All the Poets (Musicians on Writing): Ira Kaplan

By Scott TimbergJune 1, 2018

All the Poets (Musicians on Writing): Ira Kaplan
Find all the interviews in the All the Poets series here.


IRA KAPLAN has been one of the two mainstays of the band Yo La Tengo — along with his wife, Georgia Hubley — since the group formed in Hoboken, New Jersey, in the mid-1980s. Taking their name from the cry of a Spanish-speaking outfielder (“I have it!”), the band has spent the decades combining acoustic, ambient grace and beauty with the nastiest noise since the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat LP (1968). 

Along the way, the group has released classic albums, including the covers-dominated Fakebook (1990), Painful (1993), and Electr-O-Pura (1995). Their two most recent appearances in Los Angeles have involved backing up Robyn Hitchcock and accompanying Sam Green’s eccentric documentary The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller (2012). An often gripping live act, Yo La Tengo returns on June 8 and 9 to play their own music at the Teragram Ballroom in downtown Los Angeles behind There’s A Riot Going On (2018), the first album of new material in five years.

I spoke to Kaplan from Milan, Italy, shortly before a Yo La Tengo show there.


SCOTT TIMBERG: I’m wondering how much books, of any kind (novels, poetry, history, et cetera), have interested you over the years, and how much they’ve shaped your songwriting.

IRA KAPLAN: I don’t feel like I have overt book/poetry influences in my lyric writing. But I always run pretty hard from the influence question because I feel like the things you do in life, and the things you don’t do in life, can’t help but influence your work. I mean, I read frequently.

If I asked you whether the Velvet Underground or Arthur Lee had influenced your songwriting, you would say pretty much the same thing, right?

Pretty much. I listen to them a great deal, of course. But I haven’t heard as much of the Velvet Underground in what we do as other people have. It’s more mysterious to me.

Let’s talk about the writers who have been important to you and what styles you like.

I mean Tom Wolfe died today. When I was young, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test blew my mind. I was probably too young to understand his critical tone — I assume there was a critical tone. I didn’t go back and reread it when I was older, but I did read everything up until The Right Stuff. I remember when The Right Stuff was in Rolling Stone. I remember having my eyes opened by Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, but nothing like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

I can’t really explain it other than to say how exciting it was. In a way, Acid Test was kind of like Easy Rider — there was just something so charismatic about it. Like in that movie where they may get killed at the end — we’ll overlook that part.

That’s a good parallel because both of those texts were about the counterculture — they captured the weirdness and charisma of it, but with some ironic distance. You were born in ’57, right? So a bit young for the high ’60s. You would have been a kid during Sgt. Pepper, Altamont, Woodstock, and all of that.

Yeah. I don’t feel like I remember Altamont happening. I have said this before in interviews — that I have a vivid memory of the day my babysitter explained the drug references in Beatles records to me and my younger brother. I can’t speak for my brother, but I was devastated to find out the secret meaning in “Penny Lane.” Now that I’m thinking about it, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test 100 percent led me to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I think Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion was too long for me to read until much later.

Is there a kind of book that you have mostly dug over the years? Books about the ’60s, or novels, or British history, et cetera?

I read more novels than anything else, and I can’t help but read books about music. I try to have a limit, you know, like saying you’re only going to have one Oreo and then you have four.

You’re talking to somebody who has that Mark Lewisohn book on the Beatles next to his bed and just picked up two more rock biographies.

I have managed to resist getting that one, but that’s what I’ve heard and you’re not helping. I did just read Beatlebone. That’s my Beatle reading in recent days. It’s by an Irish novelist [Kevin Barry] — a novel about John Lennon going off to an island he’d purchased, or trying to go to an island he’d purchased, to scream, to regain his ability to write songs. I read a lot of novels. Sam Green [the documentary filmmaker] and I are always recommending novels to each other, about the ’60s underground, radical politics. I have read two, maybe three, novels about Patty Hearst.

The book I recommend unreservedly is Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, which is about the ’60s left-wing politics but doubles as tremendously insightful music writing. Her writing about the Beach Boys, Funkadelic, and Love is really sharp.

Yeah, I’ve got that book and haven’t read it yet. People I know love Stone Arabia.

Maybe because it was explicitly about music, but that one didn’t move me as much as Eat the Document, or the most recent one [Innocents and Others] about the two friends who grow up and become different types of filmmakers.

