BY JOE BOSSO | FROM THE FALL 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM!
Yo La Tengo has always had a thing for catchy or provocative album titles. Take 1987’s New Wave Hot Dogs, for example, named after an actual food truck that once roamed the streets of the band’s hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey. In 2006 they released two beauts: I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, followed by the covers collection, Yo La Tengo Is Murdering The Classics. This year, the indie rock titans offer the instantly memorable There’s A Riot Going On, an affectionate and reverential nod to Sly Stone that carries the same sort of sociopolitical resonance its originator intended.
“We had that title floating around for a while, long before we even wrote any of the new songs,” says Georgia Hubley, the group’s drummer and co-lead vocalist. “I think what’s going on today affects everybody to varying degrees — in some cases, traumatically. We’re certainly affected by it. It’s one of those things that seeps into your psyche in one way or another, and that’s why the title was so appealingto us. It just seemed very appropriate for these times.”
Hubley and her guitarist-vocalist husband Ira Kaplan are founding members of the band. Since forming 34 years ago, they’ve gone through 14 bass players, although James McNew, who’s been with them since 1992, looks like he’s here to stay. During their career, Yo La Tengo has collaborated with Yoko Ono, portrayed the Velvet Underground in the film I Shot Andy Warhol, and has held an almost viselike grip on the hearts of indie music fans and rock critics. Mainstream radio has long balked at the band’s adventurous mix of noise rock and dream pop, but Hubley insists nobody in the group is sweating it.
“It’s just one of those things that isn’t worth being upset about,” she states. “I think we’re in a pretty unique situation, because we get to do whatever we want, at least for now. And we’re happy to do what we want. If our goal was to have a big hit, well, I don’t even know how anyone goes about that. There’s no guarantee that’s going to happen, and most of the time it doesn’t. We just don’t think about it.”
Hubley’s highly nuanced and creative approach to drumming is key to the band’s eclectic sound. No mere timekeeper, she sets moods and creates hooks, licks, and themes by utilizing stick-and-brush combinations or by gently tapping the rims on her kit. Sometimes she puts down the sticks in favor of mallets or maracas — whatever works. “Heavy rock playing just isn’t something I’ve felt like doing,” she explains. “I think I gravitate toward feel-oriented playing, and that lends itself to different kinds of textures. When you use mallets or brushes, or if you hit different pieces on the drums, it creates certain dynamics, and that changes the structure of the music.”
It’s often said that you have to know the rules to be able to break them, but Hubley makes a convincing case to the contrary. She didn’t start playing the drums until age 19 (“A friend of mine had a kit, so I decided to give it a try”), and the majority of her curriculum involved playing along to Rolling Stones records. “I always loved the Stones when I was younger, but their stuff became really important to me when I tried drumming. Everything Charlie Watts did was so cool and made such sense to me.” After a short stint in an all-female band, The Dangerous Curves, Hubley, who by now had her own Slingerland kit, hooked up with music journalist/guitarist Kaplan, and the two hit it off musically and romantically. The first Yo La Tengo gigs in Manhattan and Hoboken were covers affairs, but before long Hubley and Kaplan were writing their own songs together and sharing vocal duties.
“It was a real challenge for me to sing and play at the same time,” Hubley recalls. “My voice is pretty quiet, so I had to figure out how to control my singing while drumming, especially when playing more intense stuff — the more out of breath you get, it affects how you sing. I don’t know if I ever figured it out; I just do my best.” She notes that one of the biggest hurdles she had to overcome was mike placement. “How do you play without having the mike constantly getting in the way? I always looked at how other drummers managed that one. It’s always been an issue for me.”
From the beginning, Yo La Tengo has been heralded for its improvisational skills — onstage, songs are rarely played the same way twice — and the band brought their crafty spirit of derring-do into their Hoboken rehearsal studio to create There’s A Riot Going On. Using snippets of song ideas and loops that had been stored on hard drives, the trio of Hubley, Kaplan, and McNew, working as their own producers and engineers, simply pressed “record” and let it fly. Some tracks were captured as one-take wonders, while others, like the beguiling, dream-like “You Are Here,” were constructed in layers. “The dynamics in that one come from multiple drum sets,” Hubley explains. “There’s the basic, and then we mixed in another kit, and then I added some toms. That’s why you hear some weird slamming stuff — it’s kits on top of kits.”
Hubley calls her deceptively simple performance on the delightfully poppy “Shades Of Blue,” a “spit take.” Forsaking her full kit, she jangles merrily on a hi-hat tambourine while striking the edge of her bass drum with her stick. “I’m sure other drummers have done that, but I got it from NRBQ’s Tom Ardolino,” she says. “He’s one of my favorite drummers. He was fairly ambidextrous, and oftentimes he’d do something like the stick on the bass drum. I thought it was a cool, click-clacky sound, so I went for it.”
And sometimes she dispensed with the drum kit altogether, like on the lush summertime groover “Let’s Do It Wrong,” on which McNew forms the rhythm bed on bongos. Hubley herself plays bongos on the placid, spectral gem “What Chance Have I Got,” but she points out that the subtle hi-hat on the track was an overdub. “I’ll have to figure out how to play that one live,” she says with a laugh. “We haven’t really attacked any of these songs yet.”
When it comes to practice, Hubley mostly rehearses with the band, but on occasion she sits down at one of her three vintage ’60s Ludwig kits (all in Blue Oyster Pearl) and woodsheds on her own. “I always want to improve, and I feel as if I’ve gotten better in the last six months,” she says. “Sometimes I just play a beat, and other times I’ll drum along to a recorded song, just to try different things and get comfortable. I haven’t done that in a while because we’ve been so busy. But it’s a great thing to do, and it’s not drudgery. I find it quite enjoyable, really.”
Band: Yo La Tengo
Birthplace: New York, New York
Influences: Charlie Watts, Ringo Starr, Tom Ardolino, Amy Garapic (of Tigue), Tony Buck (of The Necks)
Cymbals: Zildjian, Paiste
Sticks: Vic Firth
Hardware: Tama, Pearl, DW