Yet that sense of shared isolation—that combination of diffidence and defiance—may also be the key to Yo La Tengo’s survival. Unless you count Maxwell’s, it’s hard to associate them with a particular scene, group of bands, or time period; intentionally or not, they’ve floated above it all. When Yo La Tengo was making I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, Kaplan says, they quite intentionally chose a cover of “My Little Corner of the World,” recorded previously by both Anita Bryant and Marie Osmond. Hubley and Kaplan—whose respectively placid and creaky voices seamlessly intertwine on Popular Songs—remain so tight that, Mottola says, they share one e-mail address. “I find that really sweet,” Mottola says. “My wife and I wouldn’t be able to handle that.”
The band’s actual little corner is a practice room, tucked away in an industrial building near the PATH train yard. Just before showing up at Maxwell’s, the trio huddled there to start rehearsing for their upcoming year of touring. The large room with white cinderblock walls is strewn with amps, battered vintage keyboards, guitar cases, and memorabilia from their career, like Simpsons merchandise (they recorded a version of the theme song for one episode).
Taking their positions behind their instruments, they begin rehearsing a few tunes from Popular Songs. In that uniquely Yo La Tengo way, the music sounds both polished and lo-fi, carefully arranged yet homemade. Asked if they’ve ever considered adding a fourth member to flesh out their sound onstage, Hubley seems taken aback. “I don’t know,” she murmurs with a shy smile. “It’s come up. But we’ve never really … followed up.”
“I really think one of our strengths,” Kaplan says with a skeptical squint, “is that we’ve very comfortable with each other, and much less so with other people.” Hubley nods in agreement: “Somehow we thrive on being separate.”