Out on a limb
Don't expect to hear your favorite hits when New
York indie-rock icons Yo La Tengo tour Japan next week.
|James McNew, Georgia
Hubley and Ira Kaplan
With all the bands getting together at the Fuji Rock Festival,
you'd think that the opportunity for impromptu jam
sessions wouldn't be wasted. You'd be wrong.
Tight schedules don't permit groups to hang out and
join each other onstage.
So it was a great pleasure when, in the middle of Yo La Tengo's
show at this past summer's Fuji Rock, they invited
members of the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra to join them for
a few songs. The juxtaposition of guitar-driven, indie-rock
feedback with the voice-like squeals of jazz saxophones made
the set one of the more memorable of the festival.
This sort of restless experimentation has made Yo La Tengo
a critic's choice in their two-decade career, but it
turns out there was more to their Sun Ra jam than a chance
meeting of bands. In fact, Yo La Tengo (Spanish for "I've
got it") had recorded a cover of the Sun Ra anti-war
epic "Nuclear War" in 2002 as a response to
the events of September 11.
"Around October 2001 we started thinking about how
we were going to play," recalls frontman Ira Kaplan
by phone from his home in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the
Hudson River from New York City. "It was a time when
you couldn't make a move without measuring it against
the events of September 11
We were thinking about
how to acknowledge it, if to acknowledge it, just what form
it should take. I don't remember just whose idea it
was to cover that song, but it appealed to everybody."
While Yo La Tengo had in fact previously jammed with members
of the Arkestra, the Fuji Rock session was more a result of
good timing and a flexible approach to performing than a preconceived
plan. Says Kaplan, "I was looking at the Fuji Rock
website and noticed they were playing, but it didn't
even give a day. So I contacted their agent to find out when
they were playing, and it was the same day as us
just made them an open invitation."
The loose, open-ended jam made up in inspiration for what
it lacked in structure. "I was pretty pleased, but
you know a lot of that stuff is just, you see what happens,
it's not like perfection is being sought," says
a reflective Kaplan. "The thing I was most pleased
about conceptually was that we approached it like any other
show. The temptation is to approach it a little safer and
just do your best-known songs... To invite the members of
the Arkestra to join us and shake things up-I was proud
that we did-and I thought it worked to a varying degree."
Some bands rave about the Fuji Rock Festival, but Yo La Tengo
prefer to headline their own gigs. "FRF for me is an
exceptional music festival, but festivals are not my favorite,"
Kaplan says. "Bands come and go straight back to Tokyo
I had a great time playing and it was certainly great to play
for that many enthusiastic people, but I'd be lying
if I said I wasn't looking forward to our tour in December."
The upcoming tour looks to be their largest yet in Japan,
as Yo La Tengo's last three albums, 1997's I
Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, 2000's And Then
Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, and this spring's
moody Summer Sun, have brought them increased acclaim. Kaplan
says that Japanese fans have even made the trip to New York
just to catch the unusual, eight-day "Hanukkahpalooza"
shows that the band have put on at their homeground venue,
Maxwell's in Hoboken, for the past two years.
"It's so great," he enthuses. "The
times we've been there before-we do hear from
people. I was mentioning these Hanukkah shows, and last time
people came over from Japan to attend some of them. I can't
think of a place we look forward to traveling to more."
Like another pillar of the New York rock aristocracy, Sonic
Youth, Yo La Tengo also center on a husband-and-wife creative
team. Frontman Kaplan is backed by wife Georgia Hubley on
drums, with James McNew filling out the lineup on bass. But
this is not a husband-and-wife songwriting partnership in
the traditional sense. "The band has pretty resolutely,
since Electr-o-pura, written songs as a group," he
explains. "With any band, there is always a dynamic
based on the relationships between the people in the band-that's
just a fact of people working together
You know the
marriage certainly affects the band, but we've been
playing together, the three of us, 11-12 years now
I don't think we could have kept it going as long if
it wasn't working."
Two decades on, Kaplan sees no end in sight for Yo La Tengo.
"Rock bands are right up there with boxers in not knowing
when it's time to quit-I'll probably
be the last person to know," he says with a laugh.
"I'll have to get knocked out in the ring a
He also says to expect the unexpected for the upcoming Japan
tour. "When I go to a show I'd much rather see
a band that is out on a limb. If I don't hear my favorite
song, that's OK as long as the group is putting forth
an effort to create something."
Summer Sun is available on Matador/P-Vine
Records. Yo La Tengo play Club Quattro on December 3-4. See
concert listings for details.
Discuss music with METROPOLIS
readers at http://forum.japantoday.com