Sex and drugs doesn’t really come to mind when you’re talking about Yo La Tengo—finding delicious eats while touring is this Hoboken band’s offstage passion. And although they’re lacking in backstage debauchery and excess, Yo La Tengo has rock in spades, according to South Williamsburg-based music journalist Jesse Jarnow. An admitted fan, Jarnow recently penned the terrific and insightful book Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock.
At first, Yo La Tengo may not seem the type of band whose career would warrant a book—even the band members themselves may have questioned their own importance. “Somebody told me they’re the least likely band to want a book written about them,” Jarnow told me recently. “There was a little bit of reticence involved. I know at some point before I talked to them about doing the book, somebody asked them about doing a documentary about them, and they said ‘no’ to that. They’re very protective of their lives.”
Regardless, Yo La Tengo—whose members are Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew—has a history that spans from their involvement of the ’80s Hoboken music scene–particularly at the legendary venue Maxwell’s–through the ’90s alternative rock boom, to the present day as the band still continues to record music and perform.
Jarnow, who has written for outlets like Rolling Stone and The Village Voice, and who hosts a radio program on WFMU, told me that it was an assignment to cover the band from a couple of years ago that was the origin point for the book. “As I researched the story, I started poking deeper and deeper into them,” he says. “The more I discovered about Yo La Tengo, the more that I discovered that there was more to discover. It just seemed like a bigger and bigger story the further I got.”
Just like their music, the members of Yo La Tengo convey a very thoughtful and cerebral approach to their eclectic, alternative music–it was a long but gradual build to where they are now as one of the most durable and important groups of the indie rock genre. “The kind of music they were making, you didn’t make it with the expectation of going above the radar,” Jesse explains. “When they fell into being a band, there wasn’t really that path to success. It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s start a rock band and get huge.’ The environment they were in is very much about being sort of low-key and playing in the environment that you’re from, and in their case, that was Maxwell’s.”
More than just a book about a band, Big Day Coming is also a chronicle of alternative rock in the last 30 years. It explores New York Rocker, a music publication fromt he late ’70s and early ’80s, looks closely at the founding of indie label Matador Records, which Yo La Tengo became a part of and examines the advent of the MP3 and the rise of Pitchfork as an online tastemaker. For Jarnow, it was a conscious approach in telling the story. “I think in terms of a biography of a band, the band really grows out of a set of circumstances the same way a person grows out of a set of circumstances in a community or environment. To understand Yo La Tengo as a group, you do have to understand at some level New York Rocker, or Maxwell’s, or WFMU. I think their music is pretty self-explanatory, but to get into who they are as a band, I think all those things are really important.”
So why has Yo La Tengo lasted this long? Jarnow tells me they never stopped being a band. “A lot of that I think is that very specific kind of success that they’ve achieved,” he says. “It’s above the level of they don’t have to have day jobs, but it’s not quite at the level of having so much money that they could afford to retire. They really managed to stay a band over those 30 years, they’ve never taken a break barely for more than a few months, they’ve never moved to different cities, which I think has happened to a lot of bands when they hit some level of professional success. Yo La Tengo has really stayed a band in the very true sense of the word in that they get together all the time and play.”
I asked Jesse, who is currently working on another book proposal, what the band members think of Big Day Coming. “Ira and James read the first draft of it and helped me fact check it and answered follow-up questions” he says. “I think the idea of reading the final thing is not appealing to them–maybe it was just a little too weird for them even to read the initial one, to see their lives spread out on the page and summarized as such. But you know, we’re still buddies.”
Jesse Jarnow’s new book, Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, is out now. For more on Jesse, visit his Web site.