Yo La Tengo

Tengo inside out

Over the course of 10 albums, the Hoboken trio Yo La Tengo has mastered--and yet is constantly revising--its deliberately paced, Velvet Underground-inspired pop music. The group's newest recording, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, sprawls out over the course of 78 characteristically beautiful minutes. At its best ("Our Way To Fall," "Tears Are In Your Eyes"), the results are downright transcendent, with bonus points for wit: "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" not only draws its name from a line in The Simpsons, but also extensively incorporates it into the lyrics. Singer and guitarist Ira Kaplan (who's married to drummer and singer Georgia Hubley, whose mother Faith is coincidentally interviewed elsewhere in this issue) recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about comedy, Yo La Tengo's place in a specific scene, and commercial pursuits.

The Onion: How many of your songs are inspired by The Simpsons?

Ira Kaplan: I think "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" is the first one.

O: Really?

IK: I think so. Well, our songs take a long time to become songs. Most of the songs on this record have earlier incarnations as instrumentals with varying degrees of shape to them. Different elements of those instrumentals get preserved, so James [McNew, bass] keeps track of a lot of those instrumentals and gives them funny titles, which of course all go away eventually. A song that is an instrumental will sometimes keep its title, but not "Tired Hippo," for instance. He named one series of instrumentals after the Troy McClure filmography, and, much to his surprise, the title stuck. He didn't never intended for it to be the last word on the title, but then I showed him the lyrics I wrote.

O: They actually fit the title, which is even more impressive.

IK: Yeah, well, it just kind of occurred to me. It seemed funny.

O: You guys have a number of comedy connections. I've seen lots of Simpsons references pop up in the newsletter, and you did a video with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross [of Mr. Show].

IK: Right. And with The Simpsons, we did the theme on one of the shows.

O: What was that like?

IK: Oh, it was great. One of the interesting things about it was that it required us to work faster than we tend to work. As I said, our songs come together over a long period of time, and we've gotten increasingly leisurely about recording them. We enjoy the open-ended aspect of that, but when the Simpsons people asked us how long we would need in the studio, we were like, "I don't know." They wanted to book a specific time, so that was kind of interesting, having to work fast. Dan Castellaneta [the voice of Homer Simpson and others] was there to do some Homer stuff, and that was at once the best and worst part. The best part for the obvious reason, that they're at our recording session, and especially because they didn't use most of it. A lot of it was speculative, and they were trying out a bunch of things; it was so incredible to be there watching that happen. But since, at the same time, we didn't have that much time there, we were just watching our time tick away on something that wasn't getting our end completed. It was great. I mean, any day that's a unique day is always a good one, and that was just so exciting for us.

O: It must be nice when you're fans of The Simpsons and you're fans of Mr. Show, and then those people come to you.

IK: Oh, yeah, it's incredible. The Mr. Show thing was something that we set up—we actually approached them—but that was great. Making that video was so much fun. There are all these clichés about bands that have to do videos but don't really enjoy it, where the record company demands it. But we had the best time that weekend, so it was completely the opposite of that.

O: What's your take on the sort of genre of slow-rock?

IK: I don't know. What is that genre?

O: It encompasses sort of slow, deliberate pop music, like Low, Tram, Red House Painters, stuff like that. Do you feel like you fit into that scene?

IK: I have to say I don't know any of those groups you've named. I've heard of Low, and Low is one in particular that I've been meaning to learn something about. I've heard nothing but good things about them. I think that when we feel like part of a scene, it's usually more social than anything else. I guess that lets us maybe be a little more eclectic musically, but still feel socially tied in with people.

O: Are your fans the sort of fans who get mad because you did a Coke commercial?

IK: Not that we're aware of. I don't know. It hasn't been talked about that much.

O: Your fans don't seem to be the type to say, "Oh, man, Yo La Tengo used to be about the music."

IK: In a way, I've often looked forward to being challenged about that. We went into it with some trepidation, but mostly feeling pretty solid about it, and as time went on we only felt better about it. I think the reason was because it was about the music. We did write a piece of music for them, and much to our surprise, we wrote a piece of music like we had never written before. It's sort of funny the way the rules are perceived. I mean, you can license a song to a movie and that's not about the music—that song's already done—and people don't seem to mind that. I'm not sure who minds that commercial either. It was similar to doing The Simpsons, in a way. It's always interesting to change the context by which you make music because the music comes out differently as a result. And, of course, we were very well paid for that, and it wouldn't have happened without it, but we did make it a musical experience. They asked for a song, a pre-existing song, and we said no.

O: Did you find that the songwriting process was informed by your love of delicious Coca-Cola products?

IK: James drinks Coca-Cola. Georgia and I don't. Who knows? I suspect it was easier to say yes to them than to a more heinous product. We've never... We've always tried to avoid using the word never. That word has a way of backfiring on you, but we've turned down other stuff. We said yes to that one and turned other things down.

O: What have you turned down?

IK: That's sort of unimportant to me, but we actually did something else that was kind of cool, but that never got used. We did a surf version of the Roto-Rooter theme. That was really fun. They wanted a very brief piece of music, and to establish both surf music and the Roto-Rooter theme in that short period of time was pretty hard. That was the challenge involved. I mean, the record we just made has 13 songs and it's 78 minutes long. We take our time getting to the point, so to work in a way in which we had to get right to the point was really an interesting way to look at it. It was fun. So, as I said, we license songs to movies, too, and that's not about music. In fact, some of those commercials that we did turn down, that was because they wanted songs, and we did the same thing with them that we did with Coca-Cola, which is offer to write a piece of music instead. We, in good faith, would then attempt to deliver the same mood.

O: What's so great about Hoboken?

IK: [Laughs.] The mozzarella cheese, Italian bread, Maxwell's. Not much else.

O: Do you feel it's an unfairly maligned city?

IK: Is it maligned? I mean, no, it's probably fairly maligned.