Tone Glow 034.5: James McNew (Yo La Tengo)
An interview with James McNew of Yo La Tengo for a special midweek issue
James McNew is a musician who has served as the bassist for indie rock band Yo La Tengo since their 1992 album May I Sing with Me. McNew was also the bassist for the band Christmas prior to joining Yo La Tengo, and has made solo music under the name Dump for decades. Yo La Tengo released the album We Have Amnesia Sometimes earlier this year and have a new EP called Sleepless Night, which is primarily made up of covers. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with James McNew on the phone on September 1st, 2020 to discuss his childhood, his time in Christmas, and the things he’s learned from playing cover songs.
L-R: James McNew, Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan. Photo by Noah Kalina.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello James!
James McNew: Hey Josh, how are you?
I’m good, just a little tired (laughter). That’s life though! I’m a high school teacher so I just finished up my day.
Oh wow, are you teaching in person?
Oh no, it’s online, thankfully. I can’t imagine what that’d be like.
I learned recently that the high school I attended is doing everything in person, so I’m upset about that. At least the school I’m teaching it is all online, but with that there’s a slew of other issues, mostly related to tech and whatnot.
Even imagining what that’d be like… I’m about to pass out. Man, thanks for doing that.
I feel like high school is a pretty important time and when I think about when I was in high school, it’s usually just the super embarrassing stuff that I recall. That stuff sticks with you.
Yes it does (laughter).
Yeah but with that, there are some good memories too, even the teachers who really made an effort to really show they cared—those things stick with you too. So I’m trying to do my best to make sure things are as stress-free as possible for my students. I’m definitely trying to prioritize their mental health and emotional wellbeing.
What do you teach?
Biology and chemistry, but this year I’m only teaching chemistry. The thing with that is you can’t really do hands-on labs anymore, so it’s not as fun. I’m trying to do what I can.
Wow, well I wish you all the best (laughs).
Something that I think about when I think about you is how you were in The Parking Lot Movie. Something I remember is how during the end credits, you mention how your experience working in that parking lot in Charlottesville, and the community you had, ended up being more true to what your life ended up being than your high school experience. I don’t know if you’d still say that’s true now.
(laughs). I have no memory of saying any of those things, which is great. It’s like, “Good for me! I got in a good one!” (laughter). That was a terrific job. It’s funny—just about a month ago, there’s a site and app called MoviePass and someone from it reached out to me and asked me to pick out movies for a day of programming. The first movie I tried to get was from this guy who owned the parking lot, Chris Farina.
He’s a documentary filmmaker and he made this film called Route 40 that he made in 1985 or 1986. It’s about a defunct, formerly-thriving commercial freeway in Maryland and it’s a beautiful, dreamlike movie. I still have my VHS copy of it and I tried to see if he ever made a digital copy of it so we could get it for MoviePass. It was the first time we’d been in touch for many years and it was really awesome to talk with him again. My connection to that job really spiritually runs deep. So there’s no digital copy so we couldn’t get it.
Ah man, that’s a huge bummer. One day.
Yeah, I wanted to see it again because I don’t have a VCR anymore, and I wanted other people to see it too!
Would you say movies and music are the two big mediums of art you’re drawn to? I know you draw as well.
I like all that stuff! I’m a master of… nothing (laughter). I enjoy many disciplines. I’ve been drawing more and more throughout the past decade. I used to be really uncomfortable with the recording studio experience but I wound up learning about it, learning how it works, and started to record stuff in the practice studio we have which is in a tiny corner of a room. That’s gotten a lot more involved and serious.
We recorded There’s a Riot Going On at home, in our space. We were comfortably, uh, controlling the means of production (laughter). It was awesome to go to practice and make something like that. I really enjoyed the technical aspect of it. I really thought it was against everything I believed because I was such a 4-track cassette, know-nothing punk on purpose—and proud of it! It turns out all those decisions are artistic decisions and not so much technical ones. That’s how I look at it, it’s very pleasurable to work on music that way. No one ever told me that! (laughter). I thought it’d be agonizing work, but I totally recommend it!
Did you not previously enjoy the recording studio experience because you weren’t behind the boards? Because you weren’t in control?
I don’t think so. When Yo La Tengo would work with [producer] Roger Moutenot, which was from Painful to I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, it was kind of like (laughs) I can’t even credit actual pilots but do you know the cover of the second Silver Apples album? They’re sitting in the cockpit of the plane.
That’s what it felt like. He might as well have been flying a plane with that board in front of him. I didn’t know any of that. What does it do? I was just a willful dumbass for a long time (laughter). There’s happiness in that. Totally. I’m a slow learner, it’s seeped in.
