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James McNew Of Indie Icons Yo La Tengo On The Art Of Playing Other People’s Songs

Yo La Tengo (left to right): Dave Schramm, James McNew, Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan. (Courtesy)
Yo La Tengo (left to right): Dave Schramm, James McNew, Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan. (Courtesy)
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These days, when an artist does a covers album, it’s an event. From Bruce Springsteen’s 2006 tribute to Pete Seeger on “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” to Ryan Adams’s recent “Nebraska”-esque reimagining of Taylor Swift’s platinum-selling “1989,” an album of cover songs is generally regarded as a statement: at the very least, a novelty, and at the very worst, a gimmick. (The jury still seems to be out regarding Adams’ “1989.”)

But over the course of a 30-year career, indie rock icons Yo La Tengo have made covers an enduring part of their expansive and experimental repertoire. And why not? For centuries classical musicians have elevated interpretation of another’s work to the highest art. The folk song long predated the concept album. And we’ll never stop singing “Happy Birthday,” whether it’s in the public domain or not.

Yo La Tengo’s latest, “Stuff Like That There,” arrives on the 25th anniversary of the Hoboken band’s beloved “Fakebook,” an album of mostly covers whose title nodded winkingly to the volumes of jazz and pop standards which were a staple among mid-century American musicians. Like “Fakebook,” “Stuff Like That There” is an eclectic, folk-tinged mix of covers, from The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love” to Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to a shuffling rendition of Yo La Tengo’s own meandering electric jam “The Ballad of Red Buckets” from their 1995 album “Electr-o-pura.” “Stuff Like That There” sees the band’s core trio of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew reunited with “Fakebook” guitarist Dave Schramm. Lurking within this self-referential hall of mirrors are two new original songs, whose scarcity imbue them with the novelty of, well, covers.

In anticipation of Yo La Tengo’s visit to the Wilbur Theatre in Boston on Oct. 3, I spoke with bassist James McNew about Boston, covers and longevity. The following excerpts have been lightly edited for clarity.

I was reading this interview with Rolling Stone, where you were going through all your songs, and someone, I think Ira, mentioned having played at the Middle East in Cambridge.

I wondered if you have any memories of playing here that stand out that you could share.

Oh my God. Sheesh. Yeah, of course. Yo La Tengo’s been playing in Boston since their second or third gig. From way, way back, and long before I joined the group. But good Lord, I don’t even know where to begin. I distinctly remember playing at T.T. the Bear’s in maybe 1991 or ‘92, and I’m pretty sure we opened the show with a cover of a more obscure Boston punk, or new wave, band called The Girls. They have a song called “Cubist Grid,” and I’m pretty sure we opened with that. Just as a nod for the three or four people who were in the audience who might have known what that song was, and of course to ourselves, because we love that song. And I don’t even remember, I’m not even sure we ever did it again.

There’s just—wow. There’s so many. We’ve played there so many times, it’s so hard to delineate all the times. Gosh. .... We worked kind of by telephone, we never got a chance to meet, with a string arranger named Richard Evans, who taught at Berklee for many years. And Richard did some work on our album, “Popular Songs,” he did the string arrangements on a few of those songs. And even though Richard was from Chicago I have a very strong association with him and Boston and talking to him on the phone and always trying to meet up. Our schedules never really permitted us to, we never met in person, but we talked on the phone a ton of times. But then Richard passed away about a year ago, and I think of him often, when I think about Boston, especially these days. We have lots of very dear friends there and very strong relationships, so it’s a special place for us.

Yo La Tengo has been together 30 years. What does that feel like?

I don’t know, I don’t have anything to compare it to. It feels great. It’s like saying we’ve been alive for 30 years. It’s just sort of—it’s my life. And it feels awesome. I wish I had a better, more eloquent way to describe it. It’s certainly not that I take it for granted, but I also kind of don’t question it, and I don’t really think about it. Much like breathing, or being alive.

I don’t know if you’ve listened to “Fakebook” recently, but what was it like going back to that and revisiting your old stuff?

I don’t think it’s ever been that far away from us. I think that we are always able to switch into that style and switch into that feeling. Even at concerts where we’re playing electric instruments as loud as possible, we can still switch gears and play that way and have those songs pretty close to us. I do think that the sound, the tone of “Stuff Like That There” is similar to “Fakebook,” but it has little, subtle shifts away from it.

How have your own tastes changed, and are those reflected in the band as well?

I feel like they have to be, somehow. I mean it all goes in to your head, and I’m sure it comes out somehow, whether it’s obvious, or years down the line you realize—that’s happened to me, where it’s like, “Ooh, I know where that idea for that bass line came from. Uh oh. And I better not tell that person that I cribbed that bass line out of his record. So I won’t mention that.” I definitely think so. But it’s more appealing, I think, to not know, and have it be more unconscious. I think we have a tendency where, if we recognize it right away, we’ll turn away from it.

What about the choices you made for this album, the songs you picked. How did that process work for you guys?

Some of them we’ve been playing for years. At least one of them predates my time in the group. I’m pretty sure “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” was being played before I joined up [in 1992]. And several of them we’ve been playing for years. And then a few we learned just for this record. “Automatic Doom” was definitely one of those, and “I Can Feel the Ice Melting.” ... But I think the songs just kind of come from what we like and what we like to listen to. And in our minds, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Automatic Doom” are both classic songs. It’s all relative, I guess.

I did an interview where somebody asked about “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and talked about, how could you do something that’s so popular and so important to so many people. And I thought, well, I appreciate that it is, but I think in my lifetime I’ve listened to Black Flag more than I ever listened to Hank Williams. And so, you know, I understand that it’s a song that a lot of people know, but I don’t really. I live in New York City, but it’s not like I go to the Empire State Building every day. You can be a tourist in your own hometown if you want to.

And I think that comes through in that song. I’ve heard that song covered a lot, it is very popular. But your take on it is definitely different. ... It seems like you’re returning to this theme of unconsciousness. Like, there isn’t a ton of intention in the way you approach things always. I wondered if that’s part of your process for arrangement. Do you go by feeling?

Yeah, definitely. I think we want it to feel and sound like us. And we’ve done many, many cover songs in our career. And we done them in different styles: as closely as possible to the original style and original versions and sounds, and sometimes we’ll just obliterate them intentionally. I think you can express yourself in kind of a powerful way through interpretation, and to show another side of someone else’s songs, and show another side of yourself at the same time.

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