Each month we speak to an artist or band about the music they think either didn’t get the love it deserved when it came out, or just hasn’t had it yet. This time, Yo La Tengo frontman Ira Kaplan delves into his extensive record collection with Theo Gorst
Yo La Tengo fans might be aware of the (somewhat infamous) spoof Onion headline from the early ’00s: ‘37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead In Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster’. From talking to Ira Kaplan I’d wager that his love for records both popular and esoteric would outdo the discerning tastes of any of the poor 37 (suspected) casualties. Along with bandmates Georgia Hubley and James McNew, the trio have been lovingly tweaking their own sound for decades, all the while adding to their growing list of cover songs. Fittingly, the day we spoke I’d received an email from the band’s mailing list announcing the 28th instalment in their marathon of requested, unrehearsed covers. Throw the band a title and there’s a good chance you’ll get a tune back.
Speaking to me ahead of their imminent European tour, Kaplan open up about the difficulties of picking setlists (“If fans go in wanting one song, chances are they’ll leave disappointed”) and the uneasy relationship he has with his time as a music writer (“So much stupid stuff came from my brain then”). After he’d exorcised these column-inch memories, we went on to discuss seven under-the-radar artists worthy of everyone’s consideration.
Ira Kaplan: Later in the interview we’ll be talking about NRBQ, who I’ve adored for a long time; at one point in my journalism days – which are not my favourite topic of conversation, and rarely do I initiate talking about them – I worked for a great magazine called New York Rocker. I proposed an article about NRBQ in which they would play records for me, and one of them was this astonishing record called ‘Teenage Riot’ by Portuguese Joe.
From time to time we’re asked if there are songs we’d never cover, and I do think ‘Teen Age Riot’ might be the single most un-coverable song I’ve ever heard. It’s completely out of control. If rockabilly were not in the name of the band [Portuguese Joe’s backing band, The Tennessee Rockabillys] I don’t think I’d ever be able to apply any genre to it. I would consider ‘Teen Age Riot’ to be the wildest record ever made.
IK: They only made two records, and [after they split up] there was a box set that collected some of the stuff they were working on and hadn’t put out. The second record is just perfect. It does some combination of mystifying and interesting me how that LP is not widely considered one of the greatest records there are. It’s just the way it is that some things hit a nerve while others don’t find their audience. I can’t imagine anyone hearing [their 2000 self-titled record] and not thinking, “I’ve gotta hear it again.”
Theo Gorst: You first met them in Nashville, where you recorded lots of albums. I once heard you say that The Glands “have a southern quality, like it’s a slower day.” Did that ‘southern-ness’ affect the recording of the music you made out there?
IK: We’ll never know! I wouldn’t say consciously, but it’s possible. Influence is a word I tend to run away from, as I believe it’s all an influence. Everything seeps in, so in a sense I’m sure being in Nashville did have an effect. The one exception being that Electr-O-Pura  was the first record we did in Nashville and many people said, “Oh are you doing a country record?” So when we went back for I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One  we did think it would be a good experience to get a Nashville session musician to play on the record; to get that local experience. [Producer] Roger Moutenot lined up Al Perkins, which was better than we dreamed as we’re all such big Gram Parsons fans [whom Perkins played with extensively]. We thought we were bringing him in for one song, and then we learned the session had to be for a minimum of three hours, and there was no way it was going to take him three hours to record what we wanted. So we threw more songs at him and he ends up playing on ‘Moby Octopad’ in a way nobody expected when the idea was hatched. I guess that’s a specific influence Nashville had on it.
IK: This ties in with The Glands – such a perfect record. Angel Food start-to-finish is as great as they ever are. Somebody we toured with loved them and would talk about them all the time, to the point we were like, “I never want to hear this band”. One day he put on a tape without telling any of us who it was. It was this off-kilter pop band; I was really loving everything I was hearing. I thought, “Huh, I know what this is going to be,” and sure enough it was Hypnolovewheel. I was like, “Alright, you’re right, they’re great.” And then they played at Maxwell’s [in YLT’s native Hoboken, NJ] by coincidence a few days after we got home from tour, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. I guess we became contemporaries after that.
TG: This guy seems pretty inspiring.
IK: He’s pretty amazing. I was a little nervous putting down a jazz artist as I was afraid my eloquence would plummet when I tried talking about jazz. I saw him playing in a trio at Club Tonic [in NYC] and Cooper-Moore was such a captivating presence, almost intimidating – he can do so many incredible things. I guess primarily he’s a piano player but he also makes his own instruments and will do these solo percussion sets by himself.
