Ira Kaplan discusses their new album, This Stupid World, and the secret to the band’s amazing longevity
By Jeff McCord
Rock music has a lot of endurance tales, but it’s hard to think of one that rivals Hoboken’s Yo La Tengo. Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley formed the group way back in 1984, and they’ve never stopped working together. With no personnel changes since 1992, when James McNew became their bass player, Yo La Tengo is now approaching their fortieth anniversary as a band.
Sure, the Stones and the Who date back to the sixties, but they established themselves as nostalgia acts long ago. Yo La Tengo are anti-nostalgia. They’ve never had anything remotely close to a hit, so they don’t repeat. They just keep inventing.
The band’s umpteenth and most recent Austin show (2018 at the Mohawk) was as alive and exuberant as any new band less than half their age. Their just-released new album, This Stupid World, is by some counts their 17th studio recording. It has a raw, immediate urgency, and as with most Yo La Tengo releases, it is entirely different from the one that came before it.
So, finding myself face-to-face with Ira Kaplan (well, on Zoom anyway), I asked him the question I’ve been wondering for decades: It’s been the same three people for over thirty years. How do they keep things so interesting?
“Well, we just like what we’re doing,” Kaplan explains. “And we do have that advantage because of [us] doing other things, and it helps that we’re a smaller lineup. For the most part, we really do what we want and we don’t have to play. It’s not like if we don’t want to go on tour, a record company is making us or, pressuring us, or we need the money. We’ve been lucky enough that that is not our life. If we’re doing a tour, it’s because we’re looking forward to it.”
A lot of bands find themselves trapped by their success, forced to repeat variations of that ad infinitum. I asked Ira if he ever imagined how Yo La Tengo would have turned out if they’d hit it big from the start.
“Do I ever think about what would have happened? Not really. But I do think about how lucky we are that those things didn’t happen. I’ve always hoped that we would have the inner fortitude to deal with whatever came our way. But you know that thing when you make an amazing first record and so many people don’t want to want you to change from that record? Well, we didn’t have that problem. Our first record stinks.”
[I demur. He ignores me.]
“But. Certainly having done this for this long, we’re able to do whatever we want. And if we lose some people along the way because one record doesn’t sound enough like the one before, that doesn’t bother us the way it would have when we were younger.”
Another marvel is how YLT stays relevant, when other bands long in the tooth cloister and form a tight circle. I ask Ira if he listens to a lot of new music.
“I certainly don’t listen the same way I did,” Kaplan explains. “During the lockdown when we weren’t traveling, I was able to do a radio show. For many years now, I’ve been a fill-in deejay at WFMU.” (the famed free-form New Jersey community station. Yo La Tengo’s ‘Murdering the Classics’ collections from WMFU fundraisers are hilarious.)
“But since I wasn’t traveling, I applied to get my own weekly show and got one, which I did for about 15 months. Being on the radio for 3 hours a week changed the way I was listening to music. One thing that I think applies to our life and our band – you’ll see in interviews somebody say, well, I don’t listen to music because I don’t want it to influence me. Or, people sort of set up these rules or policies for themselves. And I don’t think we have many of them. We allow ourselves not to listen to other things, to listen to other things. To put covers on records. To make records without covers. I don’t think we have as many definitions of what we have to do.”
Yo La Tengo has always cultivated a hipper-than-thou demeanor. Though he downplays it, Kaplan is a former music writer. The members of Yo La Tengo are not just musicians, they’re uber-fans. Their varied output, from forays into ambient and electronic music, and covers of everyone from Daniel Johnston to Sun Ra, stand as proof. And they’ve taken some ribbing for it. It’s clear when I bring up the Onion’s famous headline, ‘37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead In Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster’, that I’m not the first to do so.
“I got to interrupt you there,” Kaplan interjects with a smirk, “because I read the headline as not the entire audience being wiped out, but those were the casualties of what was undoubtedly a sold-out show.”
Joking aside, sellouts ARE pretty common for YLT. Their legion of loyal fans has come to love their unpredictable nature, their sublime songwriting, and their ability to turn from intimate acoustics to cacophonous rock on a dime.
This Stupid World has, perhaps as a result of the lockdown, more of a live feel. It’s a guitar record (though there are more studio overdubs and the like than immediately meet the ear), and this time, it’s entirely self-produced.
“We did [self-produce] on this one,” says Kaplan. “I don’t know if it may happen again. We may not make another record. I don’t think too hard or make too many predictions about the future. One of the things we do when we are deciding to make a record is [to] look and see how far into the process we already are. We’re always getting together, we’re always playing, and James is always recording us. And when we talk to Matador and come up with some deadlines to get a record out by a certain date, then we start looking through this backlog of things we’ve already recorded to see what we have there and what we can work with; what doesn’t need much changing at all in or what drum part we can build a new song out of. This Stupid World, we really focused on it starting at the beginning of 2022. The first thing we did was find out how much we already had. What kind of running start we already had for it?”
Despite Kaplan saying he doesn’t think much about the future, the record proves otherwise. “Fallout” is a vintage YLT rocker, with Kaplan singing he wants to “fall out of time”. Others, like the beautiful “Aselestine” and the eerie “Sinatra Drive Breakdown” deal explicitly with the ticking clock. Is the band feeling time more acutely?
“It’s pretty hard not to,” says Kaplan. “Especially being the age I am (66) and the music I’ve grown up listening to. You just watch people leave us, whether it’s Burt Bacharach or Tom Verlaine, or Dallas Good from the Sadies. We just did these Hanukkah shows in December, and from the end of Hanukkah 2021 to the beginning of Hanukkah 2022, seven different people that we had performed with at those shows passed away. I mean, the end is definitely in sight.”
This may sound gloomy, but the record steers towards optimism. And Kaplan seems excited to have YLT back in the spotlight with a new album after the long lockdown. With the band’s fortieth anniversary approaching, I wonder if there are plans for another collection of unreleased material.
“There are not,” he says. “I mean, yeah, it may [happen]. It seems hard to imagine not commemorating it in some way. I don’t know what form it will take. You know, the thing about those [collections like] Prisoners of Love and things like Extra Painful, they end up requiring a lot of time. Finding the time to really dive in and do those things is… we’ll see. Especially nowadays where the lead time for all this stuff is so ridiculous. While we’re touring a great deal in 2023, it will be difficult to be putting together a package for 2024, but who knows?”
So Yo La Tengo is back on the road. At present, there’s no Austin date, but Kaplan is hopeful the band will be back here later this year. (“I’m sure we’ll get there,” he says.) Touring can be hard work, but despite the long miles, YLT’s live shows remain something magical.
“It is a slog sometimes,” admits Kaplan, “but it’s pretty rare, if ever, that the part when we’re playing isn’t fun. I mean, you can see us in the dressing room waiting to go on and every one of us is yawning our heads off. I feel like we could fall into a deep sleep 10 minutes before we go on. But once we start playing, there really is no place I would rather be.”