The Story of Yo La Tengo: Two Concerts and an Awkward Fan Interaction with Indie Rock Royalty
Emily Votaw, Features Editor
I will never forget the night I played Ira Kaplan’s guitar.
I am fully aware that statement means very little to anyone who has not listened to Yo La Tengo’s1997 magnum opus I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, or anyone who has heard it and not been fundamentally changed by it. That statement means even less to anyone who doesn’t see “Ira Kaplan” and immediately recognize the name as the frontman of Yo La Tengo.
Or, worse yet, someone who has never heard Yo La Tengo.
I saw Yo La Tengo at the Grog Shop in Cleveland Heights, an incredibly intimate space to see one of my favorite bands. I bought my ticket weeks in advance–-planning how I would get off work and specifically figuring out when I would leave my college town to travel about four hours north to see the group at a dive bar on Coventry.
I get pretty particular about band merch--any girl will understand the disappointment that follows learning that the band has run out of all “small” size shirts--a predicament that can be solved by checking out a band’s merchandise before the show. So, just as I had planned, I scoured the merch table, only to find t-shirts identical to the ones I had bought at a Yo La Tengo show only months ago at the Beachland Ballroom.
There was something much greater waiting for me at that tiny table on the side of the stage. I noticed two people on the side of the merchandise table--specifically, two very short people in striped shirts. Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley. A.K.A. Yo La Tengo. At this point, I was immediately overjoyed that I had slipped my copy of I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One into my purse before starting the trip. I had done so just in case something like this would happen.
I would like to say that I had a long, intimate conversation with two of my musical heroes about the incredible work they have done over the past three decades. Instead, I got really sweaty and asked, in my most Minnie Mouse-esque voice, if they would “please sign my CD,” as well as the two discs I bought at the merch table. They did, and I thanked them. Then I nervously chittered, “And thank you for all those albums that, you know, changed my life and all that jazz.”
"All that jazz."
Those were the words I used.
Why? I wish it was because I made some bizarre, nerdy connection between the incredible diversity of styles in which Yo La Tengo dabbles and actually talking to Yo La Tengo, but it’s just because I use odd catch phrases when I’m nervous (which is all the time).
Later that night I made up for my embarrassing encounter. I had creeped up to the front row (because the Grog Shop is standing room only, this wasn’t that difficult), but the feeling of accomplishment that came along with being merely a foot away from Yo La Tengo is yet another thing that is hard to describe to anyone who doesn’t share my obsession.
Something happens to Kaplan when he starts playing one of his long, noisy, irresistibly listenable solos. He transforms from someone you’d expect to see rummaging through his extensive vinyl collection to someone with the ability to not only appreciate incredible music--but also equipped with the ability to play it relentlessly and passionately. Kaplan seems possessed by the music he is playing, as if the guitar is playing him instead of vice versa. In the middle of an incredible guitar solo, Kaplan laid the body of his guitar on the front of one of the amps lining the Grog Shop’s central stage.
Right in front of me.
It took several hands reaching from behind me to realize that Kaplan was giving me permission to strum his guitar, to play with his whammy peddle. And play with that whammy peddle I did.
Nearly 30 years ago in New Jersey, Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan formed a band. The story of the formation of Yo La Tengo is an incredible thing: two perfectly obsessive music nerds meeting at the right place at the right time, because what could be more right than a Feelies show in 1980 at Maxwell’s, the legendary Hoboken club?
“By description, it’s a terrible place to see a show,” Kaplan said, describing Maxwell’s during a recent interview at Ohio University with Professor Josh Antonuccio. “But, in reality, it’s the greatest place to see a show.”
Earlier this year, Maxwell’s closed its doors, something that Yo La Tengo marked with a two-set farewell performance. The band sprouted from the scene that developed around Maxwell’s, and at the time Hubley and Kaplan met, the two actually worked at the club--Hubley as a DJ and Kaplan as a sound guy. The band had an intimate relationship with Maxwell’s, at times playing the venue at least once a week for a month straight.
“It was just a room that was programmed with love. If you ever spent any time at CBGBs, beyond wearing the t-shirt, there wasn’t a lot of love felt in the programming,” Kaplan said. “But Maxwell’s was always a personal place, so much that our band was allowed to play there even though we had no idea what we were doing and just because we were friends with the people there.”
Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about Yo La Tengo is the fact that Kaplan and Hubley started on the “other side” of the industry--promoting shows, designing posters, knowing musicians and intimately knowing the music they loved. The two bands that Yo La Tengo got to know the best through their involvement with the community around Maxwell’s, a community that Kaplan speaks about like a close-knit group of friends, are incredibly impressive: the dBs and the Feelies.
“The first recording that Georgia and I did, way before we had a band, we did when we went to Glen Mercer of the Feelies’ house, where he had a four-track in his basement and Bill Million recorded us doing two songs. He added guitar and percussion, and it was like ‘Wow! This sounds like music!’” Kaplan said.
The fact that those are the two bands that got to know young Yo La Tengo so intimately really says something about the group. Kaplan and Hubley are devoted audiophiles before they are musicians, and perhaps that is why they have managed to record some of the most widely and critically-acclaimed albums of the past 30 years.
When the band finally started to record themselves, with a rotating cast of bassists, they seemed to do so without much of a realization of what they were really doing. Kaplan describes their effort to land a bassist through ads as sort of “half-assed,” once posting an ad reading something along the lines of: “Velvet Underground looking for bassist. Must have own bass.”
“When we started out we were very timid, and very nervous about playing with people we didn’t know--and all the people we knew were already in bands,” Kaplan said.
Even though ads like that did get some hits, none of which Kaplan and Hubley took too seriously, in many ways, Yo La Tengo was not the band that its fans know and love until 1993’s Painful, which starred James McNew, who would end up sticking with the band much longer than any of the other bassists that Kaplan and Hubley had worked with beforehand.
“When James started playing with us he was also playing with this great band, Christmas, and we thought that like so many people who had played with us prior, that he was just filling in for a while before he would go back to being in his real band. But it didn’t turn out that way,” Kaplan said.
Because of issues with IRS Records, the label that Christmas was on, the record that the band had been working on was abandoned, and McNew moved to Brooklyn to truly join Yo La Tengo.
That moment was a huge turning point in the band’s career. “I say this completely seriously: I really feel like that is when we became a group, some seven years after we got together,” Kaplan said.
Hubley and Kaplan’s working relationship with McNew was incredibly different from the sort of relationship that they had formerly had with bassists. “It changed from, ‘Oh, we have a gig, how many times can we get the bassist to come over and practice?’ to practicing every day.”
The result was different from any other recording experience that Kaplan and Hubley had been a part of before, the result being Painful, the recording Kaplan describes as incredibly long and involved, but also with the end product of an album that was “night and day” better than anything else the band had released before.
“Anyone who said they liked our other records more than Painful, I just tell them they’re wrong,” Kaplan said.
After Painful came a slew of classics: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, Summer Sun--albums that any Yo La Tengo fan will admit make up the golden age of Yo La Tengo. And that golden age hasn’t come to end yet.
Earlier this year Yo La Tengo released Fade, an album filled with incredible tracks--from the painfully beautiful opener “Ohm” to the playful Motown-influenced “Well You Better,” to the melancholy and simple “The Point of It.”
On a chilly September evening I saw Yo La Tengo at Stuart’s Opera House, a beautiful building in the historic area of Nelsonville, a very small town on the outskirts of Athens. Although the beautiful venue did something to enhance the natural ambiance of a Yo La Tengo show, I couldn’t help but notice that Kaplan seemed vaguely irritated, occasionally bestowing a hefty stinkeye to noisier members of the audience.
The band played another two-set affair, kicking off with some of its quieter tunes and then segueing into an electric set.
Midway through the show the band started into “Big Day Coming”, one of the singles off of Painful, and I couldn’t help but notice the difference between the song that was being performed and the versions on the CD single I had bought several years ago. They were playing a gorgeous acoustic rendition. How could one band play one song in two completely different, but both astonishingly beautiful ways?
After the band completed its electric set, the band members walked backstage only to be called out again by continuous clapping, something that has happened at every single one of the Yo La Tengo performances I have attended. And every time the band churns out one of its trademark obscure cover songs, or some deep album cut from one of its own creations.
Leaving Nelsonville that night, the lights on the highway blurring past me, I thought about the mechanics that go into deciding whether an artist is really your favorite. What about an artist makes you want to return to their discography again and again? It was then that I realized why Yo La Tengo continues to be the group that I return to: because they love music as much as I do.