Ira Kaplan on Yo La Tengo's Sprawling "There's A Riot Going On"

Salon talks to the vocalist/guitarist about the indie band's stellar new album

Published March 3, 2018 4:30PM (EST)

Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo (Getty/Michael Buckner)
Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo (Getty/Michael Buckner)

Yo La Tengo's latest studio album, "There's A Riot Going On," emerged almost by accident. The New Jersey trio — vocalist/guitarist Ira Kaplan, drummer/vocalist Georgia Hubley and bassist/vocalist James McNew — were holed up in their Hoboken practice space making music and messing around with previously recorded snippets stored for safekeeping. However, at some point during this ideation process, which relied heavily on McNew manning Pro Tools, Yo La Tengo realized it wasn't making demos or sketches to flesh out later, but a new record.

The resulting album, which is due March 16, sounds like a film score for a movie that doesn't exist. Ambient instrumental passages weave in and out of more traditional-sounding songs in various styles: feathery '60s pop ("Shades of Blue"), peach-fuzz indie rock ("For You Too"), gentle bossa nova ("Esportes Casual") and melancholy drone with psychedelic shading ("She May She Might"). "There's A Riot Going On" feels like a detailed sonic sculpture created after an intense period of precise whittling — and it's incredibly cohesive for an album that came together in phases.

"It's certainly the intention to have [an album] flow by the time it's done," Kaplan tells Salon. "We enjoy pretty much the whole process, but we record the songs just confident that there's a record in there somewhere that we'll eventually find. But putting the songs in an order, and deciding whether to use them all — or not to use them all, and how it will fit together as a record — is definitely a challenge that we enjoy." When it's noted that sequencing matters and is important, he laughs. "Yes, we put a lot of work into that, which nobody cares about anymore."

Kaplan checked in with Salon about the genesis and creation of "There's A Riot Going On," as well as the role creativity and ingenuity play in Yo La Tengo's music.

How are you doing figuring out how to translate the new songs live?

Ira Kaplan: Pretty well, I hope. We'll see. We've been working on it. It's maybe a little harder than previous records, but not completely dissimilar. We have typically recorded records with no thought as to whether or how to play the songs live, and then when the record's done, we spend a fair amount of time working that out. Sometimes the arrangements change pretty dramatically, and other times, they're relatively painful. So it's a similar process, but probably a little trickier because of the nature of the record.

The method of recording this record was different from other ways we've worked in the past, but by the time we were done, it was still our intention to have songs. Even though we didn't really create them as songs, we still wanted to end with them. Some of this process in some sense is confirming for ourselves that, at least as we define them, they became songs that we can now play.

What drew you guys to make the record in that particular way this time around?

I'm hesitating to describe what we did as being drawn to it. We do a lot of recording all the time for different reasons. Some of those things that we did a few years ago, we used a lot of those elements when we recorded [2013's] "Fade." We brought stuff that we had recorded in Hoboken out to Chicago and played it for ["Fade" producer] John McEntire. Some of those things got used; other things got replaced; other things got redone. Similarly, we've recorded a lot of film music. Almost anytime we've been involved in original music for a film, it was recorded by James [McNew] in our rehearsal space.

Various things are being recorded for various reasons, and we were doing that. We weren't talking about it. We just kind of assumed that somehow these elements might be useful in the future. And then at a certain point we had worked on stuff enough that we decided we didn't need the stuff for the future, we were just going to use exactly what we had. They weren't going to be things to build on [or] to redo. We had worked on it for a long time before we acknowledged to ourselves that we were actually making a record, is what I'm trying to say. So I'm not sure we're drawn to it. I think we were just doing it without thinking about it.

What kind of through line or connection do you see from the film music Yo La Tengo has done over the years to this particular record?

A lot of the way we approached writing is how we approach film music. [With] things we've done in the past, the three of us would play as a group in the room, as aimlessly as we cared to, and eventually we would stumble on something that we liked and wanted to either save or try to play again. Songs coalesced around that.

But when we're doing film music, that's less typical of what we do. It becomes more like one person will have an idea, we'll record it, then someone else will add something to that. It becomes one block at a time. That was really how we made this record, and recorded and came up with these songs. There was a lot of sitting around a computer.

That's a different kind of creativity. As a writer, I do so much of my work at my computer with Microsoft Word open, trying to think of things. It's a different way of wiring your brain. I think back to how I wrote even 20 years ago, and it's an interesting way to think about how creativity itself has changed over the years.

To elaborate on that, I think before using a computer, if you were handwriting on the page or using a typewriter, all those cross-outs and all of the editing you would be looking at had an impact. You'd be like, "God, I've been really struggling on this." You've got the balled-up pieces of paper that you can see what a struggle it's been.

But with a computer, when you erase something, it's hard to see that it was there. You don't have that visual reminder of how hard it's been to get something you want. It's like a fresh start every time. It was fun to do, and especially because we for so long didn't even acknowledge that what we were doing, it just had this [feeling of] "What if we try this?" The stakes didn't seem as high for a while. Then, of course, we knew we were making a record, we had a deadline, and that changes things.

When I write, sometimes I'll have different things that don't fit in a particular piece, and I'll save it for later. Is Yo La Tengo the type of band that might have little ideas hanging around in a hard drive somewhere when you are creating?

