Indie Rockers Yo La Tengo React to Our Troubled Times With Their New Album

click to enlarge Indie Rockers Yo La Tengo React to Our Troubled Times With Their New Album
Matador Records
Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew says that as the veteran indie rock band began to assemble songs for its latest release, it used the working title There’s a Riot Going On, a reference to Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 album. That title stuck, and the band kept the name for the finished product, which came out earlier this year.

“I think we just thought that it felt right,” says McNew in a recent phone interview when asked about the nod to Sly and the Family Stone. The band performs at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Beachland Ballroom. “In the early days of working on the record in earnest, it seemed pretty accurate as to our environment and our general surroundings. Six months later, when we were still working and finishing the record, all of us still thought the title was working for us."

Though not overtly political, the songs do speak to our troubled times and the current climate of fear and uncertainty.

“It’s hard to imagine anything not speaking to it,” says McNew. “It’s hard to imagine not reacting. People react in different ways, and I think there’s a certain idea that people have about what protest music should sound like, and I don’t think that’s enforceable. Everyone resists and reacts in their own ways. While [protest music] is a common expression and way for us to come together, at the same time, it’s also a very personal means of expression.”

The band took a different approach to the recording process, and that approach reaps some pretty fantastic musical dividends as the group puts an emphasis on creating rich sonic textures. It’s the band’s first-ever self-production credit — there was no tracking or demoing as the trio relied upon rejected film scores and discarded songs and melodies.

“We all work together,” says McNew. “I think all three of us are credited on all the songs. That’s the way we worked for quite a while. In 1991, I started playing in the band as a fill-in. I had to learn a couple of dozen Yo La Tengo songs and covers, enough to get through a short tour here and there. I moved to New York, and we kept playing together. Eventually, I learned all the songs, so we started writing new material.”

A few years ago, McNew says the band “stumbled into a mode of improvising and playing in practice where we had no destination, and we would just play and switch instruments and see what happen.” The group would create “crummy” cassette recordings and try to sift out the chord changes and rhythms that might become songs.

“In a lot of ways, we still work like that,” he says.

Though still collaborative, writing the songs for There’s a Riot Going On was much different.

“We were mostly composing to a computer rather than sitting in a room and jamming and coming up with ideas that way,” says McNew. “We were taking things apart and working spontaneously. It’s a different, new way of jamming. It was in a different part of the room. We did all the recording ourselves in our practice space. We have a recording set up there, and all our gear is there. We could use anything we had. We did mixing with [producer and musician] John McEntire at his place. I think we were interested in different textures. We’re all fans in large degree of the surreal and psychedelic aspects of sound and music. It’s fun to explore that.”

The album opener, “You Are Here,” commences with a shimmering hum before the percussion, bass and drums slowly kick in. It serves as a great intro to the intricate melodies to come. The album concludes with the equally exquisite “Here You Are.”

“A lot of times when we’re writing songs for an album, there will be one or two songs that we all instantly could imagine beginning a show with or ending a show with," says McNew. " That’s how a sequence gets built for us. We get the beginning and ending and then work on the middle.”

“Above the Sound” comes off as a world music track with its tribal sounding drumbeats and shards of feedback and other found sounds.

“There’s a lot of layers in that one,” says McNew. “A lot of the songs on the record are built off of these spontaneously recorded jams that were happening in the moment and carried over onto a multi-track recording session and extrapolated. There’s all sorts of crazy stuff going on. There’s more percussion than I can remember and electronic things and loops and an upright bass part and lots of guitars that don’t present themselves guitars, but they are. That is a fun one. We haven’t played it live yet, but I hope we do. It has piano as well. That was a ball to record.”

“Out of the Pool,” another album highlight, begins with a bit of spoken before getting into a Talking Heads-like groove.

“That one came out of a jam that we had done and recorded a rough version of,” says McNew. “We took part of it that was a microphone recording of us coming up with that rhythmic pattern and looped it and built that entire track on top of it. It’s kind of like every song on the record. It was really experimental and doing things that are unusual for us texturally, but they felt total natural as far as arrangements and sounds. That was one of my favorite ones to work on and one of my favorites to play now.

For the current tour, Yo La Tengo will perform without an opening act. About ten years ago, the band toured with a spinning wheel and would open for itself as “some esoteric permutation of the group.” At that point, it began doing “an evening with” shows.

“The first set usually holds ten of the quieter side of things, and the second set, it gets loud,” says McNew. “Spoiler alert!”

The past 30 years had brought so many changes to the music industry, but Yo La Tengo, which first formed in 1984, has persevered by not worrying about the changes or trying to live up to anyone’s expectations but its own.

“For better or worse, we do largely exist in a bubble of three people,” says McNew. “The band never really had a goal in terms of selling so many tickets and records. That wasn’t the plan. If anything, our goals were to make better records and write better songs and maybe play our instruments better and experience it. That’s worked out pretty good. We’re still working on playing our instruments better, but we don’t really feel the pressure for that so much. That’s overrated.”

An Evening with Yo La Tengo, 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $23 ADV, $25 DOS,