Big Day Coming is the new book by music journalist/WFMU DJ Jesse Jarnow that tells the story of indie rock as it evolves through the lifespan of Yo La Tengo. Jarnow paints a picture not only of a band’s lifespan or of a genre’s inception, but of multiple decades of rock n roll history, music journalism, and the city of Hoboken, New Jersey. Yo La Tengo, being a band so inextricable from their home venue, Maxwell’s in Hoboken, the place is treated almost like a character in Big Day Coming in a way that’s comparable to the role of CBGB’s in Please Kill Me. In the end, Big Day Coming is structured like a web of different and disparate subjects, woven around the genre of indie rock, and especially YLT.
I sat down with Jesse to find out what exactly indie rock is and why Yo La Tengo was the best band through which to tell its story.
Tell me about the process of getting to the actual writing of this book.
I wrote a totally different book proposal about a different band and a totally different genre of music, and it’s a book that I still hope to write. With that proposal I found an agent. I found him just by asking around if anyone knew somebody who represented music books, and Googled around, too. When that one didn’t come through, he asked me if I had any other ideas and I just spouted off ten or so ideas, one of which was to use Yo La Tengo to tell the story of indie rock and of the ideas I wrote, I really didn’t think that was the one that was going to be a book. But he was like “That’s a great idea, let’s do that.” So the next step was talking to Yo La Tengo and finding out if they thought it was a good idea. I’d written my first story about them like 10 years or so ago and I’ve interviewed them a bunch of times. At a certain point I’d start getting assignments and I’d be like, “Hey would you be interested in a review of all 8 nights of Hanukkah? Because I’ll go to all 8 nights of Hanukkah!” And since Maxwell’s is a pretty intimate place, the band really sort tends to get to know the people who go to all their shows. Eventually I got my own radio show on WFMU, which sort of pulled me more toward their circle. So, I knew them a little bit socially, enough to approach them with the idea and eventually they said, “Yeah, okay, sure.” So I guess it was about a year between the time I first suggested writing a book about Yo La Tengo to the proposal going through and me starting to actually write the book.
How did the time you spent writing this book differ from your normal day-to-day life?
For the first month of research I went away and brought a giant stack of books. I read basically a book a day for a month, of things that were relevant to research, stuff like basic background on New York punk like Please Kill Me, random 33 1/3 volumes on Dinosaur Jr. and other bands, and some of the Sonic Youth bios, as well as a bunch of books about baseball in Hoboken, which was really fun to research. So, that was outside of my normal routine. After that, the research started to feel like journalism, setting up interviews with people, etc. I also met up with the band a whole bunch, at their practice space, or shows. All of that felt much like doing a story, just more intense. I did a lot of New York Public Library visits for old Village Voices, Maxwell’s schedules, Ira’s old columns for Soho Weekly News, and I also borrowed a bunch of old issues of New York Rocker and the Conflict zine. It was like researching a normal story just way more intense. The actual writing was different. A lot of it was figuring out how to pace myself and break up with writing in a logical way, but there was a lot of binge writing, ten-hour endurance sessions. There was a lot of very intense re-writing and restructuring.
Would you say Yo La Tengo is the seminal indie band?
I don’t think they’re the seminal indie band, but I also don’t think there’s any one band you can pick out that would tell all of the story. But I’m not sure there’s any band you could pick out that would tell more of the story than Yo La Tengo. This book touches a little bit on West Coast stuff like Black Flag or the Olympia, Washington scene, which are definitely huge parts of the indie rock story but not huge parts of the Yo La Tengo story. I think a good starting point is to think of how indie rock evolved out of punk and turned into this huge notion of indie that’s now a category on Netflix or whatever. This aesthetic that people casually toss off as indie and I think Yo La Tengo is a great way to illustrate that evolution.
In writing this book has your idea of what indie means changed?
Yeah, my notion of what indie means has changed a good deal. One of the things I keep coming back to is the difference between indie and independent. Indie rock is this very specific lineage that comes out of the New York punk scene and independent record distributors in the early 80¢s, college radio, zines and people obsessed with REM, Big Star and the Velvet Underground. But I also keep coming back to the idea of being independent as ultimately more important than anything you could call indie rock. The idea that a band or artist is creative and free thinking and thinking through all these things that they want to do and are really independent is the important thing. I think those two ideas have sparked in last few years. The major labels have really collapsed and indie rock, at least in the little cyber bubble that I exist in, is now the main thing where everything is indie rock. If you’re in a new band, and you’re trying to get the word out there’s this enormous limitless structure with which to do so, there’s iTunes or a MySpace or Twitter or Soundcloud, it’s endless and that infrastructure is a pretty good descendent of the idea of indie rock in the late 70¢s, early 80¢s kind of way. But I don’t always see that as being independent. It’s kind of a default to make a Twitter account or Facebook page and I don’t really see the kind of creativity in that, that there was in the late 80¢s when people were starting zines or radio shows or starting a record labels. I do see those as really fundamentally intentional and creative acts.