And that’s fine! It’s always exciting to get into something new, and especially something that you never thought you’d get into.
I had a 4-track cassette machine when I was about a senior in high school. I loved it! It was this spontaneity device—you have an idea and boom, it’s done! It’s done because there’s nothing you can do. You can record, rewind, fast forward, and those were basically your options. You learn to get creative and do stuff wrong and then the stuff you do wrong actually sounds good.
It was so immediate, and I think I liked that so much more than the idea of booking a studio. “What’s a compression? What’s that? Who am I, Pink Floyd? I just recorded this song and it took 20 minutes, what do I need this stuff for?!” But, you know, you live and you learn. There’s good stuff about both.
And both bring about different mindsets that are good.
Most of the interviews you’ve done that I’ve read typically just talk about your time in Yo La Tengo. I wanted to start earlier than that. To start, what’s the first song that you remember obsessively listening to?
Hmm (thinks). I don’t know. I revisit that stuff all the time because my mom and day listened to music a lot and there was always music playing. They didn’t even have that many records but they listened to them all the time (laughs). We used to listen to the radio in the car a lot, any time we went anywhere; there was just a genuine appreciation for music and it was part of every day.
My dad liked James Brown and the Rolling Stones and Motown Records. My mom liked the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Carole King. They had a good thing going (laughs). I remember we had an 8-track player as part of the stereo and probably through the Columbia House record and tape club, my dad would’ve gotten the four 8-track Temptations compilation, which contained the long version of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
I heard that again maybe 15 years ago and I was floored. It was like the most psychedelic thing I had heard in my life and my dad was playing it for me like it was nothing! It’s like wow, my god! Just thinking about that arrangement and how it was executed… what a masterpiece. It had such a giant and profound effect on what I assumed music could be. It was like, “Sure, I guess that’s what music is” (laughter). It was just presented to me, what a gift.
When did you first start playing music?
I think I was eight or nine. My mom had a guitar but she never played it. I don’t think she had ever played it, but she had a guitar for some reason and it was in our closet. I just decided that I wanted to try and play it. My parents got me some lessons at a local music store and I think that’s when I started. It was a Guild nylon string guitar.
I know that before Yo La Tengo you were in Christmas, though I’m not sure what you were doing before that. (jokingly) Clearly I didn’t do my research.
(laughs). I don’t know if that could’ve been possible. There wasn’t a lot. I would play music with friends of mine in middle school and high school, but nothing serious. There’s like that episode of Freaks and Geeks where the band is rehearsing in the basement—it was kind of like that (laughter). By the time I was a senior in high school, I was pretty serious about it. Music was everything at that point. I bought that 4-track and messed around with that and made music that way; in addition to playing with friends, I would record stuff by myself, which was really fun and that continued forever. It’s still really fun.
I played in a band in Charlottesville with my friend Maynard [Sipe] and we played a couple times—not a lot. I played guitar in that group and wrote songs and we opened for Christmas in Charlottesville. I had been a long fan of Christmas long before I met them or played that show. We became friends and stayed friends.
For the longest time, there was no telephone in the booth in the parking lot [where I worked]. Chris [Farina] put in a phone in what was probably the summer of 1989. I think two weeks after they put in the phone, Michael Cudahy [of Christmas] called me and asked if I wanted to help him and Liz Cox with some new songs. I just left right after they said that—I think I left the phone off the hook, kind of like, “Okay, I gotta go.” (laughter).
It was like Batman seeing the bat signal in the sky. It was crazy because they were my favorite band and they just called me at my job and asked me to help them write some songs. It was like wow, dreams come true! (laughter).
It was amazing and really intense. I was playing bass and I had never played bass in a band before, but for some reason they were like, “Yeah, sure, you can do it!” (laughter). We never discussed it. I don’t remember ever having the conversation, like, “Why did you ask me to do this? With an instrument I’ve never played?” They saw something. They were like recruiters for a pro team—they saw something in my dribble, I guess, that told them I could be on the team (laughter).
It was really great. I moved to Las Vegas to live with them at the very beginning. That’s where they were living at the time. They moved to Las Vegas in 1987 or 1988—they relocated there from Boston. That was super fun. It was the time of my life. I was sleeping on the floor, we were all living in the same little house, and the fourth person who lived in that house was Joe Puleo, who ended up being Yo La Tengo’s tour manager. He and I both joined the Yo La Tengo organization at the same time. So we’ve known each other since then, in 1988 or 1989.
