Yo La Tengo: Happier in Hoboken

Music Features Yo La Tengo
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“People here seem… happier,” my friend stage-whispers as we exit the Hoboken PATH station on a warm early-December evening, a jaded Brooklynite’s pause in her voice. It might be true. The cheapness of everything certainly helps. The cabs are communal, and a ride to Maxwell’s is a flat $4 fee. The bar eats are yummy as hell. And they have a coat rack! Not a coat check, but a rack—like we’re decent human beings who can trust each other with our jackets.

The club proper, down a small hallway and through surprisingly noise-resilient doors, is—as David Byrne once said about something else entirely—a multi-purpose shape: a box. There, a pair of shy record collectors (and future husband and wife) first performed in December 1984. And there Yo La Tengo—so dubbed from an anecdote about the bumbling 1962 New York Mets—celebrates its 20th birthday with customary unassuming brilliance.

Over the eight nights of Hanukkah (a semi-annual YLT tradition), all benefit shows, they play 134 different songs, supplementing deep trawls through their 12-LP/umpteen-EP catalog with covers of 50-plus artists (from The Rutles to Sun Ra to Hank Williams). They welcome friends old and new, from Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst stumbling through “Like a Rolling Stone” to a chorus of the band members’ nieces and nephews chanting “Nuclear war! It’s a motherfucker!” There are stand-up comedians. And there are squalling guitars and the quietest three-part harmonies known to indie pop.

While nothing beats a pilgrimage to the Jerseyian other-world to catch YLT in its natural habitat, Prisoners of Love, Matador’s two-CD “smattering of senescent songs” (plus an all-important rarities disc) does just fine. As an entrance to Yo La Tengo’s formidable catalogue, it’s logical and listenable. As a document of their marginalia, there are small delights galore. As a Yo La Tengo release, it’s just another album.

“[Maxwell’s] was why we picked Hoboken over Brooklyn or Queens,” guitarist Ira Kaplan noted recently. Already a couple, he and drummer Georgia Hubley crossed the river for good around 1981. “We needed a less un-affordable place to move to [from Manhattan], and picked a place where we could walk to something we could do that night. At the time, people in Brooklyn had to go to Manhattan [to see shows.]”

Soon, between Hubley’s animation and Kaplan’s rock-crit gigs—his first job was writing for the Soho Weekly News, and later for New York Rocker—the two were working at the venue, Hubley DJ-ing, Kaplan mixing sound and occasionally booking talent. “I know what we played,” Kaplan recalls of the first show. “But mostly I remember just being com- pletely petrified. The first song was ‘Surfin’ With The Shah’ by the Urinals, and the second song we did was a very embryonic version of what we ultimately called ‘Five-Cornered Drone’ [released on 1992’s May I Sing With Me].

“When I opened my mouth to sing, nothing came out. That I remember vividly. We did two sets. By the second set, I was less petrified. I learned very quickly that the notion that it’d be easier to play for your friends than for strangers was 100 percent incorrect.”

While stage fright at a first gig is perfectly normal, consider that this shyness permeated nearly everything about YLT’s early years. Where much rock ’n’ roll is peacockery—lonesome geekboys flaunting for potential mates by shredding in tight trousers—Hubley and Kaplan were together from the start, which possibly explains that initial lack of flare.

Yo La Tengo’s early albums—cocktails of garage-y guitar blasts and folksy sweetness—seem unimpressive at first, as they might’ve in the heady days of the still-jangly R.E.M. and the up-against-the-wall psychedelics of Sonic Youth. If you missed YLT, you’d be forgiven. They didn’t announce themselves with smoke machines or music videos. (Kaplan did once sing, “I try my best to hide in crowded rooms.”) And they couldn’t hold down a lineup either, bassists coming and going from EP to album to tour.

But from shyness blossomed beauty, sometimes almost directly. “We hated college radio interviews, so we started learning songs we could sing,” Kaplan admits, describing the origins of Fakebook, 1990’s stunning acoustic collection of obscure covers and reworked originals. “Georgia kinda had to sing. I think we took our singing more seriously, and it probably did open stuff up.”

Afterward, the harmonies came in small, beautiful songs on each album, like flowers in fields of distortion. Aside from the 1989 classic “Barnaby, Hardly Working” (and a few others), they mostly just churned out decent tunes. By 1991, they’d given up hopes of finding a permanent bassist, when James McNew—guitarist for Providence’s Christmas—volunteered for temp duty over dinner at the house of mutual friends.

“Between mouthfuls of food they mentioned there was a tour coming up, and I sort of said, ‘I’ll do it,’” McNew recounts. “And that was pretty much the extent of that.” (Except for the part where McNew had to learn how to play bass, but he did so in short order.)

They gelled. “We were together for six years before the band started,” Kaplan chuckles wryly. “It really wasn’t until we were a band—the three of us—that we realized what we hadn’t been up ’til then.” With McNew in place, the group established a partnership with producer Roger Moutenot on 1995’s Electr-O-Pura (starring the ebullient “Tom Courtenay”).

On 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, the trio broke the album barrier, fanning expansively into an expressive, delicate unit, creating a cozy atmosphere of low-floating organs, Pet Sounds whispers and autumn sweaters. No longer was Kaplan merely feeding back behind Hubley’s husky vocals.

