Over the past 25 years, Yo La Tengo has recorded a dozen albums—the 12th, Popular Songs, was just released—and has progressed from being a little-known college-rock band paying homage to its favorite musicians to being an institution and an influence in its own right. Guitarist Ira Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew haven’t much changed their signature style of soft vocals, loud guitars, and textured drone since the mid-’90s, but they’ve learned to use that sound to express a multitude of emotions, forging a career-long document of their passions and anxieties. Kaplan recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the changes in the music business over the past quarter-century, how the band resolves disputes, and how to manufacture spontaneity.
The A.V. Club: The new record ends with three consecutive songs of significant length, which is something Yo La Tengo has done frequently over the years, recording songs that sprawl past 10 minutes. What’s the attraction to you for these formless songs that go on and on?
Ira Kaplan: Well, huh. [Long pause.]
AVC: That isn’t meant to be pejorative.
IK: No, I wasn’t struggling with that. I don’t know. Maybe if I keep talking, I’ll answer the question. We work a lot on the songs, and spend a lot of time keeping them as short as we think they should be. Some of them feel right really long, but on other ones, we really try to think, “Oh, is this part necessary? Is this part necessary?” I think all three of those songs you mention are about their length as much as they’re about anything else. I think all of us enjoy the feeling of something that goes on and on, as listeners as much as players. Just to get into a moment that feels like it could go on forever, and that you kind of want to go on forever. I don’t know. There’s so many things we do that I could describe by saying they just feel right when we’re doing them. It’s hard to explain it beyond that.
AVC: Are these songs “composed,” in the sense that you know before you start recording that the song is going to be roughly 12 minutes long? Or do you just start it and end it when you feel like it’s done?
IK: It’s probably more the second than the first. We know they’re going to be long; we don’t know how long. They’re not timed to the second. The last one, “And The Glitter Is Gone,” that was the only take. And we had barely played it even in rehearsal. I think we just kind of reminded ourselves how it went, and then started. There’s a recurring theme in that song, but we just returned to it whenever it seemed like the right moment, and for as many times as seemed right. All pretty much on the fly. “The Fireside” was a little more mapped-out than some of the other ones, but “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven,” that was another one that… Well, we knew there was going to be singing on it, and we knew how the singing would be structured, but we recorded it without vocals, just feeling it out musically, and then went back to figure out how the singing would work with the way we’d played it, with the different chord changes. That one was created a little bit piecemeal.
AVC: Is that fairly common for your writing process, where you figure things out as you go along? Or do you come into the studio with some songs already ready to go?
IK: It’s not uncommon. On this album, we probably knew the songs better than on some of the previous records. But we’ve gotten to a point where that’s something we really enjoy, coming into the studio and literally finishing the song. To a certain extent, that’s not feasible, just in terms of time and money. You have to have some idea what you’re doing. But it has been fun to keep things as unformed as we dare before getting there. Since we recorded in our own rehearsal space this time, that process was a little more fluid.
AVC: Why did you decide to record in your rehearsal space?
IK: We’ve been doing a lot of recording there. The covers album we did as “Condo Fucks” was recorded there by James, and all the soundtracks we’ve done have been recorded in our space by James, so the more recording we’ve done in that room, the more comfortable we’ve become with the process of it. We just like playing in the room. We think it sounds really good. And I think there’s something we deal with that I would think a lot of bands deal with, and that’s the idea of going to a recording studio and kind of tightening up a little bit. “Okay, this is for all the marbles. Go!” We try to put ourselves in a setting where we’re at our most comfortable, and recording in our rehearsal space seemed like something where we might sacrifice something technically, but we might make up for that in just the feeling.
AVC: Having been together for so long, and having recorded so many songs, do you have to watch yourselves to make sure you’re not doing something you’ve done before? To not fall into too familiar a groove?
IK: I think we’ve thought about that a lot. And it’s trickier than the way you just described it, because sometimes things that are comfortable are comfortable because it’s what you’re good at. When you start doing the things you’re not as comfortable with, there needs to be a reason for it. We try not to worry about it one way or the other. If we’re repeating ourselves, that’s okay, and if we’re not repeating ourselves, that’s okay. We try not to be afraid to do something we’ve done before, and not to be afraid to do something we haven’t. As always, you just try to trust your instincts.
AVC: What constitutes a good rehearsal for you, or a good performance? When does it feel right?
IK: Well, they’re different. I think in terms of performance, something unexpected is always good, and it’s preferable if it’s unexpectedly good. But unexpectedly bad has a lot to say for it as well. It’s always nice to be able to look back on a show and say, “Oh, that’s the night that this happened,” and a lot of the worst memories are better than the shows with no memories. A good rehearsal is a lot harder to describe. A lot of rehearsals that end up feeling best are the ones where something really bad was happening, and you just kind of got past it and fought through it. Just dealing with things that are inevitable.
AVC: On your most recent tour, you went out without a set list. Is that something you’re planning to do again?
IK: We might do the “Freewheeling” shows again, but the shows we’re doing in the fall will have set lists. Given the number of different setups we have, with different people playing different instruments, one of the things we do think about before we start playing is how we’re going to get from one song to the next. The no-set-list thing works very well with the “Freewheeling” shows, where we’re talking between every song, and every song is me on acoustic guitar and James on bass, and Georgia playing drums. It’s not like we’ve got to figure out how to put down the guitar and get over to the keyboard and switch drummers. But when we started doing that stuff, changing instruments, one thing we thought about explicitly was how not to take forever to do that. I have seen bands do that, and you always feel like, “Oh, just get on with it.” We didn’t want to completely derail whatever momentum we might have. We’ve done the occasional show that way, done rock shows without a set list, but usually something has to have gone very wrong for that to happen.
