Shiny, Happy People
For almost sixteen years now, James McNew has been commuting from Brooklyn to Hoboken, New Jersey, to spend hours on end, at least four or five times a week, with the same two people. And he's pretty damn happy about it.
Then again, his gig is pretty sweet: He's the bassist for Yo La Tengo, indie rock's undisputed champ in the categories of staying power and critical reverence. His bandmates, singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan and singer/drummer Georgia Hubley, founded the group in 1984 and eventually married. McNew joined the lineup seven years later.
The trio seems to boast one of the least tumultuous histories in all of rock, if McNew's outlook is any indication. "It's tremendously fun that I get to do this, just play around on an instrument that I'm not even particularly good at," he says by phone, from his native Brooklyn. "And to think that it's my job."
McNew peppers his speech with words like fun, enjoy, and tremendous. Regarding the musical freedom he has, he's "enjoying it tremendously." WFMU-FM, the independent New Jersey radio station for which YLT performs annual all-request benefit shows, is a "tremendous station." (It's also a "great station.") And how about the fact that the band is playing in Miami for the first time?
"It's uncharted territory on this tour," McNew says. "It's very enjoyable that there are still places we're just now getting to."
Along with, say, Pavement, and a few other heavyweights of the postpunk, pregrunge generation, Yo La Tengo has been the consummate indie rock band. The members are a little geeky, but sweetly so. Their love affair with the yin and yang of distorted guitar-drone/punchy-pop perfection is undying. Their sound has morphed, but they've never succumbed to the temptation of hyphenated-genre trends. They've released a dozen albums at a slow but steady pace, sticking by longtime label Matador Records, another indie stalwart.
Which is not to suggest that YLT is boring; each new album offers something fresh. In the Nineties, rock journos were all about comparing the group to the Velvet Underground (guess it was all that noise-squall-with-subdued-female-vocals stuff). YLT's latest album, 2006's I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, takes a brighter turn. There's more melody than meandering reverb, and some tracks approach danceability.
Not that this was a calculated effort; they were just, you know, doing their thing. "We don't really plan stuff out that much," McNew says. "We'll make a record, go on tour for a long time, slow down, and eventually we'll feel like it's time for new songs. We start from zero; no ideas get carried over from the last record.... The three of us have been playing together for so long we can try anything. As we get older, we get more curious and less inhibited." (For the record, McNew doesn't divulge his age, though it's a safe bet he's pushing, if not past, 40.)
It's this sort of plainspoken humility, along with tremendous talent, that helps explain why YLT remains a darling of the music press. It's also why the three are still able to stand the sight of each other.
"We're pretty much together 24 hours a day in preparation for a tour. When we're not touring, we still get together most days of the week yes, that's in our downtime," McNew says. "We still play together because it's fun!"
As for spending so much time with an old married couple, McNew, who is single, has no complaints. "I don't really think about it," he says. "We got along really well from the start. I mean, the bulk of December, after our last tour ended, was spent in hibernation. But that was just because we were exhausted and needed to rest up; it was nothing personal. You know, we don't all live in a house like the Monkees, sharing bunk beds."
So maybe slow and steady wins the race, but there's still the matter of attracting new and younger fans. YLT has managed that feat mostly by refusing to let critical reception, or fan response, affect the sort of music it produces.
"We don't really try to court anyone," McNew says. "We put out a record in 1997 called I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. The record was suddenly really successful, compared to our other records, and all of a sudden the audiences at our shows were bigger and younger. That was great because we didn't really do anything different."
Oddly enough, stints writing music criticism helped buttress the bandmates' resilience. "Ira wrote about music, but I also wrote for a while," McNew explains. "I had a fanzine. We came from a similar place in that we weren't really critics; we were fans. That attitude totally informs how we play music and do shows. It's more about what we like. Not trying to second-guess what critics approve of, or predicting the future of music.... Once you start trying to please everybody, every age group, you're headed for a life of misery."
It's as though you can hear the band shrug at the prospect of commercial success. But don't mistake the relaxed attitude for lethargy. It's more a matter of experience and, well, age. "The more experiences you have in life," McNew says, "the less you are scared."
After fifteen years as a trio, their love affair with playing live remains undimmed. Given the size of their back catalogue, plus a famously huge rotation of covers, no two set lists are alike. And they attack each song with equal gusto.
"They all seem fun to play! They're all great," McNew insists. "I can't imagine how miserable it would be to hate to play your old songs. Can you imagine Led Zeppelin moaning, öI can't believe I have to play "Stairway to Heaven" again; God, I wish I had never written "Stairway to Heaven"'? I guess if you're lucky enough to be around for so long, that's just something you have to live with."
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