Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo

James McNew is back to big up a new album—and do some shopping


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on October 2009

Courtesy of Hostess Entertainment

Courtesy of Hostess Entertainment

It’s been three years and a change of record labels since Metropolis last sat down in Tokyo with James McNew of Yo La Tengo. The bassist and occasional vocalist for the New Jersey indie-rock institution is glad to be back.

“I’ll come to Tokyo for any reason,” enthuses the bear-like McNew (pictured, rear), who last time posed with stuffed animals that he’d just picked from his favorite Japanese character design studio, San-X. “They make things designed to appeal to 9-year-old girls—and me. There’s a lot of character mythology in Japan, and I began to appreciate that through these toys. I managed to meet some people who worked at this company, so I went to visit them. They seemed kind of frightened at first that I knew about them, but after a while they were touched that I had thought so much about what they had made. It was a very heavy, philosophical afternoon.”

Yo La Tengo was never able to realize McNew’s dream of having San-X provide character goods for the Japanese promotional campaign for its previous album, I Am Not Afraid of You…, but McNew hasn’t had much time to dwell on the disappointment. In the intervening years the trio have toured extensively, worked on film scores, released a disc of covers under the name of Condo Fucks, and recorded their 12th studio album.

“We had always gone to studios, but when it came time to make Popular Songs, we decided to ask our producer of 16 years, Roger Moutinot, if he would be interested in packing some equipment in his car and driving to Hoboken,” McNew explains about the new record. “This time we did it at home, and the sessions were just the three of us and Roger—moving the microphones, wrapping up the cables.”

McNew says it was a great feeling. “The mental comfort of working at home and not worrying about the cost of every second ticking by at a recording studio—it allowed us to think about music, and not worry about studios and being away from home.”

Homey or not, Yo La Tengo’s music has always had an intimate quality.

This is partly a result of the band consisting only of McNew and husband-wife unit, frontman Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley, and partly due to the hushed quality of much of their material.

Super-mellow acoustic outing “The Fireside” is an example of this vein of Yo La Tengo’s music, but Popular Songs also contains some of the freewheeling psychedelic guitar jams (in the form of the 15-minute “And the Glitter is Gone”) that represent another familiar side of the band.

But perhaps most notable on the album are Yo La Tengo’s forays into poppy, multi-part vocal harmonies and string arrangements, of which the opening track “Here to Fall” is one of the standouts.

“There are two songs that have full-blown string arrangements,” McNew explains. “They were done by Richard Evans, a legendary producer from the ’60s and ’70s who worked on classic records by Donny Hathaway and Natalie Cole. He had this very psychedelic, soulful idea of pop songs. We were big fans, and fantasized about adding strings. Richard was our number one choice. He’s now in his 70s, and had no idea who we were, but he was really excited to work with us.”

Despite the addition of strings, McNew says that in the 18 years he’s been with Yo La Tengo, their songwriting has undergone little evolution. “We’ve begun with directionless jams for a very long time,” he says. “I joined in ’91, and learned all of their songs, and we began to write this way for Electr-O-Pura in ’95. We would just get together and play every day for fun, just because we could. We would record on a cheap recorder, and if we heard an idea that we liked, we would go back and find out what that was, and that could be the beginning of a song.”

But McNew doesn’t want to belabor the past—or Yo La Tengo’s status as indie-rock elder statesmen. “We don’t think about that stuff,” he says. “It’s best not to canonize yourself while you’re alive. While we’re still breathing and working, I don’t think we could ever think about posterity. All of us are very proud of the work that we’ve done. But we’re all still very much interested in the future and not making a big deal out of the past.”

Yo La Tengo
Indie rock trio in their 25th year. Dec 17, 7pm, ¥6,000. Shinagawa Prince Stellar Ball. Tel: Smash 03-3444-6751.

Popular Songs is available on Matador/Beggars Japan/Hostess Entertainment.