Yo La Tengo: Lives on the road, spinning wheels and Lou Reed


Yo La Tengo come to Liverpool for a rare show in December, Getintothis’ Jamie Bowman spoke with bassist James McNew about their longevity and the special intimacy of their gigs.

These are good times for Liverpool-based fans of US alt-rock. Recent visits from old stagers Low and Dinosaur Jr. are still fresh in the memory while a short train ride could have had you at Pixies’ recent Manchester gig.
Completing this fertile crop is next week’s rare arrival of Yo La Tengo: a band whose 28 year career has seen them steadily grow into the sort of cult that can sell out London’s Barbican Theatre and inspire fevered devotion from the critics and an incredibly loyal indie fanbase.
A year of touring in support of this year’s warmly received Fade album has seen the New Jersey trio having fun with their extensive back catalogue by splitting their shows into two sets of ‘quiet’ and ‘loud’ songs – fitting for a band equally likely to play a 17 minute drone fest or a feedback filled cover of Adam Ant’s Ant Music.
Speaking on the phone from a hotel room in Stockholm, bassist James McNew, agrees that the concept has kept things fresh for a band promoting their 13th album.
James says: “It came from a tour we did a few years ago with a spinning wheel which determined what we’d play.
We basically opened for ourselves and whatever the opening set was we had no clue in advance.
Sometimes an audience member would spin the wheel and whatever the wheel told us to play would be the opening set. It made us realise the different things we could do and the ‘Evening with….’ concept is one we are very happy with now.
We are pretty well suited to it in terms of our catalogue and the way we play and It feels good to give a thorough representation of what we do.
Playing the two sets allows us to play a lot of songs from across our career and we do try as much as possible to fill in with a lot of songs from our past and songs that we don’t play that often. They have a home now and it’s felt really good to do that.”
Despite their willingness to experiment on record, James says the band’s faithful fan base deserve to know what they can expect from a Yo La Tengo show.
There is no record in the offing as the tour has been all consuming this year and we have not been working on material.
“We definitely don’t demo ideas on a paying audience – I think that would be asking a bit much – ‘Here’s a song we haven’t written yet!’

Yo La Tengo in action
As well-known students of rock, Yo La Tengo’s visit to Liverpool can’t help but excite a band known for their love of all things Fab Four.
Oh we’re not really that familiar with the music scene in Liverpool,” laughs James.
The last time we played there we did a tribute to the town’s musical history by playing a few songs by The Rutles. A visit to Liverpool is certainly not lost on us. We’re not made of stone.
This is only the third time we’ve been to Liverpool – we played there with Stereolab in 1995 and in 2004 with Gorky’s Zygotic Mynki and although I wouldn’t say we are anglophiles, it’s true that some of the most important music in our life has been British music.”
Another band clearly important to these (almost) native New Yorkers is the Velvet Underground with Yo La Tengo’s love of somnabulant drone pop clearly influenced by Lou Reed’s legendary output.
Given their devotion, how did James and fellow band members Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan react to Reed’s death?
It was very strange, ” muses James, “Yo La Tengo is on Facebook and Twitter and the whole ‘celebrity death’ on social media thing has become like bouncing a beach ball around at a concert but to have a celebrity death that affected all of us very deeply was very strange.
Things that Lou Reed did for a little while in his career a long time ago changed our lives completely What would I be doing? Would I have been doing what I have been doing for the last 25 years if it wasn’t for the Velvets?
We have always done Velvets covers but since his death we’ve played I Found A Reason and I’m Set Free.
It was important and genuinely very sad but he gave us a lot of things to think about and a lot of excellent music.”
Almost three decades into their career, the same could be said of Yo La Tengo.

Further reading on Getintothis:
Yo La Tengo set for rare Liverpool date
Pixies, The Jezabels: Manchester Apollo
Low: Anglican Cathedral, Liverpool
Dinosaur Jr, Kult Country: East Village Arts Club, Liverpool