April 14, 1996

This ain't flamenco: Kaplan and Yo La Tengo turn it on

By Josh Westlund

I've always assumed that most people have heard of Yo La Tengo. Perhaps I just surround myself with slightly pretentious indie rocker types, like the friend who commented on the "inherent linguistic dualism" of the band's name (though Yo La Tengo literally means "I have it," if you don't know Spanish, well, you don't have it). But recently I realized the potential confusion the name generates when someone asked, "So, are they like a flamenco band or something?"

It is a bit confusing-why would a band based out of Hoboken that plays sometimes poppy, sometimes folky, sometimes noisy songs, give themselves a name that implies there's a Spanish aspect to their music? "Mostly we just thought it had a nice ring to it," guitarist/vocalist Ira Kaplan said in a phone interview. "We weren't exactly thinking of the flamenco angle. That's sort of a small backfiring, I guess. Mostly we just wanted a name that had no meaning for English-speaking people."

Yo La Tengo, who appear tonight in the Silliman Dining Hall, also include Georgia Hubley, who plays drums and sings, and bassist James McNew. Over the years, the band's music has vacillated between the extremes of acoustic lulling ballads and droney feedback marathons. On Electr-o-pura, their seventh LP, the band incorporates the two into a powerful and captivating synthesis. Part of the band's newfound cohesiveness can be attributed to the presence of James McNew, who was able to establish a permanent spot for himself in the band after a seemingly endless parade of bassists.

The band still enjoys playing with perceptions. On Electr-o-pura, the song lengths on the CD cover are incorrect-nine-minute songs are listed at three minutes. Kaplan explained, "There are a lot of cool things about CD. One of them is the digital counter....We knew that as soon as somebody put [the album] in their CD player, they would know how long the songs really were. It was just a mild messing around with your first impression. But to whatever extent we were trying to fool people, it was somewhat out of defensiveness. I think sometimes people have a tendency to look at a song and say, 'Oh, it's six minutes long. This is gonna suck. Pop songs should be three minutes.' So we thought we'd say, 'Oh yeah, we agree with you completely,' and have people not go into 'Flying Lesson' or 'Blue Line Swinger' already armed to not like this song, and maybe trick them into listening to it once."

The band has often been compared to the Velvet Underground and, in the film I Shot Andy Warhol, the band actually performs as the Velvets. "We're all big movie fans," Kaplan noted. "It was pretty exotic to be on the movie set....I was given these fake sideburns which I don't ever recall seeing in photos of Lou Reed but certainly weren't atypical of that year." The band has also contributed to numerous soundtracks, including Brain Candy, the new Kids in the Hall movie. Filmmaking is also the source of the band's Yale connection-Faith Hubley, a well-known animator and the mother of Georgia, teaches a seminar in Yale's art department.

Given the band's obsession with film, it's not surprising that their biggest single, "Tom Courtenay," deals with the subject of fame and movie stars. According to Kaplan, Courtenay "was a popular swinging '60s actor in England, and he was in some movies including Billy Liar, which is a movie Georgia really likes, and I've never seen, so this makes him this funny figure in my life, who's famous, but whom I only know refracted through Georgia. It seemed like a good title for a personal song about fame and celebrity, to pick a celebrity I only knew through a personal relationship and sketchy knowledge about his career." The band actually asked Courtenay to make a cameo in the video for the song, which Kaplan describes as a "disaster fantasy of what it would be like to open for the Beatles." The actor politely declined.

Yo La Tengo is known for reinventing their material onstage. "We change our songs consciously, but that decision can be conscious without necessarily being rehearsed," Kaplan said. "A really obvious example for us is if we do an encore and people have been requesting a certain song, we're generally pretty open to playing it, but frequently, we'll change it radically to suit whatever mood we're in."

"Our records couldn't be played live by the three of us, even if we wanted to. It's not something that we're interested in," Kaplan stated. What the band is interested in is creating a unique texture and groove. Perhaps the band put it best themselves on the Electr-o-pura sleeve: "Sound is music and quick lights and people who make our sound their own. That's when we're really turned on."

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