OPINION: Comatose, kaput, absolutely buggered. I picture Ira Kaplan shambling around his New Jersey home like a zombie, eyes red-raw and itchy under his mop of brown curls, brain befuddled, the dull throb of jet engine hum still buzzing in his ears, his luggage still where he dropped it just inside the front door. The principal singer, songwriter and guitarist for feted New Jersey trio Yo La Tengo, he has just stepped off a plane from Iceland after concluding a month long European tour.
He is jetlagged to hell, and it shows. Now 57, a former rock critic for New York's Village Voice, Kaplan is generally highly articulate. Rather than the usual "we just make music for ourselves and if anyone else likes it, that's a bonus" indie-band cliches, this is a man capable of speaking thoughtfully about the transformative power of music, for maker and listener alike. But tonight, well, not so much. "You have to promise to make me sound coherent," he says through a series of deep yawns. "I'm trusting you to make me sound good."
I'll do my best. In the meantime, in order to hear Kaplan sounding very good indeed, I'd direct the adventurous listener to Yo La Tengo's extensive back-catalogue. Formed in 1984 by Kaplan and his wife, drummer Georgia Hubley, the band was joined by long-serving bassist James McNew 21 years ago. Together they make music that could sit anywhere on a continuum stretching between Sonic Youth and the Beach Boys, their albums veering back and forth between ferocious guitar noise and sweetly melodic pop.
Their creative curiosity knows few bounds. They've composed documentary soundtracks, been remixed by hip hop trio De La Soul, opened for the late Johnny Cash, toured as the backing band for Ray Davies of The Kinks, collaborated with classical percussionists and jazz horn players, and become such instant shorthand for "brilliant underground band", they were hired to portray the Velvet Underground in 1996 feature film, I Shot Andy Warhol. Music critics, fellow musicians and alt-rock geeks of every stripe tend to idolise them, and will be well represented in the crowd when Yo La Tengo play Wellington's New Zealand Festival in March.
The band's most recent album, Fade, came out last year and is every bit as rewarding as their noisier records, packed with pensive indie lullabies that pay homage to 60s soul, 70s Krautrock and late-80s British shoegazer bands.
"A lot of the songs are more reserved than some things we've done in the past, but that's not intentional. We never consciously plan new directions for new records; we just get together and play. When something starts to sound good, we keep playing it, and when it stops sounding good, we try other ideas. And we definitely haven't forsaken loud guitars. People who come to the Wellington show may find there's still plenty of noise in there."
The new songs are packed with sonic surprises, with unexpected interjections of strings, horns, funk breakbeats, harmonium drones and dub basslines offsetting Kaplan's sleepy murmur as he contemplates the bonds that hold friends, families and lovers together. One presumes some of his lyrics were inspired by the woman sitting behind him on the drum stool, but Kaplan's not saying. "I like to let the songs convey what they do without putting in too many signposts of my own as to how I want them to be understood. I like ambiguity, and have a low threshold for when things are overly explained. I want my songs to worm themselves inside a person's subconscious and set off their own associations."
One association that will be inevitable to local listeners is our own musical history right here in Aotearoa. Indeed, if Yo La Tengo sounded any more like an early Flying Nun band, we'd have to present them with New Zealand passports and rent them a knackered old villa in Dunedin. Fade is scattered with taut, nuggety little songs that recall The Bats, The Clean and The Chills. And two months ago the band released a 7" vinyl single called Super Kiwi, its cover featuring a caped superhero in the shape of a furry green kiwifruit, flying along carrying our national bird.
"Yeah, well, a whole lot of Flying Nun bands, The Clean in particular, are tremendously important to us, and we gravitate towards similar sounds and feelings ourselves. We've toured with David Kilgour here in the States, and Bob Scott opened for us last time we were in New Zealand around 2010. We've also played with Chris Knox, Tall Dwarfs, The Verlaines, Peter Jefferies - so many of those great New Zealand bands. The music that came out on Flying Nun speaks very loudly to us, and there's a definite kinship with what we do."
As for the upcoming Wellington show, it will be a game of two halves, he says, with one set each of quieter and more raucous material, separated by an interval. To confound expectations, several old favourites feature radical new arrangements; gentle ballads may now arrive gift-wrapped in lacerating feedback, while tracks previously buried beneath caustic waves of white noise might now be pink and blushing under the spotlight, stripped bare for acoustic guitars.
"Those changes keep the songs interesting for us to play, which is important when you've been together as long as we have. Some people seem fascinated that this band's been going 30 years, but we still get a lot of creative stimulation playing with each other, and we're still finding new listeners. I met someone last week at the Copenhagen show who was seeing us for the first time and had been introduced to our records by his father. Did that make me feel like a geriatric? No. The calendar's a fact, and I don't want to deny how old I am. Really, we're proud of our longevity. It's great after 30 years to still be playing as well as we're playing, or failing that, to have so successfully deluded ourselves that we at least think we're playing well."
Still, playing music together is only a tiny fraction of what it means to be in a band. After three decades in this game, what does Kaplan think of the less creatively rewarding aspects of his chosen vocation? What about the endless hours spent in buses, vans and planes? The bad food and bland hotel rooms? The time spent so far away from friends and family? The fact that you can't even settle into your house after a long flight and make a restorative cup of tea without some nosy journalist phoning you from the other side of the world?
"Yeah, you're right. Touring is a mix of tedium and excitement, and you have to make your peace with that. A good book helps. But we're a tight team, and we look after each other. Our tour manager has been with us for 22 years, our sound man for 11 years, and so on. It's fun to be with those people and find ways to beat the boredom before you're back on the next stage. I guess it's like being an actor on a film set. You have to travel to the location, then sit around for hours on end while the shot is set up, then get out there under the lights, on cue, and do this incredibly emotional thing. Soon as you've done that, someone shouts ‘Cut!', then you're waiting around again 'til next time."
Yo La Tengo play Wellington's New Zealand Festival on Saturday, March 15. Tickets via Ticketek. festival.co.nz/yo-la-tengo
- Sunday Star Times