Inquiring Minds: A Lengthy Chat With Yo La Tengo Bassist James McNew

[Ed. Note: Nicholas L. Hall asked Rocks Off if we wouldn't mind publishing the entire transcript of his recent interview with Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew, the raw material of this week's print music feature. We're only too happy to oblige.]

yo la tengo - jesper eklow.JPG
Jesper Eklow
Rocks Off: When last I spoke with your publicist, she said you guys were over in Japan. Where are you right now?

James McNew: Oh, we're back home now.

RO: Back in Hoboken, then?

JM: Uh, more or less. I live in Brooklyn, actually, but we can almost see each-other's places from our windows. Almost.

RO: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

JM: It's kind of a good thing. I think bands for the most part should live close to each other.

RO: OK, before we get started, I'm going to go ahead and get this out of the way. I'm sure this is at least vaguely unprofessional, but I'm going to go ahead and geek out a bit for you. I'm really excited to talk to you because I've been a huge fan of the band for, well, basically as long as I've been intentionally listening to music. You guys were actually hugely influential in getting me interested in listening to music in the first place. So...

JM: (laughs) Wow. That's really sweet of you, thanks.

RO: So, now that I've thrown that out there...

JM: (laughs) Now it's time for me to shatter that illusion. Let's go for it.

RO: Exactly. OK. Over the course of your career, you've explored a dizzying array of styles and genres and approaches to making music, often in the course of a single album, but somehow your music always manages to feel like nothing other than, and be instantly recognizable as Yo La Tengo. How do you do that?

JM: Well, uh, I don't know. It's kinda weird to try to describe because I don't think we think about it too much. I think as far as style, as far as different styles are concerned, I think that's just kind of the way we think and the way we listen to music. We're huge fans of all different kinds of music. Lord knows we can't completely imitate much of it, but we love it, and I'm sure that everything that goes into our brains comes out somehow in the way that we play and write. I don't know.

Maybe playing a lot of cover songs has something to do with it. It gives you this sort of inroad into playing in a style that maybe you wouldn't ordinarily, and then that knowledge just kind of stays with you. It's hard to say, but I don't know. As far as it sounding like us, I don't think I know the answer to that, either. I think we just know it, and when something feels right to us, we just kind of follow it, we don't really question it.

RO: Do you know the phenomenon I mean, though? Does that question make sense? Have you ever listened to a band who's trying to branch out into new territory, or trying a new sound, and you think, "This just doesn't sound like them; this just doesn't work," and then you listen to a different band, and, the example I always think of, the big obvious example, is The Beatles, who were all over the map all the time.

JM: Yeah.

RO: But it always sounded like them.

JM: That's true and, you know, sure. If you're going to go ahead and compare us to the Beatles, that's fine. I won't, you know, try and stop you. I don't know, kind of along those similar Godhead lines, I always thought that about the Velvet Underground, you know. They have like, insane, 20 minute long screeching noise jams, and then they had their third record, and it's kind of like they were a band that could do anything, and yet always sound like themselves, whether it was really sweet, or really abrasive and frightening.

Then, you know, there were those live recordings that got released, I don't know, ten years ago. That really amazing three-CD box set, and that just added another dimension. They were this amazing live band, too, and the songs were different again. There were new dynamics, and you know, I think that that's the height, to be able to be that versatile, and still be themselves. It's totally amazing to behold, and I'm just in awe of that.

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