Yo La Tengo should sound tired. Not in any has-been sense of the word, but literally fatigued. The Hoboken, N.J., indie-rock trio’s 25-plus years of self-made success could understandably leave guitarist and vocalist Ira Kaplan sounding as weary as he often comes off vocally on record. Instead, Kaplan is lively during a phone interview last week — all the more striking for a man caught one day between a slew of record store dates and a two-month world tour that includes a stop Monday at First Avenue. When asked about the brief time off, he sturdily responded: “There will be neither R nor R.”
Kaplan’s waxing momentum could explain why the 13th Yo La Tengo LP, last month’s excellent “Fade,” starts off on such an atypically direct note. Since the group found a slinkier comfort zone around the time of 2000s “And Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out,” Kaplan and his wife, Tengo co-founder Georgia Hubley, have typically sung in whispers; their words often feel spied upon. So while “Fade” opener “Ohm” sounds comparably anthemic, Kaplan still probably isn’t singing to you.
“That isn’t something we really set out to do,” Kaplan said of the A-B style lyrical exchanges with his wife and bandmate. “I don’t think it’s necessarily just conversations between me and Georgia, but all three of us. We’re all pretty shy people, so that inward writing just happens among us.”
It is odd that years of lyrical introversion would be buoyed by one of the most outwardly ambitious song catalogs of the past two decades. While “Fade” is one of the band’s leanest records, it’s still plenty prismatic. From the spangly guitar of “Ohm” to bassist James McNew’s pendulous atmospherics on “I’ll Be Around,” minimalism never translates to simplicity. So it’s hard not to wonder whether or not the mystique built around the group’s songbook was always a premeditated ambition.
“I don’t think, even from the get-go, there was a ‘You gotta hear this’ or ‘This is our sound’ nature in the way we went about writing music. We’re not the Ramones,” Kaplan explained. “And that’s not a knock against the Ramones, but going about music that way was never our thing. To me it always seemed like a way to suck out all the imagination.”
That boundless ambition can at times make their intentions harder to penetrate. But Kaplan the conversationalist still has no qualms engaging in the anecdotal. Such as how Minneapolis-based Twin/Tone Records helped with distribution on the first three Yo La Tengo records. Or how he’s already heard about the recent closing of the 400 Bar (venue co-owner Bill Sullivan was once the band’s tour manager). Years of potentially grating road mileage seem mitigated by the group’s ability to keep the experience in a diversified state. Convention-shunning practices — such as the set-determining spinwheel they schlepped across the country in 2011 — are as much for the band as they are for the audience.
“Even these record store shows have been something we do to keep the pace varied. We’ve been practicing ‘I’ll Be Around’ for live shows with Georgia playing the organ, but for these record store shows we’ll have her doing a small drum part,” Kaplan said. “If we start getting bored, the audience won’t be having much better of a time.”