Yo La Tengo: Popular People?

They've been around for years yet the critics continue to fall for <strong>Yo La Tengo</strong> with every new release. The New Jersey trio are prolific, achingly cool, but somehow not quite 'famous'. Ira Kaplan ponders mainstream success, alternative career paths and the death of music journalism.

Feature by Paul Mitchell | 20 Oct 2009

"Of course it crosses our minds, but it’s great that we have the opportunity to do whatever we want, and make a very nice living from it.” Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan ruminates over the fact that despite years and years (they’ve been around since 1984) of critical acclaim, and the fawning proffered by a core group of committed fans, they have yet to make a major mainstream impact. “Ultimately, there’s really not that much to complain about,” he continues, “we’re all smart enough to look around us and see that the people who do have mainstream success aren’t necessarily more satisfied in what they’re doing than we are.”

It has become a recent recurring theme of Kaplan’s to highlight the New Jersey trio’s happy position of doing pretty much what they like on record. By way of example, he points to the release earlier this year of Fuckbook (an album of 80s covers released under the alias Condo Fucks) which “came about by just plugging in a fuzzbox before a party and going for it.” If anything, he gives the impression that he and his bandmates (wife Georgia Hubley and James McNew) exist in a bubble of contented whimsy, occasionally pricked into creative action by the spirits of spontaneity. Surely they take some time to consider where they’ll be headed next? “No, not really, or certainly a lot less than you’d think. Sometimes people seem to find a narrative in a new record that simply doesn’t exist. You can take the Condo Fucks album and maybe suggest that there’s been some planning there but that’s not necessarily the case.”

Kaplan draws attention to the idiosyncracy of a supposed narrative by giving a history lesson in the early days of popular music, and the politicking that frequently took place which suggests that mostly, things were outwith the control of the artists in question. “I find it interesting to think of bands like The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones etc. When their music was first released in the States, before Rock n’ Roll was treated seriously as an art form, the track listings were often different from the original versions. So in that sense, our storyline here in the U.S was different to what you guys in Britain experienced. The bands didn’t have much to do with that, it’s what people made of those tracks that provided the story”.

Yo La Tengo have just released their twelfth studio album, Popular Music – Kaplan won’t say if the title is ironic – with the critics' words of praise again ringing loudly in their ears. At this juncture in his career, it may be that Kaplan, himself a former rock writer, wonders if the music journalism industry has any lasting relevance. “The whole star rating era we seem to have now… I don’t think it’s the form at its peak. It’s not just music journalism, it’s arts coverage in general. I went to see a movie yesterday. I didn’t particularly like it, but it was still an interesting movie to have watched. ‘Is it good or bad’ is hardly the most vital function that the serious critic can provide to their readership. Unfortunately, that is not the majority opinion these days.”

Based on the evidence of Popular Songs, it seems ludicrous to suggest that Yo La Tengo should call it a day anytime soon, though Kaplan admits the query does arise with increasing frequency. “The question of us stopping always takes me by surprise. It really hasn’t occurred to me that we might. I keep thinking that if we were bored we would stop doing it. Maybe that’s naïve, maybe we couldn’t resist the fact that people are willing to pay us to do stuff, even though we’re not enjoying it.”

This is not to suggest that Kaplan hasn’t given alternative career paths some serious thought. “Well, recently, we were in Italy and there was this one gelato [ice cream] place that we couldn’t stop going to. At first we thought we should really try out different ones every day but this was clearly our favourite so we went there all the time. Then, and I can’t remember the exact Italian phrase, but I noticed they belonged to some kind of ‘Board of Artisanal Gelato Manufacturers’ and I thought ‘Hey, I could work for that company!’”

Playing ABC, Glasgow on 6 Nov.