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Interview: A Far Out conversation on tour with Yo La Tengo

Earlier this year Yo La Tengo released their fifteenth full length record There’s a Riot Going On, marking their 34th year together as a band. Few bands, or even individual artists, can claim similar statistics and those that can usually do so with the same kind of enthusiasm as a production line employee may talk about their work history – I myself used to work on a production line and I can confirm that there’s very little enthusiasm to convey. However, Yo La Tengo are one of those anomalies that are not just consistent in the quality of their output, but still manage to remain eternally original with each given release.

There’s a Riot Going On see’s the indie veterans push new boundaries with an album of airy vocals, haunting textures and melodic pianos that holds it own against a back catalogue staples such as ‘I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One’ and ‘Painful’. Far Out managed to catch up with bassist James McNew ahead of their UK tour for a little chat on maintaining creativity, surviving on tour and stinky tofu.

It’s been five years since Yo La Tengo‘s last original album, but is the new release a collection of songs created over that time, or has it been something the group have worked on in a more concentrated period? “It was mostly created during a concentrated period of the first two-thirds of 2017, but we also incorporated some ideas that reach back several years,” McKnew said remembering the wide backlog of creative processes that have served the band so well over the years. After all, this year marks 34 years since Yo La Tengo began creating music together. Having consistently produced records of a high standard, I was interested in knowing the secret of their success. Have the band honed a specific way of creating ambitious music? Do Yo La Tengo repeatedly find that it is necessary to constantly change the way they approach their work? “We don’t really think about it or make a conscious effort to do that, but it sort of seems to go that way naturally,” McNew jumps in. “We are always interested in challenging ourselves and each other to do things we’ve never tried before,” he added.

With fifteen studio albums spanning an eye-watering 823 hours of music, its miraculous to notice that Yo La Tengo continue to find a constant source of inspiration. McNew has been on bass for the band since 1992, a time in which founding members Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley had been crying out for stability. It’s clear that the trio bounce ideas off each other, when the conversation moved to inspiration, McNew was quick to point out a somewhat generic set of influences: “We like movies, basketball, food, art, baseball,” he said. “One hundred percent of this contributes to our musicality,” he added nonchalantly, somewhat modestly playing down their creative impact as an emphatic creative, indie ternion.

It’s clear to see that on their previous records I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass and Fade that their work on numerous films scores had inadvertently had an impact on their writing, a trend that once again appears to follow trend on There’s a Riot Going On: “Certainly,” McNew interjected with some excitement. “Just prior to focusing on making the album we had spent a few months working on the soundtrack for the forthcoming documentary ‘Far From The Tree’. We contributed a lot of music to that project, and were in a really good working rhythm.”

With years of experience over the last 30 years, Yo La Tengo have become one of the most respected and beloved bands across the alternative music scene – whether they’d be comfortable admitting that I’m not sure. Yo La Tengo recently played the role of a band reminiscent of the Velvet Underground in the ‘I Shot Andy Warhol’ film, a moment that would undoubtedly brought on a feeling of pride and self-satisfaction and, in a sense, further credits their influence on the type of indie music we’ve become accustomed to today. While the Velvet Underground will undoubtedly have had an impact on the creativity of Yo La Tengo, I was keen to discover who – if anyone at all – is making an impression on the rock ‘n’ roll scene today. “New music,” McNew said before pausing for a moment. “I’m listening to Doug Tuttle, Candace, Lucy Dacus, The Twigs of Sister Tomorrow,” he added with an element of furore. “Not new music… Derrick Carter, Robert Ashley, Cornelius, Flipper,” he continued, adding some element of balance.  guitar

The band have just touched down in the UK after an extensive tour of the States With Dublin, Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds all completed already, tonight Yo La Tengo are in the capital for a momentous show at London’s Royal Festival Hall before heading off to mainland Europe, but how have they been holding up? “Try to sleep whenever you get a chance,” McKnew said with the tone of a man who is all too aware of how tour works. “and make sure you stay hydrated. Also shower regularly,” he added. 

“We had our first exposure to ‘stinky tofu’ during the first YLT trip to Taipei,” he added. “that was pretty unforgettable. It really lived up to its name.

“Looking back… it was actually pretty good.”