Yo La Tengo on Recording Eclectic New 'There's A Riot Going On' LP: 'We Tricked Ourselves Into Making a Record'

Yo La Tengo
Burak Cingi/Redferns

James McNew, Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo perform live on stage at O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire on Oct. 20, 2015 in London.

For Yo La Tengo’s 15th studio album, the indie-rock institution found themselves inspired by an unlikely source: film scores. Specifically, their own.

In late 2016, the Hoboken, New Jersey-based trio were hunkered down in their practice space recording music for Far From the Tree, an upcoming documentary about how parents face their own children’s extreme differences. After they wrapped up that recording, they decided to stay put and keep playing.

“We were jamming, but just in a different dimension,” says bassist James McNew. “We tricked ourselves into making a record. We were just having fun and just seeing it where it goes.”

The result is There’s a Riot Going On, out March 16th, a 15-song effort that finds them exploring a wide-range of sounds and arrangements, a dreamy mixtape of an LP that dips into numerous musical avenues. They take on Bossa Nova on “Esportes Casual,” droney doo-wop on “Forever,” ambient noise on “Shortwave” as well as their own classic indie-rock sound on numbers like “She May, She Might” and and the opener “You Are Here,” a nearly six-minute instrumental.

For Yo La Tengo, starting with literally nothing and recording nearly everything digitally in their practice space using Pro Tools — and not the traditional studio setting they were used to — was a whole new approach that presented itself 30-plus years into their career.

“We were well underway of making a record before we realized we were making a record,” admits guitarist and vocalist Ira Kaplan. “I was reminded of when we were working on the material for [1993’s] Painful. Tearing [the songs] apart, putting them back together. We were explicitly challenging ourselves to go beyond our instincts, just see if we could do something.”

Once the band had a bulk of the material done in Hoboken, they mixed the album with John McEntire (Tortoise) in Los Angeles. They’re now tasked with learning how to perform these live -- they played three new songs during their 8-night Hanukkah run at New York’s Bowery Ballroom at the end of 2017, and more recently, at a private showcase in Brooklyn, where they debuted six more numbers. 

“We’ve pretty much spent 2018 in lockdown, Black Flag-rehearsal style,” McNew says. “Just going at it every day, trying to figure out how to play the new songs live, because they never really existed. We’re going down a path that really never existed.”

And obviously, the album’s title is as much of a talking point as the music and recording process itself — though Kaplan doesn’t explicitly say it’s a nod to Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 album There’s a Riot Goin’ On. But it does join the ranks of Yo La Tengo blunt album titles, alongside 2006’s I’m Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, and 2009’s Popular Songs.

"We recognized this being an eye catcher,” Kaplan says. “We didn’t have the record done yet, but would keep talking about it every once in awhile. At the time, we thought it spoke to the work we were doing. We never wavered from that feeling.”