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Members include Georgia Hubrey , drums; Ira Kaplan, guitar, vocals; James McNew (member c. 1991), bass. Former members include Al Greller (c. 1990), bass; Gene Holder (c. 1989), bass; Mike Lewis (member c. 1985), bass; Dave Schramm (member c. 1985); Stephen Wichnewski (member c. 1987). Addresses: Record Company--Matador Records, 625 Broadway, New York, NY 1001; Home--Hoboken, NJ.
Yo La Tengo guitarist Ira Kaplan declared, in no uncertain terms, to Jeff Salamon of Spin magazine in 1997, "I one hundred percent reject the notion that we're a critics' band." Strong words from a former rock critic about a band that has, since its inception in 1984, received far more words of praise in the media than it has sold records. Named for a phrase yelled by a hispanic New York Mets fielder, Yo La Tengo was started and has always consisted of guitarist and vocalist, Ira Kaplan and his wife, drummer and vocalist, Georgia Hubley. What started as a side-project for a rock critic and his percussion-wise mate became one of independent rock's most-championed bands. They'd sold only 50,000 records from their first release in 1986 to their 1997 album but their credibility in the indie-rock genre was rock solid.
For the first six years of songwriting, recording and touring, the band was essentially a two-person show, with practical contributions over the years from bassists Al Greller, Gene Holder, Mike Lewis, and Stephen Wichnewski. Guitarist Dave Schramm's input was key to the group's 1986 debut, Ride the Tiger and again on President Yo La Tengo in 1989 and Fakebook in 1990. There has always been a floating third member of Yo La Tengo, and not until bassist James McNew joined the group in 1991 did the lineup ever solidify.
It is no coincidence that Kaplan and Hubley, married since 1987, have always remained the core of the trio. Chris Norris of New York said in 1997, "Hubley and Kaplan's music has everything to do with their relationship--would not, in fact, exist without it--and it has everything to do with the subculture that sustains them." Their common love of popular music, baseball and hanging out with other musicians works its way from their marriage into their music. That the couple has been called "pop culture's best advertisement for marriage" only illustrates the way their belief in rock and roll as more than a vehicle for attention-starved show offs comes across to fans.
Creative Upbringing Raised Grounded Rockers
While recognized as part of New York bohemia, whose genealogy can be traced back past the Velvet Underground--whom Yo La Tengo portrayed in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol--they seemed a little more grounded than "a whole tradition of left-leaning, humanist-minded, Jewish-identified artists who have thrived in New York's margins for 50 years." The difference Norris pointed out was that "what Hubley and Kaplan took from late-sixties art rock wasn't the emphasis on glamour, sex, drugs, and thanatos but a belief that rock could be more than teen culture, that you could keep exploring, keep experimenting." Hubley and Kaplan were deemed, unlike their self-destructive predecessors, able to find an "adult bohemia."
It seemed that Yo La Tengo had defied the rock and roll school of success and gone about eeking out a rock existence that was more stable. In a 1997 review Spin's Robert Christgau said, "not all the music emanating form Yo La Tengo is perfect. That's intentional--this paradise not only has room for error, it revels in the human-scale joys of inexpertise."
Hubley grew up in a household that saw the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and Paul Simon pass through its doors. Her parents were animators--her late father John invented the character Mr. Magoo--and brought her up in a creative environment. Hubley's mother, Faith, let the neophyte drummer practice in her warehouse studio on Madison Avenue. The manager of the Carlyle Hotel, located across the street, once attempted to bribe Mrs. Hubley into stopping Georgia from practicing at night. Mrs. Hubley recalled her reaction to Norris in 1997, "I said, `No, no, no, no. She's pursuing her art and she has the right to do that, and we don't need your money, thank you very much."
Kaplan's beginnings as a rock critic cloaked his talents as a musician. Of those days, Kaplan told Carl Swanson the New York Observer in 1997, "It was a way of staying close to music. I was definitely the cliché music writer who would rather be a musician." Even his father, Abraham, knew. "I remember he spent one entire summer sitting around trying to become skillful on the guitar," he told Norris. "From the earliest on, I knew it would never be a hobby."
From Bedroom Shows to Indie Success
His talent not in question, Kaplan was terrified to perform publicly--Georgia was his only audience for quite a while. One by one, the couple invited people in and at their debut performance, Kaplan opened his mouth to sing the second song--the first was an instrumental--and nothing came out.
