The Lessons Of Yo La Tengo's Long Run

Last week, Gotham Books released Jesse Jarnow’s Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock. It’s a biography of the Hoboken indie rock lifers who’ve been a working band since the mid-80s, and always seem to opt for the slow and steady over the quick cash-in. What made Yo La Tengo able to do what so few bands have managed: not only stick together but continue to release new, vital music for almost three decades? Via email, I talked with Jesse, a friend, has been writing about culture in venues such as Rolling Stone and Spin for a solid couple decades himself, and shares not a few qualities with the band: like guitarist and lead singer Ira Kaplan, he grew up in the New York metro area; like drummer Georgia Hubley, his father was an experimental animator; and like the band as a whole, he’s a regular presence on Hoboken freeform radio station WFMU, where he hosts a show late on Sunday nights. We talked about how the band’s career arc plays out in the context of the rock bio, a form more amenable to “Behind the Music”-style arcs of heroic triumph and chaotic flame-out than Yo La Tengo’s slow, careful growth – and how their story is in many ways more indicative of the kinds of bands we respect than the live-fast-die-youngers who command the lion’s share of biographical attention.

What are the band members’ backgrounds like?

In some ways, kind of unremarkable. Starting globally, with similarities, Georgia and Ira are both late baby-boomers, literal children of the 60s, both from left-leaning, slightly upper middle-class families, Jewish or partly Jewish, but almost completely secular in both cases. James is around 10 years younger, from Charlottesville, not Jewish. Does that make him a Gen Xer? Probably their most common trait is that they were raised to be individuals in such a way that their backgrounds are in many ways irrelevant to what they do. They’re certainly not detectable in any musicological way, unless you accept the Velvet Underground/Moe Tucker beat as a kind of culturally inherited rhythm. Which I think it actually is in a lot of ways, and maybe what the book is about, tracing that lineage.

It definitely is, and I guess it seemed to me that the lineage you’re tracing was different than the one we’re normally fed in rock biographies. It’s more about bohemia and artistic community than excess and fame. Like in Please Kill Me, Warhol’s involvement in so much of early punk is discussed less in terms of artistic ideas and creativity and more in terms of drugs and sex. It seems important that Georgia’s parents were artists—and, maybe even more importantly, artists who moved between high and commercial art—and it seems like she and Ira really approached their music in a way that was conscious of their career arc in a way rock bands generally aren’t but visual artists are. Is that fair to say? Do you see YLT’s deliberateness as springing from that background in some way?


Definitely, though I think it’s largely unconscious. I don’t think they were, or are, ever really thinking more than a step or two ahead. They bought their first van in 1991, and (as Ira put it) that was the first time they ever committed to being a band in any official way and paying off the purchase. I think they’re really good at recognizing when they’re curious about something, even if they’re not sure why, and are very disciplined about following through. That’s probably the biggest legacy of their backgrounds. Or more specifically a legacy of their parents, Ira’s just as much as Georgia’s. Both were on the other side of the generation gap, and not rock fans in the slightest. I think Ira’s parents probably saw more Yo La Tengo shows than I ever have over the years, so it’s not like Yo La Tengo’s music is necessarily rebelling against anything other than their impulses towards hesitation—which is actually a pretty important kind of rebellion for most people, to just be creative.

Who else do you think has rebelled in this way?

There’s a part in “Mystery Train” where Greil Marcus quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald about how “the redeeming satisfactions are not ‘happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle” to explain Robert Johnson. I think that applies to thinking about Yo La Tengo, too, and probably a lot of other artists. But there really is a palpable sense of struggle in their music. It’s part of who they are. On songs like “Night Falls on Hoboken” or “The Crying of Lot G” or “Tears Are In Your Eyes” there are these really stunning vocal parts that are at odds with how dark and personal the lyrics are. That’s something that I think they’re very, very self-conscious of, and it becomes a kind of tension in the music that then resolves in all kinds of ways—the harmonies, the noise guitar jams, the acoustic Fakebook stuff, the stand-up comedians they’ve worked with, the free jazz. They’re all releases, and they’ve stayed pretty vigilant about continuing to try new ways to address their identities in ways that make for compelling music.

They’re certainly not the only band that’s approached music like that. That was a starting point for Talking Heads, too, that profound nervousness, especially during their trio years which—not coincidentally, when Ira saw them play a lot when he was working as a journalist for the Soho Weekly News and New York Rocker. The Feelies were—and still are—like that, and would just as soon play in the basement as lug their crap to a show. Which is at least mostly true, but also something they’ve cultivated. And, again not coincidentally, they were a very important band for Yo La Tengo. Georgia and Ira met at a Feelies show at Maxwell’s. It’s a pretty central tenet for this particular strain of American indie rock. You could probably say the same about Jonathan Richman, Calvin Johnson, R.E.M., shoegazers, etc., to the point where it can also be an affectation and turn into cutesiness. Though, thankfully, not for Yo La Tengo, I don’t think.

