For more than 30 years, Yo La Tengo have been one of indie-rock’s most consistent and beloved bands, turning out more than a dozen albums that range from ear-drum-bursting noise to hushed acoustic ballads (check out instant-classics like 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out). One of their most revered albums, 1990’s Fakebook, found singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan, singer-drummer Georgia Hubley, and singer-bassist James McNew covering some of their favorite pop songs, from the obscure (Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle”) to the not-so-obscure (Cat Stevens’ “Here Comes My Baby), while also featuring a handful of Yo La Tengo originals. (The album title refers to musical lead sheets used by session men to learn new songs quickly.)
In honor of that album’s 25th birthday, the group—joined once again by former guitarist Dave Schramm, who left YLT in the early-90s—have returned with a sort of Fakebook 2.0., titled Stuff Like That There, out now. The set features everything from a gorgeous rendition of The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love” to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Butchie’s Tune,” plus a few originals.
In honor of its release, EW caught up with McNew to talk about the making of the album, how the group has evolved over three decades—and we also got the group to share a few vintage photos of them from over the years.
Entertainment Weekly: Is it fair to call this album a sort of Fakebook 2.0?
James McNew: That’s fair to say. It was certainly on our minds when we were coming up with the idea. We knew the 25th anniversary was going to sync up with the project and it just seemed like a such a perverse idea for us. It’s something so obvious to do and therefore something we would never do—so we thought, let’s do it!
The songs range from everything from the Cure to Hank Williams. How’d you pick them?
McNew: All of us thought of songs that would go well next to each other and copmliment each other. When we toured behind [our 2013 album] Fade, we’d play two sets and the first set would be quiet and the second set would be loud. We got an appreciation for the quiet set, and the range of quiet—seeing the dynamic steps on the meter, from the very quiet to the not-so-quiet. That helped the songs we chose [here].
Bassist James McNew
The group has reunited with Dave Schramm. How has he changed the dynamic of the trio?
McNew: He’s lead guitarist more or less. Ira [Kaplan, singer-guitarist] is playing acoustic at these shows and plays acoustic on the record. Dave is really versatile—he’s got an amazing feel and he has this kind of really incredibly ear for ’60s and ’70s-type sounds.
Drummer Georgia Hubley and guitarist Ira Kaplan
Did you use streaming services, radio, or your vinyl collection to brainstorm ideas for this album’s selection of covers?
McNew: I still have an iPod! I’m old-fashioned that way. I don’t think any of use Spotify. We listen to [Jersey City, New Jersey radio station] WFMU. It’s such an incredibly deep resource that recharges itself. I could listen to it all day long and maybe there’s one song I’ll recognize.
After 30 years together, what’s the band dynamic like these days?
McNew: The first time we ever practiced, we mostly just talked about TV shows, movies, sports, records and stuff. We have a lot of common ground but I think, for better or worse, we don’t pay attention to anything. We live in a bubble. We don’t try to follow trends. We just play to amuse and entertain ourselves and challenge ourselves to grow as a group. Other than that, I don’t know! We just don’t think about it [laughs].
Drummer Georgia Hubley
You learned to play upright bass for the first time on this album. Was it a pain?
McNew: I like playing it very much but it’s a colossal pain in the ass in a lot of ways. But I love the sound of it and I like learning new things. It’s weird to be a beginner at something again and also fun. But carrying that thing around is, like, come on!
What’s in store for your tour, kicking off Sept. 4?
McNew: It’ll feature the album but knowing us the set will change every night. And it’ll cover songs from our entire career. Any song could appear. At soundchecks, songs just appear and we say, ‘Let’s do that!’
Any plans to revive your beloved Hanukkah shows this year?
McNew: We don’t know! When Maxwell’s [in Hoboken] shut down, so did the Hanukkah show. All we know is we’re going to be touring for the rest of 2015. But who knows what the format will be.