Yo La Tengo have an album called Popular Songs out in September. We’ve had a sneak peek and it sounds bloody fantastic. The veteran trio were recently in town to play at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Peter Bloxham caught them before they flew home, to talk about playing in the UK, keeping it fresh and popular songs.
Hey guys! Did you enjoy last night?
Georgia: Yeah it was kinda strange but that’s part of the deal I guess, you never know what it’s going to be like…
I heard the acoustics were pretty strange…
Ira: Yeah it was fine while we were playing, it was just the interactive portion of the program that was an unexpected challenge.
You just couldn’t hear the questions?
Georgia: I don’t know if you were there but we had a lot of people ask us questions so and sometimes when we do this people will be raise their hand and it’s much easier but like all corners of the room were yelling stuff back! And there were so many accents!
Ha… so a Mancunian stands up and it’s like ‘…. One more time?’
James: We’ve been doing this sort of show all around Europe and I love that once we finally get to the English speaking cities, still nobody understands a word that anybody says.
Don’t worry, I’m the same. Anybody North of London and it’s “HELLO!? Would you like some shortbread?”
Okay, so let’s talk about the new album, shall we?
When I heard that it was called Popular Songs I had a few of my own thoughts, but I’d like to hear a bit about why you chose that title.
Ira: I think we’re all more interested in your thoughts!
I think that seriously, the idea is to… give it a title that has at least one meaning for us but is open to other meanings..
Well I thought that at first it was a nod to the fact that you felt you’d written an album that was more accessible or more ‘poppy’. But then when I heard it I changed my mind, I thought maybe you were making a point about how you’ve always been a popular band, critically and with a dedicated fanbase, but never really in a mainstream sense and it was an ironic comment in that way…
James: See? It worked! That’s a very nice interpretation.
Ira: But I don’t think that it’s at all what we were thinking! But I think that’s the mark of a good title, that there are a lot of things that you can read into it. You know, certain songs, certain groups, you hear certain songs, you hear them once and you think “Everything I will ever know about that song or that group I know instantly” whereas other things kinda change over time and those are the things that you hear differently and I think we’re drawn more towards.. that.
It’s important to have different dimensions to your work.
Georgia: Plus there also that it’s a y’know a array of different kinds of songs- short poppy songs and the very long pieces, y’know they’re all music to us I guess.
So are you guys coming back to the UK later in the year then?
Ira: Yeah we have three shows, we have shows in Manchester, Glasgow, London in November.
No UK festivals this year then?
So what does it feel like to still be writing albums and doing all of this touring and stuff, exactly the same as when you started, or have things changed creatively or in any other ways?
Georgia: I think as you’d expect, y’know we’ve been doing this for quite a long time now this would be our twenty-fifth year, apparently or so we keep getting told!
Wow. I’m twenty-three years old.
Gerogia: Hahaha really? I think it’s just kind of a natural progression, things have changed somewhat, James joined the band, I don’t know fifteen years ago!
Ira: I think that things… things are not exactly the same but I think the appeal of things like last night’s show is to keep pushing yourself into scenarios where you’re not necessarily at your most comfortable. I think that the fact that we’re not terrified to get onstage the way we were when we started is mostly a good thing, but on the other hand that is mostly a pleasant memory, that feeling of like “what’s going to happen?” and so to possibly be receptive to settings in which you remain in touch with that part of you I think is definitely something that is very attractive to all of us.
Stay outside of that comfort zone so that you can keep it a little bit scary sometimes?
Ira: At least not to be afraid of that.
James: I mean like, the show we did last night is it’s, mostly public speaking which is most people’s fears when you’re growing up, being afraid to be up there standing in front of a crowd and y’know for all the times we’d played for years and years before we did that kind of show y’know you would think to yourself “Oh I get up in front of people all the time!” but it’s not like you would talk and interact with them and now all of a sudden just going face to face with them, with people and talking to them it’s… it’s still a little scary, its amazing to think “oh am I getting used to this” and you are, it’s a whole new exciting way to play.
Ira: Well as we discovered last night, sorry to interrupt you there James, but something that supposedly puts you at ease when you’re public speaking is to imagine the audience naked and then came one of the questions in which he basically told us about his wife or girlfriend being naked… it turned out not to help…
James: She really didn’t seem that pleased.
I can understand how the transformation from the ‘crowd’ as an entity to y’know upwards of five hundred individuals is scary.
Ira: We’ve never been really much of a “Hello, Cleveland!” kinda group. More like “Hello, G-107!”