In preparation for doing this interview I was looking around to see his output and there’s so much… there’s no way to keep up. He’s in this group Triptych Myth and they’re such a versatile group; you don’t know what you’re going to get from song to song. He’s really special. I was also listening today to his work with the William Parker Organ Quartet. You can’t go wrong.
TG: Have you guys ever tried making your own instruments?
IK: I don’t think we have. [Friends of YLT] 75 Dollar Bill have – Rick Brown from that band has made a lot of horns and is quite adept at that. But I don’t think we have, other than taping a maraca to a drumstick, which I’m not sure qualifies. I don’t think Georgia is going to be able to get a patent on that one.
75 Dollar Bill
TG: Would you ever cover 75 Dollar Bill?
IK: It’s hard to imagine. Although not long ago they were opening for Pavement, and Rick tested positive for Covid. One of the things that’s so special about them is that although they would describe themselves as a duo, they frequently play with other musicians in what they call their Little Big Band. They were going to do this show as a quartet with Rick’s wife Sue on bass, and after Rick tested positive Sue couldn’t do the show either, so Georgia and James [both of YLT] filled in. They’ve now been members of 75 Dollar Bill at a pretty high profile gig!
TG: Which record should people start with for 75 Dollar Bill?
IK: I Was Real  is the double album they did, and it’s really spectacular. It’s all great though; they’ve put out a lot of live things on Bandcamp, and they’re definitely a group I could see every time they play. Even if they’re nominally doing the same song for one set and you’ve heard it before, it’ll be different.
IK: I remember my introduction to NRBQ was going to a high school dance and a local band was playing songs that, for the most part, I knew, and then there were a couple that I had no idea about and I asked. They were doing NRBQ covers. Fairly soon after that I went to see them and it was just the combination of great songwriting, almost unimaginable versatility and showmanship. I responded to them overwhelmingly the first time I saw them, in a way that was similar in intensity to the way I responded to The Kinks. It was just: “Wow this is the band for me.” It’s been fascinating for me how few of my friends feel that way about them. There’s people I know through going to see them, but it turns out they’re not for everyone. Darned if I know why.
The accessible record of theirs is At Yankee Stadium , which has a couple of their greatest pop songs but it’s not as weird as their other stuff, where they go off on more tangents. If you want to hear them do something that should be impossible, like a heart-tugging version of a song by Alvin and the Chipmunks, then that one’s on Kick Me Hard .
They have this great song on Tapdancin’ Bats  called ‘Captain Lou’ which they wrote about a wrestler who became their manager. What I’m about to say speaks to one of the reasons why they haven’t connected with more people: there’s a sense of humour to them which is easily mistaken for a lack of seriousness, which couldn’t be more wrong. That ‘Captain Lou’ song? It’s so beautiful, you try and play it and it’s literally two chords being used in a deceptive manner. It’s an amazing song to think about and it’s great if you just let it wash over you. And it’s about a wrestler so it feels throwaway in some ways, but is the opposite.
Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band
IK: Are you familiar with them?
TG: The one song.
IK: ‘Cherchez La Femme’ right? It was a big hit record, which was kind of a disco song, or at least a disco hit. I find I end up gravitating towards people who create their own alternate world. A bit like 75 Dollar Bill, who have this group of people they’ll play with, and it feels like they’re a secret society. It’s a small society but unique, and with the Savannah Band they had that. August Darnell, who became Kid Creole, and his half brother wrote these songs together. You have to delve into their world to learn that – it’s not there on the surface.
‘Cherchez La Femme’ was on the RCA label. Then they made a second record which didn’t have a hit so that was it with them for RCA. They made one more for Elektra and then they went away for a while and the three remaining Savannah Band people did one more album that’s practically rockabilly, which brings us nicely back to Portuguese Joe. It’s a super cool, weird record, that I don’t think anyone heard. It’s highest on my want list of records and when it did come out Robert Christgau in the Village Voice compared it unfavourably to a test pressing he’d heard of the same record. One that had different songs, different mixes.
One time I asked him, “If you’ve still got this record, could you make me a copy? I’m dying to hear it. Because I like [their second album] Calling All Beatniks! just fine.” He said, “Oh yeah I’d be happy to,” and then discovered much to his surprise that he no longer had the test pressing. So I look on Discogs every now and again, but how many could there be? I’ve still never heard it, but the Discogs page now includes the tracklisting so it’s out there!
TG: I had them in my mind as disco but they seem to encompass a lot more?
IK: They certainly do. There’s a whole show-tune and jazz side to them, ‘Cherchez La Femme’ isn’t actually so much an outlier but for some reason became a hit. Even then I think the first words are “Tommy Mottola lives on the road.” He’s a record exec, why they are signing about him is inscrutable to the likes of me! Even at their most accessible they were still insular. Why do some songs become hits and others don’t? I don’t know.