When Yo La Tengo was asked to help back up Yoko Ono at Glastonbury, the Hoboken trio became a kind of defacto Plastic Ono Band, performing songs from Yoko’s entire musical career.
Ira Kaplan--one of his generation's most thoughtful—and thrilling--musical conjurers of melody, feedback, and ineffable electric mojo--took the opportunity try out a friend’s Epiphone Casino for the performance. So, naturally, we had to hear what he had to say about his experience since Kaplan has typically performed and recorded with solid body guitars for nearly all of Yo La Tengo’s splendid albums.
Yoko's performance at Glastonbury was given a hard time by some rock critics and fans. But for Yo La Tengo (and probably everyone in the front row), her performance had all the freedom, power, and punk attitude that captivated John Lennon all those years ago. “The B-52s studied her,” Lennon told the BBC. “And they admited it, too.” Every artist seeks freedom of expression and benefit of the doubt. And for sheer "be here now" bravado, there's hardly a better match imaginable than Ono and Yo La Tengo, a band that’s capable of illuminating Sun Ra’s "Nuclear War" in a hail of feedback fallout followed by a dead-on cover of the Ramones’ “Rockaway Beach” with an encore of Adam Ant or any of their own beautiful compositions. Epiphone.com spoke with Kaplan about his trial Casino experience ("I loved it. How can I get one?) and the balance of listening and letting go.
Yo La Tengo recorded with Yoko a few years ago but was this your first time performing live together?
It’s probably easier to say this was the first time. We were on this tribute record for Hedwig and the Angry Inch
and we backed her on a song ("Exquisite Corpse")
. But when we did that track, we recorded it first and then she came in and did her vocal. We were there when she was in the studio, but it was all done very quickly. And that was quite a few years ago as well. This was almost like we were strangers.
How did you get the gig?
I’m not 100% sure but I think because Sean (Lennon)--who tends to run her band--has his own album out, he was on tour and unavailable. She just needed to do something for Glastonbury and needed a different band. Perhaps the only way that the "Hedwig" recording relates to the story is that in the past, we would make entreaties for her to come play at Hanukah (Ed., Yo La Tengo’s annual 8 nights of Hanukah concerts in Hoboken
), which never happened. But I think our name was in her mental Rolodex. And we were friendly with her manager—we have been for a long time. He used to be the music director at WFMU. So, we go way back together. When they were looking for a band for Glastonbury, we were asked if we would be interested and we said…yeah!
You’re a guitarist, songwriter, and a bandleader. How did she lead the band? What were your first impressions of the show musically?
That’s a slighter harder question to answer than it sounds. We were working so fast at times. It wasn’t the most organic situation. This was a scenario where you had to learn a dozen songs. We learned them off the record but a lot of those songs were recorded a long time ago and probably never learned then either (laughs).
You listen to some of that stuff and there’s jamming, there’s editing—and that goes with her current records, too. So because of our schedules, we learned things on our own and then got together with her to put this thing into shape. And I think the Glastonbury show in particular came out great.
We did a small secret show in New York--basically an invite only--at a little club. It turned out to be a rehearsal, really. And the cool aspect of that was that it was so intimate. Yoko spoke a great deal in between songs. She introduced a lot of the songs and read little pieces of writing for each song. So, it had a real intimate feel to it. I’d say we were all still finding our way at the Glastonbury show, which came after that. But I thought it came together a lot stronger.
So for you and the group, even though you had some patterns to follow, the concert was very “of the moment.”
Oh, of course. Playing with her is entirely about responding to her, what she’s doing. As I said, these songs--they’re not etched-in-stone texts. They are alive and breathing.
What did you use the Casino for?
I used the Casino for slide guitar. It was tuned to open E
. James (McNew, Yo La Tengo’s bassist) played guitar on the last song and we tuned the Casino back to standard tuning. It came from my friend Bruce Bennett, who I play with in the A-Bones. He said: ‘Well if you want the authentic John Lennon guitar sound for slide…’ So I said, ‘ok, that would be something fun to try.’
What did you think?
I loved it. I’m kind of not a technical guitar player anyway and I’m not particularly technical about gear. My Stratocaster is the first guitar I owned and unlike people I knew who were always wheeling and dealing, I just had a guitar so I kept it. When it came to getting more guitars, since they were going be doubles—if I break a string for instance—it seemed to make sense to play the same kind of guitar. It was never a plan (laughs). And I think it is an aspect of what our band does. Just taking what’s put in our hands and finding something to do with it. So, I couldn’t imagine a scenario that I wasnt going to enjoy playing it.
I thought you would enjoy it since a Casino feeds back in such a way that you can control it.
It is a real change from the solid body I’ve been using. I used the tremolo arm a lot to change the feedback notes. Just to have that sound--you mentioned the Beatles before—that “I Feel Fine” feedback, hollowbody sound. It’s really something exciting and it’s something that I’ve not used that much. The fun of trying to control this was great. The whole aspect of Glastonbury was there was going to be a limit to how much preparation you could do. So it was all about responding to her, responding to what we were doing. And trying not to get thrown off the horse (laughs).
Are there any plans to work in the studio together again?
I have no idea –I hope. I think all of us would jump at the chance to do something.