An Interview with
Yo La Tengo's
James McNew

One of the Indie Kings of Rock!

Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan & James McNew

I n t e r v i e w b y----

Miae Shin and Jessica Rotter

Introduction and background photo
of Ira Kaplan by Karena Bernard

Yo La Tengo emerged from Hoboken, New Jersey in 1985, their primary base of operation being the still popular indie-alternative rock club Maxwell's. Fast forward about ten years to find Yo La Tengo the ideal critic's band, discovering and exploring every creative corner.

Eclectic and adventurous in sound, the band is often compared to Sonic Youth and The Velvet Underground. They even portrayed the latter in the 1996 film," I Shot Andy Warhol." As Jason Ankeny of the All Music Guide put it," the Hoboken, New Jersey-based unit explored the extremes of feedback-driven noise-rock and sweetly melodic pop, shading their work with equal parts scholarly composure and fannish enthusiasm; prolific and mercurial, Yo La Tengo ultimately transcended its myriad influences to ensconce itself as a beloved institution of the indie community."

The core of Yo La Tengo (Spanish for "I've got it!") is comprised of singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan and his wife, drummer/vocalist Georgia Hubley. Bassist James McNew joined the band in 1991, already known to savvy underground rock fans as the former bassist for Christmas. Here is what he had to say to TransAction's Jessica Rotter and Miae Shin shortly before their last European tour.

Jessica & Miae: So where are you guys now?

James: Home, temporarily. We're leaving for Europe tomorrow.

J&M: Well first off, we had to ask, why the name "Yo La Tengo"? We know it means "I have it" in Spanish.

J: Well, it was basically chosen in a hurry because the band had their first show and had to think of something. At the time, the concept was never really considered, but here we are...twelve years later still answering that question.

J&M: Do you opt to play in smaller venues or do you prefer larger audiences?

J: It depends, I guess. Its hard to say. On our last tour we played two shows in Chicago. We played one very large place first and then played at a small bar that we used to play in that we haven't played at in a long time. Both shows were terrific, but I guess it all depends. You can have a crappy show anywhere! You can a great show too, it depends on the people.

You can have a crappy show anywhere! You can a great show too; it depends on the people.

J&M: If you were a power head of a major music company, what would you do to change the music industry? In other words, what are we missing in music?

It all depends on the listener. If the listener is motivated to listen to something good, they'll find it. My music collection is tremendous and I never have a problem finding something to listen to. I would make all records cheaper though!!

J&M: Why were you the only group ever to get a video rejected from Atlantic Records?

J: I honestly can't remember. It was years ago. It was not obscene or anything! I think they were concerned that it wasn't a rock video, because it really didn't look like one. It was a beautiful video though. It was directed by Hal Hartley, who directed Amateur, it was like one of his movies. It was shown in Europe, though.

J&M: What is success to you? Do you feel after all these years that Yo La Tengo has achieved it?

J: I think so. The thing that feels like success the most is that everyday I wake up, I don't have to go on a subway in a suit and tie and go sit in an office all day. We're doing what we want to do and that's something. I'm the luckiest guy in the world!!! If that's not success, I don't know what is.

The thing that feels like success the most is that everyday I wake up, I don't have to go on a subway in a suit and tie and go sit in an office all day.

J&M: Would a corporate white collar music industry person be a failure?

Maybe to some, maybe not. When they were eight years old they probably didn't want to be an A&R representative...

You guys have been on a ton of movie soundtracks. What is it about them that appeals to you? Do you think it reaches higher audiences giving more exposure?

J: We actually get chosen for movies. We don't actually go fishing for them, they come to us. Hal Hartley found out about us from somebody working on his set, so he started buying our records and asked us to put previously released material in some of his movies. We haven't scored a film yet, people just sort of come to us, whether we like them or not, we say yes or no.

J&M: You guys were in the movie "I shot Andy Warhol", were you playing The Velvet underground?

J: In a way we were like Velvet Underground. It doesn't bother me that we're compared. I literally take it as a tremendous compliment. Cynically, its just a lazy short cut for people to describe our music. That's the first stop on the way to a description of us.

J&M: Who really shaped your music?

J: Its gotten impossible to narrow our influences down. It's hard to say. All of my records, all of the movies I see, some of the TV I watch...its everywhere.

J&M: Did you approach the new record, "I Can Feel The Heart Beat As One", differently?

J: Well, we recorded it a lot differently. We booked a lot of time and sort of left a lot of stuff unfinished. We were able to improvise it more into completion. There was a lot of stuff added on the spot, etc. It was a lot of fun.

J&M: For the "Sugar cane" video, how did you guys hook up with Mark and Brian?

J: I think that video is hilarious! The whole thing started when Ira and Georgia met them while on a vacation in California, and they sort of knew who we were, so we had mutual admiration. They offered to do a video for us. Ira had the concept, and the rest of it was improvised by Mark and Brian. We filmed for 2 days in LA. There must be eight hours of film to make just this three minute video. It was all hilarious. I couldn't stop laughing. They are so funny!

J&M: Where did you get the name for the "Hot Chicken" saga?

J: Well, "Hot Chicken" cuisine is indigenous to Tennessee, where we recorded some of our last records, they are referring to the hot chicken take out we used to order. There is a restaurant there called "Princes" which I can't recommend highly enough. If you're ever passing through Nashville, and you're in the mood for some damn good hot chicken wings, that's the place to go.

J&M: When is Yo La Tengo going to be on the Simpsons?

J: I kind of feel like I already am because this guy that works at a comic book store -and this worries me - says that that character was modeled after me. Whenever I don't shave and I see that guy on the show, I know I gotta take care of myself! I would give anything to be on The Simpsons.

J&M: What are your weekends like?

J: Slow and low. I come home and lock the door. A good day is when I don't have to go out of my house!!

J&M: Quickly, your 5 best albums of the week?

J: 1- The Simpsons: Songs In the Key Of Springfield
2- Lambchop: Thriller
3- Belle and Sebastion: Sinister
4- Evan Dando Of Noise: All Licked
5- Compilation: Yu

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