A quarter-century ago, the roughly five-year-old Yo La Tengo switched gears from feedback-laced indie rock to issue a gentle, stripped-down set called Fakebook. Consisting mainly of cover songs along with a few new tracks and some retooled numbers from the band’s own catalog, the record was an unexpected success and remains loved among the YLT faithful.
But would the band ever do another record like it? Stuff Like That There, out this week, answers “yes” in deeply satisfying form. We caught up with James McNew, the band’s longtime bass player, who expounded upon the perennial attraction of cover songs, the profoundly useful concept of the electric bass, and the version of “Tangled Up in Blue” that changed his life.
INDY: Some albums have an overarching theme; here, the focus is on each distinct song. How does that change the process of making a record?
James McNew: It’s totally different than I guess what we would call a normal record. Certainly in the sense that the cover songs, those are finished already. A lot of times, when we make a record, we leave things unfinished before we get to the studio and kind of finish them up in the moment. And of course lyrics are usually among the very last things we do when we’re making an album of our own songs. So in one way, it’s a huge time saver. You could look at it positively that way, as far as paying for studio time. Those songs are already written.
You bring to it a very distinct feel that extends throughout the record. I would almost say it sounds effortless. How much effort goes into the effortless sound you create together?
A lot. [Laughs.] In most cases, it is a lot. There’s a general feeling of treat any song you play as though it were your own. We’ve played cover songs forever, since the very beginning. Listening to records and playing along with them when we were little kids with our instruments is kind of how we all started to play. It’s a very natural part of the group. I always thought, listening to other artists do cover songs through the years, that there could be great power in interpretation and rearrangement, in shifting the focus of a song away from its creator to a listener, basically. I could always relate to that, and I always found that really exciting in other groups. It’s just who we are and a big part of what we like to do.
It seems that you take a certain delight in excavating songs that are off the beaten track, beginning with the Arthur Lee track that was a B-side of the band’s debut single.
I think those are just the kind of the songs we like. It’s all relative as far as what songs a person’s personal favorite songs are. I mean, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” [on the new LP], it’s my understanding that that’s a very popular song.
True. You got me there.
I mean, I’ve listened to—gosh, I’ve listened to the Angry Samoans more than I’ve ever listened to Hank Williams. So, we don’t do it just for the sake of, well, here’s a song you’ve never heard before. It’s more of a feeling of I love that song. It’s definitely not an instructive move.
The palette here feels a bit more cohesive than Fakebook. There’s no goofy party track like “Emulsified.”
Our method of songwriting, at least our style of songwriting, has changed in the time between Fakebook and now, as opposed to the time leading up to Fakebook. Maybe Stuff Like That There is a reflection of that. Instead of a song like “Emulsified,” it’s more like a longer, drone-ier version of the party. I guess now it’s just a different, weirder party.
You learned how to play upright bass for this record. How difficult was that?
Oh, tremendously. [Laughs.] I don’t know what I was thinking. I got one and started learning how to play it as fast as I possibly could, and we made a record. We had our first show of the tour last night, and so last night was the first time I ever played it in front of a paying audience. I seem to have gotten away with it. It sounds and feels amazing, but I totally understand and really appreciate the invention of the electric bass. What a great idea—so much smaller, you can just carry it with you.
I would think playing it live, as opposed to in the studio or practicing, has to be its own challenge.
Onstage, you hear it through the PA. You don’t really hear the instrument so much, so that’s familiar territory. But playing with no PA, just in a room, is a new, pretty great feeling for me. It’s fun to be a beginner all over again … I think that’s something about the group that I really like. I feel that as we get older, we continue to learn new things and try new things. The more you experience, the less you’re afraid of and the less you’re intimidated by. I feel like we grow together.
How is the process of covering yourselves different from simply redoing a song?
When I first joined the group and we would go on tour, a lot of times during the day, there would be in-stores or little college radio interviews, and at those we would bring an acoustic guitar or we would strip down the electric set and play quietly. We’re just naturally conditioned to think of any song in multiple arrangements. We can imagine how to do it. Any song that we’ve written, I think, in the past 25 or so years, exists somewhere in multiple versions compared to whatever the recorded, finished version of a song was. Everything is open to change.
How often has it happened that you choose a song and you find you just can’t get a handle on it?
Well, that’s never stopped us. [Laughs.] We’ll destroy a song. Sometimes it may not sound at all like we have a handle on it, but it feels right to us. I think the handle is relative. If you can get a handle on the feeling of a song, not necessarily the intricacies of a song, that’s more appealing to me. I think of the band Half Japanese, on one of their very early records, did kind of a life-changing, for me, cover version of “Tangled Up in Blue,” the Bob Dylan song, that just proved to me what that song really was, in the way that they read it. It changed the world for me as far as what is a song, and what is a song to other people? I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m going to search it out right after I hang up with you. I hope you enjoy it.
Yo La Tengo plays Carolina Theatre Saturday, Sept. 26, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $26–$64.