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The Weekly interview: Yo La Tengo singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan

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Ride the tiger: From left, Schramm, McNew, Hubley and Kaplan, touring as a quartet for the first time since 1987.

Let’s start with baseball. I feel kind of bad asking about your Mets, since they lost the final game of the Series last night … But you’re doing it anyway. (laughs)

True. Let’s make it optional then. Any thoughts about the Mets’ season? It was a great season. No one expected them to get this far. It’s disappointing to get that close, but you have to have perspective.

The band was in Europe while they were playing the Royals. Were you able to follow along? We were. In some ways it was better. If we were in the U.S., the games would have been while we were playing. Instead all we had to do was stay up all night. The games were starting at 1 a.m., so we were actually able to follow almost every one of them. For Game 2 we didn’t have as sufficient Internet connection, but we have a friend from [the band] Lambchop, who’s from Kansas City, and we just texted back and forth for three hours. He was giving us play-by-play.

So, the current tour has generally been described as acoustic. Is that accurate? It’s completely in the format of [August album] Stuff Like That There. Dave [Schramm] plays electric guitar, and bassist James [McNew] and I have pickups on our instruments. Acoustic is almost a euphemism at this point, but to the extent that that’s acoustic, it’s all like that. James will play the whole thing on upright bass, I’ll play it all on acoustic guitar and Georgia [Hubley] will be standing up front with her drum set.

So no keys and no 20-minute feedback freakouts. Precisely.

What made you opt for that format at this point? We just like doing different things, and at some point the idea of revisiting [1990’s] Fakebook way of making a record came up, and Dave was up for recording with us and touring with us, which he didn’t do the first time. We almost played Vegas in 1990, actually. We were on tour with The Sundays and had a show scheduled there, but there was a death in the family so that show got canceled. But when we toured on Fakebook Dave was not part of the band. He recorded the record, he and Al Greller, and then we had Wilbo Wright and Kevin Salem in the touring band. So the idea that Dave was finally available to tour this way was something we were all looking forward to.

How long had it been since Dave had played with you guys? I’m guessing he’s sat in here and there, maybe played some of the Hanukkah shows over the years? Yeah, that’s right. We even went to Germany, to Berlin one year, to do a show for City Slang, the label we were on in Europe prior to Matador. They were having an anniversary and asked if would come play Fakebook. We said we prefer not to play an album, but if Dave’s available we’ll come play in the [Fakebook] style. But this is the first time we’ve actually toured with him since 1987, I think.

What’s it been like having him as a fourth member? You must have had to rework some songs to add parts. We’ve adapted a bunch of our songs. It’s not that dissimilar from what we did with the three [old] songs on Stuff Like That There, where we took three of our older songs and kind of reworked them. It’s not even just a matter of adding a new guitar part; it’s just kind of rethinking the song, which is something that we do with or without a fourth member. We’re always open for tinkering with things and trying them a different way, with different instruments or just a different feel. So it’s just made that more explicit.

It’s funny, for a record and therefore a tour that began as something that was gonna be largely covers, it’s a lot of our songs, too.

I was looking at the setlists from your recent European shows and trying to imagine what a song like “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” would sound like stripped down this way. That one began almost as a joke. I think James started playing the bass part one day and everybody laughed, and then it was like, I don’t know, why don’t we try it? And it’s one of the songs that—by and large, we don’t play the same songs every night—but that’s one of the few songs that we do play every single night. We just love the arrangement.

These sort of reinterpretations pop up across the band’s official discography, two very different versions of “Some Kinda Fatigue,” two very different versions of “Today Is the Day” and so on. Even from the first time we ever played. There’s a song on our second album called “3 Blocks From Groove St.” that dates back to our very first show. And even when we were learning it, at the very beginning of the band, we came up with two different ways of playing it. So it’s just something that’s kind of interested us from the beginning.

It’s not like we think, how are we gonna shake this up? Just something happens. We’re working on one thing and it leads to another, points in a different direction.

Going back to something you said, I don’t remember you guys ever doing a full-album tour, where you played, say, Painful every night. Sounds like that’s not of interest to you. It’s not for us. The only time we've ever done it, we did it backwards. The Condo F*cks' [2009] record, F*ckbook. We were opening a show for friends of ours, the A-Bones, so we came up with a different name and a different repertoire for that show. We were rehearsing, and James wanted to try out some different microphones and recording equipment, so he suggested we play the set from start to finish so he could record it. We did and we liked the way it came out, so we put it as an album. That’s the only album we’ve ever played from start to finish.

