Interview: James McNew of Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo are one of the most engaging, inventive bands making music today. Soaking up the sounds and styles of 50 years of rock history while remaining alert to modern experimentalism, the Hoboken, New Jersey, trio has been producing an uncompromising and varied body of work since most of their current fans were in elementary school.
Guitarist Ira Kaplan and his drummer wife Georgia Hubley introduced Yo La Tengo to the world in 1984. After working with a string of collaborators, bassist/keyboardist James McNew joined on as a permanent member in 1991. The band's music transcends classification, swinging from stinging guitar freakouts to codeine-calm comedowns, countrified folk to jazzy improv. Summer Sun, their recently released 12th album, finds Yo weaving the talents of some of New York's finest avant-garde jazz musicians into a gently flowing mosaic of deliciously romantic gems.
In advance of the band's Higher Ground show this Tuesday, McNew had a phone conversation with Seven Days about tunes, television and why Yo La Tengo could kick Justin Timberlake's ass.
SEVEN DAYS: Hello, James. How have you been spending your morning so far?
James McNew: [Laughs] Um, God. For once I have a great answer to that question. I've been watching a rerun of "Quincy" on TV. And it's not like I watch that show every day, but it was one that I saw when I was really young that had a really huge influence on me, where Quincy infiltrates the Los Angeles hardcore punk-rock scene to investigate the death of someone that he blames on the relentless negativity of punk-rock music.
SD: Summer Sun just came out and has been garnering solid reviews. How do you feel it compares with the rest of YLT's material?
JM: Gosh. When we wrote it and when we play it live, it sort of seems like a logical next step. I feel that way about all of our records, that when we sit down to start writing songs for a record we never really have those kind of focus group-type meetings where we decide exactly what we want to go for. We just kind of let songs happen and let ideas come to us. We're fortunate enough to be able to work like that, rather than being under the gun to make another record as fast as we can.
SD: So you still compose most of your music from jam sessions? Everything is still done collaboratively?
JM: Yeah, I'd say about 99 percent of it is that way. In that sense -- in lots of senses -- we really do operate as a group
SD: Yet you are still a pop band. Aside from songs like [Summer Sun's] "Let's Be Still," which is more than 10 minutes long, the vast majority of your material hovers around traditional pop lengths. It's interesting that these songs come out of 45-minute-long jam sessions.
JM: Well, we love pop music. We love music from the '60s and '70s. We love music from any time. But then again, we also love things that are 30 minutes long and never stop and don't have singing. Maybe we are aiming for a common ground [laughs].
SD: There's also more of a jazz influence on the new record. How did you guys get involved with that?
JM: I would place that squarely on playing with the musicians who joined us on Summer Sun -- William Parker, Roy Campbell Jr., Daniel Carter and Sabir Mateen. They all play in a group called Other Dimensions in Music here in New York, and we've kinda been playing with them occasionally for the past few years. We recorded an EP, a double 7-inch [in 1999], called Now 2000 with them. We had been fans of theirs.
It was an amazing experience to play with these guys that we didn't know personally who were absolute monster, champion musicians. It was intimidating until we started, and then we learned right away that they just weren't interested in whether we could play scales They were just interested in the feeling of the music and what was happening right then and there, in the moment. It was a real revelation.
SD: When you perform, is there a lot of room for improvisation?
JM: I think there is. There are definitely jump-off points in pretty much any song that we do. There is sort of an outline and we can follow the outline however we feel like it. It's not like we just go up and improvise for an hour. Not yet, anyway But our shows have been really long lately. We've been playing close to two and a half hours. And, I really just found out this year, we know a lot of songs so we have this big library of things to choose from and pull out spontaneously. It's a really good feeling.
SD: Describe the typical Yo La Tengo groupie.
JM: Oh, I don't think I can. They seem like very nice people. Um, probably "Simpsons" watchers, good cooks, probably do crossword puzzles.
SD: What's your favorite episode of "The Simpsons"?
JM: Well, the one that we did the music for, I think is the default number one. But, besides that, it would be either the one with Poochie the Rocking Dog or the one where Homer goes to clown college.
SD: You've had your fair share of interesting experiences on the road. What has happened lately that made you either question or love your life in rock 'n' roll?
JM: [Laughs] I guess I have kind of easy answers for both. We just got back from a trip we did about three weeks ago. We had one show at a festival in Japan and a week in Australia. And just the idea that we can go on a trip and do one show in Japan and a week in Australia is pretty great. It is a lot of fun. And then, I would say 80 percent of the ongoing bathroom situation at every venue is enough to make me question my life as an entertainer.
SD: As a music fan, do you find yourself turning more to new music or old music at this point?
JM: Both, really. Just because it's been around for 20 or 30 years If I'm just finding out about it, then that qualifies it as new. There are lots of old things that I've been listening to quite obsessively, as well as new things. In the last year or so, I've been really interested in Brazilian rock records from the '60s and '70s. At the same time, I've been really blown away by the records on the Def Jux label, Fantastic Damage by El-P, Aesop Rock's album -- I've never heard anything like that, ever There is so much emotion in that and so much character and personality, it's incredible. Those are deep records [laughs].
SD: What's the last record you listened to that made you cry?
JM: [Long pause] Hmm I'm just trying to catalogue them all in my mind. I can't remember when that would have been. Just the other day I saw an episode of "King of the Hill" that does that to me every time. It's where Bobby and his first girlfriend break up. That's just not fair. It just destroys me every time I see it. But there are a lot of records that can move me to that place quite quickly. A lot of Jonathan Richman's old records.
SD: Each year, the band plays a phone-in request show on New Jersey's WFMU-FM. What songs have you been baffled or thrilled to play?
JM: This year someone requested a song by The Flaming Lips -- "Do You Realize," I think. We just, you know it's got too many chords. I like the band. You know, handsome guy, snappy dresser, but c'mon, people, let's be real. Too many chords.
SD: If Yo La Tengo was going to do a "Celebrity Death Match" with any band from history, who would it be?
JM: Oh, gosh. I don't know. I feel like we could take anybody. I think we are unassuming, but we have a quick first step.
SD: Who would you like to battle to a truce with, and whose asses would you like to kick?
JM: [Laughs] I don't know. Let me think about that. It seems like a lot of pop stars and musicians seem pretty trounceable, so I'd probably aim big. Like, I'd go for The Misfits or someone that clearly meant business. The Rollins Band. Think big.
SD: Not *NSYNC?
JM: Nah. It's like shooting fish in a barrel.