These shy kids were everywhere, making new friends, and—frankly—getting pretty weird. They cavorted with assorted Manhattan free-jazzers both live and in the studio (1999’s Some Other Dimensions in Yo La Tengo double 7-inch, 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out); created atmospheric scores for French underwater documentaries (2002’s The Sounds of the Sounds of Science); and eventually turned in an album that toned down the distorted guitars, instead opting for ever-intricate song constructions of light and clouds (2003’s Summer Sun).

With their recent albums, the rock historians in Yo La Tengo have managed to not only bypass cliché but actively reverse it, making gen-eric music with a rotating lineup first, and then discovering a unique voice. As a band, they’re two decades old and are making the best music of their career.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than at Maxwell’s. “Well, that was always a pretty comfortable place,” Kaplan says. “Relatively comfortable,” he amends. “As comfortable as we got.”

At the Hanukkah shows, the hushed shimmers of recent studio work stand side-by-side with surprisingly durable selections from the back pages. Guests fill out arrangements: All of Calexico crowds onstage during night two, while Tortoise’s Doug McCombs adds cool jazz vibraphone on night four, and original guitarist Dave Schramm lends stately folk-rock licks on nights one and three.

And then there are the covers: obvious (“Eight Days a Week” on nights one, two and eight); obscure (Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Hungry” on night three); and only seemingly obvious (a sped-up tear through The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” on night four, which turns out to be an arrangement borrowed from Roky Erickson).

Of course, Yo La Tengo isn’t necessarily meant to be consumed like this (one winds up sounding like a jabbering Deadhead), and generally they aren’t. On their best nights, one gets a sense of hearing the musical equivalent of Ernest Hemingway’s proverbial iceberg—an unfathomable dark mass lurking just beneath the surface.

The offices of Matador Records in lower Manhattan, on a 12th (and top) floor overlooking the sun-kissed canyon of Broadway, are exactly what one would expect. Beneath hep-ass concert posters, a President Yo La Tengo bumper sticker rests modestly atop a waiting bench, unpeeled. Right on cue, a bunch of shaggy-haired dudes stagger into the foyer like the damn Monkees. One of them carries an acoustic guitar. “We’re from Denmark,” they announce.

It’s late January, and YLT have just returned from Sundance, where they played a stripped-down gig with old friend Daniel Johnston (“kind of … drunken,” McNew assesses), and the debut of two flicks they scored last fall—Phil Morrison’s Junebug and Michael Hoffman’s Game 6.

“I think it’s sort of time to write songs for a new record,” Kaplan says nonchalantly, like a farmer testing the breeze. There hasn’t been much time. A retrospective DVD is in the works, as is another round of The Sounds of the Sounds of Science in St. Louis, Tokyo and Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. They’ve also just tracked another advertisement. “When you think of NASCAR, you think of us, right?” McNew chortles.

“They wanted one of our songs,” Kaplan says. “And we said ‘No, you can’t have one of our songs, but we’ll write you a piece of music, and we’ll use that song as a jumping off point.’ All of our songs mean a lot to me. I’m happy to write pieces of music that are for somebody else, but the ones we write for ourselves, I’d like to keep for ourselves. If it creates a context where we do this other kind of work, then it’s sort of win-win.” It’s a typically sensible Yo La Tengo position.

The shyness—which dovetails with a clear desire for privacy—hasn’t entirely dsappeared. Hubley isn’t doing interviews this time around (and sounded uncomfortable, though perfectly amiable, when I spoke with her upon Summer Sun’s release). In fact, it may well be the singular mechanism driving Yo La Tengo. “If it’s not tense, there’s something wrong,” Roger Moutenot, producer of every YLT full-length since 1995’s Painful, once observed.

“Almost every single [album] we were convinced, at some point, ‘we have to start from scratch, it’s a disaster,’” Kaplan attests.

“I don’t relax that easily,” he adds, plowing his fingers through his tight curls, pulling them momentarily to their full freaked-out length. “I tell a sort of jokey story of going to a spa with Georgia. She was sort of worried about me. My joke was, ‘Maybe this is what it feels like to relax,’ and then fainting, like, seconds later.

“You feel like, ‘all this angst and tension went into the making of it, maybe that’s required,’” Kaplan continues. “I don’t really believe that, but it’s hard to behave in any other way sometimes.”

“We get a lot of real work done that way,” shrugs McNew, who—in Spinal Tap mythology—would be the lukewarm water to Kaplan and Hubley’s fire and ice. In conversation, Kaplan and McNew seem like men who still have things to say to one another, McNew listening wide-eyed as Kaplan excitedly recounts a stash of 45s he happened upon the previous day after seeing a sign at the supermarket.

So, maybe they’re shy. And maybe they’re tense. But that doesn’t mean they’re jerks, and we should probably only worry if they stop singing about their angst. They’re working through it (“trying to be less uptight, trying to be more aware,” Kaplan resolved on 1997’s “Sugarcube”). Besides, they seem to have things OK, even utopian: Get married, rock out.

I decide that I’m happier in Hoboken, too—at least while Yo La Tengo is playing—and attend all eight Hanukkah shows. After all, I write to a friend, if I didn’t go, what would I do? Stay home and listen to Yo La Tengo? It’s a matter of efficiency, I explain: A girl I once had a fling with is present with a new suitor, but Yo La Tengo’s playing “Autumn Sweater.” All better. Another night, I meet somebody new; Yo La Tengo plays “Tom Courtenay.” Eight days a week, indeed.

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