Yo la Tengo: music doesn’t owe you a living

In the wake of their 13th record Fade, and ahead of their show at Corona on Monday, Yo la Tengo’s Ira Kaplan speaks to Cult MTL about criticism, careerism and altruism.

Yo la Tengo. Photo by Carlie Armstrong
Yo la Tengo have been releasing leftfield rock records since 1985. Fade is the band’s 13th LP, a beautiful set of songs that trades in some of their signature noise for a dream pop palette more akin to music made by younger bands in their New York/New Jersey scene.

I recently called guitarist/pianist/singer Ira Kaplan in Atlanta, where the band was preparing to soundcheck, to talk about criticism, careerism and altruism.

Lorraine Carpenter: I understand you’ll be playing two sets; an evening with Yo la Tengo. How do you structure a show like that? Where’s the intermission?
Ira Kaplan: We’re using the new record as a jumping-off point. In the same way that the record is divided between the first side and the second side, we’re doing that live, only in reverse: we’re playing quietly for the first set and taking a break and actually re-setting the stage for the louder material.

LC: Your new record has been getting great reviews — do you read them?
IK: If somebody throws one in front of us, it’s like a traffic accident, I can’t bear not to look. The reward to wrenching ratio is rarely a winner though.

LC: You’re known to be a favourite with critics, but there’s something of a parallel between the music and film worlds when it comes to critical reception: the movies most praised by critics aren’t the ones that tend to top the box office.
IK: I don’t think we’re going to be mistaken for the Spider-man franchise, but we didn’t form a band to get rich and famous, we formed a band to play.

LC: You were fortunate to start your career at a time when bands were still selling records. These days it seems that touring, selling merch and putting your music in ads is what bands have to do to make a living.
IK: That’s what I hear, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. There’s a big distinction you can draw between making a living and being in a band, and I don’t think music owes anybody a living.

LC: You guys played another series of charity shows for Hanukkah, benefitting various Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. I gather this is something you’ve been doing for a while.
IK: Yeah, since 2001. We take a year off sometimes, but most years we play the eight nights of Hanukkah at Maxwell’s.  It’s great to give the money away, but candidly, it wasn’t out of altruism that we did it, it was out of greed. Calexico played one of our shows, the National opened for us; shows that have no business ever occurring at Maxwell’s, bands that are too big to play there have opened for us. The only way to do that is to say, “Well, you know what? We’re not going to pay you but we’re not going to pay ourselves, we’re going to give the money away. Let’s have a party.” ■

Yo la Tengo play the Corona Theatre (2490 Notre-Dame W.) on Monday. Feb. 11, 8:30 p.m., $27/$31

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