034.5: Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo)

An interview with Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo for a special midweek issue

Ira Kaplan

Ira Kaplan is a guitarist, vocalist, and singer-songwriter who co-founded the indie rock band Yo La Tengo along with his wife Georgia Hubley in 1984. The two solidified their three-piece lineup with James McNew in 1991 and have gone on to release more than a dozen studio albums throughout the course of their career. Yo La Tengo released their most recent LP We Have Amnesia Sometimes earlier this year, but have also dropped a new EP titled Sleepless Night, which primarily features cover songs. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Kaplan on September 2nd, 2020 to discuss his WFMU radio show, the recent Yo La Tengo releases, and more.

L-R: James McNew, Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley. Photo by Noah Kalina.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello!

Ira Kaplan: Hello!

Hi, hi.

You doing good today?

Yeah, how is your day?

Eh, you know, there’s not that much to do these days.

Yeah, I feel that, all of these days just blur together too. I know that you were a music critic back in the day, and something that I often think about is the particular space in which I’m listening to music. Is there a particular area or space you like to listen to music in order to best understand it?

It’s changed over the years, but since June I’ve been doing a weekly radio show on WFMU. It’s caused me to listen to a lot more music than I had before. I’m listening to it more seriously—it’s less in the background and more in the foreground. As a consequence, and just because of the tight quarters that everyone is living in, I’ve been listening to music on headphones more now than… probably since I was in high school (laughter). My parents used to call me to dinner by cutting the circuit breaker to my room. That’d be the only way they could turn off the stereo—via the fuse box.

So you’re just listening via speakers then, typically?

Yeah. I’ve listened to it probably like most people, just a lot on the computer with the external speakers hooked up to that. Certainly the convenience of that is pretty young. It’s irresistible.

In your previous show, I was struck by how you had all those different versions of “Baby Be Mine.” What was the reason behind doing that?

I’ve been doing fill-in shows for a long time. It’s great and different and you follow whatever stupid thought you have without having to think about your next show. I’m just a huge fan of NRBQ and I just thought of the song “Baby Be Mine,” which I’ve heard them do live over the years. It just popped into my brain and I realized that I didn’t know whose song it was.

It took a long time to figure out whose song it was because there were so many songs called “Baby Be Mine” (laughter). A lot of them hit real nerves with me, The Jelly Beans especially. I love Ellie Greenwich and Chuck Berry, Nolan Strong and Fortune Records. Every time there was another version of “Baby Be Mine,” there was this surprisingly personal connection so I was like “Oh, I’ll play them all.”

Obviously you decide to cover a lot of songs in general. In doing the covers for Sleepless Night, was there anything you learned about the songs that you didn’t know about them prior?

(laughs). Well, certainly when we learned “Wasn’t Born to Follow”... god that song is so wordy (laughter). What a gift those two [Gerry Goffin and Carole King] have for songwriting. I’m not really somebody who knows lyrics until I have to. Gerry Goffin can make those incredibly… those have to be LSD lyrics. He makes it sound so effortless. I’m sure that’s him and the music that Carole King wrote. The idea that those words come out so naturally!

I hadn’t thought much about “Roll On Babe.” I didn’t realize this, but I wasn’t necessarily surprised either that Ronnie Lane didn’t write it. It is so incredibly different from the original—that was a surprise. To come back to NRBQ again, and I don’t know if you’ve seen the packaging for the album, but I cite them in the liner notes. The first time I heard “Blues Stay Away From Me” was absolutely their version, which is a very… liberal (laughter) interpretation of that song compared to the Delmore Brothers.

What inspired you to do the Ronnie Lane version of “Roll On Babe” instead of the original? Was it just the one that spoke to you all the most?

Well, to us it’s his song, it’s just the version we knew. We’re Ronnie Lane fans and we knew that and it was only looking into it—just from coming up with the packaging and finding information for the liner notes—that we realized it wasn’t his song.

With your WFMU show, you said that you’re listening to more music that you have in a while. Is there an artist that you fell in love with again that you hadn’t listened to in a while?

Fell in love with again… let me think about that. (thinks). Probably. My show was on last night and I invited Georgia [Hubley] to take over and choose songs, create the setlist. Over the course of three hours, she still had quite a few songs we didn’t get to, and one was “Bad Reputation,” the Joan Jett song. I guess I’d listened to that song so much, and when it was on Freaks and Geeks I heard it a lot too, but I probably hadn’t heard it since Freaks and Geeks.

I shouldn’t complain because it’s one of the reasons I have the radio show, but everything’s done on the computer now; we’re not allowed to go to WFMU, so I’m doing this broadcasting from our apartment. Everything has to end up on my computer so I was putting “Bad Reputation” into a form so that I could play it over the air but it ended up not making the show, which is fine. But I was like, “Wow, I love that song.” And I knew I loved it. It is really one of the things that’s fun about radio, just hearing songs in a different context.

