Yo La Tengo
They got it: Georgia, James, Ira
Interview with James McNew by Jason Gross (December 1996)
I was breezing through a record store in 1990 and they were playing this loud song with this prime guitar riff in a haze of feedback while the singer was shouting about the Grateful Dead. This was "Drug Test" and it was my first exposure to what's now a New York institution out of Hoboken called Yo La Tengo. I've been hooked ever since. Guitarist/singer Ira Kaplan sent me lyrics to my favorite Yo La Tengo song ("From A Motel 6") and we played phone-tag and mail-tag for a while. I also ran into him and drummer/singer Georgia Hubley before a free outdoor show where Cyndi Lauper opened for them and a about a year later at a Thinking Fellows show (where they weren't playing). When I caught them again at a Tramps show, they tore shit up one minute, raving like mad, and the next minute they'd be playing a sweet, slow song. Not too many groups can master both extremes as well as this great band. I mean, how many groups do you know where a double-CD of out-takes (GENIUS + LOVE = YO LA TENGO, no argument there) is better than the regular releases of most other bands? Thanks to MATADOR and to bassist James McNew for putting up with a bunch of stupid questions and having patience with all of this: not too many people talk about THE SIMPSONS and Motorhead.
No, not really if we take the "alternative rock scene" to mean the same thing, like the guys from the Stone Temple Pilots or something. Mostly it's as insular as can be. But we're big fans of music, and many of our friends are also in the same field, so collaborations just seem natural.
YLT GETS AROUND- BAND MEMBERS HAVE RECORDED WITH MEMBERS OF ANTIETAM, HALF JAPANESE, THE DB'S AND OTHERS. DO YOU THINK THE "ALTERNATIVE" MUSIC SCENE IS COMMUNAL?
WHEN I SPOKE TO MATADOR, THEY ASKED IF WE FEATURED OTHER POP BANDS. DO YOU THINK YLT IS A POP BAND? Yes, I think we are but then again i think all bands are pop bands, even if they aren't. Or at least they display tendencies of a pop band, I don't know, um, Sonic Youth, Minor Threat, The Shaggs, Dead C, are just a few I could think of right away that might qualify. ...I could be wrong.
YLT HAS A BIG CRITICAL AND LOCAL REP. I WAS AT A SHOW WHERE THE ANNOUNCER SAID YLT IS "THE QUINTESSENTIAL NYC BAND." IS THAT A BURDEN? DO YOU THINK ONE DAY IT MIGHT COME TUMBLING DOWN? What you fail to mention was that was said by the emcee at a Dred Zepplin show. Gosh, I don't know, I don't really think about that stuff. Yes, we do get lots of nice reviews, and that's great -- don't get me wrong -- but I'm happier when not considering such outside factors. Yes, if everything goes according to plan, it will all come crumbling down.
IS THERE ANY PARTICULAR YLT SONG OR CD THAT'S REALLY SPECIAL FOR YOU? I don't know, all of them. Probably "Speeding Motorcycle" which doesn't appear too often but has yielded some excellent memories: the time we played it for about 20 minutes with Tara Key at Union Square with a monstrous thurnderstorm bearing down on us; the times we played it with members of The Pastels; the versions we played in Europe which could (did?) stretch to 45 minutes; saddest version ever (Edinburgh); the time we played it in Seattle for 35 minutes until the club just shut off the power and then (allegedly) broke into our van and (allegedly) stole our organ. And I wasn't even there for the WFMU recording with Daniel Johnston.
WERE YOU WORRIED ABOUT YLT'S HISTORY OF GOING THROUGH A LOT OF BASSISTS? Not really, or that was the least of my worries. I had come from playing in the band Christmas (who later metamorphosized into Combustible Edison), which also had a similar rate of attrition among bass players. Christmas was on a sort of voluntary hiatus when I & G asked me to play. That was around 3/91, but only as a temporary member, to do a short tour of the USA and then a tour of Europe. After that, I guess I just kept on showing up for practice, and here we are.
WHAT WAS THE BEST AND WORST YLT GIG YOU REMEMBER? Hmm, let's see... I think I have one that qualifies as both best and worst. In early March of 1994 we opened a few shows for the Juliana Hatfield 3. The first night was in Dallas, at some godawful venue, The Lizard Hut or something along those lines. The audience HATED us. In a way I was kind of enjoying the set, and I thought we were playing well. At the quietest moment in the set, I believe between verses of "Nowhere Near," a teenaged (14 at most) girl said, in the sweetest drawl, "Hey man, y'all suck!" Other runners-up include (best) 12/94 Forum Enger (Germany), where we placed a box at the entrance door and told people to write requests on slips of paper, and we did the whole show by pulling them out of the box and playing them, sort of; (worst) electrical disasters curtailing our only appearance in Edinburgh, or that Spanish show where we were throwing things at each other (tie).
WHY IS WORKING IN A STUDIO BETTER THAN A LIVE SHOW? There's usually a clean, working bathroom; there might be cable TV or a ping-pong table; more time for you to catch up on all those issues of GUITAR PLAYER magazine that are inevitably lying around; you can almost always stop to eat in the middle of whatever you're doing.
WHY IS A LIVE SHOW BETTER THAN WORKING IN A STUDIO? It's usually over a lot sooner; you get to see people; there might be a pinball machine in the club. Plus, you get an immediate reaction to whatever it is you're doing (whether you want one or not). In the studio, once you're done you get to freak out for a while until somebody else hears it then you get to freak out all you want.
WHAT KIND OF MUSIC DO YOU BRING ALONG ON TOUR? It's been so long since we've been on tour, I can't remember. We listen to all sorts of stuff in the van. If we were on tour right now, I probably would've brought tapes of the Sun Ra singles collection, Lambchop, and a zillion mix tapes.
WHAT WAS THE BEST PERK YOU GOT FROM A RECORD COMPANY? Free Frogs records.
YLT GOT TO PLAY THE VELVET UNDERGROUND IN I SHOT ANDY WARHOL. WHO WOULD YOU WANT TO PLAY YLT IN A MOVIE? I'd like John Cale to play us all, in kind of a "Multiplicity"-style special effects tour de force.
YLT WAS AT LOLLAPOLLOOZA- DO YOU THINK THAT'S GOING TO BE THE FUTURE OF ROCK SHOWS? It was good, I guess, if only because of the "Homerpalooza" episode of THE SIMPSONS that was rerun earlier this evening. I applauded after Steve Shelley's line on the show.
WHAT DID SHELLY SAY? I think Steve says "ok, we'll watch your cooler for you, Mr. Frampton!"
WHAT ABOUT HAVING BIG BANDS NOW LIKE METALLICA ON LOLLAPALOOZA- ISN'T THAT GOING TO CHANGE THING? We had a very enjoyable time on Lollapalooza '95 sidestage. Got to see Sonic Youth a bunch of times; cemented our friendship with Coolio. You said you don't like Metallica?
I'M MORE A MOTORHEAD FAN- METALLICA NEVER DID ANYTHING AS GOOD AS "ACE OF SPADES" I agree about Motorhead, they're a great singles band. But for every Metallica or whatever (at Lollapalooza), you got to see some pretty cool stuff, maybe: Lambchop, Stereolab, Sebadoh, Versus, Laika, Coctails, Doo Rag, Unrest (I think) are just some of the bands I can think of that've played.
WHAT'S THE WEIRDEST THING YOU'VE EVER HEARD ON THE RADIO? Outside of WFMU and the occasional sporting event, I don't listen to the radio much.
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