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Radio Milwaukee's past and future collide at Vinyl Comes Alive. Get your tickets now!

Yo La Tengo’s accidental albums keep raising the bar

Two men and a woman in a black-and-white photo look at the camera while surrounded by vintage audio equipment.
Cheryl Dunn

This stupid world
It's killing me
This stupid world
Is all we have

On the title track of Yo La Tengo’s 17th studio album, This Stupid World, Ira Kaplan sings what so many have come to feel nowadays. The album sees the band’s classic wry and gentle style still blooming, resonating and serving them well 37 years after the release of their debut LP, Ride the Tiger.

Founded by guitarist/vocalist Kaplan and drummer/vocalist Georgia Hubley, Yo La Tengo has found fresh ways to dispatch their newest musical musings, even while incubating them a little closer to the chest.

Bassist/vocalist James McNew led the band’s most recent time in the studio, where his consistent recording of rehearsal jams let everyone really unspool their collective creative output. The comforting freedom to connect the dots of these varied, unhurried recordings in a way that made sense to them was part of the album’s engaging feel, Hubley and Kaplan serving as co-directors of this particular collection of sounds.

And boy did it work. This Stupid World feels as “classic Yo La Tengo” as ever, with its natural ebb and flow. Meditative, distortion-laden jams bookend slow dance tempoed pining with drawling guitars and sparse percussion sending out signals like late-night floodlights. It’s the sound that’s buoyed the band and endeared them to their fans as an indie rock trio with elements of cathartic improv and relatable, plainspoken poetry.

We caught up with Kaplan ahead of the band’s return to Milwaukee’s Turner Hall Ballroom to talk about this particular album’s process, jamming onstage and the magic of not planning everything.

One thing we did plan is a guest DJ set with McNew, who will share a couple songs with our audience the night before Yo La Tengo's Turner Hall show. You can hear it live on 88Nine at 6 p.m. this Friday, March 24.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So with 40 years as Yo La Tengo, has a pattern developed as to how a new album starts to form? And how much of that creation process happens outside of the studio?

Very little of it happens outside — maybe lyric writing, primarily. But most everything else happens in our practice room, especially on this record where we never even went anywhere to mix; we just recorded and mixed the whole thing ourselves.

The process is sort of similar, though, in that we're always getting together, we're always playing music. happy to do so without any clear plans for what we're doing or reason for doing it other than just to get together and play. There's always that notion that something may come of what we're doing, but there's the freedom and comfort that it doesn't have to.

Like in the case of [2020 album] We Have Amnesia Sometimes, we had no intention of releasing any of the stuff we were doing. We were just trying to keep ourselves from going insane during the lockdown. And then we decided to share the stuff we are doing. But as in that record — and like pretty much everything else — James is always recording us.

So, at a certain point, we have a stockpile of recordings that we've made, not necessarily for anything other than recording. And then we'll kind of decide among ourselves that it's time to have a new record and talk to Matador about a release date and just kind of work out a schedule for it. And then we'll go start sifting through the things we have and see where we are.

Is that a laborious process to you, or do you find sifting through things like that enjoyable?

Oh, it's pretty enjoyable. You'll find different people will remember different things, and frequently we'll have forgotten about them completely, so it is kind of like a sense of discovery.

A man sits on a chair with a woman sitting alongside him on a stool and another man standing behind him, with a large river in the background behind all of them.
Yo La Tengo
James McNew (standing) led the recording process for Yo La Tengo's latest album.

This Stupid World was completely self-produced. How was that workload divvied up between you, Georgia and James? And did it feel like things had a natural flow where you didn't have to put a structure or anything like that down in the studio?

Well, the workload for Georgia and for me wasn't tremendously different than it was for any other record. It was really James who has increasingly taken on a bigger workload. As far back as [2013 album] Fade, we used a lot of tracks that he recorded, and then for [2018’s] There's a Riot Going On, he recorded the very large majority of that. And now he's doing the mixing.

