Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo guitarist Ira Kaplan declared, in no uncertain terms, to Jeff Salamon of Spin magazine in 1997, “I one hundred percent reject the notion that we’re a critics’ band.” Strong words from a former rock critic about a band that has, since its inception in 1984, received far more words of praise in the media than it has sold records. Named for a phrase yelled by a hispanic New York Mets fielder, Yo La Tengo was started and has always consisted of guitarist and vocalist, Ira Kaplan and his wife, drummer and vocalist, Georgia Hubley. What started as a side-project for a rock critic and his percussion-wise mate became one of independent rock’s most-championed bands. They’d sold only 50,000 records from their first release in 1986 to their 1997 album but their credibility in the indie-rock genre was rock solid.
For the first six years of songwriting, recording and touring, the band was essentially a two-person show, with practical contributions over the years from bassists Al Greller, Gene Holder, Mike Lewis, and Stephen Wichnewski. Guitarist Dave Schramm’s input was key to
Members include Georgia Hubrey , drums; Ira Kaplan , guitar, vocals; vocals; James McNew (member c. 1991), bass. Former members include Al Greller (c. 1990), bass; Gene Holder (c. 1989), bass; Mike Lewis (member c. 1985), bass; Dave Schramm (member c. 1985); Stephen Wichnewski (member c. 1987).
Formed c. 1984, in Hoboken, NJ; Kaplan and Hubrey voted “Cutest Couple” (Class of ‘85) at a Hoboken high school; released debut Ride the Tiger on Coyote, 1986; signed to Matador in 1993; retoured with alternative-rock festival Lollapalooza in 1993; released I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, 1997.
the group's 1986 debut, Ride the Tiger and again on President Yo La Tengo in 1989 and Fakebook in 1990. There has always been a floating third member of Yo La Tengo, and not until bassist James McNew joined the group in 1991 did the lineup ever solidify.
It is no coincidence that Kaplan and Hubley, married since 1987, have always remained the core of the trio. Chris Norris of New York said in 1997, “Hubley and Kaplan’s music has everything to do with their relationship—would not, in fact, exist without it—and it has everything to do with the subculture that sustains them.” Their common love of popular music, baseball and hanging out with other musicians works its way from their marriage into their music. That the couple has been called “pop culture’s best advertisement for marriage” only illustrates the way their belief in rock and roll as more than a vehicle for attention-starved show offs comes across to fans.
While recognized as part of New York bohemia, whose genealogy can be traced back past the Velvet Underground—whom Yo La Tengo portrayed in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol—they seemed a little more grounded than “a whole tradition of left-leaning, humanist-minded, Jewish-identified artists who have thrived in New York’s margins for 50 years.” The difference Norris pointed out was that “what Hubley and Kaplan took from late-sixties art rock wasn’t the emphasis on glamour, sex, drugs, and thanatos but a belief that rock could be more than teen culture, that you could keep exploring, keep experimenting.” Hubley and Kaplan weredeemed, unlike their self-destructive predecessors, able to find an “adult bohemia.”
It seemed that Yo La Tengo had defied the rock and roll school of success and gone about eeking out a rock existence that was more stable. In a 1997 review Spin’s Robert Christgau said, “not all the music emanating form Yo La Tengo is perfect. That’s intentional—this paradise not only has room for error, it revels in the human-scale joys of inexpertise.”
Hubley grew up in a household that saw the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and Paul Simon pass through its doors. Her parents were animators—her late father John invented the character Mr. Magoo—and brought her up in a creative environment. Hubley’s mother, Faith, let the neophyte drummer practice in her warehouse studio on Madison Avenue. The manager of the Carlyle Hotel, located across the street, once attempted to bribe Mrs. Hubley into stopping Georgia from practicing at night. Mrs. Hubley recalled her reaction to Norris in 1997, “I said, ‘No, no, no, no. She’s pursuing her art and she has the right to do that, and we don’t need your money, thank you very much.”
Kaplan’s beginnings as a rock critic cloaked his talents as amusician. Of those days, Kaplan told Carl Swanson the New York Observer in 1997, “It was a way of staying close to music. I was definitely the cliché music writer who would rather be a musician.” Even his father, Abraham, knew. “I remember he spent one entire summer sitting around trying to become skillful on the guitar,” he told Norris. “From the earliest on, I knew it would never be a hobby.”
His talent not in question, Kaplan was terrified to perform publicly—Georgia was his only audience for quite a while. One by one, the couple invited people in and at their debut performance, Kaplan opened his mouth to sing the second song—the first was an instrumental—and nothing came out.
Kaplan eventually learned to play through his performance anxiety, and Yo La Tengo became as known for their frequent live shows as for their recordings. Fans and critics reveled in the unpredictability of the Yo La Tengo live experience. “Yo La Tengo make regular excursions into the unknown on stage, and, like any performance, the results can be pretty hit or miss. But when they pull it off, it is something to behold,” commented Swanson.
