From 'Upside Down' To Inside Out

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Going into my interview with James McNew, who plays bass in one of the best bands in the whole world, I felt the need to establish that I was no elitist, ultra-detached rock writer but a living, breathing, blathering Yo La Tengo fan, someone who spends absurd amounts of money on import singles and owns all of the band's albums on CD and vinyl.

I planned on telling James that he was by far the coolest person I'd ever gotten the chance to talk with in all my days as a rock critic, but then I remembered meeting Ice-T at the Warped Tour this summer. Dang. That was right out. I thought naming him the second most famous person I'd ever talked to might be good, but then I got into a long internal debate about whether Bill Maher or my congressman might possibly be more famous than Yo La Tengo's bassist.

Ultimately, I gave up and figured I'd try and sneak an arcane reference to some fanzine interview McNew'd done years ago in the hopes that he would recognize my scenester cool and be impressed by how casually I display it. Like most of my interviews, nothing went according to plan - we spent most of the time chatting about "Simpsons" episodes and record shopping, and my snarky ‘zine reference was forgotten. But whatever. James is in Yo La Tengo, their new record is called And Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, and it will make us both happy if you'd buy it.

James McNew's role in Yo La Tengo, the band founded in the mid-'80s by guitarist/singer Ira Kaplan and drummer/singer Georgia Hubley, has evolved greatly since he first joined up for May I Sing With Me in 1992. "When I first signed on," James recalls, "it really was as a temp for a short tour of America and a short tour of Europe. Eventually I learned all of the old songs...and there was nothing else to do except write new ones."

James' involvement in the band's creative process grew gradually through the course of recording the next few full-lengths. "Electr-O-Pura was the first record where there were no songs left over from the last record. Also, around that time we did our first recordings with Jad Fair [eventually released by Matador in 1998 under the title Strange But True] where we had to go in and make up 30 things." McNew's steady presence in the band (who prior to his addition had seen a dozen or so different bassists pass through) eventually changed the whole way Yo La Tengo creates music.

Rather than Kaplan or Hubley coming in with completed songs, the band now comes up with all of its music as a group. "We play probably five times a week," James says, "and frequently, there's nothing to do so we'll just go off and ‘jam.' You could call it ‘improvisation,' but that sounds too fancy." Eventually, these bits get pared down into discrete songs - a one-hour jam eventually becomes distilled into a four-minute pop gem like "Tom Courtenay."

McNew admits to sometimes being puzzled by the questions of overly analytical critics. He doesn't have quite the music theory background some interviewers assume he does, and he often finds himself out of his element in responding to queries about key changes or compound time signatures. "It's like that episode of ‘The Simpsons' where Bart wins the elephant," he analogizes. "All of these, you know, elephant collectors come to look at it and they're asking all of these technical questions and Homer just keeps saying, ‘He likes peanuts.'"

James has led the prototypical indie rock life - he's published a zine, played as a temp, and has done the side project thing. Like me, he is former record store employee, and remembers fondly his days of counter jockeying in Providence, Rhode Island with drummer Ric Menck, who James describes as a veritable fountain of rock knowledge. "If we were going to have a long shift together, I would just wait until he put something on and then say ‘You like this record?' and that would be pretty much it."

McNew conducts an ongoing dialogue with his record collection in the form of Dump, a home-recorded alter ego who has released a succession of great covers, from Dylan's "Wanted Man" to the Go-Between's "Dive For Your Memory." The "band," comprised of James and his four-track, has piled up quite a few EPs, split singles, and even full-length CDs over the past few years. James claims to be "continually shocked" that anyone is willing to release his home recordings, but with a growing collection of fine originals (some of which have been covered, in hi-fi, by current tourmates Lambchop), it's no surprise that Dump are on his/their way up.

On their current tour, Yo La Tengo's core trio is doing something new - they're bringing in some outside help. Superchunk's Mac McCaughan and the Clean's David Kilgour will be augmenting Hubley, Kaplan, and McNew to provide additional instrumental flourishes. "It's something we always think about after every record," James says. In the studio, Yo La Tengo overdubs liberally, but McNew claims about "nine out of ten" of their older songs can be done credibly live as a trio.

The material on And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, however, calls for the presence of additional musicians. "The new batch of songs really lends itself to doing that...and we'll have a few older songs that we've never played in concert before, the one of out of ten that we couldn't do."

Our discussion gets sidetracked into "Simpsons" trivia for a bit, which I manage to tie back into something resembling usable interview fodder by commenting on the battle the show's writers have gotten into with hardcore fans on the Internet. James acknowledges that "you have to keep up" with the advances of technology. "Your Internet, it's like punk rock shows, almost. You can walk right up to the band and have a conversation. You can't do that with Three Dog Night." But the web's role in giving everyone with a computer their own bully pulpit isn't necessarily a good thing. "Everyone's entitled to their opinion," McNews says, "but some of them are loony!"

It remains to be seen what the Internet's indie rock community will think about the new Yo La Tengo record. I doubt it will have much of an effect either way - the band is too confident and too experienced to let any criticism stand in their way. And their bassist knows a lot about "The Simpsons." I cannot overemphasize how valuable that can be.


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