I first saw Yo La Tengo onstage at CBGB’s in 1986. Or maybe it was 1987, I’m not quite sure. But I brought my friend and bandmate Damon Krukowski along that night and the band made an impression on both of us.
Thirty years later and incredibly, Yo La Tengo are still going strong; they have released an album called "Stuff Like That There" which is described as a sequel of sorts to their 1990 "Fakebook," both in personnel (Dave Schramm on guitar, Gene Holder producing) and in concept — both albums are comprised largely of covers, along with re-workings of some of their own songs (a beautiful version of “Deeper Into Movies” that brings the vocals to the fore), and a couple of great new YLT songs (“Rickety” and “Awhileaway.”)
Listening to "Stuff Like That There" is an education; it sent me to Youtube to hear original versions of obscure numbers like “Butchie’s Tune” (the Lovin’ Spoonful), “Somebody’s In Love” (Sun Ra) and “I Can Hear the Ice Melting” by the Parliaments. Ira Kaplan and I got on the phone recently to talk about the new record.
Where do you live now?
We live in Manhattan now.
That’s right, you told me. The last time I saw you was the Big Star tribute, and you mentioned that. And you said you were cycling a lot.
Yeah. Tomorrow I’m going out to Chicago and I’m going to see the Grateful Dead, and then play in an after-party Dead cover band at the City Winery.
Who else is in the band?
It’s Alex Bleeker from Real Estate — it’s another band he has, instead of the core band — and Lee Ranaldo is going to do it, Jenny Lewis and … I guess I’ll find out when I get there. But I brought it up because I biked out to Williamsburg for practice, yesterday.
Oh, okay. I thought maybe you were going to bike to Chicago.
We just played with a guy, did this art-improv thing; it was the three of us and four other musicians, and one of them is this trumpet player named Taylor Ho Bynum, who did a tour of the west coast — I think he went from Vancouver to Mexico — by bicycle.
Are you a Dead fan?
I certainly was when I was in high school.
I was resistant as a child. My older brother was really into them, I just, I don’t know — I didn’t gravitate towards Deadheads. I came to appreciate the band more later in life.
In my town, it would have been a real act of rebellion to not like them. I was not that rebellious, as my Dad used to remind me all the time.
I like some of Jerry Garcia’s solo records. And I love Garcia’s guitar playing. But I guess he won’t be there.
No [laughing], only in spirit. I was describing to those guys yesterday, that when I first saw Patti Smith, well, I didn’t listen to another Grateful Dead record for another five years.
Are you going on vacation after that?
No, we’re rehearsing, and we’re writing music for a movie. We decided to — well no, we are going on vacation! I forgot, we are going on vacation. It seems somewhat unimaginable.
I know. I feel like I never get a vacation, except maybe a few days at the end of a tour, or sometimes if we’re losing money on tour then I’ll pretend it’s a vacation.
[Laughing] We’ve actually rented a house on the beach, so hopefully we’ll spend time in it.
What’s the film you’re working on?
The film’s called "The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving." It stars Paul Rudd and Craig Roberts.
And where will you do that?
We’ve already started. We’re working in our rehearsal space, recording on Pro Tools —
Do you have Pro Tools at home? Who in the band is good at Pro Tools?
James is. Georgia and I are hopeless. I can usually, when I have to record him playing a part, get it to record.
You can push the spacebar ...
I’m not much good at it either, but Britta is really good on Logic, which is great for the film-scoring we do. I don’t have the patience for learning this music software. So Britta engineers and mixes everything, and together we get it done.
What is Logic? It’s just a different —
You used to hear that Logic was better for composers — that Pro Tools is the best for recording studios, but Logic had all this nifty stuff built right into it, better midi instruments and more built-in effects. These days I think they’re probably a lot closer; they can both do a lot of the same things. Apple owns Logic and it’s similar to GarageBand, but with expanded capabilities. Do you ever use GarageBand?
