Last Saturday morning, I woke up after four hours of sleep, brushed my teeth and got a call from the lead singer of Hoboken, New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo. The indie-rock gods just released their 11th album, the brooding Summer Sun, and will be coming to Toad’s Place on April 22.
Scene: Well, this is a pretty dreary morning, isn’t it?
Ira: It’s actually sunny here.
Are you in New Jersey?
I’ve always though of Ohio as a pretty dreary state.
No, man, it’s The Queen City!
Well, Ira, I guess we should start at the very beginning: how did you learn to play guitar?
I pretty much learned by doing. I did take some folk lessons, and I had an electric guitar I played a little, but it wasn’t really ’till I was much older that I got it.
Was that in college?
You know, I didn’t really start playing ’till the band had been together for a while. I mean that! I played rhythm when Dave [Schramm] and Chris [Stamey] were in the band. When we were a trio, I was forced to do some guitar playing.
What’s it like for you to remember those old days?
I don’t look back negatively, but I don’t miss it. (Pause) I’m certainly pleased when I bump into them, it was great to play with Chris.
How has Yo La Tengo changed since then?
Whatever was called Yo La Tengo changed completely when [current bassist] James [McNew] became a member of the band. We basically just had had people playing with us while [they were] playing with other people. James had been the bassist for a band called Christmas, and after about a year of playing with us he moved to New York and joined full time. When we released Painful, that was a turning point for the group. Before then, people had been bringing songs to the band. Since then it’s been the three of us getting to practice, and everything we play comes out of that practice.
Since your days with Dave and Chris, you guys have gained quite a following. How long did it take for you to play venues like NYC’s Beacon Theater?
Well we did notice a jump on the last two records, but it’s been a gradual thing. After Electr-O-Pura we did shows on the Lollapalooza Second Stage. Then we moved to bigger and bigger venues, like the Beacon. We’ve never done a tour where we didn’t play an all new place. But there are also venues that we return to.
Like Maxwell’s, in Hoboken?
Well, yeah. Actually, I don’t know if its universal, but I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable playing in my home town. Those Hanukkah shows we’ve been doing there, those shows could only be at Maxwell’s. We’ve come up with those shows and they belong there.
Do you enjoy touring?
I love touring — it’s been quite a while.
I’m going on a road trip this summer with some friends, can you give me some advice?
We never eat franchise food.
Oh really? Have you read “Fast Food Nation?”
It would be telling me what I already know. James read it, though.
(Laughs) That’s like watching network news.
Well I’ve also stopped reading the paper. It was making me too uncomfortable. It’s just inexplicable that our government, which is supposed to be keeping us safe, is so irresponsible.
Was that the sentiment behind your Nuclear War EP? Do you think you’d do anything different if you recorded it today, with the way the war against Iraq is going?
Well, we recorded it Labor Day, 2002, not long ago. It was not accidental that it came out before there was any kind of war. It felt to me more of a song about, you know — I’m trying to phrase this right — it was more in response to the mood of the world, what was in the air. I don’t know if it mattered to me that war came.
Alright, on a happier note, what are some of your favorite records?
Favorite records? Hmm —
Well, what have you been listening to lately?
Well, since we’re playing Toad’s Place I’ve been listening to NRBQ. Actually, I’ve never stopped listening to their You Gotta Be Loose live record.
Yo La Tengo has done a NRBQ cover, right?
Yeah, “What Can I Say,” on Fakebook.
Your version of the Kinks’ “Oklahoma, USA” on Fakebook kills me. How do you guys come up with what songs you’re going to cover?
Sometimes we just play the song and imagine one of the band members singing it. Usually we play it ourselves just for fun, or we play it live, and occasionally we decide to record it.
Alright, I have a really good question for you here: “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” from And Then Nothing — that was inspired by the Simpsons’ Troy McClure, right?
I almost hesitate to say that was inspired by the Simpsons. It just seemed funny. We had a whole bunch of jam stuff that James was organizing and putting on — I think it was a cassette at the time, pre CD-R technology. Rather than naming them 1, 2, 3 and 4, we took names from Troy McClure’s filmography. At some point it was understood what the tune was called. That was the reference.
Do you find that your younger fans don’t know your older stuff, earlier than Heart Beating?
I’m not sure we get that. Right now, I think the audience probably has the new record down less than any of them.
Hey, so I was looking at Summer Sun on Amazon.com. They tell you where the record is selling best at, and word is the record is moving like hot cakes at Minnesota University.
(Laughs) Oh really?
(Laughs) That’s right. When you made the record, did you feel any pressure to make a certain type of album?
Well, we could do whatever we wanted to. I think we felt some pressure, though — I don’t know. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive. We didn’t want to suck! But knowing that the last album was our most, um, popular, we didn’t want to disappoint people waiting for our next record.
So do you think Yo La Tengo is going to be around for ten more albums?
I don’t plan on looking that far, unless you insist. We never looked this far.
Hmm — can we morph that into advice for the friendly college students?
Well, you know, it makes me sad when parents have kids enrolled in high school before they’re even born. Parents and children do that, even though it’s for good reasons. It seems sad that those pressures exist. On the other hand, our band started when we were comparatively old. I’m not exactly recommending playing everything by ear.
Well, thanks for the advice.