Yo La Tengo: Hanukkah in July

Mike Greenhaus on May 15, 2018

Last year, Ira Kaplan waited until July to give his fans the holiday gift they’d been waiting for. Near the end of Yo La Tengo’s free midsummer performance at New York’s tree-lined Central Park SummerStage, the guitarist invited his mother Marilyn to sing the 1960s pop song “My Little Corner of the World”—and to help announce the return of their signature, guest-heavy, eight-night Hanukkah celebration at a new venue after a five-year lapse.

The announcement felt completely in line with Yo La Tengo’s singular approach. Almost every year from 2001–2012, the trio—Kaplan, his wife and drummer Georgia Hubley and bassist James McNew—performed at Hoboken, N.J.’s Maxwell’s throughout the Jewish holiday. Far from the usual, sloppy, end-of-the-year party, the festive benefits featured surprise openers, comedians and a bibliography-worthy array of influential, if not overlooked, rock-and-roll journeymen who were treated with the same reverence as Yo La Tengo’s actual celebrity guests. Some shows tilted toward the indie-rock group’s avant-garde-leaning noise-rock improvisational qualities, while others looked through the layers of sound to their sweet, sensitive side and love of power-pop, Downtown jazz, punk, girl-group music or, on occasion, simple, fun classic-rock sing-alongs. Marilyn traditionally joined the trio on the run’s final night for “My Little Corner of the World;” the song felt emblematic of both the run and the entire scene that Yo La Tengo had slowly built since the mid-1980s, while hiding in plain sight just across the river from Manhattan in Hoboken.

Yo La Tengo hadn’t hosted a Hanukkah show since Maxwell’s ended its most famous chapter in 2013—the club has since reopened and closed once again—and though the promoters of New York’s Bowery Ballroom had been unsuccessfully asking the group to take over the run for years, the band finally came back to them shortly before their Central Park show with a “yes” and a plan for Marilyn to help announce.

“When Maxwell’s closed, it seemed inconceivable that we would do it anywhere else,” Hubley says of the venue that had nurtured Yo La Tengo since their first show. “But, this year, I started to feel like, ‘Maybe it’s time to bring it back.’ It probably had a lot to do with the [2016] election and everything going on.”

“I was the last person to think it was a good idea to bring them back,” Kaplan is quick to add. “But now, I’m discovering how much I had been remembering the hard parts and forgetting the good parts.”

By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, the always-ambitious art-rock group had not only completed another marathon Hanukkah run, but they had also announced the release of There’s a Riot Going On, their first album of all original material in five years and, at least in terms of their recording approach, their most experimental release yet. The trio didn’t have a specific plan when they began working on the LP about two years ago; instead they started casually chipping away at ideas over time, weaving together new tunes with fragments from recent film-score projects and other unused ideas dating back at least a decade.

“Somehow it became evident that we are now officially working on a new record,” Hubley admits. “It’s always been in the back of our minds—‘Let’s store this little thing for later.’ But, a lot of the tracks have elements from various ideas we’ve kept along the way, like a collage we started putting together. For a while, we weren’t doing it everyday and then, at some point, it became, ‘OK, we are doing this every day.’”

Though they were resistant at first, Yo La Tengo have come to embrace Pro Tools. And, this time, the group used those potentially synthetic studio sounds to create a record that feels like a sweeping, live, full-band improvisation.

“We dragged ourselves into the present,” McNew says with a hearty chuckle. “When digital recording and Pro Tools were really exploding, at first, I went backward to a four-track cassette machine where you had no options.”

“We’ve got all these boxes that make loops,” Kaplan adds. “Frequently, we’ll be jamming and the last thing that will hap- pen is we’ll hear the loop; it’ll remember it until you unplug it and start the next one. Over the years, James would go, ‘Don’t get rid of that yet—let me record it’ and we’d build on that. The more we did that, the more we realized, ‘We’re not preparing for something else; this is what we’re working on.’ It’s like one of those romantic comedies where you realize, ‘I’ve been looking for the perfect woman all this time, and we’ve actually been seeing each for six months.’”

It’s a brisk late-January afternoon, and the members of Yo La Tengo are camped out on a subterranean level of longtime label Matador’s Manhattan office. After Maxwell’s closed, Kaplan and Hubley moved across the Hudson River, and, for the first time, Yo La Tengo are now, technically, a New York band. The group kept their rehearsal space, though, and now reverse-commute into Hoboken. “That’s where the work gets done,” Kaplan says with a grin.

