In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Fakebook, a much-loved album of covers and originals which showed the quieter side of the band, Yo La Tengo returned to the same template for their latest album, Stuff Like That There, pulling tracks from the past and re-working a couple of their own.
Chris Berkley of Static spoke to Yo La Tengo’s James McNew about the decisions that lead them to return to the Fakebook style and why they chose that particular The Cure cover.
Had it been on your minds for a while to do a kind of successor to Fakebook like this album is?
It hadn’t, although as it drew closer and it kinda synced up that we were at a point in our creative cycle to make a record and it synced up with the 25th anniversary of the Fakebook album we found it kinda perversely irresistible to do something as obvious as that and we found out that we were really into the idea instead of our usual contrarian unpredictable ways and we went in the studio and went for it.
Something else that apparently lined up with all of this as well was the 30th anniversary of Yo La Tengo as a band. You guys have always seemed like such a forward moving head down unit. As you say, usually these things will be sort of contrarian to you. Did it make you stop and think at all?
It kinda did. We observed our birthday. We played a few shows on the anniversary of the first gig Yo La Tengo ever did. At the end of 2014 we played two shows in New York, a show in DC and a show in Philadelphia and it felt great. At the New York concerts we basically invited and hosted just about every single person who had been in the group or had produced one of our records and I think we had 25 or 26 people on stage at the same time. All playing, more or less playing, the same song. That night was pretty magical for us.
You weren’t in Yo La Tengo when was Fakebook was recorded and released, did Ira and Georgia say it was an important album for the band?
I guess at the time it showed off their folk side and that they were more than just a noisy guitar band.
Did they say to you it was a pivotal record in the history of Yo La Tengo?
The three of us don’t talk so much about that stuff, but I knew it was. I love that record, and I saw the Yo La Tengo Fakebook live band several times around 1990 and I was a fan, even before then. I guess I didn’t know for sure that side of them existed. I knew a quieter side did. I could tell from the previous records they had released, in particular the President Yo La Tengo record, which featured a couple of soft, really beautiful, songs that I think hinted towards that record. I mean it’s something we have always done. We’ve always played quietly as well as very loud. I think since I’ve been in the group and since we’ve written songs together it feels like every song we’ve written exists somewhere, whether it’s at gigs or at rehearsal or on record, in multiple versions. Kinda multiple interpretations of the same song and I think that’s how kinda how we like it.
So was this a harder or easier album to go into? It’s a broader church in that you’re not just laying down all your newer songs but also picking back through history.
It provided quite a few challenges that we had not anticipated, but as far as choosing songs, we recorded 23 songs I think, and chose 14 for the album, so there’s still some leftovers. We’ve all been on the same page as far as presentation and songs to play. It was pretty easy I think to narrow down what songs we would record for this record.
Apart from the 2 new songs, was it always a given that you had some Yo La Tengo tracks that you wanted to revisit as well? I’m guessing there are multiple versions of a lot of your songs that exist anyway.
Yes, and yes it was. We wanted to keep as close to the original Fakebook concept as possible, which had re-recordings of songs from earlier Yo La Tengo records so we thought we would stick to that rule this time as well.
Do the songs morph when you’re play them live anyway? Are you used to having a few different ways a song can go in your head?
Yeah, definitely. I think a lot of our songs have kinda room to stretch in different directions on any given night and we like to follow that. I enjoy very much leaving things open-ended. It’s exciting.
You’re all such documented music nerds. How do you pick through which covers to do?
I don’t know. It all depends on how we feel that day, or what song feels right.
For the record as a rule of thumb it seems that a lot of the tracks on there are songs that you have actually covered live at one point or another?
Yeah, a lot of them we had and then there were a handful that we had learnt specifically for this recording.
I love that you guys seem to go in without a sense of music snobbishness about the covers that you do. You once did a radio benefit by covering songs suggested by listeners on the spot.
We do that every year. Once a year we participate in a fundraising drive for WFMU which is a 100% listener sponsored station in New Jersey. No advertising, no underwriting, nothing. It’s only supported by people who listen to the station, and once a year in exchange for people pledging money to the station we will take and try to honour every single request for anything, any song you can think of, and we will make idiots of ourselves trying to play it. It’s totally worth it for that to help the station out.
What’s the bigger challenge, is it to do a song like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” which has been covered by so many people before you or taking on The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love” because that’s a song I can only hear Robert Smith singing.
I don’t know. There’s kinda no rule to a song being off-limits. We like to think of songs that might translate into our world. I know in the case of “Friday I’m In Love” that was just a song we were fans of, and fans of The Cure, and I know both Ira and myself thought, “Man, I sure would like to hear Georgia sing that song sometime”. So we learned it for a party about 10 years ago, and played like a louder more faithful version of that song, but that might’ve been the only time we did it, but we kept it in the backs of our minds knowing maybe it would come in handy one day and we brought it up for this record.
This album also marks some other pretty significant differences, like you recorded it as a four-piece. You got former member Dave Schramm back in on guitar which was magnanimous on your behalf because you weren’t in the band, but he was on Fakebook. It was a very authentic way to go about instrumenting this record.
Dave is someone who’s joined us now and again, in the interim, between Fakebook and now. We see Dave often and he’s a pleasure to play with and I’m really excited that he’s gonna come on tour with us for the rest of the year.
And you also recorded with it with Gene Holder who did the original Fakebook record. Did you almost have to pull him out of retirement to produce this record?
No, he works pretty regularly and we went to the same studio and possibly used the same board and tape machine. We went full concept.
Did Ira wear some shirt from 25 years ago? That’s what I want to know…
You know, I don’t think so. I can neither confirm or deny that…
Interview broadcast on Static on 17th September 2015. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).