Interview

James McNew (Yo La Tengo)

James McNew (Yo La Tengo)

By Danielle Street

Thursday 24th December, 2015 6:15PM

Earlier this year Hoboken outfit Yo La Tengo lifted the lid on their fourteenth studio album Stuff Like That There. As with some of the group's earlier albums, Stuff Like That There contained a slew of brilliant covers, including an ingenious version of The Cure's 'Friday I'm In Love', which came accompanied by an apocalyptic video starring the band. UnderTheRadar had the opportunity to catch up with bassist James McNew (pictured far right) to have a chat about the clip, the band's ongoing effort to cover every song ever written and his love-hate relationship with the upright bass...

UTR: Hey James...so I've been appreciating the video for 'Friday I'm In Love', it's really great. How did the concept for that come about?

JM: Um, pretty much all of it came from the brain of the director, whose name is Jason Moliner, and he's a very talented young man. I think we kind of had an idea of Georgia just kind of walking down the street oblivious to everything and just in her own world singing the song. And he said "yeah, that sounds great, let me get back to you". And he got back to us basically with the idea for the video. We loved it, it was so much fun to make and to watch it all come together was really exciting, and we were extremely happy with how it turned out.


I like the bit where you are just the little head on a pair of shoes...

Hahaha. It makes me laugh every time I see it. And also, I think it just says "Unknown Survivor". That made me laugh so hard.


Yeah that's so good, but the bit I can't work out is the little clay characters that Georgia is picking up. What are they supposed to be?

Ahh that's a good question. They are just little talismans, I guess. They are little significant special little magical objects that are somehow related to her causing the end of the world.


And at the end of the world, apparently eating batteries will be a thing. Watching that make my teeth feel sore...

Hahaha well.. this is the kind of information that normally you would have to wait for a DVD director's commentary, but they were made of chocolate. So don't feel too bad.


What made you guys choose to cover that particular Cure song?

We just always loved that song, and I know Ira and I shared a very strong feeling that - just for our own enjoyment - we wanted to hear Georgia sing that song, always. I think we first played it maybe 10 years ago and we played a loud, more faithful cover version of that song. I think we only played it once or twice, but we kept it in our minds. Especially once this project came around, we thought it would fit right in with something like that. And I think we were right.


Yo La Tengo are obviously known for the range of covers you have done over the years. Is it tricky finding a balance where you are paying homage to the artist, while making it your own version?

Um I guess not, hahah. I guess it all depends. We have covers that sounds like the originals, and then we have one that sound nothing like the original. We have no particular rules, and we definitely don't feel like anything is "off limits". But every year we do a radio programme on the station WFMU, which is in New Jersey, and we are usually on the air live for about three hours. It's a 100% listener sponsored station, and it's the best. And we will go live on the air and play any song, and just put ourselves out there, in exchange for people pledging money for the station. And it's pretty terrible. We'll try, we'll do it, we will make complete idiots out of ourselves for that station because we love it so much. And people can request any song they can think of, and we have to try and play it somehow, and we fail. It's pretty funny, I guess, or it's awful - it depends on your point of view. But we enjoy doing it. And through that show every year, we've come close to trying to cover every song that was ever written. We are making pretty good progress.


You must be passionate about the station to be doing that for such a long time. Why is it so significant to you?

Um, there's kind of nothing like it. It's entirely listener sponsored. Many years ago it was part of a college in New Jersey and the college went out of business, it went bankrupt, but the station survived. So for a few years it was the only inhabited building on a deserted college campus. So it was like a horror movie, basically. And then they moved to a great big building in Jersey city, and they are just across the water from Manhattan. And the DJs who work there don't get paid, and they put in endless hours of work on their shows and you can really tell. All three of us find it an endless source of entertainment and enjoyment. It's a special group of people and it means a lot to us that they let us help out every year.


Cool! So these days you guys have been playing as a four-piece lately, and in other changes you’ve shifted to upright bass...

That's right. No electric bass. Upright only.


What challenges does that bring with it?

More than I could list. It's a gigantic sea change. It's a hurricane of challenge. It's been quite an undertaking. But I'm really enjoying it, I practise as much as I can, and hopefully I will be able to fool people into thinking I can play the upright bass when I go on tour. That's the most I can hope for.


Just even logistically, travelling with an upright bass must present it's own a challenge?

I liken it to owning a boat. You think about buying a boat and you think "oh that sounds nice", but then you have to get it from place to place. It's hard to get a boat from place to place. And then you have to find a place to keep it and it's like "urgh, why did I ever buy a boat, this was a terrible idea". Um, it's a lot like that.


It's a romantic idea.

Yeah, it sounds great. And I love playing it and I love trying to learn new things. It seems like something every bass player should try. It's made me stronger and a better bass player overall. It hurts my back - a lot. But other than that I definitely think I've gotten better at electric as well as upright.


Well, take care of your back and bend with your knees and all that. It's been nice talking to you and hopefully we will see you this way soon.

Yes definitely, always. I'm a regular UnderTheRadar reader, so I'm very happy to speak with you.

Aww thanks! :)


Stuff Like That There is out now via Matador Records



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