Yo La Tengo: Hits of sunshine

After nearly two decades spent working in fruitful obscurity, Yo La Tengo emerged into the limelight in 2001. But, they tell Kevin Harley, they still don't know what they're trying to achieve

A funny thing happened to Yo La Tengo with their 10th album, 2000's blissful And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out: success, of sorts. Not an REM-sized late breakthrough, of course, but enough for the satirical online magazine The Onion to notice. Last year, it ran a mock news story in which 37 record-shop assistants were lost, feared dead, alas, when a roof caved in at a Yo La Tengo concert. An emergency worker couldn't see much cause for hope: "These people are simply not in the physical condition to survive this sort of trauma. It's just a twisted mass of black-frame glasses and ironic Girl Scouts T-shirts in there."

"Oh, we loved that," grins Ira Kaplan, the band's softly spoken singer and occasionally rampant guitarist. "It's always nice to be seen as some kind of cultural touchstone." Not that it went to his head. "I buy The Onion every week," he laughs, "even when we're not in it."

Indeed, the revered alt-rock trio from Hoboken, New Jersey, named after a baseball expression meaning "I've got it", probably are a touchstone, not least because their longevity has much to do with their lack of interest in any success not measured on their terms. Kaplan and his wife, the drummer and singer Georgia Hubley, formed the band in 1984, and the bassist James McNew joined in 1992. On each of their albums, they have felt their way toward a kind of purely intuitive, intimate art-pop, whose glistening surfaces weave a thread of sonic intrigue into shimmering melody. They've developed quite a cult following, but without, as Kaplan puts it, "ever having any barometer for success other than what we feel".

With And Then Nothing..., the size of the tour venues and the number of column inches took an upturn. Were they fazed? "We all felt the pressure of following a record that was successful," Kaplan nods. "There was an effort with that album to make the lyrics less oblique, too, which I was nervous about. I thought getting over the awkwardness of showing them to Georgia and James would be the end of it, but when reviews focused on the words, I couldn't pretend people wouldn't be listening next time. That was hard."

But although their new album, Summer Sun, has taken three years to emerge, they haven't been in retreat. Granted, their interim follow-up, The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, was an instrumental album, commissioned as a live soundtrack to Jean Painlevé's films of mating marine life. ("We just improvised while thinking about fish," McNew says.) But they've been busy otherwise, too. They filled in as backing band for the ex-Kink Ray Davies, live and on four studio tracks for his new album, and played a different set each night for two "eight nights of Hanukkah" gigs in Hoboken in 2001 and 2002. David Byrne, Jon Spencer and the Sun Ra Arkestra were among the guests who backed them at the shows, which says something about the esteem in which they're held.

On a Sun Ra note, the first Hanukkah show, on 9 December 2001, included a cover of the jazz legend's 1982 song "Nuclear War". They released it as a single last year, too – an uncharacteristic political gesture from a band noted more for personal reflections in their lyrics, and a pleasing contrast to Oasis's recent complaints against bands airing concerns about the war. "Y'know, it's funny: as a rule I find anything those Gallagher brothers say right on the money..." Kaplan muses, with heavy irony. "It seemed impossible to play without acknowledging how people were feeling."

Is it still in their set? "Oh, yeah. We did it in Texas a few weeks back – y'know, borrowed some cowboy hats...."

With its brush-stroked songs-cum-soundscapes of love and longevity, however, Summer Sun, finds them on home turf. Far from letting success alter their gameplan, they approached recording the same as ever, making it up as they went along. "I always think this is something wrong with us," says Kaplan, "that we've turned into a positive. I worry that I should be like Brian Wilson or Phil Spector ("Surely not Spector," McNew quips, mischievously), with this grand idea of what it should sound like. But we don't have any idea of what we're trying to achieve, if we're pleasing people or throwing them curveballs. We improvise and try to be receptive to what comes out."

As adept as they are at it by now, the wonder of Summer Sun is how fresh it sounds. It's a slow-burner, gradually revealing reserves of strength, detail and melody, and a strong sense of resilience in both its lyrics and song structures. "I like the idea of them being open-ended," Georgia Hubley nods. "They're not too tight and finished. They sound like they have a life that could go on for a while." With almost 20 years of her band behind her, she ought to know.

'Summer Sun' is out on Monday on Matador. Yo La Tengo play Shepherd's Bush Empire, London W12 (020-8354 3300) on 7 May

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