How has Yo La Tengo stayed on top of its game for nearly a quarter-century?

Marriage, progress and communication.

"I hate the interview process. The whole thing," says Yo La Tengo guitarist and co-founder Ira Kaplan. "But I'd be happy to talk about some movies I have seen."

Sounding more amused than annoyed, Kaplan is keenly aware of the clichés and repetition inherent in most interviews — maybe because he's a former rock journalist himself.

"People want some kind of shortcut to your music," he says. "Listening to the records might just give them the answer they are looking for."

Yo La Tengo: "Everything we do is a combination of intent and lack of intent."
Michael Lavine
Yo La Tengo: "Everything we do is a combination of intent and lack of intent."

Kaplan and his wife, Georgia, formed Yo La Tengo in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1984. During the past two-plus decades, the couple (along with bassist James McNew) has become known for its invigorating and challenging music, with last year's impressive I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass another YLT album that melds the anglophile pop of early Kinks with the feedback furor of Sonic Youth.

I Am Not Afraid is somewhat of a departure, in that it lacks the subdued tone of the band's previous two proper full-lengths, 2000's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out and 2003's Summer Sun. Diverse may actually be too mild of an adjective; the disc jumps schizophrenically from the ten-minute guitar assault "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" to the bouncy-pop of the first single, "Beanbag Chair."

"We knew we weren't releasing the third part of a trilogy," Kaplan says. "This one jumps around more than things previous because we just wanted a different-sounding record." But most Yo La Tengo releases could be considered different-sounding — and that's part of the charm that has kept the band going into its third decade. Credit the rest of this longevity to the trio's tremendous musical interaction. Kaplan's guitar work, while not always technically impressive, is consistently rich in tone and innovation. His shadings meld beautifully with Georgia's understated drumming, suggesting almost clairvoyant communication between spouses.

"My wife and I have grown into our ability to play," Kaplan says. "We are just people who've played together a long time."

The sonic symbiosis between Ira and Georgia is more than simple familiarity, though. They weave autobiographical elements into each release: stories of how they met, how their courtship progressed and how playing together solidified their bond. Quite often alternating vocals on successive cuts, the songs can often be different interpretations of the same event, recollections of times both good and bad. On the epic-length "Night Falls on Hoboken," from And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, one can hear the couple whisper the history of their well-earned rapport.

"The group would simply not be the same without the relationship I have with my wife," says Kaplan. "We certainly enjoy what we're doing more and more." He continues modestly: "I'm not dumb enough to tell you that we are getting better and better. But if more people are paying attention, that is great with me."

Indeed, Yo La Tengo is perhaps better known now than at any other point in its lengthy career, thanks to a few film appearances and some high-profile collaborations with Yoko Ono and Will Oldham. But the group is described as the quintessential critic's band — which makes Kaplan uncomfortable. "We live in the Wikipedia world of knowledge. These descriptions have a life of their own." Even the band's name — Spanish for "I've got it," inspired by shouts from a Venezuelan baseball player — has become fodder for journalists and Internet chatters.

"You know, my computer does come with Google," an obviously irritated Kaplan says. "I think other computers come with that as well."

Yet the band's consistency — beginning with President Yo La Tengo in 1989, the band hasn't released a bad record; 1995's Electr-O-Puraand 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One are bona-fide classics, featuring feedback and distortion retrofitted to beautiful melodies and recurring themes of affection and loss — earns Yo La Tengo the dubious label of "beloved institution of the indie community." Kaplan isn't positive that's entirely a good thing.

"Being an indie band comes with its own sort of pressures," Kaplan says. "I have no problem with the word 'independent,' but 'indie' is kind of a skin-crawler." Yet he's equally suspicious of mass success: "We are all devoted watchers of Valley of the Dolls and A Star is Born, and we know that having your dreams come true is not all it's cracked up to be."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kaplan also isn't enjoying the current state of popular music. As a former journalist who's lived through the punk, post-punk and grunge movements, he has an interesting vantage point on musical trends and developments. And while he does see a glimmer of hope in a few contemporary acts — the Boredoms and OOIOO in particular — he's currently listening to old rhythm and blues records and searching out collectables on eBay.

"There has been no moment in my life that I've paid less attention to current bands than right now," Kaplan says. "I mean, that might be a function of age, and it is natural to gravitate to what you were listening to at certain moments in your life."

At the moment he's focused on finishing up this current tour and getting back in the studio — and content in the knowledge that he's certain only in his own band.

"Everything we do is a combination of intent and lack of intent," he says. "And as far as other people's music, I'm not sure I can be trusted."

 
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