I have it. After the cassette Portastudio — that’s when I stopped the home-recording game.
I like GarageBand, because if you’re not used to it — well, I don’t know how to set a compressor, but with GarageBand you can just select “Male vocal” and it actually sounds pretty good, and then if I want I can export it, give to Britta and she can open it in Logic, make it better. Where did you record the new album?
We ended up in three different studios. We started in Water Music, then went to this place in Union City called Kaleidoscope, and mixed it and recording along the way at Brooklyn Recording, you know that place?
I have never been there. There’s no more Jolly Roger, right?
Yeah, I think that’s been gone for a long time.
I guess it has. We did one Luna album there and I loved the place, it was great, but it just seemed like it was being built right as Hoboken was exploding.
Didn’t they build up condos all around it?
Yes, they did.
We did our "Nuclear War" record there.
With Gene Holder? You must have known Gene for a long, long time.
Yeah, there are a few bands that Georgia and I were fans of and used to go see play before we knew each other, and the dB’s were one of them. There were only about twelve people at the show; how could we have both been so shy that we didn’t meet?
The first time for me meeting Stamey was at that Big Star tribute, I’d never met him or Mitch Easter, but I figured you must have known them for ages.
Wow, yeah. Chris was the first one I met, I first saw him when he was playing with Alex Chilton, and that was my introduction to Alex Chilton as well.
What’s the first thing that Gene did with you? Was one of the early singles?
No, "President Yo La Tengo."
Do you ever see Dave Rick?
I saw him just a couple of weeks ago, he had a barbeque at his place way out in Brooklyn, and I rode my bike there, only got a little lost, it was great.
He was in Yo La Tengo for just a couple of months, was it?
It must have been six months. Or maybe longer.
He would have been about twenty-two?
I don’t know, he was young, and he looked really young. He was in it longer than six months because he was on the first single. But he stuck around, too, when Dave Schramm left, we started doing shows with sometimes Chris playing lead guitar and sometimes Dave Rick playing lead guitar. We are still in touch.
I always think when I see him play with a band and be on bass, it’s such a waste. Not that he’s not a good bass player, but he’s just such a phenomenal guitar player. I saw him a while ago, playing guitar with a band at Meow Mix about ten years ago, and he was just jaw-droppingly good.
It seems like he’s playing a lot now. He’s the bass player in the band with Eamon, the Martinets. And this improv thing, what’s that called? Wide Right.
Did you record this new album live as a four-piece?
Most everything began that way. The only exception would be the Hank Williams song, where there’s no drums. A lot of it we went back and replaced parts. It ended up being more studio than we anticipated.
James is on a new instrument for him — the upright bass? I imagine that required punching in, doing a few fixes?
Well, it did, but a lot of it, we were just having difficulty getting a good sound of it, through no fault of James’ at all. It was sometimes that James ended up having to — the awkward aspect that the guy who is new to the instrument is the person who is being put through the wringer for the sake of the sound. He’s amazing. “I think I’ll play upright bass.” Okay, he does it.
Do you play electric guitar on the record?
I’m playing acoustic guitar strictly, so it’s primarily Dave.
He kind of reminds me of Mickey Baker, or Buddy Holly, this nice, clean thing he does.
He’s great. The idea of going back, as far as we do, with him, and making another record, it’s really … it was really inspiring, to just grow together.
Was the intent to go back and revisit the “Fakebook” approach, or did it just happen? Sometimes people ask me “What was the concept behind your record?” and in fact, there never was any concept, it was just a few people working on a song at a time and then it turns into one.
That would be my answer for every record except this one. We did self-consciously emulate the format and I think we enjoy playing with Dave, so … I’m not quite sure why it felt right to do something so different at the time.
I love the idea of revisiting older songs, and it doesn’t seem like you’re going back to things because you don’t like the way they turned out the first time. I certainly have loads of things I would like to do that to but I can’t.