I was listening to Jesse Jarnow’s show a couple weeks ago and he played a song that I listened to but decided I didn’t like enough to play over the air, and then it sounded great on his show! The context is everything. So whatever song I had heard before and after when I played it, it didn’t thrive in that setting. But on Jesse’s show, it did. It’s such a pleasure just listening to music in general, things can sound different all the time.

I had a radio show when I was in college and that was always my favorite part of it, just really trying to make each song stand out in context. When you were curating songs for your shows, were there any specific juxtapositions that you really got a kick out of that come to mind right now?

For the radio shows?

Yeah.

I know it’s a current word but I gotta say, I will never use the word “curate” to describe what I’m doing (laughter). But sure, I love the idea of them coming into an order. One of my personal and favorite things to do, which isn’t a surprise for those who have seen our band, is to have songs that you don’t expect come up next to each other rather than, “Okay, this is a country set” and then there will be a mic break and we’ll go into jazz, and then there will be a mic break and we play some new records. I like the idea that someone will think they know where it’s going but then it goes somewhere else.

Last night, Georgia played four songs in sequence and three of them were from a certain era in Boston during a period when there were so many bands coming out of there. She played a song [“Babble”] by this group 21-645 who only made two songs on two different compilations, and she followed that with Barrence Whitfield & the Savages. Two songs later she played a song by the Lyres but in between played Ike Turner. It was such an unexpected left turn but it was so great! (pauses). Oh sorry, she just explained—she’s eavesdropping on this (laughter)—the Ike Turner song is called “D.M.Z.”, which is of course the name of the band that the Lyres came out of. It went right over my head (laughter).

When I was talking with Jim O’Rourke, he also hated the word “curator” (laughter). What’s the reason behind hating that?

It seems unnecessarily self-congratulatory. You know, you can put on a show, you don’t have to curate a show. It’s just records.

[Kim keeps talking without knowing that Kaplan has disconnected. The Matador representative connects the two again.]

Hey, sorry! I don’t know what happened.

You wanna use the word “curate” just use it, you don’t have to hang up on me, god! (laughter).

It was funny because I was actually responding to that and had a huge response. I didn’t hear anything and was like, “Oh my god, Ira’s really not into this conversation right now.” (laughter). Everything you said makes sense though.

It’s current jargon, I understand. I’m set in my ways (laughter).

It was nice that Georgia put on your most recent show. That got me wondering—do you recall the first artists or songs that you two bonded over?

Not exactly, I know that when we met, there were a number of shows that we had both been to by bands that weren’t particularly popular. It was kind of remarkable that it took us so long to meet. The dB’s, the Fleshtones, we may have even been at the same Soft Boys show in New York. And that was very well attended. There was a lot of overlap in the music that we listened to. The Soft Boys were definitely big. We went to that show and she loved them and I didn’t—it took me a lot longer to understand how amazing they were. It wasn’t until Underwater Moonlight that I was like, “You’re right, they’re incredible!” (laughter).

Is there an artist that either of you love that the other person hates?

I don’t think so. Obviously we don’t run in complete lockstep but I don’t think there’s something that one person loves that the other person hates.

I wanted to ask about the record you released a couple months ago, We Have Amnesia Sometimes. Can you talk about the experience with recording that while you had to remain socially distanced, and how that compared to recording as a band before?

It’s funny, I was describing a number of times that with our last album, There’s a Riot Going On, that we had made a third of the record before we realized we were making a record. We were just doing what we do, recording things. And then we realized that we weren’t going to take these recordings and do something else—this is what we were going to do.

[We have Amnesia Sometimes] wasn’t really that different. We figured out that, you know, two of us live together, and there’s only one more person so it wasn’t going to be that hard to be safe. We don’t spend that much time… we’re only together for a couple of hours. So we followed the governor’s guidelines for New Jersey and got together. It was such a pleasure to be in a room and play some music—that’s all we were doing. We didn’t have any idea that we were gonna do anything with it, and we finished one thing and said, “Maybe we should play that for Matador? That was kind of good.” (laughter).

They were enthusiastic about it and asked what we wanted to do with it and we were like, “Wow, good question.” And by then, if we hadn’t recorded everything that was on the record, we had recorded most of it, we just went through this couple of weeks of stuff we were doing in this room. And it’s all just one microphone—it wasn’t done with any kind of plan to share it. And it took on this interesting—well, interesting to us—life. It was like, “What if we just lifted the curtain a little bit on what we do when we get together and just put this stuff out as is instead of the first step of something else?”

What were the track titles referring to on that album?

We just thought of it as kind of a diary, and we tried to make the diary a little more interesting than our lives actually are.

Would you say your life isn’t very interesting?

