Hoboken’s Finest

From left, Hubley, Kaplan, and McNew, in Brooklyn.Photo: Jesper Eklow

No sooner has Yo La Tengo settled into a table at the iconic Hoboken club Maxwell’s than an old friend pops in to say hello. “You guys don’t spend enough time here as it is?” he asks. The band members—guitarist-keyboardist Ira Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew—shrug and chuckle because, really, the response is beyond obvious. Yo La Tengo might as well be Maxwell’s house band. Its first performance, 25 years ago this December, was at Maxwell’s. Kaplan and Hubley, who married in 1987, had their celebratory postnuptials party here. Although McNew calls Brooklyn home, Kaplan and Hubley live in Hoboken, and the band has a rehearsal space only a quick bike ride away from the club. McNew, who joined the band in 1991, recalls that “after the first practice, we went to Maxwell’s and talked about SCTV. We still do that.” In their casual garb—WFMU T-shirt, Converse sneakers, jeans—the three of them even look straight out of a 1993 photo.

Although Maxwell’s survives, much of Yo La Tengo’s past has gone the way of the LP. New York Rocker, the punk-era music magazine where Kaplan was an editor and writer, is a distant memory, as are Coyote Records (the indie label that released its earliest albums), Danceteria (the club where Kaplan and Hubley met, in 1980), and period bands like the dBs and the Feelies (both recently reunited). Given Kaplan’s then-job as a rock critic, Hubley’s art background—her father, John Hubley, was an animator who helped invent Mr. Magoo—and their initially rudimentary skills, Yo La Tengo could have easily joined that sad scrap heap. “If we had filled out one of those quizzes that said ‘Will you be together in 25 years?’ ” Kaplan says, “with ‘Yes, definitely,’ ‘Probably,’ ‘Probably not,’ ‘No way’ [as choices]—I don’t think ‘Yes, definitely’ or ‘Probably’ would have been the answer.”

Instead, something funny happened: The band that began as a hobby—a fan’s fantasy of being a rock star—has outlasted almost everyone and become a local institution. For a quarter-century, Yo La Tengo has refined a beguiling blend of fragile pop and bomb-siren feedback, making at least two essential indie-rock albums (1993’s Painful and 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One) in the process. At a point when most bands start slowing down, Yo La Tengo has instead released its most forceful album in a decade, Popular Songs, whose tracks saunter confidently from electro–bossa nova and piano pop to twisty guitar drone and John Fahey–style avant-acoustic music. (The bouncy “If It’s True” even sports a Motown bass line.) The band made major headway in film scoring with this year’s cult hit Adventureland, and on September 25, they’ll headline Roseland Ballroom for the first time ever. “We’ve joked about their ‘career trajectory,’ but it’s actually an amazing trajectory,” says Maxwell’s co-owner Todd Abramson. “You might need time-lapse photography to see it, but it’s there.”

In the beginning, the word career could hardly be associated with the band. Soon after meeting, Kaplan and Hubley dragged a guitar, drum, and amp to Kaplan’s family’s house in Westchester and bashed out Who and Kinks covers. “We didn’t do it to form a band,” Kaplan says. “We did it to pass an afternoon.” (The group’s name is Spanish for “I have it,” reflecting Kaplan and Hubley’s mutual baseball addiction.) Kaplan still recalls that debut show in 1984, when he was so nervous that he opened his mouth to sing and nothing came out. Their first few albums (recorded with a series of rotating bass players) were raw and bristling, the sound of a band finding its voice and footing. Recalling those early gigs, Gerard Cosloy, co-founder of their current label, Matador, says, “The technical level of musicianship was, shall we say, evolving.”

After McNew joined, the band broke major ground with Painful and was swept up, to a degree, in the alt-rock gold rush of the nineties. In 1995, they even shared a Lollapalooza stage with Coolio. (“I think, Did that really happen?” says McNew. “I guess it did.”) But the band always kept its distance, and not merely by staying in Hoboken, where Hubley and Kaplan moved in 1982. They rarely put their photos on album covers. They named songs (“Tom Courtenay,” “Deeper Into Movies,” “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House”) after their pop-culture obsessions—in-jokes that surely went over the heads of most Lollapalooza kids. “They were always on the periphery,” says Cosloy, “rather than in the thick of it.” According to Adventureland director Greg Mottola, it took some convincing to get the band to score his film; since the movie was being made for Disney’s Miramax branch, it would mark the first time they’d worked on a non-indie film. “They wanted some assurance that the music wouldn’t end up in Escape to Witch Mountain 2 or something,” jokes Mottola.

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.”

Popular Songs
Yo La Tengo.
Matador Records.

Hoboken’s Finest