Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan on His Band's 30th Year, Scoring Films, and Buckminster Fuller
Buckminster Fuller was a man full of fascinating ideas. The second president of Mensa is remembered for being an inventor, author, and most famously an architect who popularized the use of geodesic domes.
In fact, Fuller thought the geodesic dome could solve the world's housing problem because of its incredible durability, light weight, and capability to provide the most shelter for the least amount of surface area. If you take a drive to the Miami Seaquarium, you can see one of his designs, the Golden Dome Stadium.
As for Yo La Tengo, it is a band that, 30 years into its rock 'n' roll career, is still creating fascinating music. Last year's album, Fade, was just as vibrant, assured, and cool as its 1986 debut, Ride the Tiger. The Hoboken, New Jersey trio -- consisting of guitarist Ira Kaplan; his wife, Georgia Hubley, on drums; and bassist James McNew -- has influenced a generation of indie rock.
But beyond both having deeply devoted admirers and fascinating legacies, what could Buckminster Fuller, who died in 1983, and Yo La Tengo, which didn't play its first show until '84, possibly have in common?
Photo by Charlie Villyard
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Next Saturday evening at Miami Beach's Colony Theater, Yo La Tengo will provide the answer, performing its score for Sam Green's live documentary about the inventor, author, architect, and visionary.
Yesterday, Ira Kaplan spoke with Crossfade from an Australia hotel while enjoying his room's view of the Sydney Opera House to discuss how Yo La Tengo became involved with creating the music for this film, titled aptly, The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller.
"The director, Sam Green, got in touch with us," Kaplan says. "We were aware of his work. Georgia's sister is an animation filmmaker, so we knew some of the same people. He sent us scenes to look at. The temp music he had in the uncompleted form were Yo La Tengo songs, so we knew what to work off of."
Over the years, the guitarist and his bandmates have provided music for numerous films, even going so far as to put out a collection of such work, We Shoot They Score, which includes compositions from Old Joy, Junebug, Game 6, and Shortbus. Of movies that Kaplan has seen recently, he admires the score for Gravity, although he hedges, "Maybe it was only because of the 3D."
Yo La Tengo had also previously been commissioned by a film festival to score a documentary, The Sounds of the Sounds of Science. But as Kaplan points out: "That was very different, in that the director was already dead. Probably our closest experience was for Adventureland, in that we received notes and had a back-and-forth with the director. For Fuller, we didn't have as much time, so Sam Green came out to our rehearsal space and would react instantly to what we were working on. With him in the room, it was a much faster process."
Photo by Ed Dittenhoefer
Screenings of The Love Letter of R. Buckminster Fuller are also much different experiences from Kaplan and his bandmates' other film work, because each showing is a live performance. As the movie plays, Green stands on the stage, providing narration, and the members of Yo La Tengo play their instruments.
Naturally, each version has its own variations, both bold and subtle, including the director's local notes for the home crowds on how Fuller's life and work affected the region. So yes, next weekend's theatergoers can expect to learn more about the history of the Miami Seaquarium, as well as Buckminster Fuller, the man.
But for rock stars who are used to being the center of the audience's attention, how is it for Yo La Tengo when the crowd's eyes and minds are elsewhere during a performance? "It's great," Kaplan says. "We're fond of doing things in a variety of different ways. When you're young, you love ice cream so much, you want to eat it for three meals a day, but then you're going to want something different. For us, being in the background is a fun experience, and it helps us enjoy the spotlight more when we get back in it.
"But you know," he adds, "they say it's only a good film score if you don't notice the music. With this being a live experience, it's going to be different. You're not going to have the surprise at the end of the movie where you're like, 'Wow, the narration was by Donald Sutherland.' Our hope is the audience is engaged in whatever form that takes, whether it's Sam's style or in the subject of Fuller."
Photo by Ed Dittenhoefer
Obviously, though, many of the people in attendance at any given Fuller show are coming to catch a glimpse of one of their favorite bands -- one that will soon celebrate the 30th anniversary of its first performance, in December 1984.
To commemorate this milestone, Kaplan has been looking in the rear-view mirror and posting each day to YoLaTengo.com, reminiscing about something that happened to the band on that day, sometime during the past 30 years. (His March 11 entry recounts the time when the band was asked to open for Sonic Youth at a pro-choice benefit in Boston without its having a bassist. And February 17 tells the tale of a trip to Gainesville, where half the crowd in attendance came aboard a makeshift stage to sing "Emulsified.") The memories are all delivered with Kaplan's charmingly dry wit, exemplified by his response to being asked if the conversation could shift to Yo La Tengo's future: "No, I'm hanging up. Interview's over."
But leaving kangaroos and vegemite sandwiches beckoning, Kaplan stays on the line, laughing, and explains: "In 2013, we toured nonstop, or as close as you can. But we're thinking about writing new music. Also, being married to Georgia means we never really turn off the band."
So with all this history, three decades of some of the most consistent musical output known to Western civilization, can Kaplan look back and pick a favorite Yo La Tengo album? "It's hard to answer that question. I can't even answer it with other bands. A journalist asked me some time ago what my favorite Rolling Stones album was, and I did it without thinking, so I hope I didn't offend Keith Richards. But I think ratings kind of cheapen the experience, saying this one is an 8.2 and that one is a 9.3."
You don't expect a mother to select a favorite child, nor the deceased subject of a documentary to choose his favorite geodesic dome, but how about if Kaplan had to pick a record from the band's oeuvre for someone unfamiliar with Yo La Tengo to show what the band is all about?
"I would have to look at the person standing in front to me. Then I would cater the answer to who they were, and I would tell them to listen to I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One."
Yo La Tengo. As part of Sam Green's The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller live documentary. 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, March 22, at Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $30 plus fees via mdclivearts.org. All ages. Call 305-674-1040 or visit colonytheatremiamibeach.com.
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