Yo La Tengo biographer Jesse Jarnow shares the band's not-so-lurid secrets
Photo by Carlie Armstrong
Just a few weeks since its release, critics have already hailed Yo La Tengo's 13th full-length album Fade as one of the band's best in years, harkening back to epic cult favorites such as I Can Feel the Heart Beating as One and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out.
In anticipation of the band's February 4 appearance at First Avenue in support of Fade, Gimme Noise chatted with author Jesse Jarnow, whose book, Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, came out last year. As the subtitle would imply, it chronicles not only the development of one of the most stalwart indie bands to have survived and thrived for 30 years, but also the fascinating world of underground rock in NYC, Hoboken, New Jersey, and beyond that emerged in the late '70s and early '80s.
Gimme Noise: Yo La Tengo started out as a cover band, voraciously learning and performing obscure songs that ran the genre gamut. How did this unabashed love and performance of covers help define the band throughout the years?
Jesse Jarnow: There were branches of punk rock [other than hardcore] that really did help them fit into and locate themselves relative to bands like the Fleshtones... even bands like Television would do lots of covers and kinda place themselves in the rock continuum. Like Television or Patti Smith would cover things off the Nuggets box set... or covers of contemporary artists. Being that kinda band really did help Yo La Tengo to figure out who they were... it gave them a framework to work inside. They are pretty voracious music consumers and I think they really weren't sure how to express themselves at first, and learning all these different songs by different people helped them learn what they were good at... One of the things that Ira has said over the years, is that they do pick songs that are favorites of theirs, but they're not picking their actual favorites, they're picking songs they think they can play well and cover convincingly... I think it really is a way of connecting to the bigger history of music and it's just fun, to be able to play those kinds of songs and connect with an audience that maybe isn't as familiar with that canon.
It also gave them the practice on stage, which is something they needed to get proficient with in the early days. Being onstage for those guys, especially then, was not a natural thing, and I think by getting up there and doing Kinks songs and songs by their Hoboken bands was one way of getting over stage fright, cause you know, getting up and playing songs you've written is really hard, getting up onstage playing songs other people have written, well, it's still hard, but it's slightly less hard.
The book's narrative charts the rise of indie rock from the underground world of 'zines to the emergence of a highly developed industry, including an examination of the Hoboken scene that developed in and around Maxwell's. Were you aware of this rich history before researching the book? Or was this theme something that developed organically?
A little of bit of both. I knew some of the stories of Maxwell's and the Maxwell's bands when I started researching this... I knew The Feelies, the dbs... and I knew the importance of Maxwell's: I knew Ira had been a sound guy there, and Georgia had DJd there, but I didn't really know the full complete extent... a lot of things I learned by talking to the Maxwell's regulars, like how regularly Georgia and Ira were there - which was most of the nights it was open. One of the things I didn't know, it really was a place you went everyday if you lived in Hoboken in the late '70s and early '80s. There wasn't a lot of other stuff going on in terms of rock and roll music. It really became this everyday world these people were part of, that New York, or Brooklyn doesn't really have as much anymore. There are DIY venues, where people live in the back or live upstairs or downstairs...but you don't really get bar scenes anymore, where there are people there everyday and bands there everyday and the same crew of people in all the time. So I think that very tight group of people, that tight bar scene had a lot to do with Yo La Tengo as well.
There's lots of crossover between not only the Minneapolis and Hoboken early '80s indie rock scenes, but specifically Ira and Georgia of Yo La Tengo -- the Kaplans hosting the Replacements on their first NYC landing, Music for Dozens booking Hüsker Dü's first non-hardcore show in NYC, the eventual distribution deal between Coyote Records and Twin/Tone...you even mention that Curtiss A played the same night Ira and Georgia first ever performed together in front of an audience. What fueled this unlikely relationship between two somewhat off-the-beaten-path centers of underground rock?