So with all this, how did the band actually become successful, at least in terms of being a full-time working band?

In phases. I think they were probably creatively successful from the first time Georgia and Ira played together, which was 1982 and they were just playing covers at parties. They learned a totally different set of songs for every time they played and refused to repeat them. But that’s probably not what most people think of as “success.” It was really piece by piece by piece, in terms of both their music and their audience. Definitely a bunch of people I talked to for the book said they didn’t even really notice the band’s growth because it was so gradual. They just kept trying things, thinking through what they were doing, writing more songs, touring, and being persistent until they were artistically successful and eventually commercially successful. Which to me is when the band’s backgrounds do become compelling, how that could happen. There are so many things that can make bands combust, but Yo La Tengo avoided those, and never let up, never really stopped for more than three or four months over the past 25 years at least and never went into anything that could remotely be construed as cruise control, which is itself another kind of success.

How do you think the backgrounds played into that?

Mostly through that discipline. One of Georgia’s parents’ wedding vows was to make at least one independent film a year, which they really stuck with. Ira’s parents were very much products of the Depression, so there’s this line of austerity that runs through his personality. Kind of a monastic egalitarianism. He’s a very logical, very thoughtful person. It’s a much more subtle kind of rebellion, and I think that shows in their music. There’s a story about them having a spat with a promoter and playing a 20-minute version of “Speeding Motorcycle” that just got quieter and quieter until the venue pulled the plug on them. It was a response to a specific moment. All music is improvisation on some scale, even if it unfolds very slowly, and their backgrounds prepared them to make cool, beautiful choices at a natural pace kind of removed from what you expect out of a rock band.

How does that process differ from the standard indie-rock success narrative as constructed in books like Our Band Could Be Your Life?

Maybe in the same way that it differs from the standard rock success story, which is the flash of a brilliant idea clicking somewhat quickly into a form that most people recognize later. As a band, Yo La Tengo have a kind of a long-term arc that I think has very, very few parallels, inside or outside the indie bubble. Bands tend to break up, or—if they get successful—only get together to play when it’s time to tour or record. Most of the exceptions are individual performers rather than bands. Probably most bands aren’t meant to last, which I think naturally gives a lot of band stories a kind of poignancy. It’s certainly true when you think about the fates of most of the acts in Our Band, which is maybe why those bands work really well grouped together like that, a kind of unified emotional note throughout that book. Yo La Tengo’s story is much slower, and—to me—doesn’t really have any valleys. They’re lifers.

What do you think led them to take that approach? And what kind of values do you think that reflects? That live-fast-die-young ethos is so prized in rock—what does it say that YLT avoided it—and did so in a very conscious way, it seems to me?

It was conscious to a certain extent, I think, in that they didn’t want to self-destruct because that’s not the kind of people they are, but it wasn’t like they were doctrinaire about it, like straight-edgers or something. They really did get into it for the music. Georgia or Ira didn’t have to be in a rock band to meet potential boyfriends/girlfriends or escape some other fate. It’s almost like they started a band because they were supposed to, which is maybe why they took so long to actually do it and seem to fight against sometimes. I think what it reflects is luck—that they were born in the Great American Century. There are a lot of definitions of what “indie” means, but Yo La Tengo (and pretty much all baby-boomers and Xers and other pre-millennials) are another kind of independent, having the freedom to pursue what they wanted to pursue. But just because you’re “independent” doesn’t mean you’re not creative. In any medium—music, sports, politics, whatever—people are attracted quite naturally to origin stories about people coming from hardship or places outside some broadly defined cultural norm. I think it reflects more on the quality of Yo La Tengo’s music—that it’s beautiful, heartbreaking, fun, and a lot of other things where you don’t have to fall back on their origins to explain its specialness or appeal. Though I think their origins are incredibly interesting. Hence this book.

What lessons do you think bands can learn from YLT’s incredibly productive history?

Maybe just to recognize that everything that you do as a band is a choice and a way to keep developing. I think there’s lots of value in going deep with an artist’s body of work that extends over a few decades. It almost doesn’t matter which artist. But Yo La Tengo really did find a lot of methods to avoid stagnation, most of which are equally good for band and listeners. Like, there’s very rarely a reason to play the same setlist every night. Another thing they figured out pretty early on was the value of keeping a bunch of ideas in the air almost all the time. Around the time Georgia and Ira started their acoustic lineup that became Fakebook they also started playing shows in a line-up with just the two of them on electric guitars, focused on noisy stuff. There’s almost always a sense of freshness when you go to see them, and that’s not an act. They’ve worked really hard at not falling into routines. They’re always working, always practicing, always playing, always looking for new things to do.

Mike Barthel has a Tumblr. Bottom photo by gaelenh.