Is there any merit in using the term indie as a descriptor of an actual sound?
I don’t know, probably. It’s this debate I’ve been having with friends for the past 10 years, “Is indie rock a sound?” Probably the Velvet Underground is the first band you can trace that back to. For me, it begins with Moe Tucker’s drums, these very simple, non-flashy drumbeats that aren’t about showing off, that aren’t about rock thunder. Moe Tucker I think even removed all of her cymbals from her drum kit so it was just this real basic sort of pulse. I think that fundamental tastefulness is sort of a starting point for indie rock.
It’s not about overpowering rock and roll. It is about rocking but it’s not about an overtly masculine or psychedelic or other kind of display of your talent. There’s something inherently modest about what indie rock is trying to express. I think that can be traced to the Velvets.
I guess with indie itself, and you do see traces of it in what people talk about as indie as a tag or a marketing cue, I think it gets mistaken for politeness a lot of the time and I think that can easily turn into some seriously wussy music. There’s a lot of so-called “indie rock” that I don’t think of as being rock at all. I guess that’s the flipside of how punk has evolved into indie.
There are so many different stories in this book: the different decades of the band, the families of the band members, old Hoboken. Was there any specific story that you most excited to discover or enthralled to tell?
Yes, the Hubley story. I dwelled on Georgia’s family a lot. I’m particularly interested in animation. My dad was an animator. That’s a chapter that got cut at least in half at least twice over the course of editing the book. A lot of people have written articles about the Hubley family, but someone really should write a book about Faith and John Hubley. I think that being sort of uncharted territory made it exciting to research. There’s so many ways that story resonates in the Yo La Tengo story, it had me poking around for details. There’s an anecdote where Faith Hubley is talking about working with advertisers and recording a soundtrack with this jazz musician and how much of a pain in the ass it was working with the advertising people, and trying to balance commercial work and independent work, it’s almost exactly the same thing Georgia and Ira were talking about 30 years later.
The real one that I totally obsessed over and still am obsessing over is the three pages of introduction about the history of Hoboken before Maxwell’s, the stuff about the history of baseball in Hoboken and the invention of baseball in Hoboken. That stuff was even more murky and exciting to research. I went to the hall of records in Jersey City and was getting the property records for 1039 Washington where Maxwell’s is, trying to determine was where the last baseball field in Hoboken was. It turns out that I was getting into research territory that not even The Baseball Hall Of Fame really knows. I contacted them and they were like, “Hey, if you figure that out, let us know!” There’s this bar that the first baseball fields were built around, it was a block from where Maxwell’s is and I was trying to figure out when that bar was torn down and when the baseball players went away and specifically if, where Maxwell’s is now and that baseball field overlapped. So, that’s really the story that I got totally obsessed with. I think there are also a lot of parallels between the beginnings of baseball and the beginnings of indie rock, both of them started as these really do it yourself past times. In the beginnings of baseball, they were literally making the balls and the bats and the bases, it was this totally fan-driven thing around which this infrastructure was eventually built.
One of the first things anyone says about Yo La Tengo is that they are a critic’s band. Is it fair to hypothesize this is because they’re a band formed by Ira Kaplan, a music critic?
I think they got saddled with that because Ira was a music journalist and it’s not that their music appealed to critics but that they were friends with critics and that was the first audience that they found. It was people they knew from the New York music world, which included a lot of music journalists, people like Byron Coley and Jim DeRogatis, who eventually became a Chicago music journalist. So I think it was the crowd they hung out with more than the music that they made. Also, it was a really common thing back then, and still is for music writers to start bands. One of the first things Ira wrote, his very first feature in the Soho Weekly News was about a band led by Roy Trakin, one of his fellow Soho Weekly News writers in which he references Lester Bangs’s band The Delinquents, so it was a pretty common thing, and in later years somehow the idea of a rock writer with a band became a little more alien.
What is it to you that makes Yo La Tengo such an enduring band?
I don’t think they’ve ever taken more than four of five months off from playing. I think there’s something very patient about them. One of Ira’s main characteristics is his quite literal thoughtfulness. To him there is no decision not worth thinking about and there is kind of this patience that runs through everything they’ve done over the years. I think resulted is them being a band that didn’t really develop their voice until about 10 years into their career. I think when that did happen, which was around the time of Painful, around 1992, 1993, it was a pretty obvious thing to all of them. I think having that revelation of putting all this work into something and having it really pay off down the line is something that really re-enforced that working method. They certainly changed directions numerous times, but they’ve never been trend chasers of any kind. I think they really just had this abiding faith in their internal compass. One of my favorite things about them is when they’re not on tour they will still get together a couple nights a week to play, even if they aren’t working on anything in particular. This is what I want out of a lot of my favorite bands. Like R.E.M., once they became really popular, they moved to a bunch of different cities. That never happened to Yo La Tengo, it’s something they really enjoy.
What’s your favorite YLT record and favorite cover?
Album, probably I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One or Summer Sun, which has a lot of personal resonance for me. There’s an attraction to that one because it’s not the critical favorite.