IRA KAPLAN The Yo La Tengo main man talks The Simpsons, critical acclaim and getting even, to EOIN BUTLER
Yo La Tengo have enjoyed near universal acclaim for two decades. Does all that praise become background noise at a certain point?Hopefully, it encourages people to listen to our records and come see us play live. Beyond that, we tend to tune it out. If we were to put a lot of stock in favourable reviews, then we would have to put as much stock in unfavourable ones. So it’s a defence mechanism, I guess. Of course, we hope other people agree wholeheartedly with all the good reviews we get and snort derisively at the bad ones!
Looking back at the musical landscape when you were starting out as a new, young band in 1984, how does it compare to today?We were a new band in 1984. But we weren’t all that young compared to other bands. Most bands get together with an idea of what they want to do. They do that on their first album and then they have no clue what to do next. We were the opposite. We started playing together because we liked making music. But we had no particular plan or ambition. You’d be hard pushed to say our first album was our best one. So I’m not sure you can compare our experience to anyone else’s.
I suppose I was wondering about the internet specifically. It’s easier for bands to get their music out nowadays, but it’s also much harder to persuade people to pay for it.Again, we didn’t make music because we were looking for money or fans. We just liked playing. Some things are easier today, some are harder. But ultimately, there are as many opportunities out there for people playing music in 2011 as there were in 1984.
For most of your career Yo La Tengo have been an underground phenomenon. But in 1998 you collided head-on with the mainstream when you were asked to re-record the ‘Simpsons’ theme.That’s right. I was selling T-shirts after a show one night when one of the Simpsons writers, Donick Carey, introduced himself. He was a fan of our music and we became good friends. When he got married, he asked us to play at the reception. In the episode we were asked to work on, Homer discovers that his mom had been a hippy in the 1960s.
Muddy Mae Suggins! Yes. In a conceit that possibly strained credibility, Homer has apparently never heard about hippies or hippy culture before this episode. But he likes what he hears. No washing, no working . . . it sounds right up his alley. We were asked to record a psychedelic version of the theme music for the closing credits. We worked out three ideas and they chose the one they liked best.
Would it be fair to say the version you came up with owes a considerable debt to The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows?Yes. Unless you work for The Beatles publishing company, in which case I would tell you that it bears no resemblance whatsoever.
Another great thing about Yo La Tengo is that while your lyrics are sometimes obtuse, you still have these great literal album titles such as ‘Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics’ and ‘I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass’. I’m glad you like that. One thing we’ve never done is name a record after a song or a lyric on that record. We’ve always tried to give our albums names that might add some extra meaning or move things in a different direction. I’m interested though that you think we’re lyrically obtuse? I’ve always felt our lyrics are extremely straightforward. We don’t print them obviously, but you just have to listen closely and you’ll hear them.
Touring artists always have to pretend that every city they play in is the greatest city in the world. Between myself and yourself, is there any city you’d gladly never set foot in again? You know, I’m not going to say. Because even if there was, I don’t think we’d want to admit that city had gotten the better of us. The competitive juices begin to flow. I think, we’d rather show those guys next time. We’d rather settle the score.
Finally, you’re playing Dublin next weekend with the Flaming Lips. Monkeys with typewriters couldn’t have predicted the success both bands are enjoying at this stage in your respective careers. What’s the secret? I really don’t know. Was it preordained? Was it integrity? Is it just dumb luck? I would think it’s probably a combination of all of those things. I can’t speak for Flaming Lips, but I can tell you that for us, from the outset, the goal wasn’t to reach a particular audience. It wasn’t to make money. It was just to play. We responded to the feeling that comes from making music. That hasn’t changed. The big picture hasn’t changed. The little picture changes all the time.
Yo La Tengo play Forbidden Fruit on Saturday, June 4th. forbiddenfruit.ie