Musicscan: What makes for a good live show?
Yo La Tengo: If there is some kind of flow. Our shows always seem to go up and down in terms of fast song, loud song, old songs, new songs. On the nights when it feels like everything just kind of flows logically and organically from one to the other that feels really good. The audience response is certainly important. It feels good when the crowd is with us: being quiet when we are quiet and loud when we are loud. At the end of the night, we’ll generally have people shout out songs and play them. We ask what they want to hear. There are some nights when the requests are just so interesting.
Musicscan: What do you hope people to take away from a show?
Yo La Tengo: I am not sure I have an answer to that. I am comfortable with people being casually interested in us. If they just had a good time without getting too deep into who we are, that is fine with me.
Musicscan: Is the audience response any different in Europe compared to the States?
Yo La Tengo: Well, it is different within Europe. It’s different in Holland, Germany, Italy, Spain or France. It is a common question, but it is an inaccurate perception that Europe is monolithic. Frankly, it is a perception that we have, too, but it is wrong.
Musicscan: Is there something specific about a German audience?
Yo La Tengo: Some of the smoking is really intense here. In the States it is practically illegal to smoke indoors at this point and we have gotten very used to it. We play a long show and it really makes a negative difference having an intensely smoke filled room. All three of us are non-smokers, but our crew has two people who smoke and even they would prefer if it would be illegal. People are first thinking about the imposition, but then it is kind of nice not to sit in a room full of smoke. You can go outside and smoke and then come back.
Musicscan: You have been involved with music for such a long time now. Has your relationship to music changed over the years?
Yo La Tengo: Yes, it has. Without a doubt, I am not the committed listener that I was when I was younger. The thought of not having music playing at any time when I was young was just not conceivable. Being obsessed with it 24 hours a day is no longer the case. I listen to music all the time, but in a much more casual way than I did then. Being it my profession probably affects the way I look at current music as well. I think it is not a coincidence that the music I listen to is overwhelmingly old. I listen to music by my friends or old music. I am not very up-top-date on current groups at all.
Musicscan: How do you think about your own music now? Has that changed as well? How do you keep it fresh for yourself after over 20 years?
Yo La Tengo: There are still challenges. That hasn’t changed. The consistent thing is to try to meet the challenges. When we formed – and this is not even an exaggeration – we were reluctant to sing and I was the rhythm guitar player of the band and just opening my mouth and singing was the challenge at the time. These are no longer the challenges, but they have been replaced by other ones and I think this current record has things on it that we never attempted before. It is not like we are actively thinking about it, but these things occur to us and a lot of them are accompanied by doubt and then you just try to blast through the doubt.
Musicscan: What is the songwriting process like for you guys? Is there one major songwriter or does everyone contribute equally?
Yo La Tengo: We basically do it together. We go to practice and ultimately just start playing and that is where the songs originate. Some songs can even be finished before we stop playing and things just fall into place. Other times we will emerge with something that we want to work on and that we want to try. Things will take shape either quickly or slowly and the lyrics are always the last thing that we do. For the most part, the person who is singing has written the lyrics. On this record it has been like that entirely. There have been exceptions over the years.
Musicscan: Is there a lot of arguing during that process?
Yo La Tengo: There can be. It is emotional. You are also very vulnerable when you are pushing yourself and you are trying something that you don’t feel up to. It is also a very common experience when I play something that I know isn’t very good, but you try it out anyway. But if someone tells you it wasn’t good, you are like “I know it wasn’t good.” That will happen. But you hear about bands that thrive on the disagreements and the fact that they hate each other is what drives them. That is not true with us. I think we will have disagreements, but it is not the meat of our creative process.
Musicscan: Did you have certain aesthetic goals when you started the band?
Yo La Tengo: I don’t think we did and if we did, I think we got rid of them. I think we have never really defined what we wanted to be doing other than just to be good and leave it as vague as possible. In an attempt to be vague we once told somebody from a record company that we are a guitar band and as the years went by even that turned out to be too specific, because half the songs on this record are built around the piano. Not only don’t we have an answer to that and I don’t think we want one. If we found we had one, we would run from it.
