For a band that’s been around for almost 30 years, Yo La Tengo sounds remarkably invigorated on its 13th and most recent studio release, Fade. So it’s surprising to hear that the making of the record—which took place at audio engineer and Tortoise drummer John McEntire’s Soma recording studio—was a “frustrating” experience for the long-running trio of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew.
Frustrating in the best possible way, however.
“It was frustrating because we were working all the time, and I love Chicago,” says the affable McNew, reached at home in Hoboken, New Jersey. “We all do—we love that city and its many amazing, amazing restaurants, and we have so many friends there. But we were working all the time, so it was frustrating that we couldn’t just spend all our time eating and hanging out with our buddies and having fun.
“That said, going away from home and working definitely brought a focus to us,” the bassist continues. “It’s sort of immersive—and especially working at John’s place, with John. He knows everything about his own studio backwards and forwards, and has lightning-fast access to anything that he wants, or that we want. It was kind of like being on a spaceship, because there’s not that much daylight—and the control room actually really does look like the helm of a spaceship, so that’s what I kept telling myself.”
A sense of sci-fi futurism has long been a part of Yo La Tengo’s sound: although the band is generally pegged as an indie-rock act, its earlier records have incorporated elements of electronic music as well as folk-style strumming and punk thrash. So the fried-transformer synths that introduce the final track, “Before We Run”, are no more of a surprise than Kaplan’s assertive six-string playing on the album-opening “Ohm”, which places Yo La Tengo firmly in the tradition of such New York guitar acts as the Velvet Underground, Television, and Sonic Youth.
“I don’t think that’s intentional, although those are certainly bands that we love,” says McNew. “I know that everything that goes in has to come out somehow, and we do have a natural love for those bands. Not just the songs, but the rhythm of the Velvet Underground was something that sank in with us, and I think that comes through on ‘Ohm’. But from my vantage point I can identify a lot of ingredients as far as different songs and different bands that that one song reminds me of—and I probably shouldn’t reveal any of those.”
McNew is willing to admit that he’s had a long-standing obsession with AC/DC, although if there’s any Aussie influence on Fade, it’s buried deep in McEntire’s mix. So, too, are the themes behind the songs. In general, they seem to speak of romantic disappointment and midlife regrets, but beyond that McNew insists that they remain open to each individual listener’s interpretation.
“We’ll talk about stuff, but as you’re learning in this interview we’re great at not answering questions,” he says, rather charmingly. “At least not answering them directly. And we never give instructions. Like, there’s never lyric sheets. There was some record—I can’t remember whose it was—where the guy was like, ‘Oh, this is a record about the dissolution of my marriage.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, great! My work here is done. I’m going to move on to another record now.’
“We don’t want to make it that simple,” he adds. “We don’t want to reduce it, I guess. I know that it’s good that our group doesn’t have a real category, or fit into an easy-to-describe genre. Even though it’s harder for Matador [the band’s record label], it’s better for us, in the long run. And I think maybe that’s just the kind of people we are.”