My only hands-on role is occasionally, if James is recording a part that is too tricky for him, to hit record. I step in and push the button. So the rest of us — Georgia and I — are just doing what we always do, which is contributing ideas and comments. But it all felt extremely natural, which is why we did it that way.

I mean, we didn't know we were doing it that way until we were halfway done. Like in the case of There’s a Riot Going On, I think we thought we were ultimately gonna go to a studio and finish the songs and then come back later and mix them. But we decided along the way that we were happy with the sounds and happy with everything. We didn't have to go anywhere except to mix.

I think we had a similar thought process on this record; we started out assuming we'd go somewhere to mix but then liked what we were hearing and realized that we could do it all ourselves. So, that's how natural it was. The idea of doing it snuck up on us.

Okay. Easy breezy.

Well. [laughs and shrugs]

All right, maybe not quite so much that, but you know … in that zone. [laughs] 

We've been playing “Fallout” for the past couple of months. Did you write the lyrics? And, if you did — I definitely don't want to interpret your own lyrics for you — I just wanted to know why would someone want to “fall out of time”? What was the idea behind that?

Well, I did write the lyrics, and that happened to be a lyric that happened without planning it. We were just rehearsing the song one day, and I was singing, just trying to work out the melody and work out phrasing. Most of what I was singing was probably just “do, do, do,” but for some reason, that line came out. And so when I was trying to write words to go with it … I mean, I had the same question that you do.

So, the line just seemed interesting to me and seemed like something that I didn't have to answer. Not being able to answer the question didn't keep me from building a set of lyrics around that line. I liked the idea that it popped out spontaneously and decided to just kind of trust that.

I like it. It's an interesting concept: As we get older, if you could pick to literally fall out of time and slow it down a little bit, it feels like it would be a good key to have.

Sounds great.

I’ve noticed that your longer songs have this improv quality to them that develops even further on stage. Do any of you have to act as a timekeeper at your shows, or has it been more joyful not to pay so close attention?

When it’s our show, we don't need a timekeeper. But last year we did some shows opening for Japanese Breakfast and for Death Cab for Cutie. And then if we play a festival, it's something. There are definitely times when we have a time limit, that nobody will be, uh, pleased if we go past. So there is a clock on stage, which is not the most fun part of doing the shows, but it's just the way it goes.

It's interesting from night to night how well and not well we manage it. It changes. Like there are times we’re adding a song because we raced through the songs way too quickly and then would drop one because the opposite happened. Then there’s like watching that last song to kind of structure it, to get to where it wants to go in time. It’s a lot more fun doing what we'll be doing at Turner Hall when there will be no clock.

If you're the headliner, you've got more free rein, right?

Mm-hmm.

How has it been playing these new songs live so far? You just started your tour, so things are pretty fresh, right?

Yeah, it's been a blast. It is fresh, but it's changed very quickly. I mean, I would say certainly the first night, there was some kind of apprehension about how we’re still trying to remember lyrics and some of the arrangement things when it's not like second nature. It certainly wasn't on the first night. At the Fillmore — I guess it was our sixth show — I think everyone felt an ease that we hadn't gotten to until that night, so it's changing every night.

By the time we see you, you’ll be like, “No problem.”

Oh, we’ll be completely bored with all this sort of stuff. [laughs]

You'll have your eyes closed on stage.

Oh, I always do that, yes.

At this point in your experience as a musician, what do you need to feel comfortable on stage? I always feel like most performers have some degree of stage apprehension. Is there anything that really just kind of sets things right for you, where you feel you can relax and have a really great set?

Well, a lot of it's just what it sounds like, that’s kind of the main thing, you know? We’re not a band that — especially me — puts much into the monitors. Just trying to get a stage level where you can hear everybody the way you want to. You know, other than that, it feels more internal than external factors.

Yeah, you've probably got it down cold by this point.