The Christmas songs are really complicated and that was just what I did—I tried to figure out how to make sense of them and how to play the bass (laughter), which was another thing I had to do. We just played a lot, all the time. It was awesome. I worked two jobs—a morning job and a night job. I lived in a terrible apartment in a horrible part of town.
I went back to Providence [in Rhode Island] about two years ago and I wanted to drive by my old place to see where I lived. The whole town’s been completely rejuvenated since 30 years ago. It’s beautiful now, but it was a hellscape when I lived in Providence. You didn’t go out when it was dark, the whole downtown was totally deserted. When I drove around I was like, “Wow, they really did a great job” and I got to where I used to live but it was worse. It was worse than it was 30 years ago! It was the only corner of town where they were like, “Yeah… just let it go.” (laughter).
Do you mind sharing a memory that you’re fond of with your time in Christmas.
Yo La Tengo made their way through Las Vegas not so long ago, so Joe and I wanted to check out our place in Las Vegas. We lived on Earl Street. We looked it up and similar to my apartment in Providence, Earl Street had gone to seed. Maybe I have some kind of a curse (laughter). I hope not.
I remember the grocery store was open 24 hours a day and it was insanely cheap to live there. There was no sales tax, the produce was fresh—it was shockingly great. It was a really fun experience. I remember reading about Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band writing and recording Trout Mask Replica, where they were all trapped in a house and having their spirits crushed, waking up playing until they went to bed. We weren’t like that. It was very pleasurable—wow, I’ve said that word twice now, I never say that word (laughter).
I was a kid. My god, I was 21. I was living on nothing, I had some cash in my pocket I had saved up from the parking lot, and it was awesome. It was amazing. I moved out there in September I guess and I went back to Virginia right before the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, and then once that was over we relocated to Providence.
After this you ended up joining Yo La Tengo, of course. What would you say is the main difference between playing in Christmas and playing in Yo La Tengo.
The first couple of rehearsals, I was living in Providence and would drive down to Hoboken on the weekends and we would practice all day Saturday and Sunday, and then I’d head back up Sunday night to be at work Monday morning. I was learning songs for a couple-week tour of the Midwest and a couple-week tour of Europe—that was my initial gig with Yo La Tengo, filling in for bass. They were going between the Fakebook acoustic quartet and an electric trio. I was learning the quieter, acoustic songs too and I was translating those to bass.
So, there were a lot of songs I was learning but I remember it was a lot looser than Christmas was. Those Christmas songs were very… I just played them again at Hanukkah last year, and those songs are really demanding. Every song has three-part vocal harmonies and crazy chords. The Yo La Tengo approach was much looser and there were a lot of cover songs. I loved it.
It was a really different way of playing with a band. I didn’t know how long some songs would be, and that was new to me too. I always knew how long a song was gonna be before that, but not anymore! There were stretches of songs where we’d just go and keep going until we decided to move onto the next part, and we didn’t know how long that was gonna be. That became a very exciting and important part of music for me. I remember thinking, “Do other people do this?” And of course they did! A lot of other people did this! But I didn’t know. I was young and dumb (laughter). I can’t stress enough how dumb I was.
How would you say you’ve grown in your time with Yo La Tengo? And this can be musically, or just how you’ve grown as a person.
I’d like to think that I’m less dumb in a lot of ways. And really, Yo La Tengo became my family in pretty much every way. It’s a beautiful experience. I don’t think that’s normal—I can’t imagine it is (pauses). Maybe it is. Maybe Mick Mars and Nikki Sixx feel this way about being in Mötley Crüe.
Do you mind sharing something you love about both Ira and Georgia?
Sure. I think they’re the two smartest people I’ve ever met. I think both of them—separately and together—are capable of anything. That came out as if I was accusing them of something (laughter) but that’s not how I meant it.
I didn’t take it that way! (laughter).
But they’re physically and mentally capable of achieving anything. I think they’re also the two most creative people I’ve ever met. It’s a pleasure to be in the room with them when we’re creating something. It’s hard to have perspective on it but (with a soft, warbling voice) I understand how much they love music, and they understand how much I love music. That is the first and strongest thing that brought us together—immediately.
Ugh. And isn’t it such a nice feeling when you meet someone and you can connect on that level? And you can just talk about music and it can go on for hours?
(sighs). Yeah. There’s music they like that I don’t know much about, and I learn about it from them. And it goes both ways, it’s an exchange. It creates a shared consciousness, a shared awareness of possibility.
Can you share an artist that they were into that you weren’t, that you now love?
I spent a good chunk of my life—and, sure, maybe I still do—not enjoying the music of Joni Mitchell. I know I’m in the overwhelming minority of the music community when it comes to that. But I get it. I certainly understand now why people like her. I shouldn’t have said anything (laughter).
