Pioneers of Indie Rock Yo La Tengo Avoid Perspective, Expectations


Photo by Juliette Greene, Staff photographer

Yo La Tengo performed with frontman Ira Kaplan in Finney Chapel Sunday. The famed indie rock group played an understated acoustic set for an enthusiastic audience.

Daniel Markus, Managing Editor

Despite his band’s legacy as one of the most important acts in the history of indie rock, getting Ira Kaplan, lead singer and guitarist of Yo La Tengo, to ruminate on that history isn’t easy. “That asks for a perspective that [we] not only don’t … have, [but] I don’t even think we want,” Kaplan said. Despite the fact that his band has achieved what most groups only dream of — a contract with indie stalwart Matador Records, 14 albums, several world tours, critical acclaim, a top 40 record (2013’s Fade) and a career spanning over 30 years — it’s the last thing on his mind. “We can frequently forget or pretend to forget that there’s a world around us, and certainly our indie rock legacy [is] the first thing to go,” he said.

Kaplan, who started Yo La Tengo with wife and drummer/vocalist Georgia Hubley in 1984, seems to focus more on the freedom the band has been able to find for itself than on legacy and achievement. “One of the things that’s really great about the situation we’re in … is that because there are people who care about our band a lot, which is great, but we’re not so well known that there’s no song tonight that if we don’t do it, people are going to be like, ‘That show sucked,’” Kaplan said.

It’s freedom the band takes great — and sometimes absurd — advantage of, as they did with their 2010 and 2011 Spinning Wheel Tour. To start each show, the band would spin a giant wheel to determine what kind of set they would play. Shows might begin with a set by the band’s lo-fi noise side-project Condo Fucks, bassist James McNew’s solo project Dump or with the band acting out an entire episode of Seinfeld or Judge Judy. Each show contained two sets, and after the spinning wheel portion, the band would play a more conventional set.

“The Spinning Wheel Tour was problem solving. We had done this record as the Condo Fucks and we kind of wanted to do Condo Fucks shows. But even though we do feel the freedom to do what we want to do when we want to do it, we try to be the kind of band that we would like if we went to see, and I feel like if I went to see Yo La Tengo and we said, ‘Tonight, we’re the Condo Fucks,’ well … if I wanted to go see the Condo Fucks, I would’ve,” Kaplan said. “That felt fair, that we can’t just do that without warning. So our solution was, ‘Well, we won’t know either.’”

A theme emerges in Yo La Tengo’s love of musical freedom and unwillingness to be constrained by expectation. This was evident in their show at Finney Chapel Sunday night. There is a quiet confidence about the band members that is humble but uncompromising. It’s the kind of confidence that comes not from knowing that they’ll dazzle every audience member when they step on stage, but from the knowledge that they don’t have to.

And their show at Finney was good. The band seemed to be at its best on the winding, ambient tunes that featured Hubley on synthesizer instead of drums, but most of the set was comprised of sweet, poppy songs that at times veered slightly toward country. It was pleasant, and while there were moments of brilliance, such as electric guitarist Dave Schramm’s lap steel playing on a few tunes and Hubley’s singing, the show itself was not one that will go down in timeless history.

Kaplan doesn’t seem to mind. He doesn’t worry much about how his band is remembered, and after 30 years of success, he sees little point in trying to convert non-believers. Doing so would tie down a band that has worked hard to avoid being grounded, making explicit career decisions to avoid getting caught in the grueling cycle of record, tour, repeat. “The freedom to not know what’s coming is a gift,” Kaplan said. Yo La Tengo already has a good thing going and its members know it. Why worry about legacy?

Kaplan’s comfort with limbo is clear when talking about the band’s future as well. “The spectre of making another record is kind of there right now, and we actually have been working in our rehearsal space with James [McNew] recording us, and it’s kind of like we’re not sure what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Kaplan said. “For all we know, we’re making a record right now. We might not be. It’s nice to not necessarily know,” he added.

Speculation as to how their next album will sound — if indeed there is one — is futile. That’s just something that you have to move past with Yo La Tengo — you have to meet them wherever they happen to be. As a band, Yo La Tengo is in some ways like a great novel; formed as much by the art itself as by the preconceptions, associations and ideas a reader projects onto it.

Sunday’s was the kind of performance that subtly undermines popular conceptions of what a good show is or is supposed to be. It wasn’t dazzling, virtuosic, heartbreaking, deeply introspective or immensely inspiring. But the set touched on all of these things deftly, flitting back and forth between those qualities and many others in a way that lacks comparison. While awe was scarce among the audience, there was something intangibly beautiful about it that many referenced in later conversation.

Yo La Tengo occupies a subtle, liminal space between definitions. The band embraces limbo, chasing whichever whim catches its attention at a given moment. Following it to that limbo for an evening, though a different musical experience, may prove fruitful for those who are willing to embrace it, while remaining unexciting for those who are not. As for the members of Yo La Tengo, they’re probably happy either way.