The first show was petrifying," Ira Kaplan confides of Yo La Tengo's live debut. "We had a party and played at it, and we learned — not that quickly — that it's much easier to play for strangers than it is for your friends."
When they formed Yo La Tengo in 1984, the shy husband-and-wife team of Kaplan and Georgia Hubley were an unlikely pair to go into music, a field that is typically dominated by outgoing egomaniacs.
"In some ways," Kaplan notes, "there's not a harder way to start a band than to play for all your friends. Getting over shyness in some ways is a process that continues to this day. Overcoming that has almost been a theme within the band, of just kind of getting more comfortable or getting comfortable with doing certain things. It's a long process that isn't necessarily over."
"The other thing about that," he adds, "is that in some ways, you're not even sure you want to get over it, because it's such a part of you. Because we're not the kind of band that has these alter egos at work. We are essentially some version of ourselves as performers. Then you feel like, 'Then that's who I am.' Make who you are into a positive rather than a negative, but don't hide from who you are."
Indeed. No hiding here. From its mid-'80s debut, the Clint Conley-produced Ride the Tiger, to Popular Songs, its most recent effort, Yo La Tengo has consistently created a kind of experimental pop music that has alternately thrilled, confounded or turned off listeners — the hallmark of any truly great band.
The outfit went through a few lineup changes until 1992, when it recruited now-longtime bass player James McNew, who first appeared on an album the next year, on Painful. It was the songwriting on that record that solidified the dreamy intensity of Yo La Tengo, whose combination of delicate melodies and raging sonic passages proved influential to a generation of indie-rock descendants.
From hosting an annual Hanukkah show in its home town of Hoboken to serving as the backing band for legendary punk icon Jad Fair of Half Japanese, Yo La Tengo has always come across as a band with highly idiosyncratic but always compelling sensibilities that's just trying to have fun with its music.
"I heard the name from Byron Coley first," Kaplan recalls, explaining how he was exposed to Fair's band. "And because of the nature of Byron, I wasn't sure he wasn't making up a band called Half Japanese. When I found out he wasn't, I looked into them, and the first thing I heard was Half Gentlemen, Not Beast, and I was completely blown away. I couldn't believe my ears."
In those days, Kaplan was also a music journalist, a role he humbly downplays today. After writing to Half Japanese asking for a copy of the unlikely boxed set a record label had released, Fair himself contacted Kaplan and sent the original records, but they were inside sleeves for another record, which he still has in his collection.
"I think the first time we worked with Jad, there was a guy that was putting on a backyard music festival, and he wanted us to play at it," recalls Kaplan. "He said that he was trying to get Jad to play at it, so we said, 'How about if we play with Jad?' So that's what we did for that show; we backed him up." The ultimate fruit of that collaboration was the utterly unique album Strange but True, for which Fair took absurdist titles out of lines from a newspaper.
Many critics — and, at the time, the band itself — identified I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One from 1997 as a real turning point in Yo La Tengo's artistic growth. In fact, you can hear the sound of a group coming very much into its own and realizing it could be both creative and focused without having to shed its identity — or its sense of mischief. An insert that came with certain copies of I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One included a list of faux releases by equally faux bands such as the Condo Fucks, who released an album called, in a tongue-in-cheek bit of self-mockery, Fuckbook.
"That record all happened in a kind of convoluted way," Kaplan explains. "There was a bar, Magnetic Field, that we liked that was closing. It held like a hundred people. Some friends of ours were going to play it the last weekend, and we volunteered to open for them. So we just looked for a different name to play under. Given the band we were playing with, if we had played our songs, probably nobody there would have liked it. I'm not sure how much they liked the Condo Fucks, but they certainly wouldn't have liked Yo La Tengo songs."
And the merry pranksterism didn't end there. A few years back, The Onion published a piece about Yo La Tengo dying when a building collapsed on the band, posing dire consequences for music critics near and far. The newspaper later invited the bandmembers to perform at its Christmas party.
"It was a party, but open to the public as well," Kaplan remembers. "They started talking about the money they could pay us. The money wasn't important, and we told them, 'You're not going to pay us what we normally get, and that's fine. We don't mind. We'll do it for another reason.' So we came up with another idea and told them, 'This is what we want to do: We'll reenact your article.' It actually took a little bit of convincing on their part. It took them by surprise, it gathered momentum, and they were super into it. It created momentary confusion, and it was a good experience."
Exploring their creativity even further, Kaplan and company are currently on a "Spinning Wheel" tour, in which the band performs two sets at each stop on the tour — excepting its appearance at next weekend's Westword Music Showcase — and the songs are decided at random by the spinning of a wheel, like on a game show.
"It will be the Condo Fucks one night," says Kaplan. "It'll be Freewheeling Yo La Tengo another night. We do Dump sets. If it's a short set, we do a second set afterward. It just seemed like a way of giving us the opportunity to play in a variety of ways without giving any kind of warning what's coming. It's sort of 'anything's possible,' and we find out when the audience does."
An audience of friends, no doubt.