Is there a more eclectic band on the planet than Yo La Tengo? Nineteen years and twelve albums in (closer to twenty once you factor in side-projects, soundtracks and other musical tangents), this New Jersey three-piece has never been known for compromising their musical morals simply to cater to the mainstream. Every new YLT album has seemed to carry the band in a new and unexpected direction, and their latest long-player, wryly entitled Popular Songs, is no exception. Over the course of twelve tracks, the band dabbles in everything from tight indie-pop (When It's Dark) to salsa swing (If It's True), orchestral rock epics (Here To Fall) and strung-out, feedback-drenched noise jams (And the Glitter is Gone).
"I don't think we ever consciously try to reinvent ourselves," explains Ira Kaplan, the band's guitarist. "But we've always been keen to avoid being pigeonholed within any particular scene. It's important to allow ourselves the freedom to do different things, musically and creatively. We formed a band because we liked playing, pure and simple. We've never really looked much beyond that."
The band was originally formed in Hoboken, New Jersey, back in 1984, when Kaplan - then working as a part-time club promoter and sound engineer - met drummer Georgia Hubley while hanging around the same New York club circuit. "We were into the same bands," remembers Kaplan. "The Velvet Underground, Big Star, Television, plus bands we liked that practically no-one else did: The Fleshtones, The Feelies, The Flamin' Groovies. It was kind of inevitable we'd start playing together sooner or later, I guess."
After a handful of early releases, the band settled into its current line-up around 1993, with the arrival of bassist James McNew and a new recording deal with alt-label par excellence, Matador. A string of acclaimed albums followed, including Painless, Electr-O-Pura, and I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, which established Yo La Tengo's reputation for creativity and instrumental experimentation.
"We never set out to pursue a particular sound on our records," continues Kaplan. "It's always a pretty organic process. The songs tend to be written over a long period of time, and go through several phases before they settle into shape. We're all kind of reluctant lyricists, so most songs stay instrumental right up until the last minute."
With such a freewheeling approach to their music, I wonder whether the band ever worries about the reaction their records receive. "Honestly? We've never really thought about reaching an audience," he laughs. "We just end up playing what sounds good to us. We've always been lucky enough to find an audience that digs the music we make." He pauses for a second. "Or at least, I think they do."
End of the Road Interview July 2010