Something about the Fillmore in San Francisco feels distinctly off kilter in the daytime. Though outside the sun is shining, the hallways here, showcasing the legendary psychedelic posters of the Dead and Janis Joplin, are pitch black. A haggard crew moves zombie-like, squinting through sound check while a tour van idles outside. This is the great temple of rock and roll where the devoted have come for years to worship their idols. And everything about it screams: you aren’t supposed to be here in daylight.
So it’s a funny juxtaposition when Georgia Hubley walks in – blonde hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, wearing a light denim jacket, and exhausted from a cold. Sweet and unassuming, the notoriously shy drummer and chanteuse for legendary indie outfit Yo La Tengo carries a bottle of water not a brewski, lives in New Jersey not New York, prefers the Mets to the Yankees, and in so many ways, is the ultimate anti-rock star. >>
Sitting in the upstairs lounge, her quiet voice straining to cut through the thudding bass drum blaring downstairs, she sums up the band’s 21st birthday, a legacy spanning the beloved Electropura, film scores, a political tour, and now possibly their best (and certainly best-titled) album, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, with characteristic modesty. “I sort of fell into it. We were like a party band that played covers and eventually worked our way into playing our songs and then having our own band.”
But that’s Yo La Tengo all over: a band that despite being virtually ignored by commercial radio has built a loyal following of record store clerks, college radio DJs, fellow musicians, and music critics. And Hubley, whose gentle but strong drumming and vocals are at the heart of the noisy-quiet/quiet-noisy trio’s sound, would be at the top of the most creative indie drummers list.
“I might have been better if I’d taken some lessons,” she jokes when asked how she developed her unique sound: a distinct, self-taught mix of delicate, jazz-inspired brushwork, washy cymbals, jangly tambourine, and garage-y snare and kick. “I was about 19 and very into bands, especially around New York, and I had a friend who was starting to play drums and somehow it just kind of clicked. He had a little practice kit, and I moved into the apartment he was living in, and I started playing and it grew from there. I played along to anything I felt like I could play along to, which really kept it to a minimum.”
Channeling Charlie Watts, she joined all-girl garage outfit The Dangerous Curves, who pitched in to help her buy her first kit, an old Slingerland. And it was just a matter of time before she met her rhythmic and romantic match, songwriter/singer/guitarist and walking musical encyclopedia Ira Kaplan. “We were music fans seeing bands, going to a lot of the same shows in New York City. Some of those bands weren’t all that popular so there weren’t that many people there, so it was kind of inevitable that you ended up knowing everyone in the room.”
The pair gelled quickly, fusing organic, collaborative ten-minute plus electric jams and heart-achingly-beautiful sugar pop prom ballads, sharing song and lyric writing, trading vocals, and ultimately getting hitched. “I was reluctant to and Ira definitely pushed me to do more singing. I actually have always really liked singing – I think of it as more a matter of being a little shy.”
When the lights go down and Hubley ambles up alone to the microphone, hands in her pockets, hair in her eyes, that shyness exposed like a tender nerve, becomes a strength, drawing the audience into a dreamy inner world on back country ballads like “I Feel Like Going Home.” Moments later she’s seated behind her gold sparkle Ludwigs, unleashing that quiet strength on the kit, steering YLT from a barely audible whisper to a slow rolling thunder.
“The more physical the drumming, the harder [singing] is, but not always,” she says of juggling her dual roles. “Sometimes drumming actually makes me sing better – two things – because I’m moving there’s more breath moving through me as I’m singing and then also psychologically you’re not thinking about singing; you’re just doing it.”
And “just doing it” means something different every night. Because as anyone who’s seen Yo La Tengo on stage knows it’s never the same show twice. On Friday, Hubley may play piano on one song, on Saturday, a little guitar on another. Sets change, arrangements shift, and there’s always room for spontaneous combustion. “We’re used to certain improvisational scenarios that we can kind of go with things when they come up. On some things we play the song and it goes this way and other things lend themselves to going off on different tangents and we know how to follow each other when that happens.”
A subtle, nuanced master of dynamics who relies heavily on brushes, jazz sticks, and Hot Rods, Hubley knows instinctively how to lead, listen, and follow, and how to make every song – whether a reworked hit, a new track, or a Velvet Underground cover – sound unmistakably like Yo La Tengo. “I love playing [brushes], especially on cymbals and the snare, they’re very textural and I love the sound, not so much the hit, the attack, but just the texture of the sound of the skin and the brush. Something I enjoy in playing, is not even just volumes but different feels, how you attack something or back off on something.”
Backstage amid a small gathering crowd, that old veil of shyness slowly descends again, though not uncomfortably so. Alone for a moment, Hubley’s still happy to talk about her four vintage Ludwig kits and a snare signed by Johnny Cash and June Carter (who YLT shared a stage with) – and to tell a little recording anecdote that’s so perfectly Yo La Tengo: “We took a snare drum and de-tuned it to the point where it sounded like a piece of cardboard, kind of wrinkled almost. It sounded horrible in the room, but it sounded really good on tape. [“Mr. Tough” and “Sometimes I Don’t Get You”] It was weird to play it that way because it was so against what I would want to hear when I’m playing.”
Textures, experimentation, exploration: these are the heart of Hubley’s recipe for Yo La Tengo. That and don’t let shyness get in the way of rock and roll.