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An American Band

Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan Reminisces About His Little Corner Of The Indie-Rock World

ASS KICKERS: Ira Kaplan (left) has been a rock star (sorta) a lot longer than he was a rock critic.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 2/7/2007

In the early 1980s Ira Kaplan was so enthralled with the New York area's burgeoning indie-rock scene that he would do anything to be around it--even be a music critic. For several years he wrote articles about his favorite bands for the New York Rocker and The Soho News and mixed sound for Maxwell's, the premier club in his adopted home of Hoboken, N.J. Eventually, he co-hosted a legendary series of shows at Folk City, including one night when Sonic Youth was the opening act for the Meat Puppets.

"I was always the cliché of somebody whose goal was to have a band," Kaplan confesses. "And failing that was doing these other things so I could hang around the outskirts of what I wanted to be doing. I knew I wanted to be in a band, but it always seemed impossible to me. You know all the stories about people who have a light bulb go off that says, `I could do this, too'? It never went off for me."

Now that Kaplan has been leading Yo La Tengo--one of indie rock's most beloved bands--for more than 20 years, it sounds odd that he would have found the gap between fan and musician so difficult to leap. But that difficult transition paid dividends for his eventual listeners. Because he identified with being a fan so intensely, for so long, he was able to retain the best qualities of fandom--its uncalculating enthusiasm and its eclectic appreciation for many kinds of music--when he finally found himself on the other side.

And Yo La Tengo demonstrates those dividends on its latest album, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador). The disc opens with "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind," 10 minutes of droning angst drenched in guitar noise. That's immediately followed by exactly three minutes of bouncy, jangly pop, where that same angst is discharged by punching a "Beanbag Chair," egged on by trumpet, piano, and airy harmonies. Before the album concludes with 10 more minutes of guitar noise on "The Story of Yo La Tengo," we get to hear the falsetto R&B of "Mr. Tough," the moody chamber pop of "Black Flowers," the Latin percussion and distorted guitar of "The Room Got Heavy," the cheesy-organ frat rock of "I Should Have Known Better," and the surf balladry of "Song for Mahila."

There's no sense that these are mere genre exercises to prove the band's hipness. Each stylistic shift springs from a genuine admiration for the genre and from an urgent need to work out an emotional issue. Each song possesses a strong, heartfelt melody; even the thick, buzzing guitars achieve a weird elegance.

"That kind of range seems obvious and natural to me," Kaplan says. "Our current record is no more diverse than the White Album, and the range we cover is no larger than the range Bob Dylan or the Byrds or Sun Ra have covered. People aren't always the same way--they laugh one moment and they're serious the next. The more remarkable thing I think is to be the Ramones, to have that thing you do so brilliantly and exceptionally and to put out 80 variations on the same thing in the first three years. To me that seems so strange."

Of course, Yo La Tengo has recorded a Ramones song, "Blitzkrieg Bop," as well as songs by the Kinks, the Beach Boys, the Velvet Underground, Half Japanese, Daniel Johnston, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, and the Urinals. It's a rock critic's kind of list. Kaplan may have left the work of music journalism far behind, but he has retained the restless curiosity that leads one down the back alleys of popular music. A real fan would never curtail his or her curiosity to achieve career objectives, and in that sense Kaplan is still very much a fan.

"Playing music has always been an extension of what I was doing before," Kaplan says. "The motivations haven't changed that much. I'm not remotely afraid to get onstage anymore, but things come up that are just as daunting as the first time we played in public. That's a good feeling--it's not something to run from. To put oneself out and find new settings--whether it's taking requests over the phone at WFMU or getting up onstage with Ray Davies or David Byrne--are things we do not because we have to but because we want to."

So how did Kaplan cross the chasm between fan and musician? In 1981, he met Georgia Hubley, the daughter of the famous film animators John and Faith Hubley. Kaplan was quickly smitten, and he soon learned that she was a closet drummer, in much the same way he was a closet guitarist, and had similarly eclectic tastes in rock 'n' roll. In the safety of their New Jersey apartment, they bashed out old songs and wrote new ones.

"It felt right playing together," Kaplan says. "But I couldn't get past the idea that those people onstage were musicians and I was just a guy with a guitar. The first time we played in public was when Peter Holsapple invited us to play at one of the parties the dBs were hosting at the New York Rocker office. Just getting up onstage was terrifying. The PA sucked and there were no monitors. But once we started playing, we liked it instantly. Just to be creating music and to be up there with Peter felt great. We immediately wanted to do it more."

Today Kaplan admits that he was never cut out to be a music writer; he never got the satisfaction from the craft of criticism that he gets from the craft of songwriting and recording. But that treacherous journey--dogged by uncertainty but lured on by an irrepressible love of music--has kept the trio of Kaplan, Hubley, and bassist James McNew from ever taking anything for granted. On the epic "Story of Yo La Tengo," Kaplan, in a yearning tenor strangled in doubt and struggling to reach the surface through the crashing waves of guitar, sings, "We tried/ We tried with all our might."

"Neither of us had that brash attitude that we could do this better than anyone else," Kaplan says of the band's early days. "Though that attitude might have been helpful. We had a band but we didn't think of ourselves as singers. I didn't think I could be the guitar player, so we had another guitar player early on. That doubt runs through the early period of the band, and it continues to this day. Every record marks something we've conquered. We weren't the first people to experience stage fright, but it was an exhilarating fear in some ways. Once we conquered one fear we looked for another one to take on."

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