Yo La Tengo still has it

Ira Kaplan discusses what 20 years flying under the mainstream feels like

Photo by Matthew Salacuse

Staying the same for almost 30 years has it benefits, explains Yo La Tengo helmsman Ira Kaplan, but it’s also OK to shuffle the deck once in a while.

Sings Kaplan on the lead-off cut to Yo La Tengo’s newest CD, Fade: “But nothing ever stays the same / Nothing’s explained / The higher we go, the longer we fly,” and talking to Kaplan, one gets the sense that if Yo La Tengo has reached a low-resistance cruising altitude, they’ve at least overcome the jinx of not looking down long enough to worry.

Fade has everything that YLT adherents have come to cherish about the low-drama, defiantly un-categorizable Hoboken-based trio, now approaching its third decade. Rattly guitar-driven thrash-abouts (the ode to fatalism “Ohm,” the crunchy pop-noise of “Paddle Forward”), curiously diffident appeals to devotion (“I’ll Be Around,” “Well You Better”), and broad swatches of murky, gauze-wrapped glimpses of redemption (the brass-’n’-string-framed “Before We Run”). The band’s tender side balanced with uncertainty, its pop sensibilities grinning behind a grimy windshield, Yo La Tengo confounds with a gentle touch and an ill-sharpened pencil.

There are worse problems to have, Kaplan reminded us during a quick chat last week, than fronting a successful (and some might say, even beloved) band for as long as he has — especially one without anything resembling a hit — but it does have its challenges.

“The part of our tenure that, if asked, might work against us, would be just that I think it makes people more prone to take us for granted. We’re sort of a redwood,” he says and laughs, “always been there, probably always will be there, you know? I think our ‘hot new thing days,’ if they ever existed, are long over.

“So I think sometimes you have to fight through that notion. We’ll talk to people that say, ‘Oh yeah, we saw you guys last year, you were great,’ and we’ll say, ‘Well no, we haven’t played your city in eight years.’

“But I was just saying something about that on stage last night. We did a song from 1997, and I said ‘Wow, it feels like we just did this song.’ Even though it’s 16 years old. So … I understand that, and we also kind of have to deal with the same perception sometimes.”

Kaplan and Yo La Tengo (which includes his usually-the-drummer wife Georgia Hubley and usually-the-bassist James McNew) recorded Fade last year in Chicago with longtime friend John McIntire (The Sea and the Cake, Tortoise) producing, a departure from many years of recording in Nashville with Roger Moutenot.

Because that’s what they do, YLT obsessives may be inclined to disassemble the finished product for hints of what McIntire brought to the table. So did some of the songs emerge from the control room differently than they might have otherwise?

“Oh sure,” Kaplan says, “and I think that’s something we like in the band. We don’t walk in with a clear vision of what we want it to sound like and spend a couple of months enforcing that vision. I think we’re open to what happens in the moment. So working with John was inevitably going to change the direction in ways that … in some aspect, I’m not even sure how it happened, but it happens, you put a fourth person in and allow them to change things.

“But the relationship with John, or with Roger for that matter, is not like we play the songs and then come back three months later and the record is completed. We’re there the whole time and very involved. Neither John or Roger are the type to rule with an iron fist — like, ‘Oh I think the singing should be louder, and I’m the producer so shut the fuck up.’ It’s not like that.”

A few of said online obsessives have also noted that Fade clocks in as the shortest YLT release in more than 20 years, just reaching past 40 minutes, but Kaplan says that the end result — carefully sequenced and tightened up from the band’s more typical splatter-pattern flow — was actually a conscious design decision, one that’s reflected the band’s live show this cycle.

“This record was definitely conceived as an LP, and a lot of debate went into how it would be sequenced. … One of the things we did with this, at the last second while we were sequencing, we realized that with enough ingenuity at mastering, we could get the record onto one vinyl LP instead of the two that we’ve been doing for the last 16 years or something, by dropping a song. So we did that — we have a few songs that didn’t get included because we like the idea of having a single record.”

We asked Kaplan about a Longread that caught our eye this week, about artists going back and re-recording a lot of their old material to reclaim licensing rights over hits and catalogs that have been locked up in record labels’ accounting ledgers.

“Yeah, I saw that but haven’t had a chance to read it yet,” Kaplan says. “I mean, it’s not really that weird, it’s just a way of controlling licensing rights to your own material. It’s just a business thing, I don’t think anyone has any illusions that the re-recorded stuff is the same as the original, although I have heard that a couple of people come up who intentionally don’t try to recreate the music note-for-note perfect versions, just to kind of get the song down.

“A record contract, in its purest form, is an unusual thing. The record company loans the band money to make a record, the band pays them back … and the record company still owns it. It’s sort of like a mortgage — the bank lends you the money, you pay off the mortgage, but the bank still owns your house.”

Finally, we asked Kaplan how far he and Hubley get away from the music thing when they’re not working; some artists carry notebooks and sketch out song ideas at the grocery store, some set aside a calendar bracket and decide not to think or write or play any music at all.

“Well, we work a lot. But no, I don’t have notebooks full of ideas that I carry around,” he says. “I’d say when we’re not working, we’re not working.”

Sounds like that’s a good thing?

“It’s a good problem to have. There’s never enough time to do all the projects that you want to do. I love working, and I love not working,” he says.

Yo La Tengo plays the Boulder Theater Tuesday, May 21. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $22 in advance, $25 at the door. 303-786-7030.

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