There are people who credit Yo La Tengo with defining the genre of indie rock. One, writer/fellow musician Jesse Jarnow, wrote an entire book about it, “Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock.” If it’s true, it’s a pretty epic legacy. If you ask frontman and co-founder Ira Kaplan, however, he’s reluctant to even entertain the idea.
“That’s something that really does not enter into our life much,” he explains, in his slow, thoughtful way. “Even the notion of indie rock is nothing I’m particularly fond of. I don’t really know what it is. On a personal level, when somebody says that to me — not when someone writes it, but when a band says that to me — it is meaningful, and I’m happy. I mean I’m proud of what we’ve done, and I am happy when someone finds it inspiring, but I think about it as little as possible.”
It’s that distinct lack of pretension — and an apparent immunity to the trappings of fame or celebrity — that has largely contributed to the Jersey band’s staying power. Yo La Tengo, fronted by Ira and his wife Georgia (the two have been together even longer than the band, a remarkable feat even for a couple who don’t work together,) have been making music for just about three decades. And they don’t show any signs of slowing down now.
One wonders if, after putting out 13 studio albums (not to mention the countless collaborations, covers and compilations,) they ever hit a creative wall. “It doesn’t seem that way. Maybe our standards are too low,” laughs Kaplan. “I would say that every time we finish making a record, that’s pretty much the only time I think about that. You always figure, well it’s got to run out some time....but...it seems to just happen that at a certain point we all kind of know we’re ready and get to work.”
“Fade” is the most recent product of that work, and it’s the trio’s tightest album in more than a decade. Released on the heels of 2009’s “Popular Songs” (which has tracks clocking in at 10 and 15 plus minutes) and 2008’s “They Shoot, We Score” (a staggering 27-track record,) “Fade” almost feels like a concession to listeners’ dwindling attention spans.
“We did consciously make this new record a shorter record, thinking that we had made so many 70-minute records in a row, and we wanted to challenge ourselves to do something more succinct,” he says.
Still, “I wouldn’t use the word concession,” he continues. “I grew up when making a double album was something a band did. That was a statement. And I guess the lexicon I grew up with is still mine and I think that, with the realization that we had made something like six double albums in a row, I wanted to know for myself that we could do something shorter. So it wasn’t a concession, it was a challenge. Certainly nobody was demanding it but us.”
That notion of rising to only self-imposed challenges, and refusing to kowtow to popular demands, seems like it's the driving (and sustaining) force for the band that may or may not have created indie rock.
“I think we’re in a good position. We get to do whatever we want,” Kaplan says. “We’ve gotten to where we are by doing what we want. It’s hard to compare our life as a band to another, because I don’t know others as intimately. Like anyone else, it’s always our goal that people like what we’re doing but, at at the same time, we’re aware that anything good that happens always comes with its own set of problems. So I don’t think any of us are under the impression that ‘oh if only we had 50,000 more listeners...all of our problems would go away and everything would be great.’ I think it really is about dealing with the challenges that face you, which happens at every level.”