Georgia Hubley is an American percussionist, vocalist, and visual artist. She is one of the two founding members of the indie rock band Yo La Tengo. This year the band will release their 15th studio album, There’s A Riot Going On. Here she discusses what it takes to keep a creative project going for over three decades.
Yo La Tengo has been a band for well over three decades. What makes for a good creative partnership in the long term?
Well, I think at the core and on a personal level there is respect, admiration, and loyalty that the three of us have for each other and for the band. We also make each other laugh. We spend a fair amount of time doing that, which probably goes a long way. Musically and artistically we are a pretty tight-knit group with pretty much no outside personnel involvement. My guess is that environment leaves plenty of room for us to experiment and make asses of ourselves for our own enjoyment and presumably morph into something shareable with the outside world. This isn’t to say outside influences aren’t a factor—of course they are—and the band shares a pretty expansive and open-minded appreciation of different kinds of music and art in general. Truthfully some healthy closed-mindedness as well, all of which combined answers at least in part the longevity question.
How do you maintain a sense of fun and discovery around a project after you’ve been doing it for a long time?
Fun and discovery are at the root of what propels us to carry on. There is plenty of mundane activity in everyone’s life and job so wherever you can accept the unavoidable and find pleasure in whatever form that takes is worth achieving. That’s easy to say, not so easy to accomplish sometimes. I get pretty cranky sitting in airports with Fox News or CNN blaring on the tv screens while waiting long stretches of time to board a plane. That kind of thing is relentless. Music-related obstacles are torturous in a less boring way. We each find it challenging coping with our own limitations, naturally. I tend to get pretty emotional sometimes when hitting snags or roadblocks, so it’s never dull. But when something we’re working on is frustrating and/or unsatisfying, we’ll work through it or come back to it later and move on. That’s not so much fun, but it comes with the territory. The fun part is making stuff up and experimenting with different sounds and instruments and when it sounds promising that’s pretty exhilarating.
How has the band’s dynamic and/or way of working changed over the years? Or has it?
I’m sure it has, although it would be hard to pinpoint how. We like to try different things even when it doesn’t come easily, and that keeps us growing and changing. The different endeavors we take on certainly keeps things evolving. Composing and providing music for film is and was a good example of a way of recording that forced us to do things differently. For one thing, you’re now creating something for someone else and aiming to accomplish what they want. It’s a very interesting exercise. It brought us into a different recording approach where we would essentially build pieces from fragments, either new or something we had lying around or sometimes from our records. In some ways the limitations imposed on us as an assignment made it really exciting to apply those tools and methods to our own music, but with total freedom.
Do you ever worry about falling into patterns or impose strategies to keep from repeating yourself?
We like to take on unusual jobs or engagements if they feel right and we have time. That could be anything from playing a show somewhere we’ve never been or playing a set of Gun Club songs with guitarist Doug Gillard for a benefit. Last year we got together and improvised with Yoko Ono a few times. The year before that we performed with Alvin Lucier, some of his compositions as well as some of ours. That may have been the most challenging and unrepeatable thing we’ve ever done. Certainly there were mistakes I made that night I’d prefer not to repeat.
What do you do when you’re feeling creatively stuck or frustrated?
Cry? Go have a beer. Or keep plugging away with the hope that something will come of it.
You play a variety of instruments in the band as well as sing. Do you find that your role has changed/evolved over the years? Are there things that you enjoy more now that you didn’t used to?
Sure… I certainly enjoy getting better at all those things. I don’t really see it as my role as changing, but the world is changing and I guess I’m going along with it. To a large extent the changing world actually does effect us and each of our roles. Technology is obviously something we have had to accept and then learn about it and more importantly figure out how to make it fit into our environment rather than the other way around.
Every album sort of represents its own journey with its own particular problems and pleasures, how did you change things up for the making of your most recent record? Was the experience different?
Not radically different, but we made it in our own studio which isn’t exactly a studio but we turned it into one. It’s basically a big room with our gear set up and lots of crap in it, mostly good crap. I think we’d gradually been moving in that direction over the last few years. We’ve become especially self-reliant and it feels really good. The trust factor goes a long way, and I think we really took advantage of that affinity to do whatever we wanted with the safety net of knowing anything could be discarded without consequence.
What advice would you have for someone trying to start a band? Or for someone who is just beginning to learn an instrument and try to write songs?
After you register and then vote in your next state election you can start a band.