But then over their long career, Yo La Tengo have been anything but "usual." Hubley had well-known animator parents (her father created Mr. Magoo); Kaplan was a music freak who did time as a rock critic (NY Rocker). Although Hoboken has been home to the band for years now, they've always been seen as musical heirs to New York's avant-garde rock legacy. I caught up with James McNew after the first leg of this tour, where they were assisted by Superchunk's Mac McCaughan on keys, vibes, and percussion, as well as The Clean's David Kilgour on guitar. I was surprised to hear that it was Yo La Tengo's first bus tour. ("It's back to reality now," McNew says, explaining that they'll be vanning it on the next leg.)
"Wow, you're rock stars finally," I goad McNew, who assures me that--between the extra members and long West Coast drives--the bus was really the best option. "It was actually a necessity," he explains. "We had to move really fast from city to city (overnight drives), and there were eight or nine of us. We were all curious about the tour bus lifestyle," he laughs. "We weren't doing much sleeping; there was always something to do." I try to imagine the somewhat intellectually-driven bunch throwin' down Hammer of the Gods-style. Instead, I picture all-night film discussions.
I ask McCaughan if the party ever stopped. "David Kilgour and I, we kept to ourselves, trying to remind each other how the songs went," he recalls. "As for Georgia and Ira, if partying means champagne and cakes after each show, then they party! If partying means NBA 2000 on the bus' Playstation, then only Ira parties."
With Lambchop as the opening band, YLT's legendary end-of-show feedback jams found the stage knee-deep in musicians adding their free-jazz (sort of) musical two-cents worth to Yo La classics and cool covers. "The encores were called out once we got onstage and were often covers or YLT songs we'd never played together," McCaughan explains. "In some ways the encores were the most fun--and definitely the most unpredictable--part of the evening." (One night found them grinding through Sham 69's "Borstal Breakout.")
As they deconstruct and redefine themselves with every album, the trio relegates guitar to the backseat on And Then Nothing ... , and Hubley and Kaplan allow their low, almost interchangeable voices (often woven in close harmonies) to paint the mood. Even a stripped-down, irony-free cover of the KC-penned disco hit "You Can Have it All" becomes a wistful Yo La Tengo original, while the reverb-soaked vibraphone riff on "The Crying of Lot G" wouldn't be out of place on an Angelo Badelamenti soundtrack. "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" features Hubley over a Stereolabesque organ and drum-machine track, while "Last Days of Disco" highlights McNew's melodic bass chordings.
I can't think of another band that has evolved in such a dramatic way. Hubley didn't sing at all in the earliest, keyboard-free incarnation, which focused on Ira's wired feedback guitar experimentations. Although Yo La Tengo still occasionally returns to their "roots"--"Night Falls on Hoboken" features 10 minutes of pulsing, '50s sci-fi style feedback and hovering organ tones over jazzy drums and a repeated looplike bass line--they've become known for their beautifully understated pop songs. But it's Hubley's emergence as a vocalist and the band's instrumental evolutions that land them on critics' "best" lists. Fame, in turn, has brought the band the kind of cool perks that money can't buy. As fans of The Simpsons, they were thrilled to play over the closing credits for an episode. ("One of the guys that wrote and produced the show is a fan," says McNew.) They also have a particularly apt cameo as The Velvet Underground in the film I Shot Andy Warhol.
No longer an "underground" band, Yo La Tengo has reached a new, younger audience who respond to their sound in a noncerebral, instinctive way, not grokking the years of influences, references and rock history that go into making something so complex and multinuanced seem so simple. (Sort of like watching Tex Avery cartoons when you're a tot and really enjoying them, only to see them years later and realize all the in-jokes and innuendo.)
For a preview, or to relive the gig, last year's Cat's Cradle show is available in real audio format on the Matador Web site. "I remember that not being a favorite show of mine," McNew laughs. "It's great--not only wasn't it a favorite but it's preserved for all time on the computer." Although this week's Cat's Cradle show features only the trio, McCaughan vows to jump onstage for part of the set. (We'll see about that," jokes McNew.) YLT's live shows--often two hours long--showcase the intuitive synergy a band achieves only through years of playing together, traveling together, and eating at Denny's together.
I wonder if Yo La Tengo, as a much-scrutinized band, feels pressured to keep pushing the parameters of "new" music. Is expectation a hellhound on their trail? "The only pressure we get comes from ourselves," responds McNew. "It's the only way to not go completely insane," he adds. "The only way to stick around so long is not to worry. ... Lots of stuff has come and gone, but somehow we've managed to ride it out."
Fifteen minutes of fame? Yo La Tengo is pushing for 15 years.