There are a wealth of adjectives you could use to describe indie rock stalwarts Yo La Tengo. Dedicated. Adventurous. Prolific. Ethereal. Intense, and so on. But for all of the many, generous descriptors, the most apt is probably consistent. For more than three decades, the New Jersey triumvirate of guitarist Ira Kaplan, his wife, the drummer Georgia Kaplan, and bassist James McNew have maintained a workmanlike posture, gamely putting out new and fantastic creations every few years or so. Their collection of records is at once towering in its musical breadth and quality, while also remaining wholly inviting to new fans and casual observers alike.
Their latest album, There’s A Riot Going On, sits quite comfortably next to some of their greatest, earlier achievements, like 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One and their breakthrough 1993 release Painful. On a sonic level, Riot is breathy and mysterious, brimming with unconventional sounds and textures. Pianos clash against guitars. Cymbals clang against bass riffs. Vocal melodies blend together and split off in totally different and opposing directions. As much as an album can be a mood, There’s A Riot Going On is a feeling and atmosphere all its own. Dark and light; infinite and cloistered.
As its title denotes — the similarity between this record and the acclaimed Sly Stone masterpiece There’s A Riot Goin’ On is purposeful — it’s also political document, even if the politics within are hard to discern. For Ira Kaplan, that’s the entire point. “I’ve quoted this before, but the band The Scene Is Now have a song where kind of what I’ve always felt was the key lyric is, “There’s politics in every song,” and then they start singing, ‘La la la la la,'” he said by phone. “You know, obviously that’s a political statement to sing, “La la la.” As much as I tried to get him to elaborate, he insists that it’s up to you, the listener, to discover for yourself the statement Yo La Tengo is hoping to convey.
I recently spoke to Kaplan about Yo La Tengo’s immersive new album, and how the band has evolved and grown over the last 30 years.
Your last album Stuff Like That There was mostly a covers record. How did it feel to get back to creating new music?
It was great. One of the things that is great about being in our band is that we get to work completely on our own schedule. We don’t feel that pressure, that there’s the record company calling us up to say, “Alright, we need to know your schedule,” and, “This is your schedule.” It’s really completely on our own clock. We did that as kind of a detour. We did some work on films. Then, I was going to say, “almost without knowing it,” but literally without knowing it, we realized one day we were actually working on our new record. It kind of snuck up on us. We thought it was aimlessly and then we realized there was an aim, we just weren’t paying attention.
Is there any kind of a downside to that level freedom? Like knowing when to stop?
Absolutely. I think that’s a classic problem. Ultimately, at a certain point, we kind of see that we’ve got something that we’re happy with. Then we sit down with Matador and kind of come up with a target for when a new record might come out, which is obviously down the road. They’re having those conversations with other people on the label, but at that point we have a date we hope the record will come out and a date that we need to deliver something to make that happen. We just kind of reached a point where we said, “Alright, let’s stop coming up with new things and just keep focusing on the things we have right now,” and that almost works. I think we only came up with a couple of new things after promising we’d come up with no more new things.
Can you kind of describe that moment of catharsis when you realized, “Oh, this is an album?”
I don’t remember the precise moment. We were spending lots of time recording things on Pro Tools. James was doing that, but that’s not unusual. In the line of film work we do it that way. We did pretty involved demos for Fade, a lot of which we end up kind of using pieces of on the record. So, for us to be recording in our practice space was far from an unusual experience. We were just doing it a lot. And I think one day we kind of thought, you know, “This isn’t necessarily the basis for another record. This actually is the record.” It kind of raised the pressure a little bit. It went from screwing around to, “Alright, let’s get serious.”
Once you have the idea that this is going to be a cohesive document, I’d imagine that there’s got to be more thought, or effort, or process involved
I mean, not really. It was just the way we thought about it changed. I’m sure we were working just as hard before and after. It was more just how we treated it and treated ourselves.
Can you kind talk about that dynamic of producing the album yourselves?
You know, I’ve always thought band credits for production was…past the days of Phil Spector, I thought everyone took it as a given that the group was involved. You know, The Beatles were produced by George Martin and you know, you’re pretty sure that The Beatles kinda took a role in that as well. If they’re not co-producers, neither is Yo La Tengo. Basically, we worked on and did it, and James was the guy pushing all the buttons.
What is the chemistry in the band like at this point between the three of you? How do ideas get turned into songs?
Well, it’s not a democratic process in that if two people like something and the other person doesn’t, they’re out of luck. The goal is always to find something that everybody likes. If somebody’s not happy we assume that there’s a better way to do something. It’s different. It really depends on the song. It depends on the moment.
Why did you decide to name this album There’s A Riot Going On? Obviously, when you hear that name you immediately recall the Sly Stone album. What connection is there to that record?
We’re of course well aware of that record, so it’s not a coincidence. I love that record. We try not to choose a record title that’s not open-ended in a certain way, and one of the issues I have with doing interviews is that certain questions I think are asking me to close that which is open-ended, and I’m reluctant to do that. I just kind of let it percolate out there.