The band has remained incredibly active since 2013’s Fade, their last album of original material. In addition to releasing Stuff Like That There, a reimagining of some originals and covers, the group has busied themselves with a range of film projects, collaborations and other artistic endeavors that, like the band’s music in general, has swung from esoteric to accessible. In 2017, their New York-area engagements alone included a set of covers under the alias Condo Fucks, a recasting of their songs alongside “an ensemble of improvising musicians,” a run of shows backing Robyn Hitchcock during a complete recreation of his landmark Black Snake Diamond Role LP, Kaplan’s jam sessions with the experimental Australian act The Necks and other artistic excursions. Before that, former Yo La Tengo guitarist Dave Schramm temporarily rejoined the band for the Stuff Like That There cycle, allowing McNew to move to upright bass. The change left an indelible mark on his approach.

“I certainly think [our varied projects] have influenced what we continue to do,” Hubley admits. “A lot of the improv stuff lends itself just to be more open to chance. Even playing with Robyn—personally, it was really difficult for me to learn how to play those songs and drum in a way that’s very different from anything I do. Anytime you throw yourself into something that’s new, it seeps in and just shows up.”

Kaplan jumps in, continuing his wife’s thoughts: “I would go further with the Robyn thing because those songs are sufficiently tricky. And that brings up our ‘problems can be solved’ mentality. If a song isn’t working, then we’ll go, ‘If we can get through ‘Policeman Sing,’ we can certainly figure out this song.’ It gives me a physical push do something that I haven’t thought to do.”

“After he finished a book, [author] David Sedaris would often be directionless as to what to do next, so he would just take a part-time job,” McNew says. “He’d start working at a motel and things would happen; it starts affecting him, and then, he’s writing again.”

That willingness to rethink what a Yo La Tengo record could be helped the musicians sculpt Riot almost like they were painting a canvas. The LP’s 15 tracks link together like LEGOs, opening with the gentle instrumental invocation “You Are Here” and sliding through slabs of indie-guitar heroics, jazz, doo-wop, ‘60s AM Gold and ambient weirdness before coming full circle with the album’s longest track, the six-plus minute “Here You Are.” The entire song cycle clocks in at just over an hour, but there are all sorts of Easter eggs buried within the soundscapes. (Although, the three musicians would rather not point out those exact moments.)

“We were confident that there was a record within what we had been working on, but we didn’t know what that would be,” Kaplan muses. “We would frequently revisit something we’d done months earlier with fresh ears. We didn’t stop doing other things this time; we get approached to do so many interesting things where we say, ‘Yes, lets do that’ and, eventually, some kind of band clock just tells us that you have to start saying no sometimes. We just wanna do something that’s us at some point.”

If you listen closely, you can here elements of old songs and repetitive themes that tie the tracks together. “Esportes Casual” has a bossa nova groove, while the instrumental “Shortwave” is deep-set Yo La Tengo fuzz. All three members of Yo La Tengo are multi-instrumentalists and split the album’s lead vocals; when Kaplan steps up to the mic during the appropriately titled, swampy “Above The Sound” or the shoegazy “For You Too,” his voice acts as a familiar marker guiding you on your way. “A lot of the album was recorded live and we were able to leave some of the nakedness on there because we were adding things together,” Hubley says.

The album’s title is a play on Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 release There’s a Riot Goin’ On—a hard-edged, rhythmic funk album that was a notable departure from the ensemble’s original crowd-pleasing breakthroughs and captured the energy of the turbulent era. Kaplan says the group landed on the name relatively early in their recording process and even shared it with Matador before they had even heard the completed tracks.

“It was part of trying to make sense of what we were doing as we were trying to make sense of everything else,” he explains. “It was right around the time of the inauguration and all the demonstrations that were going on. It just started resonating within us, specifically, that way. And the title stuck. We’d talk about it every once and awhile and go, ‘Are we still thinking this is a good title?’ and everyone would say, ‘I am,’ ‘me too!’

Growing up in the suburban shadow of New York City, Kaplan saw the Grateful Dead a few times as a young music fan in the 1970s before the first big wave of punk music consumed his interests. Those seminal experiences certainly colored Yo La Tengo’s reverence for long jams and psychedelia, but even when the group would occasionally cover Dead songs, their tributes felt more like a celebration of the rock-and-roll canon than an attempt to carry any sort of torch. However, in the past few years, Kaplan has drifted back into the Dead’s universe: He attended a Chicago date of the group’s Fare Thee Well celebration in 2015; participated in a late-night, indie-rock Dead summit at City Winery organized by Real Estate’s Alex Bleeker after that show; and popped up a year later on the Day of the Dead compilation curated by members of The National.

