Yo La Tengo not afraid to be nebulous

by Len Righi

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

16 February 2007

Indie-rock band Yo La Tengo never discloses the meanings of song titles. We never explain much of anything. It's more fun - for us, anyway. (Photo courtesy Michael Lavine/Allentown Morning Call/MCT) 

It is Yo La Tengo dogma, and James McNew, who has been the stalwart indie-rock act’s bassist for 15 of the band’s 23-year existence, recites it almost reflexively, albeit somewhat facetiously, when questions are raised about the intentions behind songs on Yo La Tengo’s latest disc, “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass”:

“We never supply lyrics to our records. We never disclose the meanings of song titles. We never explain much of anything. It’s more fun - for us, anyway.

“It’s a `draw your own conclusions’ type of thing,” he continues. “We want you to imagine what the hell the band could have been thinking when (they) came up with that song title. ... We’re more interested in having what we do mean something than what we say it means.”

That would seem to slam shut the door on further discussion on the content of one of Yo La Tengo’s best discs ever, a bravura recap of short- and long-form songwriting ranging from bright, horn-fired mid-`60s pop (“Beanbag Chair”), falsetto-fueled R&B (“Mr. Tough”), White-Striped Left Banke chamber pop (“Black Flowers”); percussive, strobe-light psychedelia (“The Room Got Heavy”), punked-out Velvet Underground/Beach Boys raveups (“Watch Out for Ronnie”) and extended spacey jamming (the 10:45-minute “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”) and dreamy droning (the 11:47-minute “Story of Yo La Tango.”

But wait. Before he can stop himself, McNew lets slip a potential clue about the `60s vibe coursing through “I Am Not Afraid of You ...”

“I don’t normally disclose this stuff,” he begins tentatively, “but before we made this record, I did start listening again, as a real interested fan, to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I had given up on those records 20 years ago. They were ubiquitous and bummed me out.

“The Rolling Stones are just so depressing. They’ve kinda always sucked since I’ve been aware of them. You have to remember, I entered the picture at the time of (1978’s) `Some Girls.’ That was a good one, but after that ...

“But, suddenly, I began craving (the Beatles songs) `Yellow Submarine’ and `Hey Bulldog’ and `It’s All Too Much,’ and I became completely obsessed with (the Stones albums) `Between the Buttons’ and `Exile on Main Street.’”

McNew cuts himself off, and it is time to move on.

He is asked which songs he feels closest to.

“I feel close to all of them,” McNew replies.

“All three of us were heavily involved in every track,” he adds, referring to his band mates, singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan, a one-time writer for New York Rocker, and drummer Georgia Hubley, who in 1984 founded the Hoboken, N.J.-based band (the two are now married).

What about the decision to open “I Am Not Afraid ...” with the lengthy instrumental “Pass the Hatchet ...”?

McNew notes that the version on record is “very, very similar-sounding to the very first time we ever played that song. A few minutes into playing it, I assumed it would be the first song on the record. That was a no-brainer.”

Occasionally, Yo La Tengo has been sensitive to such song-length issues. “On `Electr-O-Pura,’ which we put out in 1995, we made all the song times different. None of them corresponded to the song,” says McNew with a chortle. “That made us laugh.”

The band began writing material for “I Am Not Afraid ...” in April 2005, a month before co-headlining the RiverFusion festival in Bethlehem, Pa.

Around the same time, Yo La Tengo became involved in a benefit concert for Tonic, a club on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that presented mostly jazz and avant-garde music. The band rearranged two sets of material for the show, which McNew reports, “was a big success. The club is still open - I just went to see a band there a few weeks ago - and it now has new bathrooms, which I like to think we helped it get.”

Another project the band was involved in was resurrecting “The Sounds of Science,” the score Yo La Tengo wrote in 2001 for eight of filmmaker Jean Painleve’s most famous underwater shorts. The band performed the score live for the first time in three years in four cities - Chicago, St. Louis, New York City and Tokyo.

The latter was especially pleasing for McNew. “I was a Japanese major in school before I dropped out,” he says. “I had forgotten everything, but it started to come back when I was there. We’re headed back ... and I’m happy to be going back. It’s just the greatest, most overstimulating, delicious, amazing place I’ve ever been - besides my own (Brooklyn) apartment.”

The band also scored a seven-minute animated film, “Octave,” directed by Hubley’s sister, Emily, and two feature-length movies, “Old Joy” and “Short Bus.”

Asked if all that activity helped shape “I Am Not Afraid ...,” which was recorded rather leisurely in Nashville over a five-week period, McNew offers this elliptical response:

“We showed our appreciation for having time by not overpreparing and leaving all of our song ideas open and not really finished. It helped retain spontaneity, and sparks were flying as things were figured out, as things were occurring to us.

“We prepared for having lots of time by being unprepared.”

Topics: yo la tengo
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