AVC: Some bands, like The Feelies or Sonic Youth, can spend minutes getting their guitars tuned exactly the way they want them to be to play a song, and then the song will be terrific, they’ll get a real good head of steam, and then they’d have to stop in order to start the process over again for the next song.
IK: That’s a classic maneuver. Television used to do the same thing, and The Grateful Dead. I do kind of look on awestruck at bands who can do that, who can make the audience so miserable during those interminable tuning breaks, and then they start playing again, and it’s like, “Wow, all is forgiven.” But we, for whatever reason, are not that audacious.
AVC: To promote Popular Songs, the Matador website has been posting videos for some of the tracks. How did those come about?
IK: That’s a Matador thing. I guess in this day and age, bands and record companies are trying to come up with whatever ideas they have for getting music out there, so that was something that Matador came to us with. We actually had nothing to do with it, other than to look at them and say, “That’s fine.” But it’s a funny feeling, actually, to not be involved in something like that, because it’s pretty unusual for us. We were told there’s a lot of people who are hearing music on YouTube, which seems bizarre to me, but I’m sure they’re right. I’ve looked for songs before that I want to hear and have found YouTube clips of just a spinning record, which is something I’m quite fond of.
AVC: Largely because of Georgia’s family connections, you’ve always had a strong visual component to a lot of your work. But in this case, you’ve been completely hands-off?
IK: Well, there’s only so much time in the day, and if we could be more involved, we would be. And we haven’t made an actual music video since 1997, so it’s just something that… We’ve had ideas, and we’ve had things we’d like to do, but it’s just hard to find the time. All these things have to fall into place, different schedules have to lock up. Generally I think, given the kind of band we are, I’ve always felt like, “Well, if you can get a video done, great, and if you can’t, it’s not like the marketing plan is going to fall apart as a result of that.” In this case, Matador thought it was essential that these videos be done, and we weren’t in a position to do them, so we were happy to say, “Go ahead.”
AVC: What is the most significant difference between making a record in 2009 vs. making one 25 years ago?
IK: Well, it’s more fun doing it now than it was then. Especially if you go back to the beginning. I think this group really started when we made the  record Painful. James’ first record is [1992’s] May I Sing With Me, but he was still playing with Christmas at the time, and the thought was that he was going to be temporary, and we’d already written all those songs without him. He was kind of “occupying the bass chair” when he joined the group. But Painful was the first record that we made as the three of us, and I think it sounds different from the things that came before it. Even though I can see connections with the earlier records and things we’ve done since, it really seems like mostly we’ve built on that record. Anything from before then is really, really different to me. Since Painful, I think we’ve gotten more confident and more willing to trust ourselves and trust each other, and probably better at dealing with things that go wrong.
It’s an interesting question you asked before about practice, because I think that’s a big part of how to stay together as long as we have: learning what to do when things go wrong. And it’s particularly hard when you’re recording, because the importance of everything you’re doing is so magnified. Over the years, some of our hardest times as a band have come during recording sessions, and I think we’ve gotten better at seeing those through and putting those struggles in perspective, knowing, “Well, this always happens. Don’t take it more seriously than it should be.”
AVC: If you have a dispute, do you resolve it democratically?
IK: It’s usually kind of a fistfight. We get in there and start hitting each other with chairs, and the last person standing prevails. No, we’re not particularly democratic. I don’t think anyone really wants to have things as a 2-to-1 vote. I think we just try to find common ground and try to find something we can all agree on. What will certainly happen if it is a 2-to-1 thing is that we’ll ask the one if he or she can live with the other way a little bit, and see if maybe it turns out to be a better idea than that person thinks it is. But ultimately, if somebody’s really unhappy with something, I don’t think any of us are very comfortable forcing it.
AVC: When you were a teenager and standing in front of your mirror pretending to be a rock star, who were you pretending to be?
IK: Huh. [Laughs.] You know, by the time I was a teenager, I’m not sure I was doing that. I’m not saying I wasn’t standing in front of a mirror, but by then I may have been foolhardy enough to think I was being myself. At a younger age, I’m sure I was pretending to be The Beatles.
AVC: Have you lived in New Jersey your whole life?
IK: No. I grew up in Westchester. I moved to Jersey in ’81 or ’82, something like that. I would’ve been 24 or 25.
AVC: With New York City so close by, do you think of yourself as being essentially a New Yorker? Or does Jersey feel remote in some way?
IK: Well, it’s a little of both, but it definitely feels close. I mean, that was a gigantic part of the appeal of moving to Jersey, figuring that if we couldn’t live in Manhattan, we could at least live within striking distance. And it’s definitely one of the things that’s kept us in Hoboken all these years.
AVC: Does New Jersey feel like it has its own culture and a scene, apart from what’s going on in New York?
IK: Well, I don’t know. I think it’s got a culture. It’s certainly separate from New York, there’s no doubt about that. But a scene? I don’t know. I’ve never been that adept at spotting scenes. I’ve always thought they were something that outsiders notice, but people who are inside them are too close to recognize. Although that could just be my own myopia.
AVC: You were a rock critic yourself once, right? So you’re familiar with the idea of throwing a rope around something and saying it all belongs together?
IK: Well, there’s many reasons why I’m no longer a critic. That might just be one of them.