I spoke to Ira Kaplan on the phone yesterday, prior to Yo La Tengo’s soundcheck in Brooklyn, where the band was opening for Belle & Sebastian. Both groups play Merriweather tonight. I’ve seen Yo La Tengo twice in the past few months—opening for Beach House at the Lyric and playing the Solid Sound fest at Mass MOCA—and was blown away both times. Though he’s reluctant to talk specifics about his own songs, Kaplan comes across as an incredibly nice guy who’s passionate about music, his band mates (he is, of course, married to YLT’s drummer/singer, Georgia Hubley), and baseball. Here are some highlights of our talk…
On playing Merriweather Post Pavilion: “We played there a few years ago, opening for The National, in terrible, terrible weather. And on this tour, we’ve been dodging rain clouds at every show.” (Looks like they’ll be dodging more rain today.)
On Baltimore’s music scene: “I’m not that familiar with it, though I know Beach House, of course. It’s the current home of Matmos, right? I like them. But I sort of lost track after that Balto Weird record (1979’s Best of Baltimore’s Buried comp featuring Half Japanese, OHO, the Moronics, and other ‘Baltimore Weirdos’) came out. I’m not the voracious listener I was when I was younger.”
On his earliest, and best, memories as a sports fan (all of which involve beating up on Baltimore teams): “In 1969, the Mets, Jets, and Knicks all won championships. The Mets beat the Orioles, and the Jets beat the Colts, though I wasn’t a huge football fan. I really liked baseball and basketball. If I have it right, the Knicks went through the Bullets on the way to the championship. (true, they beat the Bullets in the Eastern semifinals) At that point, I had been a Mets fan for a few years and had experienced a few miserable seasons, so that season was truly amazing. Nothing has ever replaced those memories as the best sports moments. But the Orioles came back and won the next year, right?” (BTW, Yo La Tengo means, “I’ve got it,”
On whether the song “Oriole” [b-side of the “Ohm” triple-12-inch set, out July 30 on Matador] was inspired by our baseball team: “I don’t want to be too specific, but I’ll say we were not oblivious to that layer of meaning. I like the idea of keeping our world a little, or maybe even a lot, cloaked. People can project what they want on it. I think it’s richer that way. But you’ll have more to think about, as far as an Orioles connection, when you see those records.” (I’ll be at Sound Garden on July 30.)
On being yourself, being shy, and putting together a “real” band: “I was nearly 30 when we made our first record. By a lot of standards, I, and we, have done things very wrong. We’ve always been a different group, not intentionally. We just are. We try to be who we are and not fight that. We just go with it and find what can be truthful in that. We’re just playing music that sounds good to us. Our group, to a ridiculous extent, manages to maintain the fallacy that no one is listening and we’re just playing for ourselves.
“The clearest line you could draw in the group’s development is fighting shyness. I was able to do things in a no-risk manner—other than humiliating myself at rehearsal—and just found a sound that sounded good to me. But to this day, I often have no idea what I’m going. I’m not even close to being a technical player, but it sounds good to me, and it sounds good to Georgia. It was a huge, huge moment when James [McNew] joined the group. Until he joined, the other people in the band always had other things to do, and they were there, almost, doing us a favor. But when James came and we saw that he was really into it, we started building on each other’s support and drawing confidence from the other two. That’s when the band really started developing. It wasn’t really a band before. When James joined, we felt, ‘Oh, this is what a real band is like.’”
On the influence of Big Star’s 3rd album: “I would count it on a short list of my favorite records. There’s something about the beauty of things falling apart and simultaneously trying to hold them together and allowing them to fall apart. It’s Alex Chilton’s incredible pop sense and beautiful voice. Before I heard the entire thing, I’d already heard a couple of the songs. I used to go see them in New York and a couple of those songs were in their set. I’d heard them do ‘Holocaust’ and ‘Kangaroo.’ It’s a magical record. I really liked the first two Big Star records, but when I heard that one… Wow.”