The Tengo Tango

James McNew on the Mets, showbiz and why Calgary is exploding


Calgary Folk Music Festival
Prince's Island Park
Thursday, July 21 - Sunday, July 24

More in: Folk / Country

Yo La Tengo’s James McNew and I do this thing whenever I interview him: We talk about baseball for a while before we talk about music. This time is no exception.

“I feel great,” he says about his beloved New York Mets, which, at interview time, were one game above .500 and 11 games away from first place in the NL East. “I hate to say that I feel great every year, but I do feel great every year. For a while.”

Most Mets fans do. Then the season gets into swing. And more often than not, lately, they’re pretty much out of it by around now. Still, McNew has faith.

“You’re talking to a fan, and a fan of the New York Mets. So what do you want me to say?” he says, before launching into a bit of wishful thinking.

“I look for other angles; I look to not play the game that other teams play. You know, the humidity in Philadelphia and Atlanta [the two teams ahead of the Mets] is horrible — it could be the downfall of those teams this year. With global warming and all? This thing could fall into our laps.”

Five minutes in, and we’ve already talked about New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta. It only makes sense to talk a little bit about Calgary, too.

“We had a great weekend there at Sled Island like, two years ago,” he says, on the topic of the city. “It was fantastic. We’d been to Calgary once prior to that. I think it was the summer of 1995 — we did what felt like exploratory dates in Canada right before the beginning of the Lollapalooza tour that year.”

“For somebody who really had no idea what Calgary was about, when I was coming into town for Sled Island, just seeing construction along the highway going into town, [it looked] like a city that was exploding. It was great. I’m happy to go back.”

So there you go, Calgary. Yo La Tengo likes you. Unfortunately, that “like” is not such that the band will bring their now-famous wheel with them. The wheel is exactly what you think it is: A wheel that gets spun to dictate what the band does. Kind of.

“We started playing with the wheel earlier this year,” says McNew, “and the year got busy after that. We went all through America and the U.K. with the wheel, and it was great fun. I’ll miss doing those shows — I could bring the wheel with us forever.”

“The wheel seemed to be the best and most traditionally showbiz-friendly way to do something like [what we wanted to do]. And luckily, people we knew just happened to have a huge spinning wheel that they let us customize.”

If it seems like McNew and co. are having altogether too much fun, they are. Fun, in a way, has helped them stay together and relevant since the mid-1980s (the current lineup of McNew, Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley has been in place since 1992).

“I don’t think about it, really,” McNew says, trying to explain the band’s longstanding longstandingness. “It’s hard to give an intelligent-sounding answer. I think that it continues to be fun. I guess one kind of cynical-sounding [explanation is that] we never had the perils of fame and success to ruin us like it happens on those ‘Behind the Music’ shows on VH1.”


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