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Never Can Tell: An Interview With Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo

by dave heaton

This year Yo La Tengo released their quietest, prettiest, most non-"Rock" album yet, Summer Sun. Then they've spent the rest of the year rocking across the world, and this month they released an EP with jazz-influenced cover art and songs ranging from straight-up rock to a haunting cover of a British folk song. With Yo La Tengo, you never can tell...and that's one of the many things I love about them. They'll have you convinced they're going to surrender themselves to making beautiful, atmospheric love songs for the rest of their careers, and then they'll turn around and knock you over with some feedback or a down-and-dirty rock song. Or, for that matter, a spot-on cover of one of your favorite songs of all time (that's another thing I love about them, they're in love with music and it shows). This is a rock band that loves Sun Ra and the Ramones and the Kinks and truckloads of musicians who've I've never heard of, and it shows in their music; they're expanding the boundaries of rock more than any other current or recent American band, without being obvious or over-the-top about it. The trio--Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, James McNew--have released a varied and consistently great collection of records, enough to mean that they'd strike me as underrated even if their faces were all over the cover of the Rolling Stone. And to my ears Summer Sun might just be their best album yet (it's certainly their most beautiful, and I've listened to it more than anything else this year). If you haven't heard it, you need to, I'll just leave it at that.

{Note:The following exchange with Ira Kaplan took place last week over e-mail.}

You're doing a decent amount of touring behind this album. How has it been going? What have been some of your best experiences on tour so far this year?

One that stands out happened in June in San Francisco. We were playing three nights at the Fillmore, which was already a thrill, and the Clean were on the bill, which made it doubly great for us. But we were looking for something extra, so with the help of a mutual friend, we made contact with Cyril Jordan from the Flamin' Groovies. He came down to the soundcheck on the second night, we ran through three songs, and that night for our encore performed "You Tore Me Down," "Eight Days a Week" and "Shake Some Action" with Cyril.

With bands that have been making music as long as you have, I always wonder whether touring starts to get old. Does the fun wane as the years pass?

Absolutely! In fact, by now it's outright drudgery. Fortunately, with experience comes the ability to pretend to be enjoying oneself. It really should have a Grammy category all its own.

A few questions about Summer Sun, which I love. First off, how did you meet the NYC jazz musicians (Daniel Carter, Roy Campbell Jr, Sabir Mateen, William Parker) who are on the album (and on the "Nuclear War" single)? Did you ask jazz musicians to play on the album with the hope of achieving a certain sound, or was it more a matter of meeting people you wanted to play with and just going with that, without a particular end goal in mind?

We met Daniel, Roy and Sabir a few years ago. We had a couple of Sun Ra-influenced (OK, ripoff) instrumentals that we wanted to hear with horns. Our old friend Stephen Joerg at Aum Fidelity suggested we approach Daniel, Roy and Sabir. We did, recorded the two songs for a double 7", and had a great time. We've played live with them four times, on a reasonably varied group of our songs. We asked them--and William Parker-- to participate in Summer Sun, because we like the sound of them playing with us. We did not have a specific sound we were looking for--rather we got to the studio with them to see what would happen.

With every album you do, there's songs that sound completely different from what even your fans might expect Yo La Tengo to sound like (for this album I'm thinking of "Moonrock Mambo" and "Let's Be Still," though other songs apply as well). At this point in your career, to what extent are you consciously trying to push yourself in new directions?

Not a whole lot. We may be somewhat conscious of doing in public some of the things that we previously saved for practice.

You've recorded all of your albums since "Painful" with Roger Moutenot as producer. How would you describe what he brings to your music?

Roger provides the hard-to-characterize sound that only comes when all three band members have gotten beaten in ping pong, and beaten badly.

A friend of mine told me her then-2-week-old baby loved Summer Sun. Are you aware that this album is all the rage with infants? Is this your Soothing Sounds for Baby?

