Hoboken’s Yo La Tengo, one of the longest-running and most rewarding indie-rock bands since the genre had a name, are up there with Tom Waits in the pantheon of artists who’ve never done anything except what they want. And like Tom Waits, fans are often rewarded regardless. They’ve got great records everyone agrees on (I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, …And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out) and great records even their fans can’t agree on (Summer Sun, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass). None of them could have been made by another band. This week they announced their fifteenth album, There’s A Riot Going On, whose Sly Stone-tweaking title greatly reflects the chaotic moment our world is currently spinning in, and whose music is far more oblique..
Completely put together in Pro Tools by bassist James McNew and produced by Yo La Tengo as a whole, it’s the first proper studio album the band has constructed largely out of dribs and drabs, looped seconds from unused film scores, and new songs pieced together like Lego playsets, in the same familiar drones and pastiche detours that make up their other works. But it’s more fragile and psychedelic, opening with a long instrumental and unveiling itself with a more improvised feel as the record plays. It’s certainly one of their most experimental albums, and it’s not certain how fans will react. But it’s a pretty and singular addition to the band’s extensive catalogue.
When I spoke to McNew and singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan in Matador Records’ SoHo office, the band seemed just as surprised as anyone that this record came out of them. It’s all too fitting of the current state of the world that the band is trying to make sense of themselves in 2018 as much as anyone else. And the sound of their new album reflects that uncertain, pieced-together rhetoric that we all seem to be surviving on day by day as truths we’ve taken for granted our whole lives are upturned or exploded outright. Here’s a truncated version of that discussion, which touched on the collage-like nature of the new record, and past instances where the band managed to stump even their diehards (which isn’t such a bad thing sometimes). Read below.
STEREOGUM: There’s A Riot Going On had an unusual creation process, how did you get started making it?
JAMES MCNEW: Accidentally? In 2015 — the Pro Tools/Avid corporation are constantly upgrading their software and finally upgraded it so the audio interface we’ve been using since 2003 was now obsolete. So we were forced to get a new piece of gear and I didn’t know how to use it. I would mic up things in our practice room and trick Ira and Georgia into playing. Luckily, I saved some of that stuff. One of those days turned into “She May, She Might” for sure. Eventually I got to the point where I could get work done. Then we did a pretty big movie soundtrack project around the end of 2016, was that when we finished that?
IRA KAPLAN: Yes. Wait. Did we finish it? I guess you’re right.
MCNEW: We were just coming in, working and recording in front of the computer every day for a couple of months. And then when we reconvened in the new year, we just kept going. Kept writing, but with no movie.
KAPLAN: I just wanted to amplify a little bit about the movie thing, that movie is called Far From The Tree and will be coming out in 2018. That is distinguished from the other film work we’ve done, in which the final film will actually include our music. [Laughs] In previous years, we’ve worked on a couple other movies and one thing led to another and our music ended up not being in the movie. But we had all this stuff that we recorded and pulled things out. Every record from Electr-O-Pura through Fade, the songwriting was us getting together jamming, the three of us would play, and something would eventually emerge, either a song or something we could build a song out of. But these things that James was recording of us, we’d just started getting into the habit of working with things that were already there. Which is why the question of when we started working on the record takes 15 minutes to answer, because we don’t know.
STEREOGUM: How old are the oldest remnants are on there?
MCNEW: Some of it’s almost as old as 2007. 2007? 2007.
STEREOGUM: What song would that be?
KAPLAN: You know, I would almost rather not… provide, you know, the carbon-dating.
STEREOGUM: I was just curious because both this record and Stuff Like That There are engaging with different eras of Yo La Tengo and filling in the gaps between things that were released already. As if you’ve been putting out your own version of Dylan’s Bootleg Series or something.
KAPLAN: I think in a way that’s why I don’t want to answer the question. Because in our mind, this is just something we used in 2017, not necessarily something that sounds old or “here’s a sketch of a song and now we’re gonna release it.” It doesn’t feel that way to us.
STEREOGUM: Was there that amnesia feeling to most of these tracks or there occasionally a moment like, “Oh, I remember that riff.”
KAPLAN: Well a lot of it’s also been completely changed. We’d take a song we were working on and grab a few seconds of it, loop it, put it backwards, treat it. Some of the sources would only be recognizable to us if we remembered where we got them from. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: It sounds like there are a couple traditional-sounding songs mixed in, like “Polynesia #1.”
KAPLAN: Well it’s funny, “Polynesia” is one of the differences, because we actually recorded that for something else and decided it fit. But everything else for a long time, had no clear idea of where we were going with it. Try an idea, now it sounds completely different, now we’ve changed it, why don’t we do both? Some of them veer off in two different directions.
STEREOGUM: James, you called the album an “accident.” Did you know you were making a proper album once you started messing with the new Pro Tools?
