Ramblin’ On & On

Ask Yo La Tengo anything—really

Don’t bother shouting out “Speeding Motorcycle!” when Yo La Tengo play the Mystic Theatre on May 2. Though their appearance is billed as “freewheeling,” it’s not a request show, says multi-instrumentalist James McNew, who joined the endearing indie rock band in 1991 alongside Hoboken, N.J.–based husband-and-wife team Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley.

“It’s kind of an acoustic show, but mostly it’s a question-and-answer show,” says McNew by phone from Brooklyn. “The only thing we plan is what song we’ll open with.”

Freedom and spontaneity take over after that, with the band fielding questions from the audience. “We’ll just sit there and stare at you until somebody asks a question,” says McNew.

Nothing’s off limits, though the band might not answer everything in a completely forthcoming way—and then, he says, the songs will start. If asked, “What kind of car do you drive?” they might play an auto-related song (“Today Is the Day,” perhaps? (“Little Honda”—Ed.)); if asked where they stay while on the road, they might play one of their many covers (“A House Is Not a Motel” from Love’s Forever Changes, or their own “From a Motel 6,” perhaps?).

It’s the kind of musical stunt that’s appreciated in these dark days when a lot of bands can barely squeeze out a “thank you” to the crowd, much less meaningful interaction. “I feel that it brings everyone closer,” says McNew, not a trace of sarcasm in his voice.

Yo La Tango’s “freewheeling” set has been done before, most notably overseas, including a Barcelona show translated by famed Spanish music journalist Ignacio Julia. It was one of the “weirdest, most fun shows we’ve ever done,” says McNew.

What does the band talk about when there’s no audience around? After our interview, Yo La Tengo’s practice starts in a couple of hours; McNew says that he, Hubley and Kaplan will probably chat about the Knicks and last night’s amazing Aislers Set show. Then they’ll get working on a score for filmmaker Sam Green’s The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, which the band performs at the premiere on May 1 at SFMOMA.

In true freewheeling style, what happens at a YLT practice depends on what they feel like doing, for the most part—the perk of 20-plus years of adventurous, thoughtful musicology. “Sometimes we just get together to mess around,” says McNew, “and sometimes we get together because we like it and we don’t have anything else to do, but really, there’s always something to work on.”

Yo La Tengo improv the hell out of it on Wednesday, May 2, at the Mystic Theatre (21 Petaluma Blvd., Petaluma; 8pm; $21; 707.765.2121) and in a free afternoon in-store at the Last Record Store (1899-A Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa; 2:30pm; free; 707.525.1963).