Right now it isn’t (laughs). Our diary is remarkably consistent (laughter). I think we have to delve into fantasy to pep things up a bit.

Do you journal often?

No. I keep a daily record of things I do but it’s not remotely literary, it’s not even sentences. I keep track of if I went to a movie, if we had practice.

How long have you been doing that for?

I’ve gotten better at doing it, sometimes it’s half-baked. For the last few years now I’ve done it every day.

What do you find to be the benefit of doing it?

We do a lot of, like, (chuckles) “When’s the last time we met this person?” It helps with researching certain things.

That makes a lot of sense. I wanted to ask, have you ever covered a song and felt like you didn’t do it justice? Where it was like, “Oh god, why did we do this.”

Hopefully not too often because we oughta just sit on it if that’s the case. I didn’t think our version of “Fancy” by the Kinks was stellar. We committed to taking part in this tribute record [This Is Where I Belong: The Songs Of Ray Davies & The Kinks] and so the option of not using it wasn’t quite there—that was more of a nuclear option we wanted to deploy (laughter). But I didn’t think that was our best effort.

How do you determine, then, that a cover that you do is good, if it’s doing justice to the original?

If we enjoy it, if we’re responding to it. With the case of that song, we picked it and worked out an arrangement and thought it could be good. It just didn’t live up to the sound playing in our heads (laughs).

Is there a particular cover on Sleepless Night that you’re particularly fond of?

I like them all for different reasons. “Blues Stay Away From Me” was really exciting because it was so off the cuff. We were just on tour with William Tyler [in 2011], we were hitting Nashville. Charlie Louvin had just died and we thought, “Why don’t we do that song?” We all knew it well enough that we were able to just put it together in soundcheck without [Lambchop’s] Kurt Wagner to sing with us. It was just five friends singing a song and that was special.

Roll On Babe” was special to me because it’s more faithful than some of the other tracks. When you hear Georgia singing it, it just becomes hers, it becomes ours. And I like that idea, that you don’t have to try to put your own stamp on it. As Albert Brooks says in Real Life, “Be yourself and you can’t help but make it yours.”

How do you feel you’ve grown from being in the band, be it as a musician or as a person?

For better or worse (laughs), the band would never have released We Have Amnesia Sometimes that much earlier in our existence. That reflects a self-confidence and a development—perhaps misguided (laughter)—that we have. It’s definitely different from before, this idea that we don’t have to make it into something, that it can just be in its natural form.

Do you consider yourself to be a meticulous person when it comes to how you want your songs to sound and be presented?

Probably. I think one of the things we enjoy about being in this band is that we play live and record very differently. We’ll play live and do things that we really don’t necessarily have a handle on, just to see what happens—we allow the random element to come forward. In recording, we take advantage of the fact that we can work on something, especially nowadays in the Pro Tools era when you’re not even watching a studio clock, which has a dollar sign connected to it. We have that freedom to work and we enjoy that attention to detail.

If you were to meet the past Ira—let’s say the Ira back from when you initially started the band, early/mid-80s—would there be any advice you’d give yourself?

Oh yeah: “Don’t worry, you will meet James [McNew]. Just hang in there.”

What about James really shifted things for you? And why were you worried prior to James joining the band?

I think when James joined we became a band. It’s kind of a pattern that goes through my conversations—certainly with this one it’s that we made records without realizing we were making records, but in this case it was the reverse. We thought we had a band but then James joined and realized, “Oh no, that’s a band.”

The people we played with prior to James were people who… there was Dave Schramm who wanted to have a band where they did his songs, and Dave Rick wanted to have a band where they did his songs. Nobody was ever deceitful about that, it was always a known quantity. Gene Holder helped us out immeasurably, but he wasn’t looking to be a member of the band, he was looking to help our band. When we started playing with James, we realized what three people working together could be like. It was revelatory.

I asked this question to James yesterday so I wanted to ask you this. What’s one thing you love about Georgia and one thing you love about James?

James is hilarious and he’s so caring. You know, one thing that Georgia and I both learned from him and—now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve even articulated it in my brain—which probably led to this We Have Amnesia Sometimes record coming out, is that he’s so enthusiastic about stuff. That doesn’t come naturally to Georgia and I—it’s less than it used to be but still less than him. James can just say, “Yeah, I really like this!” and be proud of something that we’ve done. With Georgia and my personalities, we would be putting it down before anyone else has a chance to. James being so enthusiastic is just something I’ve learned a lot from.

And I really couldn’t begin to describe everything I love about Georgia. Every day just makes me happier than the day before.

Is there one thing that you’d be comfortable sharing that sticks out?

No (laughter).

Purchase Sleepless Night at the Matador website. Read our interview with James McNew.


Still from Real Life (Albert Brooks, 1979)

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