Musicscan: Do you think there is something like the perfect song?
Yo La Tengo: A perfect song is probably more in the ear of the listener. There are moments that seem just perfect, but it doesn’t seem like part of the process of doing music. It seems more like a process of listening to it.
Musicscan: Is perfection something you care about when you write?
Yo La Tengo: I will say probably not. Technically I am not particularly good at anything I do. I feel like it is much more emotional than it is technical and perfection in a certain sense sounds like a technical term.
Musicscan: Well, let’s put it a different way. Do you have a very specific idea about how things should sound when you go about writing something?
Yo La Tengo: No, I think we completely let it take shape.
Musicscan: What are the advantages of working like?
Yo La Tengo: I don’t know if at any point you were planning to talk about film stuff, since we have done a lot of film stuff in the last couple of years and with film work you do have a concept and it does make it very different. There is a certain mood that you are trying to achieve and the director is giving you an assignment and sometimes it can be as vague as the mood and other times it can be like “I want a jazz song with the saxophone playing the lead.” One thing we like about doing film work is that it is so different from the way we approach making our own records. It gives us a chance to work in a different vein.
Musicscan: Is it necessary to create a certain distance between you and the music in order to get a better understanding of its inherent quality?
Yo La Tengo: It may not be possible, but that is one of the advantages of the group. When we find that we have come to an agreement, I am pretty satisfied.
Musicscan: When do you know when to stop? When is a song finished?
Yo La Tengo: A lot of the time there are deadlines. I was reading about “Tusk” and how it was made and it just seemed like the most decadent process and as you go back working as a musician it doesn’t seem as impossible as it once did. I could probably spend a million dollars given the opportunity. We have longer deadlines as we used to but we still work according to a schedule. It is a very common experience that we finish something and be convinced that it is a disaster. It is like the act of working so intensely at something and then stopping is almost like whiplash. Our producer usually suggests that we go home and then listen to it a couple of days later so we can get a better perspective on it.
Musicscan: Do you think there are still genuinely new sounds to be discovered or can modern music basically be said to be a recombination of already existing forms and elements within postmodern concepts of collage, pastiche or bricolage?
Yo La Tengo: I have never worried about that. To me it is much more about emotions and how to express them and how to achieve them. I think there is the desire to try to do things that you have never done before. I think it comes down to doing what feels right at the moment. Trusting what feels comfortable to you, maybe that is for a reason that you feel comfortable about it because you are good at it. But this is barely answering your question, because this is barely the way we think. A lot of what is out there seems like concepts these days, though. It seems like there is a format which can short-circuit the chance to do something different. If you listen to an old blues record, every song may be exactly the same, but each song is brand new.
Musicscan: Do you think there is a subversive potential in sound itself or is that just attributed through discourse?
Yo La Tengo: I would probably go with the latter. Today I was reading the book John Boyd wrote about his life in music in the 60s and among the chapters I was reading was a chapter about Bob Dylan at Newport. If you go see an avant-garde jazz show and the come out and play a program of Duke Ellington pieces that would be as shocking as the music that they made was supposed to be. So I don’t think it is necessarily inherent in what you are playing.
Musicscan: Is pop music always already global these days or do you think that there are always local specificities that mark and distinguish certain regional and cultural aspects?
Yo La Tengo: It obviously more global than it was and it is probably going to continue to push in that direction. There were times when hit records in the US were different from city to city. That has certainly changed, but it certainly continues to push in that direction.
Musicscan: Do you think that the form of music is different because it is so widely available now?
Yo La Tengo: I think it always just evolves and there are pluses and minuses to everything. There are obvious advantages to the accessibility you have just described, but things can come a little too easily sometimes, too. The aspect of having to work to find new music has been more of an investment than is required right now. Of course, it is always easy to say that what you grew up with was better and everything that comes after is not as good.
Musicscan: Does art have responsibilities?
Yo La Tengo: That sounds like a bad idea. I don’t think that art goes hand in hand with rules.