Ira Kaplan is prepared to pass judgement.
“I don’t want this to be too awkward, so we’re doing this strictly pass/fail.”
The Yo La Tengo singer had informed me at the outset of our conversation that he would be keeping score. This is the sort of thing that you get to do when you’re a founding member of an iconic and immeasurably influential rock band – you get to give writers from publications that you’ve never heard of a hard time.
It’s all very good-natured, of course, and if it isn’t, it’s impossible to tell. Most everything Kaplan says sounds nice – or, at the least, unshakably even-keeled. He has a voice that’s measured and warm and projects at a volume that wouldn’t turn heads in a public library. It’s a voice that would sound right at home on NPR. For now, it’ll have to settle for New Jersey’s beloved WFMU, where “Ira the K” has been known to fill in from time to time.
But just because Kaplan doesn’t want our phone call becoming too awkward doesn’t mean that he’s afraid of a little awkwardness. The 57-year-old is not the type to let little things slide. In fact, on three occasions, he jumps in to correct me.
For example, while Kaplan has been updating Yo La Tengo’s website every few days with memories and pictures from across the band’s three decade run, he wants to be clear that he is not handling the band’s social media. “I know that I’m fighting a losing battle on this, but I’m not actually updating the Facebook page,” he sighs, dug in on this issue for reasons that we don’t explore. “The person that runs our Facebook page reprints them there in a lesser form.”
Putting aside where the recollections have ended up, Kaplan undertook the yearlong archival project – which has involved sifting through the band’s own ephemera and soliciting submissions from its legion of diehard fans – to mark the 30th anniversary of Yo La Tengo’s first concert on December 2, 1984. The band will celebrate the occasion with a two-night stay at New York City’s Town Hall. This was the type of show that in years past would surely have been held at Maxwell’s in Hoboken- where Kaplan met wife and Yo La Tengo drummer Georgia Hubley, where the band would play that first show; where it hosted annual Hanukkah shows for a dozen years – but the trio has outlived its once bastion. Its outlived most everything.
Outside of its penchant for cover songs, Yo La Tengo has never had much of a soft spot for nostalgia, so it’s only fitting that it will indulge in a double dip of it on Tuesday, when Matador Records reissues the band’s first LP for the label, 1993’s Painful. Winkingly titled Extra Painful, the reissue comes packaged with an extra disc of demos and unreleased sessions cuts. But as far as any new material goes, Kaplan is predictably evasive on whether a follow-up to last year’s fantastic Fade is in the works.
He is not evasive on our evaluation, however. Minor inaccuracies aside, he hands down a favorable marking.
“This was a pass.”
What significance does the 30th anniversary of Yo La Tengo hold for you?
At some point quite a while ago, we just decided that 30 was a number that we were going to acknowledge. I’m not quite sure why. It’s not like we did it with any other anniversary. At some point it came up, and either I don’t remember or we didn’t have a reason, but like a lot of decisions we make, it just seemed like a good one instinctually and we followed through on it.
It may go back to not trusting anyone over thirty – it was a sort of archaic warning, but one that resonated. [Laughs] Considering that I’ve been doing the stuff on our website, maybe I should know. Every day I’ve been writing these reminiscences about what we were doing on that specific day over the past 30 years
Do you take pride in how long the band has stayed together? At this point, most any band that you started with has broken up –
And has reunited twice – sometimes three times. [Laughs] It’s certainly an accomplishment. Whether it’s a good accomplishment or a negative accomplishment is for others to decide.
In the process of the curating moments from the band’s history over the past year, is there any event or occurrence that’s been brought to your attention that stands out – something that you’d forgotten about and this process shone a light on?
Boy, it’s probably not going to suffice to say, “Yes.” You’re probably going to want an example.
Nothing is leaping to mind at this moment, but the responses have been pretty amazing, particularly because at the beginning of the year, when we solicited them, there was such a flurry. Some of them come in from time to time, like, right before the day in question, but most of them have been stockpiled since the beginning of this year.
It was really moving to get all of that stuff. Some of them were funny, but a lot of them were things like people playing songs at their weddings or the birth of their children. It was really exciting – and has been exciting – to read that stuff. So much of what we do is based on just playing for each other and not focusing that much on the reaction – except for the reaction of the other two [members] – and to get that reminder has been pretty powerful.
You’ve said before that as you’ve gotten older, you’ve started to wonder how bands can listen to their own records. With that in mind, what was the experience of revisiting Painful and its sessions like?
It was not my favorite part of it. [Laughs]
Revisiting the art may have been my favorite part – going through boxes of things and finding little ephemera that we saved. Marco from Matador was the art director for Painful, and he saved tons of stuff. Seeing the things that he had gave me precisely the same enjoyment as going through a photo album when you enjoy going through a photo album, just leafing through and thinking, “Oh wow – look at this thing.” That was great.
Listening to the music was more of a mixed bag. That hasn’t changed. I don’t do that for fun. It wasn’t all horrible – in fact, I wouldn’t say that it was horrible at all. But it wasn’t something that I look forward to. Here and there, there were some exceptions, but it’s something that I try to do as little as possible.