MCNEW: No. That was just… fun. I enjoy doing that, the technical stuff. I don’t know, I just liked coming in and doing it every day, I had a really great time. And then all of a sudden we had half a dozen things we were working on, and then I think we all silently realized, uh-oh, we’re making a record. But I think it took me a while to come to terms with that, because of the absence of like, a proper recording studio, a proper licensed engineer, board-certified producer… but once I did it became even more fun, because the pressure of that situation was gone. You’re in the studio watching the clock and knowing that you have to move out of the studio by a certain time and all the things you want to get done before you go home.
STEREOGUM: You guys have a lot of records where the title has a big-statement feel to it. Have you typically come up with the title during the process or is it more of an afterthought?
KAPLAN: They’re all different.
MCNEW: There’s definitely been records where we had a title before we ever started. We’d be on tour in a van in Europe in the ‘90s, touring for a record that had just come out, and Ira would just get in the van, “I think I have the perfect title [for the next one].” I remember that happening a couple of times.
STEREOGUM: Is that how I Am Not Afraid Of You and —
KAPLAN and MCNEW: [In unison] No.
STEREOGUM: Just seems like a van title.
MCNEW: [Laughs] That had a pretty good origin, but that was domestic. Not European.
KAPLAN: This one definitely spoke to the way we were feeling while we were working, and then once we came up with it, it helped us focus.
MCNEW: It definitely did.
KAPLAN: Every six weeks or so, we’d go “I’m still thinking that’s the title.”
STEREOGUM: Obviously everything in the world is politicized 10 billion times more than usual right now, so I wanted to know how the title There’s A Riot Going On relates to the music for you.
KAPLAN: To run away from your question as fast as possible, I think a lot of the things we do just feel right and don’t get articulated. The title is obviously so loaded, and I think it has this in common with other titles that we’ve had, is that it is evocative and hopefully it will encourage people to wonder why it’s called that. And we’re always extremely reluctant to speak too specifically about it because it stops that process from happening.
STEREOGUM: Of course, but it’s one of the most impressionistic records you’ve made, juxtaposed with one of the most direct titles.
KAPLAN: I will say that I know the title in our minds is a direct reflection of the record, it’s not meant ironically or humorously in any way unlike some of the other ones.
STEREOGUM: Do you guys think often about the functionality of the music you make? I bristle against this in streaming culture, where sometimes people judge music solely by its ability to fit into, say, workout playlists. But I sleep to music every night and that alone has given you a huge advantage over much of my record collection.
STEREOGUM: But I relate it to the title question because the tranquility of this music is something I “use” for calm and peace when everything else is fucked. When you’re crafting such a quiet, highly textured record, are you thinking about what people may be using it for?
KAPLAN: I think we mostly try, as best we can, to forget that anyone’s going to hear it.
MCNEW: Even more so this time, because it was really just the three of us locked in a room. There wasn’t even a fourth person there. Everything that I did was for Ira, Georgia, and myself. And I really enjoy listening to it. But I know what you mean. I do what you do; I don’t sleep to music, but I take solace in Black Flag or Company Flow when things are fucked as well.
KAPLAN: We have never gone “that’s a great name for a song, it will mean this, I will write these words.” Even the songs that happen through jamming, it’s still three people playing at the same time, so it’s a pretty hard thing to plan. One of the things we’ve learned over those years of doing that, is to let it take as long as it takes. We do have weaknesses, things we don’t do very well, but I do think we’re good listeners, that’s one thing I’m very proud of in all three of us.
STEREOGUM: What’s it been like to figure out how this will factor into your live set?
MCNEW: Exhausting. As soon as we’re done here we’re going back out to work on the answer to that question.
KAPLAN: We played three songs once each for the last Hanukkah shows, and the first time we practiced those songs is the first time they’d ever been played, even when we recorded it.
STEREOGUM: You guys have remade your own songs many times, do you see yourselves releasing a non-loops version of this record in some form?
KAPLAN: We’ll see… we’ll see. It is something that’s under discussion, but I will say that just because it’s something we do usually doesn’t mean we have to this time.
STEREOGUM: Will you bringing in any electronics to recapture it live?
KAPLAN: Oh yeah, we have amplifiers, pedals… [Laughs]
MCNEW: We haven’t gotten too crazy. We’re taking small steps. It’s almost more fun to repurpose the gear you already have to do things that maybe it’s not supposed to do. Use it incorrectly or make it try to make a sound that it doesn’t normally, against its will. We’re open to augmenting the way we normally do the music live.
STEREOGUM: Do you remember feeling like you were putting together a puzzle like this with your any of your other records?
MCNEW: Almost all of them! Was Fade the first record where we played every song live at some point?
KAPLAN: I think we’d done it with …And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out too, not right away but eventually.
MCNEW: Fade, there were less of them so it had the advantage mathematically.
STEREOGUM: What do you think about when you’re tinkering with songs from your catalog that are already in stone, so to speak?
KAPLAN: For one thing, we try to treat them like they’re not in stone.
MCNEW: Nothing’s done! Anything could happen. My experience in the process of making a record is listening to the songs a million times and getting them exactly to the spot where it feels right, and then life goes on. You learn how to play the songs, you start to play the songs, and then they start to change again.
