For better or worse, all [our] stuff comes from a lack of worrying about it. We never discuss what kind of record we want to make and what the songs should sound like and what we should present to people. Just when we have enough ideas, we go and make a record.
story by Charlie Newton
photo by Bootsy Holler
Since the mid-‘80s, Hoboken New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo have done what few other bands have managed to do: they’ve consistently and frequently released high quality material and built a reputation for challenging themselves and never relying on one single sound or genre. In the spirit of this approach, their upcoming tour will feature a “Wheel of Fortune” which will determine the nature of each night’s performance. The wheel includes categories such as “Songs Starting with an S” or even “Sitcom Theatre” — in which the band and crew will act out a classic sitcom. Chicago Innerview recently spoke with bassist James McNew about the tour, television, and the band’s approach to music.
Chicago Innerview: Have you been to any good films at all?
James McNew: As much as I like doing that, I haven’t been to the movies in ages. I can’t remember the last one that I went to. I don’t think I’m the demographic anymore. Personally I’ve been watching a lot of Korean films, for me that’s the most exciting place that has stuff going on in terms of film.
Chicago Innerview: What are your feelings about the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ on the upcoming tour?
James McNew: I’m actually looking forward to it and looking forward to the spontaneous nature of it. We’ve compiled a master of all the songs we could possibly play and we’ve been practicing songs we’ve never played on stage ever, from over 15 years ago. To have that much stuff at a close recall is a pretty amazing feeling. To be able to play very nearly every song that we’ve written at the spin of a wheel is kind of an interesting notion. At least attitude-wise, maybe not performance-wise, I’m ready for any of them. We’ve been practicing for all of the possible spins of the wheel.
CI: What’s the classic sitcom you may or may not perform?
JM: We’re going to leave that to the imagination. Although that’s the one where if it comes up every single night I don’t know what’s going to happen. We may have to break the engine on our bus if we have to do that night after night.
CI: Have you seen any good TV shows?
JM: I thought cable-wise that Adult Swim had a couple really amazing things in 2010; that show ‘Delocated’ I thought was maybe the best TV show I’ve ever seen. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. I think that’s the best and I don’t think anyone can touch that show. Similarly the last season of ‘Tim & Eric’ was really good, ‘Breaking Bad’ I enjoy tremendously because it just makes you feel horrible. Adult Swim in general is really neat because you’ll watch it and go, ‘was that a Madlib/Flying Lotus track?’ and I think that’s the product of not caring about what other people think and doing what you want to.
CI: You mentioned Madlib and I’ve heard you’re into underground hip-hop. Care to talk about that?
JM: I keep up with a pretty small amount of artists, there’s stuff I’ve been listening to since high school — which was a long, long time ago. I don’t want to name any artists because I don’t want to tell anybody’s work, but I’m mostly into the core releases of Def Jux from the early 2000s. All of their release schedules have slowed down over the years and I’ve just been waiting.
CI: With the varied nature of the material you’ve put out over the past 20 or so years, what kind of mindset goes into approaching songs and releases the way the band does it?
JM: For better or worse, all that stuff comes from a lack of worrying about it. We never discuss what kind of record we want to make and what the songs should sound like and what we should present to people. Just when we have enough ideas, we go and make a record. And we try to make an album out of it. With some examination, you can find a common thread in every song and every mood. I think that’s kind of the people we are, again, for better or worse.
Yo La Tengo :: with William Tyler :: Metro :: February 4.