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Yo La Tengo reveals the stories behind its new album of covers

by Darby Maloney and Cameron Kell | The Frame

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Left to right: Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew of the band Yo La Tengo. Courtesy of Matador Records

The alternative rock band Yo La Tengo was founded 30 years ago by Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, and for the past 24 of those years, the married couple has been joined by bassist James McNew. This week, the trio releases its latest album, “Stuff Like That There,” mostly a collection of songs by other artists that particularly resonate with the band.

When Kaplan and McNew joined us on The Frame, they shared stories behind some of the songs on "Stuff Like That There." We also asked them — given the rapidly changing nature of the music industry — about their take on all things digital, etc.

Interview Highlights:

James, I want to ask you about some of the bands you cover on the new album: Great Plains, Antietam, The Lovin' Spoonful, The Cure, The Parliaments, Sun-Ra...that's like a musical dartboard. It would seem totally random to most people, but I suspect there's an organizing principle to that selection. What would you say that is?

McNew: I think it's mostly things we love and songs that are important to us personally. Sometimes you just hear a song and it's like, Wow, how does that go? Let's figure out how to play that, just for pleasure. [laughs]

Ira, what does the song "Friday I'm In Love" mean to you? Why did you choose it for the album?

Kaplan: I love the way Georgia sings it. We learned it and played it years ago, once, and then a few years later we played it again, but literally by accident. We were at a radio station in London and we were asked to take some listener requests and somebody wanted to hear that song, not knowing we'd ever played it. So we quickly had to remind ourselves how it went, and that version in particular just seemed so off-handedly lovely to me, just hearing the way she sings, that it never left my brain.

James, we've got a song for you: Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Your cover features a very spare, simple arrangement. What does that song mean to you, lyrically and musically?

McNew: It immediately conjures up memories of the three concerts when we opened for Johnny Cash in 1994. It was completely otherworldly to be welcomed into the Cash family and be treated with such hospitality and warmth, and yet their audience was not that psyched with what we were doing. It was still completely unforgettable.

I believe we were covering a song by The Byrds in Atlanta, and I looked over across the stage to Ira, but Ira wasn't standing where I thought he would be. Instead, I looked directly into the wings and saw Johnny Cash standing there, watching us play, and I think my whole system shut down. I may have stopped playing for 10 or 15 seconds because I just didn't know what to do, and when you're faced eye-to-eye with The Man In Black, I think it's best just to back away.

What's the creative experience that you get the most pleasure out of today, having been together for so long? Ira?

Kaplan: Well, a big part of it is not knowing the answer to that, and just keeping your eyes and ears open to see what happens on a given day. Almost a year ago, we found ourselves on a stage in England, backing Yoko Ono. It was unbelievable — there we were, the Plastic Ono Band.

We're in the midst of a tremendous amount of upheaval in the music business. What do you wish your fans would do when it comes to consuming music, that would most benefit the bands themselves?

Kaplan: I don't really like to prescribe behavior for other people. It's very exciting when we do stuff and encounter people who care about it a great deal, and we do have that experience all the time. That means a lot, and if people express it by writing us an email, by talking to us when they see us in public, by clapping at a show, by not talking at a show...

But you included the word "business" in your question, and I know that we are in the music business. A big part of our ability to stay in it is to do as much forgetting that we're in the music business as we possibly can. I think we're pretty good at not focusing on that stuff.

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