James McNew, bassist for indie stalwarts Yo La Tengo, won’t let me poo-poo his missing the first of our scheduled phone interviews. I say, “It happens,” but he says, “No, it almost never happens.” It’s the answer one expects from a member of a band known for being ridiculously nice, despite slogging it out for 26 years now without even a “Tubthumping” fluke of fame. “I was hoping you blew me off to go to Opening Day,” I tell him, since the band’s name refers to an infamous Mets anecdote and the warning of their Spanish-speaking outfielder. But McNew replies, “Nope, I was out fighting crime.”
The real crime is that McNew and his married bandmates Ira Kaplan (guitar, vocals) and Georgia Hubley (drums, vocals) aren’t hugely successful. They are critical darlings, they have a captive cult (Author’s note: I waive all rights to objectivity and admit my membership), but despite touring incessantly—they come to town the day after their first gig at Coachella—and naming their recent release Popular Songs, Yo La Tengo’s wide-spread popularity hasn’t happened. As if we didn’t know the world was massively screwed.
As for that ironic CD title, McNew says, “It stood every bit of a chance of being less of a hit if we named it Unpopular Songs. Now it’s the power of positive thinking—it must be popular if they call it that.” Titles, of course, are important to YLT—the last CD was I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, while song titles range from the Dylan-referencing “From a Motel 6” to the archly playful “Evanescent Psychic Pez Drop”—but that doesn’t mean they come easy for the threesome. “We’re not songwriters with notebooks in which we scribble lyrics,” McNew explains. “Everything begins with an instrumental, with a melody, and we sort of implant words later based on the mood of the song. So then, of course, there have been those wonderful moments sitting in the art director’s office at Matador [Records], and everything’s ready to go but the titles of three songs … that’s a horrible feeling I hope never happens again.”
What McNew does relish happening again and again is playing live. “Yo La Tengo shows are really long and have a wide dynamic range, musically and in mood,” he describes. And while they often feature achingly gorgeous quiet moments, often those with Georgia Hubley singing lead, concert-goers probably most remember the moments when Kaplan’s usually mild-mannered self gets taken over by his inner guitar-hulk hero. “I’d say it happens several times every show,” McNew says. “He kind of doesn’t really have a boundary. That segment of a song when he solos is off the cuff and different every day. The length is different, the mood is different. I look forward to that every day. It makes what we do feel more alive. If you could play the same 16-bar solo every day, it’s a riff. We’d hate that so much we’d be physically incapable of doing it. We’d sooner jump off a bridge.”
Unpredictability, of course, is one of the things YLT fans cherish about the band. All three members seem to have an encyclopedic knowledge and love of rock, pop, folk, jazz, even show tunes, and that means they can drop stunning covers of the likes of Richard Hell, the Beach Boys, Bert Jansch, Sun Ra, and “Love Power” from the original version of The Producers. Alas, they probably won’t cover any songs by Dump, McNew’s four-track home-recording side project, not even a Prince cover (as Dump, McNew recorded a wonderful album’s worth of the Purple One’s best, which they dubbed That Skinny Mother Fucker with the High Voice). “It’s been ages [since I recorded as Dump],” he admits. “But there’s been talk of some activity coming up this summer, a large reissue project.”
McNew also hopes to get back to one of his pet projects on the Yo La Tengo Web site: his TV blog, On the Couch with James. “I’ve always got time for TV, but there hasn’t been that much I’ve been moved by,” he says as explanation for why he hasn’t kept it up. “Just writing about stuff I don’t like, it’s kind of cheap. I don’t want to be that guy.” He does admit to liking Tim and Eric, Awesome Show, Great Job! on Adult Swim and AMC’s Breaking Bad, adding, “Both feature Bob Odenkirk on occasion, and where Bob goes, I go.” That’s little surprise, given Odenkirk directed and starred in Yo La Tengo’s video for their 1997 zingy rocker “Sugarcube,” in which the band is sent off to a hilarious rock camp (one teacher solemnly recites Rush lyrics, while another stresses “Number one, arena. Number nothing, indie rock club”).
Of course, McNew and the band would like nothing more than for us to check them out at our local indie rock club. “What else is there to do that night? What’s a Monday night TV show you can’t tape?” he says. “College basketball is over, and it’s too early in the baseball season for anyone to care, so why not come down to the show?”
Yo La Tengo plays an 18+ show at Velvet Jones on Monday, April 19, at t 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call 965-8676 or visit clubmercy.com.