One is a very general answer and one is a more specific answer. The general answer does have to do with the tight bar scene...in the late 70s and 80s, there really weren't that many bars or places in a given city that people into this scene could hang out in - punk rock, indie rock, whatever you want to call it, was a very small localized thing there, so there really was one core group of people in Minneapolis and one core group of people in New York connecting. So I think in that sense, once groups of musicians and fans across the country started connecting, it would be pretty natural for the New York contingent to connect to the Minneapolis contingent.
The other answer is a lot more specific: there was, and is, a very strong Minneapolis connection to the Hoboken and New York Rocker world, in that Andy Schwartz was the editor of the New York Rocker, which was the music paper that a lot of New York rock people centered around, and he went to school in Minneapolis and worked at Oar Folkjokeopus...and I think that store still exists under a different name.
Yup! Andy worked there when he came to Minneapolis and that became the place that the New York Rocker was sold in Minneapolis... that store was where that paper was sold, where Twin/Tone was really based out of when they started, the guys who started Twin/Tone I believe worked at the store, one was maybe was a partial owner, I'm not sure about that [Peter Jesperson, co-founder of Twin/Tone managed Oar Folkjokeopus from 74-84]. So that started a very, very tight connection between New York and Minneapolis. Chris Nelson who is the first art director of New York Rocker was another Minneapolis guy and he was very involved in a bunch of different bands in New York, so that really created this very tight pipeline between New York and Minneapolis. Yea, Curtiss A and one of the first [albums released by] Coyote...let's see, Beat Rodeo, yea, Steve Almaas. He was in the Suicide Commandos...then moved to Hoboken, and after Andy, I think he may have been the first real New York-Minneapolis transplant.
You joke that Ira may be "one of the few to fail at music journalism only to succeed in rock music" upon discussing his role as a critic for New Yorker Rocker , a zine that served as the epicenter for the late 70s/early 80s indie rock scene, and ultimately introduced him to Georgia Hubley, an equally astute rock superfan. How did this trajectory for the band -- being obsessively informed fans first before setting out to play music -- impact their development?
Good question, maybe more in practical ways than in other regards, that they were really involved in almost every level of the local music world. In the sense that Ira was a sound guy and booking shows and Georgia was a DJ, Georgia would make the flyers -- she's an incredible visual artist. They had this whole skill set even before they started Yo La Tengo, in that they had the elements of HOW to be in a band in some ways, even before they were in a band. And once they actually started the band, there were lots of other things they had to no clue about - for example, when they first started Ira didn't know to take a spare guitar on stage, so there were things that they were naive about. But I think being around the music world gave them that skill set, and maybe just that vocabulary of how to be in a band -- to see how bands practiced, how bands existed, to see what mistakes bands make that they wouldn't want to repeat being very-closely-watching music fans had a huge impact on who they are.
Here's another example: Yo La Tengo is a band that don't repeat setlists ever. Maybe a more common thing these days, but when they were starting I think a lot of bands had the same setlist they would play for at least a few shows, maybe learn a couple new tunes and jigger the order around. But Ira, especially, was an enormous fan of the Kinks and the Dead and he would go to these shows, so it was just natural to him that you would change your setlist around every night, because there were people that were going to see your shows that would want to see you play different things and see you dig into your back catalog.
And that's definitely a fan's perspective...
Oh, absolutely. One of the things he [Ira Kaplan] told me, that when he was little he wrote a fan letter to the Monkees and he got a form response back, just a typed out letter where clearly no one had read what he had written, and at however old he was at that point, 8 or 9 or 10 or something, it REALLY made a big impression on him and really annoyed him. And I know to this day, if you write a thoughtful piece of fan mail to Yo La Tengo, Ira or someone in the band will write you back. It's things like that have a serious fan's perspective.
You chose the opening track to Yo La Tengo's album Painful as the title to your book, the first album that really included bassist James McNew, and is sited by Ira Kaplan as the first album where the group truly became a BAND. What was the significance of their nearly decade search for a permanent bassist? Do you see the band as having very specific aesthetic chapters, or as more of a continuum?