Kaplan is known to tire of and become noticeably uncomfortable during press tours and interviews. Yet he performs his public responsibilities dutifully. His interests apparently lie in exposing Yo La Tengo to as many people as possible. Based on his observations, the band’s relentless, though reluctant, self-promotion has paid off. “We’re fortunate in that we’ve only gotten more popular,” he told Dawn Sutton of the College Music Journal (CMJ) in 1997. “Not that we’re selling a billion records, but every record does a little better than the one before and every tour does a little better than the one before, and I think that helps. I think we are very self-motivated and inner-directed and all sorts of jargony things, but at the same time it’s pretty rewarding when there are all these people out there.”
The group’s 1997 release, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, exhibited how the band, once a two-person operation, had evolved into an even balance of power. Adam Heimlich of the New York Press noted in 1997 that “not since Rush has a trio shared power as evenly as Yo La Tengo … it’s easy to let the 33-and-a-third percent contributions… calibrate the whole experience.” Bassist James McNew’s contributions to the band went from hired hand on his first record being part of all the songwriting with them on their fourth album, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One.
Critics were wowed by what they heard, the new sound of their pet band. Reviews called the record “a more subdued listen,” “a more varied sound” than their previous releases. Most reviews centered on the more pronounced balance—always somewhat present on Yo La Tengo recordings—between sonic assault and heartfelt melodies, their “ability to express the pedestrian or the sublime in a single phrase,” as Joe Donnelly of Raygun summarized in a 1997 review. Kaplan characteristically played down their reactions to CMJs Sutter. “Sometimes what may seem like a different influence is really just a different button on the drum machine,” he said.
The evolution of Yo La Tengo did not go unnoticed by Kaplan, however he may have tried to play it off to journalists. As he told Salamon, the Yo La Tengo that had just released I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and the one he’d known previously were “two different bands.” Hubley agreed. “Now, I feel like the three of us are more like one personality,” she said. “Almost a separate personality.”
New Wave Hot Dogs/President Yo La Tengo, Twin/Tone, 1989.
Fakebook, Bar/None, 1990.
May I Sing With Me, Alias, 1992.
Upside Down, Alias, 1992.
Painful, Matador/Atlantic, 1993.
Camp Yo La Tengo (EP), Matador, 1995.
Electr-O-Pura, Matador, 1995.
Genius + Love=Yo La Tengo, Matador, 1996.
Ride the Tiger, Coyote, 1986; Matador, 1996.
New Wave Hot Dogs, Coyote, 1987; Matador, 1996.
President Yo La Tengo, Coyote, 1989; Matador, 1996.
Autumn Sweater (EP), Matador, 1997.
I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, Matador, 1997.
Sugarcube/The Summer/Looney Toons (EP), Matador, 1997.
Little Honda (EP), Matador, 1998.
College Music Journal, May 5, 1997.
Entertainment Weekly, October 8, 1993; May 2, 1997.
Guitar Player, October 1997.
New York, May 12, 1997.
New York Observer, May 12, 1997.
New York Press, May 1997.
New York Times, November 5, 1997.
Rolling Stone, May 1, 1997; October 2, 1997.
Spin, January 1998.
Village Voice, October 19, 1993; April 29, 1997.
“Yola Tengo,” Trouser Press, http://www.trouserpress.com (September 20, 1998).
“Yo la Tengo,” Pitchfork Review Archive, http://www.live-wire.com (August 9, 1998).
“Yo la Tengo,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (October 3, 1998).
Additional information was provided by Matador Records publicity materials, 1998.
Yo La Tengo
YO LA TENGO
Formed: 1984, Hoboken, New Jersey
Members: Georgia Hubley, drums, vocals; Ira Kaplan, guitar, vocals; Mike Lewis, bass; James McNew, bass, vocals; Dave Schramm, guitar
Best-selling album since 1990: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000)
Hit songs since 1990: "From a Motel Six," "Tom Courtenay," "Sugarcube"
Yo La Tengo is composed of enthusiastic rock fans. But rather than shamelessly ape the styles of their favorite bands, they have translated their reverence for the genre into a unique and transcendent sound. A married couple, Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, formed the band in the mid-1980s during Kaplan's tenure as a rock journalist. They released a series of stylistically sprawling albums, eventually hitting their stride in the early 1990s after adding a permanent bassist, James McNew. On the albums May I Sing with Me (1992) and Painful (1993), they perfected a dreamy style of songcraft marked by tender, breathy vocals and Kaplan's frenzied bursts of guitar noise. This engaging sound earned them a reputation with fans and critics as one of America's finest independent rock bands.
Guitarist Kaplan and drummer Hubley began to play music together in the basement of Maxwell's, a legendary venue in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1984. A true rock and roll obsessive, Kaplan wrote articles for Spin magazine and worked as a sound man at Maxwell's. The pair focused on playing covers, learning the songs of their favorite bands, obscure or otherwise, from throughout the rock era. In a further display of fandom, they named the band Yo La Tengo (Spanish for "I got it!"), a reference to the former New York Mets outfielder Richie Ashburn, who would shout the phrase while diving for fly balls.
