Ira Kaplan doesn't quite know what to say. He's been asked the same things I'm asking him so many times that the questions have become clichés to him, and yet Kaplan still fumbles to formulate a coherent answer. And he more or less fails.
Kaplan's band, Yo La Tengo, is an anomaly—an art rock assemblage that has stayed fresh and adventurous 14 years after the release of its first album.
In a genre that is essentially a young man's game, very few artists have been able to do that. Most either develop a comfortable formula and stick to it (The Ramones) or lose their edge and produce increasingly trite music that never approaches the intensity of their former work (Sting, Paul Westerberg).
But Kaplan is blissfully ignorant as to why Yo La has escaped those fates.
"It's a popular question to ask us, but one I don't think we have a good answer for. A lot of things about the group that people keep writing about are things we're not even especially curious about," he says. "The group tries to balance intuition along with being thoughtful about things. There are things we're almost superstitious to investigate. We really just try not to think about what record we want to make, and just make it. So we can be as surprised as anyone."
It's not surprising that Kaplan has a hard time explaining Yo La Tengo's sound. In subject and in mood, their music is ephemeral and hard to pin down.
Formed with his wife, drummer/singer/songwriter Georgia Hubley, Yo La Tengo started out as just another mid-’80s art noise band, working off the blueprint the Velvet Underground laid down in the late ’60s, the one all art noise bands follow.
The comparisons to the Velvet Underground have been hard for Yo La Tengo to shake. "I don't listen to them now as much as I did. That's one of those things that seems to have a life of its own, the comparison," he says. "We try not to think about where these things come from, whether it's what we're listening to. I don't want to lose that element of spontaneity."
The group even played the Velvet Underground in the movie I Shot Andy Warhol, a decision that you might think they would have avoided if they wanted to put the comparison to rest. "Portraying the Velvet Underground and doing more to cement that comparison in some ways was a negative, but it also turned into a positive, because it was fun to do it, and fly in the face of logic. I certainly like the idea of the costume aspect. But it still was a stretch for us to be wearing leather jackets."
With the addition of James McNew for 1993's album Painful, the group began staking out more mature, thoughtful territory than most bands—culminating in 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and this year's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out.
So often, rock ’n’ roll musicians seem at their peak when they're least satisfied and the music becomes an outlet for their rage, angst, self-doubt and loathing. Once those demons are put to rest, the energy and inspiration frequently vanish.
Yo La Tengo uses the music as a place to face its demons as much as any group does, but the musicians know that inspiration comes from a desire for transcendence rather than unhappiness. That they continue to seek transcendence has perhaps kept them innovative.
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is unusually subdued for the group. While they've frequently delved into quiet, contemplative territory throughout their career, they've never sustained such a mood for an entire album. Stripping the electric guitar noise away, Hubley and Kaplan sing—at times almost whisper—over gentle, ambling tunes about love and tribulations it causes. Some of this is mournfully nostalgic: Kaplan reminiscing about meeting his love on a disco dance floor, and hearing the same song they danced to.
Often, the songs deal with the impossibility to completely know someone, even a lover you've given your life to. On "Tears Are in Your Eyes," Hubley tries to comfort her crying lover during a moment of despair. She knows she can't reach him, singing a mournful lullaby, "I know you don't believe me you are strong, darkness always turns into the dawn/And you won't even remember this for long when it ends all right."
Critics have understandably read all kinds of things into these lyrics, dubbing the album "confessional" and "autobiographic."
"I've got to admit it may have bothered me when it first came out," Kaplan says of the things people have read into it. "We've never made a record where people were so concerned about the lyrics. I don't think any of us thought about it when we made it."
But Kaplan doesn't care to correct any misinterpretations people might have.
"In some ways it's easier, the wronger people are about it. Because it's not our relationship, it's what people think it is. It's not that difficult for us to separate."
"I hope all the songs have a ring of truth to them and I'm sure there's elements of autobiography in them, but maybe not where you think they are," he says. "Certainly a lot of the things I've read about it are not right, but it doesn't matter to me. I wouldn't correct anybody about it. If that's how it appears to people, and that's what they feel, then I think it's fine. I take it all as a compliment that it sets people to think."