I would have to listen to them, to know. [laugh]
It seems like you took a radically different approach to some of the songs.
Gene listened to "Fakebook" in anticipation of recording. I think we looked at each other like, not only did we not do that, it didn’t occur to us to do it — to listen to that.
I’ve made a few records now that are half covers and half originals, and I enjoy it because I find it a real challenge to write lyrics for twelve new songs every year. Whereas writing five new songs is fun and easy, and filling it out with covers.
I’m not sure that’s my experience. Weirdly, the last record we did, the lyrics came faster than usual. I’m not sure if those ten took me any longer than these two. It’s very hard to get started, but somehow on the last record I was able to keep them coming once I did. And this time, it felt really difficult, just the two songs.
Do you have a routine for writing?
Neither do I. I’m always reading about other writers, they have a routine or a way to turn time into words on the page and I …
Maybe that relates to why the last record was easy, because due to the circumstances, my family — we try to go away every year for a week — and we were at this beach house, and I just wouldn’t let myself go to the water until I finished a song.
Well, there you go, that’s a routine, that’s good.
It required a certain amount of discipline, but it was real, too. It’s not like I can do that when I’m sitting around the apartment.
Right, that’s not a daily routine for you. Do you find you listen to less music as you get older and read more?
I would say I listen to less music. A lot of that, I think, is Georgia-related. I think she is more of a fan of silence than I used to be. I was uncomfortable with it. But now, even on the airplane, I find, I’m often reading, when I have my choice between my iPod and it.
Yeah it’s odd, I used to always carrying around a CD player, but now that I have an iPhone full of music, often I’d just rather put in my earplugs and read.
Did you hear the Jonathan Richman album, “Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild”? He does a great version of “Old World,” that’s just him and Tommy, just acoustic guitar and drums. It was amazing to hear him sing that song, hear him as an old man rather than a young man, singing about the old world.
I’m sure we’re in agreement, wishing that he would do stuff like that more. When he does interact with his past it’s always so … Have you heard that new 45 he did, “They Showed Me The Way to Bohemia”?
Yes, that’s a nice song. I’d seen it on YouTube, it was floating around, a performance of it, before they released the single.
That one’s great too, like all of the sudden that trumpet solo comes in, I just love the sound of it. It’s a great song.
Some of those acoustic records of his, they’re so great sounding, you can just feel him standing in the room, it all sounds so live in the room. That’s not an easy thing to do well.
I really liked the “Deeper into Movies” that you did on this record. I love the old one too, it’s murky and sinister, but this one feels more like a lullaby. You can get the lyrics without all the noise, and feel the vocal character.
I said the record was more studio-y than we expected, and Georgia played drums and everything, but there are no drums on “Deeper into Movies” because we took them off. She did play, but we did a lot of tinkering with that one. Just one day, faders went up when someone went to record — someone forgot to put the drum fader up and we just thought, “Wow, that sounds really good that way.” Another thing I was trying to do conceptually was just play in standard tuning, and then I did a lot, but it ended up being a number song, like that one, with a weird tuning, and some other ones, I used a capo.
On the new version?
On the other, the electric version, it’s a weird tuning and now it’s in a different weird tuning. I think we ended up with two different parts, there’s the standard tuning part and I overdubbed another rhythm part. We didn’t want to be slaves to being live in the studio, even fake reality.
I had a rehearsal yesterday — a Luna rehearsal because we’re doing shows — and the couple songs that we do where they’re loud and low with my vocal register, I think, this is why this never works live, because I just can’t get the vocal loud enough, can’t get any character in it.
You never change the key of anything?
Actually, that’s what we did. Moved something from C to D. In the studio, you can get away with doing it in another key because you can crank that vocal, but when it comes to doing it live, you think, “Oh no, this is all wrong.”
Are you active on Facebook and Twitter? I know you have a Twitter account.
