Is Yo La Tengo The Greatest Indie Rock Band Of All Time?

In the mid ‘80s a young rock journalist named Ira Kaplan and his wife Georgia Hubley started a rock band. Their band, Yo La Tengo, was named after a Spanish baseballer’s lingo for “I’ve got it.” Their name has always been as accessibly irreverent as their music. Growing up in the late ‘70s early ‘80s the band’s influences included everyone from Love to the Velvet Underground. Punk music had come and gone and a different kind of American independent music scene had just begun. Enough time had passed that bands could now comfortably start to explore what had come before them with a sense of nostalgia and admiration, but not enough time had passed for it to not seem a bit ironic. But that is exactly what independent music has always been about: evolving the recent past while at the same time creating just enough original nuances to inform the future. But implicit in this pact is that only one of two outcomes were inevitable: mainstream success which involved alienating core fans by creating easier to swallow and broader reaching songs, or eventually fading into an adulthood that didn’t involve touring in vans and playing college towns. For twenty-eight years now Yo La Tengo has managed to live somewhere in the middle. Like their hometown of Hoboken, NJ just across the river from Manhattan, they seem most comfortable just one deviation from the center.

Twenty-seven years have passed since the debut Yo La Tengo album, “Ride The Tiger.” It was a fairly straightforward collection of jangly guitar sounds cut from the same cloth as the early REM and Feelies efforts. But as their career would progress, Yo La Tengo would evolve ever so slightly with every record. Much like trying to watch sap run down a tree, it would take a time lapse camera over a very long period of time to see fully the shape of the path it would take. Although most great bands manage to build gradually on their sound, very few of them have the patience and fortitude to see it play out over such a long period. Radiohead, The Flaming Lips and Spoon have all adapted to the times by embracing, to varying degrees, electronica and keyboards, but none quite so subtly as Yo La Tengo.  Bands like Pavement, The Verve, and others would break up before being forced to confront the golden age of MP3’s and EDM. Perhaps much of this has to do with the fact that Ira and Georgia are married, and that their life together has presumably been spent making art. This is what they do, and they do it together. Having bypassed parenting for art, I’d imagine that this is what they will always do. Only Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth hold a candle to the idea that domestic life and art can coexist over such a long period of time. But sadly, as Sonic Youth wound down as a band, so did their marriage. Or perhaps it was the other way around.

After a handful of mostly guitar rock and acoustic cover albums between 1987 and 1992, the band was signed to the venerable Matador label and effectively transformed into the band that exists today. It was the first record with multi-instrumentalist James McNew and the first to showcase, in a very real way, keyboards. If the band’s music had been largely considered “college” music before, the new Yo La Tengo elevated the band to something far bigger, more important, and original with 1993’s “Painful”. “Indie rock” has long been dominated by smart, college-educated hipsters who often write about the world as seen through the lens of the suburban malaise of their childhoods. The Pixies, Arcade Fire, Liz Phair and others translated this shared experience into song with both an irony and passion that their largely college audience could relate to. In some cases these bands punched through to the mainstream, but in most cases the bands had their moment in the sun, and then eventually went back to graduate school or got real jobs, leaving a small legacy of time boxed records representing a specific time and place. But with “Painful” Yo La Tengo seemed to have committed to a project with infinite possibility. There were long loud dreamy anthems filled with raucous guitars and keyboards alternating with gentle ballads where the band created something as pristine and fragile as anything.

This new Yo La Tengo has just turned twenty this year. They have been incredibly consistent releasing a proper new album every two or three years – still on Matador, and a smattering of side projects that also help define just how serious and relentlessly creative the band’s ambitions have become. Albums like 1997’s “I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One” and 2006’s “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass” are two of the band’s best and most consistent records, and highlight how ambitious they had become. These albums were filled with elements of raucous walls of guitar and keyboards turning a dime into quiet folk.

But as much as their studio efforts were meticulous and unhinged, to have watched the band evolve as a live band is almost just as curious. Most bands don’t play long enough together to really master their instruments and the abilities and constraints of the individual musicians in the band, but 10,000 hours into it Yo La Tengo has crafted something truly unique on stage. As evidenced by a recent two night residence at the Fillmore in San Francisco, the band played two sets: the first set was a mesmerizingly patient acoustic experiment in minimalistic grooves, and a loud groove-based transcendent series of Ira Kaplan guitar freakouts, Georgia Hubley drum driven crescendos and James McNew’s steady plodding bass lines. As with any Yo La Tengo show, all songs start innocently enough before erupting into a wall of sound. The band is as much about tempo as it is about maintaining a single thread of melody throughout. The band also routinely switches instruments. You will always see every band play drums, guitars and keys, and each member tends to sing at least a handful of songs during a show. In an age of non-hierarchical progressivism, Yo La Tengo could be seen as organizational anachronists.

In 1996, the band performed as stand ins for the Velvet Underground in the film “I Shot Andy Warhol”, which they made look easy having covered countless of their songs over the years. Between 2000 and 2010 they scored an underwater sea documentary called “The Sounds of Science”, and indie films such as “Junebug” and “Old Joy”. On top of this they wrote the score and performed during a live narrated documentary of R. Buckminster Fuller.

Yo La Tengo are truly professional artists, nowhere near the end of the line, and has made it work. In an era where downloads trump CD sales, subscriptions are rapidly eclipsing downloads, live music and festivals seem alive and well, and there is nothing more satisfying than knowing that bands like Yo La Tengo can still make a comfortable living making the kind of music it has made for three decades now. Being a professional musician has never been easy, not then and not now, but at least an artist can truly reach a global audience. They can book their own tours, record and distribute their own music, license their own music and sell their merchandise directly. Yo La Tengo has also proven that in an age where ephemeral stardom can being achievement overnight with a single YouTube video, there is still room to do it the old fashioned way, honing your craft, building a loyal fan base and continuing to innovate.