Hahaha… so how in general are British crowds for you guys?
Georgia: I don’t know if we can generalize… It depends on what kind of venue we’re playing, sometimes like last night it can be very civilized-well… they weren’t all so civilized! When it’s a seated event like that I sort of feel like things are going to be a little more reserved rather than if you’re in a club with everyone getting drunk but I don’t think we get a general reaction from British crowds.
There are stereotypes from town to town on what crowds are supposed to be like I guess, but not something you’ve found?
Ira: No well y’know we don’t really ever do the extensive UK touring, like I said we’ve got the three shows in November, Glasgow, Manchester, London. I mean we’ve had middling shows in Cardiff and great shows in Brighton, it all just depends.
Are there any bands that you guys are excited about at the moment? Anyone British while you’ve been here?
Ira: No. I haven’t heard anything, y’know especially on a trip like this where you live in your own little bubble I will say that … I was going to say less and less but it’s been this way for a long time- … current bands, they occasionally make their way past the fences that I’ve set up, I focus almost entirely on old music. I’ll never hear everything and I find as the years go by I’m a much more casual listener than I was when I was younger. I was obsessive enough when I was younger but being more casual than that can still be listening to a lot of music but it’s not such a voracious way as when I was younger.
As time goes by you realize that you’re not actually going to get to listen to everything ever and that maybe you should be more selective, right?
Georgia: And never listen to anything!
James: What’s the point?
Heheh, I wasn’t at the gig last night, did you play anything from the new album?
Georgia: We played – well since we’ve been over here we’ve been playing these things we call the ‘freewheeling shows’ and it’s sort of semi-acoustic, Ira plays bass and guitar, James plays bass and I have like a snare and a floor-tom so it’s very sort of informal almost like if you were in a record store or something. But we don’t have a setlist and we just er, we just come out and play a couple of songs and then we ask the audience to just ask us questions and then a topic we get to might remind us of a song or an artist that we’ve covered, so it’s just very loose and casual.
That sounds really nice.
Georgia: Yeah it can be really fun and y’know sometimes it’s a little crazy or there’s a lull when people are tired of asking questions! Sometimes people ask “Can you play this?” and that’s not quite the idea!
Ira: We do at some points have two people speaking, in a rare moment when we could hear clearly last night, simultaneously someone on one side of the room said “what’s your favourite velvet underground song to play” and someone on the other side of the room said “what’s your favourite Bob Dylan song?” so we ended up just combining that into a Velvet Underground song that they did in the style of Bob Dylan and it was like “Oh okay we’ll play that one.” Because we happened to know it. So y’know the set has no pre planned shape to it, we just allow the evening to develop.
That’s great, it’s like taking the idea of live performance to the nth degree…
James: We’re tryin’!
Georgia: Yeah, haha!
Well obviously people don’t want to just see a band go through the motions or just do a showcase for whatever album is coming out next, so to interact in that way is great. When you come back and do these gigs in Glasgow etcetera people will be able to compare the different experiences they’ve had…
Ira: Well you know that has actually become a frustrating aspect to playing live in the internet age, you might do a cool cover song or rearrange one of your songs in an interesting way and after the first show it’s like…
Yeah, you really have to keep coming back with something each time! And even now you kind of have a feel for, I mean it’s not like we know exactly how these shows are being discussed but sometimes you just get this feel like “Really? This song’s been requested like, three nights out of four? That’s weird.”
Ira: And maybe it’s because they saw it or heard about it two nights ago and they think “Oh yeah I’d like to hear that too!” – Well… Thaaat’s not the idea! Heheh, we’re supposed to be doing different shows!
There is a huge community of gig –goers who like to share their experiences online, in the UK this thing just launched called Songkick and it’s solely for people to track and discuss shows they’ve been to, upload photographs, so it’s not surprising you get that.
Ira: Yeah I mean what we did last night was us at our absolute loosest. Under normal circumstances, anywhere shy a festival- well actually I take that back we’ve done festivals that way too. Well we will I think try to keep the illusion that there’s not eight people out there with microphones or things that are going to go on youtube, just try to allow things to y’know happen.
I mean it’s one of the things I’ve always loved, you make a record and try to make it sound one way and then live it’s like well if that didn’t work we’ll try something different tomorrow. And it is a little harder to maintain that with today’s attitude where everything is documented and archived.
Yeah sure, but I think audiences do appreciate it so much more, especially at festivals where you’re seeing maybe five or six bands, people remember the moments of… spontaneity.
