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Meandering in its own way

By Staff | Aug 25, 2009

There are few bands I’ve looked forward to interviewing more than Yo La Tengo, a group I soon came to find out doesn’t quite enjoy that process as much as I was anticipating it myself. (I mean, come on, this is Graffiti, West Virginia’s leading — only? — news alternative. What’s not to look forward to, right? No? OK, fine.)

Oh well, it’s still Yo La-freaking-Tengo, and even if the band is reluctant to talk about its songs or, say, how it decides which songs to play at shows, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s because they don’t want to. It’s possibly because they like keeping those things a mystery, not just for us but themselves.

For as founding member Ira Kaplan said at one point during the interview, “Everything keeps moving to the next thing in its own meandering way.”

Graffiti: I really appreciate you taking time out of your vacation to talk with us. So where does Yo La Tengo vacation?

Kaplan: (laughs) We don’t vacation as a band.

Graffiti: Well, yes, I figured. But you and (wife) Georgia (Hubley).

Kaplan: We’re out on Long Island.

Graffiti: I’ve heard a few tracks from the new album and love the sound and feel, particularly on “Periodically Double or Triple.” How would you describe the rest of the album in relation to that song?

Kaplan: Oh man, I think it’s different. I think it’s a pretty diversified record. We’re not big on descriptive things. I know it kind of helps this part of the job, but I think it gets in the way of the music making, so we just kind of let this part of the job slide a bit.

Graffiti: Yo La Tengo’s been a band for over 20 years now. I’ve read that doing covers, film soundtracks, charity work for WFMU and other divergent asides has helped keep you charged creatively.

Kaplan: I’m sure that’s not a direct quote.

Graffiti: Yea, I paraphrased a little.

Kaplan: We like playing. We like making music, and any time you change the circumstances of making music the results are going to change and it’s going to point you in different directions.

That’s why playing live and making records are both different and enjoyable. They kind of complement each other to a large extent.

But definitely those other things, which are super different from each other … any soundtrack is different from any soundtrack. It’s like changing band members. We’re not changing band members, but we’re changing the bandleader because the director’s in charge of the soundtrack.

Graffiti: I think more specifically I was referring to comments you’ve made about the work you’ve done on soundtracks spilling over into your studio efforts.

Kaplan: There’s all sorts of examples of that. I could choose any number of them but there’s somebody who played clarinet on the “Junebug” soundtrack, that piece ended up not being used in the film — he ends up playing clarinet on one song in the record. It was somebody we had known for some time but we had not worked together previously.

These things all kind of end up in the mix and you never know what impact that might have — it’s playing guitar in a certain way, the use of piano, the use of strings.

We recorded the new record in our rehearsal space and it’s not a coincidence we have done the soundtrack and the Condof*cks in our space.

Everything keeps moving to the next thing in its own meandering way.

Graffiti: You’ve scored quite a few films and in interviews have often expressed your love for film soundtracks. What are some of your favorites?

Kaplan: Well, let’s see. We brought a couple out here for the vacation. We grabbed some records quickly.

We got John Carpenter’s score for “Assault on Precinct 13,” some Michel Legrand and then some scores from Costa Gavras. … And then we have “Slalom,” the Ennio Morricone.

Graffiti: Are there any covers you haven’t done yet that you’d like to do?

Kaplan: Probably.

Graffiti: But none hanging around that you haven’t gotten to yet?

Kaplan: Once we have the idea we tend to act on it, but we’ll see. The rehearsals for the fall have been exclusively on trying to figure out how to play some of the songs we’ve recorded.

The process of playing them live is not the same as recording them.

Graffiti: Will a lot of the new stuff be featured on this upcoming tour?

Kaplan: Yes.

Graffiti: I can’t tell you how excited I was to hear your new video was shot in Columbus, Ohio, which is sort of like my second home, with label mates and Columbus residents Times New Viking.

Kaplan: We’re extremely uninvolved in that.

Graffiti: Yea, that was kind of where I was going with my question. As I understand it your faces have yet to appear in any of the videos shot for the new record. I didn’t know if that was a conscious decision to be that uninvolved.

Kaplan: There’s no way around it. The videos we’ve made we’ve enjoyed making but we don’t have the time to do it right now.

Over the years (our label) Matador has considered them optional and with the way music is presented to people, the way that keeps changing, it was more important to them that there were videos for this record.

We’re particularly fond of the Times New Viking one, as we are with them (as a band).

Graffiti: Do you know them mostly through the label?

Kaplan: We’ve toured with them before (but) we met them through the label —that’s when we heard their records. But we didn’t know them prior to their signing with Matador.

Graffiti: I find that when I interview bands I have emotional connections to the interview’s a little difficult. There’s a certain part of me that wants to keep that distance, that wants to enjoy this band on an emotional level only. Are there any bands or artists that you’ve been hesitant to meet for similar reasons?

Kaplan: (long pause) I’m not sure that it’s quite the same. I wouldn’t walk up to somebody — I rarely walk up to somebody to say I like your music. I would tend to keep to myself in that scenario.

So when there’s a working relationship it’s a little different. But I certainly relate to what you just said.

Graffiti: Well yes there’s that added awkwardness to approaching someone you don’t know by confessing your love of them.

Kaplan. To amplify that, I think it’s one of the things that makes it extra rewarding about getting to work with people you think highly of because it does create this context of getting to know somebody.

Graffiti: I’ve heard you often take audience requests during some tours. Is that decision a spur of the moment thing?

Kaplan: It depends. We just kind of see which way it’s going. It’s an option.

Graffiti: Some time ago you stopped listing individual songwriters in the band’s liner notes and instead started crediting the songwriting to the entire band. Was that a change in the way band was writing songs or was it something else entirely?

Kaplan: I think that started with “Electro-pura” and I think that at that point on the record “Electro-pura” the majority of the songs were written by the group together. There were a couple of exceptions to that and that’s pretty much been the case ever since.

And I think we just decided to stop trying to draw a distinction between what the band wrote. Even the ones that come from Georgia or James (McNew) or me get learned by the band together and it didn’t seem inaccurate to describe them that way.

We also don’t tell you who plays what. I don’t think we’re dying to give out too much information.

Graffiti: Well, that takes care of most of my questions, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Kaplan: No, I’m happy to answer your questions. As I said earlier, we decline to describe the record. 

This is hardly my favorite part of being in a band. We’re happy people want to talk to us but I rarely go into interviews with an agenda other than trying to answer people’s questions.

I will mention since you mentioned Columbus that we will be playing with the Beatdowns. We’ve been friends with (band member) Mark Wyatt forever and we’ve played some of our very earliest shows with them.

Graffiti: Nice. Have you been to Nelsonville before?

Kaplan: No, we haven’t.

Graffiti: You’ll enjoy it. It’s a great venue, a nice little opera house.

Kaplan: That’s what we’ve heard.

Contact Justin at jmcintosh@graffitiwv.com