Prairie Pop: An interview with Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo thrives on spontaneity, as is evidenced by their in-studio sets during WFMU’s annual fundraising drive, in which listeners request songs and the band performs them live on the air—even if they’ve never played or rehearsed them before.

Yo La Tengo’s brand of drone-rock is certainly hypnotic—narcotizing even—but their live shows are never boring. That has much to do with this threesome’s restless desire to switch up their act with each tour. I’ve seen them stage a variety show with comedians, perform straight-up rock shows in clubs, use a spinning wheel that lets audience members randomly select a set of songs and, on one special evening in the late-1990s, they formed an indie-rock Voltron supergroup with Magnetic Fields.

So what does Yo La Tengo have in store for the Englert Theatre when they perform there on May 23?

“We’ve been playing two sets, no opening band,” longtime bassist James McNew tells me. “The first set has been centered around quiet material, and the second set is loud.” For a group that has spent nearly three decades alternately massaging their listeners’ ears with melancholic melodies and then pummeling them with eardrum-shattering noise, it’s an ideal way of organizing their shows.

“We’ve been really happy with them, it’s a really enjoyable way to play,” says McNew. “It feels like there’s more range when it’s put into like a perspective like that, because in the quiet set there are songs that are sort of different shades of quiet and different moods that I think stand a better chance of going over and getting expressed.” Also, this format has freed Yo La Tengo to add songs to their sets that they don’t play very often—or, in some cases, ever.

“It’s kind of all up for grabs at this point,” he says, referring to the range of material they can choose from. “We do have everything, pretty much, in our repertoire, and we can just reach back. We did ‘The River of Water’ at a show recently, which was the first seven-inch the band ever put out in 1980-something. That song doesn’t get played, really, much, ever. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I think I remember how it goes, let’s do it!’ It still feels like there’s room for spontaneity like that.”

Yo La Tengo thrives on spontaneity, as is evidenced by their in-studio sets during WFMU’s annual fundraising drive, in which listeners request songs and the band performs them live on the air—even if they’ve never played or rehearsed them before. This year, they did The Beatles’ “I Dig a Pony,” Chris Knox’s “Not Given Likely,” XTC’s “Life Begins at the Hop,” ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs,” Can’s “Yoo Doo Right,” The Smiths’ “This Charming Man,” ELO’s “Telephone Line” and a couple dozen other hits and obscurities.

Why go through all this trouble? “I think we would go nuts if we didn’t,” McNew says. “I think that’s just who we are, we like to change and we like to do different things. I don’t know, I think that’s just how we’re happiest.” Two years ago, when Yo La Tengo brought the spinning wheel to the Englert stage, they got to play a set of Condo Fucks songs—their garage-punk alter-egos—which alternately befuddled and annoyed some fans. But at least it wasn’t boring.

I tell McNew that I was disappointed when the wheel didn’t land on his long-running side project Dump, and then ask if we should be on the lookout for any new releases. “Yeah, the first two Dump records have just been re-released by a company in Berlin called Morr Music, and they’re now available on vinyl for the first time ever,” he says. “It’s a really deluxe reissue package, and that just came out like a couple of weeks ago. I’m really proud of that. I thought they did a really beautiful job, and I worked on it really hard with them and it came out really nice. There was a [Dump] 12-inch that came out last year on a label called Presspop from Tokyo, which was a disco 12-inch that I made.”

On top of that, the subscription label Grapefruit will be releasing a full length Dump record, The Silent Treatment, any day now. Oh yeah, and after four years of radio silence, Yo La Tengo have released a new studio album, Fade—another gem by a band that seems incapable of recording a bad album.

Kembrew McLeod will be spending the summer working on a conceptual art piece that involves taxidermy, techno music, cosmonauts and Jell-o shots.

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