Georgia: Well you would think! Heheheh, you would hope!
But we did two songs from the record I think, got those two out.
Ira: We had about half of the record ready to play in that format. Didn’t sound at all like the record, but if we did choose to we had a couple of things.
Were there things you were trying to get across on the recording of Popular Songs?
Ira: Not consciously. I mean the way we work is to just start playing and try to listen to what we’re doing, see if we like it and if we do we try to react to it. But we don’t ever go in with a concept.
I mean, the record we made earlier this year under the name Condo Fucks – That record was pretty conceptual, y’know it’s a bunch of covers in the crappy, garage-rock style but even that wasn’t a really concept either, we did plan it to do for a show but the fact that it came out as a record was almost accidental. There were like four different things that happened and before we knew it we were putting it out. So even something as clearly conceptual as that, it wasn’t like “Hey lets back to that trashy rock, we love that music let’s make a record that way” even that wasn’t how that record came about.
So it’s almost in the same way that you approach live performance, and I hate to use this word, but it’s an organic way of making things happen.
Ira: I don’t think we mind the word organic as much as you do.
Hahaha, okay then. The word organic is a pretty overused word in the British vocabulary.
James: Alright, we just think more of food.
Ira: And we spell it without the ‘u’.
Georgia: heh heh heh!
James: I think that the Popular Songs record has um, I think that once you see all of the artwork that’s in the package and with the title with all of these that happened after the fact, you know we wrote the music, came up with the title, found this artwork and it all connected together, yet it was never intentional but I think certainly you could come up with several concepts but we didn’t have that when we started.
I think that’s almost always the way when creating things though – who can really plan and create a perfect web of interconnecting concepts like that, really?
Ira: Yeah I’m always a little dubious when I read about things like that in interviews and things. Also, I started listening to music … well before your birth.. and the British bands of the 1960’s, their American records were different to their British records. So those records that were just this talisman on my youth they were created by some guy in an office.
I did not know that. They they re-recorded them?
They’re not re-recorded, but what happens is like The Beatles there’s an English album called The Beatles For Sale there’s another one With The Beatles, those are fourteen song records for all I know the didn’t Beatles put those together either, but those records don’t exist in the US, they come out with songs in different orders, different titles and even with records like Rubber Soul and Revolver that The Beatles did put together clearly, those records came out in a different form in the US.
So you know, one hand that feels sort of frustrating, wanting to hear it they way it was meant to be heard, but on the other hand it’s interesting that these connections that you’re drawing are completely accidental like “I wonder why John Lennon had so few songs on Revolver!” Well the answer is because some bonehead at Capital Records dropped three of his songs from the real record!
Hahaha! And yet at the same time you listened to those songs and they connected with you..
Georgia: Right yeah, yeah, yeah and in your own imagination you come up with these elaborate schemes about why this happened and…
James: It’s like one of those cliché dreams where you find new rooms in your house, it’s “what!? There’s these Beatles songs that I haven’t heard?”
But yeah, it’s a good way to go about things, let the music run the show both live and on the record without too much laborious intellectual intervention..
Ira: Well you know it’s what works for us anyway … not to try to steer it too much just try to recognise what’s working.
You know someone came up to us in Amsterdam this guy who makes these instruments based on non-western scales and he was asking like ‘is there something, a sound you’ve been going for that you haven’t been able to get’ and I just have to answer ‘no’ because I just don’t think of it that way. You make a sound and then think ‘Oh well that was interesting, I could use that’ – it’s like listening to what’s happening rather than conceptualizing what you want before.
Catch Yo La Tengo on tour this Autumn throughout Europe:
5th – Tripod, Dublin IE
6th – ABC, Glasgow GB
7th – Academy 2, Manchester GB
8th – The Roundhouse, London GB
10th – Forum, Bielefield DE
11th – Het Depot, Lueven BE
12th – Melkweg, Amsterdam NL
14th – Grå Hol (Gray Hall), Copenhagen DK
15th – Cosmopolite, Oslo NO
17th – Kagelbanan, Stockholm SE
18th – Mejeriet, Lund SE
19th – Markthalle, Hamburg DE
20th – Crossing Border Festival, Den Hague NL
22nd – Zakk, Dusseldorf DE
23rd – Postbahnhof, Berlin DE
25th – Hipnoza Cllub, Katowice PL
26th – Arena, Vienna AT
30th – Bataclan, Paris FR
Popular Songs is released on September 7th via Matador Records.