James McNew may be best known as a jack-of-all-trades member of Yo La Tengo, but he’s also the one-man-band that goes by the name Dump, one of the quintessential lo-fi home-recording acts of the ‘90s. With the upcoming reissues of 1993’s Superpowerless (on 19 March) and 1994’s I Can Hear Music (on 16 April), shrewd listeners will be introduced to—or reacquainted with—some of the catchiest, most endearing bedroom-pop gems committed to a four-track during indie’s golden age. With the imminent re-release of Dump’s first two full-lengths, PopMatters caught up with McNew to reminisce about the past, find out if there’s anything in store for Dump in the future, and learn what he’d do if he had a time machine. PopMatters is pleased to premiere the reissue of Superpowerless, due out this week via Morr Music.
PopMatters: It’s great that Superpowerless and I Can Hear Music are being reissued and getting their first vinyl pressing. How did you decide to reissue the albums now?
James McNew: The decision to do it now is entirely because of Thomas Morr and Morr Music. I really never thought these records would ever come out again, but he convinced me. I am very happy with the results.
PopMatters: With the re-release of the albums and a pretty active Dump social networking operation, is the return of Dump on the horizon? What’s the status of Dump?
James McNew: These two albums that are being reissued were barely available anywhere, even when they were at their most available! So I’m not sure it qualifies as a return if it was never quite here in the first place. The status is kinda the same as it ever was: n/a? It’s something I love to do, and am proud of, I guess I just don’t pursue its popularity as ambitiously as I should. I love recording and writing, and do it whenever I can. I like playing Dump gigs, too, but those are pretty rare. I consider a lot of the drawing I do to be a new wing of the Dump Entertainment Group.
PopMatters: Hearing some of the pure pop melodies from the two albums again, I was wondering whether you were ever tempted at any time in the past two decades or so to give them the full studio treatment? Would doing that have fundamentally changed the nature of the songs or do you think it would’ve brought something else out of them?
James McNew: I’ve never considered it. I am interested in the recording process as well as the songwriting, and how they can combine to create a mood. I always felt the recording itself played a huge part in the feeling and personality of music. Even now, many years later, when I operate the latest version of ProTools like an adult and understand how a compressor works, it’s the accidents and mistakes and misuse that I still find the most compelling. I was using a Tascam 4-track cassette unit because I loved it! It was easy to operate and experiment, and it enabled me to record anytime and anywhere I felt like it. Plus, I thought that thing sounded great (it did and it didn’t).
PopMatters: With the benefit of hindsight, something else I noticed from revisiting Superpowerless and I Can Hear Music is that some of their noisier sound experiments almost seemed to pave the way for what you’d hear on later Yo La Tengo albums. Back in the day, how did you distinguish what projects were more appropriate for Dump and what things could be incorporated into what Yo La Tengo was doing?
James McNew: YLT songwriting was and still is done by the three of us together. Collaborating with Ira [Kaplan] and Georgia [Hubley] is the most fulfilling creative experience I could ever imagine. I have written songs and recorded them by myself since I was a kid; once it dawned on me that I could make up my own songs, I started and never stopped. I feel compelled to do it, and to somehow get better at it. I like figuring stuff out; eventually I do, sometimes. Having that new knowledge, about chords, or how not to accidentally erase something, definitely made me a better collaborator.
PopMatters: The early Dump recordings came at a time when DIY home recording was flourishing. Can you compare what it was like in the early/mid-‘90s to what it’s like today self-releasing music, with all the easy-to-access technology for recording and distributing music? And if Dump had a time machine, would you have taken advantage of what’s available today or would you still have done things the old-fashioned way with the 4-track?
James McNew: If I had a time machine, I’d, one, go back and kill Hitler. Everybody knows to do that. Two, if I came to the future (now) and took advantage of today’s technology, would I still be the same age as I was when I left 1992? Would it transport me to my same apartment, only 21 years later? What if someone else was living there by then? Where would I stay? I’d probably also need some new forms of identification. Credit card, too. And what would happen to the me that was already living in 2013? This sounds like kind of a whole logistical thing, but I gotta say I’m intrigued.
PopMatters: With the new editions of Superpowerless and I Can Hear Music coming out, are you planning other Dump reissues soon?
James McNew: No plans, but then again, I didn’t have any plans for these!