TOKYO (TR) – Ira Kaplan, guitarist and vocalist of indie band Yo La Tengo, loves finishing a tour in Japan. He loves the country; he loves the people, both on and off stage; and he loves the feeling of getting lost when he visits.
The 58-year-old’s first impression, however, was quite different from his current view. It came during the band’s initial visit — way back in 1989.
“It seemed like there had been some awareness (in Japan) of (the monthly music magazine) CMJ and college rock,” says Kaplan by phone during a tour stop from his hotel room at The Westin Seattle, “and some company, I can’t remember who it was now, wanted to bring an example of college rock to Japan, and we were somehow chosen as the flag bearers.”
In Kaplan’s summarized assessment, the shows “were not set up well,” and he actually refers to his “real” first visit to Japan being about a decade later — and he has returned more years than not ever since.
The trio from New Jersey will be back next week for three shows in support of its latest release “Stuff Like That There,” an album mainly consisting of covers that sees the band gazing back over its three-decade career.
“I think we were aware of turning 30 as a band,” Kaplan says of the new album. “We did the ‘Painful’ (album from 1993) reissue and kind of consciously looked back at that. I think we just, in recent years, had become more open to explicitly looking back. Every time we play live there’s some element of that; we are always mixing the old songs with the new songs.”
Formed in 1984 in Hoboken, Yo La Tengo has, over the course of 14 studio albums, carved out niche around a blend of feedback, pop and ballads.
The band has also become highly adept at performing songs written by other musicians, including the likes of Darlena McCrea and Hank Williams for “Stuff Like That There.” The album is a mix of songs the band had consistently played live for years, others less so (“Friday I’m in Love” by the Cure, featuring the gentle vocals of drummer Georgia Hubley), some they learned specifically for the album and a few new tracks, including Kaplan’s turn in applying the soft touch on “Awhileaway.”
“Stuff Like That There” is similar in format to Yo La Tengo’s 1990 release “Fakebook,” which consists entirely of covers. The band’s proclivity for playing the work of others has developed over the years, likely best exemplified by its repeated appearances on radio station WFMU in which it plays requests in exchange for donations.
For Kaplan, covering another person’s work does not diminish any emotional attachment that may exist.
“They’re all personal,” Kaplan says. “I think there’s a misnomer about doing covers, that it’s somehow less personal because you didn’t write the song yourself. I genuinely don’t understand where that idea came from. Listen to any number of remarkable interpreters of songs who were not themselves songwriters. How could you ever suggest that Frank Sinatra is not singing from personal experience even though he is not singing songs he himself wrote?”
One of the group’s inaugural members was guitarist Dave Schramm, who played on “Fakebook” and is back with the band for this tour. Kaplan says that they’ve played together off and on together over the years when it has been convenient.
“At no time did he leave the band and both of us slammed the door as we were leaving the room,” he says. “We’ve been friends throughout this time, and, just over the years, the idea of kind of revisiting the ‘Fakebook’ record, the record that is so obviously an anomaly among the records we’ve made, seemed like a possibility.”
Over its career, Yo La Tengo has taken a take-it-as-it-comes philosophy. Kaplan credits the approach for the band’s longevity.
“One of the ways we have succeeded is not mapping the future, and I think it’s helped make us not be disappointed,” he says. “Goals that aren’t attained do not mean that something equally good is not right there under your nose. I think by not narrowing our focus, such as to we have to have a top-ten record or do this or that, it has made us appreciate what we have done.”
Note: Yo La Tengo play in Tokyo at Shibuya WWW on December 17 and at Tsutaya O-East on December 18; in Osaka at Umeda Club Quattro on December 19.