After recruiting guitarist Dave Schramm and bassist Mike Lewis, the band recorded and released Ride the Tiger (1986), a quiet affair that displays their love of British Invasion pop and American folk music. While featuring Kaplan's gift for melody and Hubley's bracing vocals, the album only hints at the more experimental and potent direction of their later work. Schramm and Lewis left the band shortly after the release of the record, and Kaplan and Hubley worked with a rotating cast of musicians for the next several years. New Wave Hot Dogs (1987) and President Yo La Tengo (1989) found Kaplan embracing a noisy but refined style of guitar playing that was aggressive but still impressively tuneful, whereas Hubley evolved into a solid and commanding drummer. The band began to play with extremes, with songs like the droning "Barnaby, Hardly Working" and "The Evil That Men Do" exploring the power of matching shocking noise with near silence.
Yo La Tengo opened the 1990s with Fakebook (1990), a folky album recorded with Schramm. Mostly comprised of covers, the record functions as a tour through their favorite songs, marked by the pristine beauty of "Yellow Sarong" and "Speeding Motorcycle." The album strips away the electric noise of their previous two releases, revealing the increasingly gorgeous combination of Kaplan's deadpan singing and Hubley's ethereal vocals, which became just as important to the band's sonic design as their unique instrumentation.
May I Sing with Me (1992) proved to be the pivotal Yo La Tengo album, returning to the electric textures of President Yo La Tengo with invigorating results. Bassist James
McNew joined the band prior to recording, solidifying the band's rhythm section and adding expressive background vocals. The collection exhibits their knack for balancing catchy, uptempo rockers ("Upside Down") with blistering soundscapes ("Mushroom Cloud of Hiss"). With vivid sounds and soothing textures, May I Sing with Me provided the first clear look at the Yo La Tengo to come.
Painful (1993) was the band's first true masterpiece, a startling collection of strangely beautiful songs that pushed the limits of sonic texture and experimentation. The album is influenced by the U.K.-based shoegazer sound, in which layers of guitar noise are used to create slow, dreamy compositions. Specifically, Kaplan employs jagged, barbed guitar lines in the context of gentle pop melodies to forge a soothing, expansive sound. The album opens with the slowly awakening "Big Day Coming," which is revisited later in the album as a crushing, keyboard-driven anthem. Simple rockers like "From a Motel Six" are launched straight into the sky by Kaplan's propulsive guitar, but the band also recognizes the power of holding back completely, such as on the whispered romantic ballad "Nowhere Near."
Electr-O-Pura (1995) continues the sonic strides of Painful, but with more forays into stylistic eclecticism. The nervy drone of "Decora" and the epic "Blue Line Swinger" provide sonic thrills, but the band also grips the soul with the mournful country-tinged "Pablo and Andrea" and the incandescent "Don't Say a Word." Each song on the album is completely different, the only common feature being the band's mastery of creating patterns of sound. Thus, the shimmering pop of "Tom Courtenay" and the spastic rock of "Straight Down to the Bitter End" feel natural together. The band's vision fosters a wide array of possibilities.
The band continued to reach in all directions on I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (1997). The band is all over the map, tackling giddy rockers ("Sugarcube"), psychedelic noise workouts ("Deeper into Movies"), bossa nova ("Center of Gravity"), and classic pop ("My Little Corner of the World"). Subtlety is key, as evidenced by the organic drone of "Autumn Sweater," which plays like a darkly romantic mystery ("We could slip away / Oh wouldn't that be better? / Leave with nothing to say / And you in your autumn sweater"). The sound is deep and cinematic, culminating in "We're an American Band," an awe-inspiring track with Kaplan and Hubley singing languorously over a gentle wave of guitars that build to a perfect swirling storm.
The calm moments that mark Heart take over completely on And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000), the band's most enigmatic work. Each track on the album uses subtle, layered instrumentation to create an ambient mood. The opening track, "Everyday," employs the Yo La Tengo hallmarks of droning keyboards, guitar noise, and ethereal vocals to create an otherworldly dirge. The album is also intensely romantic, a testament to not only Kaplan and Hubley's enduring marriage but also their unceasing love of rock music. "Our Way to Fall" and "You Can Have It All" are dense love songs for the new century that address the complexity of relationships and revel in their possibilities. They show their sense of humor on the nimble samba "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" and employ guitar fuzz on the catchy, comfortable rocker "Cherry Chapstick."
Yo La Tengo titled their 1998 collection of B-sides and outtakes Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo. The title might seem arrogant, but it is a pithy description of how the band operates. They possess the good taste of connoisseurs but also understand that the best rock possesses a warmth and spirit that can only come from the soul. This combination of smarts and passion makes their music unforgettable and indispensable.
Ride the Tiger (Matador, 1986); New Wave Hot Dogs (Coyote, 1987); President Yo La Tengo (Coyote, 1989); Fakebook (Bar/None, 1990); May I Sing with Me (Alias, 1992); Painful (Matador, 1993); Electr-O-Pura (Matador, 1995); I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (Matador, 1997); Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo (Matador, 1998); And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (Matador, 2000).