Interview: Cult indie outfit Yo La Tengo on covers

GOT any Scottish song requests for cult indie outfit Yo La Tengo? You may – or may not – be in luck, says founder member Ira Kaplan
(From left) On-off Yo La Tengo collaborator Dave Schramm, James McNew, Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan. Picture: Contributed(From left) On-off Yo La Tengo collaborator Dave Schramm, James McNew, Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan. Picture: Contributed
(From left) On-off Yo La Tengo collaborator Dave Schramm, James McNew, Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan. Picture: Contributed

A friend of mine with a longstanding bugbear about artists being profligate with cover versions enjoys advocating a novel if somewhat draconian solution. In the same way as important and historical buildings gain listed status over time, guarding them against tampering without permission, so too, he reckons, should classic songs.

I put this idea to Yo La Tengo guitarist, vocalist and founding member Ira Kaplan. As a member of a band that has covered hundreds of songs over their 31 years together, and as a resident of a listed building in Hoboken, New Jersey, together with his wife and band drummer and vocalist Georgia Hubley, he understands where my friend is coming from. “I guess protectionism could be one approach,” he says. For all the memorable takes on great tunes by this cult American indie-rock trio – Kaplan and Hubley plus bassist James McNew – there has been the odd one that’s best forgotten (see the 2006 album Yo La Tengo Is Murdering The Classics for the good and the less good alike).

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“But then you could apply the same rule to anything really,” Kaplan says. “To guitar solos for instance. Or you could certainly say it about drum solos. Especially in 2015, with the wealth of options that are out there to musicians, it stands to reason that there will be atrocities committed in any category you choose to come up with, be it cover songs or whatever.”

Yo La Tengo enjoy playing and recording cover songs so much that for the second time in a decade they find themselves covering not just other artists on their new record, but themselves too. Stuff Like That There features 14 mainly acoustic tracks, among them two new originals alongside takes on songs by the likes of the Lovin’ Spoonful, Hank Williams, Darlene McCrea and Antietam, plus reworked versions of some of their own older material, including All Your Secrets from 2009’s Popular Songs and Deeper Into Movies from 1997’s album I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One.

The new album represents a deliberate harkening back to another highlight from the Yo La Tengo catalogue on its 25th anniversary, in the shape of 1990’s Fakebook. More than just replicating that record’s template of acoustic covers rubbing shoulders with revised numbers from their own oeuvre, Stuff Like That There also sees Yo La Tengo welcome back guitarist Dave Schramm – an on-off collaborator since the band’s earliest days – into the fold for the first time since 1990 and the Fakebook sessions. As well as featuring on the record, Schramm will join the trio for a tour featuring Kaplan on acoustic guitar, Hubley up front on a small kit and McNew on double bass.

Stuff Like That There features covers from such radio-staples as The Cure’s Friday I’m In Love to more obscure picks including defunct Nashville group Great Plains’ Before We Stop to Think. As Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner puts it in the accompanying press bio for the new album: “Yo La Tengo choose sources that make you enriched if not empowered”. Is that a sentiment with which Kaplan concurs?

“Well I wouldn’t say we choose covers necessarily to educate people specifically about the bands,” he says. “But I guess I would have to admit that, almost like getting back to your friend’s protected list of covers of classics, all of us would agree that if you’re gonna cover the Lovin’ Spoonful for instance, you don’t have to cover one of their most famous songs like Do You Believe In Magic. I do think we gravitate away from that song, say, in their case [they instead cover Butchie’s Tune]. But then, we also do a U-turn and do Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, even though that song has been done a million times. For all I know it’s on your friend’s list.”

There is an education to be had from listening to Yo La Tengo’s vast covers repertoire, which over the years has spanned songs by everyone from Daniel Johnston to Brian Eno, the Beach Boys, the Stooges and Big Star. To cite a personal example, Needle Of Death from Yo La Tengo’s 2003 album Today Is The Day was my first introduction not just to that song but to Scottish folk guitarist Bert Jansch. Even if I thought it was a Yo La Tengo original for a long time. “I’m sure I heard the Beatles’ version of Long Tall Sally long before I heard Little Richard’s original,” says Kaplan. “It’s not the reason for doing specific covers, but it’s a nice side benefit.”

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Often Yo La Tengo cover song selections have less to do with celebrating their favourite artists than with recognising specific qualities which will transfer well to their own assets as a band, in particular Hubley’s voice. “I brought up the Lovin’ Spoonful earlier,” says Kaplan, “that song is a good example. I don’t remember who proposed that we learn that song, but I do think it started with the deep voice of Joe Butler versus Georgia’s voice and us being like, ‘Wow, I’d love to hear Georgia sing that song’. That’s a typical beginning for us.”

While Kaplan, Hubley and McNew remain prolific with their original material – 13 full-length albums to date – another covers album is one way of breaking up the usual write-record-tour cycle and keeping things fun and interesting for a band entering their fourth decade of activity with no signs of slowing down. Although Yo La Tengo have never come across as a group struggling for novel ideas as to how to entertain themselves. Be it adopting the garage rock alter-ego Condo F***s to release a shredding covers album in 2009 titled F***book, or taking such a sideways approach to playing live as 2011’s Spin The Wheel Tour, when they span a wheel of fate onstage each night which would randomly dictate that the first half of their set could comprise anything from a Q&A session to them acting out an entire episode of Seinfeld. “We’re easily distracted,” says Kaplan.

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In October, Yo La Tengo’s latest tour will visit The Garage in Glasgow. They’ve played shows in the city routinely since the 1980s, and count as friends many of Scotland’s most venerated indie bands. Kaplan recalls attending Teenage Fanclub’s first show in New York in 1990, and more recently touring the American East Coast with Belle & Sebastian in support of their 2013 album Fade. “There’s so much of our lives as music listeners tied up in Glasgow that it’s always an amazing place to come back to,” Kaplan says.

Besides Needle Of Death, have they covered any other songs by Scottish artists? “I’m sure we’ve played [Teenage Fanclub’s] Everything Flows,” he says. “Other than that I’m not sure. We often learn songs and then promptly forget them.”

Were people coming to the Glasgow show to get their requests in early enough, would there be any prospect of Yo La Tengo covering a couple of Scottish songs specially for the occasion? Kaplan searches for a diplomatic response. “I won’t say no,” he replies. “But I won’t say yes.” Perhaps they’re not that profligate, then.

• Stuff Like That There is released on Matador Records on Friday. Yo La Tengo play The Garage, Glasgow on 16 October,