of a departure in that it doesn't have the consistently subdued tone of the previous two efforts. Jumping schizophrenically from the 10-minute guitar assault of "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I Goodkind" to the bouncy pop of "Beanbag Chair," diverse may be too mild an adjective.
"We knew we weren't releasing the third part of a trilogy," says Kaplan. " This one jumps around more than things previous because we just wanted a different-sounding record."
Most everything Yo La Tengo has released could be considered different-sounding, and that's part of the charm that has kept the band going into its third decade.
"There is definitely some pride in making it this long," says Kaplan.
Part and parcel of their career stamina is the tremendous interplay amongst the trio. Ira's guitar work, while not always technically impressive, is consistently rich in tone and innovation. His guitar shadings meld beautifully with Georgia's understated drumming, suggesting an almost clairvoyant communication between spouses.
"My wife and I have grown into our ability to play," says Kaplan. "We are just people who've played together a long time."
Despite his humble opinion, the symbiosis between Ira and Georgia is more than simple familiarity. Interwoven into each release are autobiographical elements, stories of how the couple met, how their courtship progressed and how playing together solidified their bond. Quite often alternating vocals on successive cuts, the songs can often be different interpretations of the same event, recollections of times both good and bad. On the epic-length "Night Falls on Hoboken" from And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, one can hear the couple whisper the history of their well-earned rapport.
"The group would simply not be the same without the relationship I have with my wife," says Kaplan. "We certainly enjoy what we're doing more and more."
What Kaplan doesn't enjoy as much is the current state of popular music. Being a former journalist and living through the punk, post-punk and grunge movements gives Kaplan an interesting vantage point on musical trends and developments.
"I think there has been no moment in my life that I've paid less attention to current bands than right now," says Kaplan. "I mean, that might be a function of age, and it is natural to gravitate to what you were listening to at certain moments in your life."
So Kaplan finds himself listening to old rhythm and blues records and searching out collectibles on eBay. But he does see a glimmer of hope in a few contemporary acts.
"I saw the Boredoms in Spain and again in New York, and they were great," says Kaplan. "And I did see OOIOO and loved them even though I was dead on my feet from jet lag."
Content at the moment to limit his scope to finishing up this current tour and getting back in the studio, Kaplan is certain only of his own band.
"Everything we do is a combination of intent and lack of intent," he says. "And as far as other people's music, I'm not sure I can be trusted."
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