Yo La Tengo have been called the quintessential critics’ band. Known for their own special avant approach to making music, they resisted the temptations offered by rock and roll stardom, instead choosing to make music according to their own rules. In staying true to themselves, Yo La Tengo have generated a following far beyond cult status that incorporates over 30 years of music and two generations of fans.
Consequence of Sound recently spoke with founding member Ira Kaplan about the band’s new album, Fade, working in Chicago with producer John McEntire, and what the band thought of the Windy City’s gastronomical delicacies.
At the end of Big Day Coming, [Jesse Jarnows biography of Yo La Tengo] it seemed as if the band was ambivalent about recording another album, and now Fade is being described as the most direct, personal, and cohesive album of your career. What prompted the change of heart?
I dont think weve ever been ambivalent about recording a record. I dont think there was a change of heart. If I know what youre referring to, and correct me if Im wrong, there may have just been a question of, in 2012-2013, if the music business is requiring another record from us and when Matador expressed we went to them and said, Do you want us to do singles? Do you want us to do songs for downloads? How would you like to see music being disseminated? We just wanted to be smart about it, and they said, Were still fine with the album. So are we as it happens.
You once said that Painful was where the group really started. In addition to the three of you, that album also marked the beginning of working with Roger Moutenot. Now, for the first time in 20 years, you are working with a new producer. What made you choose John McEntire and to record in Chicago?
Well, John is in Chicago, so that was why; having decided to work together, it was obvious to go work in his studio. I dont know why. It just kind of seemed like a good idea, and we didnt really examine it deeper. Weve known John a long time, and when the thought of doing something with him came up, everybody just looked at each other and thought, Yeah, thats a good idea. And luckily John, who is an extremely busy person, had room in his schedule, and it just all came together.
Were there any other producers brought up?
No. It wasnt like we sat down and said, God, we cant work with Roger ever again. It was the idea came up to work with John, not to not work with Roger. So, when John was available, that was that. If he hadnt been, I dont know what we wouldve done. Luckily, it didnt come up.
Fade recalls older albums like I Can Hear the Heart Beat As One and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out but builds in more of a complexity. It also features some of Chicagos most experimental contemporary musicians. Did the equipment available at Soma and musicians in Chicago change the sound of the album from what you envisioned before arriving there?
Im not so sure about the musicians, because the people we were working with there were pretty much just working on parts that we had come up with already. The exception being the string charts for Is That Enough?, which Jeff Parker did. So, that was Chicago-influenced. As far as the studio and whats in the studio, Im sure that had an impact. Thats harder to be clearer about even for us. The process of coming up with things, one thing leads to another, so yes, I think theres a momentum to the process that the studio and John played a big role in. Its not like I could point to this, this, this, but not this as being due to that, but I know its there.
This is the briefest album since Painful and also features the shortest song since that album as well. Was this a conscious decision to scale back, or did it occur more organically?
The song lengths was not a conscious decision; the length of the record was a conscious decision. We had tried to do that on the last couple of records as well. We had just tried and failed. This time we tried and succeeded. We had made that decision before; you would just have no way of knowing it.
Do you think the success was in part with McEntire?
I dont think so. I think we really had For one thing, we went to the studio with less songs, with that in mind. There was a period, a moment, when we just stopped writing songs because we didnt trust ourselves to edit things off the record. Thats typically what weve found. Well record these things, and we have a hard time leaving things off. This time we did end up recording three songs that are not on the record. Part of that was made easier when we realized we could get it down to a single LP; if we left off one more song, we could do that. We were happy to make that decision. We were very pleased to have a single LP.
Do you think this is going to change your live approach on the upcoming tour?
Our approach? Well see. I think so. I dont want to be committing to things that we may back away from, but we are kind of planning to approach things a little differently. Well see if that works.
With that in mind, your live shows allow for the ability to stretch out and let loose. Do you ever create material with a live setting in mind, especially when you consider songs with the larger arrangements?
No, we dont think about that. Were just trying to play a song, you know, record a song that we like. Thats really what weve been doing since the record was finished, is now trying to adapt them for playing them live. Some of them make a more seamless transition than others.
You made a point of saying that Fade was written as a band. Has your songwriting approach changed over the years?
Well, weve written as a band pretty much from Electr-O-Pura on, so in that regard, no. But I think the approach changes. I think certain songs, thinking about an older record, I dont think Mr. Tough was going to appear on a record before that one [Im Not Afraid of You and I Will Kick Your Ass]. Our freedom to do certain things has increased over the years. The freedom we allow ourselves to do things, not that weve been allowed, but more within our approach to doing things. I think its always evolving.
What was the experience like creating music for the live documentary The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller? How was that different from creating other soundtracks?
Because we were working on the record pretty intensely during that time, on the writing, we didnt have as much time to prepare that music as we would have preferred. Our normal way of working on film music is to write something, send it to the director, get the directors notes, work on it some more, send it back. Just have this back-and-forth process. We didnt really have time for that, so we had a couple of pretty intense sessions with Sam [Green, documentary filmmaker] in Hoboken, where we would play things and get instant feedback. The music came together a little faster and with a little more emotional intensity in the creative process. There were times when Sam couldnt hear things that we could hear, and wed finally say, Let us do what were going to do and I think its going to be ok. And then the opposite would happen. Sam would just say no, this isnt how he hears this certain piece. We were moving very quickly. Im very happy with how it came out.
One other change that just seemed to happen — I dont think this was Sams idea or our idea, it just kind of happened — was the music is more composed than a lot of the music weve done before for films, where the pieces can be a little more open-ended or more atmosphere-driven. Here a lot of those pieces have specific parts that are either played right or wrong [laughs], so we had things we had to learn. And for playing them live, thats another change. When you record something for a soundtrack, you dont have to play it a second time. You play something you like, and if the director likes it, youre done. Here we played it, and if we liked it, we had to then learn how to play it again.
Would you ever play any of those songs on an actual Yo La Tengo tour?
It hasnt come up yet, but its possible. Well see. Weve done stuff like that over the years. Some of the Sounds of Science songs have shown up in a set. Theres a couple of them — some of them are very short, kind of interstitial, that dont make a lot of sense right off the bat. Theres a couple that could work. Well see how things develop.
It is my understanding that you are all big foodies. Chicagos been known to have a few tasty treats. How did you find the food in Chicago, and are there any places on your tour that you are looking forward to?
Oh, we ate very well in Chicago. [Laughs.] We look forward to most places. We always look forward to making the most of wherever we are. Thats a big part of it. Were on our way to Philadelphia tonight; thats a great city to eat. Were on our way to San Francisco, LA, and Seattle next week. Yes, were looking forward to our nations bounty.