Well, it's fun to change things, and I guess I'm not afraid of being uncomfortable. We do the Hanukkah shows, and we add people to our lineup every single night with next to no rehearsal. And one could get nervous about that, or you can just enjoy the random element being introduced and curious about what's gonna happen. I think all of us have improved over the years at making it less the former and more of the latter. We don't have to have it down cold to be comfortable.

Well, speaking of comfortable, you're starting this pretty packed tour schedule, which is super impressive. Is there anything you do or bring from home to stay grounded while just being on the road for so long?

You know, I don't know. I mean, I don't think so. We travel with our tour manager. Joe [Puleo] has been with the group as long as James has, which is, now over 30 years. Mark has been mixing the band (the front of house) for over 20 years. Dutch, who does monitors, he’s been with us for … I can't remember now. Not as long as Mark, but well over 10 years.

We do have one new crew guy, Jareb, who's been with us less than a year, but nobody lives in New York except James and me and Georgia. So when we get to see each other, it's really joyful, and it really is something to look forward to when we haven't been playing. To get back together, the seven of us, is really special.

And I think that's probably the answer to your question. It’s not something we bring from home, but something we bring from, you know, Benton Harbor, Michigan; and Oakland and Seattle.

Like a “family on wheels” going everywhere together. That’s good.

Yeah.

Five crew members in a performance space set up musical equipment while surrounded by boxes and crates.
Yo La Tengo / Instagram
Yo La Tengo's crew setting up for the band's annual Hanukkah show in 2022.

The last time that you all visited Milwaukee, I wanted to point out that you covered a Frogs song called “Weird On the Avenue.” Do you have another Milwaukee-related cover to share for your show March 25, or haven't you even gotten that far yet?

Again, we were at the Fillmore, and at the end of soundcheck we decided to tip our hats to San Francisco and the Grateful Dead and the Fillmore by playing “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.” But that was such a spontaneous decision that we didn't even run through it at soundcheck. We made the decision after we put everything away.

So, Milwaukee … that's a ways away. We'd have to think about that for hours. [laughs]

My final question to you is, as a radio DJ yourself at WFMU, what's the last piece of music you personally bought to play on the air. Because I know DJs are always hunting the bins and searching for the best thing to share with their audience. What was that for you?

Boy, you know, it's funny. When I started doing my weekly show on WFMU — I’ve primarily been doing fill-ins for the last, I don't know how long — during the lockdown when the band wasn't going anywhere, I was able to get a weekly show, but everything was being done remotely. I think there were something like eight people that were actually allowed to the station.

So instead of playing records, I had this program on my laptop called VirtualDJ, and I would load in MP3s and play one to the next one, and as a result I got very comfortable not playing records and just playing sound files. So even having gone back to the station, which has now been a long time, I do go in with my laptop and play a lot of songs off the computer in addition to playing records. The ones I'm buying to play on the air, I'm embarrassed to say, don’t stick in my mind as strongly as they used to.

I have bought some 45s out here that I'm looking forward to playing but have yet to. I found a Slim Gaillard single in some city, I think it might have been in Bellingham, and a Gary Lewis. I’m a big Gary Lewis and the Playboys fan, and there’s a b-side called “Gary’s Groove” that I can't remember that I've ever heard. I feel like I must have. And that’s one of the enjoyable aspects about buying records.

And actually it's sometimes not an enjoyable aspect because a record will just jump out at you and you'll buy it, and then you'll find out you already own it because it just yelled to you that day. So “Gary’s Groove” seemed like a must-have. We'll find out how many copies I have waiting for me back in New York.

I'm sure you can share one of your many copies with a friend.

Yeah. The Gary Lewis fans are legion.

Well, I hope you have a wonderful start to your tour, and Milwaukee's really looking forward to seeing you guys in March.

Yeah, we're looking forward to coming back.

88Nine Music Director / On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee