Yo La Tengo were already hunkered down in their own little corner of the world when time suddenly stood still.
“We were jamming in our studio in Hoboken, N.J., on that day,” the band’s longtime bassist James McNew says of the moment when the entire touring industry was put on ice for an undetermined period of time in March of 2020. “As we were leaving practice, we saw these signs that said, ‘Go Home and Stay Home.’ And that’s what we did for a while.”
But now, two and a half years later, the sounds that McNew was creating with singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan and singer/drummer Georgia Hubley on that fateful day are part of the DNA of This Stupid World—Yo La Tengo’s first fulllength release since their 2020 COVID-era ambient project, We Have Amnesia Sometimes and first album of “traditional” songs since 2018’s There’s a Riot Going On, which winked to Sly Stone in its title. As electric, fuzzy and live-sounding as studio Yo La Tengo gets, the self-produced nine-track set was recorded at the trio’s rehearsal space and built largely from the free-form jams the musicians worked up without the pressures of making a traditional record. “Tonight’s Episode,” in particular, dates back to March 13, 2020.
“That’s based on a multitrack recording of this spontaneous thing that we were playing on the day that the lockdown was announced,” McNew says, while calling from the Brooklyn, N.Y., home he shares with his wife and young son in December. “For a long time, that session just had that bait on it, and it was very ominous.”
“We weren’t working on anything specific back in early 2020, but we were generally getting together for this and that,” Hubley adds a few days later. “What I remember mostly is that we had a variety of engagements coming up, and they all started to fall by the wayside. Leading up to March 13, many people were trying to figure out what to do—including us.”
Like everyone else, at first, the members of Yo La Tengo hunkered down in their respective living spaces but, once restrictions eased up, the three musicians started reconvening in their practice spot. In certain ways, Yo La Tengo were well suited to weather the pandemic in the studio; not only are they a small combo who have long thrived in their own little creative pod, but group co-founders Kaplan and Hubley have also been married since 1987.
“We figured, ‘Well, we are only three people, and two members of our party already live together so we can stay away from James within the space,” Kaplan says while checking in from his apartment in New York. “We all drove instead of taking mass transit, and it was amazing to be seeing another human—and to be seeing him in particular.”
Without a record or specific project in mind, the musicians continued improvising as the pandemic raged on. McNew positioned a microphone where he knew that he could properly document the group jamming without anyone really noticing. And, eventually, they realized that they had some material to present to their longtime label, indie tastemakers Matador.
“You just play, and you’re not worried about what you’re doing—you’re just being,” McNew says of the process that has yielded their two most recent albums. “We were just happy to be together and be alive, so there were tons of hours of jams for us to listen back to. We went to Matador and were like, ‘Can we release something tomorrow on the internet?’ And they were like, ‘Well, it’s not quite that easy.’”
Working with their record company, the group was able cull five top-shelf moments and quickly issue the instrumental We Have Amnesia Sometimes in July 2020. All the tunes were captured around that single microphone shortly after McNew was able to link up with his bandmates. “We made it very spontaneously,” the bassist explains. “I will record these surveillance videos of us as much as I can in our practice space. I’ve done that for a long time—when we’re playing aimlessly or just for fun. So there’s kind of an ongoing archive of jams and ideas and scraps of things. A lot of it was steeped in this kind of improvisational playing.”
The numbers crystallized the haze and confusion of that strange and impactful period—when time seemed to stand still and it was often hard to tell the difference between days. Titles like “James and Ira demonstrate mysticism and some confusion holds (Monday)” and “James gets up and watches mourning birds with Abraham (Wednesday)” will long serve as time capsules of the lockdown.
“We went through and found the five ideas that we thought hung together,” Kaplan adds. “Though, ultimately, some things from that time period might have ended up on This Stupid World because they were more aggressive and didn’t fit in with the mood that we thought we had established for We Have Amnesia.”
Yo La Tengo officially returned to the stage in August 2020 for a pair of engagements at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass., and continued to play sporadically as concerts started creeping back to pre-COVID standards about a year later. They began formally working on This Stupid World shortly after completing their annual run of Hanukkah benefit shows in late 2021.
“We finished that up, we all got COVID and got that out of the way and then, in January, we began getting together,” McNew says with a chuckle. “We got together and listened to all this stealth audio that had been recorded and investigated those ideas to make the songs. We also built some new ideas and tried to recreate some things.”
The trio kept working on those nascent jams until July 2022 and, for the first time, missed their deadline to turn in music.
“We hoped it would come out in the fall, but we just didn’t feel like we were ready,” Kaplan says. “We’re easily distracted—somebody will say, ‘Do you want to do this cover song for something?’ And we’ll say, ‘Absolutely,’ and then just work on it for way more time than we should because it’s just fun to do. So, at a certain point, we started working toward this deadline and doing little else.” (Yo La Tengo’s other offerings since their 2020 ambient project include the nocturnal-sounding EP Sleepless Nights as well as a track with David Byrne on the tribute album Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono.)
Initially, the members of Yo La Tengo assumed that they would record This Stupid World in the more traditional fashion that they used to craft 2018’s There’s a Riot Going On—they would work on the initial tracks themselves before moving the party to a proper studio.
However, the quarantine inspired the group to bring things fully in-house, and they decided to craft the record completely on their own.
“It sucked,” McNew belts out with a hardy laugh when thinking back on the pandemic. “But it made me feel really excited about us making a record ourselves, on our own—not in a studio and not with even one more person’s outside help. It felt like everything was leading to that, and it was really exciting.”
“But, similar to There’s a Riot Going On—where I don’t think we knew we were gonna record it all by ourselves until we were halfway done doing it—the decision to have James do all the mixing was one that just kind of snuck up on us,” Kaplan adds. “One thing that our band is pretty good at is working with our circumstances and saying, ‘Here is the way things are shaping up. How can we make the best of it?’ With this record, our working method was unprecedented in that we did it all by ourselves, so there wasn’t a concentrated period of 10-12 hours a day when were in there working. We would just show up and work for a few hours each day, four or five days a week. It was exciting, like, ‘Wow, we can leave our stuff set up when we leave.’”
Since the majority of the recording that Yo La Tengo has done in their New Jersey clubhouse has been more “soundtrack oriented,” the band did have to make some infrastructure changes to their rehearsal space. But they all agree that they had already done so much work in the room, and were so comfortable jamming there during the pandemic, that the sessions felt free and easygoing.
And the resulting set is pure Yo La Tengo, kicking off with the open-road boogie of “Sinatra Drive Breakdown” and moving through the guitar-centric release of the single “Fallout,” the anxious anticipation of “Until It Happens,” the gentle sway of “Apology Letter,” the apocalyptic drone of the title track and the repetitive trance of the finale “Miles Away,” which gently fades into the Hoboken night.
Traditionally, lyrics are the last puzzle pieces needed to complete a Yo La Tengo song and most of This Stupid World followed suit, though they started working on the vocal pattern and some lyrics for “Fallout” earlier in the process and “Miles Away” took some negotiating.
“Georgia and I had different ideas about what form the singing should take so we ended up accommodating both of our ideas,” Kaplan says. “That’s pretty common because we are frequently recording music when the singing is just in our heads.”
“The lyrics are generally put together after most of the track is assembled,” Hubley explains. “There’s often a kernel floating around that leads to a final set of lyrics, but sometimes it’s tossed. It’s not that different from how the musical elements emerge.”
This Stupid World is slated for release on Feb. 10, about six weeks after Yo La Tengo finish their eight-night Hanukkah run at New York’s famed Bowery Ballroom. Yo La Tengo’s tradition of playing a charitable gig every night of the Festival of Lights dates back to 2001 and they famously held the celebration at Hoboken, N.J’s Maxwell’s—the tiny backroom space where they staged their first show in 1984—for a number of years. After Maxwell’s closed in 2013, the group retired the celebratory run for a bit, before reviving it at Bowery Ballroom in 2017. Their format remained the same when it returned: Each night features a surprise opening act, an unannounced comedian, a limited-edition mix, special guests and an encore which usually celebrates a range of Jewish songwriters. As an exclamation mark, Kaplan’s mom will come out and sing Bob Hilliard and Lee Pockriss’ 1960 tender love song, “My Little Corner of the World” during their final encore.
In the Maxwell’s days, Yo La Tengo would occasionally take a year off when other endeavors occupied their time, but the musicians have staged their Hanukkah stand every year since 2017, including 2020 as a single-show livestream from New York’s The Greene Room that still boasted the usual mix of support acts, comedians and guests. (In true prankster fashion, since Hanukkah follows the lunar calendar, they held that concert on the “ninth night” of the eight-day holiday, as the last day of the celebration was ending.)
“The pandemic has kind of underscored just how precious time is and that opportunities that you think might be unlimited can actually turn out to be quite limited so you should make the most of them,” Kaplan says. “We’ve had extra motivation to not take a year off, though it’s very tempting.”
The guitarist admits that he “was the last person to think it was a good idea to bring the shows back” without Maxwell’s, though he was ultimately convinced.
“I had to be pulled along by James and Georgia in that regard, and then it ended up being really great and it became natural instantly,” he says. “And then  was extra special because people just hadn’t been able to see that much music. And, both from our perspective and the audience’s perspective, I think everyone was taking less for granted in 2021. It felt even stronger than in the past. The chance to get together with friends and make new friends—I feel like we just stumbled onto it, but it’s uniquely rewarding.”
“I don’t know when the itch started itching or even why,” Hubley says of reviving the tradition. “I think some outside pressure and encouragement had something to do with it.”
“Maxwell’s was great, but Maxwell’s was also pretty limited as far as the PA and the size of the stage, which was very small,” McNew says. “So there’s a lot about the Bowery Ballroom setup that makes Hanukkah life a lot easier than it was back in the good old days, which were, at times, agonizing.”
