The 405 meets Yo La Tengo
"My schedule is so crazy today that in order to make time for this, I am between my home and our practice space, running different errands, and currently I'm in my parked car on East 13th Street in Manhattan, at the corner of Broadway."
James McNew has broken away from his hectic pre-release, pre-tour whirl to chat with me about Yo La Tengo's new album Fade. Although their home is Hoboken, New Jersey, I have always associated their music with New York City, so it felt appropriate to speak to James from a location right in the heart of it.
For the past twenty years James has been playing bass, swapping instruments and sometimes singing as one third of Yo La Tengo, one of the most influential and respected bands in indie-rock. Their 13th album Fade is arguably their finest release in a decade. It still manages to sound exactly like Yo La Tengo, although this time around the songs are shorter, the extended jams are side-lined and the three-piece are occasionally augmented by driving motorik percussion and string arrangements. From delicate songs such as 'I'll be Around' and 'Two Trains', to up-tempo soulful pop like 'Well You Better', and the opening 'Ohm' which manages to distil a lot of the separate elements of their sound into an impressive and cohesive mix. The band has been going for such a long time now, ever since Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley started recording together as a husband and wife duo in 1984. I wondered how they manage to keep things fresh, and how they got inspired to release another album.
"We don't think about it, that's the truest way to do it." James says. "I think the most we thought about it as far as Fade goes was to decide to work with John McEntire. The impulse behind it was, "why don't we try something new?" I think there definitely was a moment when we realised that we were writing songs that were shorter, and it felt right that they were shorter – I mean we have no problem turning a three minute song into an eighteen minute song, we can do that!" he laughs, "but I guess it has to feel right and all of these songs were feeling right. I'm not sure if perverse is the right word but we were definitely into the novelty of making a single record again, making a short album, but other than that we didn't really set out to do anything. We don't look at past records and think let's do something more like this, I think we are more interested in growing – if not moving forward, then outward, I think that's what we find the most satisfying."
Best known as a member of Tortoise and the Sea and Cake, John McEntire has also an impressive pedigree as a producer, yet the band had never worked with him before. So why did they choose to work with him now?
"We were huge fans of John's and we have known him as a friend for more than 20 years, so we felt kind of silly when we realised that we had never thought of trying this before, it seemed like such an overlooked combination." James reminisces, "When John was the drummer for the band Seam we did a five-week tour of Europe with them in the summer of 1992 cramped into in a very small aluminium van, so we got to know each other very well," he laughs. "You're bonded for life after something like that! But we are huge fans of his, his productions and his bands, and his fashion sense – he's a really nice dresser! – so whilst we were surprised that we had never worked together we were all excited by the prospect. It was a very natural connection that we had."
I was intrigued by how they went about this. Yo La Tengo are a close-knit trio but they are known for having all sorts of guests on their live performances. However, to have someone well known in control of their new album must have been unusual. In particular, the precise, driving percussion parts hint at McEntire's influence. So who brought what to the process? Did they have the songs planned before they got John on board for this album?
James explains, "We had a lot of the songs close to being finished. Certainly by the time we went to his studio we had a pretty good idea of what the arrangements would be. We were very interested in giving ourselves over to John's process of working, because we like what he does so we left the door wide open. If he heard something in a song that he wanted to play, we wanted him to suggest it and go right ahead. So he plays on and off throughout the record, not too much, but it wasn't like… What's the name of the guy that produced the Def Leppard records and totally took over?" he asks.
Do you mean the erstwhile AC/DC and Nickelback producer, and ex-husband of Shania Twain, Mutt Lange?!
"That's it! It's not like Mutt Lange!" he laughs. "It was terrific though, it was difficult and challenging, because we had worked with Roger Moutenot for such a long time, from the end of 1992 in fact, and our studio knowledge and experience wasn't that much back then, so I think Roger got used to our language and the way that we would express what sounds good and he of course got a feel for what we liked so he could sort of intuit what we were going to do. Starting from zero with John was something that we hadn't really thought of and that proved to be challenging. The three of us really had to come together and learn to communicate and express in a way that made sense to John and I felt like we rose to an occasion that we weren't really anticipating, and that kept things really wide open between the three of us in the band and the four of us in the studio. It was a really positive experience."
Many Yo La Tengo fans associate Roger Moutenot closely with the band. How did Roger take your decision to go with a different producer?
"We've known Roger such a long time. When we made Painful he lived in New Jersey, but then he moved to Nashville by the time we made Electro-Pura with him. It was a sensitive thing, but he of course understood and was very gracious about it, but whilst it was unusual to do things differently but it was also very exciting."
A band with a career as long as Yo La Tengo's has seen all sorts of changes over the years, not least in the whole process of releasing and promoting their music. Touring an album is one thing, but now they have to deal with stopping it leaking, and the glut of social media information that comes with any new release.
