Everything is open to change: an interview with Yo La Tengo's James McNew | Music
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Friday, September 25, 2015

Everything is open to change: an interview with Yo La Tengo's James McNew

Posted by on Fri, Sep 25, 2015 at 12:28 PM

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. 

click to enlarge COURTESY OF HIGH ROAD TOURING
  • Courtesy of High Road Touring
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.

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