The band talks about playing quietly before performing at Tipitina's tonight.
"That record's a bitch," James McNew says, admiring Roger and the Gypsies' "Pass the Hatchet." The New Orleans instrumental helped give birth to the song, "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind," an instrumental from 2006's I'm Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. "We go way back with New Orleans '60s, '70s records." The song started as a jam, and because of the drum beat, they started referring to it in rehearsals as "Pass the Hatchet," and that sort of referentiality is often present in Yo La Tengo songs. Because McNew, Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley have broad musical tastes, bits of the music they listen to show up in parts of their songs. "I'll come up with a bass line and think, Man, I am a genius. Then two years later I'll realize, Ooh, that's what that is." Well after the band cut "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind," he noticed similarities between his bass part and a Gang Starr song he was into at the time. Yo La Tengo play Tipitina's tonight.
Perhaps because Yo La Tengo draws from so many sources, it all sounds like Yo La Tengo music in the end. This year's Fade has the band's strongest set of songs in years, and it's quieter than Popular Songs and I'm Not Afraid of You ..., but the similarities are greater than the differences after 20 years of this lineup working together. The consistency makes the albums seem more like chapters in a book than a series of separate books - a take that McNew gets, even though it's not how he thinks of their albums. The members write songs for each album, record them, tour them, then start from zero when it's time to record the next album. Because of that, "albums are documents of where we are, and how we've changed since last time," he says.
They weren't sure Fade was going to be an album at all when they started writing for it a year ago. "We were open to doing things differently," McNew says. The songs were shorter, so they considered releasing them as singles or through some other form. After discussions with Matador Records, Yo La Tengo released the album through conventional means, but it's not conventional in his mind. The band has always switched instruments, but they do so now more than ever. Onstage, he also plays drums, everybody plays keyboards, and Hubley plays guitar. "I can tell when Georgia plays guitar because none of us play like that," McNew says. "A non-guitar player or a non-drummer comes up with unusual ideas for guitar and drum parts that one wouldn't have thought of."
Perhaps the albums seem of a piece because Yo La Tengo developed and stayed with a distinctive sensibility. Fade often sounds personal and domestic, but not to the extent that listeners are cast as eavesdroppers. At the same time, most of the band's albums feel personal, if only because they seem to exist pleasantly and deliberately outside of pop music marketplace. They gave a 2006 collection of covers improvised live on-air at WFMU the self-deprecating title, Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics.
"I think we found a different interpretation of success," McNew says. "Let's learn how to make better songs and records, and do this for ourselves and each other. As we continue to do that, people came to us rather than us calculating a way to trick people into liking us. It's kind of amazing that it happened that way, and it's never lost on me."
Part of doing things their own way is retaining the dynamics that are often lost in the process of making music radio-friendly (ironically, in an era when it's harder than ever to get played on the radio). Yo La Tengo works on those dynamics, and is unafraid to record and performed quiet, almost hushed songs. On this tour, the band's playing two sets, one quiet and one loud. Playing quiet live isn't hard, McNew says, and it's something the band has always done. If anything, splitting the quiet and loud songs into separate sets has made it easier. "People know what's happening," he says, and they quiet down accordingly. Despite the onstage sound from amps, drums and monitors, he is "hyper-acutely" aware of the audience talking. "But I've learned to tune it out." The phenomenon of audience talking during the quiet parts perplexes him, though. "This isn't television. We're people!," he says. "But that would be unprofessional of me, so I don't say things like that [to the audience]. But there isn't a performer in the world who doesn't think it."