Yo La Tengo's James McNew on the Art of Playing Quiet

The members of Yo La Tengo knew that the 25th anniversary of Fakebook, an acoustic-driven album largely made up cover songs, was approaching — and they also knew they didn’t want to wait as long as they usually do between albums. So they decided to follow up 2013’s Fade with Stuff Like That There, a new album that's essentially a counterpoint to Fakebook and includes a new batch of covers as well as a few reworked Yo La Tengo originals.

“It just seemed so strange because normally making an obvious choice is something that we just don’t do,” says bassist James McNew. “We tend to do the exact opposite, but this time we did the opposite of the opposite, and it just seemed too perverse a decision, and it was just like, ‘Yeah, we should totally do that.'"

They figured if they were going to make a sequel to 1990’s Fakebook, they were going to go full concept with Stuff Like That There, which was released in August on Matador Records. So the band brought in original guitarist Dave Schramm (who is also on the current tour that stops at the Boulder Theater on Monday, November 9) and recruited Fakebook producer Gene Holder as well. McNew, who'd joined Yo La Tengo the year after Fakebook was released, learned how to play acoustic bass for Stuff Like That There as something of an homage to Allan Grelle, who played acoustic bass on Fakebook.

Guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley switch off on lead vocals throughout Stuff Like That There, which includes a few covers that have been part of Yo La Tengo's repertoire for years, like Hank William’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and the Great Plains song “Before We Stopped to Think.” McNew says they learned other songs, like Special Pillow’s “Automatic Doom” and Antietam’s “Naples,” because they thought they might fit in nicely with the others. The disc also includes relaxed renderings of the Cure's "Friday I'm in Love" and the Lovin' Spoonful's "Butchie's Tune." McNew says Stuff Like That There definitely has the spirit of Fakebook, but he thinks it reflects where they’ve been over the last 25 years, but not in obvious ways.

“I think it shows sides of the group that didn’t exist then as far as songwriting and what we’ve learned to express,” McNew explains. “There are drone-y elements to a lot of the songs on Stuff Like That There that didn’t really exist that much back then. But I think we found a way to mix one into the other as far as where we’ve been and where we are now. But it seemed pretty natural.

“That way of playing is something that we’ve always done," he continues. "I feel like every song that the three of us have written together exists in multiple arrangements and multiple versions, whether quiet songs exist in loud ten-minute versions or the opposite. I think the three of us are just kind of conditioned to be able to reinterpret them whenever we feel like it. That’s a fun feeling. It’s kind of cool to be able to adapt...not only to survive but just when we feel like it.”

While the current tour for Stuff Like That There is largely an acoustic affair (save for Schramm’s impressive, nuanced guitar playing), the band still approaches the shows as they would electric sets. They never play the same set twice and make set lists an hour before the shows. Lately they’ve been taking requests from the audience that they may not have run through or rehearsed, McNew adds, and at a recent show in Paris they took a request for Daniel Johnston and Jad Fair’s song “Ashes on the Ground,” a song they haven’t played in ten or fifteen years.

“We did it out of the blue, off the tops of our heads,” McNew says. “And it was fun. It’s really fun to kind of get to that place, and kind of know that anything could happen and set lists can change. To me, that’s really exciting. That’s just a very spontaneous feel to it. It’s relaxed. Nothing is regimented. It’s not just an hour of free-form jamming but it’s pretty loose.”

Although this tour might be acoustic and quieter than a typically louder Yo La Tengo show, that doesn’t necessarily mean the performance will be less intense. McNew learned that while on tour in support of Fade in 2013, when the musicians would open with a quiet set followed by a loud set.

“Even though we would establish the parameter that it was going to be a quiet set,” McNew says, “even within that parameter we were able to find different levels and different shades of what is quiet, and there would be songs on the loud end of quiet and there would be songs that were quiet as possible. It definitely gave me a real appreciation for the dynamic range of what is quiet. Things can be just as intense, even more so, when you’re playing quietly than they are when you’re just letting it fly and playing as loud as you want.”

Yo Lo Tengo will be at the Boulder Theatre at 8 p.m. on Monday, November 9; tickets are $22 to $25 at
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon