James McNew of Yo La Tengo picks favorites: albums, sports teams, coffee…
On the classic surf rock jam, “Nothing to Hide,” off of Yo La Tengo’s 12th album, Popular Songs (2009), husband and wife indie rockers Ira Kaplan (guitar) and Georgia Hubley (drums) sweetly sing, “We all decide/how to draw the line/we’ve all got something to hide.”
On bass, James McNew—who is anything but a third wheel—gives off some serious attitude, while Kaplan’s guitar playing mirrors an emotional tantrum, reminiscent of the tension that builds by bottling up feelings for too long. These two minutes and 46 seconds are torturous for the devoted listener, who, despite hoping to hear at least one scandalous secret, is, alas, cheated—until now, as McNew comes clean about all sorts of YLT-related and unrelated things.
Let’s start at the beginning … not just because it’s logical and chronological, but because it still reigns supreme for McNew in his music career. Though Hubley and Kaplan created the band in 1984, in Hoboken, N.J., it wasn’t until 1991 that McNew solidified his position in the triad. What was supposed to be a temporary gig for the Charlottesville, V.A. native and YLT fan—touring the East Coast, in addition to Europe, for several weeks with the married indie dream team—became a permanent invitation to jam. It was “the most thrilling time of my life,” according to McNew.
More than 20 excellent years later, McNew confirms that there has never once been a hiatus; “Nothing ever approaching that.” McNew elaborates, “We’ll take a week off sometimes, and even during that week we’re emailing each other. We work all the time.” In fact, every night, McNew travels from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. to Hoboken, where Kaplan and Hubley live, for band practice. When not playing music, the three bond over the New York Mets. “We wouldn’t ever be caught dead wearing a Yankees jersey,” admits McNew. Their fandom extends into basketball. “We’re longtime, long-suffering New York Knicks fans,” he says.
It’s easy enough for McNew to bash sports teams or films—given the challenge, he’d totally re-do the soundtracks for Footloose or The Big Chill: “some movie that I either didn’t care about or actively thought it stunk.” But when it comes to naming his favorite YLT album, the blunt bassist has met his match.
“I think it changes from time to time,” says McNew. “I’m very fond of Summer Sun (2003) [and] the record we put out in 2009: Popular Songs. All of them hold an intensely personal meaning for me today, [but those two] are the closest to my heart right now.
“We put out a new record every two to three years,” he continues, “and each one of them represents where I was at the time—it’s an unconventional way of documenting growth and experience.”
Three must-hear tracks on Summer Sun are “Season of the Shark,” primarily sung by Kaplan, and Hubley’s lead vocal hits “Little Eyes” and “Today is the Day.” All three highlight the band’s beautifully crafted, empathetic lyrics paired with wistful and dreamy experimental rock instrumentals.
Two years after their last performance in Santa Cruz, YLT makes its long-awaited return to The Rio on Friday, May 4—perhaps after they make a pit stop at Verve, McNew’s local caffeine fix of choice—only this time, the trio has tweaked its moniker to The Freewheeling Yo La Tengo: a reference to the variety show in store for fans.
According to McNew, it will be “almost entirely free-form, really fun, and totally spontaneous. The only thing that gets planned is we decide what song to play first, right before we go on-stage. Then we start talking to people—that’s all the preparation we do.”
If audience members can’t decide which songs in the band’s impressive discography to request, McNew says to, “Ask anything … I’m knowledgeable on a lot of subjects—basketball, television, Korean cooking …”
Yo La Tengo plays at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 4 at The Rio, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $21. For tickets, call 421-9200 or visit ticketweb.com. Photo: Steve Gullick