For me, it’s the one before and the one after Stone Arabia that I really like. I remember I was in a used bookstore and I gravitated toward Eat the Document because of the Dylan reference, and I realized it was about being underground, being on the run. I realized it was written for me.

Well, don’t be shy about telling us your favorite music books. Bios, memoirs, cultural histories …

The one I am always recommending — I don’t think it’s any surprise — is Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. I saw the Slits, but I wasn’t a huge fan. That’s not why I read it; I just heard it was good. I was not ready for such a moving, interesting story, and how well she told it. I’m really looking forward to her new book.

Yeah, her new memoir [To Throw Away Unopened] is getting a lot of press in the United Kingdom. It must have been wild to be in an all-female band at the dawn of the punk era. You were a music journalist for a little while. Was there music criticism that inspired you? Did you have a favorite book or writer?

No and yes. I already referred to seeing The Right Stuff in Rolling Stone. I read Rolling Stone from an early age, and Crawdaddy. I remember seeing a recommendation for the book Outlaw Blues [by Paul Williams] — that was one of those books I would finish and then start again. I felt that way about The Rolling Stone Record Guide and their collections of interviews.

But as to whether that made me want to write about music, I really wanted to play music and just did not know how to go about doing it. For all the times I read about how punk rock — that anyone could do it, you know — it didn’t show me that I could do it.

So, for me, writing about music was a way of being close to the world that interested me most. It’s great for getting free records and shows. But I wouldn’t recommend my writing to anyone.

Another writer whose work I love in every context is Richard Meltzer. His criticism, his cultural criticism — not just about music. His book about getting old — Autumn Rhythm, I think it’s called — is just great. His novel, The Night Alone, is hilarious. I wish he had something new. I don’t know what’s going on with him.

Well, let’s go further back a bit. As a teenager, or whatever age you started loving reading, that happens to most people at some point — either as a kid, teenager, college, whatever — when did it hit you and what were you connecting with at the time?

My mom taught me to read before I went to school, so reading from an extremely early age started as like a parlor trick I could do. It was definitely a strong part of my identity from a very young age. I remember when I could go to the elementary school library, I’m not sure what year that was, but the rest of the class was restricted because they couldn’t read well enough.

When I was eight years old, my family moved into a house that belonged to some relatives of ours, and part of the deal was that they did not have to empty the house. They just left this stuff. Among the things they left was a large selection of Hardy Boys books, which I read, and a series of biographies of famous people, focusing on when they were young. For some reason, the one about Eli Whitney really sticks out. Nevertheless, I don’t want to come off too well in this. I also have a lasting memory of being just lambasted by my sixth-grade English teachers for turning in a book report on heroes of the NFL …

It sounds like you were a serious reader as a kid. Did you have a first favorite writer? Like a children’s writer? Or fantasy? Science fiction?

Maybe Kurt Vonnegut.

What turned you on about Vonnegut?

I don’t remember specifically. It was just like Tom Wolfe — these are writers I read as a kid and never again. I think there was a point where, as with Wolfe, I just kind of stopped. I think Breakfast of Champions was the last of his books I ever read.

But I definitely read the stories in Welcome to the Monkey House again and again. I didn’t have that much of an interest in science fiction, but Vonnegut just seemed different from that. I remember I finally made it through Stranger in a Strange Land, but it wasn’t easy. It took a few tries before I got through it, but with Vonnegut I could just race through those.

Yeah, those books are classics. Did Vonnegut’s work open your eyes to things, or was it just funny and diverting? Did it do anything deeper?

Probably. The idea of coming unstuck in time seemed pretty new for someone my age. I don’t even remember what Ice-9 is, but I remember its existence. My brother and I watched a lot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and I think Kurt Vonnegut seemed like a weirder, stranger, more exotic version of what appealed to us in that.

Did Vonnegut hook you on reading novels? Did he lead you in any direction?

I don’t know. I read a lot of crime fiction. My dad in particular liked Ross Macdonald, so I read a lot of those. That was definitely a good thing to share with my dad. And then that was something I had in common with Dave Schramm when we started together. He wrote a song called “The Ways Some People Die” [riffing on MacDonald’s novel The Way Some People Die].

