Yo La Tengo still remains wary of praise after decades of itBy John Wenzel | May 16th, 2013 | No Comments »
New Jersey indie rock trio Yo La Tengo has developed a reputation as one of the most thoughtful, consistent bands in the business over its three decades and 13 albums.
But even as new release “Fade” has garnered uniformly glowing reviews and a performance spot on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” Yo La Tengo singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan remains wary of the praise that seems to follow his group’s every move.
“Positive or negative, it ends up making me feel self-conscious, and I want to act on instinct or act on what feels right in the moment,” Kaplan, 56, said over the phone from a tour stop in Tucson.
“Acknowledging that there’s a world out there just contributes to a feeling I don’t really want to have.”
That may sound precious, but it’s no surprise to fans of Yo La Tengo (which is Spanish for “I have it”) since they’ve built a global cult around the group’s singular yet unclassifiable sound. Kaplan, drummer-keyboardist Georgia Hubley and bassist James McNew could never be accused of milking musical trends, preferring to follow their muses through clanging art rock, Velvet Underground-style pop, melodic folk and atmospheric instrumentals.
That’s why the band, which plays the Boulder Theater on Tuesday, has frequently sounded like it’s pillaging an eclectic but immaculately curated record collection. Making a sharp right turn into slick, commercial electro-pop, for example, wouldn’t seem so much out of place as irrelevant to its creative goals. That, and it’s hard to imagine Kaplan or Hubley’s gentle vocals falling into the cold, computerized maw of Auto-Tune.
“Partly because we do spend a lot of time completely oblivious to what people think about and care about, it’s nice to go to the other extreme occasionally,” said Kaplan, who enjoys mingling with fans after shows far more than his compatriots. “But we’re not polling people, and we’re not doing the songs that they necessarily want us to do.”
Yo La Tengo is in an enviable position since its fans are often happy to hear nothing but new tunes on each tour. The most recent leg takes Yo La Tengo around the U.S. through mid-July, including a number of festivals dates with Scottish indie act Belle and Sebastian.
“Most people coming to see a band of our age are not coming to hear the new songs,” Kaplan said. “And we’re doing them anyway!”
There’s a reason for that (besides selling copies of the new record). After collaborating with producer Roger Moutenot on every album since 1993’s “Painful,” Yo La Tengo opted to record with famed Chicago indie producer John McEntire (of Tortoise and the Sea and Cake) for “Fade,” and McEntire’s varied production experience — from Bright Eyes and Spoon to Stereolab and Blur — comes in handy with Yo La Tengo’s wide-ranging sound.
For Kaplan, it’s a sonic departure two decades in the making, and he could hardly be more pleased with the results.
“One of the reasons it worked so well is that we don’t go into a recording session with an end in mind, other than to come up with something we like,” he said. “We let circumstances and events and chance lead us where they will. And the working environment is something that (McEntire) has a great deal of control over, where everybody feels excited and motivated.”
McEntire’s calm, steady production can be heard on songs like “Cornelia and Jane,” which drips with gentle horns, or the crisp, insistent “Well You Better,” which wouldn’t have sounded out of place at a ’60s sock hop.
Once an album is out the door, however, it’s all about the live shows, which lately have found the band opening for itself by playing low-key acoustic sets before the plugged-in main events. Partly due of that, Kaplan realized he should never trust his own impression of what past Yo La Tengo records have sounded like.
“I was in the car driving to rehearsal and one of our songs was on the radio, but it took me a few seconds to recognize it because it doesn’t sound anything like I remember,” he said. “I know it the way we play it live, but everything else I try to put out of my mind.”
With his ambivalent (at best) attitude toward press and commitment to Yo La Tengo’s mysterious muse, it’s no surprise that Kaplan and his band have built a catalog rivaling any in indie rock.