Yo La Tengo Bringing Its Alternating Loud/Quiet Improv To The Warehouse
By Michael Hamad
Write acoustic-leaning, drone-based, melodic pop songs that often don’t rise above the volume-level of a whisper. Cover classic material by Gene Clark, Cat Stevens, the Kinks, the Cure — anyone, really. For good measure, pick up electric instruments, kick on some weird effects pedals and improvise freely, in 30-minute, feedback-filled stretches. Your fans will still dig it.
That’s all part of the network of lessons you can learn from Yo La Tengo, the Hoboken, N.J., trio of guitarist Ira Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley and bassist James McNew, which performs at the Warehouse in Fairfield Saturday, Sept. 24. Kaplan and Hubley started the band in 1984; McNew joined in 1992. The band’s latest studio album, 2015’s “Stuff Like That There,” weaves six new YLT originals with songs by Hank Williams, the Parliaments, the Lovin’ Spoonful and others.
Kaplan spoke to CTNow about what to expect in Fairfield, group improv and his solo contribution to the recent “Day of the Dead” project.
Q: What’s the format of your current shows?
A: We’re doing four shows in a week, and no two will be the same format. We’re playing in Chicago at the Old Town School of Folk Music, doing two “quiet” sets as a trio. And then we’re doing the Oberlin show with [guitarist] Dave [Schramm]. What we’re going to do in Fairfield is two sets, one quiet and one loud, as a trio. In Pittsburgh, we’re going to do one longer set and play on a bill with Lambchop.
The loud/quiet format that we’re going to do in Fairfield —we’ve been doing that whenever it makes sense since Dave came out. We really enjoy playing that way. Chicago and Oberlin are both smaller, seated venues, I think, so they lend themselves to a different kind of thing. To play with Lambchop: We’re thrilled to do that, so it doesn’t make sense to do two sets after that. This is kind of our preferred way of playing, and then we want to be nimble about doing what makes sense on any given night.
Q: How does improvisation fit into the loud/quiet framework?
A: When we played with Dave, some of the songs had gotten pretty long. It’s been fun to play off him. Primarily I’m the rhythm guitarist when we play with him, but not entirely. Nothing is as blown out as the things we do in the loud sets, but we do try to stay open to the moment.
Q: What was the situation behind “Electric Eye,” the long improvisation you contributed to the split EP “Parallelogram” with the band Bardo Pond? Do you set musical parameters before you begin?
A: No, not at all. I think we got a new box, a new effects pedal, that made this sound that we all enjoy. It started looping through one of the guitar amps, and then we started playing. We spent more time mixing “Electric Eye” than we did recording it. The jam was an hour long. We went through and found sections that we liked, and we liked the way they held together. We didn’t want to use only the most active sections. We tried to give it its own shape. We spent a fair amount of time listening back to it, deciding how to shape it based on the power of the material.
I think we knew when we were doing it that we were playing for an uncommonly long time. Most of the things we do don’t get to that length. But there was no forethought. It sat around for a long time, too. We heard from Three Lobed [Records] asking if we wanted to be involved in this, and we all had fond memories of that jam. We thought this might be a moment to listen back to it and to see if it was as enjoyable to us as it was in our memories.
Q: Did you and Georgia improvise from the very beginning of the band? Was it always a part of how you made music together?
A: I wouldn’t say it was at first. In a certain way, what we’ve done has always built on what came before. Anything we’re doing now, we probably do more than we used to do. Without a doubt, things changed dramatically with James. But there was very little jamming. We were just too tentative about everything.
The first show we did, we did a cover of Love’s “A House Is Not a Motel,” from “Forever Changes,” and that had a guitar solo at the end that I was comfortable playing. There were not a lot of guitar solos at the beginning. We also had this sort of free-form-ish song, which ended up being on “Ride the Tiger,” called “The Evil That Men Do,” which again was a very early song of ours. At some point, we figured out we could string them together — extend the guitar solo of “A House is Not a Motel” and let it go into “The Evil That Men Do.” That song started getting longer and longer, to the point where we even ultimately decided to put out a second version on “President Yo La Tengo.” It had grown into a 10-minute thing. So, the seeds of [improvisation] came early, but not from the beginning.
Q: Before starting Yo La Tengo, you were an aspiring music journalist. You once wrote about NRBQ: “Their immense repertoire includes enough songs to construct a set that, repeated night after night, could conceivably result in fame and fortune. But it’s a lot more fun for them to play what they want. That way even songs they’ve been doing for 10 years sound fresh.”
Were there kernels of what you wanted Yo La Tengo to be in those words?
A: Oh, for sure. Excepting how inappropriate the word “favorite” is sometimes, I can say that my favorite band of the Greater New York area of the late ’70s/early ’80s was the Feelies. There were years when the Feelies did the exact same set every time they played, with the exception of the encore, which would change. And I loved it. It felt like how I imagined people felt about church services. You were able to immerse yourself in how great that performance was. It’s not like, if a band wasn’t like NRBQ, I didn’t like it or rejected it. But I was always captivated by that anything-could-happen unpredictability.
I’ve said this a lot: The band that we aspired to be was the band we would like if we went to see us. I’d rather be surprised by a song the group does, even if it meant not hearing my favorite song on a given night, a band you can go see again and again.
Q: You recorded the song “Wharf Rat” for the “Day of the Dead” project. Did that song always resonate with you?
A: I think so. And speaking of bands that always changed the set list every night, I was a Grateful Dead fan before I’d ever heard of NRBQ. I remember when that record [1971’s “Grateful Dead,” commonly known as “Skull and Roses”] came out, because I’m old enough to remember that. It was perceived, if memory serves, as a kind of let-down. They’d made three incredible albums: “Live/Dead,” “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty.” And now here’s this seemingly less ambitious record with “Johnny B. Goode” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” It was kind of like, “Why?”
But “Wharf Rat” just seemed so exotic to me. It was a long song, but not a jamming song. It wasn’t “The Other One.” It was just a long, beautiful song that took a long time to unfold. It was on side four. You’re still hanging in there by then. When they asked me about being involved [in “Day of the Dead”] I think I probably came up with that one pretty quickly, except for my concern about how to do the “I’ll get up and fly away” part. I couldn’t even figure out what the chords were. When I got up to the studio, with the band’s help I kind of figured out how to get through that.
Like a lot of the covers that I’m a part of, I think it’s relatively faithful, but unafraid of sounding not slavishly faithful. I was encouraging everyone to play slower and quieter. There was a feel that was not discussed prior to me getting to the studio, so I think we put that together pretty quickly too.
Q: It’s sometimes more powerful to stay quiet and slow. It’s difficult for musicians to do that as a group.
A: Not that we haven’t many times started quiet and gotten loud abruptly, but I do have that experience as a listener, when they begin quiet and get loud. I think, “Why did you do that? It was going so well!” So I understand it from both sides. I understand the temptation and the fun of changing the dynamics, but there’s a lot of reward in grabbing a mood and holding on to it as long as you can.