Macdonald is great. I finished the last of the Lew Archer books not long ago, and closed it knowing I will never be able to read one of these for the first time; I’ll never not know who the killer is.

Well, see, I could reread them — I’ve mistakenly read the same books for a second time because I can’t remember anything. It’s one of the things that makes me so apprehensive doing this interview because my memory for these things is not very … photographic, shall we say.

You’re doing fine. Have you read any other crime or detective novels you’ve liked as much as Macdonald’s?

I’m sure I’ve read Hammett and Chandler, of course. I’m trying to think if I did when I was young, though. I feel like they had to come later. I was aware of all of those movies, seeing them on The Late Show and stuff. It was distinctly years later that I read other people, like Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson, Horace McCoy.

Definitely a great lineage. How about poetry or memoir?

For poetry, I would say no. I loved Jim Jarmusch’s movie Paterson so much, I was like, “I’m going to read Walt Whitman.” It may yet happen, but I just haven’t.

We did a show with a writer, Darin Strauss — like, a mix of writers and musicians — and he’d written a really powerful memoir [Half a Life]. He killed a bike rider as a driver, and he wrote a memoir about it, which is really harrowing and really well done.

I think the memoir thing is so trendy right now that I feel kind of put off by the fact that everyone is writing one.

Our road manager turned me on to Elizabeth McCracken’s novel The Giant’s House. I loved it. And then I read Niagara Falls All Over Again. As far as I know, she hasn’t written a novel since. I know she wrote a memoir that’s supposed to be great, and I love her writing, and yet I’m like, I’ll get around to it, because memoir is not what I gravitate toward.

What about short stories?

Not so much. Well, I am very linear, so to get a book of short stories, it’s difficult to read one story and put it down, which I think is the best way to do it. I’ve got this giant book of Richard Yates stories. I love his novels and have yet to deal with the short stories because it’s kind of like the Oreo thing again. I know I should only have one and then put it away. It throws off my impulsiveness, a short story collection.

Do you have a writer or two who you keep your eye out for, try to read everything they release, something like that?

Calvin Trillin would be in that category. His would be the poetry I read the most. I love that he writes so humorously but is equally adept at writing without humor. His memoir about his wife, Alice, was just so powerful, having read all of his food writing. A lot of people don’t like reading about someone you already know, so to read about what she was like and his sense of loss was really special.

He’s got that collection of crime writing he did, I guess in New York, called Killings, which is really great. He wrote a story for The New Yorker about [doo-wop singer] Frankie Lymon’s crazy estate, where three different women were claiming to be his widow. It’s a great piece of journalism because it goes into copyright law and it’s fascinating.

I brought up Dana Spiotta before. When she writes something new, I will look forward to reading it. I’m sure I’m prejudiced because he’s been a friend of mine since college, but I love the novels that Brian Morton has written. I’m very excited for when he has a new one. It was almost a feeling of personal pride when one of his works [Starting Out in the Evening] got adapted into a movie.

You have a song on one of your ’90s records called “Deeper Into Movies,” which must be a Pauline Kael reference. I have a vague sense that film is important to the band. Is film something you read about a lot?

We’re pretty avid moviegoers. I’ve read all of Pauline Kael’s books, and I think Georgia and I have contributed top-10 lists to the Criterion Collection. I think that’s a piece of my writing that came out better than any of my music journalism.

Are there other critics or film historians you’ve dug over the years?

I haven’t read too much. At the advice of Georgia’s brother, I read [Mark Harris’s book on World War II films] Five Came Back, which I loved. It was incredible. There was plenty of World War II stuff that I knew nothing about. That was a real eye-opener.

I’m sure you bring books on the plane and on tour with you. Is there anything you’ve got with you now that you’re enjoying especially?

Yeah, I am about two-thirds through [Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s] Americanah right now. I love every aspect of it — it’s funny, it’s smart, it’s almost embarrassing me with the perspectives I don’t have on life, even though they’re right in front of my eyes. It’s a helpful book to be reading at this exact moment in time.


Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles (2003) and the author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (2015).

LARB Contributor

Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, an examination of the damages to our cultural landscape wrought by recent technological and economic shifts and an argument for a more equitable and navigable future. Timberg is writing a book called Beeswing: Britain, Folk Rock, and the End of the 60s with the guitarist Richard Thompson.


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