As he preps for a run that will eventually rope in everyone from regulars like comedian David Cross and free-jazz pioneers The Sun Ra Arkestra to blogger darling Lucy Dacus, punk icon Marky Ramone and members of fellow influential indie-rock acts Pavement, Sonic Youth and Sleater-Kinney, Kaplan notes that his 2022 Hanukkah lineup is still not finalized. “Early on, we announced who was going to be there, but it’s so complicated to set up these shows that the freedom to not tell people has been useful when planning,” Kaplan explains. “We’re pretty shameless about casting the net. There are people who we have asked multiple times who have never, for one reason or another, taken part but we try to focus on the people who say yes.”
One thing that has changed during the past two decades is Yo La Tengo’s position in the jamband orbit. Kaplan grew up listening to the Grateful Dead and saw them a handful of times in his early concert-going career, before his interests shifted more toward punk rock, power pop and early indie music. Yo La Tengo covered the Dead from time to time—part of the swath of cross-genre covers that they have mixed in during the past four decades—but Kaplan has recently played that group’s music in some more public settings. He participated in an indieforward jam session after the first Chicago Fare Thee Well show alongside Jenny Lewis, Real Estate’s Alex Bleeker, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, Darkside’s Dave Harrington and Ryley Walker in 2015, and took part in Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s Day of the Dead project a year later.
In an unlikely move, Yo La Tengo also opened for Trey Anastasio’s Ghosts of the Forest ensemble at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre in 2019. The booking was the long-awaited intersection of two parallel worlds. Phish played their first show on Dec. 2, 1983; Yo La Tengo made their live debut exactly one year later; and both acts have become known for their extended, repeat-free runs, eclectic mix of influences and ability to serve as musical curators for their passionate fanbases. When Phish played Madison Square Garden during one of Yo La Tengo’s Hanukkah stands, they used their hazy tune “Eight Candles” as house music and launched into a jam that many people on Twitter felt was inspired by the trio. There was talk of having Anastasio sit in at Hanukkah at some point but that has yet to happen.
“We were very happy to [open for Ghosts of the Forest] and Trey was very generous. He came down to our dressing room and said, ‘Hi’” Kaplan says. “We’ve done a bunch of opening shows recently, but we hadn’t done a ton of it for a while before that. We had forgotten that people don’t necessarily arrive the moment the show is starting, and only one-quarter of the audience had arrived when we started. But it was kind of interesting to think to ourselves, ‘We always want to be ourselves, but what is our best foot forward in this scenario?’”
“I love Yo La Tengo—I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One is my favorite of their albums,” Anastasio told Relix around the time of the show. “Their songs are so good, and there’s an emotional simplicity to their music that feels like they captured lightning in a bottle. I love Georgia’s drumming. Ira is such a cool guitar player. And all three of their voices are great. I’m excited to meet them.”
McNew has checked out acts like Phish and the Disco Biscuits recently through his wife, who is a longtime fan, and immediately noticed the similarities. “It’s pretty weird that we’re kind of running parallel to each other, except that Phish play 13 nights at the Garden and we play slightly further downtown than they do. It was cool being onstage during soundcheck and checking out all the gear.”
In a very jamband move, at some point in their arc, the members of Yo La Tengo stopped repeating songs during Hanukkah, and that energy will likely bleed into their upcoming tour in support of This Stupid World. Yet Kaplan still sees value in showcasing their new material on the road and they plan to draw heavily from their latest album, though their setlists will still be dynamic and ever-changing.
“We’ve mixed it up from our first shows, when it was fool-hearted to change our set,” he says. “It would have behooved us to work up 10 songs that we could actually play, but we didn’t, and we change it up to an even greater extent now. It will be interesting. To us, this record sounds a little different, a little louder, than the last couple of records. If we continue to play two sets, I’m guessing that it won’t break down as neatly as “the first set’s quieter and the second set’s louder.”
“We’ll stretch it out and it’s all up for grabs every night,” McNew says. “We don’t work off a finite number of songs—every night, a setlist gets made by hand and every night is different, period, forever. We’ve never done the same set, though, mathematically, we must have come pretty close.”
This year, the group offered over 100 different tunes during their holiday run that ranged from punky noise jams to romantic ballads, jazz cuts, folk ditties, overlooked Dylan tracks and Velvet Underground favorites. Like the best Yo La Tengo shows, their setlists work best when their louder, more aggressive music fades into their prettier, quieter selections; indeed, sometimes you need to wade through the darkness to make the sweet sounds that follow feel that is much brighter.
They also debuted a few selections from This Stupid World during their Hanukkah shows. Despite the LP’s electric, live energy Yo La Tengo still elected not to play the material before then—even after they started inching back into the live realm. It’s a tactic the group has employed for years.
“May I Sing with Me, which was the first album with James on it, was preceded by a lot of personnel flux, so we ended up teaching those songs to a lot of people and playing them live for a long time,” Kaplan says of their 1992 set. “And we all felt that record would’ve been better if the songs were fresher to us—there wasn’t enough of a sense of discovery during the recording process. So from that moment, we started not playing the songs live until the record came out.”
As always, Kaplan invited his mother to close their Hanukkah run with “My Little Corner of the World,” underscoring the family nature of his entire career— especially during the past few years.
And speaking of family traditions, did Kaplan and Humley do anything to mark Hanukkah during those years when they were without a venue?
“Yes,” the drummer says wryly. “Stayed home.”