Susan Le May

15:20 31st August 2006

Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo are a global institution in the music world. The band defies classification, drifting through styles and genres like they invented ‘em. The trio refuses categorization, preferring to inhabit the space of the unknown. They’ve fashioned yet another remarkable collection of boundless tracks, producing record number 5,243, ‘I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Yo Ass’, perhaps the most accessible and brilliant work in their decade-spanning career.

James McNew is the epitome of New Jersey geek chic. The bass player, together with husband and wife Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, converge to produce a disturbingly perfect soundscape. The band has stopped off in London, fresh from the Primavera festival. McNew is not a festival goer by any means, but did enjoy Primavera, mainly because he saw several amazing bands, but also because the trio could give their new material its first live outing.

Yo La TengoMcNew felt there was a surprisingly positive response from the audience to the band’s new tracks. “Playing previous tours in support of new records has always been difficult. I know when I see a band and hear new songs it’s difficult, I understand, but I keep that in mind when I’m on the other side,” he says. “It felt great to play the new stuff. We’ve been working in secret for what feels like a year. It was nice to let it out and do it in front of people and they could react right away. It was great, I was really happy.”

The new material flits between the playfully cheesy, trumpet-driven lounge jazz of ‘Mr Tough’ through Ramones-esque punk, to the sweet, piano driven synth peppered heartbreak of ‘Black Flowers’. The fantastically titled ‘I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Yo’ Ass’ flows through the full spectrum of aural colours, and the band are excited by it.

“It has a lot of our personality in it,” says McNew of the new record. “We’re huge fans of music, we listen to all different kinds of music. Everything that’s on our records and in the music that we play comes from somewhere, it comes from something that we like and sometimes it chooses to show up whenever it chooses to show up. I think that maybe on this record we just got a little bolder about letting them show up.”

Yo La Tengo are collectively possessed by some sort of art-rock demon, propelling them to unashamedly spread their creative wings. Between recording a fantastic collection of new songs, that will inevitably cement themselves as fan faves in time, the band has been raising money for charity, organising Hanukah concerts, scoring three movies including a Cannes-debuted film about oceanic creatures drifting through dreamlike seascapes, touring, and being, well, just generally mega-cool.

Yo La Tengo

They don’t belong to any one “scene”, in a sense they are their own scene, their own genre, and McNew is happy with that. “The only word that people seem to agree on is ‘indie’ band but I don’t know what that means, it’s kind of a marketing term,” he scoffs. “To be identified as part of a scene, you’ve just signed up to be obsolete. It makes it more difficult for us though I guess in terms of not having some readily available way of describing our group.”

McNew is the archetypal East Coast American cool kid – affable, intelligent, talented. He’s diametrically opposed to the stereotype of Americans that most of us in the UK believe. Bush’s homophobic views are something McNew feels very strongly about, believing the President of his country is “pandering to his extremist base.”

“I despise our government and I despise how we act in the world but I am not leaving,” he spits. “America is The Ramones and the Velvet Underground… there’s too much good stuff there for me to leave and it’s mine like it is everybody else’s. Luckily most people are ok with that and they realise that most of the country does not support the views of the people in charge.”

Yo La Tengo are like no other group. They’ve built their following in a completely organic way, a far cry from the way things are done now. They never had any particularly grand aspirations; they just enjoyed doing what they were doing. “At some point people started to come to us rather than us doing anything to overly get people’s attention,” said McNew. “When things picked up it was just because people came because they liked what we were doing.”

They’re still calling the shots, with no sign of slowing up. McNew enthuses about the future, saying he’s really excited to travel and work and carry on. The future swells with hope for this band, hope for all music fans that they will continue crafting unique and beautiful music, until the dying embers of their creative genius finally burn out. 

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