Interview – James McNew of Yo La Tengo October 6, 2009

James McNew is talking to me from Durham, North Carolina where Yo La Tengo is set to play a show in support of their seventh full-length album, Popular Songs. While the band has had undeniable longevity and success over long history, critics are quick to point out a lack of mainstream notoriety. The album name seems in reference to that, but McNew disagrees.  “We didn’t think of the title as being a commentary on anything” he says. “I think we mostly just thought it was funny. It was appealing because it’s open to many interpretations, and I think we are happiest with anything that doesn’t just give you directions to what it means and what we mean by it.”

Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan started Yo La Tengo in 1984, making the band a quarter century old. McNew says existing through the span of five U.S. Presidents has not numbed him to his fortune.

“Are you kidding? This is my job! I get to do my dream job as my real job.” He admits, however, there are moments where this attitude escapes him, saying “there are moments in a day, when we’re on tour or in the studio or just working…where you feel like screaming. But it’s very easy to step back and look at the big picture.”

With a steady mix of longer, ten-minute plus epics and shorter rock tracks, Popular Songs stays true to the varied landscape Yo La Tengo songs are known for. “It would probably be a more efficient process if someone went home and wrote the songs by themselves and showed up to practice and showed us all how the new Yo La Tengo songs go. We would probably put out a whole lot more records that way.” McNew prefers the collective approach. “We basically just get together and play.” With an improvisational method like that, McNew values the relationship they have with longtime producer Roger Moutenot. “Its good to have a more objective set of ears with us to give us perspective.”

Whether the crowd at a show remains stoic (a prevalent characteristic of the modern “indie rock” concert) or is a little more animated, McNew has mixed feelings.  he jokes “if we’re playing something quiet and I hear someone talking, then I get mad. But if we play something loud, and everybody is too quiet, then I get mad too. There’s no pleasing me. I’m just happy there’s people there. God bless them for showing up.”

When talking about Yo La Tengo’s vast covers repertoire, he cannot say for sure what a band covering Yo La Tengo should sound like. “I don’t know. I think with all the liberties we have taken with other people’s songs we’re fair game.” He adds, “I did think it would be funny if all the people slighted on the ‘Murdering The Classics’ record got together and did a revenge album”.

McNew has fond memories of his time with the band, but finds it impossible to predict what the next 25 years of Yo La Tengo will bring. “Golly. I didn’t know what the first 25 years was gonna have.” He says, “I couldn’t tell you how the rest of the week is gonna go.”

As appearing originally in Beatroute Magazine.

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