I’m guessing you’ve been to shows where a favorite artist plays a full album. Yeah. I actually did a show like that. Marshall Crenshaw did an anniversary show and asked me to play guitar with him. There was a lot of other stuff in that show, but the centerpiece was his first album from start to finish.

You know, as an audience member, it’s not my preferred way at all of going to a show, and it’s certainly nothing I wanna do, either. … When I go to a show, that moment when a band starts a song that you never thought you were gonna hear, I just love those moments so much, whether it’s an unusual choice from their catalog or a cover you didn’t expect. And that’s what you sacrifice.

Most musicians tell me they don’t go back and listen to their old music. Do you ever as a refresher, given the way you rework old songs or reach back for deeper cuts from your catalog, as a refresher? You mentioned the two versions of “Today Is the Day”—with Dave, for the first time ever, we started doing the quiet version, and it did require us to listen to it. Usually we can either pull it from our memories, or get close enough (laughs). We don’t care, by and large, if we’re changing it. But we were trying to play it based on our hazy recollection of how it went, and we knew there was something missing. So we did go back and listen to it. So we do if necessary.

In terms of picking the setlist, do you more or less have your songs catalogued in your mind in some way? A lot of it’s that way. [For this tour] we started with the new album, and there’s a bunch of songs that we recorded that didn’t make it to the record. And then most of the songs from Fakebook were kind of instantly part of the repertoire. And then we started adding things, so we’ve got a bunch of songs from our albums and some other covers. We keep adding things slowly, if something comes up.

For instance, we played in a church the other night in Cologne. We’ve played in converted churches, but this was a working church. So we did God’s Children by The Kinks. It seemed appropriate.

At the time, Fakebook exposed me to some bands I wasn’t familiar with. Was that part of the mission with those covers, or more of a side benefit of the project? I’d say it’s more of the latter. It’s happened dozens of times to me and to us. I’m thinking of the number of groups and songs I heard through NRBQ before I ever heard the originals, so I’m aware of that, but that’s not the motivation. But I mean, I’m happy about it. …

We like the idea of a mixture. We’d be less likely to do a record that was entirely songs by Hank Williams and The Cure and less likely to do one that was entirely songs by Antietam and Great Plains. What we’re really drawn to is finding a line that connects those things.

From all your covers—for the WFMU benefits, the Hanukkah shows, etc.—I get the sense you guys have always been voracious listeners. Is that still the case, and how do you find your music these days, more by digging through crates or bouncing around online? Speaking for Georgia and I, we’re not as voracious as we would have been when we were younger, but there is more often music playing than not.

The Internet to me is more a reference than it is a way of listening. I’ll listen to the radio on the Internet, but if I’m listening to music for fun it’s usually on the stereo. I like going to record stores, especially when we’re on tour. It seems like something I do more of when we’re traveling than when I’m at home, but it’s still a big part of my life.

Do you prefer vinyl or CDs or does it matter? I like buying 45s (laughs), but I came home from Europe with a big pile of CDs, so I’m not an absolutist.

I read that you attended one of the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary shows in Chicago over the summer. What did you think? I had a great time. I had given no thought to going, but then Alex Bleeker from Real Estate got in touch; his other band, The Freak, were doing this aftershow in Chicago, and he asked if I wanted to be part of it and play some Dead songs, and part of saying yes meant I had an opportunity to buy a ticket. So it was kinda like, wow, if you’re gonna get offered this opportunity, say yes. I went in that casually. I apologize to anyone reading this who would have given anything to be there, but I had great time. I didn’t really expect anything. It had been so long since I’d seen them, that the whole culture of the village and “Shakedown Street” and all that, I had never seen that before. I think every time I saw them was in the ’70s. But I loved it.

You first played Vegas for Matador at 21 five years ago. Did you get to do anything interesting while you were here, beyond the festival itself? We did make it to the last days of the Liberace Museum, and we went to that Thai restaurant [Lotus of Siam], we ended up eating there twice. The first night we considered blowing off the Matador show to go see Penn & Teller, but it turned out they were dark that night.

Yo La Tengo’s set ended fairly strangely, with Mitch Mitchell from Guided By Voices walking across the stage—twice—while you played “Blue Line Swinger.” How aware were you of that, and what did you think of the incident? I certainly knew it happened when it was over. It was not the way anyone wished the evening had ended. None of us knew who it was at the time. I remember even some people from Matador not knowing at the time.

Yo La Tengo November 11, 9 p.m., $20. The Sayers Club, 702-761-7618.

The Bunkhouse Series at the Sayers Club at SLS is sponsored by Southern Wine & Spirits, Live Nation, Downtown Container Park and Greenspun Media Group.

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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