Why is that?
It’s probably because the pleasure that I take out of something being better than I remember doesn’t compare to the negative feeling of something being worse than I thought it was. [Laughs] So, even though there’s both – and there were definitely a lot of pleasant surprises listening to the sessions – those [positive] moments seemed more fleeting than the moments where I thought, “Oh boy.”
With Painful fresh on your mind, what do you recall about the band’s mindset at that time?
I can answer that question, but I’m not sure how much of it will be from having revisited Painful recently. The memories in that regard are already pretty strong. I don’t know if you’ve gotten the whole packaging of [the reissue] yet, but there’s some relatively extensive back-and-forth between the three of us and Roger [Moutenot] and Fred [Brockman], who co-produced that record. As different people trying to put a timeline together, there are definitely times where we corrected each other’s misrecollections of certain details.
But as far as the mood, I don’t think that I needed an reminder. In general, that record was pretty significant. We had worked for a long time rehearsing it – much longer than we had on any specific record, especially because we were a band at that point. James [McNew] had been a member of the group for a long time, but [Painful] was the record that we learned as a band. James joined not long before May I Sing With Me, but most of those songs were taught to him.
Even though there’s the cliché of “You have your whole life to prepare your first record and a year to do your second,” that wasn’t exactly the case with us, because we didn’t have the same people in the group long enough. People were always coming in and out, and [Georgia] and I were much less sure of ourselves and sure of what we wanted to be doing.
The concentrated work and rehearsal that went into the making of Painful was pretty much unprecedented for us. We didn’t have other jobs. We were going in and playing pretty much five days a week during the day, when our practice facility was quiet, which was a nice change of pace from when four other bands were playing at the same time at night.
There was a feeling of unprecedented confidence, but a certain self-imposed pressure, because we felt really good about the songs and wanted to make sure that we captured them in a way that got the best out of them.
A lot of Yo La Tengo’s fans have a special place in their hearts for the stretch of records from Painful through And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. Are there any plans to give similar treatment to the next three records?
I’m not sure. There’s definitely been talk of it – when and if that will happen. I do think that everyone – band and label alike – were reminded, and in some cases impressed, by just how much effort is required to put something like this together. You think that because it’s already recorded and it’s just a matter of sifting through tapes for bonus cuts that it shouldn’t be that difficult, but a lot of time went into it.
And, as you can probably surmise from listening to me, I have mixed feelings about putting my time into that. So, we’ll see. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened again, but it’s not like we’re going to work on it in January.
What else are you putting your time into? Is Yo La Tengo working on anything?
We are! It’s probably not anything that I’m going to be specific about, but we are working on stuff. We usually are.
I assume that you will rebuff my questioning here, but is it an album? Is it a one-off project?
[Laughs] There are a few different things. We’re frequently juggling different things – like, short term stuff and longer term stuff. We’re as confused by our schedule as we ever are.
These end-of-year shows have become a tradition of sorts. How has your enjoyment of performance –
I’ll listen to your question in a minute, but it’s interesting that you say that it’s a tradition, and I know exactly what you mean, but it’s completely coincidental this year. These shows are based solely on when our first show was. The shows will be very different from Hanukkah shows. And the shows we did last year at the Bell House were also slightly coincidental – Fade had come out in January, and it felt like a good way to end the year. In a certain sense, there is an appeal to a year-end summation – which was some element of the Hanukkah shows – and there’s a comparison to be made between the Bell House shows, but they were very different shows. We were still kind of playing the record.
I already heard the next way this question will begin, so to answer it before I hear it: One thing that makes continuing to play shows entertaining is the extent that they’re different from each other. The feeling going into these shows is really pretty distinct from the feeling going into the shows last year, which was distinct from the shows that we would do at Maxwell’s for Hanukkah.
I know why you would call it traditional that we play at the end of the year, but it’s funny to the extent that we don’t feel it in this case. It’s an observation that you would make from your vantage point and not ours.
How are these shows going to be different? Is the set list going to be more retrospective than usual?
Yeah, certainly in New York, but probably elsewhere, we will touch more places from the past than we normally do. At this point, even though Fade is a couple of years old now, they’ll be more from that record than any other record, but it’s not like we’ve doing most of the record lately.
It is not uncommon that we will do nothing from our time from before we were on Matador – we have songs that we can play from any period, but we choose to play the pre-Painful songs less than the others. I would say that it’s probably unlikely that we won’t go through all thirty years in some digested way.
What’s life like for you generally these days?
Even when we’re not on tour, it doesn’t seem like there’s much time away from the band. We may not necessarily be practicing, but there’s always… as I said without saying, we’re working on other things for next year. The work that goes into that stuff is far from limited to rehearsals. A lot of that just goes on. And, you know, I cook food. I go to restaurants. I go to movies. I watch “Nathan for You” if it’s on. My life is just like anyone else’s. I try to enjoy life.