Though they aren’t musical shapeshifters the way some bands are, Yo La Tengo have always been a tricky band to describe without misplacing them in the enormous trench of banality. On paper, they sound boring, but their sound ebbs and flows from hushed, warm, acoustic-style whispers to reverb-shaking, tempo-chasing, understated rock. The New Jersey trio of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew formed in 1984 and have never taken a break, earning themselves the title of indie rock veterans. To date, they have 15 full-length studio albums. It can feel intimidating when you add it all up.
But the trio glow with an unbothered, unpresumptuous, down-to-earth vibe, in their personalities and in their music. They care about what they do and they care about the world, but they aren’t concerned with their social status in it. That’s evident on There’s a Riot Going On, their brand-new album and first in three years. The titular Sly and Family Stone reference nods to the post-trauma comedown feeling Yo La Tengo explores on the record, not the style with which they do it. As if by magic, they didn’t rehearse the songs before recording. They just let songs come together over time. Though it’s a fun, creative, and challenging process, there was still some struggle to create the final product fans hear on the album.
“There’s a few instances on the record of songs we began writing and recording but then stopped and ripped apart,” says McNew. “We took one instrument and began a new session with that and took it in a completely different direction. While that’s not a new concept for us, as we’re constantly changing arrangements of our songs and letting one idea grow out of another, that was exciting and very fun. Through the miracle of Pro Tools and digital recording, we can do things like that as soon as ideas would occur to us. We would seize them right then to see if they worked or not. In fact, there’s an overwhelming majority of very spontaneous moments that we were able to capture while recording: ‘You Are Here,’ the last song ‘Here You Are,’ and the song ‘Shortwave.’”
To explore the backstory to Yo La Tengo’s vibe, we interviewed James McNew for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask musicians questions inspired by their song titles. With There’s a Riot Going On as the prompt, the questions and his answers give a charismatic insight into why their onstage presence is what it is at the Paradise this Tuesday.
1) “You Are Here”
DIGBOSTON: How did you kick off this past weekend?
MCNEW: Wow, gosh. Everything is so slammed right now. We leave to go on tour tomorrow, so we’re trying to cram six months’ worth of stuff into the everyday. I’m honestly having trouble remembering what I did after practice. Oh wait! I remember! I went out to the neighborhoods of Bushwick and Ridgewood. In Bushwick, I had a fantastic meal at a Mexican restaurant I love very much. Then I went to Ridgewood to see a set of improvised music made by the guitar player Thalia Zedek, who is from Boston, and Phil Milstein, who is a tape loop and sound manipulator guy also from Boston. It was amazing to see them. They used to be in a band together 30-something years ago and now they’re collaborating again.
2) “Shades of Blue”
DIGBOSTON: What are your favorite and least favorite shades of blue?
MCNEW: I’m colorblind so I don’t know the answer to this question. [laughs] I’m not severe black-and-white colorblind, but I can’t really identify different shades of the same color. So I’m going to have to say blue. I wish I could be more specific!
3) “She May, She Might”
DIGBOSTON: Can you name a memory involving your mother that makes you smile?
MCNEW: Yeah, I just talked to my mom about a half hour ago. Most thoughts of her do. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. That’s where I grew up. The tour rolls through Charlottesville in a week and a half. I’ll be seeing my mom. We’re going to get lunch and I’ll probably do some laundry—that’s a forever type thing. My mom comes to see us play any chance she gets. She knows to bring earplugs, and everybody knows my mom. In all honesty, I don’t know how old she is now. I think I try to avoid knowing how old anybody is. I just know when their birthdays are, never their age, which seems like the important thing to remember. I lost track of ages a long time ago and I don’t think anyone minded.
4) “For You Too”
DIGBOSTON: What’s something all three of you—you, Ira, and Georgia—have been struggling with or grappling with as you get older?
MCNEW: Maybe public transportation? Things have changed in and around New York City in the past while. The subway system is rapidly deteriorating, and I know Ira has taken to cycling almost constantly. He lives in Manhattan whereas I live in Brooklyn. We still rehearse in Hoboken, so I’m driving a lot of the time. It’s a long trip out to rehearse. It’s easy to say this now because I’m not currently waiting in traffic to get through the Holland tunnel, but in the best of circumstances you develop a zen-like approach knowing there will be waiting.
DIGBOSTON: Which high-profile passing has impacted you the hardest?
MCNEW: Maybe Prince? I don’t know. Our tour begins in Minneapolis, and I fly there tomorrow. The venue we’re playing is the First Avenue Club, which we’ve had a relationship with since the ’80s. That’s where Purple Rain was shot. It’s a very historic place with very deep, personal significance to us and to me. It’s definitely been on my mind.
6) “Polynesia #1”
DIGBOSTON: Have you ever been to any of the islands in Oceania?
MCNEW: I wish! Does New Zealand count? If it does, then yes. That’s a magical, mythical, beautiful place. I think that’s probably the only place I’ve been to there.
7) “Dream Dream Away”
DIGBOSTON: Can you remember a vivid dream you had this week?
