Three days after the death of David Bowie, Ira Kaplan has some time off at his home in New York. He doesn't have any personal Bowie stories to share, but his band Yo La Tengo, known for its surprising covers, did in fact try their hands at a song or two.
"The only times we came up with a cover — leaving aside the WFMU broadcasts, which are a blur — we did do a show in San Francisco one year, a benefit for KUSF for their anniversary," he recalls. "They went on the air the year Heroes came out, so we did play 'Heroes' that night. When we went on tour with Jad Fair of Half Japanese we added a couple of covers, including 'Rebel Rebel.' You couldn't help but admire Bowie. He wasn't someone I listened to initially, but it was probably with Low and Heroes when I got interested, and then I went back to the records I'd passed over."
You could imagine that's the case with so many of the artists Yo La Tengo has covered over the years. The band is omnivorous; in the annals of indie rock it's hard to think of another act that has so dedicated itself to the art of the homage, or found such a sense of who they are in the music they love and why they love it. Fakebook, the band's pivotal album of cover songs from 1990, was a modest and beautiful flare-up of folk and country, so twangy and fun and tender that it made the anti-avant-garde heroes they'd become seem like something else entirely. Yo La Tengo was clearly deeper and trickier than even its growing fan base had guessed.
"Fakebook does stand out in the over 30 years of our being together," Kaplan says. "I don't know what would happen if we decided to make another record like Electr-O-Pura. I don't even know what that would mean. We were resistant to the idea. People asked about [us doing a sequel to Fakebook]. Why would we ever want to do that? And then we did."
That album, Stuff Like That There, is a deliberate sequel to Fakebook, down to re-enlisting musician Dave Schramm, whose electric guitar helped give Fakebook its distinctively rockabilly and psychedelic-folk sound, and who even toured with the core trio of Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew during the band's 2014 road trips. He won't be joining Yo La Tengo on its current outing, but the reunion with Schramm helped reinforce the virtues of getting quiet — really quiet — on stage.
"We played so quietly at the first shows, and played amps barely larger than an LP cover," recalls Kaplan. "Some of the infinite possibilities get thrown out and you approach the material differently. It's one of the things that makes it appealing to do things differently — you don't know what effect it's going to have on the songs. Playing cover songs or playing our old songs again, they will change over time. Even in the course of a tour we'll play the same song with three different arrangements."
The songs that Yo La Tengo decided to cover for its latest album are as delightfully capricious as those found on Fakebook. There's a Lovin' Spoonful song, a classic Cure number, an obscure track by indie-rock contemporaries Antietam, and a radically reworked version of the chaotic doo-wop tune "Somebody's in Love" by the Cosmic Rays with Le Sun Ra and Arkestra. The band even covers three of its own songs, and adds two new previously unknown originals. Stuff Like That There (the title namechecks a Betty Hutton pop ballad from 1945, though the band didn't include that song on the album) may not be the revelation that Fakebook was, but it beautifully reasserts the fully contemplative, delicate, melodic side of a band that remains best known for its droning, dense and frequently tempestuous excursions.
"It's not just the covers," stresses Kaplan. "It's the volume, the gentleness. Touring the way we did on the Fade record [in 2013], where we did a quiet set and then a loud set, we found that we were enjoying playing quietly for 45 minutes straight. It contributed to making this new record. We've got a show in New York where we are performing with composer Alvin Lucier, and a lot of his work is built around sounds that change imperceptibly and slowly. When you play that way you listen differently. Little changes sound huge. You are listening that hard and with such focus. That's part of the appeal of this record, playing in that same style. I don't know if the listener can tell, but the differences seem huge to us."
Improvisation and close listening, whether in the hushed restraint of its newest recordings or the blistering charge of its electric sets, define Yo La Tengo. Though performing as a mere trio, the possibilities go on and on, from the delicately funky rhythms to the strangely soothing fuzz of keyboard tones that lace inspiration together.
And then there's what Kaplan does with his guitar. That kind of noise could never sound the same twice, though he readily admits he didn't invent the art of improvisational destruction.
"For me, Neil Young was someone whose notes are just a facet of what's awe-inspiring about the performance," he says. "At the same time there's a moment I cherish — actually a show I promoted — when Half Japanese were playing and Jad Fair ripped all six strings off his guitar and threw it to the ground. Then Dave Fair picked up a guitar that had no strings and started playing it. It's not hard to look around and see that expression can take a lot of forms ... giving yourself the freedom to express yourself in the moment as you see fit. That's part of why I enjoy the quiet set. The two complement each other. But I do look forward to the explosions of the loud sets."