STEREOGUM: Have you ever remade anything just because you were unhappy with the original?
MCNEW: I think so. I can think of times where we just liked one idea, gutted a song except for one element, made a new song out of it, and then removed that element because it no longer fit. But we have like four new songs created out of it.
KAPLAN: I remembered vividly that we were recording Electr-O-Pura and had a song, recorded the track, and as is typically the case, I had to write words for it. And at some point I said, “I think I kind of hate this song and we should just throw it away.” And I have a feeling it was Roger who kept saying “no, the tracks’ really good, stick with it!” So, OK, I’ll stick with it. Then I wrote words for it, and I was like, “No, sorry, I can’t with this song.” And then we arranged some studio time near the end to record some cover songs and we’d be doing them live, and Roger said, “Why don’t you play the song? You’ve got lyrics, just play it.” And in the moment we did four takes of it. We ended up releasing two of them; one’s on the record and one was a b-side or something. And on that one you can hear James and I talking about how we arranged that one, we completely rearranged it on the fly.
I feel like the version we did of “All Your Secrets” on Stuff Like That There… I just never felt we were successfully able to play that live until then. That song kind of went away, and then when we started playing with Dave, we were like, “I like this song! Why don’t we do this one?”
STEREOGUM: I much prefer that version to the original on Popular Songs.
KAPLAN: We may have had the sense more intuitively to take another crack at this one.
STEREOGUM: I don’t get the impression you let outsiders’ opinions of your music affect what you’re going to do next.
KAPLAN: We’re fond of being liked. [Laughs] We’re not against it. I think it’s just self-protective in some ways. If you’re at the mercy of what other people think, you’ve just given up control. I mean, it is something we’ve talked about, we’re conscious of that.
STEREOGUM: Obviously lots of great records have been made under horrible duress and compromise, but it never seems like the artists are the same afterwards, it always seems like there’s some kind of trauma.
KAPLAN: I think all of us to a certain extent, probably me the most, love the old records that were made in New York, the girl group records that were just kind of writing in a cubicle. If the song’s a hit, it was a great song, if the song flops, it was a terrible song. [Laughs] But people making those songs felt if the song wasn’t a hit, that they’d blown it. And I’m glad they made those records those ways. Us making a record like that, I don’t think we’d have lasted as long.
MCNEW: I remember that Pitchfork Festival set we did…
STEREOGUM: This was 2006, when you did the whole new album? I was there for that.
MCNEW: That one where we just did the new record… I didn’t know that was going to be so controversial. It seemed like a no-brainer to me.
KAPLAN: Those songs were the ones we’d been working on, and originally we were gonna do some of them. At a certain point we thought, “What if we just did nine new ones and two old ones,” but then we thought, we’ve never done anything like that, and we never have since then. It was what we wanted to do, so rather than… it’s one thing if you want to do half and half or something. But it seemed like it would be more exciting.
STEREOGUM: Were people really mean about it?
KAPLAN: We got a really, really, really angry email about it. Not just angry but insulting. So I wrote back without signing it, “You must be kidding!” And he wrote back, “Not so much!” And then he wrote back again, in much more measured ways what had bummed him out about the show. So I wrote back saying, this is what we were thinking and he was nice about it. I hope he shared it with all his friends.
STEREOGUM: My memory of that Pitchfork Festival was, that was my first time seeing you guys, so I should have been super angry…
STEREOGUM: I don’t think the I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass record was out yet.
STEREOGUM: But it had leaked, so I knew the songs, and they were great, so I was privately really enjoying it. People around me maybe not so much.
KAPLAN: I can say for sure we did not do it to be obnoxious. We thought it would be exciting. I think it started with the two long songs we wanted to open and close with and by then it was half the set…
STEREOGUM: It’s funny because I Am Not Afraid Of You is uncharacteristically upbeat and rocking and does lend itself to a festival atmosphere I think. I didn’t get to see you guys act out an episode of Seinfeld, though.
KAPLAN: Only one audience did. There too, we did not do it to be obnoxious.
MCNEW: It just turned out that way. [Laughs] Chicago, tough town.
KAPLAN: My hope is that even the people who were complaining, were enjoying complaining as much as they ever could have enjoyed us. Those shows, we had the spinning wheel for the first set, so when we did the Seinfeld thing, the second set was practically a festival greatest hits… “You’ve put up with a lot.”
STEREOGUM: It feels weirder to me to imagine you guys putting together a greatest hits second set than to do the Seinfeld thing. Thanks for chatting, though, I think I like the new record a lot but I’m still figuring it out.
There’s A Riot Going On tracklist:
01 “You Are Here”
02 “Shades Of Blue”
03 “She May, She Might”
04 “For You Too”
06 “Polynesia #1″
07 “Dream Dream Away”
09 “Above The Sound”
10 “Let’s Do It Wrong”
11 “What Chance Have I Got
12 “Esportes Casual”
14 “Out Of The Pool”
15 “Here You Are”
There’s A Riot Going On is out 3/16 on Matador.