The descriptor ‘indie’ is bandied about frequently these days, to the point of near-meaninglessness. New Jersey icons Yo La Tengo, however, have become synonymous with the term unlike no-one else, maintaining perennial acclaim since their breakthrough with Matador Records in the early 1990s, while mostly avoiding the eye of the mainstream.
This year saw the release of Fade, the first proper Yo La Tengo album since 2009. As such, 2013 is proving as busy a year as ever for the trio, says founding member Ira Kaplan.“It’s nothing we have to think about, [but] we don’t have enough time to do all the things we want to do. It just seems to work out that way. Especially this year, we’ve just been almost overwhelmed with how busy we’ve been. What I’m really trying to do is find time to go to movies, see some baseball and do other things I like to do… The band has occupied so much time, between doing shows and doing other tangential things, there just isn’t enough time in the day to do all the things we want to do.”
Kaplan is dismissive when I enquire about the long term future of Yo La Tengo, making it clear decades-long forecasts have never been part of the band’s plan. “We’ve never looked that far ahead, ever. It’s funny, in 1991 we were encouraged by our manager at the time to stop renting vans and buy one. So we did, we took out a loan. It was the first time we really had to say, ‘We have to do this for another five years, so we can pay off the van.’ We never really looked that far ahead, to say we’d borrow money and pay it off in the lifetime of the band. To a certain extent, it doesn’t change. Not that we expect to be together a year from now, but what the future brings and what form it will take is something we don’t think about, something we don’t like to think about.”
2011 saw Yo La Tengo set out on what was perhaps the most conceptually ambitious tour of their career, bringing a spinning wheel on the road to decide what each night would entail – ranging from material from their Condo Fucks side project, to songs starting with ‘S’, to read-throughs of old Seinfeld transcripts. “That was fun. We had made that [Fuckbook] record under a different name, the Condo Fucks, and we liked playing that way, but we didn’t really want to do a Condo Fucks tour. A few things just fell into place and we came up with this idea that, like a lot of things that appeal to us, seemed simultaneously audacious and funny – to not know what we were going to play on any given night; to keep at our disposal hundreds of songs.”
Still going as strong as ever as they approach their third decade of existence, Yo La Tengo’s key to longevity is a simple one. “We’re happy being a band,” Kaplan says. “That’s successful. [But also] a band that stops playing on their own terms is successful – I don’t think success is only defined as continuing. It depends on the group. We enjoy playing. And I gotta say, I almost feel like I enjoy playing now more than ever. There are countless examples of bands that our younger selves would define as successful, but they didn’t enjoy it. Maybe you have to readjust what you’re looking for. That’s something we’ve always been good at; extracting what is good at any given moment. There is always going to be something you can enjoy, there is always going to be something you won’t enjoy. If you can focus on one while riding out the other, that’s a good way to be happy.”
BY LACHLAN KANONIUK