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Yo La Tengo, Interview with James McNew
By Holly Day
(more articles from this author)
2001-04-30
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So frequently compared to the Velvet Underground that they even portrayed the legendary group in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol, Yo La Tengo has been wowing critics and audiences alike with their eclectic brand of feedback-driven noise-rock mixed with sweetly melodic pop. Comprised of founding husband-wife team Ira Kaplan on guitar and Georgia Hubley on drums as well as bassist James McNew, the band has been a quiet but persistent voice in the underground since 1984. Their newest album, "And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out" (Matador), is one of their mellowest albums yet, full of beautiful instrumentals and sweet vocalizations from both Kaplan and Hubley.

[Holly] So whatís it like being in a band where the other two performers are married to each other?

[James] Itís pretty great, actually. I like it. Iíd recommend it to anyone. If youíre in a trio, Iíd recommend petitioning the other two members to marry each other. I mean, the arrangement would be up to the other two, but I do recommend it. A) I get my own room when we tour, which is pretty great, and B) thereís a lot more communication going on in the band. We all feel free to agree or disagree with each other about band mattersówe all feel very comfortable with each other, like when weíre trying new things out. Itís very reassuring.

[Holly] Which one of you is the funny one?

[James] Thatís me. Weíre all pretty funny people. I mean, itís something we think about a lot. Like, when weíre thinking about making our records or doing concerts and stuff, we know that thereís that chance that it could get kind of heavy and serious if we donít try to break the mood a little bit. You know, itís like "You Can Have It All," on our new record? I think that was certainly not a small part in the logic behind including that song on the record. I think it kind of shows our lighter side on a kind of moody record. A lot of our songs seem to be pretty serious, but weíre hilarious in person. Thereís just no two ways about it.

[Holly] How did you first get into playing music?

[James] I was, like, aware of rock music as early as I can remember, like when I was a little kid, I listened to the radio all the time. My parents had a pretty good collection of albums and they let me play with those. I started playing instruments when I wasóI think I started playing guitar when I was eight. So Iíve pretty much played music all my life, and I think Iíve always wanted to do for the rest of my life. From eight to twenty, I just feel like I was biding my time, kind of waiting, because I couldnít wait to finish going to school and all that stuff so I could go do what I really wanted to do. And then the rest of it was just luck. I didnít play in that many bands when I was a kid, but I did a lot of recording. I figured out how to do 2-track recordings on my own in the basement of my parentsí house. Later, when I was actually in a band, we opened for Christmas at one show, and I developed a pretty good friendship with them until one day, they just called me up, out of the blue, and asked if I wanted to come up to Boston and help them write songs. I was on the next plane, literally. And then, while I was playing with Christmas, I also started playing with Yo La Tengo, just filling in as a temporary bass player whenever they needed me, and ten years later, here I am, still playing bass with them.

[Holly] Did you ever have any other career path planned in case the music thing didnít work?

[James] Yeah, actually. Right towards the end there, I did have a plan. When I was in college, briefly, before I dropped out, I was studying Japanese, and I was going to teach English in Japan. That was my plan. I thought that would be kind of fun. Itís funnyómy former high school English teacher is teaching a journalism class now, and he sent one of his students to interview me yesterday, and this kid seemed just amazed that here I was, supposed to be a grown-up, and I didnít own a suit and didnít like to get up before noon. I donít have a regular job. Iím very lucky. Being a musician, this band, is just the greatest thing in the world for me. I think about it every morning when I wake up. At 3pm.


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