Ira Kaplan can't complain. "I mean, I shouldn't complain," he laughs. "I'll say I'm doing well. But I don't think I've ever been in a moment in my life when I couldn't complain."
Sure, indie rock's biggest New York Mets fan — Kaplan's band Yo La Tengo is an oblique reference to the hapless 1962 team — could kvetch about the outfield depth or pitcher Jacob deGrom's ongoing contract issues or Yoenis Cespedes' fleet of increasingly expensive spring training rides or pig-slaughtering activities. But in truth, Kaplan is in a pretty enviable position.
For more than 30 years, Yo La Tengo has ripped up indie rock's standard playbook, operating at its own pace, doing what its members — Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew — like. In following no logic other than its own, Yo La Tengo has become one of the most revered bands in indie rock, with a catalog that is as consistently excellent as it is stylistically diverse.
But Yo La Tengo's equally lauded for its exquisite taste. To wit, Yo La Tengo live sets and records are dotted with interpretations of songs great and small, from the Beach Boys' "Little Honda" to William DeVaughn's soul jam "Be Thankful for What You've Got" to obscure doo-wop tunes. An entire release was dedicated to interpretations of Sun Ra's avant-garde jazz classic "Nuclear War." The band even played a cover of Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" for the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation under the moniker Bobby Knight Ranger. Yo La Tengo has always made cover songs an integral part of their repertoire, and in connecting its wide-ranging points of reference, the band reveals the foundations of its emotional and musical philosophy.
"It doesn't matter to me, and I don't think it matters to any of us in the band, that we're necessarily 'original,'" Kaplan says. "I don't think the idea of doing a set that includes Johnny Cash and Sun Ra is any way unoriginal. As long as we're speaking personally and honestly, that has more importance to us than whether anyone's ever had that kind of idea before."
Take the band's 1990s breakout, Fakebook. A quarter-century ago, Yo La Tengo switched gears from feedback-laced indie rock to issue the gentle, stripped-down, folk-friendly set comprised mainly of cover songs, along with a few new tracks and a couple of retooled numbers from the group's own catalog. The record was an unexpected success and remains beloved — so much so that there was clamor from the band's faithful to revisit it.
"There was something about perceiving the outside interest in us revisiting Fakebook that kind of made us maybe naturally disinclined to do that," Kaplan says. "And it does become funny when you realize that you're being so reactive, and you're like, 'Wait a minute, I'm saying no because you're saying yes. It's just because you're asking.'"
After years of running from the idea of revisiting Fakebook, Yo La Tengo embraced it. Last year's Stuff Like That There mirrors Fakebook to an uncanny degree. Both are marked by the band's irrepressible curiosity, which breathes new life into some familiar chestnuts — like the Cure's "It's Friday I'm in Love" — and admittedly less familiar — like Special Pillow's "Automatic Doom." James McNew, who joined Yo La Tengo after Fakebook was released, learned to play double bass for Stuff Like That There in homage to Allan Greller, who played the bull fiddle on Fakebook. The trio even re-enlisted Dave Schramm, an early member of Yo La Tengo whose electric guitar-playing helped give Fakebook its distinct jangle. They figured if they were going to make a sequel to Fakebook, they might as well go full concept.
"It was fun to see what would happen, to take a lot of the same elements and see if they'd be the same and see if they'd be different," Kaplan says. "I remember before we started recording, Dave telling us that he'd listened to Fakebook to hear what it sounded like. And I think all of us responded, 'Really?' Because that had never occurred to us."
And just as Schramm's departure forced Kaplan to reassert himself as a decidedly more impassioned guitarist and to joyously embrace feedback, the reunion with Schramm helped reinforce the virtues of getting quiet. Consider Stuff Like That There's tiptoed pass at I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One's "Deeper Into Movies," which strips away the original's swirling crescendoes, redressing noisy odysseys as a lilting lullaby.
"That's something that we do pretty constantly, anyways," Kaplan says. "We're not shy about playing our old songs, and we're not shy about rearranging them."
Indeed, when Yo La Tengo covers itself on Stuff Like That There, it does so not as a nod to its past or strictly as fan service. The refreshed versions show just how malleable the band's songs have always been, a point further proven by the band's unpredictable and often brilliant live shows.
"They're finished on the record," Kaplan says of Yo La Tengo's ever-evolving songs, "but one of the pleasures of playing live is that, hopefully, they're new every night. Just going out and recreating the record every night, I can't imagine that would hold much appeal for us. When we made records, we've never thought about, 'How are we going to do this live?' We've never worried about that. The record is a document. It's a finished thing."
Whereas Yo La Tengo is not. Being a band that follows the traditional tour-and-record grind has never appealed to Yo La Tengo. They express themselves however they see fit.
"Nothing's off-limits," Kaplan says. "There are things we try and don't like and things we try and don't do again. But we would never want to rule something out. If we have an idea, we want to trust it and see if it works."