I think the search for the bassist, it probably was kinda annoying at the time, but it gave Georgia and Ira this real flexibility in terms of playing with different musicians and having different approaches for different situations. So I think that was probably one effect, they were never really settled, there was never really a permanent Yo La Tengo sound, cause the line up was always shifting. I think, even more, the fact that James was the permanent bassist they found...by the time he came along, they'd been exploring all these different sort of paths from super noisy jams to kinda jangle pop to beautifully harmonized folk music -- and he was the person that was able to unify all those things, someone that was really interested in noise as much as gorgeous songs.
I do think of them as a continuum, I don't think of them as having specific aesthetic periods because they always circle back...it just represents different parts of Yo La Tengo and what they're interested in. So Fakebook, their 1990 acoustic album, is really one thing they first did that they were interested in then, and they are STILL interested in. Like this current tour, they've been doing two sets this tour, one set is acoustic and one is electric [non-Calexico shows]. So they're still very interested in that kinda Fakebook approach. The other approach is the noisy, extremely loud guitar stuff that could drive some people out of the room, but other people like me, closer to the amps. And that's something that they still do. And the sort of abstract music - film soundtracks...there are many things I love and cherish about Yo La Tengo, but one of the huge ones is that...there are so many different approaches that they take that it really does keep things surprising and fresh, and it's rare, very rare, that they'll just put out an album and you'll go and see them and they're just playing that album. There's always something more going on.
There's very little ego to Yo La Tengo's magic, yet the sound they've developed over the years is hardly passive or lacking edge. What allowed two shy introverts afraid to perform in front of people without swigs of Maalox to coalesce into an incredibly tight, powerful live act?
There is a lot of shyness to them as performers, but there is a certain amount of ego that is required to get yourself up on a stage, but I feel like they have the bare minimum of that...the thing is, they really enjoy making music, and the fact that they were and maybe still are, scared shitless when they step onto that stage, well, there is a much bigger part of them that really loves doing that, flailing around on guitars and having loud noisy jams and the sound of their voices when they blend together. I think those things all combine to overpower that initial shyness...They've definitely gotten more confident over the years, in terms of showmanship, Ira, throwing his guitar around or throwing himself around, but I don't think that fundamental feeling about being performers has changed much. I think in some ways they still find it unnatural to be doing that, but at the same time, I think once they get up there, that disappears as well.
The phrase (and song) "Big Day Coming" embodies a perpetual burgeoning, a band always on the cusp...in the close of the book you touch on effects the economy and the tech and social media spheres have had on the indie music world. Has this ability to survive come to define Yo La Tengo? And is it more a tribute to their music or their adeptness at "navigations of the music world via collaborators they trusted"?
For Yo La Tengo a lot of the survival is more a matter of tuning everything out: the image of a three person band in their practice space, facing each other in a circle while playing. Yes, they did have friends involved in early indie rock distribution, in a way that helped them survive and gave them this infrastructure...but in some ways I feel like they almost did take that for granted, in a really valuable way. They survived by not caring, and just focusing on playing music together...and it still really is the main focus of what they do.
One thing not discussed in the book, which bothered at least one reviewer, was your insistence to not delve into the romantic relationship of Ira and Georgia, beyond the basic facts that helped to foment their musical relationship, which one would imagine are inextricable. Was this a matter of access or choice?
Well, it was a little bit of both. Having interviewed them before I did this book, many times, I knew it was something they weren't really comfortable talking about and something they preferred be separate. So that was in my mind when I was putting together the proposal and early outline and structure of the book. But the other thing is, that stuff is interesting, and if they wanted to open up about that kind of stuff, I'd certainly be interested in reading about it. But at the same time, Yo La Tengo's story is far more interesting that just being about a couple that started a band. The example I bring up is the biography of the Beach Boys called The Nearest Faraway Place. You know the Beach Boys story is full of really awful, terrible things from Murray Wilson beating up Brian Wilson to these almost hilarious fallouts between every member of the band, but at the same time, that's not really the most interesting thing about the Beach Boys' story. The Beach Boys' story is coming out of Southern California, being children of people who had come across the country, growing out of the Southern California culture.
