Entire island ecosystems arise, corrupt, decay and disappear within the generous lifespan of Yo La Tengo, the New Jersey three-piece who reinvent endlessly what an independent American rock band is supposed to do—play Flamin’ Groovies songs in heaven, for instance. Guitarist/singer Ira Kaplan speaks very early in the morning. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
Is that Onion article about the record store clerks dying at the Yo La Tengo concert when the roof collapses the pinnacle of everything that’s ever been written about Yo La Tengo?
Ira Kaplan (vocals/guitar): That was pretty great. It’s hard to imagine anything else that was written about us once you bring that one up. I don’t know if you heard the story but we played at a party for The Onion later that year. They asked us to play at their Christmas party and they offered us some money, but there was no way it was going to be the amount of money that we normally get paid. We told them, ‘Look, we don’t do everything based on the dollar sign—we don’t even care about the money. What we’d like to do is re-enact the story—that’s what we really want.’ So what we ended up doing was we tweaked it some. It took a bit to convince them but then we really got into it and dived in. We ended up setting up fake rigging on the stage so that late in the set all the power and the PA flickered and then the fake stage rigging collapsed on us and killed us. And we had six people dressed as medics—with really hackneyed white coats and those reflector things—run in with stretchers and carry us off dead.
This is colossally elaborate. This actually happened in real life?
Ira Kaplan: Yeah, and it was so elaborate that I’m not even done yet. Then we changed into angel costumes and returned and played one more song.
What song does Yo La Tengo play in heaven?
Ira Kaplan: We decided to do the Flamin’ Groovies—‘You Tore Me Down.’
What’s it like getting ready for those legendary covers marathons on WFMU?
Ira Kaplan: It depends on the year because there was one year we were out of town—I guess we must have been at SXSW or something—and we went straight from the airport to FMU because the scheduling. What that mostly does is it kind of reminds us that we are capable of playing a lot of songs that we’ve never thought of playing before and it reminds us also to watch each other. One of the big things about doing that is to try to know when to stop—you don’t have to do all three verses.
Which also applies to life in general.
Ira Kaplan: That’s one of the attractions of doing this—it reminds us there’s a lot of life lessons in it.
How well does the Yo La Tengo experience serve as a microcosmic analogue for the entire human experience?
Ira Kaplan: I think that’s for other people to, ah …
People have asked you that way too much.
Ira Kaplan: Yeah, that’s right.
What are the legal procedures necessary to play and release an Electric Eels song?
Ira Kaplan: I don’t know how serious a question that is but one of the things about covering songs is you can record and cover any song you want on a record. You don’t need permission, you just have to pay for it. And it’s not a negotiable rate. There’s just an established rate of what it costs to cover an established song. The only thing you can’t do is if you’ve written a song that hasn’t ever been recorded—then the writer maintains the right of how it’s first recorded but after that you can cover it as long as the royalty is paid.
So they were helpless before you?
Ira Kaplan: We got a nice email from Brian McMahon—we were very impressed. There’s been a lot of the artists who’ve been ‘immortalized’ on Fuckbook that have contacted us. We’ve heard from Richard Hell and we’re friendly with the Flamin’ Groovies, but it’s pretty cool. We heard from a guy in Florida who did a version of ‘What’cha Gonna Do About It’—we didn’t know about it until he wrote to us, but it’s been a perk we weren’t expecting. We keep hoping every day that Felix Cavaliere will be sending us e-mails, but so far not yet.
How satisfied are you with the way that Yo La Tengo has made your fondest rock ‘n’ roll dreams come true?
One of the questions that we do get asked is, ‘Who would you like to play with and what haven’t you accomplished yet?’—stuff like that—and we tend to just sidestep it. Obviously, when we do the Chanukah shows and we actively seek out people to play with us there is some kind of planning involved, but I will say completely that when we recorded Fuckbook we weren’t at all thinking, ‘This way the Electric Eels will write to us.’ Things like that just kind of happen without thinking about them—it’s great.
What’s the significance of having a sculpture made of human bone and trinitite from the first atomic bomb test on your album cover?
Ira Kaplan: Trinitite? I don’t think I looked that far into it—I don’t even know what that is. We didn’t delve that deeply into it to be completely honest. We were just so taken by the image and we stopped reading after ‘human bone.’
Two of the 20th century’s biggest gifts to the world were rock ‘n’ roll and the atomic bomb—can we make a connection between the two?
Ira Kaplan: I wish I could say yes and it’s one of the reasons I wish that I didn’t have to do interviews sometimes. I think that’s one of the best things about being obsessed with—well, probably anything—but in my case and probably your case, being obsessed with music. It sets the mind racing and the aspect of the interview process that short-circuits that is a pity. The idea that you’re making that connection is amazing to me and it’s too bad that I have to come along and say, ‘Nah, never thought about it.’
We can use this interview to generate some mysteries if you want.
Ira Kaplan: I’m still connected to a lie detector, so the best I can do is be evasive.
You’re lucky you’re not connected to a nuclear device.
Ira Kaplan: Yeah.
So what do you think is the biggest connection between rock ‘n’ roll and the threat of nuclear war?
Ira Kaplan: Wow. I can’t—you’re three hours earlier, it’s too early for me to answer that. I don’t know. It is an interesting thing when people look back on that time. It’s funny how that aspect of it—how scary it must have been living and really believing that nuclear annihilation was around the corner. It does make me look at the fury with which people deal with each other today and think, ‘Man, you have no clue.’ And the thing that’s so frustrating is that most of those people—I’m a proud member of the left wing, so I’ll focus my ire on Fox News right now—but those people are old enough to know better. And it’s frustrating to look at these people who really know that things are so much better right now in that regard and to just rile people up the way they do is pretty sad and dishonest.
Stan Lee says do all your artistic work standing up and that way you won’t get a potbelly. Do you agree?
Ira Kaplan: We do quite a bit of our work standing up.
That’s where I assume you get your trim physique.
Ira Kaplan: Exactly right. You can’t tell because the stage is so high, but we’re actually all on treadmills while we’re performing.
What key are your treadmills in?
Ira Kaplan: As big Terry Riley fans, we’re in C.
Do you have any special insight into the American economy through the lens of Yo La Tengo?
Ira Kaplan: Sometimes it’s hard to tell because we’re only seeing it through our eyes. We just finished a tour and …
Were people no longer throwing hundred dollar bills at you?
Ira Kaplan: The serious answer is that attendance at the shows wasn’t as good as it had been the last time we’d gone out. Now that could be because people are less interested in seeing us or it could be because the economy is changed. We get some data but we’re not quite sure how to interpret it. We naturally want to blame the economy and not our dwindling appeal.
So as the Republican Party’s fortunes fade, so fades Yo La Tengo?
Ira Kaplan: We’re fighting against it—fighting the tide.
We’re having a minor staff debate about ‘Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind.’ Is that a nod to Black Randy or Eddie Bo?
Ira Kaplan: Luckily, it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
What does it say about me that I thought it was Black Randy?
Ira Kaplan: Well, you don’t hear me saying, ‘Who?’
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