Kaplan eventually learned to play through his performance anxiety, and Yo La Tengo became as known for their frequent live shows as for their recordings. Fans and critics reveled in the unpredictability of the Yo La Tengo live experience. "Yo La Tengo make regular excursions into the unknown on stage, and, like any performance, the results can be pretty hit or miss. But when they pull it off, it is something to behold," commented Swanson.
Kaplan is known to tire of and become noticeably uncomfortable during press tours and interviews. Yet he performs his public responsibilities dutifully. His interests apparently lie in exposing Yo La Tengo to as many people as possible. Based on his observations, the band's relentless, though reluctant, self-promotion has paid off. "We're fortunate in that we've only gotten more popular," he told Dawn Sutton of theCollege Music Journal (CMJ) in 1997. "Not that we're selling a billion records, but every record does a little better than the one before and every tour does a little better than the one before, and I think that helps. I think we are very self-motivated and inner-directed and all sorts of jargony things, but at the same time it's pretty rewarding when there are all these people out there."
Three Hearts as One
The group's 1997 release, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, exhibited how the band, once a two-person operation, had evolved into an even balance of power. Adam Heimlich of the New York Press noted in 1997 that "not since Rush has a trio shared power as evenly as Yo La Tengo it's easy to let the 33-and-a-third percent contributions calibrate the whole experience." Bassist James McNew's contributions to the band went from hired hand on his first record being part of all the songwriting with them on their fourth album, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One.
Critics were wowed by what they heard, the new sound of their pet band. Reviews called the record "a more subdued listen, a more varied sound" than their previous releases. Most reviews centered on the more pronounced balance--always somewhat present on Yo La Tengo recordings--between sonic assault and heartfelt melodies, their "ability to express the pedestrian or the sublime in a single phrase," as Joe Donnelly of Raygun summarized in a 1997 review. Kaplan characteristically played down their reactions to CMJ's Sutter. "Sometimes what may seem like a different influence is really just a different button on the drum machine," he said.
The evolution of Yo La Tengo did not go unnoticed by Kaplan, however he may have tried to play it off to journalists. As he told Salamon, the Yo La Tengo that had just released I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and the one he'd known previously were "two different bands." Hubley agreed. "Now, I feel like the three of us are more like one personality,' she said. "Almost a separate personality."
by Brenna Sanchez
Yo La Tengo's Career
Formed c. 1984, in Hoboken, NJ; Kaplan and Hubrey voted "Cutest Couple" (Class of '85) at a Hoboken high school; released debut Ride the Tiger on Coyote, 1986; signed to Matador in 1993; retoured with alternative-rock festival Lollapalooza in 1993; released I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, 1997.
- Selected discography
- New Wave Hot Dogs/President Yo La Tengo , Twin/Tone, 1989.
- Fakebook , Bar/None, 1990.
- May I Sing With Me , Alias, 1992.
- Upside Down , Alias, 1992.
- Painful , Matador/Atlantic, 1993.
- Camp Yo La Tengo (EP), Matador, 1995.
- Electr-O-Pura , Matador, 1995.
- Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo , Matador, 1996.
- Ride theTiger , Coyote, 1986; Matador, 1996.
- New Wave Hot Dogs , Coyote, 1987; Matador, 1996.
- President Yo La Tengo , Coyote, 1989; Matador, 1996.
- Autumn Sweater (EP), Matador, 1997.
- I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One , Matador, 1997.
- Sugarcube/The Summer/Looney Toons (EP), Matador, 1997.
- Little Honda (EP), Matador, 1998.
- College Music Journal , May 5, 1997.
- Entertainment Weekly , October 8, 1993; May 2, 1997.
- Guitar Player , October 1997.
- New York , May 12, 1997.
- New York Observer , May 12, 1997.
- New York Press , May 1997.
- New York Times , November 5, 1997.
- Rolling Stone , May 1, 1997; October 2, 1997.
- Spin , January 1998.
- Village Voice , October 19, 1993; April 29, 1997.
- "Yo la Tengo,"Trouser Press , http://www.trouserpress.com (September 20, 1998).
- "Yo la Tengo," Pitchfork Review Archive, http://www.live-wire.com (August 9, 1998).
- "Yo la Tengo,"All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (October 3, 1998).
- Additional information was provided by Matador Records publicity materials, 1998.
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