For Yo La Tengo, there are all these other elements of their story, which I find much more fascinating, one of which is this growing out of their initial shyness, and not really knowing what they wanted to sound like as musicians, and developing this voice very slowly and patiently over the course of their career. Or growing out of the Hoboken or WFMU world or being part of New York Rocker, which as a publication really kinda defined the indie rock narrative. All those stories to me add up to something that is as compelling if not more compelling than just the Georgia/Ira story. There were definitely openings in conversations we had for that to come out a bit more,. But it was definitely something that they really veered away from when I was asking questions about that period in their lives, when they were getting together, and ultimately that's something I had to respect.
And something I'd like to point out: some of this stuff is in the book. There are stories about fights they had and the way that manifested itself in their music, discussions of difficulties...some of that stuff is in there, maybe buried more deeply than some people were expecting, but I think if you read between the lines, there's a lot more there than you might get on an immediate impression. That stuff is all in Yo La Tengo, and my impression from hanging out with Georgia and Ira and James is that I could ask them those questions, but I'm not sure I would learn anything more than I'd learn from a song like "Tears are in Your Eyes." I think songs like that, not that they are necessarily the literal truth of the situation between Georgia and Ira, but I think that it really conveys it...and I'm not sure any book about them would be able to reveal anything deeper than that. And it's not to say that it's shallow in any way, I think that's an extremely deep expression of a relationship.
So in turn, why then THIS band? What makes Yo La Tengo stand out? What makes this "critics" band worth such an in-depth history?
One reason is specifically the way their music developed, that it started off as this kinda undistinguished music that came out of the Hoboken scene, and the fact that they were able to build on it and develop it into something really unique and beautiful. To me that's a fantastic story. Then there is a rock and roll narrative about getting over shyness. Talking Heads, you know David Byrne, is another great example of someone who was almost cripplingly shy when they started, and the story of the first few Talking Heads albums, and the narrative of Stop Making Sense the movie is kinda going from that painfully shy awkward person, in the David Byrne sense, to this freaky dance version. And I think the Yo La Tengo story is kinda like that as well. It's a story of liberation, finding themselves, not realizing until age 25 or so...that wow, this is something they can do! And I think that's a really great story.
There are people all over who don't think they could start a band, that that's the last place they could see themselves, is playing music. And you look at the Yo La Tengo story, I think it can be inspirational in that way. But I also found, that bigger story, they way they interacted with the Hoboken world, they way they interacted with WFMU and New Yorker Rocker...they were there for all that stuff. It wasn't an accident that they became the band that they became. There's a very direct connection between those things. To me, that's another thing that makes this a compelling story. And the path from the "River of Water," their first single, to the Sounds of Science, which is their soundtrack to underwater documentaries. That's a pretty weird, winding path to get from one type of music to another, and to do it in a way that makes sense.
Finally, thoughts on the new album? Oh man, I love it. Do you feel like you notice McEntire's production?
I do. One thing that's kinda subtle...but I think the vocals sound really different to me, the way they are set off from the rest of the music. I think there's a density of production that's not what they would have gotten recording with Roger Moutenot, which is something that I think makes Fade really excellent. My first impression of the album was that they made another quiet moody album...but then after listening to it a couple of times, it was like, oh wait, some of these songs really rock, really, really hard. Like "Ohm," the first song of the album, when they played it on Fallon the other week they did it with three drummers, it's really a kind of propulsive tune. The loud songs and quiet songs are dense and moody in similar ways, even though the songs themselves are really different, and I think that's something that McEntire had a lot to do with.
THOUGH at the same time, that was something they were doing even on Painful, a song like From a Motel 6, where you do have this loud throbbing rock song with a whispered Georgia vocal on top of it. That is something I think Yo La Tengo really excel at that a lot of other bands don't: they have this ability to be loud, then quiet at the same time. I have a couple of mixes, one of quiet songs, and one of songs that rock, and to me, there are several Yo La Tengo songs that fit pretty well on both mixes. I think it's pretty rare that a band can make songs that I want to listen to out on a run, or at 3 in the morning hanging out before I go to sleep. I think Fade is like that as well.
Yo La Tengo plays at First Avenue on Monday, February 4. Click here.
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