Yo La Tengo keeps growing and changing

Yo La Tengo - Georgia Kaplan, Ira Kaplan (front), James McNew - made its first album in 1986 and plans to release its 14th in January.
Yo La Tengo - Georgia Kaplan, Ira Kaplan (front), James McNew - made its first album in 1986 and plans to release its 14th in January. (JESPER EKLOW)
Posted: September 08, 2012

James McNew is about to forget the new Yo La Tengo record. He and Ira and Georgia Kaplan just finished mixing an as-yet-untitled album, due out in early January, and the long-standing Hoboken trio appears at Penn's Landing on Saturday as part of WHYY's Connections Festival.

The new album, produced by Tortoise's John McEntire in Chicago, will be Yo La Tengo's 14th since 1986, and they have become, in many ways, the archetypal indie-rock band.

"Yeah, we're an institution," says McNew, who joined the Kaplans with 1992's May I Sing With Me. The band's versatility is its hallmark: It veers among feedback-driven epics, delicate acoustic ruminations, and catchy garage rockers, while integrating elements of free jazz (when in Philly, they often ask members of Sun Ra's Arkestra to sit in), plus soulful R&B, '60s rock, '70s punk, and anything else that strikes its fancies.

That's especially true when Yo La Tengo plays live. The songs continue to live and develop over the years.

"We'll make a record, and I'll never hear it, I'll never listen to it again," says McNew. "The songs take on a life of us playing them. I'll never think about how hard we worked to get a recording to exactly where we wanted it, to the point at which we put it away and it's finished, we put it on a record. In one way, we forget about it, and we let the songs grow and change with us as we grow and change."

That growth and change has led the band to try some unusual tour ideas. They've done shows built on audience question-and-answer sessions. They've let a roulette wheel determine the theme of a set. They've played live to accompany films. They value new challenges, spontaneous creativity, and surprises, and that has helped keep them a vital force for so long.

"I don't really think we feel like, 'I'm going to kill myself if we don't do something different,' " says McNew. "Actually, I take that back: I think we would feel that way. We've never played the same set twice. We just make up a set list right before we go out on stage, and they're all written by hand. I see bands print out their set lists on computer paper and just play the same set every night. None of us would be happy doing that."

McNew says we can expect some new songs on that handwritten set list Saturday when Yo La Tengo tops a bill that includes Frank Turner, Maps & Atlases, and locals the Lawsuits and Fabian Akilles. The free show is part of WHYY's Connections Festival, a weekend-long celebration of film, music, and visual art that includes a doo-wop concert Sunday.

McNew's not hinting at what the new album sounds like, but he agrees that the band's development continues to be less about evolution than about exploration.

"I feel really proud of that," he says. "It has been an evolution, but it's been a personal evolution. The older we get, the longer we play together, we become more curious and more confident. It's very satisfying."

It's been very satisfying, and unforgettable, for us as listeners, too.

Yo La Tengo with Frank Turner, Maps & Atlases, the Lawsuits, and Fabian Akilles, plays at 4 p.m. Saturday at the River Stage at the Great Plaza at Penn's Landing, 201 S. Columbus Blvd. Free. Information: 215-351-1200, www.whyy.org/connectionsfestival.

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