"It's certainly different now," he agrees. "I enjoy twitter quite a bit. I take care of the band's twitter account. One thing I don't like about the current internet consciousness is that every drop of information is available to you immediately, about everything. I'm a cranky old man, I like using my imagination to figure out what's going on and not knowing the answer to things – ignorance is bliss in more than one way! That's not to say that if when I was a kid if I had access to the internet then it would've changed my life forever, but I like that we participate and do all these things and yet I think we're kind of... I'm not sure whether the word is oblique or not, but we try not to be too obvious about stuff. We try not to provide every detail, for instance, we've never had a lyric sheet with a record, I think it's more satisfying to leave some blanks, to let people in, rather than present ourselves and what we do as something that is completely defined in a nice package. I know Matador Records would love it if we did stuff like that but we just don't! That's not making it easy for anybody but that's what feels right to us. I think we're firm believers that you can find out more about us and a lot about who we are really, I think we've provided more than enough clues, but we won't provide answers," he laughs.
Every Yo La Tengo show that I have seen has been different, from festival sets featuring all their popular tunes, through to acoustic sets and collaborations with Sonic Boom and Robyn Hitchcock. The last time I saw them was on their Spinning Wheel tour, where the first 45 minutes of every show was be decided by the spin of a wheel of fortune, which led into a set which featured elements from their back catalogue. I can recall there were options for the Sounds of Science underwater soundtracks, James's solo project Dump, or they might even perform a sitcom! Judging by the amount of laughing that goes on when I mention it, James is pretty pleased I saw fortune turn them into their garage-band alter-egos the Condo Fucks in the grand surroundings of London's Festival Hall.
"Haha, yes I was very pleased with that choice! It was a lot of fun to do that tour and so much preparation went into that because we had literally learned multiple sets of music and then we never knew what was going to happen, and that feeling of letting go I guess, and just living in the moment was really exciting and liberating. It was very zen – the only way to prepare is to not be prepared for what's about to happen when the wheel spins in the next minute, and it was great that was a really fun experience. And also getting used to the idea that every night somebody would be disappointed by what happened – well, sorry! – the wheel chose it!"
That followed the intimate Freewheelin' Yo La Tengo tour, where the audience got to ask them questions. So do they have crowd interaction plans this time?
"No, I don't believe we have any new interactive plans! We are planning on doing two sets, we're going to play a quiet set and a loud set and most likely there won't be a support, that's what we are preparing right now."
As the band prepare for this lengthy world tour it's clear that they also have a close connection to their home. They regularly help raise funds for the great New Jersey based radio station WFMU, "when we go on the air and take requests and make asses of ourselves whether we know the songs or not," as James puts it! "They are absolutely worth it, they're the best, nothing comes close to WFMU, and it is an invaluable resource as far as I'm concerned."
However, another part of New Jersey that is always associated with Yo La Tengo is Maxwell's in Hoboken. Nearly every year they play all of the eight nights of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah there.
James explains a bit more about it. "Hoboken is the band's hometown and Maxwell's was the club we played the band played our first show in. There's a very personal meaning to that place. Ira and Georgia live there, I live in Brooklyn but I'm in Hoboken every day. All the shows are charity shows, each night the money goes to a different charity, all the groups play for free, and we book it all ourselves, we arrange an opening band and a comedian and a special guest to play with us during our set or during the encore and it's intense and exhausting and we're really proud of it."
"We hadn't been playing live very much and this year it really felt like we were animals let out of a cage, it was so much fun, it felt like it just kept getting better. We've done it nearly every year since 2001 and I thought this year might have been my favourite Hanukkah of all, it was really special. On the closing night Norman Blake played an acoustic opening set and then played our entire set with us on second guitar and singing, the Feelies played one night, El-P opened one show and I played bass in his group that night. I've been trying to get him for about ten years now to come and play and I finally landed the white whale!"
Ah yes, El-P. James played bass on his latest album Cancer 4 Cure, how did that collaboration come about?
"We were neighbours," he explains, "We used to live about a block apart in Brooklyn, and I knew who he was and I was a big fan of his group Company Flow, and I just recognised him on the street, said "Hi" and it turned out that we had friends in common, and mostly we just became friends first. He knew how much I liked his records and he asked me to come and do some stuff at his old place, I played on a couple of demos for I'll Sleep When You're Dead which didn't go anywhere and I played on another rapper's record Cage, that El produced, then he just started calling me over to play bass, and he would throw tracks at me and see what I could come up with. So last year I played on El's record and also on a record that he produced by Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music. What a deep record! That was very rewarding and I was really proud of that stuff, and I think El-P's amazing, I think he's a great producer."
Hip-hop is obviously one of your musical interests, I wondered how that sat with the rest of the band, do they all have different musical tastes or do they agree? Any glance at Yo La Tengo set lists over the years will reveal a huge range of cover songs in there.
"We agree on nearly everything. I know Joni Mitchell is a point of contention because I cannot stand her and I'm occasionally tortured with that, but I think that's it. I think literally that is our biggest problem, so it's pretty good."
Fade is out now, and you can visit the band by heading to yolatengo.com