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There are two possible results when a decades-old band go on tour but play no new material and haven't even bothered with reinvention for years. One is the dreaded zombie show best personified by the Beach Boys and doo-wop groups with no original members, the kind of shows at which the average concertgoer is on the cusp of Social Security and the band desperately riff through hits as if playing them might give them a chance at eternal life—pathetic.
Then you have Yo La Tengo, husband/wife duo Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley with James McNew, pioneers of geek rock. They won't be performing any newly written material on their first (!) Orange County appearance—the closest they'll come to anything fresh is perhaps playing something live they never have before. But how they're determining what they're going to play is downright genius: At the start of each show, Yo La Tengo will channel their inner Vanna White by spinning a wheel that has a number of options for what they'll play from their catalog for their first set, followed by a second set of songs to balance out what was played first. Genius!
Those options include Condo Fucks (their lo-fi, cover-band pseudonym that released the scrappy album Fuckbook in 2009), Dump (McNew's solo moniker), the Freewheeling Yo La Tengo (a question-and-answer session with fans in which the answer leads to a song played), the Name Game (a set of songs with names in the titles), songs starting with S, the Sounds of the Sounds of Science (an instrumental score by the band that was originally done to accompany undersea documentary shorts by French filmmaker Jean Painlevé), and, last but not least, the option to see the band and a crew act out a classic sitcom. While some fans may really want to see Kaplan play Archie Bunker, those hoping for music need not worry—they haven't landed on the sitcom option yet, and if they do, they promise to follow with a set of "hits."
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"That will be more of an apology set," Kaplan says.
If some of those ideas seem ill-advised, it's still within the Yo La Tengo framework for the band to pretty much do what they want at this point, whether it's writing and performing 15-plus-minute psychedelic compositions alongside their poppier material, covering songs they barely know (as they did on the 2006 benefit album Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics for New Jersey's freeform titan WFMU-FM, for which they took requests), or trying their hand at stage acting.
"It's a tightrope that you walk," Kaplan says. "On the one hand, we're always very appreciative and excited when people like what we're doing, but we've tried not to define ourselves by it. We've done things along the way that people like less than other things. I feel like if you get too caught up in what's selling better than other things and what people like better than others, then you have to take that just as seriously when it's a failure in that regard. In the 1960s, if a record was a hit, it was a good record, and if it was a flop, it was a bad record. Not having hits, we don't have the 'luxury' of thinking that way."
Kaplan and drummer/vocalist Hubley formed Yo La Tengo in Hoboken in 1984; McNew signed on in the early '90s. The band have turned out numerous albums of blissful guitar pop that touch on early-'80s college rock, the shoegazer sonics of My Bloody Valentine and Brazilian tropicalia via Hubley's honeyed voice. More recently, on albums such as 2006's I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass and 2009's Popular Songs, the band have shown a yen for Burt Bacharach-style strings, horns and pianos, influenced by their work on film soundtracks over the past decade.
"Working with directors, working with writing music that has a different purpose than writing a song, all of these things contribute to what comes out," Kaplan says. "We've been more free with strings and horns on some of the soundtrack work, and I think that has doubled back on the songs we write.
"It's been a long time since we were 'make a record, go on tour, get off tour, make another record,'" he adds. "We haven't done that in quite a few years. The time between records has gotten longer, and it's starting to look like it'll be longer still 'cause we haven't begun to work on something new. To the best of our ability, we do things with as little planning as possible. . . . It sort of contributes to us staying as excited by it as we remain."
This greatest-hits tour, however, has a limited shelf life: After it's over, Yo La Tengo will regroup and probably start writing new material.
"This is our job, and it's a job we love," Kaplan says. "But one of the things that's great about this job is that we don't have some of the resentment that can come from being told what to do and when to do it. We're our own bosses, and I think it helps us stay excited."
This article appeared in print as "Watching the Wheel Go By: Yo La Tengo are ready to play sitcoms, apology sets."