The title of rarified indie trio Yo La Tengo's new album, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, has caused some speculation among the Rock press over to whom or what it refers. Some says it's meant to be ironic (as the band members, comprised of buck-o-five married couple Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley and teddy-bear bassist James McNew, are about as threatening as a platoon of Smurfs), while others say it's merely an inside joke or a defense mechanism against a rough-hewn world.
It's hardly the first time the band has produced an album title that seemed intended to cause a bit of head-scratching. In the past, there have been similarly long-winded whoppers that could be interpreted as self-deprecating in the humorously megalomaniacal and schizophrenic sense.
According to McNew in a recent phone interview, however, such theorizing is waste of time.
"We would never tell people how we feel; the music is in charge of that," he says. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, album titles, song titles and even the lyrics are the last things to happen. The mood of the music dictates what the words are. I would read pieces about Paul Simon walking around with a notepad, writing down lyrics that he would later set music to, and I would think, 'That's ridiculous. How can anyone possibly do that?"
Elaborating on this line of musical philosophy, McNew claims that the band is strictly a sensory conduit, absorbing the experiences of everyday life and then releasing them back into the world in the form of musical impressions to be interpreted by the audience.
Some might say that's what music is all about, and it's a theory reinforced both by Yo La Tengo's music and by McNew himself, even when talking about something totally unrelated to the subject.
For instance, when discussing Yo La Tango's notorious abundance of critical acclaim juxtaposed with their lack of mainstream acceptance (and further musings about whether a track like "Our Way to Fall" could work in Madison Square Garden anyway), McNew says, "It's weird to play outdoors, especially when the sun is out. The songs feel markedly different to me. It's the whole vibe, or lack of one. The floors don't vibrate the way that I like."
"Eclectic" is an easy catch-all that can be used to describe Yo La Tengo, yet even though it's not a term McNew cares for, there is some justification behind it. Yo La Tengo frequently jumps genres and eras. On the new album, the various Rock subgenres of the 1960s get a particular workout, along with familiar YLT traits such as hypnotic ambient noise, 10-minute jam sessions, fuzzy guitars and smoky ballads sung in a subdued manner seemingly to increase the sense of intimacy between band and audience.
"I have different moods throughout the course of the day," McNew said. "Yesterday, I was cleaning up my apartment and I had some albums in a pile, and I just listened to whatever was in the pile, in order. A Boredoms record was followed by a Blackbirds record, I think. It just feels natural to me."
McNew elaborated that, true to the above philosophy, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass came as a result of emotional and aesthetic spontaneity.
"We hit upon a way of collaborating a long time ago," he said. "I think the Electr-O-Pura record was the first time where we improvised, jammed and just messed around together. It's a fun way of working, though it can slow things down a bit. We still have that lack of guidelines."
The apparent esoteric-ness of Yo La Tengo's music and fan base reached such a pitch that, five years ago, the satirical newspaper The Onion ran a story headlined, "37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead in Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster." When asked about whether there was a sense among the band that they played exclusively for critics or retail aficionados, McNew replies with a jokey dodge: "It doesn't feel that way, it's rare that I look up. But I'm happy that they're there."
When pressed, McNew uses Christopher Guest's 2006 Hollywood satire, For Your Consideration (which chronicled a group of actors in an independent film, some of them underappreciated veterans, who get hit with unexpected yet hollow Oscar buzz) as an analogy.
"The whole thing about being a cult entertainer that's respected and beloved, yet it's somehow not enough ... you always think about (reaching a wider audience), though I don't really have anything to sneeze at," McNew says. "I'm happy."
The pinnacle of Yo La Tengo's position was achieved somewhat ironically a few years ago when they released a "greatest hits" double-disc called Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs, featuring outtakes and songs from the band's 20-plus years of existence. Even McNew had to laugh a little bit about YLT going the way of Van Halen or REO Speedwagon.
"Technically, there are no Billboard-approved hits," he said. "It was (YLT's label, Matador Records') idea, and we thought it was a good idea. We got to hear some tracks we hadn't heard in a long time, and it was cool to realize that we play those songs a lot faster today than we did when we first recorded them. But it's not something we would've come up with on our own. We don't spend a lot of time thinking about our place in history; that seems prematurely posthumous. I remember The Police, whom I revile, came out with a greatest hits album after only four albums! And it's like, come on!"
McNew rationalizes Prisoners of Love as a handy introduction.
"We are a band with a zillion records, and it's hard to find a place to start," he said. "(Prisoners of Love) is a cheap, easy gateway."
Yo La Tengo continue to do what comes naturally, making diverse music that's by turns chipper and downbeat, laced with their subtle sense of humor.
When asked about his contributions to I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, McNew replies, "I played maracas and tambourines on the first track, and then I doubled it. It was a physical feat that I was pretty proud of. If there was an Olympic event for percussion marathons, that would qualify."
YO LA TENGO plays the Southgate House Monday.