"There is a doctrine," says James Carville in the great '90s political documentary The War Room. "Outside of a person's love, the most sacred thing they can give is their labor." Anytime one can combine the two, Carville continues, they've managed something extraordinary. And by these standards, Ira Kaplan's place in Yo La Tengo, alongside his wife Georgia Hubley, appears sublime—like a Norman Rockwell modernized for the indie rock set.
Kaplan never quite envisioned things as such, that the band from Hoboken, New Jersey, along with long-time member James McNew, would sustain productivity—not to mention critical reverence—for over 25 years. But that's just where they are: a quarter-century deep, vibrant as ever. "It's the kind of thing you could never plan for," explains Kaplan. "It is pretty amazing to look back." Looking forward, though, is another matter.
Yo La Tengo represent the pinnacle of sustained, independent success. In the early '90s, their big waves of washing guitar and weird soundscapes—along with soft, comforting vocals—helped define an era. I'll never forget my old boss' story about their rambunctious early days. "Ira was just throwing himself back and forth across the stage, bashing around with the feedback blaring. He was like a little cannonball."
Just as iconic, however, are Yo La Tengo's more mellow, lilting, atmospheric, and deconstructive phases, which so often perfectly encapsulate the feelings of summer and fall. The band's most recent release, Popular Songs, trends this way, and is book-ended by a pair of terrific songs. Opener "Here to Fall," is a dark, wobbly, Rhodes piano-driven groove, complete with a sharpened string section; it's the group's most immediately striking, memorable tune in years. The 15-minute instrumental closer, "And the Glitter Is Gone," splits the difference between eras with wailing feedback and a syncopated, swelling, yet embracing jam. And as always, throughout Popular Songs there is something sweetly compelling about hearing love songs sung by a couple and knowing the relationship works.
Yo La Tengo's long career diverges, however, from the well-trod stories of excess and tumult or peaks and valleys. It's been remarkably consistent. After 12 albums not one could be considered a "comeback." None of this should suggest, however, that things have been easy for or handed to the New Jersey trio.
"There have certainly been moments of difficulty. There are moments when you're like, this group's got another 17 seconds," laughs the soft-spoken Kaplan. "But there's never been long periods of time, and there certainly hasn't been lately." Kaplan thinks back to the last time life for the band appeared daunting. "The period prior to us signing with Matador was a particularly difficult period," he remembers. "But that's now 15, 16 years ago." Since then they've learned a lot, mostly to keep cool and follow their hearts.
Yo La Tengo's artistic philosophy becomes clearer in Kaplan's Zen-like calm. During our conversation he is relaxed, measured, and thoughtful, and appears almost wholly uninterested in the theoretical—and the business surrounding the band. "You just don't ever exactly know," he explains. "I guess to a certain extent we're not that curious." Kaplan also finds light in strange places. "One of the pluses to not having hit records," he explains, "is that the band is free to play what they want onstage."
And although he may find a fleeting silver lining, Kaplan's head is far from the clouds—he is hardly detached. "I like the idea of this being work," he says. "I never say it's not work, but I love my job. I love working." And over the years Yo La Tengo have refined the process well. When they work, they work hard and they take time off when necessary. "I think the period of not doing something is, in its own way, part of the creative process," says Kaplan.
Recently the group has done a lot of film-score work, along with many smaller, one-off performances, which they approach vigorously, regardless of scope. "Even though we're going to be on stage for 10 minutes and be seen by 100 or two people, we'll tend to spend more time preparing for something like that then you might think," says Kaplan. "We just kind of get engaged by it—like how can we make that thing special?"
That engagement in the moment is, perhaps, the most crucial element in the band's longevity and continued relevance. "We're very explicitly about trying to enjoy what's going on and letting the future try to take care of itself," says Kaplan. So of course he saw no point in speculating whether or not Yo La Tengo could continue forever. "I don't think if you'd asked me 25 years ago, are we gonna do it for 25 years? I think the answer would've been no," Kaplan says. "The honest answer is probably 'We'll find out.'"