Let people come to their own conclusions, I totally get that. But, when people hear that name, I mean, obviously there’s a connotation of politics and for me at least, there does seem to be a feeling as I was listening to the album that you are engaging with the outside world to a degree that maybe you hadn’t done so in the past. Did the feeling in the air that kind of made it onto this record?
I’m not sure I would put it that way. I’m not sure I’m gonna put it another way [Laughs]. I think there’s a variety of ways to be engaged, and I think, to a certain extent, to a large extent, you have to be engaged, and if you appear to be disengaged that’s its own form of engagement, you know? You’re in the world, so the world is affecting you and you’re affecting the world. Is that vague enough?
Yes, absolutely. It’s very vague. [Laughs]. I mean, divorced from the artist that you are, are you a pretty political person?
I mean, everybody is. I don’t think that the person who spends their day watching Fox News or watching MSNBC, I don’t think that person is necessarily more political than the person who reads novels all day. I think it’s just a different form of engagement.
In addition to your recorded output, you have this separate reputation as being one of the preeminent live bands of your generation. Your Hannukah shows are legendary, and you’re one of the most widely bootlegged bands out there. What do you enjoy more, the process of recording an creating music, or the process of bringing that music to people?
Well, they’re so different. I enjoy being in a band, and I think to come back to something I said earlier, one of the real pleasures of our specific ability to work the way we do is that when we make a record and kind of hunker down in the recording studio, such as it is, it’s because we want to. It’s not because we have to get this record out on a schedule, or because it’s been six months since the last one, or even because we can’t play live again if we don’t have new material. It’s completely because we want to do it. What we do is a job, but we love our job, and we love working.
I’m sure this is a very common feeling, but I was an increasingly bad student at school because I really didn’t like being told what to do, and even something that I would enjoy doing if it were my idea, the idea that somebody was telling me to do it made me just push back against it. We play live when we want to and I don’t feel the sense of, “Ah, we’ve gotta be out here promoting the record.” We’re out there playing because we enjoy it and we’re making a record for the same reason, so it’s all really rewarding.
Going back in time a little bit, I know you were a soundman at the venue Maxwell’s in New Jersey and I was curious to know if you were you there for the Replacements live show that just got an official release from 1986?
I haven’t heard it, but I’ve been wondering. I mean, they’ve played there a number of times, I’m sure. I mean, I saw them so many times I can’t keep that one straight. I may have been there, but I don’t remember. I would think if we were town I’m sure we were there, but I haven’t even looked to see what the date was so I’m not sure.
What were some early live shows that were kind of formative to you that kind of stick out in your head as being experiences that continue to inform how you present live shows?
The one that’s kind of like a classic one in my life was the first time I saw the Kinks at Central Park’s Warman Rink in 1972. I probably only had the Lola album but knew some of the songs from the radio. Actually, it turned out that night I knew more songs than I thought I did that were songs I didn’t realize were the Kinks. They had this amazing series of shows there every summer, which were really inexpensive, and they started early and ended early because of such a Tony neighborhood. I grew up in the suburbs so it was really suburban friendly because I could go to the show and get home at an hour that was not gonna meet with any resistance from my parents. I couldn’t find any friends who wanted to go to the show, but it was too easy to go, so I just went and had my mind exploded. I mean, just the way they performed, taking the very casual approach to their material was singularly hilarious, and exciting, and daring. Ray Davies was just such a captivating frontman. Again, this kind of humor, the stuff music did and does mean so much to me, and you listen to their songs and obviously they’re serious creators, but then there was this just slapdash entertainment side to them that changed the way I heard them and music from that moment on.
How old were you and what year was that?
It was 1972 and I was 15.
How is Yo La Tengo different and similar to the band you were when you put out, say, Painful like, 25 years ago?
That’s a tricky question to answer. I mean, for one thing, every band is under the delusion that they continue to get better, so it’s like you’re asking the wrong person. We enjoy working probably more than we did then. I think the band that recorded Painful and came up with Painful…I don’t remember that’s why we chose the title, but it wasn’t a bad description of the process of coming up with that record. We worked hard at it. We thought we were a better band than we had been. We thought we were capable of being a better band, and we pushed ourselves, not always happily, to get better.
The band right now, and for a long time, has worked under less combative conditions. There’s still stress, but I think we see it as our stress instead of fighting each other, unlike with Painful where I think we did want to be different. We thought we could be better and really wanted to find a way to be different and better than what we had done. I think the differences in the band now tend to happen more by accident and are byproducts of just more enjoyment of the process of working. I know we didn’t sit down for There’s A Riot Going On and say, “This has to be different than anything we’ve done before. This is what we did on Fade, this is how it’s gonna be different this time.” Things just happened naturally, where with Painful, we didn’t know how, but we thought we could make a break with what we had done.
So, would you say you’re more comfortable in your skin these days?
We’re more comfortable in our skin these days, yes.
There’s A Riot Going On is out on 3/16 via Matador Records. Get it here.