Of course we are. We spend top dollar on consultants and focus groups precisely to provide us with this kind of information. While we're on the topic, I can tell you that although I'm not surprised that the 2-week-old baby loves the record, if statistics are to be believed (and they are), that baby's appreciation of Summer Sun will continue to grow, provided that either he is from the Great Lakes region or she is from the Sun Belt, until the child is 7-months-old, at which point he or she will throw us over for ripping the pages out of books (with a mild interest in "Center of Gravity" off of I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One). At the age of 13 months, the toddler will rediscover Yo La Tengo, loving Summer Sun more than ever.

In addition to its title, Summer Sun has the beachball design on the CD and a song called "Beach Party Tonight," and Matador is doing a "win a Yo La Tengo surfboard" contest. Yet in the cover photo you're wearing coats and standing near what looks like a strip mall. Is the title a trick or does the album truly represent "summer music" to you?

We really need to get together with the Matador art department about that. We submitted eight rolls of film containing one shot after another of us in bathing suits. At the end of the session, the photographer requested one shot of us in our winter coats, "for his personal collection" we were assured. Imagine our dismay when the album came out.

What's your favorite summer-themed album of all time that wasn't made by the Beach Boys?

You know, I really can't think of a single one. I love the songs "The Summer Sun" by Chris Stamey, and "Summer" by War, and "Summer in the City" by the Lovin' Spoonful, and "I Feel Love" by Donna Summer.

"Take Care" is only one of many covers you've done throughout your career, either live or on record. What do you enjoy most about playing other people's songs?

It can be a variety of things. Sometimes it's almost like wearing a costume, trying on somebody else's song. The ones we keep doing (and definitely the ones we record) are the ones that get beyond that and are songs we think we do well.

Since you have recorded so many covers, I'm sure you've played plenty of shows where people are yelling for "Speeding Motorcycle" or whatever instead of the songs you've written. How annoying is that?

It doesn't bother me that people request "Speeding Motorcycle" instead of the songs we've written. On the other hand, we prefer to play different songs from night to night, and the frequency of requests for "Speeding Motorcycle" makes that trickier. It's not that big a deal--we just don't do it that often.

I read a couple years ago that you were playing on the next Ray Davies album. Whatever happened with that? And what are his new songs like (I look forward to hearing them)?

In 2001 we did a couple of days recording with Ray in London. And that's all we know. We'd like to hear them too. The songs were great, that's as far as I'll go in describing them. I got out of the rock journalism game a long time ago.

Once I was on an airplane wearing a Yo La Tengo shirt, and the flight attendant got excited and told me you were her favorite band. She said the first time she saw you play it was quiet and relaxed, so the next time she took her mom to the show and it was the opposite, noisy and rocking (and her mom hated it). I think that level of surprise is great, but I wonder: do you sense that you have fans who'd really prefer you to just be one or the other (soft vs loud)? After a show do people tell you "I wished you'd rocked more" (or the other way around)--if so, how do you react to that?

How do I react to that? If I ever see that flight attendant's mom, I'm going to give her a piece of my mind!

You've released some incredible remixes of your music, on the "Autumn Sweater" 12", "Danelectro" EP, etc. If you could have any living person remix Summer Sun, who would it be, and why?

Bob Odenkirk. Because there ain't no party like a Mr. Show party and a Mr. Show party don't stop. He'd fuck our shit up old school and make it funnier too.

What else are you up to now or in the future? If you have other projects/recordings you're working on, please tell us about them.

Right now, we're enjoying the basketball season and it's never too soon to start handicapping the Oscars. We predict multiple nominations for Prey for Rock & Roll.

Last question, if you will, please tell us one or more of the following: the best movie you've seen recently, the best album you've listened to lately, the funniest joke you've heard lately, or the coolest place you've been to recently.

Movie: The Hired Hand
Album: Bend Me, Shape Me by the American Breed
Joke: my cholesterol is high, so I've had to cut down on jokes
Coolest place: Leo's barbecue in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

{Check out Yo La Tengo's web site at www.yolatengo.com.}

Issue 17, November 2003


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Top photo above taken by Matthew Salacuse 2003, bottom photo by Phil Morrison 2003. Both courtesy of Matador Records.