MCNEW: Not offhand. I feel like in busy times like right now, my dreams wind up being work-related—which is a bummer because dreams should be a vacation. I’m hoping once the tour begins then I’ll settle back into the general, good kind of insanity of dreams.
DIGBOSTON: What’s your favorite local radio station where you live?
MCNEW: Oh, WFMU, definitely. I found it when I moved here in 1991 and always loved it. It’s an entirely free-form, listener-supported station. Over the years, they’ve developed an enormous internet presence. It’s incredible because I can listen anywhere I am, thanks to a handy app. I can listen in Japan and keep up with everything. I love it. I love the DJs and the unflappable dedication to music and love of music. There’s really nothing like it.
9) “Above the Sound”
DIGBOSTON: Can you name one instrument you’ve tried to like but just don’t like the sound of?
MCNEW: The banjo is possibly one. Actually, or the ukulele. I find that the meteoric rise in popularity for the ukulele in the last five years or so makes my skin crawl. I find it a gross sound. I like to think of myself as a tolerant person, but I have limits. Maybe it has to do with more than the sound? I must admit, when Tiny Tim played the ukulele I had no problem with that. But I think Tiny was coming from a different place. That may be the grandest understatement I think I’ve ever said. I lived in Providence for a while and worked at the coffee shop in the Providence train station. Tiny lived in Cranston or Kingston and was constantly taking a train to New York City first thing in the morning. When I opened the coffeeshop at 5:30 am, he and my manager would be the first customers. It was an amazing way to start the day as it was pretty surreal.
10) “Let’s Do It Wrong”
DIGBOSTON: Musicians are often taught in class or by friends the “right” way to play their instrument. What’s your favorite “wrong” way to play an instrument?
MCNEW: Yeah, I’m a firm believer in this. The untrained stance is a very potent sound with a great approach. It’s good to be able to know how to do technical things, but I think at some point playfulness is needed. I like both, and I think I fall more towards the untrained, personally. I love Jonathan Richman’s singing voice. I like Solange Knowles’ singing voice. Both have a lot going for them despite being so different. [laughs] I appreciate it, though, if it’s coming from the heart like that. They have more in common than they think.
This reminds me of a documentary about Half Japanese called The Band That Would Be King. One of the members of the group explains how to play electric guitar real fast. He basically says, “It’s your guitar. You bought it, so you can do anything you want to it. You don’t have to put the strings in that order that everybody else does. You don’t have to have them tuned to the notes everyone else does. You paid for it. Go ahead. I can’t tell you what to do.”
11) “What Chance Have I Got”
DIGBOSTON: When is the last time you tried to discourage yourself from doing something you wanted to do?
MCNEW: Oh gosh. When would that have been? Probably most nights around midnight when I talk myself out of eating something before bed. That’s a discipline that took me a large portion of my life to get under control. There’s a cutoff where things become too late, you know?
12) “Esportes Casual”
DIGBOSTON: Do you play any recreational sports right now?
MCNEW: No, I do not. I wish I got to the gym more often. I have not played a competitive sport since I was a kid. I liked it back then, playing basketball and soccer and later lacrosse, but then I discovered punk rock and immediately lost all interest in participating in sports. That was one million years ago. I watch them, though, and I don’t know if that counts. I’m a long-suffering New York Knicks fan and a not-as-long suffering New York Mets fan.
DIGBOSTON: Which article of clothing do you own that’s been in your closet forever? When did you first get it?
MCNEW: I’ve saved band T-shirts that probably don’t fit anymore. The shirts themselves are much older than some of the people who come see us play. They have a lot of meaning to me and they’re riddled with holes. I don’t think I could ever let them go. I have a shirt from my college radio station in Charlottesville that was made for the jazz department concert they put on for Sun Ra in 1988. It’s still folded up in my drawer. I don’t think I’ve worn it in 15 or 20 years [laughs]. I have a similar vintage shirt for the band the Happy Flowers that was my favorite band at that time. It’s the best looking T-shirt, and it’s a classic so I have to preserve it somehow.
14) “Out of the Pool”
DIGBOSTON: Looking at the similarities between you and your immediate family, what is the most common shared trait between you all?
MCNEW: Poor eyesight, maybe? Being tall, too. My mom is tall, and I definitely got that from her. The bad eyesight is from my mom and my dad. Maybe being a good cook, which I get from my mom and my grandmother, or at least a love of cooking. Love of reading I got from my dad. And love of music I got from the both of them.
15) “Here You Are”
DIGBOSTON: How did you end this past weekend?
MCNEW: Last night, I was watching something on TV. What did I watch? Jeez, it wasn’t that long ago. I’m really having trouble with short-term information retrieval. This is so ridiculous. Come on, James. I think I was watching something terrible on TV because I watched a movie earlier that felt great. See, I’ve been able to balance the highbrow and lowbrow culture that I expose myself to. Every once and a while, if I feel like the balance is straining too far towards terrible television shows, I immediately select a hardcore European art film from the ’60s and I feel like that clears me out a little bit. Probably by the end of the night I was watching some terrible reality program.
YO LA TENGO. TUE 4.3. PARADISE ROCK CLUB, 967 COMM. AVE., ALLSTON. 7PM/18+/$25. CROSSROADSPRESENTS.COM