The Daily Swarm Q+A: James McNew of Yo La Tengo Explores What Drives Indie Rock's Most Eternal Band Ever...
With the recent closing of the legendary Hoboken, New Jersey indie-rock nightclub Maxwell’s, it wasn’t hard to include Yo La Tengo in the memories evoked: over the years, the trio comprising guitarist/singer Ira Kaplan, drummer/singer Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew became as close to a house band as Maxwell’s ever had. Of course, Yo La Tengo has gone on to become one of the most beloved, and most stalwart, outfits epitomizing indie rock, having recently put out its latest album, Fade – the thirteenth full-length effort released by the band since its mid-'80s inception. And while Yo La Tengo may have gotten its start in humble East Coast dives like Maxwell’s, we caught up with James McNew at the 2013 Pitchfork Festival, showing just how far they’ve come – and how much farther they have yet to go.
The Daily Swarm: In January, we finally got to hear Yo La Tengo’s new album, Fade. What was different in your approach on this album?
James McNew: We worked with the great Chicago musician/producer, John McEntire, for the first time ever. It was really the first time we had worked with a new producer in decades, so this proved a pretty revolutionary way of making a record for us. Coming to Chicago to work with John, and giving ourselves over to his process and the way he likes to work, was a fantastic experience. And really, there was nothing more behind it other than, “Hey, let’s do something different.” I guess that’s an unusual thing for a band that’s been making music for so long and using a similar process every time. But as we get older, I feel like we get to be less and less afraid of trying new things.
The Daily Swarm: What has been the largest change in Yo La Tengo’s music over the course of the band’s existence?
James McNew: Maybe just our confidence and our strength. We’ve been together for so long, we’ve developed a real kind of ESP in the way we play together. Playing bass when Georgia is playing drums – well, there is really nothing like it in the world. I’ve played in other groups with and without drummers, so anytime a drummer picks up sticks and sits behind the kit, it’s like I’ve never played bass before in my life. It’s such a joy to play next to her all the time. But the longer we do it and try new things, it’s still really fun, which is the main motivation behind everything.
The Daily Swarm: What has it been like as one of the longest-running bands on Matador Records’ roster?
James McNew: It’s weird, because we’ve been in the family for a long time – I think even longer than anybody else, with the exception of Jon Spencer. But it’s been great. It’s also wistful in a way, because bands don’t last forever, and there are lots that I miss. But it’s also nice to meet new people sometimes.
The Daily Swarm: Over the years, the members of Yo La Tengo have worked on things outside of, or different from, what the band does. Is anything in that area coming up for you?
James McNew: Well, Georgia released her own project about six months ago, which was a solo guitar record called Little Black Egg. It’s just one long guitar composition, and it’s really beautiful. I’ve made a bunch of records over the years as Dump, and my first two records from the early ’90s just got rereleased on vinyl. There was a Dump record that came out recently on a label called Grapefruit, which will hopefully see the light of day in another dimension. But really, there really hasn’t been much time to do much other stuff. Since Fade came out, we’ve been on the road constantly. We did play a show as Condo Fucks at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, before it closed down. The only other thing we’re doing now is a project with the filmmaker Sam Green that is a live documentary on the life of [futurist visionary] Buckminster Fuller. We wrote about 40 minutes of music for it, and we sit in an orchestra pit area and play as the documentary is going on.
The Daily Swarm: What else can we expect to see over the next year or so from Yo La Tengo?
James McNew: Lot’s more touring. We’re putting together a small recording project where we’re collaborating with an artist named Jim Woodren, who is an artist from Seattle. But it’s an animation project for a company in Japan that will be five minutes long; that’s our only real non-touring project for the next year. But, before long, we will start recording something again too…