The making of Yo La Tengo’s Painful
By Steve Klinge
Over its 30-year career, which the band recently celebrated with three retrospective shows in early December, Yo La Tengo has released a slew of albums deserving of “MAGNET Classics” status. Painful was the first in a remarkable string—1995’s Electr-O-Pura, 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out—any one of which could and should be feted. And we could make a strong case for 2006’s I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. Hell, 2013’s Fade was damn good, too.
But the trio—Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew—chose 1993’s Painful, the sixth of 13 Yo La Tengo albums, for a recent deluxe reissue, titled Extra Painful. It’s the one that’s at the root of all the ones that followed.
“I think the band we are today is traceable to that record, more than any one that came before it; those records are something else,” says Kaplan. “It’s the first record on Matador and it kind of felt like the beginning, even though it’s somewhere in the middle.”
Although Kaplan and Hubley had played together in other bands, the first Yo La Tengo show occurred in December 1984 at Maxwell’s, the Hoboken, N.J., club that was the vital home of a cadre of groups, including the dB’s and the Feelies (and, eventually, the site of Kaplan and Hubley’s wedding reception). The band’s debut, Ride The Tiger, arrived in 1986 on the local Coyote Records, a mix of originals and covers from the Kinks and Pete Seeger. The lineup included Dave Schramm on guitar and Mike Lewis on bass. New Wave Hot Dogs came in 1987, the mini-album President Yo La Tengo in 1989, and the acoustic, mostly covers Fakebook in 1990. Although all worthy, those records now sound like a band in search of an identity, which it was: At its 30th anniversary show in New York City, the trio brought onstage 17 former band members (most of the bass players) and producers, almost all of them pre-Painful.
That would change when they drafted McNew as a temporary bassist for a tour in the summer of 1991, a jaunt that included songs that would turn up on 1992’s May I Sing With Me, which came out on Alias Records. The band had begun to stretch out, with “Mushroom Cloud Of Hiss” and “Sleeping Pill” passing the nine-minute mark, and to sharpen its focus, with its catchiest rock song yet in “Upside-Down.”
Matador Records’ Gerard Cosloy sees May I Sing With Me as Painful’s clear predecessor. Painful “felt like a natural evolution from May I Sing With Me, albeit a much, much better recording,” he says. “I’ll buy Ira’s claim that Painful was their best album to date, but anyone who says it came outta nowhere hadn’t listened very hard to the prior works or attended many of the earlier shows.”
May I Sing With Me came out in February, and by that summer, the band’s live sets included some songs that would turn up on Painful. When TYL opened for My Bloody Valentine and Buffalo Tom, the band began its sets with “I Heard You Looking,” and that instrumental would often take up half of its allotted 30 minutes.
The group had begun to get together five days a week, McNew coming to Hoboken from his home in Brooklyn to work with Kaplan and Hubley on new songs.
“We developed the sound and the songs together just by experimenting together and swapping instruments,” says McNew. “That was really the beginning of us finding out how we could work together and actually work as a band.”
All the songs on May I Sing With Me, with the exception of “Sleeping Pill,” were written before McNew came aboard, but for Painful, McNew became a collaborator in the writing process, although he says as the new guy he was cautious at first.
“I was a Yo La Tengo record-buying, concert-going fan before I was already in the group,” he says. “I was already totally fine with the organization: ‘You’re doing great.’ I didn’t want to be an interloper—‘Oh, that’s the guy who ruined Yo La Tengo.’ I don’t know what my status in the group was. I don’t know what my status in the group is, really. I don’t think about it, really. Eventually, sometime around there, I got my own keys to the practice space, and that made me feel like I was official. There was no ceremony and there was no cake or anything. It was just like, ‘All right, see you tomorrow.’”
Painful also includes the first YLT songs built around the Ace Tone organ, an instrument that would become a staple for the band. The trio had borrowed one from Das Damen’s Lyle Hysen, with whom the group shared its practice space, and used it on the 1992 tour for “I Heard You Looking.”
“‘Sudden Organ’ was written on guitar, but I don’t think it was ever played on guitar until it became one of the alternate ways of playing it,” says Kaplan. “We started bringing it to shows and taping keys down. The sound of the Ace Tone became just one of the things we did. ‘Nowhere Near’ was never played without the organ. That distinguishes it from all the previous records. Although we used keyboards on the older records, they were never written that way or even rehearsed that way. The organ was never used as much as a guitar, but it became part of our repertoire.”
As plans for Painful began to take shape, the band drafted longtime friend Fred Brockman to produce eight-track demos in his Snack Time studio in Hoboken. Brockman says Snack Time was basically “a tape recorder in a practice space.” Many of those demos appear on Extra Painful (and a few on the Prisoners Of Love outtakes collection), and it’s fascinating to hear the band working out dynamics, tempos and styles, knowing what the songs became later, as the trio continued to experiment with them.
“We had spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make the songs better than songs we’d done before,” says Kaplan. “I think if you hear the demos of ‘From A Motel 6’ and the demo of the uptempo ‘Big Day Coming,’ although hopefully they’re interesting, I don’t think they’re going to make anybody think we made a mistake by continuing to work.”
Songs were continually transforming: “Double Dare” went from slow and quiet to noisy and visceral. The band was also learning to use guitar sounds in new ways. Kaplan recalls struggling to get the perfect balance of noise and melody for the blast of guitar in “Nowhere Near,” and Brockman remembers the band experimenting with using loops of guitar sounds.
“In Painful, there’s a lot of captured guitar parts, things Ira puts in a delay and repeats,” says Brockman. “They had toured with My Bloody Valentine and listened to Spiritualized, and I think that helped set them free. As a trio, you only have a certain amount that you can play at once. But by (looping guitar parts), they could see themselves as larger. I think Painful was part of the learning of that. Like at the beginning of ‘From A Motel 6’: That’s what they are.”
Brockman also credits McNew as crucial in helping to anchor Kaplan’s gonzo-guitar solos. “I think James provides a melodic and a rhythmic structure that enables the chaos, because James is solid as a rock. That allows Ira to stretch as far as he wants because there’s always James holding him to the ground and (making him) come right back. Certainly Georgia’s doing that, too, but I think because James was the new guy, he added that.”
At the encouragement of its manager, the band decided to work with a producer from outside its circle of acquaintances, and, after vetting several options, YLT chose Roger Moutenot. Painful became the first of seven albums he would produce for the band.
“One of the big intangible firsts about Roger was that we had very rarely worked in any capacity with people we didn’t know,” says Kaplan. “I think that was a manifestation of lack of confidence and of shyness. Roger, although he lived around the corner, was somebody we didn’t know. Roger’s ideas, the sounds he was helping us get, and his patience with us trying to express things that we didn’t know how to express: In every way, he was a great fit.”
Moutenot was then the staff engineer at NYC’s Skyline Studio and had worked on pop records, with avant garde artists such as John Zorn, Arto Lindsay and Bill Frisell, as well as with YLT heroes Lou Reed and John Cale.
“At the time Yo La Tengo approached me, I was balancing the clean, more pop recording techniques I was taught at Skyline and the craziness and sometimes grungy sounds of these other artists like John Zorn,” says Moutenot. “Looking back, it was the perfect time to do this record, the right place at the right time.”
The band booked Water Music in Hoboken for two weeks, an unprecedented amount of time for YLT, more than the total process of recording and mixing any of its previous albums. The group brought along Brockman to co-produce with Moutenot. Brockman knew the songs and what YLT was striving for, and he had a rapport with the trio.
“Because we made all those other records with Roger, it’s kind of made Fred the forgotten figure of Painful, which is too bad, with all the help he was and all the demos we did with him,” says Kaplan. “The fast version of ‘Big Day Coming’ would not have happened without him. It would not be the record it is without him.”
“Roger’s a pro,” says Brockman. “He was the guy picking the microphones; he was the guy figuring out how to get it all on tape. I was the guy asking Ira to give me a lyric sheet and I’d look at it and have questions about it. They had a lot of songs that were longer. Not that I wanted to cut down songs, but I wanted a balance: not too many eight-minute songs on the record. They sounded great, and live that’s the way they did them, but I think on a record that would have been a little too much. Especially a few were similar that had a long repetitive passage, like the end of ‘Sudden Organ.’ I was the guy who would bring up those questions, and I’d been around them a long time, so they were comfortable with that.”
Extra Painful includes the demo for “Slow Learner,” a song that didn’t get recorded at Water Music because, Kaplan says, Brockman “felt we’d already covered the six-to-eight minute song.” Brockman suggested they try “Big Day Coming” as a rock song, too, in order to expand the variety on the album, even though he liked the slow-build version.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you try a quicker version of that?’ They kind of looked at me like I was nuts.” he says. “I didn’t push it, but I would bring it up now and then. Finally, they did a version at Snack Time that was released on another Yo La comp (Prisoners Of Love) that was good, but it didn’t have any magic to it.” One day after McNew had left, Kaplan and Hubley decided on a whim to try it again.
“Ira came in and said, ‘We want to do a fast version of “Big Day Coming,”’ and they just sat down and did it,” says Brockman. “They were very excited. It was like, ‘Yes, this is it.’ You can just hear when Georgia comes in that she knows exactly where she is, she knows exactly what she’s doing. The next day, James added bass.”
Kaplan says they had always planned to open the album with the slow version of “Big Day Coming” (with the line “Let’s wake up our neighbors, let’s turn up or amps,” it’s an appropriate entry point) and end it with “I Heard You Looking.” Only one song recorded at Water Music did not make the album: “Smart Window.” YLT wanted the record to demonstrate the depth and breadth and dynamics of the band, and that’s one of the reasons it included the cover of the Only Ones’ “The Whole Of The Law.” Kaplan admits that as a love song, it was apt, as well.
“I’m sure that’s one of the reasons it resonated with us, too,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve ever recorded a song because it was a favorite. We think we do it well enough and distinctively enough to bring another version into the world. I don’t quite remember, but the only song that Georgia and I sing together on the record other than ‘The Whole Of The Law’ is ‘From A Motel 6,’ and we’re singing in unison on that one, in one voice, so you can rarely tell who’s who. So, since we didn’t have one song where we sang together in harmony, we liked the idea of including ‘The Whole Of The Law’ as more of a broader picture of what we thought the band’s strengths were.”
Although the group would continue to expand its palette, notably with forays into funky soul and catchy power pop, Painful is still a perfect primer for Yo La Tengo, from its aggressive freak-out jams to its whispery folk songs. Somehow, they all cohere.
“I am proud of this record because it’s loud and soft at the same time,” says Moutenot. “What I mean by that is, it sounds aggressive but sweet, biting but warm.”
The recording process had its challenges, but mostly because everyone was working so hard. “When you have three bandmates, one of them being fairly new, and two producers, and you’re all passionate about your ideas for the record, there are going to be some uncomfortable moments,” says Moutenot.
“A lot of times, people have studio time when they go in and everything’s easy and everything’s magic. This wasn’t,” says Brockman. He mentions the 12 hours that he and Moutenot spent trying out different mixes of “From A Motel 6” as one rewarding, but Painful experience.
The album title, however, came from a drawing Chris Knox had gifted Yo La Tengo when they toured together.
“He had given us some artwork, and we asked if we could use it,” says Kaplan. “I’ve seen references to us naming Painful as a comment on the process of making it, but I don’t recall that to be true. The doodle said that (‘Painful’), and I know we liked the guy figure; I think the art came before the title. I think we were responding to the image, even though we kept the image kind of subliminal on the front cover. It wasn’t inapt, the title, but I don’t think that was the motivation.”
The band recorded Painful while still under contract to Alias, but the trio was trying to extricate itself, and that’s one of the challenges that Kaplan remembers. It wasn’t until after the album was finished that the group was able to sign to Matador, which was eager to add YLT to its roster.
“We were pretty big fans already, but we were never in a position previously to work with the band,” says Cosloy. “I’d been following them since their inception—before that, really—so I’m pretty sure Ira knew that Matador was awfully close to a sure thing if they could ever get off Alias. The album was amazing, but I’m almost certain we’d have made plans to put it out even if we’d not heard a note.”
When it came out, the LP solidified Yo La Tengo’s status as alternative-rock staples. Matador released “Big Day Coming” as a single and “From A Motel 6” as an EP (the b-sides are on Extra Painful). But the album wasn’t necessarily a hit.
“I don’t think our band ever had a breakthrough,” says Kaplan. “Things have happened incrementally, but nothing ever happened so quickly that we’d get whiplash or anything. That record was without a doubt a big step forward for us, I think artistically, but definitely in terms of an audience. But in terms of a breakthrough, it still felt like another step rather than a quantum anything.”
Although definitely of its time, Painful does not sound time-bound. It came out the same year as Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville (also on Matador), Nirvana’s In Utero and PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me, and those albums define the early ’90s better than Painful does.
“That was the peak of punk breaking,” says Brockman. “Sonic Youth was practicing nearby. We were going to Maxwell’s and seeing Nirvana. But the reason Yo La Tengo were different was that they were older. They’d been doing it for longer. They knew what they liked, and they had very broad tastes, but they weren’t part of a movement. It’s not like they were grunge; it’s not like they were shoegazer. That’s kind of a misnomer about Painful. It has nods to that, and they were listening to My Bloody Valentine and Spiritualized. But they were processing all the things that they liked, and it coalesced. I think it coalesced because of their hard work and because of the appearance of James. It all fell into place.”
“It felt different from the other Yo La Tengo music that I knew, but it still kind of fit in,” says McNew. “I don’t think I knew it then, but it was growth. I didn’t know anything then; I was a kid. I was still learning how to play bass, and how to play it in that group. I began to appreciate the strength of simplicity and repetition, and that absolutely set me on a path as far as playing and writing music, for sure.”
“It was definitely something we built on,” says Kaplan. “I think the very time-consuming process of working on the songs until we were not settling for something definitely inspired us to believe that things were inside us that we may not have worked as hard to pull out on previous records. I do think everything leads to the next step. Having made Painful provided us with the confidence in ourselves that inspired us for the records that followed.”
Painful was the moment Yo La Tengo discovered itself and established itself, and Extra Painful clarifies how that happened.
Still, Kaplan cautions against our desire to delve too deeply into the behind the scenes story. What’s most important is Painful itself, the listening experience from “Big Day Coming” to “I Heard You Looking.” Even though he was willing to reminisce, he cautions that we may be “risking demystifying” the album.
“I have a tough time with this, and even with the reissue,” says Kaplan. “I did the interview and we reissued the record, but I do think there is too much information. I think the record having its own mysteries is a good thing. I understand the impulse to have the questions answered, but I’m not sure as listeners we weren’t better off with the questions.”