Well, we have lots of things that we've recorded, but they don't all get used. And then what we did with this record a lot is things that got used once, we went back to them. Or we would be working on something, we just kept adding elements, and sometimes we would like what we added, but we didn't think it fit with something else that was already there. Rather than choose between them, it would just become its own tributary, and we'd work on them both.

Yes, we do have these things and we draw on them. You know, we were talking about film music, there were things we'd written for movies that didn't end up being used and some of that stuff got drawn from. We save a lot of things, as anyone who's seen our practice room can attest. [Laughs]

In terms of the title of the record, what made it right for this particular batch of music?

I'm not going to speak particularly directly about that, except to say that we had the title for a long time. At some point when we were working on it, the idea came up, and we all were excited by the idea of it and kept checking in with each other every couple of months to see if everybody was still on board. I think a lot of times I get asked questions that I think to answer them directly and to say what we were thinking would almost undercut what we were thinking. It's more to hopefully be thought-provoking than thought-explaining.

Fair enough. Yo La Tengo has a movie soundtrack coming too, for a film called "Far From the Tree." When is that coming out?

It's played at some film festivals — we saw it in New York at the DOC NYC festival — and I know it's got a distributor now, so I don't know what the plans specifically are. I think it's still playing at festivals for a while, but hopefully it'll be seen widely. I really liked it, we all really liked it.

How did your involvement in that film come about?

Somebody just approached us and asked if we were interested. We're always interested in doing stuff like that. The timing isn't always right, and then what also happens is that our way of working is a little bit unorthodox. It's not always a perfect fit, because we don't do things the way that I think other film composers do them. I'm not sure how other people work, but I'm pretty sure it's different than the way we're doing it.

I've heard that film composer work is very all-encompassing, and it's very last minute. It's one of those things where you have to do a lot very quickly, so you have to have a flexible schedule.

Yeah, and I think we work slower than that. We think we're working pretty quickly, but my impression also is that people will provide a sketch and then later it will get orchestrated and because of the way we do things, a lot of times, it's almost all in the orchestration, so to speak, or the textures and the arrangement. To provide a melody, we just don't even think that way.

Instead of providing a demo, which we will then flesh out, it's usually, what we're providing could be finished. Then there will be notes to that, and we'll work on it some more and send it back and forth. But each time we do that, it could be done. So we’re kind of working on it piecemeal rather than the whole thing and then finishing it. I think that's different from regular people.

That's good, though. You're giving people more than they need and want at first. They have a better idea of whether it's going to work right away.

Well, sometimes, yes. It really depends. It's a challenge for someone, and making a movie has enough challenges already — whether they want to take on this one as well, the answer varies.

Yo La Tengo has played together so long. When putting together this record, is there anything in particular that really stood out to you about the rest of the band — or struck you after all was said and done?

It's pretty hard to not hear the clock ticking when you're in a studio. Even if you have a day of just studio time, that's more pressure than if you have a week [and] more pressure than if you have a month. But nevertheless, no matter how much time you have, there's still that clock ticking. I think you always have to measure the ticking clock against any idea you have, and [ask] "Is this worth pursuing? Do we have time to investigate this?" Doing it in our space, we were pretty free of those considerations.

For instance, Georgia [Hubley] plays guitar all over this record, which everybody was very excited about. Her guitar playing is very different from my playing and from James' playing. None of us are exactly technical virtuosos, but Georgia is by far the least schooled of any guitar player in the band. As a result, the things she does are just really amazing and intuitive and unique. But if it's in a studio situation, there becomes a temptation to have her have an idea, and have James or I render it. And this time, she would play it. A lot of times it would be, "Well, I'll just play this, and then we'll do it right." But we loved this just as it is.

There's a lot of stuff on the record that . . . I'm sorry, now I'm going to tell a longer story. For [2009's] "Popular Songs," we had the idea of tracking down [arranger] Richard Evans and asking if we can hire him to do some string arrangements for us. He did, and the first one arrived I think the day before the session. There was no demo or anything, there was just this chart. We were in Nashville and we got Tony Crow, the piano player from Lambchop and a buddy of ours, to come to the studio and try to play some of these parts so we'd have an idea of what it was going to be like. I forget how many different parts there are. There's at least eight. And he played one of them, and it sounded so insane, and it was a moment of panic, because we were like, "How is this going to work with our song?"

Similarly, we had the session the next day with these Nashville hotshots, and their first time through sight reading this chart, it sounded like a mess. Again, it was just kind of like, "What's going on?" And they too were going, like, "Well, wait, is this note right?" Ultimately, they were told, "Yes, everything's right, you're not missing anything and it's not a typo." And then when they played the chart with confidence instead of with this questioning, it sounded amazing.

If you heard some of the tracks on our [new] record by themselves, a lot of them I don't think make sense. And probably, some of Georgia's guitar parts, as an example, are like that. They fit in the whole beautifully, but individually, they don't necessarily seem logical.

That's so interesting. That's such the magic of when you have music, and how it transforms and evolves as it's putting together. That's so cool.

Mistakes frequently sound great. I get asked a lot what we were thinking and what we were trying for, and we so rarely are trying for anything specific. I mean, you can try to play a song the way you know it goes — and then you do it wrong, and it's all of a sudden better than it was when you were doing it right.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

MORE FROM Annie Zaleski

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Ira Kaplan Music Rock N' Roll Yo La Tengo