Yo La Tengo: 'When We Let The World In, It Can Be So Profound' The New Jersey band's members say their longevity comes from not projecting ideas onto themselves. Their new album, Stuff Like That There, features covers and reworked songs.

Yo La Tengo: 'When We Let The World In, It Can Be So Profound'

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When you, our listeners, send us comments or questions about this show, often it's, hey, what was that music? And this morning, we are leaving no mystery. All of the music you're hearing on the program is being played live. It is coming from musicians whose songs we often use, the indie rock band, Yo La Tengo. They're in one of our studios downstairs. They're sort of our house band for the morning - Georgia Hubley on drums, Ira Kaplan on guitar and James McNew on bass. One thing Yo La Tengo is known for - covers, like this one.

YO LA TENGO: (Singing) I don't care if Monday's blue. Tuesday's gray, and Wednesday, too. Thursday, I don't care about you. It's Friday I'm in love.

GREENE: That's "Friday I'm In Love," originally by The Cure. It's from Yo La Tengo's new album, "Stuff Like That There." I asked guitarist Ira Kaplan if the band had a goal in mind when they took this song by The Cure into the studio.

IRA KAPLAN: I'm not sure we were going for anything specifically. I think the sound of Georgia singing that song, we all respond to that and then wanted to play in a way that was supportive of her. In fact, when we were recording it, it actually took us a little bit of trial and error. And at first, Dave Schramm was playing electric guitar, as he does on every other song on the record, but it was just too big. So we just pulled it back and pulled it back till we felt we were in sync.

GREENE: So is it often Georgia sort of singing it and you guys sort of figuring out what mood and personality is coming through and beginning to build a song that way?

KAPLAN: I think, certainly in the case of this record, probably more than most records. Because most of our songs, the ones we write, begin with us just jamming, so the singing may not even occur in the initial jam. But invariably, the song will have a mood before anybody starts singing. But this time, because we were working off specific songs that we were trying, we were very quick to adapt to the sound of the singing. And it was - that was part of our performance much earlier than the original songs.

GREENE: James let me put this question to you - a lot of covers on this album. Yo La Tengo are known for covers. Explain that to people. Why is that?

JAMES MCNEW: I think playing covers and - before we even knew what the term playing covers meant is kind of probably how we all came to play our instruments in the first place, when we were kids and playing along with records. And we'll learn cover songs for specific cities. We'll learn them for specific people who might be in the audience. Any occasion, we can do it. Taking someone else's song and performing it yourself, like, instantly changes the perspective and instantly changes sort of the emotional resonance of the song.

GREENE: For this album, Yo La Tengo covered songs by some well-known artists, like Hank Williams, but also songs from some really obscure bands, like this song. It's called "Naples" from the band Antietam.

YO LA TENGO: (Singing) Lately, I'm dreaming I'm awake. And the horns are singing for our sake.

GREENE: Georgia, how did you find this song, and why did you all decide to cover it?

GEORGIA HUBLEY: Well, we are friends with Antietam, who were actually a band very close to us because we - we literally formed at the same time - 30 years ago. We actually played our very first concert together at Maxwell's.

GREENE: And where's Maxwell's, just for - just for..?

HUBLEY: Oh, I'm sorry.

GREENE: That's OK.

HUBLEY: It's no longer, but it was in Hoboken, N.J., where we rehearse and have been for a long time. And that record that that song is on by them, actually, Ira and I produced that record sort of (laughter).

GREENE: Antietam's record?

HUBLEY: Antietam's record, yes.


YO LA TENGO: (Singing) The night is on high, we don't need nothing to do.

GREENE: You have some songs on this album that you wrote and recorded a while ago and decided to re-record now. What made you want to take those songs back into the studio and do them again?

KAPLAN: When we record a record, we don't think about how we're going to play the songs live. We just record the song the way we want it to sound. And then when we're done, we try to figure out how we can possibly play it live. And in doing that, the songs take on a life of their own. And when we toured on our last album, "Fade," we divided the show into two sets - a quiet set and a loud set. And we started taking songs from the loud set and reworking them so they'd be in the quiet set...

GREENE: Oh, interesting.

KAPLAN: ...And vice versa.

MCNEW: So we're always tinkering with the songs and love the idea of approaching them from a different angle.

GREENE: Almost like a song is always kind of an unfinished piece of art that you keep working on.

MCNEW: Yeah.

YO LA TENGO: (Singing) They're sure to come. And they're sure to come. And here it comes again.

GREENE: It's such a rare opportunity for our listeners to hear from a band whose music they hear often on the show. And I just wonder is there a particular song that you would love to hear with a particular kind of story that might be on our show?

HUBLEY: (Laughter) Dead silence. (Laughter).

KAPLAN: Obviously, that's a hard question to answer because none of us are answering it. I think one of the ways we have continued is by not projecting things like that. We got an email just this week from somebody who got married and one of our songs was the - maybe they walked down the aisle, but it was the wedding song.

GREENE: Oh, that's cool.

KAPLAN: It is. And that has happened on a number of occasions, and it's great. But he also picked a song that nobody has ever told us they used.

GREENE: What song was it?

KAPLAN: Oh, it was "Return To Hot Chicken."

YO LA TENGO: (Playing "Return To Hot Chicken").

KAPLAN: We spend a lot of time, the three of us, just interacting, just as three people oblivious to the world around us. But when the world - when we let them in, it can be so profound.

GREENE: Well, we really appreciate you letting us in. Not every band would be willing to play live during a morning radio program early in the morning, and it's just a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you all so much.

KAPLAN: Thanks man.

MCNEW: Thank you.

HUBLEY: Thank you.

YO LA TENGO: (Playing "Return To Hot Chicken").

GREENE: That was Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew from the band, Yo La Tengo. They're our house band for a day, and their new album is called "Stuff Like That There." You can stream it this week at nprmusic.org.

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