It's an irresistible concept: A wheel of fortune will determine the fate of each Yo La Tengo show on their winter tour. Or more specifically, the first half of the show, during which the band could play any one of eight sets, depending on where the wheel lands.
Yo La Tengo could, for instance, perform as an entirely different band (Dump or the Condo Fucks). Yo La Tengo and crew could act out a sitcom. Yo La Tengo could play only songs that start with "s."
The second half is entirely up to the band, which will return to a more conventional setlist drawing on some 27 years of material.
It's an atypically typical move for the Hoboken-based trio, which has set the template for a particular kind of adventurous, playful, historically-informed indie rock by, as guitarist Ira Kaplan puts it in the following interview with NUVO, not staying "wedded" to their "comfort zone."
For every action there is an opposite in Yo La Tengo's world. For every Fakebook, a 1990 album largely comprised of acoustic covers (of song by Cat Stevens, The Scene is Now, Daniel Johnston), there is 2008's Fuckbook, a collection of garage rock covers (Slade, Richard Hell, the Flamin' Groovies) recorded by the band under the nameCondo Fucks.
For every tightly-crafted, traditionally-arranged pop song, there is a 15-minute noisy, freeform jam session. Or a lovingly-rendered jazz cover, like their take on Sun Ra's "Nuclear War" ("If they drop that bomb, you ass has got to go.") Or a hip-hop remix, like Pete Rock's reworking of "Here to Fall," a song on the band's most recent full-length, 2009's Popular Songs.
And for every moment when Kaplan tries to hide in crowded room or escape by getting high ("Autumn Sweater" and "Drug Test," respectively), there is a love song like "Center of Gravity" from I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, a bossa nova-flavored duet between Kaplan and his wife, drummer Georgia Hubley. Kaplan and Hubley have been around for the entirety of the band's history, and bassist James McNew has put in plenty of time since joining the group for 1993's Painful.
I spoke with Kaplan last month about the tour and two Yo La Tengo traditions — their usually-annual run of Hanukkah concerts at Hoboken club Maxwell's and their marathon fundraising performances on New Jersey freeform station WFMU, during which the band covers songs suggested by on-air callers.
NUVO: How did you come up with the idea for the show?
Ira Kaplan: We liked the idea of the Condo Fucks doing tours, but not really doing a Condo Fucks tour per se. We don't really love telling people in advance what we're going to do. We like for there to be a certain, spontaneous aspect to it. Announcing that it's going to be a Condo Fucks tour or it's going to be a Freewheeling tour didn't really appeal to us that much, but we didn't want to not be able to play that way. As some point this idea came to us, and it seemed to take care of every objection.
NUVO: Can you tell me about the Freewheeling show?
Kaplan: We did a fair number of shows as Freewheeling Yo La Tengo a couple years ago. Basically, we'll ask the audience to ask us questions, and we'll take the questions and answer them, and that will sort of inspire us to do a song. We'll be playing acoustically or quietly; it'll just be kind of a Q&A with songs.
NUVO: What are some of the oddest questions you've been asked?
Kaplan: I don't end up remembering. It's not that easy; you have to kind of concentrate on what's going on at that moment. When I go see somebody else, I'll typically be watching the show, and then with another part of my brain, trying to remember what songs they played to see how long I can keep them in order in my brain. I don't have any free space in that part of my brain while we're doing Freewheeling Yo La Tengo. But people really can ask whatever they want; they'll ask stuff about the band, they'll ask about politics.
NUVO: Dump is another group, like the Condo Fucks, that isn't heard from live very often.
Kaplan: We have done the occasional Dump song in Freewheeling Yo La Tengo; when somebody asks James about making Dump records, frequently we'll play one of those songs. We did this a couple of times many years ago, where Georgia and I did some shows as James's band, but it's been ages.
NUVO: I assume you won't tell us what sitcom you have in mind.
Kaplan: Hopefully we're going to ride that surprise all the way to the finish line. Without the excitement of the surprise, I think it'll be even trickier to pull off.
NUVO: And The Sounds of Science are also on the wheel. Could you talk about the process of scoring those films?
Kaplan: Well, we had kind of a stockpile of things we had made up. We're always recording rehearsals, and we have thousands and thousands of hours of things we think we might want to listen to again or do something with again. We went through a bunch of those things and discussed within the group if any of them seemed to fit with any of the movies we'd watched. We ended up with a few of those that seemed to go together in a way that made sense to us. And then we just started playing them while watching the movies, and like pouring a liquid into a mold, we allowed the music to take the shape of the movies. They're pretty loose; there's occasional things that happen according to what happen on screen, but generally it's more by feel. It's kind of the nature of the movie; there's not a lot of dramatic action in the movies either.
NUVO: Whose idea was it to seek out hip-hop remixes of "Here to Fall"?
Kaplan: As a band, we liked that idea of doing remixes of it. And then when it came to approaching specific people, that was mostly generated from James; he's the person in the band who listens to hip-hop in the band the most, and has the most developed taste in that regard. Those were all people on his wishlist.
NUVO: What did you think when you heard the interpretations, especially a song with new lyrics like Pete Rock's remix?
Kaplan: It was hilarious. One of the perks of having your song remixed is that you get to hear your own music more as a fan than the person who did it. We rarely listen to our own music, and we do so strictly for work purposes. It's not like, "Gee, what'll we listen to today — a little Half Japanese, The Beatles? No, let's slap on a little Yo La Tengo!" So the opportunity to put it on and get a kick out of it in that way is definitely one of the good things about having remixes done.
NUVO: One review notes that the EP was kind of step out of your comfort zone. Did it feel that way?
Kaplan: Well, yeah, [but given] this tour we're discussing, I'm not sure that going outside of our comfort zone is unusual for the band. We're not in love with our comfort zone.
NUVO: And you're willing to poke fun at yourself, like with the title Fuckbook and the "Sugarcube" music video.
Kaplan: I think, as a band, we're all big fans of comedy and stand-up comedy; it's been a big part of the Hanukkah shows we've done. I think we've observed just how much you can reveal through comedy, the information you can convey that way. We enjoy the laughing aspect of it, but that was done seriously and hopefully a little more enjoyably than the way I'm talking to you right now, in this turgid way.