It’s totally fine to not like an artist! I mean, I could list tons of artists I don’t like. Here, I can give an example so it’s less weird, so it’s maybe less of a blow to whoever’s reading.
I’m gonna get that angry message from Joni Mitchell and I don’t want it, I know it’s coming (laughter).
I’m a fan of Joni Mitchell, but I personally never really got super deep into Bob Dylan. I’ve listened to several of his albums multiple times and I like it to an extent but he never became an artist I really loved, or wanted to listen to a lot.
I’ve grown now where I can totally understand that, because I have examples of my own. I should drop the whole Joni Mitchell thing, but I know that Prince always talked about how much he loved Joni Mitchell, so I’m like “Damn, let me try it again.” And, well, when I do… no (laughter).
Obviously Yo La Tengo does a lot of covers, and I like how you do a lot of covers yourself for your solo project Dump. I love how you did that ABBA cover. How do you, be it for yourself or as a band, decide to do a cover? Is it a spur of the moment situation or do you usually want there to be a reason?
I think it’s mostly the former, it’s about hearing a song that might fit the mood or spirit of where we’re at, with the other songs we’re playing. Learning cover songs is how I came to learn music in the first place, playing along to songs I taped off the radio, playing along to records on the record player. Learning that way and playing cover songs puts you in the songwriter’s head and why they made the decisions they made. It informs your own songwriting that way, with how songs get put together.
Of the cover songs on the upcoming EP, Sleepless Night. Were you a strong proponent for any of the songs you covered for this?
Well, the songs for this were—
Oh, right, duh. This was for Yoshitomo Nara.
Yeah, we worked on it together with him. The original version of this project was for a record that came with his catalogue from this massive career retrospective show that was going to be held at LACMA, which was cancelled. But for the record that came with the catalogue, one side of it was a compilation of several different artists throughout time that Nara himself had chosen. The B-side was us covering a handful of songs that Nara approved of or asked us for. He also asked us for one original song as well, so it was done in collaboration with him.
Did you learn anything about the songs you covered on this EP that you didn’t know prior from just listening to them?
Sometimes you learn about your own capabilities. They force you to sing in a different way, in a way that you haven’t tried before. Sometimes you play in a way that you never would. It suggests these decisions to you that you wouldn’t have made, and you learn to understand them through playing. And that can go on to somehow subliminally or otherwise appear in the music that you write.
Can you give an example of a song you remember covering that you feel was then brought into your repertoire? Or that helped you learn something about playing the bass or something?
Oh geez. There are two things that come to mind. I played a show sometime in the late ’90s where I filled in for Marc Trovillion, who was the bass player in Lambchop. Lambchop had a show in New York City and he couldn’t make it so I had to learn a bunch of Lambchop songs.
Marc—or Buddy, as everybody called him—had played on all these songs that were unreleased. Kurt Wagner had sent me a cassette of them for me to learn them and I remember thinking, “Oh no, he really knows how to play bass and I just don’t.” It really brought me face to face with my own shortcomings with my instrument. And I was just like, “Well, I guess I gotta learn. I don’t wanna disappoint.”
That blew my mind. That guy was such a masterful, natural bass player and it turned out I wasn’t. That experience really, really taught me a lot. That taught me technique and, for lack of the right word, the theory that I didn’t have. He didn’t even know it but he was a gigantic influence on me.
There’s also a Yo La Tengo song, and I’ll try not to say what it is, but I remember I came up with a bassline for it that I was really happy with. It was really melodic and drove the song, but maybe four or five years later I was like, “Oh, I know what that is! That came from an Aesop Rock record!” I thought I made that up but turns out I didn’t. He never yelled at me about it, which I’m happy about.
Is there anything you’re specifically looking forward to, music or otherwise, in the upcoming months?
I hope people start playing soon. Yo La Tengo just played a couple weeks ago at MASS MoCA and it was a socially distanced show. It was a great experience to play music again. I really miss it, and I hope people start doing it again soon.
Same. People just need to follow protocols so things can start getting better.
Right. It’s really hard.
Is there anything you’ve ever wanted to be asked or to talk about in an interview?
No, not at all. I’m terrible at it, and I don’t react well to it (laughter). I guess one thing that I always wanted to be asked is, “Hey, is it okay if we don’t do the interview?” And I’d be like, “Yeah, that’s fine.” (laughter). So I guess that’s my answer (laughter).
Well, I apologize if this was a burden (laughs).
(laughs). Ah, no, it was a pleasure to speak with you.
Still from The Parking Lot Movie (Meghan Eckman, 2010)
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