Viva Yo la Tengo

Consummate indie pioneers embrace history as they forge ahead

Dusdin Condren

Ever fantasize about being somebody else or doing something else with your life? James McNew, longtime bassist for indie rock grandees Yo la Tengo, doesn’t know what the hell you’re talking about. “I think this is what we all wanted to be,” says McNew, speaking for the band. “Zero regrets.”


Who could blame him? Yo la Tengo has been defining and setting the standard for indie music since the mid ’80s with their first full-length, Ride the Tiger. Thirty years and 13 albums later, Yo la Tengo is back with their latest, Stuff Like That There.

“Back,” of course, would imply the band had gone somewhere. They haven’t — nor will they be hanging up their guitar straps soon. When asked if there is ever talk of taking a break or the band making its final stage call, McNew doesn’t hesitate and doesn’t equivocate: “No.” It doesn’t get clearer than that. “It’s our lives. It’s what we do every day, and what we think about. There’s no corporate retreat. There’s not a lot of focus meetings. … I think it’s just what we do, and it’s who we are.”

Guitarist and former bandmate Dave Schramm has rejoined the ensemble for the album and current tour. It’s the first time he has worked with Yo la Tengo since the group’s classic 1990 album Fakebook. It also marks the first occasion Schramm and McNew have recorded and toured together in the band. “That dude’s a joy,” McNew says. “He’s real fun to be around, and a spectacular guitar player. He fits right in with the three of us. … There are times, now, when I feel like I’m fitting in with the three of them,” adds McNew, who joined the band in the ’90s after Schramm’s exit.

“But it’s great. It’s really fun, playing with the four of us. It’s gotten to the point now, where it’s now becoming spontaneous, and songs that we didn’t know yesterday, we’re learning at sound check, or requests that are being shouted, we’re just trying them. And Dave is quick enough, and is a fluid enough player, to just kind of fit in and find a spot really fast when it’s a song he’d never played before. … We are playing songs from our entire catalog.”

The effect of Dave Schramm’s return isn’t just a matter of nostalgia. On Stuff Like That There Yo la Tengo incorporates overt, guileless country and Americana textures and influences, to a degree not on display since at least the aforementioned Fakebook. Actually, unlike Fakebook, or any other Yo la Tengo album, Stuff Like That There can be heard as a straight-up country album. Yo la Tengo hasn’t traded indie cachet for large belt buckles and chaws of tobacco, but the album doesn’t sound much like anything else from their oeuvre, and should come as a surprise to longtime fans, as well as critics. At least, that is, until one remembers the band’s career-long commitment to experimentation while culling from all aspects of popular music.

As McNew puts it, “The repertoire is just kind of growing every day. If things, cover songs, or our own songs, occur to us during sound check, then we’ll start learning them. … Songs just keep piling up.”

That level of expertise doesn’t come easily, McNew admits. “I think it was really just a matter of getting to a certain level where I could be confident to try things that I hadn’t tried before, as far as playing songs. …” he says. “To get to that level where things can be spontaneous — maybe not 100 percent accurate, but spontaneous — I think was my goal. I was the last piece of the puzzle.”

Beyond the current tour, which brings Yo la Tengo to Boulder Theater Nov. 9, the band plans to tour in 2016 as well. But McNew says the band doesn’t like to plan too far ahead.

“I think we genuinely love playing together, and maybe that’s the biggest part: We all love music. We listen to music all the time,” he says.

As for fans of McNew’s side project, Dump, they will have to wait before anything new crops up. McNew says he has no immediate plans for the group since touring and recording with Yo la Tengo occupies so much of his time, though he assures that Dump isn’t defunct.

As for Yo la Tengo, McNew says, “We’re all kinda holding steady.”

ON THE BILL: An Acoustic Evening with Yo la Tengo featuring Dave Schramm, 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 9th, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St, Boulder, 303- 786-7030. Tickets: $22.50 adv., $25 day of show.