James does the Twitter, and a friend of ours maintains the Facebook page. Twitter, I’m at least aware of, because you don’t have to belong to it to lurk on the account. So we both keep abreast of what James is posting. But Facebook, the only time we know anything is when sometimes a question or comment comes in that gets forwarded to us.
Someone in the band has to do this stuff.
James, I think — I hope he enjoys it. He has a non-band one, too, so must enjoy it. But it does help when we get a photo from Georgia’s sister of my nephew going to a Yankee game, and shaking hands with Mayor de Blasio, it’s good to have an outlet for a photo like that.
Did you read or hear about Steve Albini’s recent speech about the state of the music business? His article was about the problems of the business, about how terrible the labels are. He think that we’re in a good situation now, in this new world we live in, because it cuts out the middle-man. It cuts out the labels, and allows bands to release their music directly, and get it out there to the fans without distribution. Do you have thoughts on that?
In a certain sense we’ve answered that question, just by continuing our relationship with Matador. There’s just only so much of that stuff we want to deal with. We deal with tons of it already. It’s not like I feel like telling other people what to do, but we’re in a good position specifically, because we’ve got these extremely long relationships with Gerard and Patrick.
That’s kind of amazing — you’ve been there 22 years. That’s almost unheard of. Stephen Malkmus has been there a long time too, that’s probably it?
And Cat Power, she was the new kid on the block at 18.
I hear Albini’s point, there are advantages to being able connect with people. But on the other hand, it’s a shitload of work, a ton of work.
Is that how you’re releasing music now? On your own?
I did my last solo album on my own label. I mean, my distributor has people working on it, and I hire a publicist and a radio person, but still, it’s filling out forms, and marketing plans … stuff I really have no idea about. The benefit is I make $5 a sale, I make a higher percentage. It’s worked. But some days I feel like a travel agent.
The Cure song. “Friday I’m Love.” Britta and I did that a few years ago on the tribute album —
You know, we made a decision — I’m not sure who else in the group knew about that, but I knew, and thought, “We’re doing it anyway.” I say that because there’s a time in my life when that would have been a reason not to. It’s already been done, I would have ruled it out. In a way, it relates to doing "Fakebook" again; we’re trying not to be confined by any way we feel like we have to work. We may choose to work that way 99 times out of 100, but still be open to doing it differently.
I certainly had no problem with it [laugh]. Back in the '60s, you had about ten people doing the same song in a month — everyone was doing it. I like your version, I really found it a bitch to sing that song. Robert Smith, he sings high and loud — sometimes I guess I sing that way too — but I struggled with it. But anyway, Georgia nailed it.
There’s so much I love about the way she sings — even when it’s not effortless, she makes it sounds effortless.
I love the original too, it’s such a joyous song. That’s probably the last Cure song that I loved. I haven’t followed them much since.
I think there was a great run of singles that ended with that one.
Were they an important band for you in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, during those first few records?
They were important to me briefly, through the first album, the first three singles — through “Three Imaginary Boys” and “Boys Don’t Cry.” I loved “Three Imaginary Boys” so much, that even though I bought those next three singles, I still thought “Boys Don’t Cry” wasn’t as good an album. But quickly, I think — I’m not good with years, I’d have to look it up — but there came a time, when living in New York, I just got so angry at the attention that English bands were getting, and the lack of attention that New York bands were getting, that I sort of cut myself off from English bands.
Certainly, I remember, you’re not the only person I met with that attitude. There were a lot of people who were annoyed at the “English bands, English bands,” when there was so much going on here.
It was just a reaction to that.
I think The Cure also quickly dropped off — he stopped playing guitar, I thought that was a shame.
But people love that second record.
“Faith”? “Seventeen Seconds”? I like those ones too.
They came back as a great singles band with “Love Cats.”
I’m not going to ask you what it’s like being a couple in a band, because I’ve been on both sides of that.
Just look in the mirror.