Yo La Tengo just might be the best cover band in America. There’s just one catch: They’re not actually a cover band. For 31 years, the Hoboken, New Jersey, band has been steadily amassing a sizable catalog of wonderfully fuzzy indie rock. The majority of it is original songs such as the noisy shoegaze rockers of 1993’s Painful or the dreamy lullabies of 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. But in 1990, the band released the album Fakebook, which included unique takes on songs by Cat Stevens, Daniel Johnston, John Cale and NRBQ. And with that, they began an ongoing tradition of incorporating covers into their repertoire.
Every year, guitarist Ira Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley and bassist James McNew play an all-request covers show for publicly supported radio station WFMU, the shambolic, hilarious highlights of which were compiled for 2006’s Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics, including Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up,” and “Meet the Mets.” Then in 2009, they released the self-referentially titled Fuckbook, an album of covers as their garage-rock alter-egos, The Condo Fucks. And in between, they worked covers by the likes of The Beach Boys and Anita Bryant.
In August, Yo La Tengo—who headline San Diego Music Thing this week—released the third covers album to bear their name (and fourth overall), Stuff Like That There, which also includes guitarist Dave Schramm. This time around, they’re tackling songs such as Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love.” It’s a loose and freewheeling collection of songs, and yet it feels just as representative of the band’s character as any of their other, originals-heavy studio albums. In an email interview conducted while the band was on tour in Europe, McNew explains that covers are a crucial part of the band’s identity.
“Playing covers is just a part of who we are as a band,” he says. “I think we all enjoy it when other bands do covers, too. It allows you some insight, imagined or otherwise, into who they are, different from what their original music offers.
“More than once I’ve had to learn entire sets of songs by Lambchop—those experiences taught me more or less how real bass players play bass,” he adds.
Though Stuff Like That There is an album of covers, mostly, it’s representative of the identity that Yo La Tengo has cultivated over their three decades together. Sonically, it showcases a wide range of sound, from gentle acoustic numbers to more atmospheric dream-pop songs and sprightly indie-pop jams. The songs are treated with the care of three lifelong music fans who know the material intimately. Ultimately it’s a playful set of songs, with a sense of fun that’s never far from the surface. Simply put, Stuff Like That There, like Yo La Tengo’s career as a whole, is the sound of serious musicians who don’t take themselves too seriously.
As reverential as they are to the artists they cover on the album, the one band whose music seemingly isn’t sacred to Yo La Tengo is Yo La Tengo. The album includes reworked songs from farther back in their catalog, including “Deeper Into Movies,” which was originally a much noisier song on 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One. Just as the band’s approach to new music changes with each album, so often does their approach to songs they’ve been playing for years.
“The version of ‘Deeper Into Movies’ had kind of existed prior to working on the album, possibly dating back to the Freewheeling tour,” McNew says, referring to their 2007 tour, in which the band played a series of loosely structured, VH1 Storytellers-style shows involving anecdotes and, naturally, lots of covers. “‘All Your Secrets’ was rearranged specifically for the album. It felt great that it could find a new home.”
Whatever form those songs take, there are a lot of them. The band has released 12 albums of original material, plus various EPs and b-sides, which makes for an ample back catalogue of material to pull from when they perform. And though not all of them end up living a second life as “Deeper Into Movies” has, the versions that fans hear at live shows do often evolve over time. For a band with as long a history as Yo La Tengo, it never hurts to look at familiar songs from a new perspective.
“We keep a lot of old songs pretty close to us, we like to be able to dust them off when we’re on tour—the less dust the better,” McNew says. “It’s weird, the thing that happens when you record a song and it’s finished...and then you continue to play it for the rest of your career. I think our songs continue to grow and change as time goes on; it’d feel pretty weird to actively try to keep them exactly the same.”
Maintaining a strong bond between band members requires more than new sounds, however. “Communication, respect and shared enjoyment of a lot of the same TV shows” are all keys to keeping the partnership between band members healthy after 25 years, Mc- New says. While that last part might seem facetious, the band’s love of The Simpsons is pretty well documented. They named one of their songs after a telethon hosted by the character Troy McClure (“Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House”) and even recorded their own version of the show’s theme song. And in 2014, the band appeared on Parks & Recreation as a fictional cover band, Bobby Knight Ranger, which played “Sister Christian” and then threw chairs across the stage. Suffice it to say a sense of humor was implicit in McNew’s response.
That sense of humor is part of what has kept the band so charming for so long. And sure enough, it has a way of making interviews with Yo La Tengo more interesting as well, as I discovered when asking McNew what he’s learned since joining the band more than 20 years ago.
“I had no idea Ludacris would have an acting career. Couldn’t have predicted that,” he says. “Still working on that whole ‘how to play bass’ thing. I know a little more about it now.”
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