Yo La Tengo Still Has It

A quarter century on, the legacy continues

My interview with Ira Kaplan of the defining indie-rock trio Yo La Tengo begins with me stammering about the momentous cultural significance — the astute and poetic American symbolism — of the band’s name.

The Hoboken-based group — which formed back in 1984 and whose first album came out two years later — named itself after what New York Mets outfielder Richie Ashburn (in the expansion team’s first season) would yell to Spanish-speaking teammate (and former Red) Elio Chacon to call him away from fly balls. It means “I’ve got it” and was meant to avoid collisions between the two. Legend (and Wikipedia) has it that  Ashburn once yelled it to Chacon only to have non-Spanish-speaking outfielder Frank Thomas plow into him.

“What the heck is a yellow tango,” Thomas reportedly said.

Patiently, I explain to Kaplan how that anecdote encapsulates so much about the best of modern baseball history — the coming-together of the Mets from cast-offs to champions; the inclusion and acceptance of Spanish-speaking players in the league.

And, in a larger sense, “Yo La Tengo” illustrates the American spirit at its finest — a diverse, welcoming society in which we learn through trial and error to get along and cooperate. So, I add, guitarist Kaplan and his wife/drummer/band co-founder Georgia Hubley were remarkably prescient to recognize the importance of that phrase some 26 years ago and immortalize it in pop culture. In years to come, it will only grow more compelling and significant as a signpost of changing American social history.

But the defiantly unpretentious Kaplan, who resists all efforts to turn Yo La Tengo into a self-important Indie Rock legend or institution, is having none of it.

He responds with a joke.

“I think you’ll find, as history unfolds, the same thing will happen with The Condo Fucks,” he says.

The Condo Fucks, by the way, is a Yo La Tengo alias under which the band plays brash covers of favorite songs, releasing an album, Fuckbook, last year on Matador Records (Yo La Tengo’s longtime label) and doing a few live dates.

There is, actually, an amusing story behind that name, too — but, never mind, because it’s Yo La Tengo, not The Condo Fucks, playing the Southgate House Saturday. Yo La Tengo will be doing songs from its album that came out last year on Matador, Popular Songs. (It might also play some covers, a Yo La Tengo tradition.)

Popular Songs is widely regarded as one of the band’s best, with many of the Yo La Tengo originals being concise, melodic Rock songs with trenchantly observed lyrics that emerge from the textured soundscape. For example, on “Periodically Double or Triple,” Kaplan sings these words of wisdom: “Never read Proust, seems a little too long/Never used a hammer, without somehow using it wrong.”

Other songs feature longer guitar explorations that build from a signature repeated phrase and head transcendentally toward the cosmos, trailing a comet’s worth of feedback. That yin-yang approach, coupled with the effectless, naturalistic way Kaplan and Hubley both sing lead, has earned Yo La Tengo praise aplenty as Rock’s truest heirs to the Velvet Underground. (Yo La Tengo even played Velvet Underground in the movie I Shot Andy Warhol.)

Yo La Tengo’s musicianship wasn’t always a given. For its first few years of existence, it was considered a sort of hipster side project for Kaplan — a Rock writer — and Hubley, an artist and daughter of animators. Both wrote and sang; they used other guest musicians to fill out the sound. In those early days, their actual musicianship was a work-in-progress.

In the early 1990s, James McNew joined as bassist and committed himself to creating a serious musical future with and for Yo La Tengo. Kaplan and Hubley responded in kind. A new era emerged. I was lucky enough to see Yo La Tengo on a 1992 tour with My Bloody Valentine, a British group known for its explorations of guitar noise and feedback. The surprise was that Yo La Tengo’s droning, distorted but melodic guitar work was equal to My Bloody Valentine’s, while the sensitivity of the vocals on their more traditionally constructed songs revealed tenderness and soul.

A stronger Yo La Tengo released the outstanding 1993 album Painful with its thrillingly expansive, melodic instrumental “I Heard You Looking,” containing one of the greatest guitar solos in all of Indie Rock. No one one has caught Yo La Tengo looking backward since.

“I think it’s no accident the band got better when James joined,” Kaplan says. “He was the first guy who played with us who was committed to being in a band with us. Everybody else had one hand in something else. When we became three people who were a band full-time, that made it a lot easier to focus on each other.

“And we gained more confidence in what the three of us could accomplish together, and that’s only grown,” he continues. “I don’t think it was a sound that clicked with us, but more a feeling that the three of us were capable of doing something we liked if we just allowed it to come out of us.”

YO LA TENGO plays Saturday at the Southgate House with Wussy. Buy tickets and get show and club details here.