Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan on the changing music scene and refusing to rely on others to convey your vision
Frontman of the US Indie band talks about his approach towards gear, being his own source of inspiration and “managing the freedom” of choice that comes with Pro Tools.
Image: Cheryl Dunn
Since the formation of Yo La Tengo in 1984, the band have made it clear that they’re not here to follow trends, sell out or attempt to change the world by pushing political commentaries. Instead, the indie three-piece have their priorities firmly fixated on making music that they enjoy and taking a step back from modern-day expectations.
Now, as the band approach the release of their seventeenth studio album, This Stupid World, the members prove that they still hold this mentality above all else and, ironic as it may sound, have manifested a devoted cult following as a result.
“We just try to make some music that we enjoy… There’s not much more to it,” says the band’s vocalist Ira Kaplan when asked about the motivation behind the release. “We really want people to listen and just react as they will; we’re not trying to steer them in one direction or another. There’s this pressure to come up with a narrative… and it certainly doesn’t exist in our case.”
To those already familiar with the brand’s signature style of 1960s-inspired indie rock, this isn’t exactly a surprising revelation. However, with This Stupid World, the members prove that even four decades after forming, Yo La Tengo are still finding new ways to keep their music as authentic as possible.
This time around, the band are using the release to showcase their talent in its rawest form — keeping the writing, recording and mixing of the album solely between the three members, without any outside influence.
“Almost everything we do is just the three of us playing together and seeing what emerges from that, [but in recent years] we started making more elaborate recordings in our practice space…” the frontman explains.
“We were assuming we’re gonna do something similar with This Stupid World. However, at a certain point, we realised that we were very happy with the sounds [we were] getting and the recordings we were making… We were comfortable just with the three of us.”
Although this may sound like the ultimate goal for any artist who is reluctant to let industry moguls help craft their vision, the singer-songwriter assures us that this freedom comes with its share of battles too.
“Managing the freedom becomes its own challenge,” he admits, adding that the band found it difficult to complete the album. “In this pro tools era, there are 8 trillion different plugins you could try. In the old days, you’d just work with what they’ve got [in the studio]… Now you can write using literally anything!”
Maybe Yo La Tengo’s determination to shy away from the bottomless pit of electronic options is the key to the band’s longevity. After all, sometimes the simplest circumstances and a restricted choice of gear inspire the most successful result, the frontman reminds us in his attitude.
To Kaplan, the root of a great song doesn’t come from the most impressive plugins or the flashiest gear, but rather from a simple melody and the ability to develop it with the artists around you.
“We’ve got a lot of guitars and people who’ve been making these boutique guitar pedals seem to think it’s a good idea to give them to us. So they’re now much more connected to what we’re using,” the frontman explains.
“But, I’m frequently just like ‘whatever’s at hand I’ll plug in and try to make something I wanna listen to.’ I don’t have sounds in my mind and I don’t have great awareness of what pedals help me achieve them. I’m just kinda sitting around playing in a way I feel can help bring new ideas to the table.”
This mentality towards the instrument has often been home to some of the most distinctive and iconic artists in rock — many of which Yo La Tengo are often compared to. It is a tricky cross to bear, the band suggest, simultaneously showcasing their love for The Velvet Underground when portraying them in the 1996 film, I Shot Andy Warhol, but also striving to cast off the comparisons when it comes to their own releases.
“We listen to a lot of music and we will reference music when we’re recording. But in terms of something as overarching as inspiration? It mostly just comes from each other and trying to follow the momentum of what we’re doing,” he says, reflecting upon how the band often draw parallels to artists such as Lou Reed.
“When we started, I truly don’t think we ever thought that anyone would listen. Sometimes, even to this day, I feel kind of equally mystified that anyone’s listening,” he adds. “We’re just fortunate enough that enough of the people who like our band appreciate the fact that we like trying different things and are willing to fall on our face.”
As for trying to find a ‘motif’ for This Stupid World, it seems as though the answer may lie in the title. Subtly hinting at our instinctive need to find a deep, insightful narrative to the art around us, Kaplan assures potential listeners that the album was made from a mere need to express oneself and an appreciation for the musicians that surround him, nothing more.
“It’s not like the thought of time is necessarily to consciously inform,” he confirms, acknowledging how some may see the album as discussing the inevitable passing of time. “But on the other hand, we’re not a young band. We’ve been doing this for a long time, [so time] is something that we do think about and it does tend to pop up in the lyric writing.”
Passing thought or not, in any case, with haunting lyrics throughout This Stupid World such as “Prepare to die, prepare yourself while there’s still time / Stay alive, look away from the hands of time” in the aptly named track, Until It Happens, the band are perfectly touching upon a topic that does plague the minds of many of us who also feel overwhelmed by the thought of time passing us by.
What is most refreshing about this theme is that it feels as much unintentional as it does relatable. It is clear that this common ground was stumbled upon by the members, not used simply as a way to appeal to every possible demographic.
What’s more, despite having over a million listeners per month on Spotify, the band remain noticeably humble about the impact their music has, and even more modest about their future.
“If I thought we could follow an algorithm or look at the market and tailor ourselves to it and have it be successful… I just think we would stink at it,” Kaplan jokes.
“One of the things that has not changed in all these years of doing this, is that every time we finish a record, it seems inconceivable that there will ever be another one… I think we’re just doing the closest thing to what we’re good at.”
Yo La Tengo’s This Stupid World is out 10 February via Matador Records.