“There wasn’t a Shakedown Street when I went to shows, so the explosion of culture is something I saw in Chicago for the first time, and probably the last time. It was amazing,” he says. “When the shows were announced, it never occurred to me to go and then, when I was presented with the opportunity to buy a ticket if I played City Winery, I thought, ‘OK, sure!’ The recommendation showed up on my computer, and I thought, ‘I’ve gotta click on it.’”

Kaplan says he went in without any expectations except that McNew, who had webcasted the group’s Santa Clara, Calif. concerts a few days earlier, told him they’d played a set of really old songs. “I was like, ‘God, that would be amazing,’” Kaplan says. “The show I saw ended up being a lot of Blues for Allah, which is past when I had been listening to them—and I thought it was really great.” The experience also ended up leaving an imprint on Yo La Tengo proper. “It was a really rewarding,” he adds enthusiastically. “Playing ‘Dark Star’ with Lee Ranaldo and those guys? Singing ‘New Speedway Boogie?’ Some of the goofing around we’ve been doing at our shows recently is with them in mind.”

McNew, who grew up as a self-described “sullen teen” in Charlottesville, Va., consciously avoided the Grateful Dead throughout their entire run, but has grown into Yo La Tengo’s Dead scholar. “I reacted quite negatively to the phenomenon of the Grateful Dead’s popularity and hated them on principle, just because I was in the middle of the University of Virginia,” he says. “I had an awakening much later in my life; they were waiting for me until I was ready. I was at the exact right age and the exact right point in my life to really appreciate it.”

In 2012, while in San Francisco for a multimedia-project celebrating architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller, Yo La Tengo played some acoustic shows outside the city, and the bassist had an awakening. “It was all happening to me,” he says. “Not only was I listening to it, but I was geographically there, and it was pretty tremendous to really feel that.”

Hubley saw Jerry Garcia as a solo act and his short-lived bluegrass supergroup Old and in the Way, but says she fell asleep. (However, she is quick to point out that she also fell asleep at a My Bloody Valentine concert.)

“When we first met, Georgia and I discovered that we had been at a lot of the same shows,” Kaplan says with a laugh. “But among the experiences we’d both had was falling asleep at a Jerry Garcia concert. I think Jerry had that experience too.”

Yo La Tengo officially kicked off the live portion of their Riot era in late February with a private performance of the entire LP at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust, a lone listening space nestled among the Bourbon Street-like bustle of modern Williamsburg. Presented live as a single movement, the album’s suite-like flow has the freedom of a Sun Ra movement and the precision of a minimalist neoclassical composition. The trio then headed out on a relatively traditional album release world tour mixing headlining dates at storied rooms like San Francisco’s The Fillmore and Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club with some choice festivals overseas. The band raises a collective eyebrow when the conversation shifts to the oversaturated mainstream festival scene, but they enjoy more specialty curated, music-focused events like The Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn. Kaplan says he’d go even if he wasn’t playing.

In the past, Yo La Tengo have avoided planning their labor-intensive Hanukkah mini-fests during album-release years, but they haven’t ruled out playing over the holiday this December just yet.

“One of the things that actually made it work, luckily, is that we’d never spent as little time preparing for the shows as we did this year,” Kaplan says. “It feels less inconceivable that we would do it this year than it previously had in album years. I think now there’s some sense that we could…”

“We can wing it,” Hubley interrupts, before the entire band breaks into laughter. “To some extent, that’s what we just did.”

If the shows do return this year, then Yo La Tengo plan to keep things centrally located in Manhattan instead of moving the series to Brooklyn to be fair to their fans and friends coming from New Jersey. They enjoyed playing Bowery Ballroom, too, which now feels like a classic venue from another bygone indie-rock era despite being a generation younger than Maxwell’s. Each Hanukkah show supports a different charitable organization and McNew sees a need for that now more then ever. “It’s good to have a target—Trump was just talking about his fear of sharks and he said, ‘I would never donate to a charity that supported sharks,’” McNew says. “I was like ‘I will do Hanukkah if we do eight nights of pro-shark causes and the advancement of shark technology.’”

“I think we just did that, frankly,” Hubley interjects, before Kaplan shifts the conversation’s tone once again.

“I’m proud that what we did wasn’t cynical,” Kaplan says soberly. “No matter how we might talk to each other privately, I want to express our group as positively fighting for what we believe in, rather than tearing down what we don’t. The most profound thing about the Hanukkah shows was how un-angry they were, and how unmistakably passionate we were without being negative.”

This article originally appears in the April/May 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here